Before visiting the gardens at Stourhead, Wiltshire the other day I looked forward to seeing for myself this ‘living work of art’, for I had created a brightly coloured, stylised copy of a photo of that iconic view just last year, during the first UK lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic.
When we visited the garden, originally created in the eighteenth century by the Hoare family, we learned that Henry “the Magnificent” (‘gentleman gardener’) had relied on elements of concealment and surprise in his grand vision of this classical landscape. So we took the route that Henry had set out specially for his guests to take, from the house to the lake, and experienced the concealment and surprise and revelation for ourselves.
Finally, having received glimpses of both the Temple of Apollo and the Pantheon through the carefully selected, planted, cultivated and shaped trees, we came upon the iconic view itself, where you can see the Pantheon across the lake beyond the bridge:
I was enchanted as this was the view I had copied in acrylic paints from a photo back in the lockdown. I felt as if I was walking into my own painting, albeit with more subtle colouring than my own fluorescent production!
Later, after visiting the house, we walked around the lake and climbed up to the Temple of Apollo.
Today I share my review of ‘Witch Child‘ by Celia Rees, now out in a special 20th Anniversary edition. This is a compelling historical novel of the arrival of a group of Puritans in New England in 1650, of their encounters with the Native Indians, and a tale not only of religious intolerance but of the deep-seated fear human beings have of anybody who dares to be different.
Having just finished reading The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory, about Catherine Parr and the dangerous path she trod through religious fanaticism and intolerance, I feel my senses have been sharpened to this theme of rejection of women for being different. It seems that historical fiction is an excellent vehicle for this theme but sadly the theme is also highly relevant in today’s world.
Witch Child is a Young Adult novel and has been firmly established on the schools curriculum for the challenging issues it raises, vital for children to wrestle with, themes of intolerance, the true nature of freedom, the forces of conservatism, spirituality and female independence.
The book opens with a horrific account of the persecution of a woman in late 17th century England. Through the eyes of a young girl, we learn how her grandmother is dragged away – feared and reviled as a witch for her role of village “wise-woman and healer” – tortured then hanged for witchcraft. We are confronted with the intense hatred, fear and hysteria that flares up among the local ‘authorities’ (often self-appointed); their fanaticism aroused by another opportunity to publicly shame, humiliate and destroy a woman for being different.
As I read the story of Mary’s departure for the New World with a group of Puritans, I was keen to refresh my knowledge of this period of English history. As it happened, the Puritans sought freedom in another land to practice their own brand of religion freely. Ironically they took all their own prejudices and narrow-mindedness with them and transplanted it into the communities they built in New England.
I was moved by Mary’s growing connection with her two allies from the local Indian tribe, White Eagle and Jaybird. They too knew what it meant to be ostracised for bring just what they were. The themes of nature-connection are strong between the girl trained in ways of herbalism and intuitive healing, and the native people with their deep spirituality and knowledge of the earth and their environment, as with all First Nation peoples.
I loved the overriding structure of the book, pages of an authentic historical journey, found sewn into a late 17th century quilt, and the mystery with which the book ends. I know the author wrote a sequel, but this book left the way wide open for me to imagine exactly how I wanted it to end and what I hope happened to Mary next.
A compelling story from an author who has just brought out a new book, this time for adults, called Miss Graham’s War. Set in Germany in 1946, and published by Harper Collins in May 2021, this will be my next read.
Today I share my review of this enchanting novel by nature writer Delia Owens.
‘Where the Crawdads Sing‘ by Delia Owens is set in the swampland of the North Carolina coast. Kya, the main protagonist, is abandoned by her family members one by one until, at the age of seven in the year 1952, she is left all alone, continuing to live in the family’s “swamp shack ” on the edge of the lagoon. Kya fends for herself, navigating the lagoons and waterways of the wetlands by boat, and living independently into her adulthood, gaining her reputation among the people of nearby Barkley Cove as “the marsh girl”.
I found the descriptions of the wetlands around Kya’s lagoon utterly compelling. Delicate, exquisite, and using the most fluid, inspired, original use of vocabulary, Owens weaves pictures of a breathtakingly beautiful and remote region. I found myself longing to visit those wetlands.
Delia Owens herself is a nature writer, and a wildlife scientist who formerly lived and worked in a camp in Africa for several years. This is her first novel, and it is astonishingly beautiful.
As Kya’s story progresses in 1952, another story runs alongside it in a different time-frame, in 1969-70, when the adult Kya finds herself accused of murder. Although the plot is interesting, I longed to return to the description of Kya’s life as a child fending for herself in the wetlands, which has a spiritual, dreamlike quality.
I think I love this book so much because of the appeal and fascination of the idea of “the wild child.” I have always loved stories which centre upon this theme. High among my childhood favourites, the stories of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren held my imagination. Pippi is a wild child, and she was my heroine. I was enthralled by the idea of a child who finds herself living an independent life utterly free of the constraints that adults impose upon children. Reading these books as adults, we may read into that situation all the judgements of our social conditioning; yet, in the world of fiction, this trope is powerful and archetypal.
The story goes on to tell of the older Kya’s relationships with two young men, one of whom is found dead in the mud beneath the local fire-tower, and the progress of the murder trial in which Kya is the Defendant. I will say no more about the plot for fear of spoilers bur suffice it to say that very close to the end there is an amazing twist.
Hello – I write on the first day of the relaxation of the lockdown here in the UK and we have travelled from Warwick in the Midlands to the lovely Surrey Hills, close to Leith Hill Tower with its wonderful views.
This early 18th century cottage was originally a gamekeeper’s cottage and is hidden amongst dense woodland down steep, narrow winding lanes and is like a storybook dwelling. It stands beside a beautiful sparkling pond which often attracts swans, geese and ducks and other wildlife.
It is so peaceful here, with a sense of stillness and tranquility, a gentle subdued light lending a dreamlike quality to the scene as we move towards the end of the day.
Only the delicious sounds of a bubbling brook, an enchanting variety of birdsong, buzzing insects and the numerous calls of other wildlife can be heard. The cool breeze and the receding golden glow of the sun highlights the long shadows across the grass. This is indeed the perfect place for a retreat, in the heart of nature.
This account of the koala-rescue campaign in bushfire-ravaged Kangaroo Island is gripping and very emotional. Accompanied by superb photos, arborist Kailas Wild tells a story sometimes dramatic and inspiring, and at other times sad and heartrending, packed with tense and harrowing descriptions of koala rescues.
As one of the few professional tree-climbers/ experienced koala handlers called to Kangaroo Island following the wildfires that swept through parts of Australia in 2019, Kailas used his rope climbing equipment to scale 30 metre high burnt trees to flag down traumatised koalas, bundle them into pet carriers, and drive them to the animal hospital for treatment – or sometimes to be euthanised.
As you read the book you feel amazed he didn’t suffer long-lasting mental health difficulties following this incredibly harrowing and challenging time on Kangaroo Island. He is, indeed, very open about his emotional distress and his mental trauma. Throughout the book the reader is moved by his skill and courage, in this dangerous and tough work.
Kailas gives many fascinating details of his work, including for example his knowledge of how to test the structural integrity of a fire damaged tree before he starts climbing; his endurance of scratches from the claws of frightened koalas; and the best way to handle them, to avoid the very real danger of being bitten by their knife-sharp teeth. The photos are often dramatic and impactful; shots of him up a tree trying to reach a koala on an adjacent tree, images of a burnt koala, photos which make clear his own mental trauma, visible in his face.
His working days among the burnt plantations involved 10-12 hours of physically and emotionally draining labour. He spent “days alone amongst burnt trees and dead animals… and even the successful rescues are traumatic.”
After a considerable time in which he feels a lack of co-ordination and resources, he finally gets the help he needs from two other wildlife rescue experts – Deb and Fraya. The efforts they go to as the terrified koalas resist capture is astonishing. Their own stress is compounded by the knowledge of the stress to which they are subjecting the koalas – and then at the end the rescued animals may have to be euthanised.
The author is very open about the toll this takes on his mental health. He also considers the ethics of human intervention in the lives of wild animals suffering an environmental disaster; does his work compromise the ability of the wild animals to live independently when released back to the wild, having become over-reliant on humans? He also describes the moment when they realise the risk of injury to the koalas themselves outweighs the benefits of attempting rescue.
Finally the time comes when Kailas and his colleagues realise they have done everything they can, and the remaining koalas, having already survived this long, will most likely thrive.
A deeply moving book for all those who love animals, care about environmental issues and are interested in wildlife conservation, but also an account of courageous human endeavour and compassion, in the face of ethical dilemmas.
Curious how when we are instructed by the government to stay at home and only venture out for a very few clearly defined purposes, those of us who didn’t do enough walking prior to the pandemic suddenly find ourselves seizing the opportunity to get out every day.
And I am one of those. Living in Warwick we have several lovely walks not far from our home. We can head for Leamington Spa, and Jephson Gardens; or to Abbey Fields in Kenilworth. Both are very special places and water is in abundance there and in many other local places – either the River Leam or the River Avon or the Finham Brook or the Grand Union Canal….
Do you have lovely places to walk, close to your home? I’d love to hear about them! Do share in the comments below.
Many of us share a fascination with the power of nature, and we love to gaze at storms and mighty waterfalls and erupting volcanos and turbulent seas and raging rivers – as long as we are in a safe viewing spot, and not in the middle of them.
And so we were among those drawn once again to the Saxon Mill, near to my home in Warwick. Our purpose: to gaze in wonder and exhileration, and experience the drama of the swollen river Avon. I felt as if we were on an island surrounded by the dynamic power of racing water.
The Saxon Mill is of course one of my haunted locations in my new book Paranormal Warwickshire. Do check it out here: http://bitly.ws/8xJJ
The Tudor house at Coughton Court, for centuries the family seat of the Throckmorton family, is one of the loveliest National Trust properties in Warwickshire and it has a variety of gardens, both formal and natural, including an enchanting bog garden.
The grounds slope down towards the banks of the River Arrow.
The grounds are particularly notable for a stunning walled RHS garden which was designed by two members of the Throckmorton family, Clare and her daughter Christine, professional garden designers.
Nearby are two churches: the nearest, St Peter, is Anglican and was built in the late 15th century by Sir Robert Throckmorton. It began life as a Catholic church but after the reformation became Church of England.
The paranormal tale which I recount in my book Paranormal Warwickshire is connected to the graveyard of the Anglican church.
Beyond that the Catholic Church of St Peter, St Paul and St Elizabeth was built in 1855, when the family could at last worship openly as Catholics. The family have remained true to their Catholic faith for many generations, and in the sixteenth century they found their way around Elizabeth I’s religious laws, as so many Catholic recusants did in those dangerous and turbulent times.
Another curious anecdote relates to the coat of arms which formerly hung over the front entrance. To find out more, do preorder Paranormal Warwickshire here.
The Throckmorton name is of course linked to the Gunpowder Plot and a fascinating exhibition in the house tells the full story.
Discover more about the intriguing history, the curious anecdotes, and the many poignant associations with the most dramatic periods of English history at Coughton Court in my book Paranormal Warwickshire.
What an enchanting location this is for a grand house: situated on the Fal estuary in Cornwall, views across to the water are to be glimpsed from the terrace at the back of the house, and also from many places in the parkland.
As one of my friends on social media remarked, grand houses like those in the possession of the National Trust always remind him of Cluedo. Here at Trellisick, we weren’t able to go into the house due to the Covid19 restrictions, but certainly I was tempted to gaze through the windows of the orangery and imagine which part of the plot might unfold in there behind the giant terracotta urns…
Moving round into the gardens, it seemed every bend of the path brought new vistas and new delights.
I loved a gazebo in the gardens with stained glass windows which was decorated with natural objects; fir cones had been embedded into the design and created an exquisite fairytale effect.
The walk through the gardens eventually leads d
own to the King Harry Ferry which carries motorists and pedestrians across the river Fal and is the best route to take from Trellisick if you are, as we were, planning to visit St Mawes later. You might like to check out some other bloggers’ thoughts, feelings and information about the glorious gardens here at Trellisick: Tinbox Traveller; Trellisick ranger blog, and Trellisick garden blog.
Check out the previous posts in my Cornwall mini series.