Friday, 29 October 2010


When the king ordered castles to be slighted, he wanted them razed to the ground, but sometimes the task was too much and the demolition gang took down only part of the walls. Before the castle could be used defensibly, it had to be restored.
Knights came back from the crusades with ideas about buildings, ideas they’d seen first hand in the Holy Land.
In Romanesque castles and churches, windows were built with rounded arches and passages were roofed with barrel-vaults or groined vaults. Pointed arches suddenly appeared, and Gothic was here to stay. A pointed arch was found to be far more flexible architecturally, and led to rib-vaulting, first used in Durham Cathedral before 1133.
Castles became circular in shape, because the right-angled corner of the old square keeps was all too easy to undermine, and defenders could only see straight ahead through the narrow window slits. Circular castles, with towers that commanded views of all parts made defence easier, and attack harder. Castles built in Henry II’s reign incorporated these new ideas, and often added in small kitchens for making sauces and keeping food hot. Big outdoor timber kitchens still coped with the roasts and the bulk of the cooking.
The pic is Elsdon Bastle House, now a private dwelling.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Crenels and

Then castles began to get really complex.
Henry I allowed his nobles to build castles, and forebuildings (also called a barbican, or hornwork) made their appearance, projecting out sometimes twenty feet to protect the castle's main gate. The base of the forebuilding might have a trapdoor through which unlucky prisoners were dropped into a dank cell, and the upper floor, by contrast, made a good chapel. The roof area became a fighting platform in time of need. Formidable defences were built into the area around the entrance. A drawbridge plus pit was near normal, a portcullis which slid down into place at the drop of a lever an enviable extra.

There was often a stone passage way leading to a second, internal gate, and one or the other, sometimes both, had murder holes above so the inmates could throw down whatever they fancied on the men attempting to break in.

Farmhouses on the English side of the border needed to fortify when the Scots continued to attack, and Aydon's owners received permission to crenellate from the king. At the top of castles, there is usually a walk way, or wall-walk, sometimes called an allure, or an alure depending on your choice of spellings. Sometimes there’re on the inside, and men hide behind the stone merlons of the parapet, and shoot through crenels or gaps in the parapet. At other castles it was possible to step through the crenels onto timber boards running outside the castle walls. The structure looked like a timber roofed gallery running around the outside of the castle, and it allowed the men inside to shoot arrows and drop damaging items on their enemies below. If the enemy tried to burn down the gatehouse doors, hoardings allowed men to pour water down and put out the fire.

A lot of thought went into making castles impregnable, but the unbelievable did happen. One castle went into siege mode only to find that the stream feeding the vital well dried up due to the hot weather, and this happened not once, but twice.
The first pic looks west from the curtain wall towards Alwinton. The second looks down from the motte towards the river Coquet running fast beneath the trees on the north side of the castle. The sheep were anxious to get away from us interlopers in their nice green domain.

Monday, 25 October 2010


Before the Norman invasion, castles and defensive buildings had been built in wood. Timber palisades were built around defensive buildings on the top of a motte, or mound of earth. Domestic buildings were often outside, below the motte, but if the place was attacked, everyone fled inside and hurled stones and arrows at the attackers.
Once the Normans started building in stone, castle architecture moved ahead in leaps and bounds. Stone curtain walls enclosed the bailey, sometimes called courtyard or ward, and protected the domestic buildings and formed a first line of defence for the castle. Any towers built into the curtain wall were called mural towers. Sometimes the curtain wall had a gatehouse tower that acted as the keep, or strongest building in the castle. There was always a postern gate in the curtain wall to allow for a night time escape from a difficult situation.
Tower keeps followed, and slowly domestic functions moved from the bailey into the tower keep. Strong, rectangular towers, usually higher than they were wide, with the hall, reached by an outside staircase, on one floor and the Great Chamber, or solar, providing the living accommodation for the lord and his family, on the next storey. Latrine shafts emptied into ditches, or deep pits like the one at Richmond in Yorkshire, said to be so deep it never had to be cleaned out. No convenient ditch or pit? Then some unlucky person had to remove the disgusting piles from the bottom of the latrine shaft.

There was always a chapel, but they sometimes remained in the bailey.
Hall-keeps appeared. Usually wider than they were high, they brought the Great chambers and the hall together on the same floor, with a latrine, or garderobe, not far away. Hall, Great Chamber, chapel, keep and storerooms now fitted into the one rectangular tower. Walls were often 14 feet thick, with slit windows on the lower levels. Larger windows appeared higher, well out of reach of scaling ladders. Storerooms needed to be vast and hold food to see the occupants through a siege. A well was a necessity. Now they were found on the inside, accessed through the storerooms.
The French called a hall-keep a donjon and the word corrupted into dungeon, often associated with prisoners.
Kitchens were often ignored. Cooking was done over open hearths and in timber kitchens outside in the bailey. Square keeps of this period, like Newcastle, often had a gallery running through the thickness of the walls at the upper storey level. Openings let in daylight, and provided a view of the countryside; a man could turn and look down on the activity in the hall below him.
Royal castles housed a garrison, always on the lower floor. If the lord was not in residence, then a skeleton staff remained: the castellan, or constable, the man in charge, his household, the chaplain, a few soldiers, a watchman and a porter.
The first pic shows the ditch surrounding the curtain wall at Harbottle, and the second looks north to Scotland from the meadows around the outer bailey on the west side of the castle.

Friday, 22 October 2010

The sad castle

Harbottle Castle was built by the Umfraville family on the order of Henry II around 1120. A major medieval route into Scotland, Clennel Street, passes Harbottle, and the Roman Road from Low Learchild to High Rochester crosses the valley at Holystone a few miles to the south. Only 12 miles from the border, it was well used to Scottish aggression.
The motte is located on the south side of a kidney-shaped bailey, later divided into two halves by a crosswall defining the inner and outer bailey.
Large sandstone blocks bonded with hard grey-brown gritty mortar made up the crosswall, which was reported as 9 yards high in 1536. It once had a tower at the Nort-east corner. Back in 1318 damage by the Scots under Robert the Bruce was so severe that no building was left at Harbottle to contain prisoners of Redesdale justice and Prudhoe Castle, also an Umfraville property and some distance away on horseback, was used for the next twenty years.
By 1400 Harbottle Castle was habitable and defensible again, and housed 20 men-at-arms and 40 archers. In 1432 conscript builders and labourers restored the castle walls. In 1435 the Umfraville line died out for lack of an heir, and the castle passed through the female line to the Tailbois family in Norfolk. Like most absentee landlords, the family spent neither time nor money at Harbottle. William Tailbois fought for the Lancastrians at the battle of Hexham in 1464, and was executed in Newcastle.
By 1509 Lord Dacre was in residence and in 1515 ex-Queen Margaret Tudor-Stewart fled from Edinburgh to the Border where she was met by Lord Dacre and escorted to Harbottle. She gave birth to Lady Margaret Douglas within a fortnight of her arrival.
By 1523 the castle was in sore decay once more and by 1538 it was declared unfit for the Keeper of Redesdale to inhabit. But as the Anglo-Scottish wars developed around 1543, the Castle was required and repairs were made. Harbottle passed into the care of King Henry in 1546. More repairs, and provision made for artillery. By 1552 it was reported as the best residence for a Warden of the Middle Marches. Elizabeth spent money on it, but by 1604, when the crowns had merged, there was little use for Harbottle and decay began in earnest. By the 1700s stone was quarried away to build new homes in the village.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Harbottle Castle

Start reading about castles and strange words start to bounce off the page as you carry on reading. Then you get to the end of the passage and if you are like me, ask yourself, “What did that actually tell me?”
The words are so specialised that no one but architects, and historians with a modicum of curiosity about old buildings will ever understand them. Authors can get tangled up in words like Gothic, Keeps, Tracery and Barbicans. I did, and I’ve spent the last two days digging around in the literature about medieval castles in an effort to understand.
Tracery, for example. It is intersecting ribwork in the upper part of a window. It can be used decoratively in blank arches, on vaults, etc. And that’s not all. Plate tracery is an early form where decoratively shaped openings are cut through the solid stone infilling in a window head. Bar tracery, introduced into England around 1250, where intersecting ribwork made up of slender shafts continuing the lines of the mullions of the windows up to a decorative mesh in the head of the window. Lost yet? I hope not, for we still must consider Geometrical tracery, Y tracery, Intersecting tracery, Reticulated tracery, Panel tracery and Perp tracery. Oh, and mustn’t forget Dagger tracery, Kentish or Split Cusp, and the intriguingly named Mouchette, a leaf shape which lies flauntingly off to one side.

Ignore these words at your peril. Gothic windows are defined by their pointed arches, yes, but then there was the tracery.
I spent a happy day on Sunday prowling around Harbottle Castle in Coquetdale. A brilliant day, a lovely drive full of autumn colours, and a four mile walk beside the Coquet to round off the afternoon. The Castle had - you’ve guessed it! – at least one Gothic window, because remnants of the tracery have been found among the fallen stones at the bottom of the motte.
Tomorrow I shall hastily go through my already written pages and redesign my version of Harbottle Castle, ignoring the fact that my hero languishes in an upper story where a fire has broken out. Time to rescue him when I've sorted ou the windows.
And then, of course, there are all those other details I've discovered about the gate towers, the drawbridge. and the well in the inner bailey. I didn't know there was a drawbridge when I wrote the chapter!

Monday, 18 October 2010

Reality v fiction

A rare pic of me at the GNI last Friday. Interesting questions come up at the Girls' Nights In and the evening at Haltwhistle was no exception. How do we get our ideas? Simple question, but it makes you think, really think, about where ideas come from and how we execute them. Most historical writers claim to love history, yet there are some books being written today, someone said, that made her think that the writer didn't understand the period she'd been writing.

It is sometimes hard enough to understand our neighbours and next to impossible to understand people ten years younger than ourselves. Does any forty-year-old really understand why twenty-year-olds think as they do? What makes some of them get absolutely plastered? Why drink at home before they go out, so that they are half-way to plastered before they hit the streets? Why do they need artificial stimulants before they can have a good time? Why do football matches turn into battle zones? Why are bankers so greedy?

Understanding how someone living in Regency times understood her/his world is therefore doubly difficult. Then it was fear of French invasion and a strict code of manners and morals. In Tudor England, it is a struggle to understand the stranglehold the church had on minds and hearts, or why burning at the stake was thought to be such a cleansing thing. I wonder how many of us would die at the stake for our beliefs today? Are the Scots still The Enemy, as they were then? (I look at Alex Salmon and wonder) Or the Norman French, who overan England, and relegated the indigenous population to starvation, death or serfdom. We go there for holidays now and we're all great friends, so how can we really understand what it was like then?

All writers have a debt of honour to those who have gone before to get it reasonably right. Therefore, as many have said before me, heroines who live in 1803 and behave as if they live in 2010 are just not on.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Font Wars

When IKEA changed the font it used last year - when it replaced its old faithful Futura with the more modern Verdana - the company found itself embroiled in a “font war”. Not only were customers vexed about this unwanted attempt to “refresh the brand”, but there was also much rudeness on websites dedicated to graphic design. Wikipedia soon had a page called “Verdanagate”. People, it seems, had discovered they cared about something they had never knowingly cared about before.

When I read this piece over the weekend, I acknowledged that I like some fonts and hated others. Don't care for Courier, as it happens, and like Times New Roman though I am coming around to Bookman Old Style. Close on the heels of that thought, came another: if fonts mean so much to people, what happens if we send in a submission to an agent or publisher, and it is in a font the receiver loathes? Does the submission go straight in the bin? It may well be true, and it's a frightening thought.

Monday, 11 October 2010

End of Edits

Finally got to the end of edits on Friday afternoon and staggered away with a cracking headache that only a large glass of red could solve. Boy, it was hard work. I've heard of US editors who have strict rules about writing, but I haven't so far encountered one until now. I think what made the task more complicated was the fact that I didn't know the house style. If I had, I could have ensured that there were 2 spaces between sentences and no spaces at the end of a paragraph before the submission went in. I wouldn't have used exclamation marks since they prefer italics. ( ie there! becomes italics, ie there) In many cases this added very little to the sense or the story. Those simple changes led to an awful lot of balloons. If they had not been necessary, the task would have seemed less onerous.

So, I've given myself a couple of days off and today must take a deep breath and read through the complete thing to see if what I've done makes sense. The exercise has been a learning curve, and I'm glad I'm through the hard part. Like the Durham students in the pic, training is essential if you want to be good.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Alnwick GNI

Alnwick Library hosted a splendid Girls' Night In on Thursday Evening. Aimed at readers, writers and would-be writers, a panel of half a dozen published authors tell of their experiences in getting published, with time for questions from the floor and during a half-time coffee break. Twenty or so people turned up and made it a fascinating night. Yours truly was on the panel, sitting alongside Margaret Carr who lives in Alnwick, Janet MacLeod Trotter (in the pink jacket in the picture), Michelle Styles, and Abigail Bosanko. A box of Mills & Boon giveaways had just been opened, hence the sudden cluster in this part of the room.
There is another GNI in Haltwhistle on Friday 15th October, so come along and join in the fun.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Edits part two

I think I'm getting the hang of it now. Chapter Seven looms today, so some progress has been made over the weekend. I certainly slept well last night!

Some of the places where I used the pronoun "it" read better when I say what the "it" is. Getting rid of the formatting balloons first helps, as I have no problem with US spellings etc. Turning sentences on their head is sometimes easy, sometimes hard. I still haven't thought of a way to show "perplexed." There are so many ways different people would exhibit the state of being perplexed - biting the lip, frowning, shaking their head, yet none of them absolutely defines the word itself. I think I'll leave it as it stands, unless some kind soul can give me a clue.

Edits are tiring, far more tiring than writing. I have the urge to go to my writing and abandon edits, but feel I must get the edits done sooner rather than later. I have scenes building in my mind, and hope I can hang on to them long enough to get them down when the edits are done. I should make notes, of course, but hey - whose perfect? Certainly not me.

Another thing to report is that doing edits is a learning curve, and helps to improve my writing, because even as I sit back in my chair saying No, no, no, I'm also thinking would doing this make the whole thing better? Putting aside pride and looking at my writing through fresh eyes is a good thing to do, and I'm benefitting from the exercise.

Watched Downton Abbey last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. ITV is doing well with this one.

Friday, 1 October 2010


After so many rainy days, yesterday was a surprise.
I had an engagement to lunch with a friend, and we
walked around the riverbank at Durham. The university
colleges all have rowing teams and this is one of the frontages
where they lower the boats into the river. The sun was so hot the wet planking steamed. It was like sitting in a sauna.

It was a lovely break, but now I must buckle down to the first round of edits I received on Wedneday from Sapphire Blue. (This is for my story Shadows, about ghosts in a French water mill.) They warned me their editing was strong, but I must admit I was shocked when I saw the first page with the host of tracking change balloons to the right hand side. There were so many they ran together!

As might be expected, all the spellings are changed to US style. That accounts for a few balloons. Then every sentence has two spaces after it. That's another set of balloons. Exclamation marks are not used - instead the word is italicised. Sorry - that should be italicized. More balloons. Semi colons are changed to commas. No spaces at the end of paragraphs.

And then the comments. Another host of balloons asking for motivation, plus internal and physical reaction. Some of the requests have me stumped. To say a heroine is perplexed is "telling." I'm asked to show her being perplexed. Maybe enlightenment will dawn on that one later, but at the moment, I'm as perplexed as she is. Still, it is a learning curve and I must get back to it.

Lost dog!

Sunday 8 th May Slow start to a sunny day with a promise of high temperatures. Bill took Perla out at 7.30 as he has done all this month ...