Wednesday Wander – Tintern Abbey, Wales

tintern-abbey-3These lovely gothic ruins are all that remains of Tintern Abbey, a Cistercian monastery founded on May 9, 1131, by Walter De Clare, then lord of Chepstow.

Situated in a picturesque river valley on the border between England and Wales, the Abbey flourished for four centuries, spawning two daughter Abbeys in Gloucestershire and Ireland. Then, on September 3, 1536, the land, buildings and contents were surrendered to King Henry VIII, under his dissolution of the monasteries.

tintern-abbey-1After the dissolution the Abbey fell into disrepair, the lead from its roof removed and sold, workers from the nearby wire works living in the ruins. Then, in the late 18th century, a fashion for visiting the ‘wilds’ came into being, and Tintern Abbey, with its romantic atmosphere and pretty setting, became a popular tourist destination.

The Abbey ruins inspired artists and poets including Wordsworth, Tennyson, Gainsborough and Turner. In 1967, the poet Allen Ginsberg took acid there, which seems a fairly random thing to do – he ended up writing ‘Wales Visitation’ as a result of his experience.

tintern-abbey-2From adoration to inspiration, the Abbey has had quite a journey over the centuries. I visited many years ago and remember it being quite wild and atmospheric, the land rising around it. Apparently now there is a gift shop, as is often the way, but I imagine it has been done in such a fashion as to not disturb the Gothic beauty of the old stones. I might have to go back for another look…

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


If you enjoyed this post, you can find me on Twitter @AuthorHelenJ,  Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Plus my latest book release, A Thousand Rooms, is now available on Amazon.

#BlogBattle – Coconut – Blast From The Past

IMG_2039It’s that time of week again, when bloggers across the web post their response to Rachael Ritchey’s Blog Battle. This week, the prompt is ‘coconut’, and I had grand dreams and a wisp of a story about being at the beach, with the song ‘She’s Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’ floating around in my head. However, a snot monster has also taken up residence in my head, leaving me down for the count when it comes to anything imaginative, so the story has come to nothing as yet. But I didn’t want to let another week go by without at least trying to participate, so here’s a passage from my latest book, Hills And Valleys, which in some ways is similar to what I was trying to come up with.

The story so far: Our heroine, Alma, after a tragedy in the otherworld of Ambeth, has come to her grandmother’s house in Wales for the summer, hoping to recuperate and forget all about Ambeth. But Ambeth, it seems, has not forgotten about her, a display at her local library holding an unwelcome surprise…

She shook her head, running her finger across the row of plastic-covered book spines, scanning the titles. Selecting a couple that looked interesting, she tucked them under her arm and moved around to the other side of the shelf, squinting a little in the bright sunlight coming through the long glass window. There wasn’t much there – just some large print books and a selection of encyclopaedias. Oh, well. As she wandered across to the other shelves, her attention was caught by a display on a concertina-style board in the middle of the room. The heading announced ‘150 years of Entertainment’, while underneath in smaller letters it read ‘Courtesy of the Historical Society.’ Intrigued, she stopped to have a look.

Black and white photographs and old concert programs were pinned on the board, along with informative captions typed on small pieces of paper. Alma tilted her head to read the faded playbills, amused by the variety of shows on offer. She was particularly taken by a poster for a visiting circus complete with elephant and the accompanying photo of the animal on the beach with a crowd gathered around, the castle looming high in the background. She moved along to a set of street scenes, amazed to see how similar the town looked then to how it was now. The shingled beach was the same, too, though fashions had changed in the intervening years. Alma shook her head, wondering how anyone could swim in knee-length knickerbockers and a long-sleeved top. On the beach were vendors and sideshows, young men trying to knock coconuts off precarious looking stands and young women lined up for beauty contests, smiling, their eyes creased against the bright sun. There were also photos of the old theatre, the stage hung with velvet curtains, women in corseted gowns and men in striped blazers caught mid-song – Alma could almost hear their voices coming through the years. Walking around to the other side of the board, Alma was taken by a series of photographs showing dances held at the Town Hall. She admired the dresses, the men in their suits. Then she blinked, feeling as though she were going to black out.

For there, smiling in black and white, was Gwenene. The photo showed her arm in arm with a dark-haired man, looking into the camera. Her dark hair was pinned up and she was dressed in a knee-length beaded dress, but nonetheless it was her. Alma would never forget her beautiful face, or the way the Dark Elder had threatened her in the Great Hall. Her vision blurred and she started to shake. Rubbing her eyes, she leaned in to read the small paper tag under the picture. ‘Prof. Llewellyn Davies and friend at the Christmas Social, 1927’ the legend read. Alma gasped. So this was the professor – Caleb had been right about Gwenene as well. Her eyes filled with tears. She dashed them away, studying the picture. Davies was smiling widely, looking at Gwenene as though he couldn’t believe his luck. Alma felt sick. No matter where she turned, no matter what she did, it seemed Ambeth was calling her. First her father, now this. Swallowing hard, she shook so much that she dropped the books tucked under her arm, the thud as they hit the floor jolting her back to reality. As she gathered them up, she looked around and saw the librarian looking at her disapprovingly. She mouthed ‘Sorry,’ before putting them carefully on a nearby table. Then, on legs that were barely holding her upright, she left the library and its photos behind, her mind frantic with the shock of what she had just seen.

And, th-th-th that’s all for now, folks! Thanks for reading x

 

Wednesday Wander – Portmeirion, Wales

portmeirion-2I’ve chosen to wander to the village of Portmeirion, North Wales, this week. There are a couple of reasons for doing so; one, it’s a pretty interesting place and, two, it’s fifty years ago this week since filming started on cult television series The Prisoner, which used the village as its backdrop.

portmeirion-3The Prisoner starred Patrick McGoohan as a man known only as Number Six, held prisoner in the village for reasons that remain unclear. Every week he would try to escape, and every week he would fail. The other residents of the village were also known by numbers, rather than names, and huge white balloons called Rovers floated about, preventing the inhabitants from escaping. (For more info, check out this BBC News website article). While the show only ran for seventeen episodes, it became a cult classic – Prisoner conventions are held at the village every year, and the annual music festival  is called Number Six, in homage to McGoohan’s character.

portmeirion-5But even without the bizarre alternate world of The Prisoner, Portmeirion is, as I said, a rather interesting place. Built between 1925 and 1975, it is the brainchild of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who wanted to create an homage to the Mediterranean coast. However, this particular slice of Italianate heaven is set on the rather less balmy, yet no less beautiful, North Welsh coast, where the sea shines silver under rolling clouds, mountains stretching green into the distance.

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The lush gardens and buildings have inspired many writers and musicians over the years – Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit while staying there, while Iron Maiden wrote a song called The Prisoner which included a sample of dialogue from the show. The village has also featured in videos for Supergrass, XTC and Siouxsie & The Banshees, to name a few, as well as being used in film and TV productions including Doctor Who and Cold Feet. Frank Lloyd Wright, the esteemed architect (and one of my favourites) visited the village in 1959 – the list goes on…

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I first visited Portmeirion as a child then, later, returned as an adult. It was as magical as I remembered, even on a cloudy day – the colours and shapes beautiful against the lush green shrubbery. And, hidden among the trees, my friend and I found a small pet cemetery complete with gravestones – a poignant reminder of the family who owned and lived in the village for many years. Now Portmeirion is owned by a charitable trust and you can stay in the village itself, as most of the buildings were designed, and have always been used as, a hotel and self-catering cottages. I think it might be an ideal place to go for a writing retreat – anyone interested? 😀

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

A Journey Through Ambeth, Part II

Almost a year ago, I wrote a post about the real landscapes that had inspired Oak and Mist, my first Ambeth book. With the release of Hills And Valleys, the third book in the series, that landscape has now expanded somewhat. So, with the past week being what it was, I thought I might take a wander through my fantasy world, and share it with you 🙂

I hope this isn’t too much like Toto pulling back the wizard’s curtain in Oz – I just wanted to share the landscapes I had in mind when I wrote the Chronicles. For Alma’s adventures in the human world, I used real locations – places I’d lived in or visited many times that had left an impression on me. However, when I created Ambeth, I didn’t have specific places in mind, wanting instead to write the world I could see in my mind’s eye. Later, when I looked back, I could see where the influences had come from.

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Hearst Castle, California

‘From out of an immense structure of white stone came towers topped with tiles that gleamed like mother of pearl… It shone so brightly in the sun that Alma blinked, shading her eyes.’  Oak and Mist

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Criccieth Castle, Wales

‘My heart rejoices at the thought that our old castle will guard my secret, high on its mound behind its twin-towered gate.’ Hills and Valleys

Notre Dame Doors

Doors to Notre Dame, Paris

‘The large wooden doors… were wondrously crafted, with hinges made from intricately shaped and figured metal that curved across the… wood like living things.’ Oak and Mist

Criccieth, Wales

Criccieth, Wales

‘Alma sat with Merewyn on a low wall near the jetty, looking along the curving beach to the mountains beyond.’ Hills And Valleys

Inspiration comes to us from many places. I recently walked past a grove of trees in my neighbourhood and immediately had another book idea. An unusual outside light on a neighbour’s house inspired a short story. So how about my fellow writers out there? Do you write from the real world, or gather influences to shape a new landscape? And where have you been that has inspired you?

Wednesday Wander – Llangollen Canal

I’ve just been down a tax wormhole this morning, so it’s nice to take a break and go for a wander. Today’s Wednesday Wander was selected at random – I opened IPhoto and went to the first place I saw, which is the old canal in Llangollen, North Wales.

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I’ve written about Llangollen before – it’s a place dear to my heart. My mother’s family is from that part of Wales and I remember childhood holidays spent in the are, as well as more recent trips to the small town hidden among mountains. It’s an ancient place, with the River Dee racing through, small streets of houses and the ruined castle and abbey nearby.

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I’ve walked the canal several times, though these photos were taken around this time last year, when we followed it to its source. Completed in the 19th century as part of the great British canal network, it follows the wild river waters for a way, the calm still reflections a contrast to the rushing white foam below, then continues on to the Pontycsyllte aqueduct, recently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. We walked the other way,  to the weir where the river and canal meet, a huge oak tree guarding the conjunction of waters.

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The day was cold, but the winter colours and mountains made for a beautiful walk. There’s a peace I find there like no other, so it seems an appropriate choice for today’s wander, when the myriad intricacies of even a simple tax invoice have made for a not-so-peaceful morning. Thanks for coming with me 🙂

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Beach Treasure

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I found this on the beach last year. To me it looks like a porcelain dog’s head, weathered by its time in the sea but still holding a vestige of what it once was. And it is porcelain, not just some strangely weathered stone – traces of shining crackled glaze run under its ‘chin’ and the shape seems too regular to have been made by anything other than human hands.

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The beach where I found it is in South Wales at the mouth of a river. Tidal surges combined with a point make it perfect for surfing waves, one of the reasons we were there. A small town sits on the hillside above looking out across the silver sea, but there’s nothing at the river mouth now except green flatlands intersected with twining ribbons of water, then pebbly shingle as you get closer to where it meets the sea. But there was something once. Red bricks, weathered by the waves into undulating shapes, still overlaid in places by concrete aggregate, shattered and cracked by the power of the water, hint at a large structure here once, many years ago. And that’s where the story comes in.

This little piece of porcelain speaks to me of long distance voyages, creaking timber ships laden with treasure from lands steamy with tropical heat. Crowded ports ringing with voices, languages and customs in layers too heavy and convoluted to tell apart, a glorious mix of cultures and ideas. I imagine a journey south, stopping at spice-scented ports along the way, trading until the great horn of Africa is rounded and the long haul north begins. The ship with its cargo fetching up here only for a dish or vase to drop as it’s carried to shore, shattered porcelain pieces sinking below the waves, a journey ended just moments too soon. Or perhaps someone came home from the East (for this is Chinese porcelain, I can just feel it – a little snarling dog with cloud-like curling painted ears), leaving silks and gentle customs behind to return to the green mountains and cold waters of the north, bringing treasured possessions all this way only to drop something, a crate breaking or trunk popping open at the last moment.

So even though it’s just a little piece of broken china I found on a shore, it tells me stories that take me far out into the world. I love stuff like this, the energy they contain. There is a psychic talent, if you believe in such things, called psychometry, whereby someone can tell the history of an item simply by holding it, drawing impressions from the energy it holds. Perhaps story telling is another facet of this, drawing on experiences out in the world and tying them into a narrative. I don’t know where this came from, but I can dream and think and weave what I know with what I don’t, and there lies the story. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – stories are everywhere, if you care to look for them.

PS And for those of you who think this is a bit of old meerschaum pipe, or a funny looking stone, or something completely different, let me know! This is the story it told me – perhaps it will tell you something else xx

Mountains and Surf

I took a couple of days off over the weekend.

There were a couple of reasons for doing so: the first was that I’d finally pressed ‘Publish‘ on No Quarter, the second book in my Ambeth Series. The second was that my husband had booked himself and our daughter in for sessions at Snowdonia Surf, the outdoor surf pool in North Wales.

Mountains and blue sky, taken from the car

Mountains and blue sky, taken from the car

I may have mentioned this before, but North Wales is one of my absolute favourite places on earth. Something about the landscape, the light, the grey stone and green dreaming mountains speaks to me, connecting to something deep in my bones. Most of my family come from Wales, so perhaps it is my blood calling me home – I don’t know, but whatever the case may be, I always feel a little bit like it’s Christmas morning when I’m there (and I’m a big fan of Christmas morning).

Friday night we headed out, stopping first at my parents’ house for dinner and an overnight stay, then leaving early the next morning and heading over the border into Wales. We stopped on the outskirts of Wrexham, in the small village where my grandmother was born. We were staying with family there as well, and an afternoon in Llangollen beckoned.

Canal walk

Canal walk

Our afternoon in Llangollen was lovely – the sun shone and we walked along the canal into the town centre, enjoying lunch at an ancient mill on the banks of the River Dee. A party of white water rafters became stuck in the shallows directly in front of the large restaurant terrace and bumbled around for about fifteen minutes trying to get free, to increasingly loud calls and hilarity from the crowds on the riverbank – we all clapped and cheered when they finally worked themselves loose and headed off down the river, no doubt glad to see the back of us.

The River Dee - rafters gone on their way

The River Dee – rafters gone on their way

 

After lunch we visited Courtyard Books, one of my favourite independent bookstores. After a couple of purchases we headed back along the canal to the car and I snapped a photo of Castle Dinas Bran through the trees. On my post about Rivendell last week, Barbara commented that she thought the ruins of Dinas Bran would make a great Weathertop, and I have to agree – what do you think?

You might have to zoom in a little...

You might have to zoom in a little…

 

 

The next day dawned bright and sunny and we headed off early to make our booking time. We took the A5 through Llangollen and into the mountains, driving through leafy tree tunnels opening out into valleys starting to gleam with autumn, looming mountainsides patched with bronze. I’ve driven along a few of the world’s scenic routes – the Sea to Sky Highway in Vancouver, the Great Ocean Road in Australia, the California Coast road through Big Sur and Monterey, and I have to say that I think this drive compares in beauty, especially when the sun is shining. So I was definitely in my happy place as we headed into the Conwy Valley, where the Surf Snowdonia pool is located.

IMG_2301Other than the prototype in Spain, Surf Snowdonia is the first facility of its kind in the world, and is pretty amazing. It’s a large man-made lagoon with a long pier stretching down the middle – this is where the waves are created. A large block moving along a track under the pier pushes the water ahead of it, creating a perfect surf wave. There are zones for beginner, intermediate and advanced surfers, and the fact that you have to book a time means the waves are never crowded.

IMG_2307Additionally, and a bonus for someone like me who doesn’t enjoy sitting on beaches for hours on end, there’s a very nice restaurant alongside the pool, so you can sit in comfort and watch the surfers go past. However, I found I spent a lot of time outside – the weather was so glorious and the pool so fascinating to watch I couldn’t resist.

IMG_2303The final verdict was one word: awesome! Both surfers had a great time and, as we headed home under the super moon hanging like a golden lantern in the sky, we took a moment to appreciate the weekend and all we’d experienced.

 

And now IMG_2327I’m sharing it with you 🙂

 

Heart Reflections

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Over the half term holiday a couple of weeks ago, I went to Wales to visit family. They live just near Llangollen, a small town nestled in the arms of the mountains, the river rushing through its midst.

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The River Dee from the canal path

The town hasn’t really changed since I was a small child, and I suppose hadn’t changed much even then. There are small winding streets, old stone houses and river gardens, shops where you can buy local art pottery, old books or souvenirs, tiny dragons or slate house numbers, flags and magnets and all the things we take away to decorate our homes, little bits of magic to remind us where we’ve been. A ruined castle sits high on a hill overlooking the town, as do the venerable black timbered halls of Plas Newydd, where two ladies lived together in defiance of both their families and eighteenth century convention.

We did as we always do when we visit. Walked the main street, wandering in and out of small shops where my daughter spent some carefully hoarded pounds, ate in a café (staffed by two fabulously coiffed young men), watched the River Dee as it bubbled over the rocks and under the old stone bridge. Then we went for a walk along the canal path.

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The canal was created as part of the great industrial revolution, a smooth straight stretch of water running alongside the ancient river, her waters too wild to carry the boats filled with coal and stone and supplies. The River Dee has a long chronicled history, first mentioned in the writings of Ptolemy as the River Deva, almost two thousand years ago. Deva means goddess, and the river waters were said to be sacred to the goddess of war, their ever changing path as they moved toward the boundary with England said to state which side would be victorious in any given year. So this is pretty cool stuff. In modern welsh the river is still called Dyfrdwy, which translates as ‘the waters of the goddess,’ so the tradition still holds.

I love that kind of thing.

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So off we went, walking the gravelled canal path, the ancient waters of the goddess tumbling over stones to the left of us while the canal stretched smooth and unbroken to the right. The day was bitterly cold, the foliage bare golden brown in most parts. Yet there were still signs of Spring to come – a few buds of blossom, snowdrops carpeting the opposite banks. I took some photos and talked to my mother and, as I tucked my hands in my pockets and watched my daughter dancing ahead, hand in her grandfather’s, I felt a great sense of peace. It’s the kind I get when I’m in the Welsh hills, as though I could lie down and wrap myself in the landscape. This is why I call it my heart home, I guess. There is no other place that does this for me.

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A huge old oak tree stands where the river and the canal join…

Do you have a heart home, somewhere you’d love to live if you could? If so, where would it be?