Authors and afternoon tea

A refreshing highlight of lockdown life is an engaging series of online gatherings hosted by the Society of Authors at which established authors and other members of the writing community gather for afternoon tea and chat.

What a joy to sit in on the easy conversation between Joanne Harris and Nicola Solomon, Chief Executive of the Society of Authors. Joanne was taking tea and questions in the ‘shed’, a creative den in her Yorkshire garden that she references often in Twitter posts.

Joanne spoke of how she is managing lockdown life as the the Covid-19 pandemic nears its peak in the United Kingdom. The acclaimed author of 16 books draws much resilience and daily discipline from her previous career as a teacher. Days take shape around a timetable that caters for an early morning run, creative work, attention to her garden and interaction with loyal followers, friends and connections on Twitter. She describes the social media platform as her ‘staffroom’, a place where she hops in and out to ‘reboot’ and connect. The solitary process of writing makes many of us hermits to some extent.

Apart from her own books, Joanne continues to connect with the work of others and finds herself currently returning to old favourites like Donna Tartt’s Secret History for ‘comfort reading’ and Georgette Heyer, for bath time indulgence! She is also reading non-fiction to ‘reset’ her fiction brain.

Nicola describes Joanne as an ‘incredibly generous’ writer who does much to advocate for others, especially through her role as the Chair of the Society of Authors. Considering the changes that a global pandemic may bring to our communities, Joanne hopes for good things among the many challenges. She feels passionately that small presses and small bookshops will need vital support especially. And while many authors are asked to share their work freely, Joanne cautions that exposure must not be regarded as a living for an author and those who issue invitations expecting authors give their professional time and work for free are urged to reflect that harsh truth is that while exposure can lead to a living, an unpaid author may also die from it.

Life in lockdown is impacting the creative community in many ways; while some feel in flow, others are frozen and struggling with poor mental health. Joanne’s advice is wise. “Writing doesn’t come from a place of stress and anxiety, it comes from a place of calm and joy and reasonable mental health. Self care comes first. “If you can get out of this feeling ok then you are already doing very well.”

Joanne’s warmth and compassion shone through the afternoon tea party and her final words to the gathering were deeply encouraging. “Be kind to each other. Be kind to yourselves. Writing will come when it comes. Don’t worry if it is not starting.”

Catch Joanne’s chat in the shed here; a Vimeo recording of this special lockdown event.

Lockdown life: seeds of hope

In the throes of a nation-wide lockdown across Britain and also throughout the world, the spectre of Covid-19 wraps itself around anxious hearts and minds.

This ruthless invisible virus has humanity in its breathless grip. As key workers and health workers labour under awkward protective masks and gloves and clothing, supplied too late and too scarce by the government, it is the moral obligation of the rest of us to stay put in our homes, with the opportunity of breaks for exercise in the outdoor world once so familiar to us and now eerily alien and emptily sombre.

Never before has my garden oasis been so important. While this private outdoor space always been precious, now it is my well being sanctuary more than ever, and I am full of gratitude for it. The opportunity to leave the enclosure of the house and step into the freshness of the spring garden is supporting my mental health, well being and creativity immensely.

Deep inside my cream painted shed, happily decorated with rusty running rabbits and festoon solar lights, were forgotten seed packets, discarded in boxes of good intentions grown thick with cobwebs and rediscovered with fresh zeal. Compost, pencilled plant names on ice lolly sticks, watering cans and bamboo canes are part of the armoury keeping fear and hopelessness at bay during this lockdown experience of pandemic.

Planting for the future melds with memories of the past; I celebrate the blossom of the cherry tree, bought from a supermarket and planted in hope of shiny red fruit. I recall buying the small souvenir envelope of giant dill on my last trip to the United States and marigold seeds harvested from the community gardens around Windsor Street in Toxteth, and I remember a glorious day and the perfumed stately white sweet peas in the garden of the Castle of May in Caithness. Each packet brings me joy and hope. And as for the cherries, the snowy blossom softens the blow of losing the fruit to the birds.

My garden energises my spirit and I love this quote attributed to Seamus Heaney, so resonant and so apt for this extraordinary time in the history of humanity.

2020 The Year of Coasts & Waters

A favourite road, a favourite view, and a favourite part of the world! This is Assynt in the far northwest highlands of Scotland. A magical kingdom where mountains tiptoe to the sea; a perfect place to discover the Scottish Year of Coasts and Water.

This is a landscape I have known intimately since childhood. My family roots run deep here. I have experienced these far flung highlands in all seasons and I remain decidely under the spell!

My best selling book North Coast Journey, is illustrated with my photography of this enchantment! And I share inspirational ways for you to discover gently the people, the places and experiences that make this bewitching territory so special.

With my very best wishes for 2020! May this new year be kind to you!

Tree Time!

The festive season arrives early. I struggle with the onslaught of commercial Christmas activity that kicks in soon after the August bank holiday. For so many of us, it feels like overkill.

And so when I come across something that brings together a community in a creative and meaningful it way, it feels hugely uplifting. That’s what happened when I visited the Lochbroom and Ullapool Parish Church Christmas Tree Festival.

The small village on the west coast of Scotland welcomed the challenge of creating a Christmas tree festival with gusto. For four days there were 46 beautifully dressed trees on show, each revealing something significant and relevant to the makers, something to be shared with their community.

Scallops are associated with pilgrimages; those who undertook arduous journeys like the Camino de Santiago would often return with a souvenir scallop shell

This lovely seashell tree was made by Ullapool Sea Savers, a group of passionate, articulate, well-informed & dedicated young people who celebrate and raise awareness of marine life in an area where fishing is a vital part of the economy.

Mike and Peggy, with a warm welcome and the impressive Direct-tree…geddit? Groan!
Heidi, the minister, hoping for snow!

This stunning creation below was another of my favourites! So good to see how the young people of the area brought the issues that deeply concern them so creatively to the festival.

I loved this fabulous recycled bottle tree made by pupils at Ullapool High School!

This beautiful bare winter tree stood out.

Offering winter nourishment for wild birds, this display was created by people from neighbouring St Mary’s Episcopal Church

From the birds to the bees!

A quiet buzz promoting the value of beekeeping in poor and remote communities

Mike explained how well behaved Jack Russell Peggy had been when Gaelic broadcasting station BBC Alba came to visit the magical trees. Moreover, one of the creations, Give The Dog A Bonio, was her own work and funds raised would be donated to Munlochy Animal Aid shelter.

The importance of libraries in our communities is immense. Our libraries offer an opportunity beyond reading, they are a place to learn, to meet, to share information, to stay warm, to receive support and inspiration from compassionate staff and so much more. How lovely to see the Ullapool Community Library tree of stacked books. My author heart would swell if I saw my own work in such a pile!

Even the local chipper, The Seaforth, got in on the act with takeaway food cardboard boxes reminding everyone to Keep Scotland Beautiful.

The Ullapool Forget Me Not cafe will be a welcoming and social place for people with dementia to gather with their families and carers. I was especially moved by these simple words that express hope for people impacted by dementia.

The little church was beautifully decorated throughout. These coat-hook decorations caught my eye too! My congratulations to all involved the very first Ullapool Christmas tree Festival, it was a very special visit.Thank you!

From Mabou, Nova Scotia to Ullapool and beyond

When impoverished Scottish families emigrated from the highlands to make new lives in the ‘new world’, they took their traditional music and Gaelic language with them.

The opportunity to see the descendants of those emigrants return to Scotland and perform the music that binds far flung communities is a really special treat! And that’s what happened last night when the Blas Festival celebration of Scottish culture brought Canadians Dawn and Margie Beaton from Mabou, Nova Scotia to Ullapool in the northwest highlands of Scotland.

Mabou is small rural community in Inverness County¬†on the west coast of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island.¬†Celtic traditions are strong and the Gaelic language has been on the school curriculum for thirty years.

Dawn and Margie Beaton

The sisters are massively talented women who have been step dancing since the age of 4 and playing fiddle since the age of 5. And, as they told their wowed audience last night, they were taught Gaelic by teacher who emigrated from the Isle of Eriskay.

Here’s a short clip of them performing a sweet, two fiddle, wedding waltz that enchanted the crowd. Dawn and Margie’s talent and warm humour make the sisters great ambassadors for Cape Breton and, if, as they travel the world performing at Celtic Festivals, they come your way, do go and experience the magic! You’ll hear traditional fiddle tunes interspersed with beautiful pieces they have composed, an uplifting blend of old and new.

For more information about the special links that exist between Canada, Nova Scotia and the Scottish highlands, check out Ullapool Museum and especially the story of The Hector a creaky ship that sailed to Pictou, known as the birthplace of New Scotland, with the first wave of brave Scottish families hoping to make new lives in a faraway land at time when the Clearances were sweeping their birthplace.

To discover the beautiful landscape of Ullapool and the wider northwest highland experience, check out my illustrated book North Coast Journey.

Shore Thing!

I am especially happy wandering along the shore. I am fascinated by different approaches to the sea. Sometimes the beach is backed by a dense forest of skyscrapers and the bright lights of a vibrant city, sometimes a sprinkling of rickety wooden shacks, sometimes nothing but nature.

Here are two of my favourite beaches. The first is in the northwest of England, the second is in the northwest of Scotland. Both are without the company of a concrete jungle. Both are not immediately obvious, they require a little effort to discover, and so the peace is deep and the journey worth it.

The Dee estuary, standing on the English coast, looking across to Wales
The white sands of Achmelvich beach
Off the beaten track, a hideaway cove known fondly as the Skinny Dip beach because someone forgot her swimsuit!
There is magic on the lonely shore!

Spirit of Moray

I was honoured to be invited to speak about my work as a writer, to share my stories and landscape photography at The Spirit of Moray Book Festival, a prestigious event in the historic Royal Burgh of Elgin.

Thank you to everyone in the team from Moray Council who made me so welcome. And to all the great people who came along to my event and shared their own stories of the far north highlands too. It is a joy to meet people at book signings; I appreciate hugely how kind and patient people are as they queue to have their book, or books (many are bought as gifts!) signed. It is most humbling.

I especially enjoyed chatting with a couple happily purchasing several copies of my North Coast Journey, including one intended as a gift to their dear friend from Tennessee, who has named her children, Sonny and Cher!

Elgin library
Elgin cathedral precinct, though the romantic cathedral is not truly as squint as my photo!

Keep Your Chinook Up (2)

Drained, Toddbrook Reservoir

While the community of Whaley Bridge takes stock of the traumatic events of the summer, during which the town was evacuated due to a deep fissure in the dam wall of the Toddbrook Reservoir, an influx of visitors is supporting local businesses impacted by the week long emergency.

Toddbrook Reservoir has become a tourist attraction though it appears more like a puddle now. Rescue teams are extending pontoons into the shallows to remove and relocate to Worcestershire any remaining fish trapped by the drainage operation.

A visit to the playground, perilously close to the foot of the dam wall, is a chilling reminder of averted tragedy.

Too close for comfort?

Throughout the community there is praise to the rafters for the exceptional efforts of emergency services and volunteers who rescued their village. Superheroes came from across Britain, including Mountain Rescue Teams drafted in to organise thousands of body bags for the worst case scenario. In return, the people of Whaley Bridge are raising funds to support the continued work of these vital services.

At the Fab Makers Market around the canal basin, a modest exhibition expresses heartfelt thanks to the heroes of what is probably the biggest peacetime evacuation in British history.

Ignore him!

Over coffee in Footsteps Cafe, Ann and Joan reflect on the tension of the summer emergency. ‘It was a weird mix of fear and disbelief’ says Ann. ‘I remember being told to leave the cafe all of a sudden and I didn’t know what to do for the best, all I could think of was putting the biscuits on a top shelf so they wouldn’t be damaged by water.’ Later that day she heard that the town was within seven minutes of being entirely washed away. The torrent of rubble would have reached New Mills along the valley in just three minutes.

Post traumatic stress is likely to be experienced by many members of the community. Some feel unable to return to their former lives and homes, others are doing their best to keep going. There is support for those who want it from the NHS and from the local community.

Determined that life goes on, the town celebrated the Annual Whaley Bridge Show and Garden Society prize giving for flowers, baking, arts and crafts. I cannot resist events like this!

The showcase takes place in the bowling club, also perilously close to the foot the reservoir dam, but best not to think about that!

Determined local cats are not admitted.

The exhibition is joyous. Blinging trophies are on offer. Aspiring winners submit entries in an ingenious variety of classes, a bargain at just 10 pence per exhibit.

To keep traditions alive, children are invited to exhibit their talents free of charge and they do not disappoint. Here’s the Edible Necklace section, won by Harry Stevenson, who also walked off with the Miniature Garden (not to exceed 15” X 15”) prize.

Harry also scooped Best in Show for his Animal Made From Vegetable or Fruit exhibit.

And the Picture Made From Pressed Flowers, Leaves, Grasses etc category!

The adult exhibits are not too shabby either!

Keep Your Chinook Up!

The Toddbrook Reservoir Emergency Summer 2019

The British summer of 2019 will be remembered for many extraordinary events, not least ongoing Brexit wrangling, but also the terrifying prospect of the dam at Toddbrook Reservoir, in the High Peak district of Derbyshire, bursting open to release 1.3 million tonnes of water upon the village of Whaley Bridge and beyond.

Heavy summer rain caused serious disintegration of the dam spillway, threatening the community at the foot of the cracking concrete wall.

Whaley Bridge, at the terminus of the Peak Forest Canal

The emergency resulted in what is probably the largest British peace time evacuation of households and businesses. Impending disaster meant that residents from some 600 households were given little time to gather precious belongings, make arrangements for their pets and seek refuge from ‘mortal danger’ with friends and family elsewhere or in community centres.

Experts warn the impact of the trauma across community will be considerable

While a highly skilled team from Joint Helicopter Squadron at RAF Odiham deployed a Chinook helicopter to land hundreds of tonnes of aggregate on the the damaged spillway with exacting precision, emergency services and volunteers used 23 high pressure pumps to lower the water level of the reservoir and reduce pressure on the dam wall.

After almost one week of evacuation, the homecoming

The immense effort of hundreds of people to avert disaster is hugely appreciated by the community despite the trauma of unexpected evacuation from their homes for almost one week.

Financial and emotional support is on offer to residents

The village is especially popular with anglers and the fate of the reservoir’s 30,000 fish is unknown. Those that survive in the drained shallows are being netted and transported to the Bittell Reservoirs in Worcestershire. Government has confirmed that Canal and River Trust will rebuild Toddbrook reservoir and dam entirely.

Footsteps Community Cafe

As the community gets back to business, visitors are discovering the quiet attractions of the village traditionally popular with walkers and anglers. When I called at the Footsteps Community Cafe, the volunteers serving tea and cake were delighted with sales of their new fund raising postcards featuring the RAF Chinook helicopter expertly landing tonnes of aggregate to sure up the dam spillway at the height of the emergency.

Fika cafe

The staff of the Little Fika cafe told the same story; a wave of curious tourists is flooding into the village almost washed away. They are welcomed warmly and appreciated for their support of businesses unexpectedly shut down by near disaster.

As the community reflects on the summer of 2019, a creative response to the reservoir emergency invites residents to take part in an art project capturing their experience as evacuees.

As these walkers returned to explore footpaths around the village, eye catching messages posted in shop windows by the police and Canal and River Trust made poignant reading. They express heartfelt thanks to the community at large for their understanding and support during the traumatic events of an unforgettable summer.

As summer gives way to autumn, Whaley Bridge no longer dominates the news headlines. Disaster has been averted and residents are reflecting deeply on the extraordinary experience of life at the foot of a reservoir.