Mountains, Mines and Middle-Earth – Travels in New Zealand Part 3 – Christchurch and Auckland

Part 3 – in which we explore post-earthquake Christchurch.

(You can read Parts 1 and 2 here and here.)

New, smart, modern buildings mixed with pretty colonial bungalows behind fencing, grand buildings propped up with giant crates and vacant gaps. Attempts to use the gaps creatively – wall paintings and pop-up art installations – didn’t hide the devastation, and many of them had become temporary car parks.

Wall art, Christchurch
Crates shore up damaged buildings
A smart new build
Christchurch city square
Damaged building
Art installation – 185 chairs, one for each victim of the earthquakes

The cathedrals were sad affairs. Fencing round the Anglican one, a hollow wreck, heaved the symmetry of the square off-balance, leaving room only for a horseshoe of fast-food caravans in the remaining space. The catholic one fared better, the angels on its parapet holding on grimly. The powers-that-be in each institution have puzzled for a long while over whether to demolish and start again or restore. Restore has been the decision for the Anglican, but that lies in the future.

Christchurch Cathedral
The Catholic Cathedral

The Arts Centre made a similar decision, while embracing the opportunity to modernise systems like the heating. Here, many studios are up and running. The restaurant where we’d marvelled over a nasturtium salad was still a hive of scaffolding and sawing, but we enjoyed the quirky café, newly furnished with oddities that harked back to its days of study and research.

Arts Centre, Christchurch
Arts Centre, Christchurch
Café, Arts Centre
See what the milk for my tea came in?

We visited Quake City, a museum that charts the story of the earthquake and aftermath. Here, we followed a narrative showing the courage of victims and emergency workers and the cheerful work of student volunteers clearing up after. People we spoke to in the city told us of portaloos for weeks afterwards, of rents soaring as those made homeless looked for somewhere to stay, of insurance claims taking years to come through, of people sleeping in their cars, homeless even now. Sobering, too, was our visit to the east side of town. Their neighbourhood condemned now as unsuitable for buildings, homeowners had to leave their homes behind to be razed and grassed over. The area is like a curious parkland now. Straight lines of shrubs mark the boundaries of dismantled properties. Empty roads go nowhere. All you can hear is birdsong.

Markings left by rescue workers
The red-zoned area of eastern Christchurch

The area we’d lived in before was less affected, and suddenly I was recognising roads and strips of shops. Travel through the Port Hills has been affected, with one road blocked off permanently, but there are still plenty of opportunities for walking or driving, so we spent Christmas Eve exploring the Banks Peninsula. In search of Pigeon Bay, we found ourselves on a gravel road that twisted and turned, falling away sharply at one side. It was a relief to return to tarmac. At Diamond Harbour we explored the coves, then fuelled up in a café overlooking the cricket ground. Here was another prime example of a small town: as well as the eatery and sports field it boasted a playground, a hairdresser and a library.

Port Hills, view of Lyttleton Harbour
Port Hills
Sign of the Takahe
Banks Peninsula
Banks Peninsula, Diamond Harbour
Banks Peninsula, Akaroa

And so on to our last stop, Auckland, a city we’d explored only once before, thirty years ago. We flew in on Christmas Day. Our chatty driver who ferried us to our hire car insisted we needed to visit the Night Market for its street food.

The biggest city in New Zealand, Auckland is much like many other Western cities, a mixture of old and new, grand and mundane, and plenty of retail therapy. While the young people emptied their purses in the shops, we oldies pursued more sedate activities. One day we explored the forested areas to the north of the city.

Waitakere Ranges Regional Park
Waitakere Ranges Regional Park
Waitakere Ranges Regional Park

The next day we took the ferry to Devonport across the harbour, where the rich live and the less rich enjoy the bookshop and the views.

A writers’ retreat, Devonport
Devonport, Auckland
Bookshop, Devonport
The ferry returns to Auckland

The Night Market, said Google, is held in a different location each night, across the city. This particular evening it was in Papatoetoe.

On arrival, it didn’t look promising. Apparently it was underground somewhere. Inside the shopping centre doors were closing and at a stall in the middle of the hall three young assistants dismantled a Christmas tree. There were a few people walking purposefully towards the escalator, so we followed them down. For a minute or two we thought we’d gone completely off-track: we’d descended to an underground car park. And then we saw the stalls, over on one side. Rows and rows of food stalls lit up the concrete dungeon offering every form of fatty food and neon-coloured drink your heart could desire – doughnuts and dumplings, hot dogs and hoi sin, burgers and bubblegum tea. For five or six dollars a diminutive stall owner – mostly Asian and a few Eastern European – will pack a polystyrene box with more food than you will ever be able to eat. It buzzed with families, friends and couples viewing, choosing or crowding onto the picnic tables that ranged one side. As the young folk disappeared again, to make their own choices, we found a vacant bench and tackled our mountains. A couple asked to share our bench and offered us doughnuts – she’d expected one for her money and had been given six! Half an hour later we’d made two new friends and agreed, laughingly, that we’d meet up again there on our next visit. And why not? Thanks to Facebook, we’ll be able to make the arrangements once we’ve saved all over again!

It was an unexpected and delightful way to end the adventure that both confirmed and refuted the saying that you can’t go back. We’d visited areas that had been favourites before and areas that were new to us, some changed, some much the same as they’d been before. We’d changed, too, in what we wanted out of a destination. Which places will we revisit on our next trip? It will be interesting to see if Christchurch, for instance, has chosen to leave the colonial days behind and build in a new style, one that looks forward rather than back.

Christchurch’s pop-up cathedral, built after the earthquake
New library, Christchurch

Mountains, Mines and Middle Earth – Travels in New Zealand Part 2 – Picton to Queenstown

(You can read Part 1 here.)

Part 2 – in which we cross the Cook Straits to the South Island, visit a ghost town and find our travel plans disrupted by a landslide.

A ferry connects north and south of the country, sailing sedately out of Wellington and navigating the islands and inlets of Charlotte Sound. In Picton, where the ferry docks, we’d booked a luxury flat for a few nights, and were all agreed we’d have happily stayed longer. If our son really does become a millionaire, I’ll credit staying here gave him that taste of high life that spurred him on. The sun shone, the sky was blue. The only cloud was a gentle enquiry from a friend, via Facebook, asking whether we were OK. White Island had erupted, and a boatload of tourists were missing. We were many miles away, across the Cook Straits, but the news that unfolded each day was sobering.

The Cook Straits
Picton, view from our balcony
Charlotte Sound
Charlotte Sound

It was time to head West, the road crossing and re-crossing the Buller River. Deep turquoise, it runs through rocky chasms and under wide bridges, and dawdles in wide beds between pebble pastures.

The Buller River and a lost shoe

Our destination this time was the ghost town of Denniston.

I’ve mentioned Jenny Pattrick before. Her first novel, the one I bought on our previous visit, is ‘The Denniston Rose.’ I’d read it as we journeyed round, and when I’d finished it, I told Mr W about it.

“Oh, Denniston’s a real place,” he said. “We weren’t far from it last week.”

So Denniston was a must-visit this time.


A half hour drive out of Westport, it thrived on the coal industry between 1880 and 1967. Up on the Rochfort Plateau coal was loaded into wagons that then slid almost vertically down an incline of 518 metres to the bottom, where it was taken by train to the coast. It was illegal for people to ride it, but many risked it anyway.

Deniston, abandoned machinery

A community formed round the miners. You could say life was bleak. On the rocky ground it was hard to grow fruit, vegetables or flowers. Coffins needed to be lowered on top of coal mines to be buried on lower, softer ground. Furniture had to be brought up via the coal wagons. But it’s interesting what their priorities were. Before a proper road was built, they’d established a hotel, a school, a police station and the School of Mines and Working Men’s Club. There was a strong ethos of education and socialism, and though girls were expected to look after the home, they were also encouraged to excel at school.

A bit of brickwork is all that is left of a home in Deniston

It always amazes me how quickly nature reclaims the ground. An earthquake a year after the closure covered part of the upper incline. Iron wheels and wagons litter the site, but of the homes there, little remains – half a wall here, a flight of angled steps there with nothing at the top. There are two homes further up the hill, set so far back from the historical area that they are quite out of sight unless you drive further up the mountain road.

The wild West Coast

From Westport we were headed for Wanaka. The coastal road winds through wild forests, dipping down to wet, empty beaches, where scattered homes watch the sea spray. Storms had brought down a landslip, blocking the second half of coastal road and sending us back east for a long detour that took us over Arthur’s Pass and the wonderful South Island Alps.

On the road to Wanaka

The hills of Otago look bleak and barren, but when you get up close you’ll see they’re covered in grassy tussocks, green in the centre, gold-tipped. Wanaka, our destination for the night, sparkled with light and lake. The journey had taken us twelve hours, and every twist of the road brought us a new vista of glory.


Wanaka is famous for a museum and a tree. The museum is Puzzle World, full of optical illusions 2D and 3D. Being a wordy woman, I was particularly intrigued by the ambigrams – to quote the museum information itself, “a typographical creation that presents two or more separate words within the same physical space.

Which word do you see first in this ambigram?


Next stop, Queenstown.

Approaching Queenstown

The first time we visited this tourist destination, we’d travelled the coastal route. After days of tiny towns where Saturday lunchtime marked the start of the weekend and everything closed until Monday, Queenstown – full of bars and restaurants, lights and laughter – was a welcome break. It’s probably more a mark of my age than a change in the town, that now I found it loud and touristy. You can also spend a small fortune here on extreme sports. Most of the activity on offer involves throwing yourself off something – high wire, hang gliding, bunjee…Fortunately, there are also walking opportunities, whether up the mountain track (who needs a gondola?!) or round the lake.


Walking up Ben Lomond
Views across Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown
Walking on Kelvin Heights
Walking on Kelvin Heights
Walking on Kelvin Heights
Walking on Kelvin Heights
Walking on Kelvin Heights

You can also escape to Arrowtown, because this delightful little place a short drive away preserves many buildings from the Gold Rush era, including the tiny homes of Chinese gold miners.

The spot where Jack Tewa first found gold
Delightful Arrowtown
Chinese miners’ home, Arrowtown

When Jack Tewa, a Maori shearer, discovered gold in the Arrow River at the spot that became Arrowtown, his employer, William Rees, asked him to keep it a secret: Rees was keen to complete his shearing without the drama of a gold rush. Tewa kept his word but others made a similar discover and the news spread. By the end of the year 1,500 miners camped by the Arrow River, flooding in from all over the world. Men and women also flocked to offer services: the miners lived hard lives, but they needed to eat and they liked to drink.

One of the women was Julia Eichardt, born in Ireland, taken to Australia by her mother. Starting as a barmaid at the Queen’s Arms hotel, she married the owner and continued to run it after his death as Eichardt’s. A no-nonsense woman like many female New Zealanders, she seems to have been equally famous for throwing drunken customers into the ‘stone jug’ (a room, mercifully, not a receptacle for beer) and opening an extension fitted with electric lights – the first commercial premises in the world to do so – by hijacking the town’s water supply and running it through a pelton wheel. It makes sense to me that New Zealand was the first country to allow women to vote for Parliamentary elections.

Julia Eichardt
Julia Eichardt’s grave

The next stage of our journey took us east once more, with scenic stops. Kawarau Bridge is THE place to bungee, but today the one person who’d paid up stood shivering and crying on the edge, and we felt like voyeurs watching, so we moved on. Roaring Meg is a stream that drives a hydroelectric power station as it merges into the Kawarau River. Pines on the slope above it have been condemned as wildings, like various other swathes of non-native timber. Once they were planted by colonials to remind themselves of home and provide materials for building or burning, but the birds and small creatures that had thrived on the local flora began falling in number. Sprayed with chemicals, the pines stand dead, waiting to fall and rot away – a ghost forest. The sun was out as we reached Lake Tekapo, with its photogenic chapel and fields of lupins.


Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo, reflected: me trying to be arty

We were bound now for Christchurch, our home in the 90s. As a couple, we’d arrived with two rucksacks and a lot of hope. Living in a former motel, a unit with shower, galley kitchen, living area and bedroom, we’d worked a variety of jobs to pay the rent. We were looked after by lovely friends from the church we went to on Sundays, and I was welcomed by the local writers group. Christchurch was designed to be the perfect English town, with its roads named after bishops and its gorgeous Gothic architecture. We were both fond of lingering in the town square, with the cathedral as backdrop. If you were lucky, the bagpiper, in full tartan regalia, was away. If you were really lucky, you could hear the famous Wizard with his soap-box oratories, proving that shopping causes wars or selling his maps of the world from the Kiwi point of view. Then it would be time to find coffee or lunch, maybe in the old university, converted into an arts centre. Here, Ernest Rutherford, first person in history to split the atom, experimented for his masters in the former cloakroom, because there was no formal physics laboratory.

If we needed to stretch our legs (and Mr W always needs to stretch his legs) we’d head the other way for the Port Hills, that brood over the town. At the start of the 20th century Harry Ell, aware of the declining population of native flora and fauna in the country, designed a series of resting places here to encourage others to explore and appreciate the area. As with many big projects, only a part was realised, but the houses that were built are splendid. At the foot of the hills sits the Sign of the Takahe, a Gothic wonder with stained glass windows, offering a restaurant and coffees. Higher up is the Sign of the Kiwi, a café with Tip-Top ice-cream, the best in the world. The Sign of the Bellbird and the Sign of the Packhorse offer simple shelter with no refreshments.

We’d been back since then, with our children, and spent a week revisiting all these wonders, though the Wizard and the bagpiper had retired. Not long after that the city was devastated by two earthquakes. We’d seen pictures on the news, and heard from our friends of the psychological impact. We weren’t sure what to expect on our return this time.


Tune in to Part 3 to read about post-earthquake Christchurch and Auckland’s night markets!


Mountains, Mines and Middle-Earth – Travels in New Zealand Part 1 – Auckland to Wellington


Hot springs in Te Aroha

“Do you have family over there?”

This was the question I was asked countless times as we announced our month-long trip to New Zealand.

Perhaps, to our friends, it’s the reason that makes most sense   for spending over twenty hours on a plane. The truth is that we’ve visited before, once for a holiday, next for a sort of belated gap year, then to show our children, and each time we leave we vow we’ll return.

Because, when you stumble out of the airport in clothes you’ve worn for two days, teeth furry, hair lank, you’ve landed in perhaps the most beautiful country in the world, where finding an ugly spot is a challenge, where every sweep of the road throws open a new vista – jagged peaks, sharp chasms, wild forests.

The Edwardian spa
Our garden sat where the mountain began

Though we’d flown into Auckland, we chose to drive straight out in search of Te Aroha, a small town to the south, a discovery we’d made in our last visit. At the foot of a sacred mountain sits the Edwardian spa, utilising the hot springs. There is nothing particularly pretty about the town itself, but it is friendly and equipped with cafes, a bar, an Indian restaurant, and a supermarket, with a book group once a month – surely the basic necessities of life? Here, we breakfasted each morning in a garden that rose to meet the base of the mountain then stretched our legs with walks around and up it. As the path steepened, a distant roar, like traffic or a waterfall, grew louder. At the top stood a mighty transmitter: the roar was the wind buffeting its giant metal frame.

Te Aroha, sacred mountain
View from the top of Te Aroha

The landscape on the drive south is carved by plate movement, softened with rain and sun. At Hukka Falls we admired the billowing waters and at Taupo the serene lines of the lake. Our destination this time was Raetihi, a former timber centre now fallen on hard times, though our rented house, a few miles out, looked out onto rolling fields where sheep grazed, Mount Ruapahu sketched onto the sky like Japanese ink work. When darkness fell, it was absolute.

On the road south
Hukka Falls
Lake Taupo


Tongariro National Park consists of the peaks of Tongariro, Ruapehu (snow-tipped when we rose the next morning) and Ngauruhoe, Mount Doom in the film of Lord of the Rings. There are plenty of opportunities for walking around here, and our son made the most of the second one with his new camera. We were instructed to walk well ahead so as not to be in the film, so what he actually composed is a mystery to us. All we could hear was the scrunch of gravel under our feet, and the single note of a birdcall.

Ngauruhoe, Mount Doom
The Silica Rapids
Walking back to the car

Lovely, jagged hills flattened out into an ordinary landscape by lunchtime as we resumed our drive south, but Wellington sits in a bowl of hills. New Zealand’s capital threw rain and wind at us for the first day, so we explored the shops, and here I found that the author I’d discovered on our last trip had written a handful more titles. I’d spent a happy hour or more before the trip loading up my kindle, but I couldn’t pass by the chance to buy another Jenny Pattrick. This writer first published in her sixties, with a title that is still a bestseller in the country, so she’s become a role-model for me.

My new Jenny Pattrick

The next day was clearer, and we took the cable car to the top of Mount Victoria, where I left the rest of the family in the planetarium and explored the botanical gardens that run round and down the mount.

From the top of the cable car
Wellington Botanical Gardens
Wellington Botanical Gardens
Wellington Botanical Gardens
Wellington Botanical Gardens

Te Papa museum is another must of Wellington, and while Mr W explored the exhibitions on volcanoes and icy places I wandered through the displays about the wildlife of New Zealand, until the relentless list of birds hunted into extinction overwhelmed me and I took refuge in the section on immigrants.

The Emigrants, 1844: some of the wealthier ones!

I have a curious fascination with the European pioneers of New Zealand. It’s not just my love of history, but a feeling of inferiority when I read about the women particularly, doing battle with household tasks and farming with minimal equipment and pregnancy after pregnancy. I came across this wonderful poem many years ago by Ruth Dallas. It’s called “Photographs of Pioneer Women,” and you can read it here.

The rain had cleared as we emerged from the museum into daylight and the present time. We walked along the harbour and puzzled over sculpture and pavement poetry. I don’t understand this one, but I like the sound of the words.

Pavement poetry

In Part 2 we cross the Cook Straits to the South Island, visit a ghost town and find our travel plans disrupted by a landslide.

Writing Historical Fiction – an interview with David Neilson, author of the Sophie Rathenau mysteries


Serene Cover


I’ve been thinking a lot recently about historical fiction. My childhood reading included the inspired works of Henry Treece, Leon Garfield, Geoffrey Trease and Rosemary Sutcliff, and my teens were filled with the swashbuckling tales of Georgette Heyer and Baroness Orczy. I’ve found adult HF a different matter; the weighty volumes that linger on pillage and destruction are not for me at all, and I shy away from those that dwell bleakly on the injustices of our ancestors. (Maybe this makes me a lightweight. But one of the joys of reading is the escape from the grievances and chores of my everyday world.) The historical fiction I’ve enjoyed lately has been mixed genre: blended with mystery, suspense, romance or fantasy. A wonderful find was the Sophie Rathenau series, where thriller meets Rococo meets romance meets quite a bit of swashbuckling, and not all of it by the men.

So I’m delighted to be able to welcome onto my blog David Neilson, author of the Sophie Rathenau series, which currently stands as The Prussian Dispatch, Lay Brothers and newly-released Serene.

Here is the blurb for The Prussian Dispatch.

With nothing in her purse, Sophie Rathenau can’t refuse work, even from a down-at-heel pimp. But tracing the woman who’s gone off with his document is a chancy business. A gang of Prussian maniacs are hunting for it too, as well as thugs from the shadowy Versailles Club, and a Polish countess desperate to preserve her country.

Caught up in an international conspiracy, Sophie’s only weapons are her sardonic tongue and an old cavalry pistol. But it’ll take more than those to find the dispatch, keep a vengeful Chancellor at bay, and deal with a past that threatens to engulf her.


As well as being the creator of one of my favourite fictional characters, David is very supportive of other writers. We met on the writers’ forum Scribophile (also highly recommended) and I’ve really appreciated his feedback on my own writing, particularly on structure and on elegantly balanced sentences.

David, can you tell us a little about yourself first?

I’m retired from teaching in a Glasgow college, live nowadays on the Rhine, and haven’t so much come late to writing as to actually getting books finished. I found this pretty tough years ago, with work and life such a terrible distraction, and I couldn’t stick with anything. It wasn’t until a distinctive setting occurred to me, the Vienna of the later eighteenth century –with Sophie announcing herself as the main character a moment later – that I could get things moving.

Typical Central European cuisine, apricot dumpling
One of David’s distractions? Typical Central European cuisine, apricot dumpling

Sophie is such a wonderful, rounded character – brave, sharp-tongued, warm-hearted with a vulnerable underbelly. Have you drawn on anyone, alive, dead, real or fictional, to develop her?

Sophie isn’t consciously based on anyone, though every so often I’ll catch in her an intonation, a reaction, that seems familiar from somewhere. I know that her sheer relentlessness owes something to the woman I’ve been married to for over thirty years. Sophie is an active component in my psyche, in that I sense her presence whether I’m writing about her or not, and, once the historical differences are taken away, our perceptions of the world, even our tone of voice, are the same. Mind you, I don’t imagine that her virtues are mine. Her resolution, her constancy, all of her suppressed romanticism, are surely telling me that I’d be a better person if I shared that side of her nature instead of her faults, such as her quickness to judge and her impetuousness.

She’s very active for a woman of the 18c. How would you defend arguments that she’s an anachronism?

Certainly, there’s anachronism in the series, mostly linguistic, usually there to support the criminal milieu surrounding Sophie. The age of Mozart didn’t really rejoice in such developed and connected rogues, but Sophie wanted to be part of a noir series without giving up her Rococo world, so there you are: who was I to argue? In terms of what’s permitted to women in her time, I’m not sure that the books are as tendentious as they may seem. Sophie, as a widow, is entitled to handle her own affairs. Two centuries earlier, Katharina von Bora fought and won a struggle to control the business founded by her deceased husband, Martin Luther. Another strikingly relevant career is that of Aphra Behn, the Restoration playwright who spied in Antwerp for the court of Charles II. The traveller and adventuress Lady Hester Stanhope, who was born around the time of the Sophie series, did more or less as she pleased.

Sophie sounds in good company then! You dropped some tantalizing hints in your interview with Sue Seabury, saying that Sophie will in time adopt a child and take a regular lover. I’m holding on to this as a promise because Sophie’s had a pretty rough ride so far. Are you prepared to drop any more breadcrumbs?

The main thing is that Sophie is headed from the utter isolation of the first few pages of The Prussian Dispatch to powerful social involvement, even entanglement. The final line of the seventh book, if I ever get there, ought to show how far she’s come and how hard it’ll be for her to assess everything that’s happened in her life. In Serene she meets a character who seems quite incidental but who’ll change her life profoundly, a character who was present in chapter 3 of The Prussian Dispatch, except that no-one else knew she was there – herself included.

That is so cryptic. I’ve re-read Chapter 3 and I’m still mystified. No ‘if I ever get there,’ please!

Your covers are gorgeous. Who did them, and how, or is it a trade secret?

Thank you! I often wonder how they come across, and whether they might not be a little too sombre. The titling, which I like for its clarity, is a present from a designer who bailed out early, whereafter I started to run them up myself. All of the objects are from my toybox, carefully arranged and lit, shot on an iPad, and worked up on Photoshop. At the moment I’m looking for a good visual reference for the eighteenth-century baby shoes that should appear on the next cover – and not finding the task easy.

There’s another breadcrumb! Now, some historical questions. You say you feel very much at home in the era of Maria Theresia and Mozart. What attracts you to it? Mozart is well-loved, but the name Hapsburg means little to most of your English-speaking audience. Added to that, Maria Theresia doesn’t come over to me as very sympathetic in The Prussian Dispatch where she instigates a harsh ‘clean-up’ for Vienna that oppresses prostitutes. Is a dead Empire relevant to today’s audience?

Central European atmsphere, Linz an der Donau
Central European atmosphere, Linz an der Donau 

I wouldn’t have liked to live then (thinking mostly of dentistry and medical progress) but I do feel an affinity with Central Europe: its food, its music, its traditional architecture, its whole atmosphere. The first time I heard Act II of Figaro I had a deep sense that this actually wasn’t for the first time, though of course it must have been. The world in which works like that arose, the Habsburg empire, is as worthy a subject for historical fiction as the English Civil War or the Georgian era, even if these periods are much more congenial to British readers. Sophie is active at a time when the balance of power is changing rapidly in Germany (to speak of Germany as a geographical area, that is, rather than as a state). It’s then that Prussian militarism and discipline as a way of life are being established, and that, needless to say, has been an important component in our global conflicts. Habsburg rule profoundly influenced European culture and history. Anyone who exults in Beethoven’s Fifth might consider that its final hymn to freedom reflects impatience with the grim Habsburg determination to keep everything battened down after the French Revolution. Maria Theresia represents a much more human side than that, however. The tale of the six-year-old Mozart climbing on a ruler’s knee is often recalled, the knee in question being that of Maria Theresia. She’s by no means forgotten in Central Europe, where her portrait can turn up in unexpected corners. I was in Bratislava last year for the first time in decades and came across a life-sized figure of the Empress, sitting in a café window.

frederick II
Frederick II, Maria Theresia’s enemy, portrayed by Hugo Ungewitter, public domain

That must have been a surreal event! Joking aside, I admit to a typical British ignorance about the history of Europe.

Although your books are set firmly in a specific period, you have deliberate historical errors in the Sophie books, and point them out in the glossary. Am I right in thinking it’s a long-running joke with the readers?

I hope so! The books are stuffed with jokes and allusions. Any opera-goer, for instance, will recognise “the general’s wife and the pretty boy she hung around with” glimpsed in a café in The Prussian Dispatch. Nor is it a coincidence that a child transfixed by the sight of Sophie holding bad guys at pistol-point goes on to write the libretto of Fidelio. There’s a sense that various hands have interposed themselves in her memoirs, and the glossary assists readers in finding where this may have taken place. I have my limits, though. A café across the river from me offers its German customers “Early Grey” tea, and while I’d love to bring that in, the warping of history implied is simply too great.

That’s a shame! What’s your philosophy on historical dialogue, and has it evolved over the years since you first started writing? It’s impossible to make it completely authentic if the original was in another language, of course.

I love authentic eighteenth-century dialogue, as long as it’s in eighteenth-century texts, be they from Goldsmith, Kleist, or Goldoni. Any characters using that style in mine tend to the shifty: that tone of voice generally arouses Sophie’s suspicions. Eighteenth-century pastiche forms but part of an overall texture which is aiming for a certain breadth and richness of its own, and at all events keeping away from a style of dialogue owing more to BBC costume dramas than the recorded discourse of the time. The approach of Richard Strauss in Der Rosenkavalier, set in Sophie’s time and acknowledging the heritage, but using tonalities quite impossible for that era, has made much greater impact on me than any historical novel. Not that it would make any difference what I think; Sophie just talks the way she wants anyhow.

It works for me.

Thank you so much for visiting my blog, David.

Thank you, rather, for the opportunity!

I do hope I’ve inspired my readers to investigate further. As some extra incentives, click here for the trailer for Serene, Sophie’s latest adventure, and here for a free Sophie story.


You can find David on

and Sophie on Amazon.

The paperbacks are very reasonably priced, while each e-book costs less than a medium latte, or they are free to read on Kindle Unlimited.




Boneless Vikings, Outrageous Quotes, a Literary Cat and Handel – Bookish Dublin

The Long Room, Trinity College
The Long Room, Trinity College Dublin

I’ve delayed so long in writing this blog post that I find it now coincides with Reading Ireland Month – a lucky coincidence for me!

City breaks are perhaps the best solution to the problem of a family holiday with two older teenagers keen to remind us of all the downsides to breaks in the UK. The Wade family all found something interesting here, although our tastes only collided at dinner time. It’s possible I made a mistake not visiting Dublin’s Leprechaun museum like our daughter did, but the city’s literary delights that I did visit offered me a wealth of visual and creative delights nonetheless. Photos can largely tell the story of this visit.


4. Oscar Wilde statue again
Oscar Wilde, Merrion Square

We arrived on a wet Sunday afternoon, and while our teenagers elected to make the most of their hotel beds, Rick and I visited Merrion Square, the park Oscar Wilde overlooked as a child. He’s honoured by a flamboyant statue (statues are big in Dublin) and a pillar covered in some of his outrageous and insightful quotes. Do I agree with the one second from bottom in this photo? If so, my day job is far less worthy than I thought!

3. Oscar Wilde quotes
Oscar Wilde quotes


Our trip back to the town centre took us past a sculpture commemorating Ivar the Boneless, founder of Viking Dublin. Viking surnames of the heroic era are rich and strange, and Ivar’s is one of my favourite. There are many stories and theories as to how he got his name, but I favour the wilder ones that have him carried into battle on a shield due to his inability to walk: in this one, his military daring was clearly stronger than his physical strength. The legends of Ivar link with those of Ragnar Hairy Breaches, whose murder purportedly caused the Viking invasion of England and through Ragnar to the Saga of the Volsungs (Ragnar’s wives included Sigurd and Brynhild’s daughter) and the rich family line of East Anglia (one of the legends of Ragnar’s death has him murdered by a courtier of Edmund, last in the royal line that might link back to Beowulf. There’s a story here I mean to write one day.

11. Ivarr the Boneless, Steine
Ivar the Boneless pillar

As well as statues, Dublin is rich in wall murals, and these too commemorate the literary heritage of the city.

27. Pub with Irish folklore paintings - figure from Ullyses
James Joyce mural
22. Irish folklore painting
Mural on a pub wall


82. great fresco near Victorian pub
A mural…
83. great fresco near Victorian pub
…and the caption

But the frontages are just as delightful.

24. Pub with Irish folklore paintings

A must for book lovers is the Book of Kells exhibition, housed in Trinity College Library.

53. Book of Kells exhibition
Book of Kells, c.800 AD

The book itself is under glass and so only one spread is viewable, but there is plenty of information in the exhibition, supported by large photos from this or other examples of medieval book illumination.

48. Book of Kells exhibition
The medieval publication process – professional vellum-maker

Here is one from the 13c, showing a professional vellum-maker showing a monk one of his sheets for book production, while another is being stretched on a frame waiting for the vellum-maker to scrape the hairs off it with the curved knife leaning against it. Another shows and illustrates a lovely poem about a writer and his cat. The bond it celebrates is celebrated today via social media, but the cat’s role as cat-catcher has been replaced by havoc-maker. As I write this, our cat is sitting on my folder of research.

50. Book of Kells exhibition
Pangur Ban, 9c poem, translated

The highlight of the exhibition, however, for me, must be the library itself, a celebration of books and authors. I want to climb a spiral staircase, pick a book and sit at the top reading.

55. The Long Room, Trinity College
How to fit more books into your space
104. St Patrick's Cathedral
St Patrick’s Cathedral

St Patrick’s Cathedral is full of visual delights, including a manuscript of Handel’s Messiah, which had its first ever performance here, in 1742. It went on to be a popular item at London’s Foundling Hospital, where the ticket fee went into the charity’s funds. Libby, in my novel ‘Foundlings‘, would have heard it many times. My photo of the music didn’t come out very well so here’s some street art to illustrate it instead.

41. Handel
Handel distracted from conducting a performance

Dublin is rich in architecture from the age of Handel, and Georgian doorways are everywhere.

However, for me the highlight of our holiday was a visit to Fourteen Henrietta Street, which deserves a blog post to itself. Watch this feed!


Was Maid Marion an Essex Girl?

Matilda Fitzwalter?
Matilda Fitzwalter?

I don’t remember now where I found the story that Maid Marion was buried in Essex. The internet is a wonderful, rich and unreliable source of information. I did however find various versions of the story online, and a photo of the church. With a husband who can find anywhere in this country with an Ordinance Survey map (no Satnavs for him!) I thought we had a good chance of locating the tomb. The biggest problem would probably be getting into a country church.

Surely this is a film set?

Little Dunmow is ridiculously pretty. Surely it’s a film set? We saw no-one in a bonnet or top hat, however, or indeed doublet and hose. A short walk following a sign-post brought us to this little building. What serves now as the parish church is part of the former priory, a small establishment but an impressive building from the information inside. And yes, it was actually really easy to get in. I’ve always felt too embarrassed to knock on a stranger’s door and ask for the key, even though the notice on the door of a church often says as much, but confidence comes with age, and the owner of an enthusiastic spaniel handed the key over with no questions asked at all.

Little Dunmow Priory Church

Inside, we found two tombs and one memorial. The memorial is to Robert Fitzwalter, leader of the baronial opposition to King John, one of the sureties of Magna Carta, and bearer of this wonderful title: ‘Marshall of the Army of God and Holy Church, and Founder of our Civil Liberty.’ 

Memorial to Robert Fitzwalter
Memorial to Robert Fitzwalter

The tomb nearest the door is identified as Walter Fitzwalter, who died 1432, and his wife Elizabeth, nee Chiddock, who died 1464.

Walter and Elizabeth Fitzwalter
Walter and Elizabeth Fitzwalter

Local tradition says the stone effigy lying with hands clasped and eyes staring at the roof beams is Matilda, the daughter of Robert Fitzwalter. In 1212 he was part of a conspiracy to kill King John, and escaped trial by fleeing to France, where he told the French king he’d risen up against his master because John had attempted to seduce his daughter. The local legend, recorded by Philip Morant, historian for Essex, says she lived at Dunmow, and was poisoned when she refused the king’s love.

Traces of the poison that killed Lady Matilda?
Traces of the poison that killed Lady Matilda?

Meanwhile, we have an Elizabethan play written by Anthony Munday about Robert Earl of Huntingdon, whose alias was Robin Hood, and whose wife was Matilda, daughter of Robert Fitzwalter. The nineteenth century antiquarian Joseph Hunter identified these two as being Robert Hood, a yeoman from Wakefield, Yorkshire, and Matilda, who joined him in Barndsdale Forest after the Battle of Boroughbridge.

This claim on Robin Hood by Yorkshire will doubtless outrage the good folk of Nottingham. The rest of us will be noting that there are two problems here. Firstly, the Essex tradition has Matilda dying, and the Munday play has her fleeing to the forest. And secondly, the Battle of Boroughbridge was 1322, more than a century after Robert’s struggle with King John. Besides, the headdress and gown worn by the lady on the tomb are quite obviously late Medieval. A more likely identification is that she could be the mother of Walter, who lies on the next tomb.

It’s rather a dull solution, though, isn’t it? I wish there was more to back up the stories. We do have a King John tradition further south in the country. He apparently owned much of the land here as a hunting chase, and a local house is said to be his hunting lodge.

King John's Hunting Lodge, Thundersley
King John’s Hunting Lodge, Thundersley
St Peter's Church, Thundersley
St Peter’s Church, Thundersley

The parish church, according to an account which has more holes in it than a colander, was burned down Christmas Day 1215 for defying the Pope’s ban on services. The catchment school is named after King John, who I always think is quite an unsuitable role model for our young people. Even putting these traditions together, there isn’t much evidence.

But hey, I’m a writer, not a historian. I love the idea that Maid Marion was an Essex girl, part of the struggle for English liberty on several fronts. There’s a story here, I’m sure.




In search of the Vikings – Oslo 2108

106. Hylestad Stave church portal, church demolished 17c, Sigurd legend (2)
Sigurd licks his finger while roasting the dragon

Norsemen featured heavily in my childhood reading: mostly Henry Treece and some C. Walter Hodges, with a bit of Rosemary Sutcliff and Jill Paton Walsh. Looking back, this was probably because my mother bought books that linked into my history curriculum – I was home-schooled – but the early years of British history particularly attracted me. An odd word, that, ‘attract.’ I was aware their behaviour included enslaving, killing and robbing, but my books, fiction and history text books, were written for children and did not go into detail, and maybe as a child in a safe, loving home I didn’t really think about the horror faced by the men, women and children who suffered the fury of the Norsemen.

I will make my disclaimer again: I haven’t researched for this article beyond visiting the sites and reading the plaques carefully, so don’t treat me as a historian. I haven’t done extensive research into current thinking about Viking behaviour. What strikes me each time I visit a country inhabited by the descendants of this fearsome race is how civilised they are. The people are polite, kind, and more than tolerant of tourists who can’t speak their language, their streets are clean and their children well-behaved. Our visit to Oslo, and to the museum of polar exploration, only served to enforce this impression.

Oslo spreads itself round several harbours on a low shelf in the south of Norway. Its reach is wide, but from the promenade you can see wooded islands rising out of the water, and a trip to the end of the Metro line takes you to Nordmarka, the ‘city park,’ miles of mossy woodland where you can follow the broad track with families and dog-walkers or strike off into paths laced with roots and studded with slippery rocks. Autumn colours of yellowing leaves lightened the green.

67. city forest Nordmarka woods, Frognerseteren

The city centre itself is, to my untutored eye, a mix of 19c  and 20c: apartments blocks  with fine frontages  in russet, caramel or dove grey; a few brutalist wonders; and the shining flanks of the Barcode, a set of modern towers that show the best of Scandinavian design. It positively rattles with museums, celebrating its history and culture. I’m going to run through some highlights in historical order, rather than in the order we saw them.

The Viking Museum took a trip out by bus to reach. Here, four burial ships are displayed proudly, with the goods that had accompanied the dead – yes, and some bones that survived of the two women buried in one of them. The boats are wide and shallow, the curve of their prows proud and graceful. Most of the excavated items were wooden, and often intricately carved, serpents weaving  loops with warriors. Dragons? Yes, I found most of the dragon heads familiar to me from a childhood blessed with well-illustrated history books. There were two for a tent frame, one for a bedpost and four that astonished me for being so small. I’d always thought these fearsome carvings to be huge beasts designed for the prow head. Not one of these would have fitted on a shop, and the last four are thought to be meant for a burial rite, with metal rattles attached to them to clash and ring. Many of the goods were practical, including a milk churn for the two women. The dead weren’t going to go hungry, but I do wonder how the women felt when they woke up and realised that being dead only meant more housework.

38. Viking ship museum; barrel
A nice little job for the buried women
27. Viking ship museum
The Oseberg Ship
29. Viking ship museum; dragon head, quite small, possibly musical instrument
Dragon head – much smaller than I imagined

Perhaps it was the women who persuaded the Viking nations to convert to Christianity, not just to keep up with the neighbours but for a better afterlife. It must have changed the values of at least some of the citizens of Oslo, because its patron saint is valued for protecting a slave woman – and being killed in the process. St Hallvard is honoured in the manholes all over the city – and doubtless elsewhere, but this is where we found him. It’s thanks to Google Images that I traced the legend. Hallvard was a merchant, just setting out on his boat when a slave woman came running up to the bank, screaming for help. She’d been accused, wrongly, she said, of robbing a home, and three men were after her. Hallvard believed her and took her on board. But the three men chased them, shot at them, and killed them both, tying a millstone to Hallvard’s neck to make his body sink. Saints, however, are known not for being safe from violence but for the curious behaviour of their remains, and Hallvard’s body floated. His friends found him and buried him. On the manhole cover you can see he holds the arrows in one hand and the millstone in another, while the woman lies beneath his feet.

55. St Hallvard manhole cover, one of many many (2)
St Hallvard showing off the arrows and millstone

Conversion to Christianity did not mean abandoning those dragons. In the Historical Museum a room is dedicated to the 12c onwards, with saintly figures and surrounds saved from those impressive buildings, the stave churches. Once more, serpents writhe through the wood grain and their huge eyes gleam in the shine of the material. Here you can see the church porch that features the  blood-and-thunder story of Sigurd, immortalised by Wagner in the Ring Cycle. The story starts at the bottom right as we look at it, with Sigurd forging his sword, and moves up the right,  across to bottom left and up to the top with Gunnar in the pit of snakes, being killed by Atli (Attila the Hun) for the famous treasure of the Nibelung.

104. Hylestad Stave church portal, church demolished 17c, Sigurd legend (3)
Sigurd kills the dragon
116. model of stave church
Model of a traditional stave church: I asked my husband to make me one but he said no


The shopping centre is named after a king of Norway who was actually French. Karl Johan started life as Jean Bernadotte, one of Napoleon’s marshals. He was offered the crown of Sweden after the French retreat from Moscow, and went on to lead the Swedes against Bonaparte. In 1814 Sweden forced Norway to accept him as king of their country too. This might seem a bad start to his reign over the Norse, but he appears to have been popular in his time, and firmly on the side of his subjects rather than his former master. His palace displays itself in a wide park and he sits astride his horse looking over the heads of the tourists, who come to watch the guards in their dark uniform marching up and down in front of the steps.

57. Karl Johan in front of Royal Palace
Karl Johan, freshly permed

The Fram Museum, a short walk away from the Viking Museum, really shows a different side to the Norwegian character. Whether or not their ancestors were savage robbers, Norway can be proud of Roald Amundsen. The makers of the museum certainly are, and it would seem rightly so. Amundsen led various expeditions into wild territories, and his success in the Antarctic was thanks to patient preparation and an openness to learning more and more about survival techniques. He and his crew befriended Inuit locals as they prepared for their journey to the North Pole, and through mutual respect and trust gained valuable knowledge on how to live in arctic conditions. Brave, resilient and humane – now that’s a hero to be proud of.

21. Fram, Polar exploration ship
The Polar Ship Fram

Three days in the city and it was time to go home, with a new respect for this country just across the water from me. We will be coming back!