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.

Street Talking, New Brighton

Eye opening! Inspirational murals in the Victoria Quarter, New Brighton

I absolutely love the murals around the Victoria Quarter of New Brighton, a seaside resort on the northwest coast of England.

The vast sands at the top of the beautiful Wirral peninsula look to the Irish Sea, to the Dee Estuary and the mountains of Snowdonia and also across the River Mersey to the iconic docklands of Liverpool. New Brighton is a very special place.

After years of decline, the town is experiencing an upsurge of vitality. New developments along the seafront attract visitors to the lighthouse, Fort Perch Rock, The Floral Pavilion Theatre, a fun golf course, cinema screens, cafes and bars. Behind this lies Victoria Road and the Victoria Quarter.

The Victoria Quarter is a favourite haunt! Here independent businesses are springing up to create a new vibe. There’s good food and live music, and inspirational murals too.

The beautiful and thought provoking street art is astounding and well worth visiting. Hop on the train to New Brighton and discover these artworks just across the road from the station.

Here are some of my images of what you can expect!

There’s another mural hidden away, with a lovely invitation to a seaside day out! I’ll leave you to discover that one for yourself!

XpoNorth Creative Festival

Flying the flags at XpoNorth’s Eden Court venue, Inverness

XpoNorth is a unique, vibrant, international showcase of creativity attracting a wonderful celebration of speakers and participants to Inverness.

I have attended the event in previous years, enjoying seminars, film screenings and live music. This year I was honoured to take part in conversation about meaningful travel and the media with Lyn Hughes, Editor in chief and founder of of Wanderlust Magazine, and Peter Urpeth, journalist, musician and film maker.

At the celebratory opening dinner prior to the two-day event, I gathered with a huge range of creative people; fellow guest speakers from far and wide, including Boston USA, Hawaii and the island of South Uist!

Iain Hamilton, Head of Creative Industries for the Highlands and Islands shared his vision for XpoNorth in the festival brochure, and I’ve shared that below. Creative and cultural activities bring a huge economic boost to any region or country. XpoNorth is a huge feather in the cap of Scotland, ensuring that network of creative opportunity is vibrant and fizzing with potential.

My thanks go to everyone who made XpoNorth so very special! I had a fantastic time!…Ideas popping!

Window of Opportunity!

Waterstones Bookstore

Got to admit, it is so lovely to experience any book that you have written on display at large in a bookstore, and even more so when it is in the window!

These are special moments for authors who put their heart and soul into their work, through the initial idea to the real thing – the completed book!

I wasn’t expecting to see my book North Coast Journey on the happy mountain of books in the window of Waterstones Inverness. What a lovely surprise!

And once in store, I thoroughly appreciated the warm welcome of the wonderful book besotted team as I made my inky mark on my favourite signing page!

My favourite signing page in North Coast Journey
Waterstones Inverness; always a warm welcome and great help to assist in the ink drying!

Durham heritage coast days

When I write about communities and landscape around Britain, I celebrate what makes them distinctive and to do that properly I must spend much time meeting people and much time exploring places that might otherwise be overlooked.

Digging deep into the layers of community takes commitment, to build strong relationships and trust. This nourishes the authenticity at the core of my work, and I feel honoured that the integrity of my writing process is recognised with much critical acclaim.

When I’m invited to be a guest author at literary festivals, I find that people enjoy hearing the stories of people I have met along the way, or adventures I have fallen into!

I also use photography in my books and in my research. My pictures are part of my notes and I refer to them when creating the final work.

Here are some images of the Durham Heritage Coast where I know some very special people witnessing the dramatic transformation of a former mining landscape, home to one of the largest collieries in Europe.

The clean up of the black beaches, mired in coal waste for decades, has revealed golden sands and healthy new growth along the shore. As the landscape changes, so do individuals and communities.

Mark at Free The Way Recovery Centre,

The terrible pain of miners’ strikes from March 1984 to March 1985 against the National Coal Board and the bullish Conservative leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher could not prevent the closure of collieries. In mining communities, where sons followed their fathers to work in the pit, the shutdown destroyed the local economy and a way of life. In utter despair, some turned to drugs to numb the agony. Mark (pictured above) works at Free The Way and support addicts to discover ways of living clean.

The Turning The Tide programme has cleaned up the black beaches polluted by coal waste

The Turning The Tide project was a £10 million programme of environmental improvements, implemented through a hundred separate projects and it is fascinating to experience the re-emerging natural landscape though many mining traces remain and people throughout the community remember well when coal was king.

The Marra statue, with his heart ripped out, at Horden Welfare Park,
land bought by subscription by the community for their leisure
In local dialect, a marra is a friend, workmate or companion

Mining is a treacherous way to earn a living. Throughout the coal mining history of the Durham Coast there have been tragic accidents and hundreds of lives lost. Whenever I visit Easington, I call in at the cemetery to honour the 81 miners and 2 rescuers who lost their lives in the village colliery disaster of 1951. The mass grave and the cross made of miners’ picks is deeply moving.

I often meet people who share memories of the day, and of the years that followed as community attempted to come to terms with such enormous loss.

The mass grave of many of the 83 people who died in the 1951 Easington Colliery disaster
Easington was one of the most modern pits in Europe when a disaster claimed 83 lives

Those that continued to work in the pits had further agony ahead.

In 1984–85 major industrial action by striking miners led by Arthur Scargill shut down the British coal industry in an attempt to prevent colliery closures by the government’s National Coal Board. Communities were fighting for their livelihoods against the policies of ‘the iron Lady’ Prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. The police were instructed to use brutal tactics to control demonstrations by striking miners and supporters from across the country. The toll was immense. Ultimately the pits were closed.

Benches in Horden Welfare Park recount the mining history timeline of the community

In recent years the redundant industrial buildings and structures of the mining era have been removed as part of the Turning The Tide project. Mines have been sealed and in many places a pastoral landscape is re-emerging. Beaches that were black with coal waste, dumped from aerial flights that shuttled to and fro, are golden and sandy.

Golden sands where they were once black and pounded by grey waves
Rob is the only member of his family not to have worked at the pit.
He remembers vividly the black beaches, now he walks the clean shore regularly.

North sea winds carry echoes of the mining industry across the wildflowers meadows.

Easington Colliery land is now a nature reserve

A timeline through the long grass traces memories of the past. Significant dates are shown on discs in the shape of the miners’ tallies. Each was unique to the individual to assist in tracing him in case of collapses, explosions and other disasters in the mine.

Cages that transported the miners underground stand guardian over the colliery landscape to bear witness to the coal mining era

Butterly wings in wildflower meadows, a reminder of the process of transformation
Changing view; a cliff top bench carvings show with a miner’s equipment

At Horden Welfare Park, complete with sports grounds, the lovely vintage tearoom supports a heritage centre rich in donations and memories from the local community.

Maureen remembers growing up with a range and kettle just like this

Memories of mining are on the allotments too.

Men who worked at the pit have other projects in mind.

And some who thought they were destined for the pit have made new lives since the closures.

Families with sons bound for the pit have been forced to readjust yet traditional pastimes remain, including hunting with birds of prey
Community teams still compete for football and other sporting honours
The distinctive spirit of these warm and friendly mining communities remains

One of the oldest churches in Britain has witness dramatic change on this coast.

Now surrounded by fields, St Mary the Virgin is a little removed from the Gerogian
docks that shipped coal from Seaham

In the beautiful chapel, George, who worked in the pit, now cares for the building and hoovers regularly ahead of services. Alice is a warden who share her local insights and the history of the church. She also raises funds with sales of her marmalade.

George at Seaham St Mary The Virgin Church

Church warden Alice
In the graveyard, a reminder of another mining disaster

There are beautiful examples of Victorian Charles Kempe windows and a small Anglo Saxon window in the church, yet my favourite is this window that represents the possibilities in life that come when we tend the land and sow new seeds.

Charles Kempe windows
The brothers mining sculpture, Seaham
The seafront promenade honours The George Elmy Lifeboat crew and all who lost their lives when the community lifeboat was smashed by a huge wave close by the shore after achieving the heroic rescue of storm lashed fishermen
The sands of Seaham are renowned as rich picking grounds for colourful sea glass treasure, remnants of waste from the former glass works
Seaham dock, built to avoid paying heavy dues for the export of coal from Sunderland docks

There are so many stories across this landscape and this blog is my notebook of words and images, intended only to give a flavour of rich discoveries that await! The people here are so warm, friendly and engaging, their history is deep and their landscape is fascinating. Go explore!