Wednesday Wander Revisited – Plas Newydd, Llangollen

Here is the next in my series of revisiting Wednesday Wanders. I’ve been to Llangollen many times in my life; I have family near there, and a lot of history tied up in the little town, nestled among the ancient hills. But my first visit to Plas Newydd was only three years ago – a fascinating place, with a wonderful story of love, friendship, and living life…

This week I’m wandering to a rather wonderful place tucked away on the hillside above Llangollen. This is Plas Newydd, once home to the famous ‘Ladies of Llangollen.’

The two ladies in question were Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Charlotte Butler, who came from Ireland in 1778 to live in Llangollen, North Wales. Their story is a fascinating one. Both born to noble families, they met at school in 1768 when Sarah was 13 and Eleanor 29. Sarah was an orphan and ward of Sir William and Lady Fownes, while Eleanor came from the Ormonde family and lived at Kilkenny Castle. Lady Fownes was friends with Eleanor’s mother, and Eleanor was asked to keep an eye on Sarah while she was at school. The two became close friends, corresponding for several years until, both unhappy in their home lives, they decided to run away together. Eleanor was under pressure to enter a convent, while Sarah was enduring the unwelcome attentions of Sir William, who had decided she would make a perfect second wife (even though his first wife was still alive!).

The two women first attempted to escape in March 1778. Dressed in men’s clothing and armed with a pistol, they made it as far as Waterford before being apprehended and brought back to their families. Despite further pressure, Eleanor managed to escape again, running to Sarah. Faced with such devotion, their families finally relented and they were allowed to leave Ireland in May 1778 to start a new life together.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Manfred Heyde (own work)

They moved into Pen Y Maes cottage, as it was known then, in 1780, renaming it Plas Newydd (welsh for New Hall). They extended and renovated the cottage, including the addition of stained glass windows and extraordinary wood carvings on the interior and exterior of the building, many of which were salvaged from old churches and furniture. You aren’t allowed to take photographs of the interior, but I did manage to find this image of one of the staircases, just to give you an idea of what it looks like inside. The details around the exterior doors are also extraordinary, and it must have been a magical place to live. The Ladies lived there for almost fifty years, in what they called ‘a life of sweet and delicious retirement’, until Eleanor passed away in 1829, Sarah dying just two years later.

During their lifetime the ladies were figures of curiosity, well-regarded and attracting many famous visitors, including Lord Byron, the Duke of Wellington, William Wordsworth (who composed a poem while staying with them) and Madame de Genlis. Their relationship was seen to embody romantic friendship, a high ideal much sought after at the time. The true nature of their relationship is still unclear – they shared a bedroom, sleeping together in the same bed, and referred to each other as ‘Beloved’. They also dressed in men’s clothing and powdered their hair, as can be seen in the few portraits that survive.

Whether The Ladies’ relationship was simply one of platonic love, or something more, doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that they were both strong enough to live their lives outside the conventions of the time – yes, they both came from privilege, but this was still a time when women were reduced to ‘wife of’ once they were married, no longer allowed to hold either property or their names. I love the story of the Ladies because it’s a story of love, of friendship, and the desire to live life as they pleased. The house in its in green gardens, ruined castle on the hill beyond, stands as a beautiful memorial to life, to the Ladies, and to love.

Thanks for coming on another Wednesday Wander with me – see you next time!

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Enjoyed this post? Want to read more? Find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, Under Stone (Ambeth Chronicles #4), is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

Quiet #writephoto

For a moment, the world was quiet,

like a breath inhaled.

There was no hum of traffic, no roar of planes, no rumble of trains

in the valley below. Instead there was birdsong, the buzzing of bees, and

the breeze making music through the branches and long grasses.

Water rippled, silver, clear for the first time in years, like

the sky, no longer gasping with dust and smog and exhaust,

and the world was quiet.

We trod lightly, for the most part, as our ancestors once did, when

The land was our home and we respected it as such. Before

the darkness came, the spreading stain of factory and mill and

blackened tower and we forgot what it was to smell fresh leaves and

sweet flowers and to feel the breeze hum against our skin, the way

water rippled like silver snakes, the sky clear above us.

But now, perhaps, we remember again. We turn away from black tower and

rumbling traffic and clogged skies and we’re reminded

of how it used to be, when the water rippled silver, and the birds sang,

and the world was quiet, once more.

This is my response to Sue Vincent’s weekly #writephoto challenge. Sue’s photo this week helped me to articulate something I’d been thinking about for a little while. We’ve been given a chance to see what the world looks like when we slow down – what will we do with that information going forward?

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Enjoyed this post? Want to read more? Find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, Under Stone (Ambeth Chronicles #4), is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

Walking Through Rivendell (Revisited)

I forgot. Again. Heat is melting my brain, I guess? I have over 100 Wednesday Wanders just waiting to be reposed, but I keep forgetting. So here we are, Thursday and wanderless. However, in honour of it being such a stinking hot day here (30 degrees and humid), I’ve decided to post, not exactly a wander, but instead a memory of a cool valley replete with green grass, snowy mountains and a waterfall. Oh, and apparently it was the original inspiration for Rivendell, Tolkien being inspired by its beauty when he visited over a century ago. Enjoy…
This was the view from where I stayed

This was the view from my chalet. Pretty nice, hey?

About twenty-five years ago, I went on a trip around Europe. I was living in Canada at the time and this was my first big holiday by myself, so it was a Big Deal. The trip brought its own set of challenges and experiences, most of them positive, as well as some marvellous memories.

One of the places I visited was the valley of Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland. I stayed there for a couple of nights, lulled to sleep by the sounds of the nearby waterfall and the gentle chime of cowbells. It was an extraordinarily beautiful place, and I felt the spectacular landscape had a fairy-tale quality quite unlike anywhere else I’d been before. While I was there, I also took the cog railway up to the top of the Jungfrau mountain, taking photographs of the scenery along the way.

Ascending the Jungfrau

Ascending the Jungfrau

What I didn’t know at the time was that J.R.R Tolkien had visited the same valley in 1911, and was so taken by its beauty that he used it as the basis for Rivendell, home to Elrond and the Elves. (Apparently, on the same trip, he also picked up an illustration that inspired his description of Gandalf.) If you look at Tolkien’s painting of Rivendell (which I don’t have permission to reproduce here, so here’s a link), you can see the similarities between his fantasy world and the real one.

The glacier on top of the Jungfrau - the original Pass of Carahdras?

The glacier on top of the Jungfrau – the original Pass of Carahdras?

I recently wrote a post about the landscape that had inspired my own book, Oak and Mist. Though not quite as striking as the Lauterbrunnen valley and its towering mountains, the park near my childhood home holds both beauty and memory for me, making it the perfect starting point for my story. And this is one of the things I love about writing fantasy – blending the real world with the one I create.

The valley seen from the lower slopes of the Jungfrau

The valley seen from the lower slopes of the Jungfrau – look familiar?

I know you can visit Hobbiton and some of the other locations for the LOTR movies in New Zealand, and that they are spectacular. However, to walk through the actual landscape that inspired Tolkien to create Middle-Earth is quite something as well (even if I didn’t realise it at the time) 🙂

So how about you? Has your work been inspired by real places you’ve visited or lived in? Or have you walked in the footsteps of your literary heroes?


You can find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, A Thousand Rooms, is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

When The Moon Is Full #SummerSolstice

I wrote this story a few years ago, for a #BlogBattle competition. But Midsummer is upon us, the forests dancing with life, the land burgeoning with green, and it felt appropriate to share it again. This is my favourite time, when the wheel of the year turns towards autumn harvests and cold winter nights. Happy Summer Solstice, everyone!

When The Moon Is Full

Once upon a time, when the world was younger, there lived a boy. Tall and lean he was, his skin nut brown over strong muscles, his clothes as tattered as the leaves among which he lived.

No darkness came to stain his days – he was warm and well-fed, the forest providing all that he needed. He roamed along paths he knew like he knew the feel of his skin, or the sound of his breath as he lay alone at night. And as he roamed he hunted, gathering his crop.

But no nuts cracked between his strong white teeth, no berries stained his lips, no blood flowed across his long fingers. Instead, he gathered memories. Bubble light, floating untethered around sleeping travellers taking their rest beneath tangled branches. They would wake unaware that anything had been taken, only a mild headache marring their day as they travelled on to the road beyond the trees.

And so the boy leapt and ran, graceful as any stag, through glowing leaves and past ancient stones, the precious memories tethered to him, dancing like fireflies in the dark of night. When he reached the tree he called home he would sink down among the roots and close his eyes, savouring the sounds and thoughts as they washed over him, nourishing his soul.

But one night, something changed. The moon was full, a golden globe sailing above the treetops, shining through the branches to pick out white flowers like stars dotted along the path. Around him the forest was lush and green with spring, the scent of flower and foliage strong enough to send a man mad. But he drank it in, the wildness of the night running through his veins. Then he saw her.

Dressed in velvet green as the leaves on which she lay, curled at the edge of a small pond. Her long hair was the dark brown of tree bark, her skin golden as his own. He stopped, entranced by her curves, by the rise and fall of her breast as she slept, one slender hand outflung. A bubble of memory appeared, fragile and feather light, floating around her head.

He reached out to take it, all at once desperate to have one small piece of her beauty. But when he touched the bubble her eyes came open and she stared at him. Green, her eyes were, iridescent in the moonlight like dragonfly wings, the pupils night dark. He heard her voice in his head.

‘You have taken something that belongs to me.’

He said nothing, frozen in place, the bubble floating around him like guilt.

‘It’s not right to steal, you know.’

Still he said nothing. He did not know what to do.

‘What’s your name?’ She stared up at him, lips dark crimson.

He found his voice. ‘I don’t know.’ He did not.

She frowned, her head tilting to one side. ‘Do you remember nothing?’

The boy thought for a moment. “I have no memories except for those I steal.’

‘Then let me remind you.’

She stood, like a snake uncoiling, and reached for the bubble tethered to the boy, taking it back. As the tether broke he gasped. And he remembered.

He had been sent here, not so long ago. A gift from another realm. But it was not memories he was supposed to steal. It was pain, easing the path of the weary travellers as they passed through the woods. But in his youth and haste he had forgotten, taking memories instead.

‘Do you see?’ Her voice was the whisper of wind through branches, her perfume apple blossom, earthy and sweet.

He nodded, tears in his eyes. ‘I – I am sorry.’

‘Hush,’ she said, coming close to lay one finger gently on his lips. ‘You were young, and you did not know any better. I should have helped you before.’

‘Who are you?’ he whispered.

She smiled, her face close to his. ‘I am the forest,’ she replied. ‘And you are mine.’

***

It is said that the woods bordering the two lands, where the road passes between the trees, is a place of wonder and beauty, where a man might find rest in the most difficult times. It is also said that a spirit lives among the trees, as beautiful as Spring itself, her companion tall and strong.

And sometimes, on a night when the moon is full, they can be seen dancing in the glades, as close together as two vines twisting, their sighs echoing until dawn.

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Enjoyed this post? Want to read more? Find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, Under Stone (Ambeth Chronicles #4), is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

Living La Vida Lockdown

(If the Ricky Martin song is now in your head, sorry for the earworm.)

It’s a funny old time, this lockdown. Bringing up lots of memories, days past relived, choices assessed, plans made for going forwards. Time has no meaning, any more – the days punctuated only by the alarm going off in the morning, the click of the letterbox when the post arrives, the occasional arrival of a van, delivering items to people on the street.

It’s no Vida Loca, that’s for sure. The biggest excitement is a trip to the supermarket, where people no longer seem to be bothering with social distancing, as though the past three months have been some awful and ridiculous dream, a figment of our collective imaginations, that we’re all now just waking from.

Lockdown is starting to ease here, though with different restrictions depending upon whether you’re in England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. The revelations that a government advisor, at the height of the pandemic and while suffering from Covid himself, travelled 200 miles north to his parents’ house and then made a few daytrips while he was there, have helped to unravel the months of sacrifice and solitude, as have the misleading messages and constantly changing guidance. I think people are sick of it, too – the long queues outside shops when they opened on Monday perhaps an indication of how people just want to do something different.

But I hope we don’t rush back to the world that was.

Great change is happening, groundswells of movement. People continue to protest that Black Lives Matter (as they do, and should, and always have), and there has been a shift in understanding around the nature of work and what, really, is essential, and that the people who keep things running, who care and educate and deliver and feed us, should be paid a proper wage for the work they do. People are also discovering the communities in which they live, helping neighbours in need, supporting others. There is a chance here to continue, to forge a better world.

There has been bad behaviour, too, of course, like the aforementioned adviser and his lockdown trip (symbolic of a greater disarray among our government), or the people who trash our countrysides and beaches for some unfathomable reason. But hopefully the seeds of positive change have now been sown, and we won’t lose this momentum, reaping the harvest of better times in the future.

I’m still going on lots of walks, just as I always have, stories dancing in my head. The inability to focus which plagued me at the beginning of lockdown, perhaps linked to the adjustment of living in a strange new world, has long gone, and there are new stories brewing, new worlds to explore. We also, as a family, managed a trip to the beach. Not a long drive away, an hour or so, to a beach we knew would not be busy. We took everything we needed with us, and left nothing behind. There were other families there, but with enough space that we could all keep plenty of distance. It was good for the soul to be somewhere different, to breathe sea air, to see my daughter laugh as she danced in the waves. These are the small joys to be taken at such a time.

We’re also lucky that we still, as a family, have been able to work. Ineligible for any of the government support programs, we know we’re fortunate to have paid employment during this time. A lot of people are struggling, and the fallout from this will be felt for years to come. Another reason a better world, a more caring world, will be needed.

At the moment, though, I’m staying home. I’m a dedicated shopper, oh my goodness yes I am, but I have no plans to hit the stores anytime soon. This virus hasn’t gone away, just because lockdown is easing. So we will stay safe as best we can, and hope that the others we love can do the same.

So I guess this is a blog post about nothing much, really, because on the surface, that’s what I’ve been doing. But there have been seeds sown in both my personal and professional lives, and I’m hoping, just as I’m hoping to see in the wider world, for some positive results.

Hope you’re all staying safe and well x

Photos from a recent walk and our trip to the coast


Enjoyed this post? Want to read more? Find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, Under Stone (Ambeth Chronicles #4), is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

#writephoto Flight

Well, it’s definitely Thursday now! And with it comes Sue Vincent’s #writephoto challenge, one of my favourite bloggy writing prompts. This week, it’s another evocative picture…

Flight

We reach, soaring

Wings wide against the storm that thunders

Deep around us, rumbling in our hearts,

Ruffling our feathers.

Sometimes we catch an updraft, and float, the world beneath us falling away

At other times we plummet

No wind to hold us

 

The old ways gleam

Below us, deep within the landscape

Like twisting veins of precious ore, waiting

To be discovered.

Sometimes we follow, sometimes we’re guided, sometimes we lose our way

But when the wind holds us

Soaring, we reach.


Enjoyed this post? Want to read more? Find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, Under Stone (Ambeth Chronicles #4), is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

Wednesday Wander Revisited (on a Thursday) – Surfing Santa Cruz

How has another week passed already? Time is very strange of late; it stretches and shrinks, some days feeling endless, others over almost as soon as they begin. When I get asked what day it is, I often have to take a moment to think, the sameness of lockdown life making it hard to remember at times. That, I suppose, is the long way of me explaining why I’m revisiting another Wednesday Wander on Thursday (though I do think it might still be Wednesday somewhere, just for a few minutes more). Anyway, this week I was in the mood for a bit of fresh air and saltwater, so decided to visit Santa Cruz, California. Surfs up!

IMG_0366I am married to a man who loves to surf so, when we visited California last year, we spent a fair bit of time looking at beaches, watching the waves roll in. Not so bad a way to pass the time, really. We drove south from San Francisco to Cambria, and a stop at Santa Cruz was a definite highlight.

IMG_0369After all, this is the place where, in 1885, three Hawaiian princes surfed the entrance to the San Mateo river, on redwood boards they’d ordered from a local lumber yard. It was the introduction of surfing to the U.S. mainland and the rest, as they say, is history.

IMG_0382These days the waves still break, rolling and blue, and the surfers still come to surf, though the fibreglass boards they ride are a world away from the floating redwoods of Hawaiian royalty.

IMG_0374And yet, the spirit remains the same. To capture, for a moment, how it feels to fly, or to be a dolphin – to be one with the ocean. To honour the waves, and be free.

Thank you for joining me on another Wednesday Wander – see you next time!

Enjoyed this post? Want to read more? Find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, Under Stone (Ambeth Chronicles #4), is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

Wednesday Wander Revisited – Rocher De La Vierge, Biarritz

Another Wednesday, another Wander post revisited. While we still can’t travel (or have to quarantine if we do), it’s nice to look back at places I’ve been, as well as consider places I’d like to go once things go back to whatever normal is going to be. This week I’m wandering to Biarritz, somewhere I visited a few years ago and absolutely loved – the colours of the sea and sky, the rocks and waves, the good food and friendly people. I’ll definitely go back there again, one day…

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Biarritz, located on the French coast. I absolutely loved it – the light, the water, the people, the food – it was just wonderful. I’ve written about it here and here, but for today’s Wander I’m going to go back to the town’s origins as a fishing village, before Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie made it such a fashionable place to be.

For centuries, the principal industry in Biarritz was whaling. It wasn’t until the 18th century that it became known as a town for bathing, and the 19th century when it became fashionable due to the patronage of the Empress.

Nowadays, there are splendid hotels and a casino along the water’s edge but, if you wander a little further along the beach, you come to the old fishing village and harbour, the water clear turquoise against curving ochre rocks.

The old harbour walls remain and are used today – we spent a few minutes there watching a group of men launching a boat into the water. In the mid 1800s, Napoleon III decided he would like to build a large anchor point and sea-wall, connecting a nearby rock to the coastline. A wooden walkway was built between the two, and a statue of the Virgin Mary was placed on top of the rock to watch over the whalers as they returned to harbour.

The sea can get ferocious in these parts, however, and in the 1880s the wooden walkway was replaced by a metal bridge attributed to Gustav Eiffel (known for a rather more famous metal structure bearing his name). Today you can walk out to the rock and take in the glorious views, past archways of stone over dark blue water, sea birds wheeling overhead.

The day we went was warm and hazy, the water calm, though we had heard that the waves can splash as high as the footbridge on more stormy days.  Also, I think I may have found my dream house…

The Rocher De La Vierge is easily accessed via the coastal walk that runs along the main beach at Biarritz, past the Casino and town centre and leading to the excellent Aquarium. The views looking back are beautiful, as are those beyond, and the walk itself is quite gentle – I highly recommend it.

Thanks for coming on another Wednesday Wander with me – see you next time!


Enjoyed this post? Want to read more? Find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, Under Stone (Ambeth Chronicles #4), is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

The Loss Of Touch In A Post-Covid World

I attended a funeral on Wednesday for a dear family friend, someone I’ve known my whole life. He didn’t die of Covid; rather, of old age and ill health and a broken heart. He did die alone, though, except for nursing staff, his friends and family unable to visit him in his final weeks. Still, we gathered to celebrate his life, one of colour and flamboyance and dancing to his own beat, unapologetic to the end.

In the UK we’re still under some restrictions due to the Covid outbreak (and I think they’ll increase again, sadly – we are not out of this yet). Therefore, only a dozen mourners were allowed at the funeral. His neighbours, though, lined the street as the hearse passed, and there was love aplenty to lift him to the next realm. When we reached the chapel, there were only a dozen chairs scattered around the large space, instead of the pews and crowds and whispered hum of a usual funeral. We each took a chair, pulling them into small family groups of two or three, all of us nodding and blowing kisses across the room. But there was no touching. No hugging or comforting or patting of arms. No shaking of hands or kissed cheeks. Afterwards, we sat in separate chairs in my parents’ back garden and toasted our lost friend, telling stories of his life as we ate from our own serving bowls, the food prepared using gloves and tongs and tiny dishes, rather than the usual free-for-all of big plates and togetherness.

It was very strange.

I couldn’t put my finger on what about it, exactly, was strange, until later in the day. And I realised it felt as though everyone was mad at me. There was no change in conversation, in how we talked and laughed and related to each other. But without the hugs and closeness and touches of everyday life, I felt, somehow, on the outer. And it made me realise not only how much the world has changed due to Covid, but also how important touch is as part of our human existence.

In ancient times, when humans lived in tribes, the community was how we protected ourselves, strength in numbers. To be exiled from the tribe was basically a death sentence. In medieval times, when prisoners were sent on the long journey to London and the tower, no one would talk to them or interact with them in any way, in case they be seen as sympathetic to their crimes. This is, in fact, the origin of the phrase ‘Sent to Coventry’, as Coventry was an important stop on the way to London. Closeness and acceptance within our own community is a sign that we’re part of something, that we’re included, not shunned. Yet now we cross the street to avoid getting too close to people, stand in the driveway and shout, rather than having close conversations. We have to do these things, of course, but I wonder what impact it is having on us as a society.

We communicate so many things through touch. The handshake, the hug, the pat on the back. The kiss on the cheek, on the hand, or the lips. Holding hands. Linking arms. The Maori hongi and the Inuit kunik, rubbing noses to express affection. We affirm our relationships, whether business or friendship or family or lover, through touch, and it is how we experience much of the world. So, as a species, to have touch taken away from us is a very strange thing.

I’ve been fortunate during this crisis to have both my husband and daughter at home with me. Hugs are not in short supply in our house. I can’t imagine how it must feel to be cut off, to be isolating alone, with no human touch at all. And I wonder at the long-term fallout of this, of the mental impact of going without such an important sense for so long. Even before Covid there was growing distance within our communities, people not knowing their neighbours, much of our lives lived online. Once we return to whatever normal will be when this is over, I wonder what will happen – whether we’ll continue to keep our distance, or perhaps make more of an effort to seek out human contact, rather than shut ourselves away.

I hope the latter is the case.


Enjoyed this post? Want to read more? Find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJFacebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, Under Stone (Ambeth Chronicles #4), is now available on Amazon. Visit my Amazon Author Page to see more.

I’m Not Okay Right Now

I’ve been struggling this week to find the words to express how I feel about the murder of George Floyd, and the ensuing unrest in America. In the end, I decided it would be better to uplift someone else’s voice. This is from a lovely blogging friend of mine (and someone I hope to meet in person one day). ..

missrachelchanel

This is how my weekend went:

Friday, I was bombarded on social media by videos about George Floyd, protests and riots, and police brutality. Seeing all of it triggered personal trauma that I’ve experienced. I didn’t sleep much Friday night. All I felt was grief.

Saturday, my family went out, but I stayed home. I needed to be to myself. I recouped.

Sunday, I took a writer’s class. It empowered me to use my voice. It reminded me that my voice is important, and that I have something to contribute. It also reminded me to speak my truth; those that love me will still love me.

Now, I’m ready to speak.

Although I talk about the serious things going on in my life personally, I try to steer away from current events and not talk so much about racism. Unfortunately, keeping quiet is what is perpetuating racism. I haven’t experienced…

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