The Skirrid, Ysgryd Fawr

I used pictures of bluebells last week partly because they had all vanished around here, just occasional clusters of purple on shaded verges, or north facing woodland slopes. And then we decided to go and climb the first mountain of the year and guess what we found? In late May.

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I’ve got photographs of The Skirrid from various other hills in the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons but I had never actually climbed it. Sitting apart from the other mountain ranges it looks like a shark’s fin cutting through the lowlands as you approach it from Hereford. It isn’t as high or demanding as many other hills and mountains we have climbed, “an evening stroll” was how Dr J described it and because it took us so long to get organised last week we did indeed come down through dusky woods to find the car park almost empty.

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The Skirrid’s west flank, taken from the car on the way home

The most eye catching object from the car park was a perfect view of the nearby Sugar Loaf showing how it got its name. The initially steep climb through woodland was beautiful, plenty of other people going up and down but the trees were alive with birdsong and constant fleeting feathered movement.

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This was taken in the mountains above Tretower Court last April looking towards the Skirrid, in shadow, from the west; the Sugar Loaf is on the right

I made the classic mistake once we were out on the ridge of thinking we were nearly at the summit, only to climb to a false peak and see the ridge rising on before me, it wasn’t too tiring though as stopping to look up at the skylarks singing out of sight was a constant delight. We had our first picnic break in a sheltered dip on the ridge, looking towards White Castle that we visited three years ago.

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The Skirrid from Whitecastle, looking from the east
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Whitecastle from the Skirrid

This is a fairly small hill by Welsh standards, 1594 feet or 486 metres and it really is a pleasant walk, our seven year old bounded ahead and walked twice as far as she needed to and the three year old didn’t demand a carry until the summit had been reached – although as we found two butterflies of different species chasing each other around the trig point the girls amused themselves in racing after them for a good 15 minutes showing that the walk hadn’t exhausted them nearly enough.

At the top a few scattered stones are all that remains of a medieval chapel and below the peak you can make out the bank and ditch of an Iron Age hillfort. The views in all directions are amazing– you can climb Welsh mountains all year and never be sure of the visibility at the top but we spent a lot of time trying to discern which of the mountains to our west we had climbed before and which we still had to look forward to. To the east May Hill, Bredon Hill and the Malverns were all clear, Clee Hill to the north in Shropshire and some further ridge that we couldn’t name for sure. To the south the Bristol Channel and its islands gleamed in the sun, as did Somerset beyond.

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Looking south to the sea

On the way back we took a short sharp descent that curled around the hill’s northern tip and brought us to a valley between the Skirrid itself and the landslip that occurred in the ice age and gave the mountain its Welsh name, Ysgryd, which means split or shattered. We had the second round of sandwiches here and I could easily spend a day reading or writing in the sheltered grove; the ever shifting light under the trees creating myriad shades of green.

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And then we found the bluebells. I had seen a flash of mauve upon the hill as we drove past at a distance, but thought it could have been grey shale catching the afternoon sun. No. It was a carpet of flowers spreading west towards the Sugar Loaf, although as all my photos were taken into the lowering sun I don’t think I did the views justice.

 

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The mountain itself was stunning – it’s shape, the views for miles in all directions, the perfect weather – then we had the bluebells. And then we had a magical Welsh wood. I’ve posted a few pictures of others that have captivated me – and this one was a total surprise. All my previous favourite Welsh woods have been far further from home in North Wales; to find one a little over an hour from home was astonishing. Sadly by now we were all tired and dusk was falling so we mostly kept marching on with me snapping pictures to all sides and not stopping to ohh and ahhh as much as I would like (okay, yes I was already planning how to get there on my own to fully bask in its beauty sometime, sorry family.)

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This was supposed to have been posted last Thursday and I was going to say “next week is half term so there will be no new blog post as I shall hopefully be out enjoying more family days like this.” In fact my determination to get a good chunk of my latest wip completed before the holiday delayed this post, but I am pleased to say that even with typical British Bank Holiday weather, we have indeed had another wonderful – and wet – walk. I should be back soon with more pictures – and hopefully that sounds more like a promise than a threat.

Finding your daily squirrel

It is the little moments, sometimes almost unnoticed as they wiz by, that make up a life. And a year. Globally 2016 wasn’t the greatest (nor the worst) but I wanted to remember the positives that happened personally. When I worked in Oxford I had many commutes over the years; but whether walking, sitting in a traffic jam or waiting at a bus stop, the day could be immeasurably brightened by the smallest or silliest of things. The easiest was a squirrel, anytime, anywhere, even rooting through a bin. When you walk the same streets twice a day you can see the infinitesimal changes in gardens and trees, tracking the growth of furry magnolia buds in spring, or hearing the scuffling of your feet get louder every day as more leaves fall in autumn. I’ve been very lucky to work in places where I can walk through parks or have to cross a river to get to work; the sight of tiny brown ducklings makes me smile just remembering it. Little positives are everywhere and finding the ones that lift your spirit every day, is, I think, one of the secrets of life.

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So, after a classic Tangent Alley overlong opening paragraph, here are a few of the things that I had almost forgotten made 2016 sparkle amid the tears and fears. (Quite a few of which are illustrated here in my what we did on our holidays post.)

  • Climbing the first Welsh One Hundred for a few years. My partner Dr J has a book about the highest one hundred mountains in Wales, and in our first year of dating we added several more to his list of those achieved. Small children have hindered such adventurous walks and climbs for a while so this was a great achievement, especially as our 6 year old walked all the way herself (the 2 and a half year old was in a back pack much of the way.)
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The Gruffalo’s Child climbed with us
  • Lots of days on beaches –I think of this as mostly for the kids but I had far too much fun building, and destroying, dams on beaches this year.
  • Many ice creams, even ones that make your tongue go blue.
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Not my tongue
  • Many picnics, in woods, up mountains, in the garden. Everything tastes better outdoors and this was the year I finally got to appreciate tuna mayonnaise.
  • When we gave the girls the choice of what to do on a day out our eldest said “Mummy likes castles and waterfalls best.” I am lucky to have a generous daughter with a great memory – but then  I do go on about it a lot I suspect. This year has indeed been  very rich in castles.

As for waterfalls, I was treated to a wonderful wet walk at Nantcol in Wales, where I fell in a bog and got filthy feet and loved every minute. I looked at the pictures recently and wondered why I was grinning like a fool in every picture, then I remembered, I was having such a perfect day and wanted to be sure the family knew it. It’s a little alarming to realise my happiest face looks so deranged, but hey, they seem to love me anyway.

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  • Having other people be happy is of course one of the very best things that can happen, that’s partly why I think of picnics as being such a highlight of the year; the glee on a small child’s face when you show them you brought their favourite snack is an utter joy. Who knew scotch eggs and pickled onion flavoured crisps were so valuable?

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Sadly this year hasn’t featured as much reading as I would like. It started well with my passion for ancient Greek dram still in full flow, but then I realised those precious two hours when my youngest slept would be better used to write rather than read. As I said,  you have to give up something for writing  and this year it was my reading. I don’t regret it, but I do miss my books and am determined to find some more reading time (tv watching has already gone by the wayside so I think it will have to be bath time, I don’t like showers but they are a bit quicker – or else I have to get used to reading in the bath again. Since I needed reading glasses the steaming up problem and condensation running down my nose has meant it’s not as easy to lose myself in a  book while the bath water goes cold.) Oops, this is supposed to be a positive look back at the year, luckily for me, the few books I did read were excellent and I plan to blog about them later this month.

Speaking of reading though, this was the year I discovered Gimlets, all due to Raymond Chandler. I enjoyed rather more than I should have on sunny evenings, and actually, having just bemoaned the lack of reading time (I think my memory is biased because I’m still reading two books I started in the summer holidays, I know I’m a slow reader but this is ridiculous) I did have a golden patch of reading in the dusky evenings after tea. One memorable night I had to turn on the outside lights as it was so dark but still warm in the garden – sadly the rustling noses by the door when I went in for a top up of my drink put me off staying out too late; mice and gin don’t mix.

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A highlight of any year is a trip to London to see my best friend and visit the theatre. This year even more people will envy me when I confess that I saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, all due to the organisational skill and generosity of my friend gemmaw700. That trip also deserves its own post, partly due to my first visit to the revamped Foyles where I could have happily spent the day, but also because I have only once before heard an entire theatre gasp in such shock as they did at one line of dialogue and I can’t remember the last time I cried so much with laughter as I did at one scene – the fact it involved a library was just an added bonus.

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A few other moments that I have been reminded of when looking for photos to accompany this:

  • How many people ever actually have the cliché happen to them of a crab nibbling their toes? I did!
  • And I saw a snow leopard! (Not at the same time as the crab, that would be quite a dream. The leopard was at Dudley Zoo, awaiting a mate, and looking beautifully healthy and content.)
  • I went back to Avebury, one of my favourite places in the world.
  • I discovered  Dunraven Bay and castle, a new favourite place.
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Our broken dam flooding Dunraven beach

One major thing which has brought me pleasure, (and occasionally stress when I’m late, like this week, oops) has been finally starting a blog. OK, so I’m ten years behind other aspiring writers I mixed with back then, most of whom are now published. But the time was right for me in 2016; back then it would just have been another thing to distract me from writing and to then feel guilty and stressed about when it dwindled into nothingness. I haven’t quite stuck to my Thursday posting each week, but I’m still enjoying it and planning to continue.

The main personal achievement last year, and cause of a great amount of happiness and inner glowing, was that I finished writing a book. OK, the first draft. I have completed books before but this one has been written and – especially the last half – finished with such delight and a drive to get the story out there. It still needs work and I’m not happy with all of it, but the overall story and the characters and what they have to go through still move and excite me (rather than the “oh god I don’t know how to finish this book and can’t wait to see the back of these dammed people” feeling which did rather haunt the ending of a couple of previous manuscripts. These are people I want to revisit in editing and make sure I’m doing their story justice, every time I think of the final scene I feel full of trepidatious (is that not a word? It should be) hope and happiness.

None of these miniscule moments of happiness are meant to in any way diminish the things that went wrong in 2016 or the fact that so many people (individually and as nations) are facing an uncertain future. I’m just trying to remember for myself the little moments that make day to day life brighter and better and that give us hope. It’s why authors are continuing to write; because we all want those moments of escape, and the promise of love helping people to thrive. We’re all looking for our daily squirrel.

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How NaNoWriMo has helped me to be a better writer, even though I fail every November

When writing is a struggle, a flutter of wings at the window is a welcome distraction; when it’s going well however, a herd of wildebeest could stampede through the garden and I’d not look up. But how do you get from one stage to the other? I wrote about how long it took me to listen to the best advice about giving things up and carving out regular writing time here, the figures below show just how valuable a routine can be in increasing productivity – but I say “can” because nothing works for every writer, and sometimes it doesn’t work twice for the same writer.

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Tryfan, its top hidden by cloud. Hopefully the image will make sense by the end of this post

Just in case anyone doesn’t know, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month and each year people commit to writing 50 thousand words in the month of November. I have never officially signed up for it, nor come close to achieving it, but the goal of writing every day and concentrating on words written over content has worked well. Previously I was an edit-as-you-go writer, with the result that each day I would look back at the previous day’s efforts, tweak it a little, then ponder what came next, and all too frequently go backwards rather than forwards.

I’ll admit that I scoffed a little when I first heard about NaNo, so many people believing they can write? And writing fast? How can anything of value be created in such a quantity and speed obsessed fashion? People said that writing without looking back or editing was freeing, but I frequently found myself cursing the need to keep an eye on the word counter when I wanted to spend half an hour mulling over a scene and rewriting one paragraph twenty times until I captured exactly the right words and tone and imagery. As I made myself push on – leaving * signs and notes with “rewrite” “find better similes” or “too clunky!” I did at least move on with the plot and too my astonishment on reading back after a month away a lot of it read far better than I remembered it feeling at the time.

Possibly most valuable for me, as someone who has spent hours mulling over the right way to transition from scene to scene and frequently written pages of post and pre scene analysis for my characters where they have internal reflection on what has just happened (and too often just pointlessly repeat it) – the freedom of just ending the scene and writing “later” was astonishing. All too soon a few words flashing forwards or backwards to make sure a passage of time and location was all I needed and I had a story that flowed as naturally as a stream downhill, rather than a forced series of starting and stopping, liked a blocked drain.

Another plus was that where previously I would spend an age thinking about how to introduce a scene or change of subject and would run it back and forth in my mind from different points of view, and would rewrite constantly trying to emphasise different senses and sights and sounds, now I just write the barest essentials to establish place and players and then crack on with action and dialogue, intending to go back and flesh out later – but I frequently find the succinct sketch of the moment and location is all the more evocative for its brevity. Who knew? Making the sharpest of sketches for me was also enough on a later re read; by staying in the moment as I wrote and moving on, rather than coming out of the writing and looking at it critically, I not only kept the plot and word count moving, but I was creating clearer, more precise, moving and intimate moments. (It is possible that this revelation is mine alone, not everyone writes interminable waffle or needs an editor as badly as I do.)

I kept a tally of my word count, and also a few other insights as they occurred, here are some telling ones.

  • Day 1 – The freedom to just write and not worry too much
  • Day 2 – being able to just write “moving on” or “later” rather than agonising over the right way to shift scene or pace – it’s fine to do that esp as these scenes may all end up cut so why agonise now over how to seamlessly joining them?
  • Getting to know the characters by just letting them talk – they keep surprising me with flashbacks and my h is pricklier than I expected – the H is lovely
  • Day 4 – Is this just one long date?!
  • Day 7 – Is this just the world’s longest synopsis? He said, she said, they did – where’s the nuance and unexplained tensions and subtexts, the emotional side? I get at least one paragraph a day which I enjoy where one of them, usually in flashback, paints a picture using many senses that shows us how they have felt about something, but the rest of it is arched or furrowed brows, bitten lips and gleaming glances, urrrgh

In fact, on re reading, I found a lot more than just what they said and did, there is a lot of emotion and a fair amount of description, although not as much as I always like to write. But at least I have the bare bones of an entire book to work on, not the usual 3 and bit chapters that I would have written in that time.

  • My words counts looked like this.
  • 594, 2297, 0, 1,054, 3,050, 2,035, 2,109, 753, 0 & 0 over a family weekend. 3,066, 1,934, 2,702

As you can see, I can write fast when the story is clear in my head (a prerequisite for Nanoing I think. As I wrote before, I looked forward to those hours, longed for them, was plotting all day in my head so that as soon as I fired up the laptop I knew exactly what I wanted to write. I can do about 2K an hour when all is going well although I’ll admit that a serious downside to speed is my typos; it took weeks to spell check the entire manuscript and even longer to correct the first read through.

2014 Nano was stopped by a severe cold that led to a chest infection that still had me coughing by Christmas. 2015 lasted 5 days, I got the word count but wasn’t feeling the story (although a lot of it was useable later) I started again daily in April this year and gradually built myself up to previous writing levels until when the family went away for a weekend I wrote 10,572 in exactly 48 hours. I carried on daily and after 1 month and 5 days I had written 50K words, the most important of which were “The End”.

So, am I for or against NaNoWriMo? As far as November goes, no. But as the spur I needed to get me writing daily and writing forwards rather than always looking back, yes. I have not yet finished the edit and rewrite due to a shift in day to day life, but it’s well under way and a sequel has been started – that may be a serious threat, that the initial first fast draft becomes the pleasant, “easy” bit. The one time I plotted a novel out with scenes, characters, arcs and plot points – I couldn’t write it. Once I knew where it was going I felt no urge to explore the writing of it. I’m hoping that that the editing and rewriting will continue to feel more like polishing a jewel rather than a forced march uphill. Or perhaps the metaphor should be that I hope it will feel a steady, tricky, but rewarding climb up a mountain where the air grows ever clearer and the mists recede until a perfect vista is laid before me, ready to be shared.

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View from the top of Tryfan

Castles and ruins and interrupted stories

History, archaeology, myth, legend, inspiration and anything else you want them to be. That’s why I love castles. Especially ruined ones. In fact anything ruined. And hillforts or other ancient earthworks. And did I mention standing stones? Or stone circles? Burial sites, graveyards, the remains of abbeys, country houses that date back centuries. Where to stop? (& I won’t even start on the appeal of older men, that’s a whole other ruination…)

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Skenfrith Castle

I think it would be a challenge to find any UK based romantic writer or reader without a picture of a castle, or an ancient monument on their blog or twitter account. They are inspiring, intriguing, mysterious, imposing and unknown  – descriptions that fit many classic heroes. They can be gothic and brooding, or bright and well maintained; small and dangerously crumbly, or massive and easy to get lost in (definitely only talking about castles there.) They are an endless source of inspiration and not just for historical novelists. But my main feeling is always an awareness of a story being unfinished, or interrupted; we can research a castle’s past all we like, but we can’t know a fraction of the lives and stories that have happened within its walls and that thrills and saddens me all at once.

Anyone who tweets a picture of a castle has me at once, (beware of Ailish Sinclair and Louise Marley if you don’t want to lose half a day.) The images and stories capture all of my senses, but it’s much more than my love of the past (which led me to a degree in Ancient and Medieval History,) in fact it’s the opposite of that; the unknown, the things I can never read in a guide book or on a plaque on a crumbling stone wall. It’s the untold story; the tangible awareness of seeing a fragment of a vast story going back in time, and forward as well. How much of these immense edifices will be here long after I’m gone?

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Tintern Abbey

Sure, I love imagining what it must have been like to live there in a castle’s heyday and I’ve stood in roofless banqueting halls or sat in draughty windows and tried to imagine being a lady doing tapestry work by candlelight, or a knight preparing for battle or more likely being a serving wench lugging firewood up three stories of dark uneven stone spiral staircase or mucking out the stables. More than anything, I enjoy finding a quiet corner and just sitting, or standing, and absorbing the place; letting my imagination run riot. Not picturing any particular battle or siege or famous occupant, simply looking at the tiny details as well as the impressive ones. How many thousands of hands have worn that handrail so smooth? Was that hill I can see from this arrow slit wooded centuries ago? Did it always feel this cold? How many generations of swallows have hatched in that nest and where did they roost before this was a ruin?

I would always rather avoid a guided tour in favour of sitting outside with whichever book I am currently reading and letting the noise and presence of the place wash over me. It doesn’t matter what I’m reading, the fiction and the place lull me into a true (for me) appreciation of the past, present and future. People have lived and died – maybe violently – in these paces and somehow by stepping outside of it by reading or just looking and daydreaming it becomes more vivid for me. I suppose I’m trying to capture a fleeting feeling of what it was like to simply live there. Or maybe I’m just enjoying the warmth of sun drenched stones and peace and quiet among other bustling tourists or historians keen to unlock a castle’s secrets. Everyone has different ways to picture or experience the past, I like to sit and remember, both the building’s impermanence, and my own; and to celebrate, just for a moment, being an insignificant part of its ongoing story.

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Castell y Bere with Bird Rock in the distance

The first castles I remember visiting were Caernarfon and Conwy, huge, impressive, easy to get lost in. My main memory is of passageways deep in the walls that were barely wide enough to pass through. Then I visited Chepstow Castle (and Tintern Abbey in the same day) this was all at junior school at must have formed my love of ruins; when I discovered Raglan Castle that was my favourite for years (umm, doesn’t everyone have a favourite castle?) Then there was Castell y Bere; very little of the buildings remain but for location and the immense brooding presence of Bird Rock nearby it can’t be beaten (with the added delight of being where parts of Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising books were set – I’m so glad I didn’t re read the Grey King before I climbed Cadir Idris in a snow storm.)

Maybe part of why I love the more derelict castles is that sometimes it’s nice to step outside the preconceived notions of historians, archaeologists and other experts and allow ourselves to paint whatever we want onto what is left of the canvas before us. Such an attitude also explains my love of hillforts and stone circles and burial mounds. No one can truly say why they were built, although archaeology helps; but almost anyone who has read enough can make their own informed guess and no one can say they are categorically wrong. It was this (perhaps arrogant) view that made me choose the dark ages as one of my main periods to study.

Ruin is of course a loaded word. “Fallen or wrecked or impaired state,” ruination as a verb means to reduce and ruinous is “dilapidated, bringing ruin, disastrous.” It implies the place has been spoiled, or is decaying. To me it’s still growing, evolving; it may yet flourish anew. I’ve visited and been awed by many cathedrals, but none move me in any spiritual way as much as the remains of Tintern Abbey. If a castle hadn’t been abandoned and left to decay, it might still be occupied and modernised and unrecognisable from its original form.  I’m not trying to be critical, I’ve just puzzled a long time as to why the well preserved castles such as Powis and Conwy don’t enthral me the way the gaping keep at Skenfrith does, or that lonely wall still battling the winds at Dolwyddelan Castle.

 

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Dolwyddelan Castle

Do you have a favourite castle, or ancient site? Or do you prefer a well-kept manor house or country park to visit? Have you written about any, real or fictional? The first two books I wrote featured castles – one ruined, one still lived in. And in my current book the name of a castle looms large, even though everyone has forgotten where it is…