Spring Has Sprung!

What a shockingly idle blogger I am! Still, the sun’s shining now and spring has sprung, after a fashion, so let’s have some Springy things, starting with this year’s tenant in the nest box that hangs on one of our oak trees. It’s been there for about 15 years and the occupants have been mostly blue tits apart from the year we had nuthatches and last year’s coal tits. Hours of procrastination while you watch the monitor!  Only one egg so far and not easy to make it out in this photo, but there could be up to fifteen in total!oneeggmar2019

We usually have a visiting pheasant every year, dating from the time when the farm down the road used to hold shoots and we’d see dozens of pheasants sitting just outside our fence till it was safe to go home! A few years ago one visiting pheasant was so tame he’d let me feed him peanuts by hand, though I always wore thick leather gloves – that beak looks vicious! Here’s last year’s gentleman visitor with one of his wives, alongside a couple of our other regular visitors, a pair of roe deer:

 

Do you remember the Inspector Wexford series? It was filmed in Romsey, not far away, and this whole area was once described as ‘rural suburbia’ which is pretty accurate, really.

Not far away from us there’s a nature reserve – quite low-key and not very big, but interesting as it’s ancient wetland and in the past the scrub was kept down by grazing cattle (not in the wet bits!) For the last few years a local farmer has been allowed to graze his cattle there so life goes on as it has for centuries and the cows pay little attention to anyone ambling along the stream. At the moment it’s a mass of wild garlic, primroses, celandines and violets, not to mention blackthorn, catkins and evidence of rabbits!    20190326_135621 20190326_135112         So there we are – Spring in Hampshire, and very nice too.

Also very nice are these two beauties, one with its Blue Semi-finalist’s badge for the upcoming Chatelaine Awards at a banquet in Bellingham, in the Pacific North West – I’m hoping to be there! And the other with its shiny new gold Amazon Best Seller sticker. My two most recent book babies are doing well!

Best Seller Sticker!

Reviews & Recipes, Life in 1918 Part 2

Here we are, it’s out and it’s getting some lovely reviews already: I couldn’t put it down. Not sure what I liked best, but I really liked the way you tell your story, even when the themes were most serious, with a touch of humour which somehow lightens the atmosphere all round, although we never underestimate the hardships either – I found myself laughing out loud at times. I saw a resemblance to the Cazalet series, but even more, I saw many shades of Angela Thirkell there. A lovely read.’
And while I’m about it, here’s another one: Another excellent cosy mystery by Nicola Slade. Not only is this a jolly good story with a cliffhanger ending it portrays life on the Home Front in 1918 without being mawkish or sensationalist. I love the details of the food; the struggle was real!

My 1918 heroine writing!

Even though the War opened up the prospect of many hitherto male-only jobs for women, middle-class girls with no particular training were still hampered by expectations of what was ‘suitable’. Christabel, the narrator of The Convalescent Corpse, contributes to the family income by writing Boys’ Own-style books aimed at young men in the army,with exciting titles such as ‘Prefects on Picket Duty’ – but she manages this by using a male pseudonym.

I’m glad that the reviewer above loved the details of the food and the shortages and rationing that made shopping for groceries a test of endurance and hope.Hampshire Pie is an example of shameless misrepresentation! on the part of the Home Chat editor who produced their March 1918 supplement: Plain Puddings & Cakes. It has no visible link with Hampshire and it’s not a pie! I had to include it, of course, considering the book is set in Hampshire – in Ramalley, a small market town halfway between Winchester and Southampton, that bears a surprising resemblance to Romsey!

Hampshire Pie – 1918

Hampshire Pie (Hot, Baked)

Apple is the nicest fruit to use for this but it is very good with rhubarb or any other fresh fruit

1 lb apples or soaked dried apple rings

1 pint water

2 ounces custard powder

1 tbs golden/amber/or ginger syrup, or other sweetener

Saltspoonful powdered cinnamon or nutmeg

Peel, core and slice apples. Boil the cores and peel in the water till quite soft, then drain off water, and save it.
Cover apples in a pan with water to half cover them. Simmer till soft, beat free from lumps with a fork. Add cinnamon and syrup and spread the pulp in a piedish.
Meanwhile, boil up the apple water. Mix the custard powder smoothly and thinly with a little cold water, pour it into the boiling apple liquid and stir for about five minutes, or according to directions on the packet.
Sweeten this mixture if necessary; a drop of vanilla is generally an improvement. Pour it over the apple pulp and bake in a moderate oven for about half and hour or until browned.
NB Ground rice or cornflour and just a little custard powder can be used if you like, instead of all custard powder. A scrap of margarine improves the flavour and increases the food value of the pudding.

Verdict – I love stewed apple so I was happy with this, though I made custard with skimmed milk instead of the apple water suggested – I felt that was a step too far towards authenticity! It’s a cheek to call it a pie, though I suppose it is cooked in a pie dish!

You can find The Convalescent Corpse in ebook and paperback all across Amazon. This is the UK link:https://amzn.to/2OskEpV
Please tell your friends – and if you enjoy this story of family struggles in wartime, a review on Amazon would be fabulous.

Diamonds and churches

I’ve been busy lately and keep forgetting to post on this blog. However, I’m rather chuffed to post this banner – and boast a bit! – because The House at Ladywell has been chosen as Book of the Month (August) in the Discovering Diamonds award, which is for historical novels. And, even more exciting, that means it’s on the shortlist for Book of the Year! I’m delighted that so many people have fallen in love with my book and there are now lots of 5* reviews on Amazon and Goodreadsd too. (Reviews are always welcome, potential readers usually check them out before buying!)

In other news, the Resident Engineer and I have been exploring old churches. The Church of St. Mary Magdalene at West Tisted, near Ropley in Hampshire, is tiny, peaceful and fascinating. There are ancient yew trees in the churchyard and

 

in the porch hangs the memorial for the 1914-18 war. There is also a letter, unlike anything I’ve ever come across: it’s a signed plea from the Vicar and the Parish Council at the end of WW1, addressed to their counterparts in 2014. For some reason they were not allowed to hang the war memorial plaque inside the church and they hit on this idea of asking the future generation to put this right. (Unfortunately the plaque and the walls are too fragile to comply with their request.)

A week or two later we had a couple of days in Hereford and between visiting relatives and having coffee, lunch and tea in various National Trust and English Heritage castles, etc, we drove the Black & White Villages Trail in pursuit of the setting for Phil Rickman’s series of mysteries featuring the Reverend Merrily Watkins. (Heartily recommended, by the way!) We also visited the tiny, ancient church at Kilpeck, south of Hereford. It’s featured in one of Phil’s books and it was magical – and not in the least sinister as it is in the book! Once a thriving mediaeval village beside a Norman castle, Kilpeck was incredibly peaceful when we saw it on a sunny September day. There wasn’t a sound, even from the neighbouring farm, only the birds twittering and small rustlings in the grass.
The church is renowned for its carved corbels all round the outside, particularly a rather cheerful, but explicit, Sheela Na Gig. I’m not posting her picture on here but just say that she looks a very happy and generous lady!

This is a Wikipaedia photo of the church as mine was a bit pathetic:

KilpeckChurch(PhilipHalling)Feb2006.jpg

Tuesday, 20th November is now the official launch date of my cosy and domestic mystery, The Convalescent Corpse. Set in 1918 it’s A story of life, rationing, and inconvenient corpses.’

Last weekend the local rec played host to a display of vehicles from both WW1 and WW2 with re-enactors on hand to explain what was happening. My particular interest at the moment is WW1 and with a convalescent hospital featured in the new book, I was delighted to snap this nurse: I asked her to look stern, and she tried, bless her, but was far too jolly to keep it up for long.https://amzn.to/2v0gQnX This is the Amazon UK link to buy The House at Ladywell (tell your friends!) and in the meantime, this is the blurb for The Convalescent Corpse:
It’s 1918 and the War has brought loss, grief and hardship to the three Fyttleton sisters. Helped by their grandmother (a failed society belle and expert poacher) and hindered by a difficult mother (an author and armchair suffragette) – plus an unruly chicken-stealing dog and a house full of paying-guests – they now have to deal with the worrying news that their late and unlamented father may not be dead after all. There’s also a death that might be suspicious, and on top of that there’s the body in the ha-ha…

 

Who Murdered Jane Austen?

Time to get back to the original premise of this blog, ie History, Mystery, and Winchester, and – wouldn’t you know it? – Jane Austen can provide all of those things, bless her.jane-austen1

A few weeks ago I spotted a mention that the Woman’s Hour Book of the Week was going to be ‘The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen’ by crime writer Lindsay Ashford. I liked the sound of it and was too impatient to listen to daily episodes so I bought it for my Kindle. And what a revelation it was! Told by Jane Austen’s closest friend outside the family, Anne Sharp, who was at one time governess to Edward Austen Knight’s daughter Fanny, the story begins in 1843 when Miss Sharp has heard of scientific tests that can be performed on hair. She sends a lock of Jane’s hair for analysis and when the report arrives this is what it says:

The lady, at the time of her demise, had quantities of arsenic in her person more than fifteen times that observed in the body’s state. You have told me that the persons with whom she dwelt…all survived her by a decade or more. I must conclude, therefore, that the source of the poison was not anything common to the household such as corruption of the water supply. Nor could any remedy the lady received – if indeed arsenic was administered – account for the great quantity present in her hair. It may be conjectured, then, that Miss J.A. was intentionally poisoned.” (My Bold)

This, of course, is fiction but it’s not giving away any spoilers to quote the note at the end of the book which mentions an authenticated lock of Jane Austen’s hair which, via several possessors, was ultimately presented for display at the cottage at Chawton in Hampshire, now known as Jane Austen’s house. The last owner, a Mr Henry G Burke of Baltimore, had the hair tested in a bid to discover the cause of her death and the result was shocking – the hair contained levels of arsenic far exceeding that observed in the body’s natural state.

Back to the mystery: From the beginning in 1843, we travel back to 1805, to Godmersham in Kent and to Anne Sharp’s first meeting with her charges’ aunt Jane, come on a visit. Using Jane Austen’s real letters, interweaving snippets of history, and a little bit of judicious conjecture, the story becomes an intriguing puzzle as Anne begins to notice things out of kilter, people behaving oddly – and indeed, people behaving badly. Anne keeps all her concerns close to her chest as her friendship with the fascinating, flirtatious, unsettled Jane grows and her grief as Jane’s illness takes hold of her is moving and poignant.

I’m not letting any more cats out of the bag about whodunit (according to the author) or why, just to say that it’s an inventive and extremely plausible explanation of a really shocking mystery – that whether deliberately dosed with arsenic or not, Jane Austen certainly appears to have died of it.

Once I’d finished Lindsay Ashford’s fascinating mystery I didn’t want to let Jane Austen go so I took another look at one of my favourite of the recent crop of films about her, ‘Miss Austen Regrets’.  missaustenregretsStarring Olivia Williams as the older Jane, it gives us a revealing and probably true picture of an oddly difficult woman – difficult in the sense that she didn’t fit the expected mould and her family had no idea how to handle her – and nor did she. Very different from the Victorian image of the saintly Miss Austen, in cap and mittens, wielding her quill pen as she wrote her novels in the quiet peace of a Hampshire village. As the title suggests, the film is full of regrets, Jane’s and Cassandra’s, the whole family, people who knew her and in a slight embroidery of what might have happened, a romance that vanished before it had a chance to bloom. Her sister-in-law’s brother, Brook Edward Bridges, who is mentioned in a letter to Cassandra.

In 1805 during a visit to Godmersham, her brother Edward’s estate in Kent, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra: “[W]e could not begin dinner till six. We were agreeably surprised by Edward Bridges’s company to it. . . . It is impossible to do justice to the hospitality of his attentions towards me; he made a point of ordering toasted cheese for supper entirely on my account” (27 August 1805).

The film suggests that Edward Bridges really loved her and their meeting not long before Jane’s death is very touching, but for me the only mystery is how on earth anyone could have turned down Hugh Bonneville who plays Edward with a wistful nostalgia and charm.missaregretspic

If you haven’t seen the film, do – it’s well worth it. And if you like the sound of the mystery novel, that’s well worth a look too!

And now a commercial (of course). A fabulous review of The Dead Queen’s Garden Dead Queen's Garden - FINALfrom Myshelf.com. Reviewer Rachel A Hyde says: Young widow Charlotte Richmond is now living a quiet and respectable life in a small Hampshire town, but once she led a more adventurous life in her native Australia. It is 1858 and nearly Christmas. She will be spending it with her late (fortunately) husband’s relations. There is a christening to attend, a dying friend to spend time with, a job offer to consider and of course a murder or two to solve (or prevent).

An enjoyable series featuring a resourceful and lively heroine and amusing escapades. It can be classified as a cozy, of the sort that combines a house party with goings-on in a picturesque village. Charlotte gets to meet Florence Nightingale, meet up with a former acquaintance that knows about her past and enjoy a Victorian Christmas. There is a good period ambience in this novel, which wears its research lightly but nonetheless appears grounded in the 1850s. The author is knowledgeable about how people behaved, what they wore and did and this adds a dimension to the book that is sadly missing in many other historical novels. Plenty happens too, happy and tragic, amusing and exciting and it was exactly the right length, leaving me hoping that the next one won’t be too long in the offing. Highly recommended to anybody in search of a good murder mystery with a 19th century setting.

 And that made me cry – knowing you can make people laugh and cry and enter a world that you’ve created is the real reason most authors keep going. (Money is nice too, of course, so it will be great when the ebook of The Dead Queen’s Garden is available from 30th April – tell your friends!)