As the minutes ticked down to midnight…

As the minutes ticked down to midnight on New Year’s Eve, I was suddenly in floods of tears. They were dripping into my glass of bubbly…

Was I sorry to see the end of 2017? Was I watching a weepy movie? Had I over-indulged my share of the bottle of champagne?

No, none of those! I was crying because of what I’d just read on Twitter…

It was a tweet from reviewer Michelle Ryles (The Book Magnet):-

My Top 20 books of 2017 blog post is now live! 📚📚📚📚📚📚

http://www.thebookmagnet.co.uk/2017/12/my-top-20-of-2017.html?m=0

#TopReads2017 #TopBooks2017

@DavidVidecette @tinaseskis @DickDavisDavis @debbiemjohnson @LilacMills @writingcalliope @keefstuart @janeharperautho and others tagged in photo 😊

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There was my Twitter handle, and look, a picture of my book, Fortune’s Wheel! My goodness, was I thrilled!

Michelle read 182 books in 2017, and in her Top 20 she had included mine, as well as nine other first novels, which is truly brilliant for those new authors.

Michelle reviewed Fortune’s Wheel back in March and here is some of what she said…

I don’t know a great deal about medieval history, but I certainly learned a thing or two whilst reading Fortune’s Wheel, without feeling as if I had been given a history lesson. I had never heard of cottars and villeins and was fascinated by the hierarchy of peasants during these dark times. It was almost like the beginning of the unions as they nominated somebody to stand up to the lord of the manor to argue for more pay. Unfortunately, putting your head about the parapet could see it being chopped off and there are one or two dastardly deeds in Fortune’s Wheel that succeed in keeping us guessing. Let’s just say that some people in Meonbridge are not exactly filled with community spirit.

Historical fiction can sometimes be dry and hard-going but the complete opposite is true of Fortune’s Wheel. … 

I found Fortune’s Wheel completely intriguing, fascinating and surprisingly emotional – I had become so emotionally invested in the characters that I was devastated for Thomas and Joan Miller, who struggled to cope after the loss of their five sons, and I admit to being close to tears at the end of the book when we learn of Agnes’ fate.  I swiftly dried the tears from my eyes as, being book 1 in a series, I know that I can look forward to catching up with these colourful characters again in the future. 

Fortune’s Wheel isn’t just for historical fiction lovers, I’m absolutely positive that many readers will enjoy this medieval saga. Riveting history homework that got top marks from me – more please, Carolyn!

(http://www.thebookmagnet.co.uk/2017/03/blog-tour-fortunes-wheel-meonbridge.html)

The next day, I heard from reviewer Cathy Johnson (What Cathy Read Next) that she had included Fortune’s Wheel in her five favourite reads for December, and she had also included A Woman’s Lot in her list of ten books she’s looking forward to reading in 2018 (https://whatcathyreadnext.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/top-ten-tuesday-ten-books-im-looking-forward-to-in-2018/. No pressure then, Cathy!

Here is a little of what Cathy said in her December review:

I really felt I became part of the village of Meonbridge and totally immersed in the lives of the villagers. There are a lot of characters to get to know initially so I appreciated the helpful list at the beginning of the book. However, it would be an unusual and rather uninteresting village if it didn’t have a varied population and, since the story has three main protagonists, I never felt overwhelmed…

I loved all the detail of village life which gave the story such an authentic feel. Clearly, the author has done an incredible amount of research, introducing me to new terms – merchet, legerwite, heriot – and the many different roles necessary to village life – bailiff, steward, reeve and (my favourite) ale-taster. A glossary would be a fantastic addition to the book and I’d also love to have a map of the village.  There are many fascinating articles on Carolyn’s blog, including this one about life after The Black Death.

…I really enjoyed Fortune’s Wheel and thought it was an accomplished, fascinating historical fiction novel – and an impressive debut. I was thrilled to learn the author is working on a second book in the series, A Woman’s Lot, and that this is due for publication in 2018. I’ll certainly look forward to reading more about the lives of the people of Meonbridge.

(https://whatcathyreadnext.wordpress.com/2017/12/07/book-review-fortunes-wheel-by-carolyn-hughes/)

Catherine Meyrick, too, has listed Fortune’s Wheel as one of her books-to-read in 2018 (https://catherinemeyrick.com/2018/01/05/2017-a-year-of-reading/).

And, only yesterday, Pauline Barclay (Chill with a Book) let me know that Fortune’s Wheel, which obtained  a Chill Award in February 2017, is among the Top Ten Most Popular Posts of 2017 on the Chill site. (http://www.chillwithabook.com/2018/01/top-ten-most-popular-posts-in-2017.html).

Fortune's Wheel

I couldn’t be more delighted by these wonderful votes of confidence!

As you might have gathered, this blog is really a little shout-out for book reviewers, who give authors, both established and newbies, traditionally- and self-published, enormous support. As too, of course, do all readers who take the trouble – thank you! – to leave a great review of it on Amazon and Goodreads. (Critical reviews too are helpful, particularly when they alert the author to something that several readers find annoying!) Feedback helps hugely in giving credibility to an author’s work. But an advantage of book reviewers who also blog about their reading is that they promote their reviews through social media, and therefore also give the books they’ve read a promotional boost.

Fortune’s Wheel has received some terrific reviews from readers and reviewers. To be honest, it’s down to me that I don’t have more… Because reviewer/bloggers don’t approach authors (well, not unknown authors like me), asking to read their books. You, the author, have to approach them. And you can’t just approach them willy-nilly. You have to read their profiles and choose those who are likely to like your book – because, for example, they particularly enjoy reading historical fiction. Then you send them a polite request and, if they’re busy and popular reviewers, they might well not have the time or opportunity to read your book. Even if they say “yes”, you might have to wait a while for your book to rise to the top of their TBR (to-be-read) pile (they generally have mountainous TBRs). You have to be patient.

And patience, as well as doggedness, seems to be the name of the game with all aspects of promoting one’s book.

Twitter pageFor most of 2017, I’ve been focussing on writing the second Meonbridge Chronicle, A Woman’s Lot, and I haven’t give all that much attention to promoting Fortune’s Wheel. I joined (or persuaded myself to join!) the world of social media before Fortune’s Wheel was published. I knew I had to. Even traditionally-published authors have to do at least some of their own promotion, but self-publishers certainly have to. So I signed up to Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads, and I built myself a website, on which I posted – and still do – regular blogs, mostly about writing historical fiction. I’m not a daily poster on Facebook and Twitter, and sometimes I let many days pass without engaging.

But I have made many new “friends” through social media, particularly through Facebook groups. The quote marks, by the way, are not intended to be pejorative, it’s just that these are friends (most of whom) I’ve never actually met, although that doesn’t make them any the less supportive and encouraging. And opportunities can and do arise for sharing writing ideas, and for talking about your writing, which is all useful as promotion, as well as being a lot of fun!

But there is much more that I can do to make my books more widely known and, now that A Woman’s Lot is more or less ready to go off to the publisher, alongside writing book three, I’m also going to put some greater effort into “marketing” – ugh, dread word! I think most writers do just want to write, the very idea of “marketing” and promotion largely abhorrent. But it has to be done.

So, my current number one (well, perhaps number two) New Year’s resolution is simply that, do more marketing. That includes approaching a lot more book reviewer/bloggers, as well as building interest in my books through other means of promotion. If you’re interested, do keep an eye on my efforts, and perhaps you will see the “Meonbridge Chronicles” soar into the stratosphere…

Corhampton Church – a Saxon gem in Provincia Meanwarorum

For today’s blog, I am reposting a piece I wrote for the History Girls blog back in October, continuing my series of posts about the communities of the Meon Valley.

Corhampton (Quedementune (11th c); Cornhampton (13th); Corhamtone, Cornhamtone and Cornehampton (14th); Corehampton (16th) lies on the west bank of the River Meon, seven miles upstream from Wickham, the subject of my November post. Corhampton is equidistant, at only a little over half a mile, from two other villages, Meonstoke (the inspiration for my “Meonbridge Chronicles”) and Exton. Exton also lies to the west of the river, while Meonstoke – with which Corhampton forms a civil parish – lies on the east bank. Between the three little communities there are, today, perhaps 1000 inhabitants, but each community has an ancient church. Those in Meonstoke and Exton are 13th century, but Corhampton’s church is Saxon, built in 1020, and it is this church that I will explore further in this post.

But, first, a little more about the people of the Meon Valley.

The Romans left Britain in the 5th century, leaving behind a population some of whom at least were Christians. At about the same time, Saxons and other tribes, Jutes, Angles and Friesians, came from Denmark and northern Germany to invade and then settle in Britain, bringing with them the beliefs and customs of the polytheistic Germanic religion of Wodin and Thor. The invaders became known as the “Anglo-Saxons”, establishing in time the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex, which were eventually unified into the Kingdom of England in the early 10th century. Our area, the Meon Valley, lies close to the boundary between Sussex and Wessex.

In the late 7th century, Wilfrith (or Wilfrid), born to a noble Northumbrian family, and appointed the Bishop of York, was obliged to leave the north for a few years and spent his time evangelising the heathen south Saxons. Briefly (and indeed, simplistically, for Wilfrith’s story is actually rather complicated!), Wilfrith was keen to move the northern Christian Church from the old Celtic traditions to the new Roman practices. He was mostly successful, building many churches and founding many monasteries. But he had to appeal to Rome for support against a plan by Theodore, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to subdivide his diocese of York. While waiting for the case to be decided, he was forced into exile. He went first to Sūþseaxna rīce (Saxon Sussex) and then travelled to the Isle of Wight and to the Meon Valley, where he apparently began his missionary work. It is thought likely that Wilfrith was responsible for building many mud and wattle churches in the Valley.

Bede (the “Venerable Bede”) was also born in Saxon Northumbria, about forty years after Wilfrith, but he remained a monk, spending most of his life in a monastery in Jarrow. Bede was a scholar and author who, in his time, was as well known for his writing on scientific matters, chronology, grammar, and biblical studies as for the historical and theological work for which he is perhaps best known today.

In his most famous work, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (An Ecclesiastical History of the English People), Bede refers to the valley of the River Meon, calling it “Provincia Meanwarorum” or the Province of the Meonwara (“Meon People”), some of the Jutes and Saxons who had come from Denmark three centuries earlier.

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Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum
(Ecclesiastical History of the English People) © British Library

For seven centuries or more (until, and after, the Norman Conquest in 1066) the Provincia Meanwarorum was developed as a fertile farming valley running from the South Downs at East Meon to the Solent at Titchfield Haven. Trading vessels navigated the River Meon, wider and faster flowing in those days. Vessels reached as far as Droxford, enabling flour and other agricultural produce to be taken back to the Solent and to the trading ports of Hamwic (Southampton) and Portesmuða (Portsmouth).

In his History, Bede refers to the hamlet of Cornhampton as a settlement on the west bank of the Meon where corn was milled and traded. The mill (immediately adjacent to, and to the north of, the church) is the possible origin of the first part of name of the hamlet (“Corn”).

The Domesday Book (1086) does not include a reference to “Cornhampton”, but does refer to the parish of Quedementune, which is presumed to be Corhampton. However, there is no mention of a church in Quedementune, which is rather strange as Corhampton Church is considered to pre-date the Domesday Book.

In Bede’s time, there were about thirty villages and churches in the Meon Valley. Around 1000, by which time Christianity was firmly established, parish boundaries had been laid out, and the building of permanent churches was possible, many of those earlier churches were replaced by stone structures. However, in Provincia Meanwarorum, it is only the church at Corhampton, built in 1020, that survives more or less intact from the period. Other post-conquest churches in the valley are built on, or close to, sites of Saxon churches, and some do have links to the Saxon era. But Corhampton Church pre-dates the Norman cathedral in Winchester and most medieval cathedrals except those at Canterbury, Hereford, Litchfield, Rochester, Worcester, and York, some of which have subsequently been largely re-built.

Of the two other nearby churches, St Peter and St Paul in Exton is 13th century, situated on the site of an earlier church dating back to 940 AD, but much restored during the 19th century. St Andrew’s in Meonstoke was built in 1230 and has few later alterations, although the tower was rebuilt in flint in the 15th century, and the roof and aisles were raised in the 18th century, followed by a top to the tower, built in wood.

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St Peter and Paul Church, Exton By Nicholsr (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D
Meonstoke_St_Andrews
St Andrew’s Church, Meonstoke By Pterre (Own work)
[CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D

But Corhampton Church is a rare example of a truly Saxon Church, with its Saxon font, original stone side altar, 12th century frescoes, sanctuary chair and Saxon sundial, and most of the original building still in situ. It stands on a mound adjacent to the River Meon beside an ancient yew tree, which almost certainly predates it. When the church was built, Canute was King of England (as well as of Denmark and Norway), his capital of Winchester 10 miles to the west, and Corhampton was a royal estate.

The church is remarkable for many reasons, one of which is that it is one of only a very few churches that are undedicated. It is thought that churches at this time were built under the patronage of the local lord, who would have had the right to choose to whom the church would be dedicated, a saint, for example, as are the churches at Exton and Meonstoke. But, it seems that the church at Corhampton missed out on such a dedication, and has always simply been known as Corhampton Church.

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Corhampton Church, south side © David Hughes

The mound on which the church is built appears to be artificial, rather than a natural undulation in the landscape. This is not common for a Christian church and it has been suggested that the church may stand on the site of a pre-Christian temple of Roman or even earlier which were sometimes built on mounds. Some evidence of a Roman settlement was found in the 1930s just a few hundred yards to the north of the church, and there is a Roman coffin with a lead lining, pre-dating the church by seven centuries, in the churchyard, moved there in 1912 after its discovery in a nearby field.

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Corhampton Church, north side © David Hughes

The church, consisting of a nave and a chancel, was constructed of whole flints, locally available and cheap, which were plastered over. The walls are only 2’ 6”/76cm thick, as apparently Saxon walls often were, but they were strengthened by stone quoins. The stone came from the Isle of Wight, either from Binstead or Quarr, and shipped up the River Meon. The church has survived substantially unaltered. Late in the 19th century, a porch and couple of buttresses were added, together with a vestry-cum-boiler room, and repairs were required a little earlier when, in 1842, the east end of the church collapsed resulting in some rather incongruous red brickwork being added.

Immediately to the right of the porch, set into the wall, is the Saxon sundial, one of the best preserved such Saxon dials in England. It is in fact a “tide dial”, the dial being divided into eight “tides” rather than twelve hours. The day in Saxon times was divided into eight tides, each about three hours long. The eight tides can be clearly seen, as can the hole in the middle where the gnomon, the piece that projects the sun’s shadow onto the dial and probably made of metal, would have been. The dial itself is in a reddish brown stone quite different from any other stone in the church, pre-dating the present building and maybe even dating back to Wilfrith’s time. The dial could well have been in use from the time Wilfrith was in the Meon Valley until the Norman conquest, when the use of such dials seemed to fall away.

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Saxon tide dial at Corhampton Church
© Pierre Terre [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D

Corhampton Church is particularly renowned for its wall paintings. The collapse in 1842 of the east end of the church damaged these remarkable works of medieval art, but they were uncovered in 1968 and restored. There is some uncertainty about the age of paintings: they could be as late as 1225, but it is generally thought that they date from the middle of the 12th century.

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Corhampton Church wall painting, south wall
© David Hughes

Not all the scenes in the paintings can be deciphered. However, the painting at the top of the south wall is said to depict stories from the life of Swithun, Bishop of Winchester in the mid 9th century. One is the miracle of the eggs. Here, Swithun is inspecting a bridge being built over the River Itchen and, in the crowd that has gathered, an old woman is jostled and her eggs fall from her basket. But Swithun puts the broken eggs back together. To the right of this, the painting is thought to relate to the story of a young man who fell into the Itchen after being frightened by two wild women. He was judged to be dead when he was pulled from the river, but his body was laid for three days by Swithun’s tomb and was restored to life. Below these paintings is a border pattern coloured red and green, and below that are swags and a large medallion featuring two doves back to back with their heads turned to face one another. I understand that designs such as these are very rare for this early period. I really recommend a visit to Corhampton to see the paintings in their full glory!

Finally, an impressive feature of the churchyard of Corhampton Church is the huge, and thriving, yew tree, one of the finest and oldest examples in the country. Its branches grow at about half an inch (1.25cm) a year, and its girth is 23 feet/7m, so it is almost certainly 1000 years old and may even pre-date the church. Some historians think that churches were built next to ancient trees rather than the other way round. Certainly yews are characteristic of English churchyards, and some are estimated to be well over 1,000 years old. It seems that they may have been planted as some sort of act of sanctification. Apparently, the Druids regarded the yew as sacred and planted them close to their temples. Early Christians often built their churches on those ancient consecrated sites, so the association of yew trees and churchyards may simply have been thus perpetuated. On the other hand, some think that yews were planted in churchyards to ward off evil spirits, or because they grew so well with their roots feeding on the corpses that there was a plentiful supply of the wood for making good bows!

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1000-year-old yew in Corhampton churchyard
© David Hughes

Whatever the truth of the planting of the yews, the tree in Corhampton churchyard is magnificent. And it is truly remarkable to consider how much of the history of the Meonwara it has witnessed!