The mysterious Lud Church and the Green Knight

Lud Church isn’t even a church at all but actually a hard to find crevice in the Staffordshire countryside on the south-west fringes of the Peak District.  A narrow canyon in the ground over over 100 metres (328.1 ft) long and 18 metres (59.1 ft) deep.  It’s a foreboding place and long has it been this way with its steep and jagged rock faces covered with moss and lichen, always much cooler than the open countryside and seemingly whatever the weather, always the sounds of dripping water can be heard.

Lud's_Church

The devilishly unnerving Lud’s Church looking unusually welcoming. Photo thanks to geograph.org.uk_

The church does have an association with Christians when in the 15th century a group of reformers led by John Wycliffe met here in secret to escape persecution.  It’s history goes back much further than that however and originally, maybe as long ago as 10,000 years ago, it was thought to be the home of the Devil and even today it takes a strong soul to stay out after dusk.

Several famous figures have sought refuge in the church which is so hard to find that modern day hikers can often miss it entirely and more than one horse-rider has met their death by falling down from the earth’s surface above.

Entrance to Lud's Church

Entrance to Lud’s Chuch, Photo thanks to geograph.org.uk

Bonny Prince Charlie once hid here as did Robin Hood and Friar Tuck to name but a few.  Lud’s Church is famously thought to be the home of the the Green Chapel in one of the famous tales of King Arthur.

In the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the stranger challenges the men of King Arthur’s round table to take a swing at him with their axe, so long as one year later the Green Knight is allowed to return the favour.

Sir Gawain took up the challenge and decapitated the Green Knight with one blow.  To his surprise, the knight picked up his head before reminding him of his promise that next year, it would be his head that would be struck by an axe.   Sir Gawain spends a year overcoming challenges to his chivalry and his pride before facing the Green Knight and only suffering a minor wound.

There is great significance in the story as Green in medieval England has many traditional meanings including youth, life and virility.  Sometimes the Green Knight is depicted as being the Devil, and sometimes as God or a Holy Spirit.  Sir Gawain’s shield is portrayed with a pentacle on it, the famous sign of the Devil.

Many believe that the story is not just an example of King Arthur’s strongest knight displaying the good and points of humanity but a moral point of the greatest of men being overly prideful  and confident in their own abilities.

The Green Knight

Can you see the remains of the Green Knight in profile to the bright background?

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A day out to Highclere Castle aka Downton Abbey

I have been having a busy old summer taking guests on trip all around London and southern England but ever since February, I had been looking forward to Thursday 24th July in particular because this was the day that I would finally visit Highclere Castle.

It was a long day out we I had collected my guests from a cruise ship in Harwich on the east coast, driven around London and all ready visited Hampton Court Palace on the Thames, home of the legendary King Henry VIII.

It was a hot day too, at least for humid London where it had been 30 degrees Celsius + / 90 degrees F for what seemed like several weeks now and we were all glad to make the drive down to Hampshire where Highclere Castle is.

Visiting Highclere means that for many people, it is almost two tours for the price of one as while we have Downton Abbey, we mustn’t forget that the castle itself is the home of the esteemed Carnarvon family.  Nevertheless as we drove through the vast estate and through the front gates, it was the Downton Abbey theme tune that was being hummed in our car.

The Cast of Downton Abbey

The Cast of Downton Abbey

First off we had a delicious picnic under the branches of one of the iconic trees of the estate, the house beckoning to us through the leafy branches.  It should be said that only one of my two guests were Downton fans but he was very much able to enjoy the amazing house for what it is.

Highclere Castle is just the latest in a series of buildings that have stood here for at least 2,000 years.  Though it looks much older, the current building is only around 150 years and is built in the neo-gothic revival style that was popular in the House of Commons.  Designed by Sir Charles Barry who built so many great buildings from our local All Saints Church in Leavesden to the much grander and more well known Houses of Parliament, the similarity between Highclere and Parliament can easily be seen.

As entry to Highclere is heavily restricted, the whole estate is very quiet even when open to visitors.  Walking down the main gravel pathway through by the large field I remembered the garden party that Downton Abbey hosted on the hot summer day on August 4th 1914 when season 1 ended with Lord Grantham informing the guests that the country was now at war with Germany. I thought maybe it was just me, with my new WW1 history book but the weather was identical to that in the show and the actual day itself and before long we came to some signs stating there was going to be a WW1 charity event next week on this very spot.

After the obligatory photo ops of this magnificent house we waited for a while at the doorway, thinking of all the events of the show.  No doubt Mr. Carson would be berating us for our dressed-down manner.  Being boiling hot would be no excuse for dressing like tourists and of course he would be right even if today we were tourists, well my guests were.  I was nominally working but nominally is the word here when you are visiting Downton Abbey, I mean Highclere Castle.

There are no photos allowed inside the house as it is still the home of the Carnarvon family but it was instantly familiar.  It is a strange feeling to know your way round a house that you have never been to before but the layout and furnishings are identical to that seen in Downton Abbey.  All of the fine furniture, artwork and architecture that we all assume belong to Lord Grantham are of course the property of Lord Carnarvon.

Highclere Library

Where did I leave my Downton Abbey companion book?

Immediately after the entrance hall we make our way into the library area which cleverly morphs its way into a seating area.  There are over 5,000 old books on the shelves here and it is a marvellous place. Inevitably our attention drifts to the seated area where so much of Downton Abbey takes place.  With just ourselves in the room and one room attendant, it is almost as if we were waiting here for one of the family to arrive.  We stayed in that room longer than we expected before moving on to the next room.

Highclere Castle

Setting for many scenes in Downton Abbey

To be honest, I didn’t expect to see rooms with which I was unfamiliar.  Of course I didn’t expect that the show is filmed in every room but finding a room we had never seen was still an unexpected surprise.  It is the room whose doorway is behind the sofa of the library on the left.  All the actors come in on the doorway on the right.

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

This room is light and airy but quite small and leads onto a much larger but equally light room.  This room is often featured on the show and is often where the Dowager Countess spends her time when visiting the estate.  Though it would have been a treat, we were spared a writhing put down by Dame Maggie Smith.  The room was decorated with family photos and a few other reminders of 21st century life but essentially we were 100 years back in time.  The windows of the room looked out onto the fantastic lawns and the wooded hills beyond.

Downton Drawing Room

Downton Drawing Room

We then passed through two further rooms that have never been on the show.  One because it is rather small and maybe to comfortably furnished but the other could make a great addition.  The walls are filled with tremendous artwork and I had a great conversation with the room attendant on some of the paintings and the styles and themes in which they were painted.  One of the paintings in the room is of Venice by Caravaggio and it is a scene that is familiar to anyone who visits gallery’s or grand houses. The original is thought to be owned by the Queen but this was no doubt a very good and faithful reproduction painting by one of the artists students.

Highclere Smoking Room

Highclere Castle Smoking Room – The Caravaggio paintings are on the corner where the walls meet.

It is funny how often you see some paintings.  I have seen Breugel’s massacre of the innocents in more than one location in Britain but also in Bucharest, Romania, Berlin Germany and Paris, France.  There were no printing presses then that could reproduce such artwork and so the original grandmaster painter would teach his students to paint by having them reproduce his artwork which would then go on and be sold around Europe.    The room attendant sounded unexpectedly sincere when she said it was a real pleasure to meet me. Perhaps she was relieved to talk to someone about something other than Downton Abbey.

Next up we went upstairs by what must have been a servants stairway.  From the landing that surrounds the lower hall on all sides, you can see the magnificent stone balustrades, gothic arches and roof.  The bedrooms are all pretty much as we see them in the show except in real life there are around 80 bedrooms here.  Some obviously still used today but others stuck in their period charm.  We see Lady Cora’s room where she spend so much time being readied for her day with scheming Mrs O’Brien who of course caused her to slip on the soap that brought on a miscarriage which shaped so much of the episodes.

In Downton Abbey this is the bedroom of Lady Cora

In Downton Abbey this is the bedroom of Lady Cora

We also see the bed rooms of the daughters looking just as we know them but without Anna running around dutifully carrying out her tasks.   There is also the dark red room where Lady Mary marches around, so often moodily and the sight of that memorable night when she is in bed with the Turkish Ambassador who then dies from a heart-attack (based on an actual event).  Whenever I think of this chaos I am always reminded of one of the Dowager Countess’s most damning remarks

Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham: Oh my dears. Is it really true? I can’t believe it. Last night he looked so well. Of course it *would* happen to a foreigner. It’s typical.

Lady Mary Crawley: Don’t be ridiculous.

Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham: I’m not being ridiculous. No Englishman would *dream* of dying in someone else’s house – especially somebody they didn’t even know.

As outdated as it sounds, I can imagine countless older people saying such things.

 

Downton Stairs

Halfway up the stairs in Highclere / Downton Abbey

The bedroom of Lady Edith is huge and strangely features a painting that looks exactly like her but in fact it is just a co-incidence as the painting is of a Carnarvon family member who bears a striking similarity to Laura Carmichael.

The splendid roof above Highclere Saloon and stairs.

The splendid roof above Highclere Saloon and stairs.

Finally after touring the upstairs we went down the grand stair case.  This is probably my favourite area of the house along with the main library/seating area.  Even for a grand staircase, it is impossible grand and both my guests were beyond excited to see it all in real life and remembering some of the iconic scenes that took place on these very steps.  It’s a beautiful area and I must admit I was far too happy to feel like I was just doing my job.

Highclere stairs

The base of the famous Downton Stairs where so many have walked down, Mary, Matthew, Edith… me.

Downton Saloon

Downton Saloon

Downton Abbey Saloon

Downton Abbey Saloon

The house interior tour concludes with a visit to the Dining Room.  Another room we are all familiar with and another room which surpasses our expectations.   There are plenty of other rooms in Highclere Castle but the upper floors are closed to the public, many of which are undergoing a great deal of maintenance as the house was literally falling apart until a few years ago.

Dining Room

Dining Room

Sadly for us we don’t get to see the kitchen and servant areas as they are fall filmed in a studio.  Authentic looking as they are, and you can visit many similar areas in stately homes, the Highclere castles are strictly a 21st century affair where the chef prepares food for paying guests.

Instead, what we do have is a small but great collection of Egyptian relics in a museum that was created by an earlier Lord Carnarvon.  He was a keen fan of early motor cars, many of which were highly dangerous to ride and unfortunately for the Lord, he suffered from a major accident.  His health was never great and got worse and so for the coldest months of the English winter, he would visit Egypt where he became interested in Ancient Egypt.  He privately financed a team of archaeologists and after around 16 years of doing this, Howard Carter was to make history and discover the immeasurable treasures of the Pharonic boy-king, Tutankhamen.  Many original and reproduction artefacts are on display along with a depiction of how the tomb was when it was first discovered.

Archaeologist Howard Carter with his sponsor Lord Carnarvon

Archaeologist Howard Carter with his sponsor Lord Carnarvon

Sadly, Lord Carnarvon died soon afterwards and it is said that the lights of Cairo went out at this very moment.  This was the beginnings of the curse of Tutankhamen  which saw various members of the archaeological team die quite soon afterwards.  Whether or not the curse is real, it has had some impact on modern day Egyptologists who when they discover a new tomb, let it air for several days in case there are any deadly viral mutations lurking inside ready to pounce after thousands of years of waiting.

People who watch Downton Abbey will remember how Lady Cora opened her home to the injured men of WW1 and this is something that happened in various stately homes including Highclere Castle.  In the show it is clear that Lord Grantham like many others married the daughter of an American industrialist.  These Americans of the time had lots of money but the one thing that money couldn’t buy was a title and entry to the aristocracy.  Many of the aristocracy had everything imaginable except a shortage of money.

At Highclere Castle was Lady Almina who was the daughter of the immensely wealthy Rothschild family of wealthy Jewish bankers with homes across Britain, France and the USA. This marriage was a way to introduce fresh money into the Carnarvon estate but also a way for the Rothschild family to secure their aristocrat breeding, something which despite all their money was a precarious situation for a Jewish family at the time.

By all accounts Lady Almina couldn’t help enough and started nursing the troops and long after the war, she would always open her home to the brave men who had fought for our country often with terrible injuries.

After our visit to the house, of course we visited the shop which is situated in a rear courtyard area never visited in the show.  In fact many places featured in Downton Abbey are filmed in real places a long way from Highclere Castle.

The current Lord and Lady Carnarvon

The current Lord and Lady Carnarvon

Finally there was one last thing we had to do.  The gardens and estate were vast and due to our very big day, we were short on time but we had to visit the famous spot that is shown on every episode of Downton Abbey.  The gravel path way between the 2 giant cedar trees which so often frame this dramatically beautiful home.  In Downton Abbey terms, this is the equivalent of sitting on Captain Kirks chair on the Enterprise!

One could wait all day for to get a perfect photo of this famous view as it is such a wide expanse, even one tourist takes several minutes to walk across the view but here is one of mine below.

A room with a view - Downton Abbey

A room with a view – Downton Abbey

The drive back to Windsor went quickly and we all made a vow to revisit Highclere one day soon and watch even more Downton Abbey!

To learn more on the effect of WW1 on country homes like Highclere and Downton Don’t forget, to check out my new WW1 history book in Kindle and paperback formats entitled Lest We Forget: A Concise Companion to the First World War.

Lest We Forget

My easy to understand but comprehensive history of WW1 in Kindle and Paperback.

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The 2014 Commonwealth Games

Wednesday sees the start of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the third largest multi-sport event after the Olympics and the Asian Games.

The Commonwealth Games has been running every 4 years since 1930 and has so far been held in 18 cities around the world.  This years Commonwealth Games is being held in Glasgow.

Around 71 teams compete in the games with Australia being the most successful team in 12 of the games.  The games feature the usual Olympic sports as well as those that are generally only played in Commonwealth nations such as cricket, rugby, netball or lawn bowls.  Uniquely in athletic competitions, it sees the United Kingdom competing as individual home nations and so pits English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish teams against each other and the rest of the Commonwealth.

Glasgow Commonwealth Games

Glasgow Commonwealth Games

The origins of the games go back to the 19th Century when people began to want the different nations in the British Empire to meet and enjoy the differing cultures. Now nations compete from across the globe from tiny Pacific islands to vast nations like Canada and India.

The Commonwealth contains over 2 billion people and is one of the more obvious works of the Commonwealth.  Whilst some nations temporarily leave or are expelled due to political reasons, any nation who was formerly in the empire is eligible to request joining should they meet certain criteria for good governance. South Sudan was the latest country hoping to enter the games but they are thought not to be competing this time.

Whilst at the 2012 Olympics, Team GB topped the medal table per head of population, in the Commonwealth Games there is a surprising leading nation.  It is in fact the tiny island of Nauru which measures only 8 sq miles which is 8 times smaller than the city of Glasgow itself.

Since 1990, Nauru with just 10,000 inhabitants have won 28 medals, including 10 gold!  Most of their success can be attributed to the fact that their stocky body build makes them perfect for weight-lifting leaving the next most successful team for their population, Samoa, being 45 times less successful.

Marcus Stephen who started the fantastic run of Nauru sporting success in The Commonwealth Games later went on to become an elected MP and then President of the tiny island.

With the Scottish Referendum looming, there will be no doubt some intense sporting rivalry between England and Scotland in particular but whether Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond might follow the Nauru star in a bid to improve his chances of winning independence is doubtful though given his stocky build maybe he could give weight-lifting a try too.

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Lest We Forget: A Concise Companion to the First World War (my new book)

I know what you’re thinking.  Stephen can’t be releasing another book.  I know, I know.  I’m sorry.  Long-time readers will know that I spend my summers giving guided tours and during winter I spend most of my time writing and it just so happens that it takes a certain amount of time for books to be released.

Anyway this is a different sort of book as it is my first history book and something I am rather proud of especially as it is about one of my favourite areas of history, World War One.  I’ve written before about certain aspects of WW1 including my relation who fought the Red Baron, Armistice Day, Poetry from the trenches and recently about our new village memorial.

Manfred_von_Richthofen

Manfred_von_Richthofen – The Red Baron

I’ve always been interested in WW1 and have visited many of the important sights.  Actually I have quite a collection of barbed wire, shrapnel and shell casings in my writers den.  I left the hand grenade behind after it started making a high pitched whine that I later found out to be my camcorder battery.

Lest We Forget is an easy to read guide to WW1 and is only 122 pages long.  Those 122 pages however cover pretty much the entire war as you can see from the chapter titles below.

1    Introduction
2    The Road to War
3    Over By Christmas
4    The Pals Battalions
5    The Race To The Sea
6    The Christmas Truce
7    Life In The Trenches
8    WW1 Literature & Poetry
9    Verdun
10    Battle Of The Somme
11    The War At Sea
12    The Home Front
13    Women And The War
14    New Weapons Of War
15    Desert Campaigns
16    War In The Air
17    Gallipoli
18    World War One Legends
19    They Called It Paschendaele
20    The War Around The World
21    Armenia
22    The Russian Revolution
23    The Americans Are Coming!
24    The Hundred Day Offensive
25    The Armistice
26    Aftermath
27    Remembering The Great War
28    Maps and Photographs

From Finland to New Zealand, India to Canada, Lawrence of Arabia to the Red Baron, the horrors of Verdun to the musings of the poets, this book gives a great introduction to the war for casual readers and those wanting a new insight into WW1.

Passchendaele_aerial_view

Passchendaele_aerial_view before and after.

1914 is the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1 and for the next 4 years, we will be remembering a succession of 100th anniversaries relating to the war such as the Christmas Truce football matches, the sinking of the Lusitania, Gallipoli and the awful first day of The Somme   .  Lest We Forget covers each one of these epochal events and many more.

I’ve also included the run up to the war itself, insights into how it effects the modern world and how we remember the war today.

Not many people today realise that Britain was bombed by Zeppelins in WW1 and that the east coast was attacked by the German navy.  Or that the American entry into WW1 was very much delayed and that British grew so bewildered that their contacts in Washington fed the American government lies about German school children having parties to celebrate the sinking of American civilian ships.

Everyone knows about the Nazi holocaust in WW2 but very few know their allies in WW1, the Turkish Ottomans carried out their own holocaust of Christian Armenians or that progress on the western front was so slight that the first and last British soldier killed in the trenches are buried precisely six feet but nearly 1 million men apart.

Think the French are cheese-eating surrender monkeys, read about Verdun.  Think the British generals were bad on the treatment of their men at The Somme, learn about the final day of the war and an American commander who cost countless lives just so he could have a hot bath.

Learn about the eccentric British commander in Africa who insisted on naming his boats after animals, the German Kaiser whose feelings of inferiority led the world to war.  The accounts of the crucified soldier, the Angel of Mons, the end of empires, revolutions and uprisings and the incredible effort to remember the dead.

Of course, it is called WW1 for a reason and this book deals with campaigns in Africa, Asia and the south pacific as well as less remembered campaigns than those we all talk about.

Learn about the hi-tech advances in areas such as tanks and poison gas and some low-tech solutions like urine soaked cloths.

Lest We Forget

My easy to understand but comprehensive history of WW1 in Kindle and Paperback.

Lest We Forget is available in Kindle and Paperback formats in all good on-line outlets and literary stores too.  The Kindle version is published by Endeavour Press of London, one of the worlds leading digital publishers whilst the paperback version is available too for those folk like me who prefer a good book and the paperback includes a number of maps and archive photos as well as some personal photos from my family members who like millions of others, fought for our freedom only to never return home.

You can order Lest We Forget: A Concise Companion to the First World War from Amazon.com in Kindle for $5.13and paperback for $9.99 and Amazon.co.uk in Kindle for £2.99 and paperback for £6.99 and other Amazons around the world.  I am also happy to write a dedication to anyone who wants one, just let me know,  though I’d have to charge shipping fee for that.  Please, do leave a review if you buy a copy.  They are like gold dust to independent authors.

If anyone would like to review this or any other of my books, please let me know!

Me with my new book

My new history book. Finally an author AND historian!

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Our village (Leavesden Green) gets a new WW1 memorial

Like many others have done as the 100th anniversary of WW1 or The Great War looms ever closer over for us, our village has been busy working on a new war memorial which is situated at the end of my street.  One of the most popular of my blog posts is that of Armistice Day but for those who don’t want to read it, here is our old memorial.  My post on Poetry From the trenches has also been incredibly popular.

Leavesden Green memorial

Lest We Forget – In honoured memory of the Leavesden Parishoners who died for their country in The Great War.

Most places have refurbished their existing memorials, cleaning out the soot and car fumes from the memorials so that the names can be read and the monuments look as they did almost a century ago, The war memorial in our village of Leavesden had been falling apart for years made as it was of simple brick and a sandstone/mortar mixture.

When I arrived here 7 years ago, it was looking in a sorry state, bits falling off it due to decades of weather and neglect. Happily, since then, it has become increasingly significant again and the focal point of a memorial service at 11am every November 11th. Last year it was decided that the village was going to replace the memorial in time for the 100th anniversary. Originally, it was going to cover the names of all those fallen in WW1, WW2 and other later conflicts such as Korea, The Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan. However it became clear this wasn’t possible, at least not with the money we had for the job.

There was also the difficulty in tracking down the names of people, some with no living relations or others whose family had long since moved out of the area. What would we do if someone in 20 years time came to say their family member should be on it? For that reason the decision was made to list out the WW1 names but then acknowledge the later wars, something the original memorial never did. Much fund-raising was had and though much was raised, sadly many of the local residents seemed not to contribute much if anything. I remember that we did even as I was out of work after all without their sacrifice I may not be here at all or if I were, would be writing my blog in another language.

Covered Memorial

We wait expectedly for the ceremony to begin.

Kindly 3 local businesses donated their time, expertise and materials for the expensive parts of the memorial and so at 3.30pm on Sunday 13th July we gathered to pay our respects and see our new memorial. It’s hard to imagine what it was like here 100 years ago. A tiny farming community with London still 10 or 15 miles away. Just a handful of buildings and residents and yet there are 36 names on the memorial. Can you imagine how empty the village was, the empty places at the dinner table in each house. Even now they and the nearly million British men who died leave gaps in our lives. The fathers, grandfathers, uncles that we never met. Their siblings we didn’t have the chance to play with in our childhood. The poverty many families had to grow up in even without taking WW2 into consideration.

The new memorial sat under a wooden box ready for its unveiling. A Union Flag lay on top, fluttering in the slight breeze on this warm summers day so much like that Bank Holiday in August 1914.  As I stood wondering what this place would have been like 100 years ago, my mind wondered briefly to the famous Ode of Remembrance from Laurence Binyon’s poem “For The Fallen”.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Army Cadets

Local Cadets march towards the memorial

A crowd of around 150 people must have attended including many veterans from WW2 and later wars. And elderly lady in a wheelchair sat with the best view in the street, the sole person who in any way remembers WW1.

The local army cadet force of teenage boys marched in with their flag and with the local vicar, MP and mayor present, the box was lifted and our new granite memorial was unveiled in its new position.

A series of postcards from the front were read out by our neighbour, a serving Staff Sergeant who has seen action in the recent wars. The post cards indicated the increasing horrors of the war and the ever increasingly feel of despair that the writers would never get home again.

Unveiling of Leavesden War memorial

Unveiling of Leavesden War memorial

The vicar lead prayers of remembrance and after a short while it was over. We all chatted to each other, the veterans and also took a peek at the memorial though I am sure most of us will give it a more thorough inspection later.

Our new vicar came over to speak with us, he being of our age and sharing a love of sci-fi, music and sarcastic humour we got on well. Afterwards, we went upstairs into the communal area of the home for the elderly many of which had survived WW2. The names of all of the contributors were read out and toasts were said to the fallen soldiers, to their families and to the Queen. It all felt slightly like we had been sent back to 1914 ourselves before we enjoyed some cakes, sandwiches and drinks.

Blessing

Reverend Eddie Green of All Saints Church, Leavesden leads the remembrance.

It was incredible that so many people spent an hour or two of their Sunday on this warm summers day to come and pay tribute to people who 100 years ago who were packing up their troubles in their old kit bag and making their way across the Channel never to come home again.

I go past the memorial almost every day and just about every time I look at the names written upon it. Several of which share surnames and must obviously have been brothers or fathers and sons.

Leavesden memorial

Those who took part in the unveiling stand around the new memorial.

The new memorial is a fitting tribute and will no doubt be used frequently for the next 4 years in addition to its usual annual services. Made out of tough granite, it is likely that in 100 years time the memorial will simply need a little touch-up when our as yet unborn descendants remember the names of the 36 men who died in WW1 and those that came later and who shape the lives of our village and all of us by their bravery and sad absence.

Many people who read my blog will know I have been busy writing a WW1 history book which was selected for publication.  I am happy to say it will soon be released on paperback and below is the front cover.  It is already available from Amazon on Kindle at Amazon UK and Amazon USA  I’d be hugely grateful of any kind reviews.  The paperback will be out in a few days when I will do the official obligatory launch!

Lest We Forget

My easy to understand but comprehensive history of WW1 in Kindle and Paperback. Out soon!

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The Messenger – Book 2 in the Timeless Trilogy

Today marks the release of the second book in my Timeless Trilogy of History-Romance novels, namely The Messenger.

I’m very excited about The Messenger as with any trilogy, the second book in the series contains much of the meat of the overall story though it is a gripping read as a book in its own right.

The Messenger

The front cover of The Messenger depicting ‘Sam’.

The Messenger picks up immediately after the conclusion of The Promise with the unexpected attack on the camp that Ben has found himself by vicious Mongol like nomads.  From there it is a tale of ups and downs with high adventure mixed with introspection, romance, a touch of exotic ceremonies and finally an apparently stable life.

Ben is adjusting to his new life amongst the nomads of the Asian Steppe but he can never forget why he is here in the first place.  He manages to persuade his Guardian Angel, Harry, to find a way to get word back to Sam that he is alive but in another time.

Harry hasn’t been to London before, it’s not often that Angels get back to visit Earth and it all looks to be for nothing when Sam is being evicted from her home for being behind with her rent.  What’s more she wants nothing more to do with him.  Harry can’t just come out and tell her he is an Angel but Ben told him to give his letter to Sam no matter what.  Time for Plan B.

Meanwhile, Ben has more on his hands than he knows what to do with.  On the run from his adopted tribe and cheating death on more than one occasion he decides to end his days on a remote farmstead.  However, Mandana who helps run the farm with her father is determined to nurse him back to health

Just when Ben thinks he has finally made himself a family and a home that he always wanted, a face from the past returns with awful consequences.

Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever and an element from Ben’s past returns to turn his world upside down in a tense, heartbreaking and at times horrific finale.

Most of the main characters from The Promise are in The Messenger too but there are also quite a number of new important characters in the story.  None is more important than that of Guyuk.  Guyuk is the son of a vicious son of a feared nomad warrior who after an early run-in with Ben will stop at nothing to get even no matter what the costs.

It’s not all doom and gloom though, there are laughs a plenty and the introduction of Mandana, the daughter of a country farm-owner who saves Bens life and wants him to spend his life with her.

The Messenger contains some of my favourite moments in the whole trilogy which encapsulates life but mixes in some larger than life situations which did in fact actually happen to some poor unfortunate souls.  I’ve visited many of the places in the book and studied the history for many years at Uni so if you like my blog then I hope you will find it a compelling read.

To celebrate the release of The Messenger, The Promise is currently on-sale at a reduced price of $1.99 in the U.S. and £1.19 in the U.K.

The Messenger is on sale in all the usual formats from all good outlets.  You can see my Amazon US Store here and the UK one here but it is available in many other places too.

The final book in the trilogy Forever and Until will be out in August 2014 with all the trilogy being published by KTF Press.

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The magic of Avebury Stone Circle and Lacock Abbey

Sometimes when I take out small groups on guided tours around southern England, I get to go to places that I haven’t been too but have often wanted to go.  It’s like those lucky people who love movies and get to work at film studios or animal lovers who get to become vets.

There are so many places to visit that it is almost impossible to have been everywhere so imagine my joy when recently I took a family from New Jersey to Avebury stone circle and Lacock Abbey.

Avebury is a stone circle like Stonehenge except it is much larger and receives far few visitors.  There are hundreds of stone circles in Britain but most people head to Stonehenge however it has never been my favourite stone circle and Avebury has proved this again.

Like Stonehenge, Avebury lies in the county of Wiltshire, a largely agricultural county full of pretty little towns and villages, the famous Salisbury Plain and hundreds of megalithic monuments whether they are are stone circles, white horses carved onto hillsides or earthworks including Silbury Hill, the largest man-made mound in Europe and in many ways an equal of the Pyramids of Giza.

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill – the largest man made mound in Europe and 131 feet / 40 metres tall.

Having picked up the young family of 3 from Stanmore Station on the fringes of London, we headed out west and were quickly heading out through the shires arriving in Wiltshire around 90 minutes later.  Shortly before we arrived at Avebury we came across one of those chalky grass hills with a white horse on display but it was miles away from the road and there was no obvious way of getting there.

Resuming out trip we came across an authentic Steam engine parked at the side of the road.  A group of engineers were debating amongst themselves what they should be doing as water gushed down onto the road-side.  In fairness to them, they were very friendly as we got out of the car to take photos of this road vehicles that pre-dated our own by a good 200 years.

A few miles down the road and we arrived in the village of Avebury.  Yes the ancient stone-circle is so large that a village actually grew up in and around part of the circle.  It does nothing to detract from the feeling of the circle though and makes it all seem more magical.

Avebury Stone Circle

Avebury Stone Circle

There is a lot to see at Avebury, not just the stone circle but our plan for the day meant it was the stone-circle that held our attention.  In fact there are more than one stone-circle here and unlike at Stonehenge, visitors are free to walk amongst the stones, touch them or as 2 of my young guests did, take a pile of selfies with them.  Some of the stones have been removed since they were put in place in 2,600 BC by local farmers and villagers but it doesn’t distract from the feeling of the place.

Lacock Circle

Here you can see part of the large ditch that encircles the stone circle

Many of the stones have grazing sheep amongst them that strangely adds to the atmosphere.  My guests were adamant that this was all so much better than London and I entirely agreed.

Avebury Stone Circle

Avebury Stone Circle

The entire complex is surrounded by a large earth mounds and ditches that ring the circle and village.  Climbing on it makes a better vantage point of the stones and you can walk around in a circle though it would probably take a fair bit of time as the bank is around 400-500 metres in diameter and the outer stone circle is 331.6 metres or 1,088 feet.

Ancient tree

Rather like the native Americans, the original peoples of Britain lived in tribes and saw objects such as trees, streams and rocks as having magical properties.

We spent a lot of time exploring the ancient landscapes which had long been cultivated and supported a rich society for thousands of years before these circles were built.  We were diverted from our amble around the circle by an ancient tree that had roots spreading out over a wide area.  Visitors had tied ribbons and other things to the branches of the tree following on in the ancient beliefs in the magical properties that such trees had.  It was a very serene place and it was easy to imagine that the massive roots would come to life after all the visitors had left each day like those trees in Lord of the Rings.

The village of Avebury itself is beautiful, with the buildings all constructed from the beautiful and distinctive local stones.  My guest family needed the bathroom and they thought it fun that the public toilets were in an old stable block of the adjacent Red Lion Pub.

Foregoing the museum local stately home, we returned to the car and drove through some wonderful countryside and Silbury Hill to Lacock Abbey where we had a picnic.  It was a blissful location, no noise, beautiful green countryside and huge trees and warm sunshine.  The day was getting better and better for my tour guests which is what it was all about.

Lacock Abbey Cloisters

Lacock Abbey Cloisters (photo by David Iliff)

After lunch we walked over to the old abbey.  Like many country homes in Britain that have the word Abbey in their name, it would at one time have been a religious building that was either destroyed or re-appropriated in the time of King Henry VIII.   In this case Lacock Abbey was founded in 1229 by the Countess of Salisbury who founded an Augustan Monastery here where it flourished until the 16th Century saw it come under the private ownership of Sir William Sharington who demolished the church and converted the Abbey to a country home.

Lacock Abbey

Lacock Abbey

Lacock Abbey has lots to offer visitors, amazing gardens, beautiful buildings but unknown to myself who is not at all a fan, it also featured in the Harry Potter films as did dozens of other old buildings in Britain as well as The Other Boleyn Girl and one of my favourite 1980’s TV shows, Robin of Sherwood.

Chapter House of Lacock Abbey (photo by Dilif)

Chapter House of Lacock Abbey (photo by David Iliff)

The downstairs of the house is where most of the abbey was and it is still centred around the cloisters which is where much of the Harry Potter scenes were shot as well as the surrounding rooms that lead off from the main square including a quite well-preserved Chapter House.

Lacock Abbey Cloisters

Inside the Cloisters. They ceiling is decorated by heraldic badges and little carvings of mermaids and even a man sticking his bum out at the Nuns)!

Lacock Abbey

Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire.

Upstairs the house is decorated in two distinctive styles.  The modern part is very much 1920’s-1930’s and is where the family lived prior to the estate coming under the ownership of the National Trust.  Most of the upstairs however is decorated in an older style with a long gallery with deer antlers hanging from the wall and a Victorian era study with all sorts of scientific gadgets.

The reason for the Victorian gadgets is that the house has been the scene of a number of important inventions, not least the which was that of negative film photography.  It seemed appropriate that the girls took a selfie on the precise spot that the first modern photo was taken.

There were some grand dining halls, bedrooms and library in which was a piano which Abbey, one of my guests, played splendidly.  We were all a little in awe when we found out the piano was likely older than the United States.

After visiting the house and gardens we briefly walked a short distance into the village of Lacock into the National Trust tea room.  My guests were thrilled at their day and the scenic beauty of the village but it was all topped off by the traditional clotted cream scones and teas.  Sadly for my guests they had no room for the fresh Cornish ice-creams and in truth I didn’t either though I didn’t let that stop me.  It was delicious and whilst I was away getting my ice-cream unknown to me my guests took a load of selfies on my iPad which I only found the next day.

Lacock High Street

Lacock High Street (photo by Ettlz)

We made our way back to London via Stonehenge but we simply did a slow drive by which allowed some great photos and 90 minutes later we were back in London.

Though it is wonderful to see all of these amazing sights, the best part of the job is meeting some great people and knowing that I helped made their holiday that little bit extra special.  Thanks to Nikki, Abbey and Amy for being such fab guests.

Please remember that my new book, The Promise, which is book 1 of the Timeless Trilogy is now out and available from all the usual good online outlets including Amazon.  Signed paperback copies are also available at the standard price plus shipping.  Please email me if interested!

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