Blog Tour

Ella's Journey blog tour

I’ve spent the day crafting answers to Q & A’s for the blog tour and writing a feature on ’10 things I’d like my readers to know about me’ for a website. There were some challenging questions! Check back for links here after my publication date – just eleven days away now – to see how I got on.

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My first published book!

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So proud and excited to announce the cover reveal and pre-order details of the first book I have ever had published! Ella’s Journey is available here as an ebook from Avon Books UK, an imprint of HarperCollins, on October 5th. It’s the first book to appear in the Mill Valley Girls series, set in Yorkshire, and follows a young servant girl in the early 1900s as she attempts to escape the scandal that has followed her since the tragic death of her sister. Can Ella save her family and overcome her destiny?

If you’d like to find out, don’t miss the very special offer price!

The cover was revealed at 12 midday Friday 8th September on Avon Books Twitter account – there was only one way to wait…

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August ramblings

Montresor

August started with ramblings further afield –  a few days in the Loire Valley in France. Lots of delicious food and wine, lazing – and lunching – by the pool; exploring a medieval building, once a priory and then a tannery, now being converted into a house; buying wine for a wedding at a vineyard high on the hill; visiting a painted, collaged glass exhibition, replicating famous paintings, in Montresor and walking by the river there; finally, a massive thunderstorm and a 4-hour flight delay on the way home (thanks Ryanair – and for the food parcel).

The following week found me watching the members of my NCT group (of 30 years standing) feed sheep on a farm in Hampshire, followed by a communal lunch in the sunshine supervised by the house cat, and a swim for those not too full to drown. Got back just in time for my first-ever village show, to marvel at the precise displays of produce and flowers.

By mid-August, the orchards were bursting with fruit and looked as though they were ripe for picking and ornamental berries had turned brilliant orange while the swallows were gathering on the wires outside. Could it be autumn already? (But the apples stayed on the trees a while longer and the swallows were just feeding up over the fields and practicing for their journey home).

A journey to Richborough by boat from Sandwich led to the spotting of four kingfishers, one sitting in the reeds so close that I could have touched it as the boat went by. That total, in one hour, is more than I have seen in my entire life! The flash of turquoise and orange as they darted ahead of the boat was just too fast for a photo, sadly, and I also failed to capture good images of some of the huge Dutch barges moored there, tucked away in privacy among the reeds with only boatloads of tourists to disturb their peace.

A hot day later in the month found me at a writing workshop at Quex House, a totally inspirational place with galleries of the eeriest dioramas and fascinating facts everywhere you looked. Too much to take in during one or even two visits and the walled garden was still a delight even as the month waned.

The end of the month meant another festival in Sandwich and a whole array of classic cars down on the green by the Quay, followed by a trip to sit on the shingle at Seasalter and time spent time hurling a stick into the sea for Meg.

July ramblings

Botany Bay

July started with a beach – Botany Bay at Broadstairs, very busy with families on a warm Saturday. A lovely stretch of sand with the surprise of a naturist section at one end for those so inclined and prepared to trek from the steps, or scramble down the well-used track! One to go back to on a crisp autumn day, I feel, to appreciate the chalk cliffs and natural structures at the other end.

July visitors were treated to Goodnestone Gardens, where the blue hydrangeas, cosmos and agapanthus were doing particularly well. The Magnolia grandiflora was having a second flush of flowers, too. And on my third visit, a friend pointed out the mulberry tree, laden with fruit, so I tried mulberries for the first time in my life. Very delicious they were, too! I wish I could have taken some home but it seems they don’t travel well.

The Salutation gardens weren’t forgotten this month, either. The borders were full of lush growth and the dahlias were getting ready to be at their best for their show in September. I have a love-hate relationship with dahlias – they remind me of the gardens of my childhood, but not in a good way. I think I prefer them as cut flowers…

Venturing further afield with friends to Dungeness on a very blustery day, we lunched at the fish shack (not the one in the picture…) and had to hang onto our food to prevent it blowing away! My local fish flatbread with salad, chilli sauce and crème fraiche was fabulous for a fiver. It felt a little odd and intrusive being among coach loads of tourists staring at the houses though. Perhaps somewhere to visit on a (less windy) summer’s evening, or on a bleak winter’s day.

I did manage to squeeze in a few artistic pursuits amongst the outdoor trips. A (very) local artist, Jo Aylward, held an open studio and I bought a couple of her lovely nature-inspired prints and was very taken by her printing onto fabric, too. She’d produced beautiful bags and cushions and a quite stunning linen curtain which she was using in her studio – check out its lovely interior, and her work, on her Instagram account.

Cushion

I also took a trip to the Turner Contemporary at Margate, with work by Phyllida Barlow and the British-Kenyan artist Michael Armitage on show – one particularly powerful work by the latter. I particularly enjoyed the exhibition of work from local Kentish schoolchildren, and from Africa. Lunched outside at The Greedy Cow (Beetroot houmous and rose harissa flatbread) before wandering around the galleries and vintage shops and walking the seafront, the beach packed with daytrippers enjoying huge family picnics and BBQs.

I made my first trip to the fabulously named Beaney House of Art and Knowledge in Canterbury to see the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize show, with fascinating information about each piece. Another place to go back to, to explore the permanent collections. Then lunch at one of The Goods Shed cafés – not flatbread this time…

To celebrate the first week of the school summer holidays the rains came. Gardening went on hold, writing became serious against a self-imposed deadline, but I did take a trip to St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, again, and marvelled that this huge site is hidden away beside a busy road – and has escaped being built over. Dating back to the sixth century and home to a succession of ecclesiastical buildings of increasing grandeur, it’s another place that demands a second visit to take it all in.

I went to see the very popular ‘summer blockbuster’ Dunkirk and discovered it was not for me… I found the story and the coincidences a bit laboured and, not being very good at identifying WW11 planes, got rather lost in the crucial aerial dog fights. There’s no denying it’s a high-tension movie, though, and there’s probably someone for everyone in terms of the male casting!

In between showers, there was a chance to do some walking, and to discover autumn approaching – in the third week of July? The brambles were ripening nicely, the apple and pear trees were heavily laden, plums, damson and sloes were nearly ready for picking and the hawthorn berries were profuse and beginning to show their first hint of colour. The garden shrubs demanded pruning and the endless dead-heading of the roses went on between the showers, worthwhile because the bushes have benefitted from the rain and are producing a second flush. The self-seeded buddleia and pink flowering plant (so prolific it must be a weed…) are both butterfly-and-bee magnets.

July finished with a private view. Dennis’s exuberant images, mainly from a trip to Spain, are guaranteed to uplift the spirits. I wasn’t able capture a photo over the heads of everyone crammed into the wine bar, but here’s one from his previous show to give a feel for the kind of thing.

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June ramblings

Goodenstone

It was a great time for gardens, even if mine was parched from the lack of rain by mid-month. Goodnestone Gardens looked splendid at the beginning of June, then the weather was more uncertain by the time my birthday (and election day) dawned. The sun came out, though, in time for a birthday tea organised by my book group. More birthdays followed – a good excuse to make a cake.

Early in the month it was good to see the Little Gardens of Sandwich on their public open days and marvel at the variety of styles tucked away behind properties large and small, then be tempted by the specialist plant stalls. A couple of visits to the Salutation garden found the borders packed with interesting plants along with some fabulous seedheads – and a rather lovely secret door. I found myself deadheading roses everyday at home but the bright pink (sadly unscented) roses that bloomed in profusion out at the front might prove too much of a challenge for me. The white hydrangeas are now looking spectacular to make up for the fading of the roses, while sweet peas bought from the local post office filled jugs until the middle of the month.

It wasn’t all about gardens –  I made a visit to London and satisfied my wish for a masala dosa, went to the Marlowe in Canterbury to see the fabulous performance of Jane Eyre by Bristol Old Vic and spotted poppies and hollyhocks growing on the beach in Deal. I also spent a puzzling few hours at Dover Castle. Glorious on the outside, a lack of information boards inside meant detective work was required to work out the significance of the refurbished rooms. Best bits – the lit fire in the King’s bedroom, illustrating that the fires really could heat a big, draughty room (in midsummer…), the (reproduction) Mappa Mundi and the atmospheric galleries – unadorned with uneven floors and ventilation shafts/spy holes into the main castle giving, in my view, the best glimpse of what castle life might have been like in the 1400s.

A visit to the Pines Calyx museum, tea room and garden in St. Margaret’s proved more successful. A beautiful garden featuring stunning views and an unusual flower bed formed from the ancient façade of a London house, it made the perfect way to round off the month. Apart from completing the re-painting of my summerhouse inside and out – a new writing space, maybe?

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May ramblings

Barley

If April was all about tulips, then May was all about roses (although that will no doubt apply to June as well). It was time to get stuck into some serious gardening and to worry about the lack of rain, which eventually arrived towards the end of the month in the form of a couple of deluges, in one case accompanied by a two-hour electrical storm in the early hours, the like of which I’d never seen, or heard, before. Amazingly, it didn’t flatten the barley field out front or the roses, foxgloves and alliums etc out back.

May brought visitors, who struck lucky with the weather at the beginning and end of the month. There was a Food Festival in Sandwich, which saw the streets closed and filled with food stalls, with tables for outdoor eating set up on the cobbles in front of the Guildhall. A downpour gave me the opportunity to get a glimpse of the display of the new museum and Sandwich’s Magna Carta, along with the Custumal and Charter of the Forest – an indication of Sandwich’s prominence as one of the four top towns in England back in the 13th century.

Two visits to Goodnestone Gardens, a week apart, saw the gardens in quite different weather, but how they had changed since April. So much had come into bloom in the walled garden and even that changed over the course of the week. The clematis vanished and surely I hadn’t overlooked the foxtail lilies before – they were immense! A raptor (Sparrowhawk? Kestrel?) was feeding its chick, precariously balanced on top of a conifer in front of the church tower and I spotted a blue tit feeding young well-hidden in the trunk of a dead tree in front of the house. Tea and cake afterwards, both times, always a treat.

Things were not so joyous on the bird front at home. A baby blackbird, barely fledged and spending most of its time scuttling along the ground, hid in my garden waste bag and was nearly smothered when I dumped grass cuttings on top of it. It survived, only to meet a worse fate two days later when a magpie took it. The three sets of sparrows nesting in my eaves have been driving me mad with their chirruping, the sparrowhawk chick(s) have fledged and the adults are circling , causing general consternation amongst the local bird population (this may put paid to some of the chirruping, I suppose…) and I realise, on writing, that I haven’t seen my garden robin for some time. I hope he’s just too busy feeding young to put in an appearance and that he’ll reappear, looking a bit bedraggled having moulted his red breast, before too long.

A trip to garden centres near Ashford gave me a chance to see something of the beautiful Kent Downs, new to me, with delightful village names – Monks Horton, Stowting, Rhodes Minnis. And a subsequent trip to Beech Court Gardens, with a wonderfull arboretum which felt like Kew Gardens on a more manageable scale, introduced me to lots of places beginning with ‘C’ which will require further visits – Challock among them.

Butterly

Locally, I discovered a walk through a Miller’s Woodland Trust site, most notable (to me) for its butterflies and beautiful meadow, filled with grasses and vetches including a single-flowered magenta one that I had never seen before, later identified as Grass Vetchling, courtesy of my favourite book from childhood, The Concise British Flora in Colour. This was finally unpacked, along with all my other books, after 10 months in boxes. As I filled up the new bookshelves it was like meeting lots of old friends again.

 

April ramblings

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Another desk-bound month, but what a one for blossom! Spectacular quantities of it everywhere, but could I capture a photo to do it justice? Sadly, no – not with a phone camera. It was a great month for tulips, too, like the ones below at Walmer Castle Gardens, and they were much easier to photograph.

April wasn’t just about admiring gardens – I visited Greenwich on a beautiful spring day to see The Painted Ceiling, pre-restoration, at the Royal Naval Hall. Hard hats and high vis jackets were required, before a trip up the scaffolding to view the beautiful Baroque ceiling as the people who painted it would have seen it, complete with the graffiti they left behind.

As the month continued with fabulous narcissi, bluebells, wisteria and lilac, who would have thought I would be longing for rain! I’ve got my wish, though. May is getting off to a cool, wet start – but the garden loves it.

A Modern Romance

She pored over his advert just once more to remind herself, although she’d looked at it so many times she knew it off by heart. Tall, athletic build, a teacher. He was good looking. There was no getting away from it. Made you wonder why he needed to advertise but then these days it was what everyone did, apparently. And he seemed to like her.

She always looked forward to his emails. They came every evening, without fail, filled with tales of the average school day. Enough to make you glad you weren’t at school yourself anymore. He had to deal with bullying by text, with girls who should have known better sending daft pictures of themselves to boys, the sort of photos that would make you want to die if your Mum and Dad saw them, the sort that ended up posted on Facebook for half the world to see.

After a while, she’d begun to wonder whether he was married. During that first month or two, when they never managed to meet, when dates were cancelled at the last minute, trains missed, emergencies suddenly came up, she’d had to ask herself what was going on. She’d accused him in an email in the end. Said it was strange how they’d never spoken, let alone met.

He sent flowers the next day. Beautiful flowers, not some tacky arrangement full of chrysanthemums. Coffin flowers, her Mum always called them. No, these were special – lillies and alliums interspersed with eucalyptus. Unusual, just like her, he said. And he’d phoned that night. She’d been startled at first. Thrown by his voice, which wasn’t what she’d expected. Not the sort of voice you’d imagine commanding the respect of a room full of teenagers. But once they got chatting, she forgot all about it. He seemed to understand her so perfectly. He felt like her best friend at the end of that first call. She’d congratulated herself. It felt like they already knew each other so well and they hadn’t even met.

So how had she let nine months pass without that meeting actually happening? His excuses had always seemed so plausible: the demands of the school timetable, weekend rugby trips, weekend field trips, the school skiing trip. Then his mother fell ill and he’d been sending weekends with her in Shropshire. She’d stopped talking to her friends about it. She couldn’t take the disbelieving looks, the sighs, the impatience when she’d had to confirm that yes, another week had passed and still they hadn’t met.

She had the emails though. And the late-night conversations, so romantic that she couldn’t believe how lucky she was. They’d even talked about marriage, about the number of children they’d have, where they might live. It was the perfect relationship, text book in every way except one.

One lunchtime, emboldened after a couple of glasses of wine for her birthday lunch and egged on by her friends, she’d called the school. He’d sent her beautiful flowers that morning, fat-bloomed peonies, palest pink, wrapped in cerise tissue and cellophane, raffia-tied. She should thank him, she reasoned. She’d tried his mobile – he hadn’t picked up.

The woman who answered the school phone had a crisp, no-nonsense voice. ‘St. Brides Upper School. How may I help you?’

She’d stumbled a little over his name. ‘Reynolds,’ the woman had replied. ‘Miss Reynolds. Let me see, she must have left here about a year ago.’

‘No, Mr. Reynolds. Mr. Thomas Reynolds. He teaches sport. And geography.’

‘I think you mean Humanities,’ the woman said. ‘Hmmm. I’m afraid we don’t have anyone of that name here. Are you sure you have the right school?’

She’d paused, puzzled. Her alcohol-fogged brain couldn’t compute this. Her friends were looking away, wry anxious smiles on their faces. She tried again. ‘Thomas Reynolds. About 37. From Shropshire originally.’

The reply was firm. ‘The only Reynolds we’ve employed in recent years was Miss Teresa Reynolds. She was about 37 and she taught humanities. And sport, come to think of it. But no Thomas Reynolds, I’m afraid.’ There was a decisive click and the line went dead.

Her friends stepped in then. They’d taken her home, sat with her while she veered between horror, disbelief, embarrassment, despair. Her plans evaporated, her whole future changed. They’d swung into action, googled, tracked, uncovered, phoned. Teresa Reynolds was, in fact, her Thomas. And someone else’s Terence, and someone else’s Tony. She’d been duped, deceived by a fake photograph and the anonymity of the internet, by her own desperate wish to believe. She’d just played a romantic game of consequences, with no winners.

The police had investigated whether there was a fraud case to answer and someone had tipped off the journalists. They’d hounded her for her story, asking her whether, after her experience, there was one piece of advice she could offer to anyone else who found themselves in her position. She considered. ‘If it seems too good to be true, it probably is’? But then what about those who had advised her to ‘seize the day’, that ‘life wasn’t a dress rehearsal’? In the end, she settled for the one thing she’d chosen to keep her sane, that she chanted like a mantra every day when it all felt too much. ‘Don’t look back, look forward.’

This is my (late this week – very sorry…) entry for the Thanet Creative Writers competition

What stops me writing?

I’d thought things were going pretty well, to be honest. We’d been seeing rather lot of each other, in more ways than one, ever since our eyes had met across a crowded room. Well, crowded bar. He was a bit different from my usual type. Older and more ordinary I suppose. He looked out of place there, standing next to the super-groomed, gym-fit boys. I always wanted to break into song when I saw that crowd. You know the one: ‘Tall and tanned and young and lovely…’ Beside them he looked a bit rumpled, dishevelled even, nursing a glass of red. Another thing that made him stand out.

I was just working up the nerve to go over, to see whether I could get a bit of a chat going, when he looked up from his glass and our eyes locked. I swear, it was like a physical blow. A jolt of electricity. If it wasn’t so damn dark in there you’d have seen my blush from the moon.

Before I’d had time to compose myself, think of some witty remark as an introduction, he was on his way over.

‘Is it always like this in here?’ He had to shout to make himself heard over the racket. The Latino girls next to me were shrieking with laughter about something. I didn’t like to look in case it had something to do with me. And the DJ had turned up the volume on one of those tired disco classics.

‘Yeah, pretty much. On Fridays especially.’ God, that was a scintillating start – our first conversation.

He grinned. I had a bit of a shock. He hadn’t had his teeth fixed – very old school. But I liked the sound of what came next.

‘Shall we get out of here?’

We didn’t hang about. Quick drink at the pub next door where we could actually talk a bit. I had to ignore the usual crew around the bar, rolling their eyes and making lewd gestures behind his back.

We spent the whole of that weekend together. Not just in bed round at my place. We went out, too. And not just the usual places. On Saturday we went to the National Gallery and the ICA, then we walked through St James’s Park. We sat on a bench and watched families feeding the ducks, then we bought wine and spent a fortune at the deli and went back to mine. On Sunday, we took the tube to Richmond Park and walked some more. I didn’t like to mention to him that I was ruining my new Louboutin trainers, the ones with the gold lettering on the ankle. I’d only bought them the week before.

He seemed to really know his way around there. Said he only lived a couple of miles away and liked to get on his bike and cycle there in the mornings, as soon as they opened the gates, before the crowds descended. While the sun was still rising and the mist dispersing in the autumn, or while the grass was still white over with frost in the winter, the deer standing out against the frosty landscape, their breath hanging in the air. He was like a painter with words, a poet. He said he worked in the arts – maybe that explained it.

We walked past White Lodge. ‘Did you train there?’ He was serious.

‘Nah. Up north. Wolverhampton. Then Birmingham.’

He’d been to see me perform. I’d started the job after we met. Third from the end, chorus of Les Mis. He was polite about it afterwards, even enthusiastic, but I could tell it wasn’t his cup of tea. More likely to find him at the National, I reckon.

It was only six weeks, and counting, when it happened. We were having a pub lunch in Richmond, after our usual Sunday morning Richmond Park walk. (I’d even invested in some walking boots. Horrid clumsy things. No style.) We were talking about maybe going away for a week in the summer, and having a debate about where. I favoured a bit of sun, the Italian lakes maybe, or what about somewhere more exotic? He said Sweden, or even Iceland?

I noticed that he’d gone a bit quiet. I thought maybe he was upset when I’d refused dessert. ‘Watching my figure,’ I’d said, giving him a look. I’d been teasing him the previous night about not taking care of himself, about his bit of a belly. He’d been impatient.

‘Pointless vanity’, he’d said. Maybe the dessert comment had been a bit tactless? It looked fantastic when it arrived, it has to be said, but I could hardly ask for a share now that I’d gone on about it, could I?

I noticed that his eyes kept sliding away from me when I talked. He was looking over his shoulder at someone or something. It was a bit unnerving. I was facing the wall, he was facing into the room. There wasn’t even a mirror to help me get a sense of what might be happening behind me. I wanted to bob my head back into his line of sight, make some joke about it.

I didn’t dare ask him who or what he was looking at, so I got up to go to the Gents. I scanned the room behind me to see who could have caught his eye. No-one obvious; they were all couples and families. A waiter? It seemed unlikely: I could only see waitresses in any case. Young girls, looked like students. All very slim and gorgeous. Didn’t look as though a morsel of the Sunday lunch they were serving had ever passed their lips.

When I got back to the table he had gone. I tried hard not to look surprised, or upset. Were the people sitting on either side looking at me? Were they feeling sorry for me? I felt too self-conscious to turn around to see whether I could spot him. I got my phone out and pretended to be absorbed in my messages and Facebook. Time was passing. Should I call him to find out where he’d gone?

I felt a hand on my shoulder. ‘I’d like you to meet someone.’

I turned, half stood up. He had his arm around the shoulder of one of the young girls that worked there. Long hair, dark eyes. I couldn’t quite take it in.

‘My daughter, Ellie.’ That figured. She looked a lot like him.

‘She’s just finished her shift. I haven’t seen her in a while. I’m going to walk her home and catch up on her news. Maybe pop in and say ‘hi’ to her Mum. Do you mind?’

There wasn’t a lot I could say, except ‘Pleased to meet you,’ ‘No, you go right ahead,’ and ‘Lovely food.’ That kind of thing. Polite pleasantries. Putting a brave face on it.

I never saw him again. I walked in Richmond Park a few times. Thought I might see him on his bike, or walking the dog with his family. I promised myself I wouldn’t text or call him, or have a rant. I half thought he might write and explain himself. For a week or two I looked for a letter on the mat every morning.

What stops me writing? I don’t know his address. Tourists, that’s what I call men like him. They’re the worst. The boots? I took them to the charity shop.

This is my entry for the Thanet Creative Writers competition.

Peacock

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Sweet-wrapper bright,
there you were.
Glimpsed out of the corner of my eye,
a brilliant jewel against sun-warmed brick.

The morning after
an evening of drink-stoked bitterness
and a night in separate sleepless beds,
he’d shared a breakfast of recriminations with me.

I cleared the wardrobe
of all the things I’d kept
from smaller, happier times,
while you rested there, two storeys high.

I hadn’t thought to look for an omen,
but if I had you would have been it.
If I had wings I would join you,
I would fly.

This is my latest entry for the Thanet Creative Writers competition