Category Archives: The Lady Novelist Travels

The Lady Novelist is menaced by a cow on Dartmoor

I’m on my travels once more – back to the UK where I’ve been doing a spot of research at the British Library, visiting a friend up in Kendal and doing the Beatrix Potter/Windemere Lake thing and now spending time with my talented friend, Janet Anderton, as we throw ideas around for a potential book collaboration or six in the future.

As part of our brainstorming for creative collaboration, Janet and I went on a road trip to Dartmoor. I’m also working on a story which is partly set on the moor and I wanted especially to see a strange little wood I’d read about in the middle of the national park.

Wistman’s Wood has a reputation for wizardry and occult happenings. Lying just to the east of West Dart River, the wood is an area of twisted oaks, shadows and lichen-covered boulders. It’s unlike any other place on the moor and is associated with legends of druids, demonic hunts and, I expect, many twisted ankles.

My little guide book said the walk to Wistman’s Wood from Two Bridges and back via a couple of tors was ‘undemanding’ and would take about two and a half hours.

It mentioned that the walk shouldn’t be done in poor visibility. It mentioned the care that should be taken on some of the rougher, rock-strewn paths.

It did not mention cows.

As an Australian, I am used to certain activities while walking country paths. I have played the ‘is that a stick or a snake?’ game, and the ‘oh my god I’ve walked into a spider web, is there a spider in my hair?? oh god, oh god, get it off me, oh god‘ dance.

What I’m not used to is seeing three cows in the distance, standing in a solemn, unmoving row like they were about to ask Janet and I three riddles before we’d be allowed to climb the stile and enter the wood.  Three black cows that looked as big as Paul Bunyan’s blue ox but twice as mean, even from the opposite hill.

The weirdest thing was how they got smaller as we approached. In fact, by the time we got there, instead of the three of them towering over our heads and glaring judgementally at us, they were all about our shoulder height and two had lost interest. The third maintained an expression of sinister displeasure, but we tiptoed past, climbed the stile and made it without incident to Wistman’s Wood.

It was worth the clamber, the urgent need for a sneaky yet careful outdoor pee among the gorse bushes (reminiscent of that time in Canada with the bears) and the cow fright to sit on a boulder and look into that cool green light under the twisted oaks.  The intermittent call of a cuckoo and the chirps of songbirds punctated the hush. Down the hill, the West Dart burbled, and the complaints of querelous sheep filtered through to us.

The wood was eerie and compelling, but I was content to sit and watch rather than enter its rocky heart. I’m no mountain goat. Observation was enough to flesh out the story I currently have set in its interior.

In the shade of hill and oak, I also recorded a brief account of my response to Australia achieving marriage equality for the upcoming Irish of New York podcast. Afterwards, I shared and traded ideas with Janet (who among other things designed the IoNY logo) about how we might use the wood and it’s strange atmosphere to best effect for this book we hope to do together.

Rested from our travails, we decided to avoid the Scary Evil Eyed Cows by going to the top of the hill, skipping the tors and taking the grassy path back to the farmhouse at the start of our walk.

Hey, reader! Do you remember all those cartoons with big snorting bulls that puff steam from their nostrils and paw the earth with giant hoofs? Cos Janet and I sure do!

We were very forcefully reminded of all those animated characters tossed over fences by territorial bulls as we realised the big cow ahead of us wasn’t shrinking like the mysterious ones further down the hill. No.

THIS cow was enormous and getting larger.

THIS cow had a pair of balls that Janet described as ‘like two footballs in a pillow case’.

THIS cow was a big black bull, pawing at a dusty hollow in the hillside and tossing its horned head about in said hollow like it had personally affronted him.

He hadn’t even seen us yet.

Running was out of the question. I can’t. I’d be trampled to death and Janet, who is fleeter of foot than I, would have to sing epic songs of my heroic death so that my name lived on. She happily agreed that she would run like blazes and save herself if necessary.

Still, we thought. While people DO get killed by cows, we might be able to slide past this one if we played our cards right.

I immediately adopted the only strategy I knew, which was the one I was taught in Canada about Never Surprising A Bear. Janet opted for the Music Soothes the Savage Beast protocol. We didn’t want this bull – who was either enjoying a dust bath or rehearsing his badass Murder the Rambling Tourist moves – to be suprised. Nope nope nope nope.

Janet sang a little song which may have been ‘please don’t kill us, Mr Bull’. I softly called out in a wispy voice. “Hey cow. Hey cow. Vegetarian here. Good cow. Bull. Sir. Hey cow.”

We skirted well beyond its back legs. We walked slowly but steadily (do bulls chase running people the way dogs chase running cats? Who knew, but we were taking no chances).

The bull snorted into his dust bowl and ignored us.

We sang and hey-cowed and walked on until we couldn’t see the Bull of the Baskervilles any more.

The rest of our walk was without incident, but I did cast a backward glance from time to time, to ensure the Terrifying Cow hadn’t taken an interest.

That night, the lovely Jane from our delightful B&B, Dartfordleigh, cheerfully told us in her gorgeous Scots burr, “Oh yes, the cows can get quite touchy when they’re pregnant”. She may have mentioned a previous accidental death-by-cow but I may have been too busy hyperventilating to hear that bit.

But all’s well that ends in not being killed by a cow. Our afternoon on the moor had been filled with beauty, mystery, inspiration and adventure! Our hostess made everything sound charming with her accent, and our lodgings in the middle of Dartmoor were comfortable, picturesque and restful.

Janet and I had walked across a medieval clapper bridge and eaten a fine cream tea at the Two Bridges hotel. We’d delighted in English wildflowers and played pooh sticks at a stone bridge in a sweet little dell. We explored the House of Marbles in Bovey Tracey and met a kindred spirit at Pixie Corner (a story which I may share later).

We may not have committted to further rambles, but with Postbridge being in the centre of the national park, every drive to any spot was a visual feast. We had a marvellous time in Dartmoor and alarming bovines notwithstanding, 10/10, would go out on the wily, windy moors again.

And as a bonus, Janet has been producing some gorgeous sketches!

The Lady Novelist follows a Roman Road

Londinium. Roman Baths. All roads lead, etc. I’ve been in various parts of the former Roman Empire, from Hungary, Egypt and Jordan to Rome itself.

It’s always fun to find little bits of older civilisations in layers under the current one. It’s like etymology for landscapes – the backstories that help to describe, to a degree, how the current narrative unfurled.

Londinium

This trip, besides burrowing into Sherlock Holmes and Richard III, Tim and I have been poking about the remains of Roman Britain. In London we went on a self-guided Roman London walk and visited the remains of a Roman bath house located under an office building at Billingsgate.

The guide was brilliant at bringing stones and dirt to life, describing the uses of the larger buildings that once stood here, and the remaining chambers, and drawing parallels with modern life (dodgy builders, cost-cutting measures, lovers’ trysts, unsolved mysteries).

Very much worth the visit!

Hadrian’s Wall

Of course, the Romans inhabited Britain for several hundred years, from the southern end right up to the Antonine Wall, north of the more famous Hadrian’s Wall, built in AD122.

Which, not coincidentally, is the number of the bus that runs in a circuit between Hexham and Haltwhistle, enabling those short on time or the inclination to hike to visit key sites along the remains of Hadrian’s Wall.

Our first stop was Chester’s Fort, which predates the wall, then boarded the bus again for Housesteads. The remains of a Roman fort are here too and, key for us, a large segment of the wall.

Tim had done a little googling. A walk between Housesteads and the next stop, Steel Rigg, should take about an hour and a quarter, claimed Google, giving us a topography map and a false sense of confidence. It’s only 4.6km, said Google slyly. It’s a sunny day. Go on. Walk a bit of the wall.

Off we went, wreathed in sunshine, the wall on our right, a song in our hearts. We were striding hilltops where nearly 1900 years ago, men from across Rome’s vast empire piled up stones to mark the extent of their Empire’s territory.

They served as citizens, or in the hope of becoming citizens. They maintained the border, defended it as required. They waited for letters from home, looking out over green hillsides and the vistas of all that weather rolling in, clouds gathering and parting, looming and clearing.

Black-faced sheep eyes us warily; very large cows were more sanguine. Energetic people with hiking poles passed us in either direction, cheerily saying it was hours to go until Steel Rigg, and with much rougher and muddier terrain.

We would have thanked them, but we were too busy negotiating steep rises and falls and trying not to face-plant among the rocks.

Finally, two hours into our one hour walk and still only half way to our destination, we came to a little farm, with a lovely little road leading right back out to that wonderful main road that had buses on it. We decided it had been fabulous. Beautiful and breathtaking and thoroughly worthwhile to have walked those hills alongside that amazing wall.

Then we went straight on down that farm road and caught a bus to the next stop. Sandwich and soup in the brand-spanking-new centre at The Sill fuelled us for a final bus ride to Vindolanda.

Only the preceding week, the news had announced that digs at Vindolanda had located a cavalry sword – a rare find, since such weapons were very valuable – and the brass fittings of riding harness. And not quite a month after being dug up from the site, these pieces were on display at the Vindolanda museum.

Weary with our triumphs, we got the bus back to Hexham – transported by AD122 back to 2017 and the joys of a hot meal at a Hexham pub and a hot shower at our B&B.

On the morrow, the AD122 took us to a brief stopover at the Roman Army Museum, which makes brilliant use of audio visual and a little 3D movie to bring the people of the Roman Empire to life. In the process, all those stones along which we tramped, all those walls razed to a few feet high, were depicted evocatively as the lonely outposts, for these soldiers far from home.

Carlisle

From AD122 to Haltwhistle and thence to Carlisle, where the Tallie House Museum gives up a little more of the region’s Roman history – including a murder mystery! The body of a man found dumped in a well was doubtless done in by foul play.

I’m sure Richard III would empathise, even if Sherlock Holmes is unlikely to ever solve it.

Tim and I visited all these museums thanks to Visit Britain; accommodation in Carlisle was courtesy Accor Hotels.


All roadslead to Rome, and also to my most recent fiction.

  • Ravenfall, a paranormal thriller and gay romance set in contemporary London,
  • Near Miss, a short lesbian love story with yarnbombing, set in Melbourne.
  • If het love/adventure stories are more your thing, check out my spy series, Secret Agents, Secret Lives.

The Lady Novelist pays her respects to King Richard III (part 2)

After a day exploring the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre (and regretting that I’d missed the annual re-enactments of the battle in August) I rested my weary head in the splendid Richard III room at the Belmont Hotel.

My possibly misplaced fondness for dear old Richard meant that I slept peacefully under the watchful eye of his portrait instead of wondering when he might instructing his minions to “rumour it abroad that Narrelle, my fanciful biographer, is sick and like to die”.

And then I went into Leicester in search of the real Richard III

King Richard III Visitor Centre

My first port of call was the King Richard III Visitor Centre. Its subtitle ‘Dynasty Death and Discovery’ is an excellent precis of what you’ll find within.

Temporary displays and an excellent audio-visual presentation give a good overview of the dynastic ructions which preceded Richard’s claiming of the throne from his brother’s boy Edward V, on the basis that Edward IV’s children were illegitimate.

(There is apparently evidence that Edward V, a known philanderer, had actually been married before he married Elizabeth Woodville, and that his first wife was still alive and in a nunnery. Parliament agreed with Richard and proclaimed the boys bastards.)

Understanding all this dynastic and even tribal argy bargy between the Yorks and the Lancasters is a bit of an ask, but vital to understanding what happened to bring Richard III to the throne and shortly thereafter to an ignominious burial. The KRIII centre does a good job of this before leading the visitor through displays that precis the key points of Richard’s reign and on to the challenges to his rule, the still unexplained disappearance of his disinherited nephews, and the final battle at Bosworth Field.

Upstairs, the displays look more at the popular opinion of Richard as influenced both by Shakespeare and the organisations, existing since the 19th century, which aimed to give a more balanced and realistic account of the man and his rule.

From there to the forensic account of the discovery of his body by members of the Ricardians, how his bones were identified and what was learned from his body.

The replica of his bones with material on the various wounds he received at Bosworth was what moved me the most. Accounts say he swore to live and die a King and not retreat from the field, and the blows he received, including an insulting post-death stabbing, seem to speak of courage, desperation and cruelty, all.

Leicester Cathedral tour

That curious sorrow for a long dead king struck me again when Tim and I went next to Leicester Cathedral, where we were guided around the church, as it was back in the day. Our guide spoke of the thousands who came to pay their respects to the lost king’s remains – spurred by curiosity as much as compassion, one supposes. The guide spoke in wonder of a woman who flew out from Moscow a day after seeing the thousands of people who lined up to see his coffin and its sumptuous funeral pall.

The simple alabaster tomb over his grave is elegantly carved and angled. “On the six sunny days we get in Leicester,” said our guide, “The sun comes through the stained glass window to reflect colours on his grave.”

The idea of that made me happy in a melancholy way. Richard’s body was bundled, naked, from the battlefield on the back of a horse. He was stabbed, post-mortem, and put on display to prove he was dead. He was buried hurriedly in a nearby Friary, so not completely without respect, but his head was bent, his hands were tied. His bones seemed small and sad in the pictures where they were found in situ. This simple, solemn, elegant grave feels like a kindness.

Although that Catholic and devout gentleman would no doubt spin in his elegant grave at thought of what that wicked Shakespearean version of him gets up to with Khan in my stories, I’m glad to see at last a more balanced and just view of his achievements and flaws, and the great shadow cast over both by those two lost boys.

Leicester and King Richard III Walking tour

Richard and I aren’t done with each other quite yet though. Our last Ricardian treat is the Blue Badge walking tour with our guide, Steve.

The walking tour shows other parts of Leicester’s history – it’s not all dead kings and surprise wins by the local football club. There are Roman ruins too. Richard’s history is also replete with mistaken historians and uncertainties about what really happened. Until relatively recently, Richard’s remains were thought to have been dug up and thrown into the river under the Bow Bridge. Near the bridge in question, three separate plaques refer to the changing understanding of that incorrect history.

Steve’s tour gives a broader view of Leicester and elements of Richard’s story in the landscape where it took place. For all his wicked reputation, Richard is still viewed with some pride by the locals and streets are named for him as well as numerous pubs. People place white roses at the feet of his statue.

Grant me the carving of my name says the beautiful poem by Carol Ann Duffy, which was read at his reinterrment. Richard has been granted that, at least.

It’s an excellent way to consolidate everything I’ve learned so far while pacing the roads that, more or less, a King once rode and his body returned on.

Will the real King Richard please stand up

While Richard’s culpability in his nephew’s disappearance from the Tower and possible murder is still a subject of conjecture, elements of his character can be gleaned from his loyalty to King Edward IV, the legislation he passed during his short reign, and the few surviving letters he wrote.

His history has been written by those who defeated him (and whose ascension to the throne also relied on there being no legitimate living children of Edward V to stand in the way).  Most people’s memory of Richard  lodged in most people’s experience by William Shakespeare’s brilliant play.

However,  if not for Shakespeare’s deliciously villainous Richard, the world may not have cared so much when, against amazing odds, his body was discovered, mostly intact, over 500 years later underneath nondescript car park.

Richard’s head was pressed upward in its hastily dug grave, hands apparently bound, his spine twisted with scoliosis. It’s an image to invoke pity, whatever version of Richard you prefer.

My Richard III

I carry in my head the vivid but fictional villainy of Shakespeare’s Richard. That image vies with the version I created for myself in fictions of a Richard and Khan redeemed not only by love but by the desire to be worthy of such love.

With these few days in Leicester, I also carry now the more balanced image of Richard: a man of his time. He was for many years a loyal brother, a courageous warrior, and a wise administrator who may have been responsible (through direct deed or indirectly through his authority over those who committed it) of the deaths of his nephews; or may have been made the scapegoat by those who had as much to gain from their deaths but less obvious opportunity to ensure them.

Unless further miracles of history occur to tell us, we’re left to choose the Richard we prefer. Our preference is probably determined by our own natures.

I prefer to believe in a man who tried to be fair and loyal but was compromised by circumstance: at worst, his own ambition, at best, a too-rigid belief in the rule of succession within the context that Edward’s children may well have been illegitimate and that made him the rightful heir, come hell or high water.

As Hamlet says of his father: “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”


Tim and I were guests of the Belmont Hotel and the King Richard III Visitor Centre in Leicester.

The Lady Novelist pays her respects to King Richard III (part 1)

My relationship with Richard III is a bit rambling and has a few strange turns.

Like most people, what I knew of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, boiled down to one simple story: he was a wicked, hunchbacked man who stole the throne and murdered his innocent nephews, before being cut down in battle while calling out for a horse.

Shakespeare’s play – a fiction written for a Tudor audience and heavily influenced by histories written by Tudor accounts – obviously in turn influenced centuries of popular opinion on this game loser of the Wars of the Roses.

These days, I’m a much keener advocate of King Richard III as a misunderstood monarch. Books like The Maligned King have sown enough doubt about his complicity in the boys’ disappearance and made me a Ricardian!

My road to becoming one actually began with Shakespeare, though, and Martin Freeman’s brilliant 2014 turn as the cruel and broken man.  (More recently, Kate Mulvany’s portrayal was breathtaking too).

Hot on the heels of my second viewing of theTrafalgar Theatre production, my friend, fellow writer and co-conspirator, Wendy Fries, dared me to write a Richard III/Star Trek’s Khan fanfiction. After 30 seconds of denying such a thing was possible, I wrote the first of what turned out to be 14 stories of time travel, reincarnation, epic love and redemption.

I turned Shakespeare’s (and Freeman’s) mad, bad Richard into a whole new character – and my curiosity about the real Richard was revived. Not long after I’d written the stories, Richard’s recently rediscovered bones were reinterred at Leicester Cathedral. The pathos of the moment, combined my unexpected emotional investment in both the fictional and the real King, spurred me onto further reading.  I read Jospehine Tey’s The Daughter of Time and then, hungry for facts, Annette Carson’s The Maligned King.

All of which brings me to Leicester, and on the trail of the history of King Richard III, who was surely no saint, but who wasn’t a black-hearted villain either.

The Bosworth Battlefield

My first day in Leicester took us to the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre. Between intermittent bursts of rain and sunshine, we were guided through the exhibition in the old farmhouse by the centre’s curator, Richard Knox.

The actual location of the battlefield wasn’t certain until relatively recently, when investigation located both the marsh in which Richard III’s horse got bogged and a wealth of medieval cannon balls. The Centre is located on what was the King’s encampment. From the nearby hill, a frame surmounted by Richard’s and Henry Tudor’s standards looks down on the valley where Richard met his end.

There’s a trick of imagination I indulge when visiting historical sites. I close my eyes and try to place myself across time, in the shoes of whoever once stood here. I have rested on the stones at the base of the Egyptian pyramids where workers once rested. I have placed my hands on Roman walls that were built by hands long gone to dust.

This day I stood on the earth that those long-gone medieval once stood on; suffered on; died on.

Here a man with a twisted spine – recently bereaved of both son and wife, an administrator with a concern for justice who was overhung with an appalling mistrust over the fate of his disinherited and vanished nephews – decided to live or die as a king of England.

Had he killed Henry instead of Henry’s standard bearer, the fate of English history may have been different.

The Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre takes no sides in the debate about Richard’s character. As Knox says during our tour, the job of the centre is to present the facts of the battle as far as they can be known. This includes presentations of the events leading to the battle, the kinds of weapons and armour used, the key events during the battle as understood from contemporaenous reports, and the aftermath.

The centre also presents material from the various archaelogical researches that went into locating the actual battlefield. Among the items on display is a boar pin, which would have been worn by one of Richard’s household, who rallied to him in the fatal final moments of the battle. Where it was found, the historians surmise, is where he fell, fighting

These final hours of Richard’s short life and two-year reign are covered at the centre with objective thoroughness. If you’re interested in medieval history, whether or not you’re a Ricardian, it’s worth the considerabal trek out to see this thoughtful and intelligently presented battlefield site.

Next I’ll be writing about the discovery of Richard’s body under a Leicester car park and his reinterment at the cathedral.

Tim and I were guests of the Belmont Hotel and the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre in Leicester.