History

I write blogs, first and foremost, because I enjoy it. I’ve always been interested in history, travel, literature and the arts generally and I want to write about the places I’ve been to and things I’ve seen. I particularly love seeing places which the general public don’t normally see. As a novelist, what interests me are the stories. I want my readers to become involved, and for that, my writing must be both emotionally engaged with the topic but I must also retain my professional objectivity to ensure that what I say is accurate. It can be a tricky balance.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

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There’s something very serene about the combination of birds, particularly swans, and water. Sometimes, waterfowl can be aggressive towards each other birds, or squabble about food, but, generally speaking, they move gently but purposefully, and I find looking at them very calming. I was brought up in the country and trees, water, birds and wildlife generally is something I miss.

Leeds Castle and waterfowl

I was thinking about this last week when I visited Leeds Castle in Kent. The castle itself is built on an island in the River Len and surrounded by a wide moat which is almost a lake and next to Great Water, another lake. The walk there, through woods by the river and passing yet more ponds and lakes, means there is plenty of room for waterfowl.

Black swan and white swans, mallard and coot

I loved the contrast between the dramatic black swan and the other white swans, whilst smaller mallard and the occasional coot provided the supporting cast. I’d had a tiring week and, as I watched them, I could feel the tension leaching out of me. I could stop and admire them; I didn’t have to rush.

White swan and cormorant

I stopped again by the cascade garden and walked to the middle of a scarlet, vaguely Chinese-looking bridge which faced a cascade at the end of a large pond, where another swan was majestically sailing. Nearby on the low stone edging, a cormorant stood awkwardly, its neck stuck out at an angle.

White swan

As the white swan floated past, the cormorant slipped into the water and followed, looking ungainly, almost as if it was half-submerged.

Canada geese and a stray mallard on the grass in front of the larger pond

In the distance,  you can just see the small green train on the left crossing the green on the far side of the lake which takes visitors straight to the castle. I preferred to walk through the woods but it’s a couple of miles and there’s no doubt the train is quicker, besides giving the visitor a ringside view of the castle itself.

It was all very good for the soul.

Elizabeth Hawksley

 

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Lambeth Palace, situated on the south bank of the Thames, more or less opposite Westminster Abbey, has been the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury for over 500 years. Its garden is one of the oldest in the country, though it has, of course, undergone numerous transformations as times and garden fashions changed. The garden is open to the public on the first Friday of the month from April to September. And I’ve just been to the last open day of 2017.

The Gatehouse, Morton’s Tower, c.1495. This is the imposing entrance – you can see people queuing

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Last week, I visited the World Heritage Site of Greenwich. I particularly wanted to see the Painted Hall in the Old Royal Naval College, built by John Webb, a pupil of Christopher Wren. It was once the Royal Naval Hospital, the naval equivalent of the Chelsea Hospital for retired soldiers, the Chelsea Pensioners, and the building I had come to see had been designed as a magnificent communal dining-room for retired sailors.

Old Royal Naval College. The Painted Hall is on the left 

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Last Tuesday, I was invited to the Bloggers’ Breakfast at the Royal Mews. I particularly wanted to see the Gold State Coach, the one used at the Queen’s coronation. I’d seen it a number of times on television, of course, but I’d never seen it for real. My first impression was that it was enormous – which it is at 7.3 metres long, 2.5 meters wide and 3.9 metres high. It lives in the State Coach House and it’s quite a business to get it out when it’s required. First of all, they have to remove a false wall and a window; then everything that can be, must be got out of the way; and only after that can it be turned the necessary 90 degrees and pointed at the now-revealed door – and that alone takes two and a half days.

The Gold State Coach: it’s so big I can’t get it all in the photo

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‘Ightham Mote, wrote Nigel Nicolson (son of Vita Sackville West), is one of the oldest and loveliest medieval manor houses to survive in England. It has stood here for over 650 years, immune to fire, tempest, war and riot.’ And he’s right. It nestles in the Kentish Weald almost as if it’s grown organically. Even today, it’s not easy to find. Legend has it that, during the Civil War, Cromwellian soldiers arrived in the area intent on looting it, but got lost in the twisty country lanes, gave up, and ransacked somewhere else instead.

 Ightham Mote: the east side

The photo above shows Ightham Mote (pronounced Item Moat) as the visitor coming down a steep wooded hill first sees it.

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This week I am flying the flag for the 20th anniversary for the Historical Novel Society and its quarterly Historical Novels Review. It was founded in 1997 by historical novel enthusiast, Richard Lee. Membership requests flooded in from dozens of historical novelists who were desperate to have their books reviewed (something well-nigh impossible unless you were either ‘literary’ or already a best seller), and dozens of enthusiastic readers who wanted to review them.

HNS Review May 2017

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It is impossible to overestimate the effect of the Russian Revolution on the course of world history.

Red Army hat, inspired by the old Slavonic helmet

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths, the British Library’s new exhibition, covers from Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation in 1896 to the death of Lenin in 1924. In less than thirty years, the Russian Empire underwent strikes and uprisings; the catastrophe of World War I; the October Revolution of 1917 when the Bolsheviks formed a government; the tsar’s abdication and subsequent murder; Civil War on a massive scale as Russians fought each other – some for independence, some for the Bolsheviks, some for the tsar – when over 10 million people died and 2 million emigrated; another 5 million died from starvation as grain was forcibly requisitioned; the creation of the Soviet Union in 1920, and Lenin’s death and subsequent apotheosis.

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