A Place to Call Home

We finally moved in ten days ago. Still without curtains and blinds, I tend to rise with the sun, so I am writing this with a pink glow in the east and the sound of cooing pigeons but without traffic on the road outside. We are mostly unpacked but have pictures and paintings strewn against walls waiting to be put in position.

The house being old but with modern touches has quirks and intricacies which we are discovering daily. Four days ago, I plucked up courage to make a cup of tea using the quooker hot tap. My only experience with a hot top previously had been pretty much disastrous as I handed out cups of luke warm tea to my writing group following a kitchen refurb by our lovely, long-suffering host. Two days ago, I abandoned my kettle, completely sold on the quooker. This morning it blinks at me. A red warning light can’t be good and the water no longer steams from the tap. Have I killed it, I ask myself? My kettle has returned to its usual place but I want my quooker back. I can see another whatsapp question to the previous owner who has all the answers about biomass boilers, solar power feed-in tarrifs, cess pits and well water. It’s a whole new language we have to learn.

Along with the unpacking, rearranging, I have spent hours on the internet and phone to water, electricity, wood pellet companies etc. It’s always a relief to speak to a human as somehow the questions you need answering do not appear in FAQs on websites. I have decided to give up not speaking to humans – it’s really not worth the hours of endlessly trailing around in circles, the mounting frustration and the shouting at screens.

The rest of my time has been spent in the garden. I should have taken a before and after picture of the mess at the bottom. The remains of the concrete school yard containing the cess pit access was covered in mud and debris and two compost bins full of fairly unrotted compost. It’s almost clear, maybe two more barrow loads of mud to shift to the field. It’s going to become the pot hospital. I thought about pot nursery but that sounds like we are nurturing cannabis which is not on the cards. This garden and our daughter’s gardens need plenty of pots and ones that change with the seasons, so this is the ideal place and it will brighten a dreary area.

With the weather suddenly warming up, yesterday we took time out for a walk and, although getting lost and being too long without anywhere to sit, it was glorious to discover what is on our doorstep. I had heard about the hidden beach but to find this was something else.

I have more to add to my shopping list list, a good pair of binoculars, not the WW2 ones which I have to say are very poor and heavy too, a couple of lightweight portable chairs. Seats for crumblies are few and far between (or even non existant) around here and an OS map of the area. I keep trying not to buy from Amazon but fail. I bought what I thought I needed to make a TV work from Argos a couple of weeks ago but bought a Freeview recorder rather than a Freesat box. New, unused but because some sellophane is missing, Argos refused to take it back. Guess who will never shop at Argos again? £170 wasted unless I can sell it second hand.

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Samples and Swatches

Last Saturday, we celebrated my birthday with a new house. How many people can say that? The previous owners gifted us champagne and I prepared a picnic of tasty nibbles and a tarte citron for afters to celebrate this adventure before dementia. That last phrase came from a sign on an old cottage in the nearby village. It made us laugh and now we often refer to it. There are so many nooks and crannies in the garden to explore, so many trees and plants to get to know. I am looking forward to spending the year here and discovering the seasons. No need to go on holiday, I feel.

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Old School Pump

Luckily, I finished editing and reading through the book aloud just before we completed the sale, so The Bluebird Brooch is now being read by beta readers. Who knows, I may get to publish it by the summer if they like it.

We thought to move our furniture on Tuesday but it needed bedroom curtains and some new carpeting and so we decided to do a full make over – all cosmetic, because the house is lovely. However, if we spend the money now, hopefully, we won’t have to in the future. Now, I would not call my skills in interior design normally a success. A week of choosing paint colours, carpet, blinds and curtains has turned my head to mush – indecision, indecision. I have been guided by the professionals and my family. The choices have been made and let’s hope it looks spectacular – it better do or my husband will be complaining about the money I am spending.

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Curtain pattern

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Waiting for Godot?

I am trying to keep myself occupied as we wait, wait, wait for lawyers to do their bit. It took a fair amount of pushing yesterday by me and our vendors to get the lady at the top of the chain in a position to exchange. With an hour of business left today, we still haven’t had the final call. We have a moving date but no exchange date. Madness.

Our hour’s exercise depending on when the next spot of rain is a lifesaver. Although limited to no use of the car, (an insurance glitch) we have several walks to do. The village, the dunes, the beach, the cart track, the old church ruins and even up to our new house, if we feel energetic enough.

Editing – well I am managing several pages most days with about 60 to do. Then I can send the book out to beta readers. It’s a different genre for me so I’m not sure how it will be received.

Reading – I loved Louise Doughty’s Platform 7, recommended at my bookclub zoom meeting. It successfully managed to cross several genres – ghost, thriller and modern fiction. Hugely imaginative and well observed, it is a book that will stay with me for a long time.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. At last I had time to finish this book. To me, it should become a classic. The writing is exceptional, powerful, evocative and utterly emotional. Be careful not to buy the paperback which seems to be in Dutch.

Writing poetry. I am not a poet, never attempt rhymes, unless accidental, but walking in the snow inspired me to have a go.

A Jewelled Winter

Wellington boots scrunch through pristine powdered snow,

Where clouds of flighty linnets feast in waving grass.

Diamonds of ice stud the glistening, winding track.

Footprints of red deer, pheasant, hare and muntjac

Mingling last in cold moonlight, dancing, prancing.

No masks, no social distancing required.

A lone fieldfare, grey of wing, pecks ruby rosehips

Before flitting up to a cloud-free, sapphire sky,

Behind, a tempest, battleship grey awaits.

We face a mighty storm, jewels of biting hail

Splatter my jacket, transformed from turquoise to pearl.

Icy winds pluck at scarves. Heads down, our frosted feet

Crack on. The old lighthouse landmark disappears,

No ancient sweep of golden light to guide us home.

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A Norfolk Winter

The last time we had more than a day or two of snow was back in the early 1980s when we were living north of Birmingham. The temperature sank to a dizzy – 20 degrees. Arctic weather. As soon as you stepped outside, the hair inside your nostrils froze. It hurt to take a breath.

We have had five days of snow now. Three when the wind was so strong that walking was difficult. Yesterday, I walked along the track in bright sunshine, only to find a snowstorm following behind me. When I turned to face it, the snow pattered on my coat, tiny ice crystals like miniature hailstones. The landscape disappeared in mist of white and I was pleased to make it back to the warmth and dry.

Today, we woke to a pristine landscape of blue and white. Sunshine and an imperceptible breeze enticed us to don our boots. Today we were going to tackle the long walk from our accommodation through the fields, along a farm road, across the main road and the other half of the walk back towards the church and through the village.

The only tracks in the snow as we set off were those of deer, hares, pheasant and other smaller birds. We crunched through powdery snow, cracked the ice in the rutted farm track and stopped to admire a hare bounding across the field. The sign of deer were everywhere, small muntjac deer to the larger red ones we encountered two weeks ago. Unfortunately, we saw none today, although we did see pheasants.

I worried that moving from our home, I would miss walking along the very familiar prom. Now, this is almost home and it has many compensations, not least the peace and tranquility. Our walk lasted ninety minutes, we met two people and passed a jogger along the way.

It was worth taking a day out from editing. Four days in, I am halfway though listening as Word reads back my story. It’s such a useful tool because as boring as the voice is, you can hear so many issues which need addressing from the odd repeated or missing word, to the string of sentences beginning with ‘she’. Duh!

And what of our house move? I wish I knew. Exchange is likely next week now. It’s becoming like groundhog day.

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Twiddling My Thumbs

We had hoped by now to have the keys to our new home but as of yesterday it looks like another two and a bit weeks to wait. A very old lady (not me) at the top of the chain not using email is the reason. Understandable but somewhat frustrating. One good outcome is that we had originally pencilled in the movers for Monday but that is now forecast to be in the midst of a blizzard. Be thankful for those small mercies. We are comfortable where we are – but still itching to get cracking on unpacking etc.

I may be battling the blizzard to walk down to the Church Rooms to collect a prescription. I have a precise time to be there with my mask. At least I don’t have to drive to the next village to pick up from the chemist. So far we are impressed at how the health service functions in our new rural location.

Wellington boots are the most important piece of apparel that I brought with me. It’s a good job that I dug them out of the cupboard where they had languished unused for half a decade and put them in the car. Muddy footpaths, mossy sand dunes and cart tracks make up 80% of our walks and days like yesterday show me what a joy it is to live in this unspoilt landscape.

However, the next few days will see us trapped inside. I can finish editing my new book, finish reading Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet which I put by to savour and, once we have exchanged, finish all the admin’ work that has piled up. It sounds like a plan.

Today’s highlight other than those? Waiting for my Sainsbury’s delivery and ordering next week’s one. Here it comes.

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Reasons to be Grateful

Today we get our first vaccination. If that’s not the best news so far in 2021, I don’t know what else is. I know we still have a long way to go and that it gives limited protection until a couple of weeks after our second dose, but freedom beckons. All credit to those who designed, built, tested and offered themselves up in the trials. Thanks to our wonderful NHS then for pulling out the stops to vaccinate so many so quickly.

Occasional bright sunshiny days among the dismal, short January days are another reason to be grateful. Yesterday, I took a long walk with my daughter across fields and byways, meeting some of our new neighbours along the way and found out about a local bookclub to join. The most magical moment came when a group of around eight, enormous red deer bounded across the path a few feet in front of us, across the field, over the road and up what passes for a hill in this flat county. I couldn’t get to my camera in time but what a magnificent sight. We were thankful no cars were on the road. Those deer weren’t stopping for anything.

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Our third reason is that it looks like we will exchange contracts on our new house later this week and hope to move in a fortnight. While we are very comfortable in our temporary accommodation, we need to be settled in our next home. My husband is itching to get in the greenhouse. He has seed potatoes and vegetable seeds all ready to plant when the weather warms up and I look forward to discovering what plants and shrubs are in the garden. I am itching to buy more fruit trees too.

I am spending time editing my next book, tightening the sentences, and the story. The next step is to get it read by some more beta readers before deciding whether to publish it later this year.

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Moving in a Pandemic

After thirty-five years living in the same house, one would expect regret seeing a house emptied of all its memories. Whereas I think we were more concerned about keeping ourselves safe as our lovely movers didn’t seem at all concerned about Covid. Apart from making numerous cups of tea, we huddled in out conservatory by an open door with cold drizzle painting the windows, on our two remaining chairs as maskless young men kept demanding answers to their questions. ‘Is this going or do you realise that there’s a bolt missing from this?’ As the house emptied, I only saw a shell. What had been our lovely home became an empty space, one which the new owner will make her own and it will become unrecognisable with new paint and new furniture.

Close neighbours brought cards and one a bottle of wine, regretting our departure but it was only when we were dropping off keys to the agent, that I allowed myself to feel sad. We enjoyed living in our seaside town with all its many conveniences; a ten minute walk to an excellent butchers, the post office, a chemist and some good pubs; fifty yards to a flat promenade and a walk into town with sea views to brighten our way. Just lately though, we regretted the hordes on the promenade and the constant dodging of bikes, joggers and families and we retreated to the beach. How sad is that? What should bring pleasure now brought a threat as the local infections skyrocketed after Christmas.

Fours hours drive further north, we have returned to the East Coast that we left fifty years ago, albeit further south. We can see our grandchildren again, even if we have to social distance and can’t be in the same house, but they are close by. On our third day, we had snow, rarely seen in Sussex. But the fourth day brought us cold sunshine and we wrapped up well to explore our new coast. What struck me was the lack of seagulls, crows cawing yes, but no shrieking gulls. In fact, on the dunes the only sound was the occasional sing-song calling of dog owners to their wayward hounds, ‘Charlie, here now.’ An otherwise empty wilderness.

Of course it’s not a wilderness. The wide dunes are covered in grasses, lichen and moss, and hidden in the undulating dunes are hundreds of seal pups a bit further to the north. Normally on winter’s weekend, a line of people and avid photographers would be walking to view the seals. In lockdown, the beach is deserted but for a few local stalwarts. The sand is soft and wide, no shingle hiding the beach, no rockpools for the grandchildren to delve in. The lone cafe was taken down to stop it falling into the sea and is yet to be replaced. It feels a safe space to wait out this pandemic. This idea was not on our minds when we began to think of moving but now as I look at daily rates of infections – this place is low down – and we are thankful for that. Another few days and we will put aside the fear that we had placed ourselves in danger on moving day and can look forward to spring and planting vegetables and fruit trees. The next chapter of our lives will begin to unfold.

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A Bolt from the Blue

When I began my Australian family saga, The Currency Girls, my aim was to reconnect our immediate family with the story of their Australian forebears which had more or less been lost. All that remained once the previous generation had died were tall tales, mistruths, vague memories and a yearning to put the pieces back in place.

After years of research and writing, I had three books written, my best shot at describing a pioneering Australian family over 100 years. Yes, it was fictionalised but based on what I knew of the family through historical documents. Some things I did not, could not know, or thought I could never know.

I never set out to be an author. All I wanted was to write the story and fill in gaps. Along the way, I found other stories as members of our wider Australian family contacted me and told me of their recollections and more rumours. This was the enormous bonus to writing the books – we found the family we had been missing.

And then last week – the circle was completed. It came in the form of a comment on my Facebook Page. ‘Hello, I am Sadie’s granddaughter.’ Those few words arrived in my inbox tempered with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Excitement that we had found the last missing link in the family and trepidation that this family would not approve of the liberties I took when writing Sadie’s Wars. Of all the books, this was the riskiest because I wanted it to be more than the rather tragic story I knew it to be. It also needed to be a love story and one with hope for the future.

What happened was that like the rest of the wider family, this lady has proven so generous that she shared with me her story and her photographs, both of Sadie herself and her sons. At last I have the images which before I could only imagine. She also told me that she loved the book. If nothing else, this writing journey has surpassed by far what I set out to do.

The story has been told and people around the world are reading about a family through all their successes, failures and adversity. It always was a tough story with a family battling against the odds. In the middle came huge wealth and success before more disaster. However, the family carries on now into the seventh generation and they will have my books to tell them how it all began. That’s enough for me.

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The History We Were Never Taught

Last night we began to watch a TV series on Britain’s Most Historic Towns. It’s now series 3 but somehow we appear to have missed this. It’s presented by professor Alice Roberts and I can thoroughly recommend it. She looks at a town in a particular period, aiming to tell the real story of it and its people. We began with Plymouth in the Elizabethan Period, that of Drake and Hawkins.

Smeaton's Tower - Wikipedia

At first, I was fascinated because, other than crossing the Tamar Bridge into Cornwall, I don’t know Plymouth but now I can’t wait to visit. It has historic buildings in abundance, a fabulous coastline and stories to tell. Deeper into the programme, I began to realise the resonances we have with today. Drake, the hero who saw off the Spanish fleet in 1588, had been defrauding the public purse making himself rich while the poor of Plymouth suffered. Drake and Hawkins were effectively the first British to get involved with the slave trade, stealing from the Spanish with impunity to make Elizabeth and themselves rich. Here we have the monarch of England putting two fingers up at the most powerful country in Europe, encouraging the plunder of the third world in the name of trade while not caring a fig about the poverty of its citizens. Sound familiar?

We then watched the one on Medieval Lincoln, the county town of our birthplace. Another town we drive through or avoid because of seemingly continuous roadworks, but don’t know. I visited the cathedral as a child, even attended meetings in my first job there but I have never explored it, I am ashamed to say. Another fascinating programme which taught me so much. The second battle of Lincoln in 1217 was so important that had it not been won, it is likely that we would have become a French nation yet again. How sad that we learnt nothing in school of the heroism of Nicola de la Haye, the Castellan – a strong, determined, important and local woman who held the castle until William Marshal arrived to take the battle to the French.

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Where Next?

There’s a lot of displacement activity going on to avoid editing my new book, I’m afraid. Every day, I promise myself to pick it up again. Tomorrow, I will do it. Promise.

This morning, it was so beautiful that we had to take a walk before the rain set in. Then it was time to put away the garden furniture and clear more of the garden, mindful that this will be the last time we do these things. If all goes well, I keep having to repeat this phrase to myself.

The house we have chosen will suit some of the furniture that I had thought of recycling, so I am almost done with putting items on gumtree and freecycle. With charity shops closed again, it would have been difficult to manage this move without freecycle and I really enjoy giving something to someone who wants to look after our old treasures.

So what are we in the process of buying? I can now reveal that it is a Victorian village school. When I wrote Ella Midnight and the Mystery of the Missing Nose last year, (which has acquired a second 5* rating I notice recently, despite no marketing), I never expected to buy a school in the next village to where the book was set.

I understand that the house comes with the old school punishment books. They will be interesting to read. I wonder if they will inspire another story?

Let me add some context to the picture you may have conjured in your mind of a couple of dark dreary classrooms and a toilet block set across a small yard. Yes, our lounge is one of those small classrooms, with parquet flooring, a large wood burning stove, a double-height ceiling and a large rounded gothic window. Old school bookcases line the gallery above. I am so looking forward to having my own personal school library after decades of work as a school librarian. I mustn’t get carried away. It’s small, a miniature library, but nevertheless …

Aside from the lounge and gallery, everything else is super modern with an enormous kitchen dining, living area overlooking the garden.

I suspect that the garage across the yard, which is not suitable for vehicular access, was, in fact, the toilet block. I has odd levels inside. It’s large and has storage rooms off. Could it be converted into more accommodation or perhaps a gallery for local artists’ work? That’s an interesting prospect. With the broads only 5 minutes walk away, I can see lots of opportunities for new paintings and photography arising.

I have to stop myself from dreaming too much. Until the papers are signed, it’s too dangerous.

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