Starting a story

It was back on a glorious day in October 2017, just after my first book Ella’s Journey had been published, that I began thinking about the story that would be published in March 2020 as The Margate Maid (and now A Maid’s Ruin). Following up on a bit of my own family research, and with the help of a map from the early 1800s on my phone, I started to explore the area in Margate where my ancestors once lived.

The cow barn in Church Street, which I’d discovered on the 1811 census, had long gone, but I found Princes Crescent and a pub nearby that had been there in the early 1800s, when it was known as The Liverpool Arms. (I preferred its later name The Spread Eagle, so kept that).

I had a wander around Margate, taking photos of the harbour from outside the Turner Contemporary and along the harbour arm, little knowing at that point that both Turner and the harbour would come to play a part in my story. A visit to the Foundling Museum in London just after Christmas led me to another part of my story – all I had to do now was write it! The title went through many revisions – my working title was Molly, then The Pomegranate Tree, then The Apothecaries’ Garden, then The Girl with the Chestnut Hair, before we arrived at The Margate Maid and, finally, A Maid’s Ruin for publication. If you’ve read the book, which title do you like best?

November ramblings

November came in, along with Lockdown 2. There was little to be done except make the most of the sunny skies and get out on some walks. This time we were encouraged to exercise as much as possible, so the first lockdown weekend found me walking out from Sandwich quay on the Saturday, and along the beach to Kingsdown then back via the church and Hawksdown on the Sunday.

Reading through the page proofs of The Secret Child, Book 2 of my latest trilogy, saw me through several more days, interspersed with more walks with friends. The sun shone and late autumn light illuminated a circular walk from Ramsgate to Dumpton Gap and back. And we had some spectacular sunsets, too.

November evenings are long, though, with darkness creeping in from about 4pm. I embarked on some cooking, using the Quick Roasting Tin book I recently received as a gift – Keralan prawn curry, nigella-spiced dhal and baked gnocchi – not all on the same day, I hasten to add! I freestyled a bit with the gnocchi, using vegetables I had in and making it in the style of macaroni cheese. All delicious, all satisfyingly quick and easy to make.

I had window sashes replaced during the last week of the month, while I hid in the basement for the duration as the house was very chilly! But on the last day the sun came out and the job I’d intended to do in the garden – pruning the climbing roses – was forestalled by the amount of blooms. So it earned a reprieve for another week or two.

October ramblings

I didn’t take as many photos as usual in October. Maybe the weather wasn’t so good for some of it, or maybe I was focused on unpacking some of the remaining boxes from my move. Anyway, the month got off to a lovely start with a family visit. We managed a bike ride along the front (well, some of us did…), and celebrated a birthday, before the weather the following day kept us trapped inside. We braved the grey skies the following day to throw a few stones into the sea before paying a repeat visit to Wingham Wildlife Park (and the dinosaurs).

The film I’d made the previous month for Libraries Week had its premier! And mid month some glorious autumn sunshine showed up, in time for a trip to Goodnestone park and gardens (top and below).

I had two weekends away – the first since March. One to Sussex, where we walked a lot and ate a lot, and the second to help out at half term, and to say farewell to my daughter, before she headed back to Goa. She got out just in time – Hallowe’en brought with it the unwelcome news of another lockdown, in the lead up to Christmas. Luckily, I’ve got an editing deadline to keep me busy, as well as the germ of an idea for a new book to explore in the coming month.

September ramblings

There was much activity on Walmer beach at the start of the month – diggers and dumpers, transporting the shingle from one end of the beach to the other (apparently). The men at work must have wondered why I was videoing them – for the grandson, obviously…

I took my first train trip since lockdown, up to London and back in a day, excited to see my daughter, Julia, after over a year. It was probably the longest time I’d had to wear a mask at any one time and, apart from the usual hazard of my glasses steaming up whilst trying to read, the whole trip was very straightforward. The Kings Cross area, where I met Julia for lunch, felt rather sad and desolate. Very few cafés and shops were open in Coal Drops Yard, normally vibrant and busy, and hand sanitising stations had popped up every few yards.

Back home, the grey skies vanished after a day or so and the temperatures crept back up again in time for some visitors and more fizz on the beach, plus a wander around Walmer Castle gardens where the late summer and early autumn borders still had plenty of colour.

Julia arrived to stay for a few days and the temperature soared, enticing us back into the water for a swim, followed by the last Pimms of summer (on the beach, of course).

We spent a very hot day in Margate, making a film about the inspiration behind my latest book (The Margate Maid/A Maid’s Ruin), in which Turner’s very early works played a part (below left). The excellent creative services of a filmmaker friend, and Julia’s assistance, made the whole process surprisingly straightforward. We popped into Haeckels, a shop in Cliftonville featuring all things seaweed. It was quite an experience, making a purchase via their socially distanced vending machine (below right), housed in a ‘hall of mirrors’.

We had a day out in Folkestone, checking out the shops in the High Street and beyond, including Moda, which has to be my favourite shop for gift buying.

Then we wandered along the harbour arm and along the boardwalk, taking in a few of the artworks on the art trail. It all looks very tranquil in the photos but it was actually blowing a gale (which the weather forecast defined as a moderate breeze…).

After Julia left, I worked on the edits of Book Three in the latest trilogy, and pondered some ideas for a new book (or new series, perhaps), while also helping to make some tweaks to the film, ready for its debut as part of Libraries Week in October.

Back in London, Julia celebrated her birthday, ably assisted by Ellis, while I lit the first fire in the new house on a gusty weekend. Turned out to be a bit smoky – the house smelt as though I’d had an indoor bonfire!

August ramblings

The planned long weekend in France at the start of the month was put on hold for fear of quarantine on return, which would have wrecked the family’s visit to see the new house. (Quarantine wasn’t actually imposed for another two weeks.) Instead, my friends snatched a weekend in Kent, which started with champagne on the beach as the moon rose, and graduated to sea swimming as the temperature climbed the next day. I hadn’t swum in the UK sea for around twenty-five to thirty years so I was very proud of myself!

When the family arrived a few days later, we swam most days. (I’d bought child-sized swim shoes in preparation for the shingle beach.) I thought my grandson would find it way too cold but once he got over the shock he loved it. Peanut butter sandwiches were the perfect antidote to any salty water he may have swallowed!

I’d booked  a visit to Walmer Castle gardens and it worked very well for a family outing. Plenty of shade as the temperature rose, lots to see in the woodland walk and the gardens, hungry fishes ready to ‘snack’ on small fingers in the formal pond and thoughtful deckchairs set in the shade for when we needed to have a rest and a drink.

Visiting Wingham Wildlife Park on a day when the temperature reached over 30 degrees was more of a challenge – a lot of the animals were sensibly lurking inside – but Ellis loved the ring-tailed lemurs, the penguins and, of course, the go-karts. He was less sure about the moving dinosaurs. We were all ready for a swim after nearly four hours spent there.

Ellis loved playing with his Dad’s old toys – found in the loft when I moved – and he was pretty keen on all the ice cream to be had locally.

It was very quiet once everyone went home – but they left me with some enormous lilies, which filled the house with their perfume for days.

With a few days before the next visitors arrived, I had shelves built and spent a weekend painting them, filling one set with books, and assembling a flat-pack sideboard. Might have overdone it – the back has been playing up ever since!

When the family were here, we ate breakfast and lunch in the garden and dinner, too – it was such amazing weather. We tried a lot of the local take-aways (below left). The next visitors resulted in dining-out experiences for the first time since March! The food at The Rose (below right) was excellent, and the atmosphere at Eva’s was perfect for a suddenly damp and cool Saturday evening (we only tried the bruschetta, but they were delicious).

A fierce storm the day before – thunder and lightning for nearly an hour, flooding in town, a lightning strike on a house and subsequent fire – had upset the weather just in time for the Bank Holiday weekend. We did the traditional British stiff-upper-lip thing and picnicked on fish and chips on the beach (there may also have been champagne), sheltering behind a boat from the blustery wind, grey skies and flurries of rain. It was fun – and, of course, the sun came out just as everyone headed home.

July ramblings

The Beach

The first half of July was a whirlwind of organisation after the house move: things to be ordered and hung and built, plus a lot of learning to be patient as everyone is busy catching up with themselves after being unable to work for several weeks. So until I can get shelves built in mid August, I am learning to live with around 30 boxes of books and china, waiting to be unpacked. I did my usual thing and began spending money on things for the house (in this case some paintings by local artists) instead of saving it towards repairs to the fabric of the building.

There were quite a few early wakings and I realised it was silly not to take advantage of them and get out and walk along the seafront. The hour between 6am and 7am turned out to be magical – there were few people about, the sun shone on a sparkling sea and the beach was empty. The perfect time for standing a few minutes at the water’s edge, watching the waves work their way along the shoreline, before turning back for home and breakfast.

Morning walk2

From looking at my photos anyone would think July had been a month of glorious weather. In fact, after the heat at the end of June gave way to gales and then rain, it turned out to be a mixed month, with sunshine returning at the end and temperatures climbing to 30 plus degrees. This coincided with the arrival of my first guests – we drank fizz on the beach as the moon rose, they swam the next morning and I was shamed into taking my first dip in over 25 years in UK waters later that afternoon, after a long, hot walk around town. It was still balmy into the evening so we dined in the garden by candlelight, rounding off July in some style.

I’ve made it right to the end without mentioning masks and queues and hand sanitiser – there were definitely times when July felt almost normal. But I called off my trip to France over fears that quarantine would be imposed on my return (potentially wrecking a family visit scheduled for my return). I went to a barbecue one night and on another had pizza delivered to the beach, where we drank takeaway lemon gin sitting on the beach wall, then I walked home under a beautiful sky. I walked locally and into town, had takeaway coffee at Sandown Castle community gardens – under the circumstances, it was a good month.

June ramblings

Walmer 1

June brought an easing of lockdown and a chance to catch up with family members – in particular, my grandson, much missed and with noticeably more words! The weather took a bit of a nosedive for his visit, with strong winds blowing in and only brief glimpses of the sun, but we still got out for some local walks.

I was lucky enough to get a 2-hour window of sunshine on the afternoon of my birthday, allowing a socially distanced tea party in the garden with my book group, after a morning when it was cool enough to wear a coat!

Birthday

I discovered that my favourite garden in the area – Goodnestone Park – had opened, meaning there was chance to see it looking its June best on a sunny day. No tea and cake of course – those with foresight took a picnic.

And I walked again by the sea from Ramsgate to Broadstairs and back, under striking blue skies, and on the local paths around the fields.

By the middle of June, I had my moving date at the end of the month. I’d had an offer accepted on a property the day before lockdown, so had been playing a waiting game ever since. Moving out was rather similar to moving in – the temperature soared and we had the hottest spell that we’d had for some time. I was sad to say goodbye to my country cottage, but excited to move to the seaside – one road back from the seafront (top), yet with peaceful countryside at the end of the road.

Cottage

Walmer 3Moving felt like a relatively normal, if stressful, event, with exchange and completion just a day apart. I was rather hindered by not being able to have a clear out, with the charity shops closed and tip visits restricted so I’ve had to bring rather more with me than I would have liked. But it is still an abnormal time – most obvious when I’ve needed to venture into a shop, where queueing, restricted numbers and hand-sanitiser are the order of the day. Once more, I wonder what next month will bring – with a bit of luck, my summer holiday: a trip to France for a long weekend.

May ramblings

Landscape

I look back at my last post, to see that 7th May was review day for lockdown – apparently. I can’t remember if it happened or if it did, what it meant. On we drifted, for those of us not working in any regular way, every day was groundhog day. For me, the walks and the gardening continued, along with the marvellous weather. The death toll rose even further and I suppose we all searched for some meaning in it all, and wondered when the lockdown would begin to ease, while watching the news and grasping at straws.

The month began with a rainbow, and it did end with lockdown easing enough to allow us to meet six friends, outside, at a distance. Writing this, I’m wondering where we will be in a month’s time.

Rainbow

In between the two events above I worked in the garden, taking delight in the new flowers as they appeared – white aquilegia and lilac.

Then, by mid month, a positive deluge of pink – lupins, chives, more aquilegia, roses, osteospermum and alliums. The honeysuckle was having a very good year!

There were some creative endeavours, too: my painting-by-numbers picture – a Mother’s Day gift – progressed. And I finished the first draft of Book 3 of the new trilogy.

The foxgloves opened and surprised me by their colours – pink, of course, but not quite sure where the white ones came from.

And I tackled a box topiary job over several days – around twenty five spheres and cones, and five low hedges. Backbreaking work!

There was more than one walk by the sea – this one at Ramsgate.

On another occasion to Broadstairs and back, observing some great social distancing.

Dumpton 2

And at Dumpton Gap

And through the local fields, where the wheat and barley had put on a growth spurt in the sunshine.

My Buddleja alternifolia, also known as the fountain butterfly bush, flowered and filled the lane with its honey scent. And the paeony flowered for the first time since I moved it, but the stems were spindly and struggled to support the flower heads. I picked them for a vase and felt guilty; roses too.

Path

April ramblings

Church

I was going to just post images from my garden and my socially-distanced walks for April, because no words of mine can do justice to what has been going on in this new world we are inhabiting.

But that would be to fail to honour the fact that while many of us look forward to breaking free from some of these shackles and others are terrified at the thought, upwards of 25,000 people in the UK had died by the end of April. (I was shocked to discover that when I last posted on here, at the end of March, the number was 4,000 …) The latest figure is pretty much the size of the whole population of a nearby town (and will be beyond the size of it as May goes on). I try to imagine it and can’t.

It’s been a month where every day has been much like another for me – a walk, gardening, writing or editing, a massive spring clean, taking a deep breath and facing a trip to the shops alongside checking the news and, by the last week, being increasingly baffled by the statistics and the assertions. I had a lot of questions and no-one to answer them.

But there have been Zoom conversations with family and friends, yoga classes, an awful lot of memes, a belated discovery of the wonderful taste of potatoes, tomatoes and raspberries bought in the farm shop. And above all, an appreciation of nature unfolding and breathing all around. The trees have gone from bare branches to mostly full leaf, the blossom – never less than spectacular – has been and, in some cases gone, and the birdsong (skylark, blackbird, song thrush, robin, wren, goldfinch and, the biggest revelation of all, blackcap) continues to lift the spirits.

There’s also been the feeling of loss of six weeks gone by, of a grandson much missed as he changes every day, of inadequate conversations on over-stretched wi-fi links – yet this loss is barely worth mentioning compared to the grief that others have faced.

Onwards we go into May, wondering what lies at the end of it whilst also trying not to wonder too much. Life at the moment is best lived day by day.

I was surprised to discover just how many of my photos this month featured paths and tracks leading away into the distance.

The blossom everywhere – pear, cherry, ornamental – was fabulous.

The garden was glorious –  tulips at the start of the month, then quince and Sun Disc narcissi. The weeds flourished and the grass needed a regular cut.

Clematis at the back, honeysuckle at the front …

Forget-me-nots, muscari and rosemary in mid-April, lily of the valley and bluebells at the end of the month.

The Easter weather was so beautiful. Like so many people, I missed seeing the family – particularly my favourite Easter bunny on his Easter egg hunt. I tried my hand at painting, and soon realised I was better off sticking to the writing.

Writing

Book Three of the latest trilogy is now up to 80,000 words. I’m determined to finish by 7th May – review day for the lockdown…

 

March ramblings

Walmer

March 2020 will go down as the month when the UK, held hostage by a virus, began to live out a dystopian novel. The time when a health emergency turned into a pandemic and we went from freedom to lockdown overnight.

During the first half of the month, there were rumblings in the background. A few deaths began to be logged to COVID-19, although it still felt like a vague threat – to the general public, at least. It seemed inconceivable that we might suffer in the same way that China had, until Italy and Spain showed signs of going the same way. By the end of the month, schools and businesses were closed, the streets were deserted, even in London, the supermarket shelves bare, stripped of packets and tins and toilet rolls. We were allowed out for an hour’s exercise a day, alone or with the people we lived with, or to go and buy essential shopping. We stood in line, 2 metres apart, to go in to shops one at a time to check whether butter had come in, or hand sanitiser, or tinned tomatoes.

The saving grace, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse, was the weather. After months of gloom and rain, the sun came out – but not without giving us a beating from a weekend of gales first. The countryside, parks and gardens (for those lucky enough to have them), came into bloom and the birds sang their hearts out, from dawn chorus to dusk, to prove that for them, at least life went on as normal. Better, in fact. The climate benefited from the fact that there were so few cars on the road, industry had all but ground to a halt, planes no longer flew.

I write this in the hope that, looking back in a few months’ time, it will all feel like a bad dream: the whole world in the grip of a virus that as yet no-one knows how to beat; a million dead worldwide, over 4,000 in the UK and rising. Every individual death, logged as a daily total, a tragedy for that person’s family, made particularly cruel because of the isolation of both the death and the funeral. And through it all the key workers soldiered on, putting themselves at risk for us, while we hid, alternating between fear and irritation, wondering whether there was a way out and if so, when it would come.

The relatively normal start to the month began with the publication of my fourth book, The Margate Maid, in hardback and ebook and audiobook – two firsts there for me. I went up to London – although I chose to drive as a precaution rather than take the train – in the midst of the worst rain I have ever driven through. On the Friday, Ellis and I went to the playground and to a café – both memorable for being activities now forbidden.

Saturday was very special – a visit to Bekonscot model village – much loved by my own children and now an amazing new discovery for Ellis. Choo-choo train heaven!

When I got home, there was a lovely delivery of publication-day flowers from my new publishers. And I received the final large-print copy of my Yorkshire trilogy from my previous publishers.

I managed a couple of walks with friends, although by now social distancing measures were beginning to come into force. There was much washing of hands and keeping 2 metres apart. Then that came to an abrupt end, too. In its place, a new world of chatting to friends and family on HouseParty and WhatsApp, video calls for Mothers Day, writing group meetings and yoga classes via Zoom. And each day, a solo walk in the countryside – perfect for social distancing where I live.

Primroses were in flower and a solitary cistus bloom appeared, very early. All the spring yellows came out in force – daffodils, forsythia, mahonia – and the tulips were up and waiting in the wings.

In the first week of lockdown I threw myself into cooking recipes new and old. A variation of a Nigel Slater recipe with coconut, spinach and tomatoes, tweaked to include what I could find in the shops. Cauliflower soup, very much enjoyed at a friend’s house but lacking in flavour when I made it, enlivened with a delicious garlic and coriander Zhoug (not made by me…)

Then spiced lentil soup,  a Delia recipe that I’ve been making for well over 30 years (recipe now lost but engraved on my memory). And, when the sun came out, pear and roquefort salad, with the addition of bacon, eaten in the garden one sunny lunchtime, accompanied by a glass of white wine because – why not?

I’m lucky in that I’m used to being at home, with writing and researching taking up a portion of every day. It’s been much harder for friends and family, having to adapt to home-working with two people needing to make calls and use computers plus looking after children and maybe home-schooling, too. Ellis was keen to get in on the act. He enjoyed the chance for a run-around, too.

The photo at the top was taken just before lockdown, as is my final image. It felt too sensitive a subject to post to my Instagram account at the time, but the church and graveyard at Kingsdown are so beautiful and peaceful – a moment of solace in the strangest, and saddest, of times.

Churchyard