Saturday, 28 March 2015

A Literary Festival on Alderney

For those who might not know, Alderney is a small island in The English Channel. Last week, I boarded a tiny plane that flew from Southampton to this outpost of The Channel Islands to participate in a unique literary festival. Getting there was an unusual experience- for me at least. I am a novice who has never been to the Channel Islands before, not even the bigger islands such as Jersey or Guernsey. Each of the ten or so passengers has a window seat. I voyaged out on a fog bound Thursday evening. None the less, despite a few shudders, shakes and rumbles this little plane nosed down smoothly into Alderney's delightfully munchkin, efficient and friendly airport without a hitch.

Moody, gorgeous, atmospheric Alderney

I was immediately greeted by Kate and Widget, two of the festival organizers, with whom I had communicated since last autumn but had never met. Kate Russell is a Bayeux Tapestry expert and the inspiration behind Alderney's fascinating millenium project which continued the Tapestry panels giving it an ending with the crowning of King William. This somehow disappeared during the mists of time from The Tapestry stitched in the decade following The Norman Conquest. More than hundred people including royals,  Camilla and Charles, have contributed beautiful stitches to its completion.

Widget Finn is a journalist of high repute who writes for amongst other papers and journals, The Times, Telegraph, and who recently placed a delightful article (mentioning Marc Morris, Kate, myself) which concerned The Alderney Tapestry in The Lady. The festival committee were warm people, formidably intelligent, organized and great fun. They collectively and individually made the experience so perfect that we authors are considering keeping The Alderney Literary Festival a very special secret! Of course we would never really do that. Thank you, festival organizers for your fabulous welcome. You all know who you are.

The Alderney Literary Festival Team

So we did not vanish into the Alderney Thursday night mist but, rather, were whisked to our destination, respectively Farm Court and The Rectory, only ten minutes from the landing stripe. Within half an hour, a further whisking and I found myself in the midst of a literary buzzing company at an evening reception with drinks and canapes- in a fortress! This was a huge kitchen/dining area in Rachel Abbott's fort apartment overlooking a beach. Our host for that evening, a writer of thrillers, Rachel Abbott, is a phenomenal success. Later I discovered that Alderney has many forts dating from The Napoleonic era and fortified buildings that were used by the German invaders during WWII.

Danuta Reah and myself at the reception on Thursday eve

Our hostess, Rachel Abbott

The next day the Festival kicked off in The Georgian House in town, a short walk from our accommodation, along small streets flanked with Victorian and Georgian houses. I was a little nervous because I was appearing on the first panel,  co-speaking with Simon Scarrow on an interesting topic for both writers and readers of Historical Fiction, 'Is Accuracy or Story more important in works of Historical Fiction'.
First Talk on Accuracy and Story Manda Scott, Carol McGrath, Simon Scarrow
Manda Scott, introducing us. Her new novel is The Girl who walked into Fire, Jeanne D'Arc.

I immediately felt at ease by merit of author Manda Scott's relaxed introduction. After a thoroughly good discussion,  I think Simon and I agreed that whilst both mattered, that as writers of historical fiction, it really was all about telling a great story with wonderful characters. I endeavor to dig up everything I can about the medieval world I depict before placing characters in it. Then they take over. For me this is crucial. The historical details scattered throughout an historical fiction matter because they allow the reader a convincing sense of a particular historical world. I held my breath for a split second thinking that Manda was going to ask me details of how medievals made soap. And, I was also asked about teeth cleaning in The Middle Ages- definitely twigs and herbal concoctions!

What WAS I saying?

Since my protagonists are real historical personalities, I absolutely do need to know what is written about them in Primary Sources. Yet it is  also worth remembering that, as Simon says rightly, even these sources carry agendas and often the sources are the 'stuff' of story. It was a topic that gave rise to a lively discussion, chaired intelligently by Manda Scott, author of The Girl who Walked into Fire, a superb, I am told by Elizabeth Chadwick, utterly wonderful novel about Jeanne d'Arc to be published in May. If you like good, quality historical fiction, buy it!

Danuta Reah, Finding Fiction in the Past

As an author who loves reading and finding new books, I enjoyed listening to Friday's and Saturday's speakers, in particular Danuta Reah and Clare Mulley. Danuta spoke about a thriller set in Poland, The Last Room. Her brief was 'Looking Back: Finding Fiction in the Past'. Her slides showing Poland in wartime were exceptionally moving. Later, Clare Mulley spoke about her new biography 'The Spy who Loved': The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville, Britain's first female special agent of WWII. If only she was alive now. I felt I wanted to meet her outside the pages of Clare's novel, so read Clare's book to find a unique non-fiction story. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Clare Mulley, The Spy who Loved

The Bayeux Tapestry was an important feature of the festival and I was privileged to speak with Dr Marc Morris , Dr Sue Johns and Kate Russell on a panel titled 'The Bayeux Tapestry-Embroidering the Facts of History.' I have written on several occasions about The Bayeux Tapestry on my blog and it is part of my inspiration for The Handfasted Wife. Its mysteries also enter the early pages of The Swan-Daughter.
Marc Morris, Carol McGrath, Sue Johns, Kate Russell and Widget

We still cannot say conclusively where the Tapestry was first displayed. Was it embroidered for a secular hall or was it intended from the beginning for a Cathedral? If so was it commissioned by Bishop Odo for Bayeux or was it shown in several Cathedrals such as Canterbury or Lincoln? Lincoln mirrors Bayeux and was built at the same time, in the 1070s.  Could the fables embroidered in the Tapestry's margins be read as both pro-Norman and pro-English. We know that it was hauled out of storage yearly for The Feast of Relics during the High Middle Ages to be displayed in Bayeux Cathedral. If this is still a mystery, our panel did agree that Harold's promise to recognize William as King, an oath made over caskets of relics, was central to the story the Tapestry depicts.

Fictionalizing Medieval Women, Carol McGrath introduced by Widget Finn

 On Sunday I gave a very well received talk on Medieval Women, The Handfasted Wife and The Swan-Daughter. I did need my bottle of water!

Historian, Marc Morris, presented a talk on King John. Morris's biography of King John is excellent. Tom Holland spoke in a fascinating way about Islam. Adrian Murdoch spoke about Herculaneum-lots of dead bodies and a few mysteries. 

Adrian Murdoch on Herculaneum , Umm, who is that interloper?

Dr Marc Morris and King John

Dr Irving Finkel, curator at The British Museum, told his audience, in a very dramatic presentation, all about boats built in Mesopotamia and how his experimental boat building could be similar to that of Noah's famous ark.  He had ancient tablets which he translated to suggest it. This was a riveting talk and I could listen to it all over again! If you ever have the opportunity to hear him speak, do! He is fabulous. Historian Professor Thornton told us about the History of the Channel Islands. Simon Scarrow spoke on Waterloo.

Simon Scarrow and Waterloo

There were, needless to say, many extracurricular events, good company, delicious cuisine and lashings of delicious buttercup yellow Chanel Islands' butter. We participated in a Roman themed dinner though I was generously permitted my medieval attire.

Speaker Alex Bowler from Jonathan Cape at The Roman Festival Dinner

An excuse to dress up Clare , Simon and myself

One of the really exciting events, however, was an unforgettable and spooky encounter with the ghosts of Fort Tourgis on Friday evening, a very cold evening. We shivered our way around presentations brought to us by The Alderney Theatre Group. Yes, torches and warm coats were essential for this wonderful series of vignettes. The next day I purchased a new extremely heavy sweater.

The Amazing Dr Irving Finkel. Is that Alderney and Noah's Ark?

The Erudite Tom Holland 'In the Shadow of the Sword'.

There simply is not enough room here to tell you everything about this Literary Festival. Pictures say more than a hundred words ever can. May I end this short report by saying that the hospitality, the organization, the cuisine, the talks were all marvelous and the audience the most erudite of  audiences. The questions they posed were undoubtedly an important contribution to this festival's amazing success. Thank you, unforgettable Alderney, for inviting me over. But, shush, because if the world of festivals finds out how wonderfully we impoverished writers were treated we may not get a place on a flight next year!

Poignant Goodbye.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Discovering Padua, Venice and Verona in Winter

Venice on a chill January day with blue skies and sunshine is a pleasanter experience than Venice in mid-summer when it is crowded, hot and smelly. January is when Venice is reclaimed by Venetians for Venetians and a tourist presence is minimal. Yet, undeniably we were tourists, albeit returning from Christmas and New Year in Greece by driving through Europe. One of our favoured routes home is a car ferry from Patras in the Peloponnese to Venice, and after Italy, a long drive up Eastern France. Once we disembarked in Italy we paused for a week to discover and explore Venice, Padua and Verona during their quiet season.

The Golden Hour in Venice

The best way to describe our stay in Venice is to create a picture gallery. It is a city to wander around since to just look about with wonder is to experience a constant painting. Traveling up the Grand Canal by water bus is a superb daily commute for Italians who work in the city and a feast for the tourist's eye. I could spend days in Venice walking,  getting lost in narrow echoing streets, popping into Churches, eating Venetian food. Our five days passed enjoyably, meandering Venetian streets and waterways, punctuated by highlights such as an opera, music in St Mark's Cathedral, a violin and cello recital. Other things we love to do  in Venice is to drink a spritz, a mix of proseco and martini and nibble canapes at around five o'clock in the afternoon. Many Venetians enjoy this treat on their way home from work. Taking photographs on the Rialto at sunset provided us  on this visit with yet another visual experience.

The setting for La Traviata in Palazza Musico

Scene 2 La Traviata


From Venice we drove to Padua. Padua is one of the great intellectual centres and medieval University Cities of Italy. It is a gorgeous and very friendly city. We stayed in the centre of town in a delightful hotel called Belludi 37.

Bullet hole and explanation ( Cafe Pedrocchi)

I highly recommend visiting Padua and the hospitality in this hotel cannot be bettered. There is an emphasis on customer service and attention to detail that is impressive. Our host invited us to a reception to celebrate the launch of a magazine about Padua aimed at visitors to the city . This is packed with interesting articles and events. The magazine launch was held in Padua's famous cafe Pedrocchi. The story of the bullet hole shown below is told in the Wikipedia entry for Cafe Pedrocchi and is worth looking up. The Cafe is a place that is a great equaliser in that its clientele is middle class, ordinary citizens who read in the Green Room undisturbed and students. The launch event merged with another a wedding 'fayre' , most upmarket, that was also accompanied by music, canapes and drinks. And, dare I mention it, complimentary cigars and brandy and chocolates.
Again, pictures tell the story better than words.

The Wedding 'Fayre'
View of Padua from our hotel window

The next day we visited The Scrovengi Chapel to see the exquisitely preserved Giotto frescos. It is necessary to book in advance and worth while reading up about the frescos before visiting them as time to view these is limited. It is not permitted to photograph in the chapel. Giotto is very special because he developed an independent style of art that went beyond the solemn static images of Byzantine tradition. The frescos possess an expressiveness attached to their narrative suggesting realism. The Scrovegni Chapel frescos can be linked with Dante's Divine Comedy since, like this literary masterpiece, their narrative was conceived as a unified whole rather than a series of single episodes strung together. Thus, just as Dante's individual cantos and characters acquire meaning and life within the poem's structure, the fresco scenes are parts of a coherent , sequential narrative based on the late medieval theme of man's journey to salvation.The Scrovegni Palazzo also contains a superb art gallery with precious artistic treasures, many medieval but others from later centuries.
The Scrovegni Chapel

The next stage of our Italian journey took us to Verona where we explored the Colosseum which surpasses that in Rome, and where opera is performed throughout the summer. Verona also has many interesting medieval buildings and churches. The Capulet house possesses THE Romeo and Juliet balcony but it is also a medieval nobleman's home with a selection of late medieval interiors including the bedroom where Zeffereli's Romeo and Juliet was filmed and indeed when entered it does feel as if one has walked onto a film set. It remains as was during the filming.
The Colosseum at Night

Romantic Verona

These three Italian cities are no great distance apart and of the three, whilst Venice and Verona are undoubtedly extremely beautiful and clearly on the tourist agenda, Padua, perhaps less explored, is a treasure. Its arcades and churches gave me a strong sense of a medieval city as it was during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and, flying a flag for Padua, I suggest without doubt, that it is a fascinating city not to be missed when visiting the region.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Great Reads from 2014

Without doubt my greatest love, second maybe to writing novels, is reading books. During 2014 I read many great novels, a variety of genres and styles, some of which were published before 2014. Here I collect together a selection of my favourite reads of this year.

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland 

The Vanishing Witch

I admire Karen Maitland's approach to the historical novel and particularly enjoyed The Vanishing Witch. She mingles fact and fiction in a convincing manner throughout her work. This particular novel is set during the aftermath of The Black Death and The Peasant's Revolt of the fourteenth century. It is situated in the north and is a story that embraces suspicion, ordinary lives and contains within it a suspenseful story. The narrative is straightforward. A merchant widower makes an ill-fated marriage. His son is suspicious and becomes caught up in events that spiral beyond his control. There is an uncanny sense of fate haunting this novel. This book is beautifully written and has a threatening atmosphere that haunts its pages. The historical background and the way in which its characters perceive their world is exceptionally engaging and seamlessly woven into the story.

Longbourn by Jo Baker


Longbourn is a reimagining of Pride and Prejudice from the servants' point of view. Baker really builds up a believable and informative sense of the domestic life below stairs over which Mrs Hill the housekeeper has control. That is until a new footman arrives. He is a man with secrets and of course the maidservant who longs for love gets more than she had wished for. The story beautifully interacts with moments made famous in the original novel. In fact, Baker does not interfere with the characters of the novel, which I liked, but instead she adds a whole new dimension, creating a story that enhances the original work and is a superb, beautifully written novel in its own right.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

I thought that, although exquisitely written, The Miniaturist was slow to take off but once it did I was captivated. Set in the late seventeenth century in Amsterdam, Nella Oortman, the novel's protagonist is about to begin her new life in Amsterdam with her wealthy merchant trader husband. She is a wife who is not a wife. The household has secrets. Johannes Brandt, her husband, has dangerous secrets. He presents her with an unusual wedding gift which is a cabinet-sized replica of their home. As miniatures mysteriously begin to appear secrets do too. As she uncovers these she wonders if the mysterious miniaturist will save all their lives or destroy them. It is a beautifully written suspenseful historical novel and evokes Amsterdam's Golden Age with perfect pitch.

  The Goldfinch by Dona Tartt

The Goldfinch was published in 2013. Persuaded by daughter, Tara, I accompanied her to hear Dona Tartt speak in London in November 2013 but I did not actually read the novel until this December. It is a wonderful novel and is deserving of every accolade granted to it. What a treasure I had unwittingly stored away. Theo Decker survives a catastrophe that comes near to destroying his life. Because of his action during the tragic event that takes his mother's life his own future is haunted. This is a brilliantly constructed novel with wonderful characters. Every word, every sentence matters. I cannot praise it enough. Without doubt it is the jewel in the crown of this selection.

My other best reads this year include:

Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

Little Egypt by Lesley Glaister

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Brothers' Fury by Giles Kristian

And these are but to name a few. I would love to know a few favourite titles enjoyed by my readers. So what did you read in 2014?

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Was Waterloo entirely a British Victory?

Waterloo is a much written about battle. My great, great grandfather's regiment, The Scot's Greys, fought at Waterloo. Author Tom Williams has written a guest blog about how he is researching the battle for his new novel in his historical adventure series His Majesty's Confidential Agent.

Uniforms of the period

Regimental Banner

Tom's novels are set against the meticulously researched background of the Napoleonic Wars. Burke, his hero, will become involved with a Belgian (Flanders) regiment during the Battle of Waterloo.

Was Waterloo Entirely a British Victory? 

by Tom Williams

After his adventures in Argentina (Burke in the Land of Silver) and Egypt (Burke and the Bedouin), the next book in the Burke series will see Burke at Waterloo.
It's inevitable, really. There's more or less a legal requirement for anyone writing a Napoleonic series to get to Waterloo sooner or later. I decided to bite the bullet and do it now.

Waterloo is a tricky thing to write about. It is, for most British military history enthusiasts, the battle of the 19th century. Hundreds of books are written about it. (Bernard Cornwell's effort, Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies and Three Battles was published in September.) The Internet is full of websites, including some very erudite ones, discussing various aspects of it. War-Gamers refight Waterloo all the time. Anything you say is likely to be read by quite a lot of people who know enough about what happened to pick up any mistakes.

Tom Williams on one of his 
adventures in South America,
the land of silver

This should make research easy. Unfortunately, although much has been written about the battle, it was not particularly well documented as it happened. Wellington’s dispatch to the Secretary of State for War, formally describing the battle, runs to just over 2,300 words. This created considerable controversy at the time for its failure to mention many of the acts of valour performed on the field. Wellington started writing it on the evening of the battle and he had, by any standards, had rather a hard day. Even if he had delayed and written a longer account after he had had time to consult with his generals, it would still have had errors and omissions.

Although Waterloo was fought on a very small field (barely three square miles) it was a large and complex battle. Napoleon had around 72,000 troops and Wellington commanded just under 68,000. (Even these figures are much disputed: I’ve used Elizabeth Longford’s.) 

Wellington’s force included troops of the Netherlands Army (Dutch and Belgian) and 5,000 men of the Brunswick contingent. Although all accepted him as the supreme commander on the field, they had different command structures, different languages and different uniforms. On at least one occasion, confusion as to the uniforms led to British troops opening fire on their allies with significant loss of life. Confusion was not only possible, but practically guaranteed.

Waterloo (from Wikipedia)

 We talk nowadays about "the fog of War" but it is difficult to imagine the chaos of a 19th-century battlefield. There was no radio or other means of long-range communication. Wellington's orders were carried to his commanders by riders who would cross the field of battle to take them to the people who would carry them out. It was dangerous work and many of his staff officers did not survive – and thus the orders did not necessarily get through. 

Wellington positioned himself on the ridge overlooking the battlefield because he had to rely for information about where his troops were on what he could personally observe. Unfortunately, once the firing started the smoke from the muskets and cannon fire obscured much of the battlefield, so generals often had no idea where their forces were. The reason that military flags (the colours that are trooped at Trooping the Colour) are so significant is because that gave everybody at least a chance of seeing them through the smoke.

Waterloo, The Chaos of Battle (from Wikipedia)

With the chaos and confusion that threatened the field, it is hardly surprising that both Wellington and Napoleon made really serious mistakes. Both were brilliant generals, but both seem to have been performing badly that day. The battle was not a series of brilliant tactical manoeuvres, rather it ended up simply being a slogging match, in which the Allied forces stood their ground, taking horrific punishment from the French all day, until finally the French – having taken heavy losses themselves and now threatened by the arrival of the Prussians – broke and fled the field. At the end of the day almost fifty thousand men had died.

Waterloo, Charge of The Scot's Greys ( from Wikipedia)

The loss of life is even more appalling when you consider what this battle achieved. It is often described as having shaped the history of Europe. This is nonsense. The whole continent was united against Napoleon and the armies of Austria and Russia were ready to move on Paris. Napoleon faced opposition even within France – many of his troops had to be left behind to protect against monarchist opponents at home. Victory at Waterloo might have bought Napoleon time, which he could have used to consolidate his domestic position and negotiate improved surrender terms with the Allies. It might well have changed the history of France: it can hardly be claimed that it would have changed the history of Europe.

What Waterloo did do was define the character of Britain for the next hundred years. Wellington's famous calmness and "stiff upper lip" (typified by his insisting that the Duchess of Richmond go ahead with her ball, even as the French crossed the Belgian border) may have been nothing more than a propaganda ploy to reassure nervous civilians, yet it came to define how an English gentleman should behave. The steadfastness of the British troops, who held their positions all day under heavy fire, also came to typify the martial virtues of the British Army. It is significant that the British attribute heroism to stoicism under fire, such as that shown by British troops in the trenches during the First World War or Dunkirk in the Second, rather than enthusing about the kind of strategic genius that can lead to victory without heroic losses.

Wellington (from Wikipedia)

Waterloo was also seen as confirming Britain's pre-eminent military position in Europe. Although the battle had been an Allied effort – less than half of Wellington’s troops were British and he admitted that it could not have been won without the Prussians – it was presented as a British victory. Wellington (although Irish – a fact that he did not care to advertise) was the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied forces. Britain was the only country to have fought against Napoleon consistently throughout his rule and now a British commander had put an end to Boney once and for all. Waterloo has therefore attained a mythic status in British history and inconvenient details that do not fit with this narrative are forgotten or ignored.

Unfortunately, in my plot the British spy, James Burke, is fighting in a Belgian cavalry regiment (the 8th Hussars). As everyone knows since it was a British victory, the role of regiments like the 8th Hussars has been quietly forgotten. In fact, many historians claim that the Dutch and Belgian troops were cowards and made little, if any, contribution to Wellington's success. Far from this being the case, many units of the Netherlands Army behaved with conspicuous bravery. This was particularly true of the First Netherlands Light Cavalry Brigade of which the 8th Hussars were a part. They covered the retreat of the Scots Greys, saving the remnant of that regiment after their famous charge. The brigade was described as fighting with "insane gallantry".

Scot's Greys (from Wikipedia)

In the end, I am sure that much of what I write about Waterloo could be debatable. None the less, I shall pursue research, trying to get it right, knowing, too, that so many others have got it wrong before me – not least all those who reduce the Belgian contribution to what, in this country, we insist on believing a British victory. Two hundred years after Waterloo, perhaps Burke can help to put the record straight.

Tom William's novels are truly fabulous, really fast paced historical adventures. They can be found on Amazon or ordered from bookshops.

UK paperback:
UK kindle:

US paperback/kindle:

To find out more about events relating to these 
historical adventures look for Tom Williams:

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Revisiting Battle Abbey 1066/ 2014

Early this month I revisited Battle Abbey for the first re enactment of the Battle of Hastings in several years. It was a superb event and it made me wonder why I am so fascinated by battles and why I am writing a trilogy about the noble women of the Norman Conquest and how they survived 1066. I studied both Medieval history and The English Civil War as a student and those eras are of particular interest to me. Another reason for my passion resides deep inside my personal past.  A direct ancestor who fought as a captain with the Scots Greys at The Battle of Blenheim was awarded a family crest by King George 1 and a parcel of land in Ireland as a reward for valour. In fact, I, absurdly used to use the family crest on notepaper when I applied for jobs (I was a student) thinking it made my applications look more impressive. I think I got the student jobs because I was suitable not because of my illustrious ancestor.

The Women of Hastings, The Saxon Camp, Re enactment 2014.

My father's family came from the Scottish Highlands. It was not until later in the eighteenth century that they took up residence in Ireland. They were military men until my great grandfather rebelled. He refused to join the army and decided to marry an unsuitable bride. William Baxter was banished from the family home. However, the land eventually came his way.  He ended up as a gentleman farmer who was also a carpenter. My mother's family were 'planted' in Ireland as a result of another war. Her ancestor fought as a mercenary in the Williamite wars of the late seventeenth century. He got his reward after the Battle of the Boyne which was the largest battle ever fought in the United Kingdom and ended up carving a successful future for himself in Northern Ireland. The shameful part of the story is that, just as after The Battle of Hastings, the victors literally seize territory from those who lived there before them. They destroy the lives of others. They bring about regime change and help to establish it. With this comes both positive and negative results but sadly human cost, the loss of life in battle and dispossessed. It is not a history to be proud of but it does explain my fascination with the past and, in particular, the effect of battles such as The Battle of Hastings on women.

Blessing the Battle

The event which took place on Senlac Hill almost a thousand years ago brought great change to England. The poor may not have noticed it greatly in that they exchanged one group of warlords for another. A feudal system was already in place in England by 1066. But for the noble wives of those who fought at Hastings the change was significant. They were survivors. Many wealthy women fled forced marriages with the enemy and took refuge in convents. Others looked after their families and estates until these were taken from them. Either they remarried or they took refuge where ever they could, and became exiles as did the heroine of the novel that I am writing currently. This is about Gytha, Harold's elder daughter who went into exile in Denmark and then married a prince of Kiev. Often the exiles lived in extreme poverty.

In the Saxon Camp

Attending a re enactment whether it is an eleventh century experience or a seventeenth century Civil War experience helps us appreciate what these battles were like, what people wore, what they ate and how people lived then. For a writer it is a perfect way to immerse oneself in the period you write about. For the reader, the student or the history lover it is a superb day out.

The Normans believed God was on their side

Norman Kite Shaped Shields

Saxon Round Shields

Musical Instruments

I wonder if anyone who reads this blog has any interesting family history. I have a signed copy of The Swan-Daughter, a novel about King Harold's younger daughter, which will be on general release on 11th December, as a prize for the most interesting comment. I would love to hear, too, if anyone is descended from Harold and Edith Swan-Neck.
The Raven

I shall choose the winner from the hat and announce the result here on this blog on 1st December ten days before the paperback release of The Swan-Daughter.

The winner can then send me his/her address for the signed book through my website email.

This competition is open internationally. I look forward to reading small snippets of your family history either via my web site email or here in the comments section.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

St Nicholas, a Greek Byzantine Church at Chora

Many of the Byzantine churches in the Greek Mani were  built during the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries. Over the past two years I have visited so many of these in villages in the Taygetos Mountains that I cannot even remember all their names. However, the icons and frescoes they contain are fascinating and tell familiar stories. It interests me to think that people who lived during these centuries gazed on these with awe and through them learned the stories of the Old and New Testaments.

Bruce Chatwin, the writer who fell in love with the Mani and also who converted to the Greek Orthodox religion before he died of aids in 1989, must have felt likewise. I write about Bruce Chatwin here

If the video does not show here is the link:

Recently, my husband made a short video about the church in the Greek Mani where Bruce Chatwin  requested his ashes to be placed after his death. The Church of St Nicholas at Chora has a special sense of place, a perfect location for a Greek Othodox Church. It was built in the tenth century. Unfortunately, as it was locked on the day we made the video, we could not see the frescoes. Yet, walking around it on a sunny evening, just before sunset, is enough to convince me that a sense of timelessness exists here amongst olive trees and above the Viros Gorge. I cannot think of a better place for one's last journey.

The photographs above were taken last week at St Nicholas at Chora. Whilst it was impossible to view frescoes inside St Nicholas, another local church which is easily found as you walk from Chora to the main road, is usually open. The frescoes in this Orthodox Church date from a later century.

The best frescoes I have seen in village chuches in the Taygetis Mountains are to be discovered in the medieval churches of the village of Kastania. This beautiful hill village can be found by carrying on past Chora around the mountain route via Sidonia.

Fresco from one of the many medieval churches in Kastania

Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife and the recently published historical novel The Swan-Daughter , published by Accent Press in July 2014, initially on amazon kindle but on general distribution on December 11th 2014. This is a novel about the aftermath of 1066 from the point of view of Gunnhild Godwinsdatter, King Harold's younger daughter. It is based on a documented historical story.