Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Titles and squirrels

Since Monday I've discovered there are at least two other books with the title Blood Feud, so maybe I'd better think of another title. I own one of them. It's non fiction by Richard Fletcher - murder and revenge in Anglo-Saxon England. He spells it as one word. The one I saw on Amazon yesterday is a crime thriller, Mafia style feuding. So. along with the hunt for a better cover, I'll hunt for a better title!

Went out for an early morning twenty minutes on the field behind the house and discovered how warm it is in the sun now. The grass is lush and green, everything is growing like crazy and it's a pleasure to be out walking. A squirrel darted along the fringe of the woods. Tim bounded after it. I wasn't sure what he would do - he hasn't actually caught anything yet, though he has finally begun to see and chase rabbits. The squirrel chose the wrong tree - one with a smooth bark - and couldn't climb. Tim chased it round the tree, snacking at it. I feared the worst when it lay on its back, quite still, little paws, with those long claws, limp on its chest.

Tim sniffed at it, but didn't volunteer to eat it. I grabbed his collar and pulled him of it. The squirrel picked itself up and stumbled away, went to another tree and vanished. I think it went up into the tree, but Tim was yelping and struggling to get after it and I didn't actually see what it did. I hope it got away. Such a little beauty. I fear we managed, between the three of us, to squash a few bluebells that have sprung up and into flower this week. I hate squashing growing things. Must be a Buddhist at heart.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Blood Feud

Happy to report that Blood Feud is well on in the editing stakes. Chapter Nine is currently getting the treatment! This is after it has been through a sharp-eyed critique group, and first read through by me, a rest of several weeks and then a second read through. Now I'm printing out a chapter at a time, reading it, making corrections....Maybe then I'll consider it OK to self-publish. OTOH, I'll need to check chapter headings are all the same, that the font doesn't vary, all those sort of technical little things that catch you out. Well, they catch me out, especially when I put something on Facebook.

I'm working on a cover, too. Not entirely happy with what I have. May start again.

The story is set in 1046  AD and these are the opening lines:

‘Thor’s teeth!’ Flane hammered his fist on the mast and gazed at the sky. Above the thatched roofs and smoking fires of Dyflin’s thousand-strong Viking community, the sky was so blue it hurt the eyes. Good sailing weather going to waste. If Oli didn’t move faster than a sick snail, they’d have to wait half a day for the next high tide to take them safely over the sand bars in the estuary. That meant yet another night in Dyflin, and more opportunity for the crew to get into trouble.

A blur of colour and movement caught his eye. Curious, he squinted through the tracery of masts and ropes that blocked his view. A small figure ran heedlessly fast along the wharf. Her fists hiked her skirt out from beneath her feet as she dodged loaded carts and leapt over creels and coils of rope in her path. Long hair, glinting gold in the sunlight, streamed out behind her. She darted towards a ship, veered away and ran toward the end of the wharf where he stood on the Sea Bird.

‘Oh, Christ, no!’ Flane swore under his breath. He was not mistaken; the girl headed straight for him.

The first cover is maybe not clear enough, though I like it. I have just this minute realised that the second cover reminds me of that iconic photo of Nessie the Loch Ness Monster done around 1933, so maybe that would work against it. What do you think?   

Friday, 18 April 2014

Self-publisher alert

The Guardian has joined forces with publisher Legend Times to award a prize every month to the best self-published novels in any genre. Alison Flood's article explains: new figures show selfies (my word for self-published!) accounted for 1 in 5 of the 80m ebooks bought in 2013. The mainstream publishing industry cannot ignore what people choose to read any longer.
Hugh Howey, Barry Eisler, Steven Berkoff and David Mamet are among the successful ebook authors.

The Guardian and Legend's new prize is open to self-published novels written in the English language – translations are also welcome – and submissions will be read by a Legend's readers' panel. They will draw up a shortlist of up to 10 titles a month that will then be read by expert judges, with the winning entry to be reviewed in the Guardian, online or in the paper.

Claire Armitstead, literary editor of the Guardian, said the paper had decided to launch the prize because "the phenomenon of self-publishing over the last couple of years has become too big for any of us to ignore". 

The prize aims to find the "brilliant" self-published books, to "bring these gems to the forefront". Tom Chalmers, MD of Legend Times thinks  "People in the publishing industry and literary awards in general are often too quick to disregard the work of self-published authors, missing the wealth of creativity and innovative writing there is out there." 
He added,  "We are hoping to be a magnet to find the needle in the haystack. Everyone has a computer these days, and everyone is writing, which is brilliant, but it also means the market is completely flooded. That makes it quite hard if you don't have a natural social media presence to get your work to the top, and to get noticed."

Submissions for the Guardian Legend Times Self-Published Novel of the Month will be open for the first fortnight of each calendar month, with the exception of this month's submission period, which will run from April 8-18. Authors can submit one novel a month, in any fictional genre. The book must have been self-published after 31 December 2011.

Once the readers have winnowed submissions down to a shortlist, a panel of experts, featuring the literary agent Andrew Lownie, Legend Press's commissioning editor Lauren Parsons, traditionally published author Stuart Evers and HarperCollins-author-turned-DIY-poster-girl Polly Courtney, will choose each month's winner.

Armitstead added: "It's all too easy to dismiss the self-publishing sector as a wilderness of elves, sex and high-school romcoms, but we know from the emergence of novels such as Sergio de la Pava's A Naked Singularity – a book we'd love to have discovered – that 'there's gold in them thar hills'. So we're embracing the frontier spirit and setting off to pan for it."

• Entries for April should be sent to by April 18, with "Self-Published Book of the Month Submission" in the subject line. You can find more details of eligibility, terms and conditions here.

• How to enter the Guardian Legend self published book of the month competition


Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Men and Reading

Caroline Carpenter reports in  the Bookseller that 63% of men rarely read. I wanted to cheer when I saw the headline, because the man I live with finds reading a chore. He'll be delighted to hear he is not alone!

 The Reading Agency commissioned the survey of 2,000 UK men and women which discovered - if surveys can be believed, of course - that men prefer to watch film instead. The reasons (excuses!) given were - too busy, did not enjoy reading, preferred doing the internet. One in five men admitted to pretending to have read a specific title in order to appear more intelligent. It also emerged that 30%  have not picked up a book since their school days. Men read more slowly, read fewer books and  are less likely to finish them than women. If all this is true, I am left wondering why so many literary critics are male. Why not more females writing up the reviews in the press since we do more reading?

World Book Night, where volunteers hand out thousands of free books to reluctant readers in their communities, is coming up on April 23rd. The focus this year is on men who aren’t reading enough.
The list of books was selected with young men in mind:-

Hello Mum by Bernardine Evaristo (Quick Read) (Penguin General)
Four Warned by Jeffrey Archer (Quick Read) (Macmillan)
A Perfect Murder by Peter James (Quick Read) (Macmillan)
Today Everything Changes by Andy McNab (Quick Read)(Transworld)
Short Stories by Roald Dahl (Michael Joseph)
CHERUB: The Recruit by Robert Muchamore (Hachette Children’s)
Theodore Boone by John Grisham (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Humans by Matt Haig (Canongate)
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne (Vintage)
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith (Simon & Schuster)
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (Transworld)
Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch (Orion)
After the Funeral by Agatha Christie (HarperCollins)
Whatever it Takes by Adele Parks (Headline)
Geezer Girls by Dreda Say Mitchell (Hodder & Stoughton)
Black Hills by Nora Roberts (Little, Brown)
Getting Rid of Matthew by Jane Fallon (Michael Joseph)
The Boy With the Topknot by Sathnam Sanghera (Penguin General)
59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman (Macmillan)
Confessions of a GP by Dr Benjamin Daniels (The Friday Project).

Once again, women lose out. Next year, why not celebrate women who read?

Monday, 14 April 2014

Indie wars and statistics

The BBC published a lengthy article last autumn on current publishing in the UK, with some comparison statistics showing US and UK differences. Figures vary - as statistics always do! - depending who is writing, what the angle is and which figures they decide to quote. But the general trend is always the same - e-books are expanding their market share. The graphics are clear.

There's also a wonderful argument going on at :

Basically there are several groups in the US who think there is, and should be, a distinction between self-published authors and traditionally-published authors. In order to join such organisations, you have to earn say, $1,000 over a calendar year.

"The Published Authors Network has strict requirements on who can join their organization. You have to earn $1,000 in the form of an advance on a single Eligible Novel. Or you have to earn $1,000 in the form of royalties or a combination of advance plus royalties on a single published Eligible Novel. Finally, you have to pull in $5,000 in the form of earnings for a Self-Published novel."

The "author" of the article goes on at length, and the comments section that follows is a hoot. But seriously, if this goes through, UK authors are going to struggle to gain a foothold in the US. Our much smaller market place makes it very difficult to earn such an amount in such a time. With a new book from an unknown author, it strikes me as virtually impossible. 

Friday, 11 April 2014

A Scottish break

We sneaked away for a quiet, two-night break in a wonderful hotel right on the sea at Crinan. We went last November, and took Tim. We thought we could slide in without too much upheaval before Easter and the summer hordes crowded the place out. (It doesn't take many, because the place is so small!)  There were a lot more craft in the basin than we saw in the last week of October, so I guess yachtsmen are waking up and stretching their muscles for the coming season.

The weather was mild, breezy and prone to rain showers. On the second day, the clouds were low and grey, covering everything, but I still took lots of pictures. I see beauty in the damp grey misty hillsides, and calendar pictures and the like rarely show these. On the other hand, it can look drear and plain depressing.

We gave Tim a good walk before setting off and another beside Loch Lomond, and he travelled well. As long as we didn't stop, he slept, so a lot of my pictures are taken from the car as we drove along. Means we didn't always get the best viewpoint, but at least the pics are interesting.

We arrived about 2.30pm. It's a 5 hour drive, so we bundled straight out onto the towpath beside the canal for a long walk. We needed some fresh air, and Tim certainly needed the exercise. Primroses peeped out all along the verges, and now and then we saw a daffodil clump. Hedgerow birds sang and seashore birds  warbled. Two swans sailed sedately on the seaward side of the towpath and the canal was dark and still with no traffic. The sun ducked in and out of cloud, and on the way back we sheltered under some trees as a rain squall went over.

Back to a hot bath, a seafood dinner in the bar trying to keep Tim quiet under the table, and then out for another walk. Slept like a log after all that.

Remember you can click on the pic to enlarge it. This quaint little bridge is in Glen Kinglas, between Cairndow and Arrochar.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Breaking the Union

Some of the questions concerning the Scottish vote for independence are catching my interest. We've had holidays of varying lengths in Scotland ever since I started driving a car many years ago. But now Dh swears if they go independent he will never cross the border again. I'm not altogether sure if he really means it, but the idea of a border control on the top of Carter Bar, or customs barriers across the A74 strike me as fairly ridiculous. But if they vote Yes, then Scotland will no longer be part of the UK, and nor will they be part of the EU. They will have to apply for membership. Since the UK is part of the EU, then Scotland will become "a foreign country" and barriers will be required.

Will they start producing passports? Minting their own money? In the sixteenth century the Scottish pound was worth a lot less than the English pound. Maybe that didn't matter so much back then, but if it happens now, people south of the border will be refusing Scottish currency as too difficult to handle. Holidaymakers still prepared, unlike my Dh, to go north, will be scratching their heads over how to pay the bills.

They'll have to issue Driving licences, too. Will they continue to drive on the left, or opt to be contrary and drive on the right? I can see confusion ahead on the A1 as you leave Berwick. What about the Pennine Way which crosses the border into Scotland? Barriers there too? Do they have barriers on railway lines? I don't know. Will Scottish lorries have to pay to drive on English roads as they thunder down to the ferry terminals?

I read somewhere recently that 83% of the population of the UK lives in England. If that is true, it means 17%  covers Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. People here in England are beginning to ask why they don't have a vote on whether Scotland stays or goes. I think I can guess what they would say! Scots living in England, and there are lots of them, are asking why they don't have a vote. I'm asking why 16 year-olds in Scotland have a vote when the usual voting age is 18. Does Mr Salmond think he needs them to bolster the Yes vote? I wonder.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Cooking, Burial Rites and daffodils

Today is a day when hiding away in my study is preferable to being in the kitchen. We have guests coming to morrow for a meal, and preparing for six over three or four courses is not something that happens easily in this house. I have friends who cater for ten or more without turning a hair because they've grown up with large families - or they love cooking - but my culinary skills have been for a max of two most of the time. Therefore knowing how many potatoes or carrots six people will eat is a nightmare of guesswork for me. Quite often tempers flare....

On another subject I listened to Hannah Kent  talk about her book Burial Rites last night at the Forum Bookshop in Corbridge. I first heard about this from Helen in Australia, last year, I think, (Hi Helen!) but I still haven't read it. The subject matter intrigues me, but I pull away from depressing subjects, and the story of a woman who is beheaded for murder can't be other than depressing. The reading last night was short, but full of misery, which confirmed my feelings! There is enough misery in the world without giving myself bad dreams by reading about it.

However, it was a joy to listen to Hannah, who is 28 - young, personable and super articulate. Her stories of her time in Iceland and subsequently writing the book were full of fun even though the events didn't sound as if they were much fun at the time. I did wonder if writing such a depressing story had any sort of effect upon Hannah herself, but didn't ask the question. I should have done. She "lived with" the story for eleven years from first hearing about it to finishing the book. As with many stories of debut publishers and bestsellers, she admits to a lot of luck in finally reaching the goal of publication.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Digital Revolution

An article by Gaby Wood begins with the statement that Sir Tim Waterstone, who once owned a chain of bookshops, thinks ebooks will go into decline. They've suffered a decline in the USA, and so he thinks it inevitable that the UK will follow a similar trend.

At a guess, booksellers probably dream wistfully of the digital book's demise. But what about the other groups who have a more than passing interest? I don't think any of the other three  - Writers, Publishers or Readers - would want such a thing.

 Ms Wood thinks it depends on whether ebooks give us what we want. "Do they inspire us, and open our minds to new ways of thinking, as they certainly could? For the most part, no. Early on in the life of the Kindle, digital versions of commercial fiction replaced sales of paperbacks, and publishers had to adapt quickly. As a result, they now tend to think of digital books and printed books as different versions of the same thing. If they really saw the possibilities of the ebook and the virtues of the printed book for what they are, publishers would know the two forms are only very vaguely related."

I agree she has a point. But do I want gimmicky  enhancements locked into a book I'm reading? Call me an old throwback, but no, I certainly do not. For me a book is something with which I commune in silence and as I read, the characters live and breathe in my imagination. I don't want my interpretation of a character to be totalled because the publisher decided some Hollywood or Pop culture icon should speed onto the screen every time the hero is mentioned. I want to visualise my own hero, thank you very much.

People under 25 may clamour for such enhancements. If they do, I shall fear that their imaginations have atrophied under the barrage of  tv, film and media games, if not under the barrage of sound they receive these days. I'm surprised cinemas don't crumble away under the almost constant rumble of what I call "ultrasound" - that low rumble that accompanies every key moment, or the sudden bombardment that presages a moment of high drama. It's enough to make you think the Fire Drummers of Japan have got locked in the cinema basement. It's on so many tvs now, so there's no escape. Go upstairs to get some peace and you can still hear the ultrasound reverberating through the house even thought the dialogue is silent.

Ms Wood claims "There is so much material – visual, historical, musical, vocal – that can bring a text to life digitally," and I shudder to think what she has in mind. Her closing sentence is worrying -
"Thinking of ebooks and printed books as comparable is like assuming that anything conveyed by means of the written word is a poem.... Publishers have got to stop thinking of their digital products as “books”, and start imagining more expansive ways of communicating information. Until then, the digital revolution hasn’t even begun." 

Friday, 28 March 2014

Rain and writing.

Today I am trapped indoors by the pouring rain. I got drenched yesterday, and wet this morning in ten minutes out with Tim, so now I'm waiting for 2pm. Thats when the forecast says it will stop raining. It can't come soon enough. I have for company one large dog who doesn't want to go out in the rain, but has loads of energy to use up somehow. Currently he is devoted to trying to steal my bacon sandwich.
Actually, I'm not telling the strict truth. Tim would go out, rain or no rain. I don't want to, because the field is wet, squelchy and full of puddles. The paths by the riverside - and anywhere else, for that matter - will be slippery mud. Dangerous, and we'll both come back home covered in mud. I've had too much of that lately.
He may not mind the rain, and he loves the mud, but he hates getting his paws and belly washed when we get home. My floors and carpets demand that he put up with it, but its not without a struggle.
So I'm concentrating on my writing.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Castle against the Scots

Outer Gatehouse
For anyone who isn’t familiar with the area, Carlisle is at the western end of Hadrian’s wall in modern day Cumbria, only fourteen miles from the present day border with Scotland. Strategically placed at the northern end of a steep bluff, the castle overlooks the confluence of the Rivers Caldew and Eden at the northernmost tip of Carlisle city centre.  With 800 years of continuous military use under its belt, it has functioned as the first line of defence against marauding Scottish armies and as a focal point for English military campaigns against the Scots.
As early as AD 70, there was a turf and timber Roman fort, known as Luguvalium, on the site of the present castle. Excavations discovered a waterlogged and remarkably well preserved timber gateway, and located parts of the west and south defences of this fort which extended as far south as Abbey Street and Castle Street in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. After AD 330, there is little information to be had, though crudely built stone structures dating to the late 4th century have been found where the present- day barracks stand.

In 1092 William II built a timber and earth construction (motte and bailey) and thirty years later Henry I gave money to fortify the town with 'a castle and towers.' During the next decade the city walls were built and construction began on the stone keep which is built upon the central and northern half of the Roman fort. The siege of 1217 damaged the castle, but luckily the Scottish wars meant Edward I ordered repairs which were completed by 1290.
The main keep was completed by the Scottish King, David I. He occupied the castle for almost twenty years from 1135 until his death in 1153. In 1157 Carlisle came under English control once more, and has stayed there ever since. In 1163 Henry II built a stone outer curtain pierced by a new southern gate.* A waterlogged moat in front of the south curtain wall added extra defence. Access across the ditch was by a stone bridge. The parapets of the bridge are modern, but the lower part of the bridge is medieval. An earlier timber drawbridge rested on stone walls. 
Henry visited the castle again in 1186 when he commissioned a new chamber for his personal use. In 1216 King John's barons rose against him, Carlisle sided with the northerners and the city welcomed the Scottish army led by Alexander II. Maunsell's Tower, William de Ireby's Tower, and the tower over the inner gate were destroyed and not rebuilt.

*The outer gatehouse was also known as de Ireby's Tower. The Gatehouse was substantially altered between 1378-83. Residential quarters for the Constable of the castle were here, as a key administrative, financial and judicial centre for the county. In the west tower of the outer gatehouse there is an anteroom - now used as the ticket office and sales area - the steward's room with a garderobe, a gaoler's room with a garderobe, and a windowless dungeon. A mural stair (built within the thickness of the wall and open on one side) leads to a kitchen on the first floor, with a door leading to the barbican walk and a service area. The reconstructed solar lies above the service area. Above the passageway is the hall where there are remains of a large hooded fireplace.
The portcullis housing can be seen in the wall recess. Below the solar are two rooms, probably used as a prison, and a garderobe. The castle became the headquarters of the Warden of the March and also continued to accommodate Cumberland's sheriff. In 1378 work began on the rebuilding of the outer gatehouse to provide suitable lodgings for these magnates.  In 1430 funds were again made available for Carlisle's defences and a good deal of this money was spent on cannons.
The old building work (as opposed to Victorian interventions) consists of two lengths of Carlisle city wall adjacent to the curtain walls of the castle, the towers and outer gatehouse, with the bridge over the moat, and an inner ward with its gatehouse, keep, ditch, and curtain walls. The Main gate was rebuilt circa 1380.  Carlisle became the centre of the English West March from 1422, and sums were allocated to ensure that Carlisle remained defensible. The inner gatehouse (aka the Captain's Tower) went up mid-C14. In 1483, when Richard III was Lieutenant of the North and in charge of Carlisle, he ordered the building of the Tile Tower. 
Main Keep

In 1538  Henry VIII's reign was under threat from Catholic Europe, and defences were required against Scotland, which always insisted on offering a backdoor into England to any European monarch. In 1541, Stefan von Haschenperg replaced the keep's medieval battlements with gun embrasures. He backed the inner bailey walls to the north and west with ramparts wide enough to carry guns, and built the half-moon battery.
To the west of the inner bailey lies the large outer bailey. A ditch, originally waterlogged, separates the two baileys and provided additional defence for the inner bailey. Protruding into this ditch immediately in front of the inner gatehouse is the half-moon battery built in 1542. It comprised a double row of guns; at ground level cannon fire would have raked the outer bailey, whilst below a number of square openings allowed defenders to fire on assailants attempting to cross the ditch.
I’m recording this information because the castle features in my story set in 1546 - Capture A Queen! When Matho and Harry walked into the Gatehouse to meet with Sir Thomas Wharton, the rooms were already 166 years old!
I've toured the castle, bought the booklets, taken photographs, climbed nooky stone stairways and looked at carvings made by prisoners. It all helps to set my characters in believable places.



Sunday, 23 March 2014

Linky Links

Blame Ginger Simpson for this blatant piece of promotion! Ginger runs a blog called Dishin' It Out, which you will find here:  Her Linky Links spot gives authors a chance to shine by showing six paragraphs from one of their stories. I said I'd give it a go, so hopefully I can welcome several visitors to my blog who would otherwise never have found me.

My six paras are from a story called  Capture A Queen, which is as yet unpublished but currently going up, chapter by chapter, on Wattpad. Never been to Wattpad? Well, here's the link:

Perhaps I should say that Englishman Matho Spirston sets out to kidnap an infant Scottish Queen and falls foul of Meg Douglas, the half Scots, half English niece of Henry VIII.

He regarded her warily.

She chuckled, a gentle sound in the back of her throat. ‘There’s no need to be suspicious, or afraid. I am not about to seduce you.’

Yet already she stared at his mouth as if savouring its taste. Her shoulder touched his. Not roughly, but the move brought her closer enough for him to smell her warmth and perfume. He knew what would happen if he allowed himself to reciprocate. Already his body anticipated pleasure.

Drawn by the invitation in her eyes, he leaned closer and savoured her moist breath, tentatively matched his lips to hers. Warmth curled through him. Her fingertips rose to his shoulder, his throat, his jaw, trailed to the back of his neck, and threaded through his hair. As with any country girl of his acquaintance, he waited, letting his mouth do the work; then with the lightest of touches, his fingers drifted to her bosom, found the ridge of her corset and massaged the flesh of her breast above it.

A swift intake of breath rewarded his play, and her kiss deepened. Matho sought the edges of her bodice, pushed down and ran his fingers over the swelling stub of her nipple, round and over, and over and round again.

He wanted more, much more. He found her laces, slackened them and her bodice gaped an invitation. Lured by the mounds of her breasts, he ducked his head and grazed his teeth over her flesh. Her palm cupped the back of his head and pressed down, and somewhere among the wildness of his heartbeat, the small cries coming from her throat, and the plaintive whines of the puzzled dog, he heard the sound of hoof beats.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Castles for courses

Of course, there are castles, and castles. Small castles at the business end of things, like Harbottle in Northumberland, only 5 kilometres from the border with Scotland, had few amenities. The name Hirbottle was first recorded in the thirteenth century, and probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon here-botl which means ‘army building.’ The castle towers over the major medieval highway into Scotland - Clennell Street - making it a point of strategic as well as tactical importance. The stone keep on the motte and the East and West bailey are surrounded by a curtain wall, and it was very much a working front-line castle. When Queen Margaret of Scotland gave birth to her daughter Meg Douglas here in 1515, there were hardly any women present to tend her.

Warkworth is a castle of a different kind. It began life as most castles did, with a walled enclosure and a shell keep on top of the motte. This was replaced about 1380 by a great tower of cut stone in which the service, public and withdrawing chambers are lit by different forms of window, and the earl’s bedroom is marked externally by a sculpture of a rampant lion, the heraldic emblem of the family. It was almost certainly designed by John Lewyn, who worked on Durham Cathedral in 1353 and was responsible for the great kitchen with its fine star vault. In 1368 Lewyn worked on Bamburgh Castle, and probably oversaw the erection of the Neville screen in the Cathedral in 1380. The screen was designed and built in London from Caen stone and shipped to Durham via Newcastle, and probably gave Lewyn the idea for the decorative crown of the great tower and watch tower at Warkworth.

The tower forms a Greek cross with four polygonal wings radiating from the central block. (In simple terms, imagine a small square surrounded by a larger square. Then visualise four small squares projecting outwards, one from each of the four sides of the larger square.) It was planned using a unit of measurement sometimes called a rod, a pole or a perch – 16 feet six inches.

In 1471 Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, ordered another re-organisation. Splendid porch towers were built over the hall and great chamber, the one over the hall bearing the modern and ancient arms of the family. The masons involved had also worked on York Minster. Work was interrupted by the murder of the earl in 1489. It seems the earl’s decision not to commit to the Battle of Bosworth until a winner had emerged so disgusted his household that they abandoned him to a mob during a tax riot.

For more information and plans that show the complexity of the building, try the website: Warkworth

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Necessities of castle life

Latrines are usually called garderobes in historical fiction, but they had other names – Gang, orgong, cloacum, neccessarium, reredorter and jake, which is the French form of john or jonny. The Welsh used tŷ bach  (it means a small or private place). Another popular name was the privy.

Privies varied from a hole in the ground to grand, purpose built structures – a wooden bench with a hole cut into it, or sometimes stone seats, inside a small, private space. Lids with handles were used to drop across the hole, and earth or sand was kept to throw in; often both were required in an effort to dampen the smells. Henry VIII had sand in his jake at Dover Castle. Gongscouring was a recognised trade by the 16th century. I don't know about you, but can't help but shudder at the thought of a stone toilet seat on a frosty January morning...

Usually the latrine cubicle projected out over the castle walls, and excrement piled up below. Someone (the poor gongscourer) had to go around at frequent intervals and shift it. Sometimes a chute or shaft inside the walls drained into a cesspit. In this case, latrines were necessarily grouped together at one spot in the castle. Rainwater was often directed from rooftops to the chutes to clean them out. Hampton Court had a communal House of Easement which was two stories high. “Pissing places” were common and at Greenwich Palace an effort was made to stop this habit by whitening the walls and painting red crosses on them in the belief that no Christian would piss against the Holy Cross. 

From the 15th century on, toilet arrangements within private chambers featured a chair or stool with a pot included below the seat – a close stool – and the pot would be regularly cleaned out by servants. (I imagine they emptied the contents over the castle walls! Certainly that happened at Stirling Castle in the sixteenth century.)

Water was a necessity for life within the castle. Several wells were included at most residences. The deepest well in England goes down 330 feet, (100 metres) and such depth requires a mechanism to lift the heavy bucket full of water to the surface. Systems of pulleys and counter balances were used. Rainwater was also stored in cisterns at roof level and lead pipes were in use from 1300 onwards.

Fireplaces have been found in English castles as early as 1081, but they were unlike modern fireplaces in that they projected out into the room they heated, and they did not have a chimney. The smoke escaped through small holes in the external wall at the back of the fireplace. By the early twelfth century, builders had devised a flue that carried smoke to an external chimney on the roof. By the fourteenth century, fireplaces lost their projecting hoods and were recessed into the wall, usually on a long wall, and often off-centre, so they were closer to the “higher” end of the hall. In France, the practice was to place the fireplace behind the dais, thus keeping the noble family warm. 

Decoration included abstract patterns cut into the stone in the twelfth century and heraldry made its appearance in the later middle ages. The decoration of fireplaces never transferred to internal doorways in English architecture, possibly because wall hangings and tapestries often obscured doorways. In direct contrast, the French habit, commonplace by the fifteenth century, was to extensively decorate door mouldings.

Lighting was difficult in castles. Most light sources were portable, either suspended as chandeliers of wood, brass or iron. Small wall niches are found in stone walls of corridors and latrines. Lamps could be mounted on projecting brackets in smaller chambers, usually to either side of the fireplace.

Monday, 17 March 2014

A typical nobleman's house

The typical nobleman’s house contained kitchens, communal space, withdrawing rooms and a chapel. In the early days, each function may have been housed in separate buildings, but by the 12th century the separate parts began to come together in one building.

The Great Hall had services (ie kitchen, pantry, buttery) at one end and the withdrawing space (ie  one withdrew from the hall into a private space reserved for the family members ) at the other. The Great Hall goes back into legend – Beowulf awaited Grendel in the Great Hall. Built of timber, with a huge open timber roof – ie no upper storey, the halls were built on the same plan for a thousand years, in differing scales and in every form of dwelling. Wood gave way to stone. Gradually castles expanded and life went out of great halls and into withdrawing spaces, but we still have a hall, which is the space a visitor first sees on entering our homes today.

In the middle ages, the entrance to the hall was through a porch in one of the long sides of the hall. A “screens passage” led the visitor to the hall itself. Timber screens or partitions on one side of the corridor closed off the view of the hall. Two doors led from the passage to the “low status” end of the hall; on the other side of the passage, there would be three doors – one to the kitchen, another to the pantry and the third into the buttery. The old French word for buttery was bouteillerie which was where they stored their casks and bottles. The pantry  was the bread room where a pile of stale loaves would be stored to use as trenchers - used instead of plates. The kitchen would be a long way from the hall because of the need for huge fires and the consequent fire risk. Often a passageway between the buttery and the pantry led to the kitchen. If not, then the scullions would have to go outside in the open air to reach the kitchen - or the whole carcase roasting in the open air.

A step ran across the width of the hall and separated the nobility from the hoi polloi. At the end furthest from the screens passage, beyond the step, was a raised dais at the “high” end of the hall where the lord and lady and their family sat. After the fourteenth century it was often lit by a projecting bay or an oriel window. Behind the dais a door led to the withdrawing chambers beyond. The open fireplace was in the centre of the hall, and smoke escaped via an opening in the roof. Fireplaces were common in other dwellings by the fourteenth century, but halls persisted with the central hearth.

Trestle tables, set lengthwise along the walls, were set up for meals while the head of the household sat at a single high table that ran across the width of the dais. There would be several “sittings” for meals in large households, and by the fourteenth century the head of the house most likely ate in his withdrawing chamber.