Tag Archives: travel

The Lady Novelist is Charmed by a Hobbit Village

I am once more on the road, spending 11 days in New Zealand with my travel-writing husband, Tim Richards. Starting in Auckland, we’re taking trains (and a ferry) in stages southward and will end up in Christchurch.

Our first day in Auckland was spent initially with Dane of the Home Fires of Tamaki, learning about Maori history through arrival, colonisation, contemporary issues and the future – a superb, engaging and dynamic experience, and Dane’s an excellent and passionate storyteller. That afternoon was a wine tour on Waiheke Island which Tim’s written about.

The next day, however, we zipped down to Hamilton on the train and met Amber, who drove us to Hobbiton!

Samwise and Rosie’s house

I knew of Hobbiton of course. I remember that in the early days, just after Lord of the Rings, people had started to seek out the New Zealand farm that had been transformed into the hobbit village in the Shire where Bilbo Baggins, Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin all lived.

underhill window

The place had been meticulously built with lots of detail, but after the filming was over most of it was taken away again. People came to see it anyway. Then The Hobbit (expanded into a trilogy) was made, so Hobbiton was recreated all over again, only this time the Armstrong family (owners of the sheep and cattle farm on which the village was built) managed to negotiate to keep everything in situ.

Now, hundreds of thousands of people visit a year, and you can’t go through it without a guide (possibly to make sure LOTR fans don’t go breaking off bits of hobbit houses to take home, or keen gardeners don’t denude the gardens and landscapes of cuttings).

A florist lives here

I thought I might find the hobbit village cute and fun to visit because of its Tolkein connections: I didn’t realise just how delightful the whole thing would be! Because it’s not just a leftover set from a set of two trilogies.

Giant bumblebee on the left…

Hobbiton in fact works on several levels: one of which is that it’s a living landscape, with glorious flowerbeds and lush vegetable patches; it has apple trees and herbs like mint and rosemary growing tall; as you walk around the village and up the hill to Bag End, a dell full of bluebells is below one track. A fat, loud, frankly enormous bumblebee (of the size I’ve seen in the UK but never in Australia) looms around bright red flowers.

The scent of all this nature combines with the fragrant smoke of four or five chimney stacks, which are stoked up with manuka woodchip to add the final touch to a delicious aroma that infuses Hobbiton.

On another level, Hobbiton is like a sculpture garden, with its curated plant life dotted all round with an art installation: “The Homes of Hobbits and How They Live”.

The fake oak tree over Bag End

At the same time as you’re enjoying the charming garden, and marvelling at the artistry of the hobbit houses and all the fine detail that is put into making the village feel occupied and as though the hobbits are all just at a party at another village, you have the nostalgia of remembering the films, and then the insider-delight of seeing under the skin of the movie magic.

For lovers of the Tolkein books and films, there’s the delight of seeing the Party Tree under which Bilbo holds his eleventy-first birthday party. That’s a real tree, unlike the oak which stands atop Bag End, which is entirely artificial and has 200,000 leaves wired onto it.

Southfarthing brews

After cooing over Hobbiton – our guide, River, even has a Middle Earthish name – we walk down the path to the Green Dragon Inn, where a hungry hobbit or human can fill up on a well made lunch or try out the ale, stout, cider or ginger beer (all brewed locally by Hamilton brewer Good George). The first three are brewed exclusively for the Inn, and I discovered for the first time that stout is… chocolatey! The ginger beer is still my favourite though.

A green dragon over the inn door

If you’re wondering if it’s worth a trip to Hobbiton, is absolutely is. Even if you’re not a fan of the Peter Jackson films or even Tolkein at all.

Find out more about Hobbiton Movie Set Tours

Party tree to the left, the Green Dragon over the lake.
Bag End

Research: Richard III

In case you didn’t know, I’m something of a Ricardian as a result of always having been intrigued by Shakespeare’s play, which is brilliant but hardly believable as documentary evidence of anything except Tudor revisionism. My further reading led me to the conclusion that history’s Richard was hard done by. 

Whatever his real faults and crimes, I joyfully took up the unequivocal pro-Richard cause as a balance to all the Tricky Dicky hate that’s out there. 

I’ve written a couple of pro-Richard stories, which were published in Grant Me the Carving of My Name and have low key aims to write an alternative history one day. I have no particular plot yet, but I’ve been doing general reading and research to deepen my knowledge of complexities surrounding the War of the Roses and Richard’s short reign.

While in London recently, I did my favourite London activity, which is to read old books at the British Library.

Horace Walpole and I ♥ Richard

The first I looked at was a 1770 edition of Horace Walpole’s Historic Doubts on the Life and Reign of King Richard the Third, where he explores all the charges levelled against Richard Plantagenet by Shakespeare, Sir Thomas More and a host of other Tudor historians.  He uses contemporary accounts and good old courtroom logic to unpack what appears to be a heap of fabrications, misreadings, malign interpretations and Tudor self-interest.

Let’s put aside the thrill of reading a book published 285 years after Richard’s death, and 195 years before my birth and marvel at Walpole noting that the only “deformity” of Richard’s noted in his lifetime was his uneven shoulders – no sign of the limp, hunch, withered arm etc attributed to him by later historians. Richard’s scoliosis was only discovered/confirmed when they found his body in 2012.

Thank you, Mr Walpole, for researching so many primary documents so that, when i finally get to writing whatever I write, I won’t have to.

Real Person Hatefic

On the opposite side to me and Walpole, though, I found the most appalling/hilarious 18th century Richard III Real Person Fanfic by an anonymous author. 

Called A Dialogue Between King Richard III and his Adopted Son and published in Dublin in 1753 (good lord, I handled a 266 year old book!), it’s set in Hell, where the spirit of King Richard III greets a recent arrival, dubbed Richard IV, who tells of his journey to the underworld. 

Richard IV: I fell in much love with a great sum of money that was possess’d by a young Lady, whom I heartily despised, but as one could not be had without the other, and money was very necessary to me, I condescended to marry her.

King Richard: But cou’dn’t you get the money without committing Matrimony?

Richard IV: You may swear I cou’dn’t. I tryed indeed, but the squeamish Bitch would do nothing but in a lawful way, as she call’d it.

King Richard: Then I pardon you.

Richard IV: Yes, and I hope you will do the same for two or three more Marriages.

King Richard: With all my heart, but proceed.

Young Richard IV proceeds all right, demonstrating that he’s a wastrel, bigamist, cheat, highwayman, debaucher  and general nasty piece of work, to the general applause of the dead King. Well, except for when Richard Jr plotted the death of his nephew:

Richard IV: I was long in debate with myself as whether I should murder him myself or get him murdered.

King Richard: This is the only weak part of your History hitherto. How can you say you had my Character always in view? I am almost asham’d of you, you were foolishly faint-hearted.

Of course, the knave only exiled the nephew, which act of ‘faint-hearted foolishness’ comes back to bite him on the bum when the nephew returns to England.

Richard IV: It was then I cursed myself a thousand times every Hour for being so foolishly tender as not to have dispatched him at once, for Dead Men Tell No tales.

At this point in his narrative, he claims he’ll give it all up, beg for mercy and live like a gentleman. King Richard III is not amused, saying: 

King Richard: I in the like case chose to die bravely in Bosworth field, sword in hand rather than quit the least of my usurpations. I fear you were a coward.

Richard IV: I own sir I had always a great tenderness for my own person and had rather at any time have taken twenty kicks on the A___ or Twicks by the Nose than run the Risk of one Poke thro’ the Guts.’

The whole thing is blackly funny where it isn’t predictably banal, and ends with King Richard adopting this arsehole as a son before they both wind up wailing piteously with their guilt over how they treated their nephews. 

Even if you think  Richard did half the evil things he’s accused of (and Horace Walpole  and I definitely don’t) it’s a hell of a comedown for such a grand  villain to be cheering on a common thief and swindler. Even  Shakespeare’s Richard has more pride.

FutureLearning Medieval England

While I was in the UK a friend put me onto Future Learn, which offers some of its courses for free.

I’ve been studying  England in the Time of King Richard III and learning all sorts of things about the key players in the Wars of the Roses, layers of society, the impact of the Black Death, the development of writing, and Richard’s library.

Paying my respects to Dickon

Whatever the Tudors made of the man, Richard was popular up North with his people, and since his body was discovered and he was reinterred in Leicester Cathedral in 2015. His reinterment coincided with an unexpected victory for the Leicester City football club, so the locals have become Ricardians too.

The Leicester Museum is currently showing a royal portrait of Richard, adding another Ricardian tourism spot in addition to the Richard III Centre, the Leicester Cathedral opposite where he’s now buried, and the Bosworth Battlefield just out of town.

I like to pop by one or more of those places when I’m in town, just to say hi to the only royal I give the slightest damn about.

Who knows where all this reading will one day lead – right now my aim is to fill my brain with relevant material and let it all ferment away. 

Review: The Atlas of Monsters and Ghosts by Federica Magrin and Laura Brenlla

I loved the idea of a kids’ book charting the location of monster stories around the world – it’s in part what I look for in a destination!

The Atlas of Monsters and Ghosts by LonelyPlanetKids.com is a gorgeous looking book, with Laura Brenlla’s fabulous Tiki-esque style (which reminds me a bit of Shag’s art). It’s an atlas, so the large maps of continents and regions give a cute overview before each section, and an appendix introduces various water monsters of the world as well as a checklist of the ghosts of famous figures, including Anne Boleyn.

The conceit of the whole book is given in the introduction, where Dr Van Helsing welcomes young readers to his version of Monster Hunting 101 on where to find all these creatures and what to do if you encounter them.

Because The Atlas of Monsters and Ghosts is aimed at young readers (9-12 years) the entries are fun and on the silly side. For some readers they might be a little light on, though some better known beasties, like Dracula, have double-age entries with more detail.

The book also places folklore, urban legends and fictional characters all on the same footing without mentioning origins. An entry on Frankenstein’s Monster makes no mention of Mary Shelley any more than the one on King Kong mentions RKO Pictures or creator Merian C Cooper. Actual locations thought to be haunted, like hotels and ghost towns, are noted with the same weight as indigenous folklore. (Having said that, I was amused to see drop bears and bunyips listed with equal weight in the Australian section.)

I don’t know if kids will find that as frustrating as I did – it’s a shame that the origins of these stories aren’t acknowledged, especially for entries that have an individual creator.

Still, The Atlas of Monsters and Ghosts is a charming book and a great starting point for doing some extra googling on folklore, fiction and urban legends before heading for these parts of the world!

Buy The Atlas of Monsters and Ghosts:

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!