Settings… too close to home?

I know I’m mentioned this before, rambled on about it most likely, but I’m puzzling over the feasibility (for me) of writing something set in a location which is not only real, but somewhere I know very well… for example the place where I live now. Most of my novels are set in an imaginary town, on an imaginary coastline, with an imaginary big city with an airport and motorway connections nearby, with imaginary villages all around, moors, hills, marl pits, post-industrial landscapes… all completely fictitious, all existing only in my own mind and that of my readers.

I have only set one of my novels, ‘Flipside’ in a real place, the town of Oldham where I lived for many years. I did set another novel, ‘Loving Judah’ in two real areas of the country, Yorkshire and Cornwall, but the actual locations were just invented.

Why have I done this? Well, for me it gave a freedom to be totally creative in terms of plot… I needed a run-down, shabby town… so here is Castair; I needed a rather posh village, the ‘locals’ pushed out by townie incomers who bought up local homes and pushed up the prices, so her is Bethel; I needed marl pits – here they are on the far side of Castair… I need an old disused factory, a Methodist chapel turned into a posh restaurant, a network of little ‘lanes’ filled with expensive jewellery and knick-knack shops, fancy ice-cream parlours, ethnic delis, over-priced footwear boutiques… All can be done with an imaginary place. I am very careful to make my places ‘work’ and to be consistent with directions, connections and distances.

Having an imaginary setting can help to ensure that the reader understands my characters are totally fictional, completely products of my mind, and that any accidental similarities to anyone is just a complete coincidence.

I have mentioned all this before, but it is playing on my mind a little as I have written a series of scenes based on where I live now, a small village right next to the sea, on the estuary of a river which was once navigable deep into Somerset, but now is a sleepy remnant of itself for many of its miles. My characters go into ‘my’ pub, drink the beer I drink, go for meals in ‘the other’ pub, go into ‘our’ paper-shop, walk past the village school, the castle the bluebell field, Rose Cottage, the old school cottage…  My dilemma is whether I should rework these scenes into another imaginary location, changing, omitting, adding features and places. Might people I know think I’m writing about them if my story is here in our village? Might I inadvertently have a story-line which parallels a real situation of a real person – a person who might think I have stolen the story from them?

Recently I have been reading a series of books set not far from here, in and around Bridgwater, Burnham, Brean Down and the coastline all along here, a coast I know very well. The series is by Damien Boyd, they are police procedurals ‘starring’ Nick Dixon a maverick police officer.  As a reader it’s been quite exciting -‘ooh, I know that golf club/church/street/motorway services!’  I have even been into a couple of the pubs he mentions (no surprise there!) One of the novels is set when we had terrible floods down here in 2014 where a lot of our county was under water for months. Of course, in the novel, the crime scene was also under water!

Reading Boyd’s novels has really set me thinking yet again about location… our little village has so much to offer as a setting for novels – ruined church built on the site of a much older Anglo-Saxon chapel, a Neolithic hill fort, an ancient wharf where Phoenicians, Romans and Vikings shipped stuff out and brought stuff in, brickworks, claypits, quarries and lime kilns, ancient caves, water meadows, dangerous mud and quicksand, dunes, floods and a tsunami, golf course, wonderful pubs, restaurant, tearoom, picturesque and quaint old buildings, stylish new buildings, mysterious wooded areas with strange earthworks, nearby motorway connecting to London, the north, the south… anywhere in the country really! – legends of pirates and smugglers, local characters, real celebrities (John Cleese, William Lisle Bowles, Hannah Moore) sea frets and sea fog (the fog horn now defunct)…

Hmmm, I must ponder some more…

Meanwile, a link to my books:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_1_9?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=lois+elsden&sprefix=lois+elsd%2Caps%2C138&crid=220KBOUYSDIGX

“Loving Judah”:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/LOVING-JUDAH-LOIS-ELSDEN-ebook/dp/B00A4LJW7C/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8&qid=1506500671&sr=8-9&keywords=lois+elsden

“Flipside”:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/FLIPSIDE-LOIS-ELSDEN-ebook/dp/B00FAZTZDI/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1506500671&sr=8-5&keywords=lois+elsden

Damien Boyd:

http://www.damienboyd.com/

…and an interesting article from some time ago about Uphill:

http://www.thewestonmercury.co.uk/news/when-uphill-s-seafarers-were-replaced-by-tourists-1-310178

Revisiting Stonehenge

A site like Stonehenge is always worth revisiting, and so, sometimes is a memory of it! This is what a wrote as part of an archaeological course I was taking:

Elly wanted to visit Stonehenge. She’d taken us to many interesting places when we’d visited her in the Netherlands, now she was visiting us we were delighted to plan a trip to Salisbury Plain, to the ancient stones.

I’d seen them before, once when visitors were still allowed to touch them, sit on them, climb them. The last time I’d visited there was a fence round them and they were huddled into the landscape, looking less than impressive.

I wanted them to look wonderful for Elly, she was so looking forward to the trip. It was a hot journey, only a couple of hours but much of it behind lorries and trucks; we arrived and the site was crowded, the carpark full, a long queue to get to the site. We didn’t mind and we stood and chatted and laughed about silly things.

I turned to look round; the land rose away from us, and on the nearby ridge was the hump of a burial mound.  Stonehenge was not an isolated structure within a lonely landscape it was in a context of ritual and ceremony and meaning that we’d never know, only guess at. The earliest found evidence of this site being of special significance is from over 10,000 (yes, ten thousand) years ago. The henge itself was just part of the whole experience, but I’d never realised or thought of this before.

Through the barrier, we collected our audio-guides and walked through the tunnel under the road, taking us to the henge itself.

The path wound round and we traipsed along with the visitors from every corner of the world… five, four, three thousand years ago other visitors would have come, a throng of people speaking different languages, wearing different garments, bearing  different tattoos and weapons, all coming to celebrate some special moment. Travellers also came from far away in ancient times, as far away as the Orkney Islands… the stones themselves, the bluestones of the inner circle had been brought by Neolithic technology from the Preseli Hills, 150 miles away.

The stones were cordoned off by a low rope strung between short, slim, non-threatening metal posts; there was no sense of being cut off from the henge, nor of the henge being aggressively contained; we were just kept at a respectful distance. The stones are on a slight rise so as we looked at them we could barely see visitors on the other side of them and there was a sense of space and openness beneath the wide sky.

We followed the path round, taking our time, I gradually became aware of the henge within the landscape; the site had been chosen not by chance, but specifically because this was where it was right. There was no random positioning, plans had been made, the site must have been measured, cleared, and maybe even levelled. A wooden circle consisting of mighty timbers was here prior to the stones, maybe as many as 6,500 trees had been cut down with flint axes. Four massive ‘station’ stones were placed well outside the circle, positioned at the corners of a perfect square; where the diagonals intersected, the ‘alter’ stone was placed.

We walked slowly, stopping to stare, and each time I turned away from the stones and looked away to the horizon, knowing that within this area there are hundreds of other contemporary sites, burials, barrows, tombs, Woodhenge… for there were other henges than just those made from stone.

Because we were apart from the stones the banks were clearly visible, showing what a huge area the site was. These vast circular ditches would have been dug with deer antlers and the shoulder blades of cattle, thousands of tons of soil shifted. It must have been a stable and fairly secure society to be able to devote the amount of labour needed for construction. I looked to the distant hills, fields full of golden grain ripening in the summer sun.

At the south side of the site was the Heel Stone, aligned with the Slaughter Stone (it turns red when wet, there is no reason to believe it was a sacrificial alter) and standing by it and looking south I could make out a faint trace of The Avenue, twelve metres wide, descending to the River Avon.

I stood for many minutes, just looking at the henge, and then with my back to it again, looking at where it sat in the landscape.

“It’s wonderful,” Elly said. “Het is geweldig, echt geweldig”

http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/content/imported-docs/p-t/Stonehenge_plan.pdf

 

 

An archaeology walk round my village

A couple of years ago I undertook an on-line archaeological course; I absolutely loved it, and really enjoyed the assignments we were set. Here is one which involved looking at somewhere very familiar tome, and making some assessment of it:

For this assignment I went on an archaeology walk round my village. Uphill is a very small village just south of Weston-super-Mare on the coast of the Bristol Channel where the Axe flows into the sea. This area has been inhabited since Neolithic times; there were caves containing 40,000 year-old flint tools and worked and butchered bones of animals including the woolly mammoth and cave lion, there is a Bronze Age field system on nearby Walborough, the Romans are likely to have used the Axe to ship out minerals mined on the nearby Mendip Hills, and the area has been home to fishing and farming families over the millennia.

So… there is a lot of history in Uphill, but I want to explore the little village’s industrial past. If you visit Uphill you’ll think it a delightful and peaceful little village with nothing to hear but birdsong and the tide coming in. There are a few businesses here, two pubs, a restaurant, a sign-writers shop, an osteopath, the village shop… there’s the boatyard and marina and camp-site and a little tea-room. The only through traffic is going down to the beach… so really we are a quiet little place.

It wasn’t always so; there’s a wharf in Uphill which was busy for boats bringing coal and sheep from Wales, for example, and boats departing loaded with limestone and lime. There was also a quarry; Uphill is on the last of the Mendip Hills, a limestone range of undulating uplands, and limestone in past times was a valuable commodity.

Limestone was used extensively for building, and with the arrival of railways it was used for ballast (railways came to Weston in 1841); it was also made into lime by being burned in a kiln. Lime was used to ‘sweeten’ acidic arable land; it was used as a whitewash, in the steel industry and as mortar for building. It was particularly used from the mid 1700’s and limestone was quarried here in Uphill from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Not only was the limestone quarried, but lime was made in a lime-kiln here at the quarry. The kiln was fed with Welsh coal, brought into Uphill from across the Bristol Channel, and no doubt the same ships took the product away.

You can’t imagine that a kiln would make much more than a roaring noise, but getting the limestone to put in the kiln was very noisy… the quarrymen weren’t just there with pick axes and chisels, they had gunpowder and later dynamite. For safety reasons the explosives were kept in a special store, set into the rock face, built of limestone and with a special metal door, known as “a sacrificial wall’ which acted as a safety valve if there was an accident, the door would blow out, rather than the powder house itself blowing up.

The powder-house probably went out of use by 1930 and now there is little left to see, just some tumbled walls and stone shelves against the cliff face, overgrown with ivy, brambles and nettles… and we can only imagine the noise of the industry, the explosions, the crashing rocks, the wagons rolling backwards and forwards, now all is peaceful in Uphill!

© Lois Elsden 2017

Having some archaeological thoughts

This is something I wrote for an archaeology assignment… I have shared it before, but here it is again:

Charles Leonard Woolley was born in 1880 in London, and was a renowned archaeologist with a career of fieldwork in the near and middle east. He became an assistant in the Department of Antiquities in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford at the age of twenty-five but his first experience of field archaeology in the area which became his life’s work, was two years later in 1907. He joined an expedition from the University of Pennsylvania to excavate sites in Nubia (southern Egypt) and worked there for four years, before transferring to a British expedition in the same area. On this expedition he was joined by Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Until he was taken prisoner in 1916, Woolley worked for two years as an intelligence officer in Palestine (World War I started in 1914 in Europe) using his archaeological knowledge and skills.
After the war he continued his work in Mesopotamia and for this assignment I am going to consider the expedition he led from 1922-24, excavating the Biblical city of Ur, known as Ur of the Chaldees. Ur is a Sumerian city, inhabited since about 2600BCE; Woolley conducted excavations there for twelve years, discovering not only many artefacts, but also gaining a clearer idea of the lives of the inhabitants of the city. He discovered about 1850 graves including sixteen tombs which contained objects which led him to call them the ‘Royal Tombs’. He returned to Ur eleven times after the first expedition, but I am considering how he may have made his first reconnaissance in 1922, when he was accompanied on the dig by another young archaeologist, Max Mallowan. Mallowan later married Agatha Christy who wrote several books set in the area, including ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’ which features an archaeological dig, not dissimilar to the dig at Ur.
What methods of reconnaissance were available to Woolley in 1922? Since the first assents in a balloon in the eighteenth century it had been apparent that aerial reconnaissance was of value, initially for a military purpose. Similarly developments in photography and the portability of cameras allowed pictures of sites to be taken from the air, and one of the first archaeological aerial photos was taken in 1906 of Stonehenge.  In World War 1 with aviation technology and engineering improving rapidly, the use of photographs became vital in planning campaigns, and Woolley is sure to have used such photos which were taken over Sinai in 1916 and Gaza in 1917, for example. I have not been able to find out if Woolley had reconnaissance photos of the Ur site, but certainly the technology was available.
As an experienced archaeologist and a skilled, much practiced excavator, Woolley did not begin his ‘dig’ until 1923; he would have spent the first months of the expedition systematically reconnoitring the landscape by car, on foot, possibly on a camel. (Even before he had arrived he would have made an academic reconnaissance, using other records, maps, and documents) He would have tried to locate and record what he identified, taking photos, drawing and sketching, mapping, making diagrams and planning where exactly he would place his trenches. He may have used probes (no geo-physics then!) he may have dug small test pits, but most of all, he would have used his eyes to ‘read’ the landscape and understand its context from the contours and features, sand/soil colour and type, geology and other signifiers of archaeology he observed. He would have ‘walked’ areas to try and visually locate remains, even though they were from as much as five thousand years ago, maybe potsherds, maybe worked stone; the arid desert would have preserved some organic materials as well as inorganic, but such artefacts would only be revealed by natural excavation such as wind shifting sand during a sandstorm.
Woolley spent twelve ‘seasons digging Ur and completed his work there in 1934. However, he continued to write articles and books about his excavations in southern Mesopotamia. He died in 1960 at the age of eighty.

A year ago today…

A year ago today I shared this post… I was writing about a very exciting experience!

Beneath the Mendip Hills is a series of caves; tens thousands of years ago some of them were inhabited by people, that long ago and more other animals sort shelter within or came to die or had their bones washed into the caves by torrential rains or melting ice.
One such cave, a bone cave, is near where we live, further along the Mendip chain in a small village called Banwell. It’s possible to visit, either through making an arrangement with the people on whose land the caves are, or on one of their open days. We went recently and went down the steps cut into the rock, down into the cave. The caves are natural, created millions of years ago by the action of water on limestone.
Banwell Cave was lit by a few electric lamps, but mostly by candles which gave it a gentle, warm illumination. There is another cave, a stalactite cave which we couldn’t go into – no-one can without proper caving gear – how I’d have loved to do that! This cave was just a bog, roundish cave, and stacked neatly along the walls are piles of bones from the creatures who had died there. The eighteenth and nineteenth explorers working for the Bishop of Bath and Wells who owned the land, tidied it up for visitors – the caves, gardens and buildings, grottoes, an  osteoicon (bone house – museum) and tower, were all part of what might be called a ‘theme park’.
As you might imagine, the cave is extraordinary, and extraordinarily atmospheric. Some of the bones were in a heap and our guide picked some up and we were able to handle and hold them. Mostly bison and reindeer,  but also mountain hares, red foxes, otters,cave bears, wolverines, oxen and wolves… bones going back over 80,000 years. These bones give an interesting picture of life then; wolves for example were less hunters and more scavengers; the predominant predator species were the bears.
Our guide handed me a huge, yellowing hip bone; a gigantic bear thought by scientists to be a species of bear related to polar bears, not a cave bear, and one of gigantic proportions. These bears could be up to twelve feet tall… imagine that… a twelve foot tall carnivorous bear…
As I stood in the flickering candlelight, holding this massive hip bone, I had a really curious, almost overwhelming sensation… which I can’t really explain. It was only a momentary sense of something, and I can really understand how people can feel that objects contain power. It was an unforgettable experience.

P1040860 (2)

Look at the size of its skull :

https://museumofsomerset.org.uk/highlights/banwell-bear/

… and a link to the cave site:

http://www.banwellcaves.org/

Hopscotch

Do children still play hopscotch? We played it at junior school – there were two versions, chalked onto the playground or road; one was a line of numbered squares, single and then side by side  so you could hop then land with two feet, hop, two feet etc… I think there were ten squares, altogether. My actual memory of the rules are a bit hazy, but I think each player had a stone and would throw it onto a number hop around without stepping on the lines, and pick up the stone on the return… something along those lines (or within those lines I should say!) The other version was circular, like a snail shell, also divided into squares, but with a couple of symbols inserted at random. One symbol meant you had to hop over it, the other meant you could put both feet down. I think when you got to the centre you had to turn round and come back again. If you made it all the way back without falling over or stepping on a line, you put your initials in any square, everyone else then had to jump over, but you could put both feet down.

We did have other games, tig, skipping, some sort of singing game, but hopscotch was my favourite. I mentioned it in a story I was witting, and then couldn’t really properly remember how to play it. Apparently it’s a really old game – at first, before there were paved roads, children would mark the game out in the dirt – scratching or ‘scotching’ the outline. Some things I’ve looked at say it was an ancient British game, going back before the Romans, others say it was actually a Roman game; elsewhere there are claims it began in India or China, or that it is the last vestiges of some labyrinth ritual.

Who knows, who can ever know… my completely instinctive opinion is that children are inventive and love hopping about and balancing, and making up games, and that all over the world children invented similar games. Maybe the outline was based on something else – a pattern they saw, a mosaic, a ritual pathway, whatever, but I think kids made it up!

Walking round our village again

A few years ago I undertook a MOOC  (massive open on-line course) in archaeology. I did it all from home, no digging! We had various assignments, and here is one I very much enjoyed, which involved ‘researching’ a familiar environment with archaeological eyes!

For this assignment I went on an archaeology walk round my village. Uphill is a very small village just south of Weston-super-Mare on the coast of the Bristol Channel where the Axe flows into the sea. This area has been inhabited since Neolithic times; there were caves containing 40,000 year-old flint tools and worked and butchered bones of animals including the woolly mammoth and cave lion, there is a Bronze Age field system on nearby Walborough, the Romans are likely to have used the Axe to ship out minerals mined on the nearby Mendip Hills, and the area has been home to fishing and farming families over the millennia.
So… there is a lot of history in Uphill, but I want to explore the little village’s industrial past. If you visit Uphill you’ll think it a delightful and peaceful little village with nothing to hear but birdsong and the tide coming in. There are a few businesses here, two pubs, a restaurant, a sign-writers shop, an osteopath, the village shop… there’s the boatyard and marina and camp-site and a little tea-room. The only through traffic is going down to the beach… so really we are a quiet little place.
It wasn’t always so; there’s a wharf in Uphill which was busy for boats bringing coal and sheep from Wales, for example, and boats departing loaded with limestone and lime. There was also a quarry; Uphill is on the last of the Mendip Hills, a limestone range of undulating uplands, and limestone in past times was a valuable commodity.
Limestone was used extensively for building, and with the arrival of railways it was used for ballast (railways came to Weston in 1841); it was also made into lime by being burned in a kiln. Lime was used to ‘sweeten’ acidic arable land; it was used as a whitewash, in the steel industry and as mortar for building. It was particularly used from the mid 1700’s and limestone was quarried here in Uphill from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Not only was the limestone quarried, but lime was made in a lime kiln here at the quarry. The kiln was fed with Welsh coal, brought into Uphill from across the Bristol Channel, and no doubt the same ships took the product away.
You can’t imagine that a kiln would make much more than a roaring noise, but getting the limestone to put in the kiln was very noisy… the quarrymen weren’t just there with pick axes and chisels, they had gunpowder and later dynamite. For safety reasons the explosives were kept in a special store, set into the rock face, built of limestone and with a special metal door, known as “a sacrificial wall’ which acted as a safety valve if there was an accident, the door would blow out, rather than the powder house itself blowing up.
The powder-house probably went out of use by 1930 and now there is little left to see, just some tumbled walls and stone shelves against the cliff face, overgrown with ivy, brambles and nettles… and we can only imagine the noise of the industry, the explosions, the crashing rocks, the wagons rolling backwards and forwards, now all is peaceful in Uphill!
I chose this activity because I wanted to put into practice what I had learned from the course in a meaningful and relevant way to my everyday life; I often walk this way on winter’s mornings or sunny afternoons, out with my camera for some exercise. I did enjoy it because it put into context some of the skills that I’ve gained, observation, deduction, looking for evidence, trying to take in the whole picture not just a particular small detail.
I would like to do this again on another part of the village, maybe exploring the field system on the slopes of the hill, maybe looking at the ruined church built just after the Norman Conquest (1066) and its graveyard, or maybe trying to find the different little streams (rhynes in local dialect) and ditches which have been hidden by modern building (modern meaning nineteenth and twentieth century)

My featured image is of a real archaeological dig which happened a couple of years ago!