Historical fiction – love me, love me not?

I was delighted recently to have a guest spot on Anne Williams’s lovely blog, Being Anne, talking about ways of trying to make historical fiction seem “authentic”…

Do have a look at: http://beinganne.com/2017/09/guestpost-carolyn-hughes-author-of-fortunes-wheel-writingcalliope-silverwoodbooks/ Being Anne

In the post, Anne herself made a very interesting comment about historical fiction, which I would like to explore a little further. Anne said that she has:

“a well-advertised aversion to kings and queens, generally prefer a dual time thread, and there are distinct periods to which [she] naturally gravitate[s]. The fourteenth century isn’t one of those periods…”

So, you might well think, there’s not much chance of Anne ever wanting to read one of my books!!

But not so. For she went on to say that:

“everything Carolyn has told me about this book [Fortune’s Wheel] and her approach to historical fiction has made me really want to sample the Meonbridge Chronicles. Much as I’d love to, I sadly just can’t find the reading space for this one – but I guarantee I’ll be reviewing the second in the series, A Woman’s Lot.”

Thank you so much, Anne!

But Anne is not the only one to feel that maybe historical fiction isn’t for them. A few reviewers of Fortune’s Wheel have said how much they enjoyed the book, despite not being fans of historical fiction

“…I don’t normally opt for historical fiction, but Fortune’s Wheel was captivating and has opened my eyes to a personally unexplored genre.”

“For some reason, I’m always a bit apprehensive when I start to read an historical novel because I can’t always cope with strategic plots involving kings and earls and knights of the realm and so on, especially when I know they are taken from real life. Also, I don’t want every book I read to be full of wars and bloodshed,  again, especially when I know it’s real history. There was none of that in this book…”

“This book was recommended to me and, although normally I am not a fan of fiction about the middle ages, I was very surprised how much I enjoyed it. Carolyn Hughes has done a great deal of research and created wonderful descriptions of life for the working classes (and the elite) at that period in time in a feudal village in Hampshire….Well done – an excellent novel. I recommend it.”

http://amzn.to/2qHheHu

9781781325827-Cover.inddOf course I’m delighted that Fortune’s Wheel might have “converted” one or two readers to historical fiction, though obviously it can’t be everyone’s favourite read! However, I do think it might be true that quite a few people avoid it because they feel it’s all about “kings and queens” or “wars and bloodshed”. But of course, as with other genres, there isn’t only one kind of “historical fiction”.

When I came to write Fortune’s Wheel, the first of the Meonbridge Chronicles, I wasn’t immediately sure what kind of story I would write, what sort of historical novel it would be.

I did know in which period it would be set – the Middle Ages! I had long been intrigued by the mediaeval period, for its relative remoteness in time and understanding, and, I think, for the very dichotomy between the present-day perception of life in the Middle Ages as “nasty, brutish and short” and the wonders of the period’s art and literature. I wanted to know more about the period, and, through writing an historical novel, I would have the opportunity both to discover the mediaeval past and to interpret it, to bring both learning and imagination to my writing, which is I suppose what all historical novelists want to do.

fullsizeoutput_96aSo, yes, a mediaeval novel… But which sort of mediaeval novel? I somehow knew that it wouldn’t be a mediaeval mystery, or crime, or romance (although mystery, crime and romance would surely all play a part…). Nor would it be alternative history, or alternative biography, or dual period/time slip. But, if it were none of these, what would it be?

What I did know was that I wanted to write a “naturalistic” novel, one that portrayed the lives of mediaeval people – and, in particular, “ordinary” people – as naturally and “authentically” as I possibly could. (There are potential issues with such an objective, which, if you are interested, I have explored in earlier blogs: “The problem with historical fiction” (I to III) in November 2016, and “Authenticity in historical fiction” (I to VI) in January-March this year.) I soon became excited by the idea of building an imaginary mediaeval English village society and populating it with a variety of interesting and hopefully engaging, albeit “ordinary”, characters.

To make a story, I would of course have to give them challenges to meet and problems to solve, private agonies to bear and public disasters to face. And also pleasures and joys – it couldn’t be all misery and doom! But my novel would certainly be more about people than events, more about their interactions with each other than the twists and turns of whatever situations I put them in.

AKG864626_kindleThe challenge I chose for Fortune’s Wheel was the aftermath of what we called the Black Death, the plague that swept across Asia and Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century, killing between a third and a half of all people, in the most hideous, terrifying way imaginable. Its particular terror lay in that the disease – like other natural (or perhaps man-made) disasters – was presumed then to be God’s punishment for man’s sin. People might have wondered which of their sins could be so great that God would want to punish them so cruelly…

But it was the aftermath of the calamity that I was particularly interested in – how ordinary people put their devastated lives back together again. Imagine the sheer turmoil that must have ensued, not only in society as a whole, but also at a personal level. For those of us who live in village or small town communities, we may know, or at least be acquainted with, a great many of our neighbours. But we in the twenty-first century generally live quite dispersed lives, having our homes in these communities but probably working elsewhere. But in former centuries, when communities worked together too, the death of half of your neighbours must have been truly devastating.

Women lost husbands, men lost wives, and both lost children. Young people were orphaned and had to learn to fend for themselves. Workers realised they were now a scarce resource and had some bargaining power, and said so, while their lords and masters tried hard to cling on to the status quo and keep the workers in their place. As the peasants rebelled against the old ways, priests railed against the upsetting of God’s pre-ordained social order, and preyed upon people’s fears of further divine retribution for their so-called sinful lives.

Yet, amidst all this turmoil and fear, normal life must have continued: fields had to be ploughed and sown, crops harvested, meals made. People fell in and out of love. Babies were born and children cherished. Friendships and families were sometimes put under strain. Resentments boiled, some of which found reconciliation, while others ended in treachery.

And all of that is the story of Fortune’s Wheel. A story about people. Or, as one of my reviewers once said, “an everyday story of country folk”.

I sometimes think of Fortune’s Wheel as a kind of “relationship” novel, but set in the fourteenth century. It is focuses mostly on the relationships of women, and the story is told through the voices of women. Although we do hear the words of men, it was, and still is, the women’s viewpoints that interested me most, if only because women in history often do not get much opportunity to “speak”. In future Meonbridge Chronicles, of which A Woman’s Lot is the next novel (hopefully to be published early in 2018), it will continue to be mostly the women of fictional Meonbridge who will be revealing their lives to us, and whose voices I hope many, many readers will come to know – and perhaps even love.

Meonstoke’s “glittering” past?

All the historical novelists I’ve met seem to enjoy researching their books almost as much as writing them – some even more so. Documentary sources are manifold, and what you need to use depends of course on what you need to know. Some authors need to pore over original ancient documents in libraries or archives. However, I have discovered a very useful online resource that gives access to a wealth of fascinating documents.

I first posted this on The History Girls blog.

Browsing the British History Online (BHO) website can while away many a happy hour in a fascinating, sometimes surprising, experience. If you don’t know of it, BHO is a digital library of key printed primary and secondary sources for the history of Britain and Ireland, with a primary focus on the period between 1300 and 1800.

The website offers an astonishing number of documents. To pick at random from the catalogue index, just to show the sort of documents available…

EXAMPLE 1: Feet of Fines, Sussex 

Feet of fines are court copies of agreements following disputes over property. In reality, the disputes were mostly fictitious and were simply a way of having the transfer of ownership of land recorded officially by the king’s court. The records in this series relate to the county of Sussex for the period 1190-1509. I’d need to brush up on my Latin to make sense of the Edward I volumes, although those for Edward III are in English…

Feet fines 1
‘Sussex Fines: 21-25 Edward I’ (full reference below)
Feet fines 2
‘Sussex Fines: 11-15 Edward III’ (full reference below)

EXAMPLE 2: Calendar of Close Rolls – Edward III (14 volumes)

The Close Rolls record ‘letters close’, that is, letters sealed and folded because they were of a personal nature, issued by the Chancery in the name of a particular king or queen. They usually contained orders or instructions. These “calendars” provide summaries full enough, for most purposes, to replace the original documents. However, these particular documents are designated on the BHO as “premium content” and require a subscription to access that I don’t have.

EXAMPLE 3: The Medieval Records of A London City Church St Mary At Hill, 1420-1559

Edited by Henry Littlehales, these records were first published by the Early English Text Society in 1905. They are churchwardens’ accounts for the St Mary At Hill parish. The records are at their fullest for the period from 1480 onwards. The volume also has an extensive introduction, detailing the history and liturgical practice of the church, and the impact of the Reformation. Looking at this page, you’d clearly need to understand the notation used for the accounts, but it’s fascinating stuff!

Church records clip
The medieval records of a London city church from British History Online (full reference below)

Anyway, what I am actually reading right now on British History Online is the Victoria County History for Hampshire. The Victoria County History was begun in 1899 and dedicated to Queen Victoria. Organised by county, it provides a vast and detailed record of England’s places and people over many centuries. It has been described as the greatest publishing project in English local history, and it certainly does provide a wealth of fascinating information.

What I was specifically browsing in the Victoria County History were the pages for the Hundred of Meonstoke in the Meon Valley. A “hundred” was a division of the shire. Hundred boundaries were independent of both parish and county boundaries, though they were often aligned, so a hundred could be split between counties, or a parish could be split between hundreds. The Meonstoke Hundred contained a number of parishes and some tithings that were part of other parishes.

fig148
Map of the Meonstoke Hundred from BHO (full reference below)

The setting for my Meonbridge Chronicles is not actually Meonstoke, but I have a sense that “Meonbridge” lies broadly in the area occupied by Meonstoke and its neighbouring villages, so it is interesting to read what the History can tell me about about these villages and their development over time.  My recent browsing led me to think that I’d like to share a little of what I’ve read. And various things have drawn my interest…

For example, the way the structure of the hundred changed over time. At Domesday, Meonstoke consisted of ten parishes, and a tithing from another parish/hundred but, by 1316, it was down to four parishes – Meonstoke, Soberton, Warnford, and Corhampton – plus three tithings from three other and different hundreds (‘The hundred of Meonstoke: Introduction’, Paragraph p3).

Then there is the way that the names of places changed over time, or perhaps were simply recorded with different spellings. So, for example, Meonstoke was Menestoche in the 11th century, Mienestoch or Mionstoke in the 12th; Manestoke or Menestoke in the 13th; Munestoke, Munestokes, Maonestoke or Moenestoke in the 14th (‘Parishes: Meonstoke’, Paragraph p1).

But perhaps what really drew my attention about Meonstoke were the names of some of the owners of its manors – including both illustrious and notorious individuals – which give Meonstoke a seemingly glittering past that sits somewhat strangely with the rather peaceful, out-of-the-way, “backwater” it might appear to be…

The “glitter” perhaps derives from the fact that Meonstoke was always part of the king’s demesne. It formed part of the lands of King Edward the Confessor, and, at the time of the Domesday Survey, being part of the crown’s demesne, it was not assessed. But, in the reign of Henry III, it was divided into three portions and, from then until the 14th century, there were three manors of Meonstoke – Meonstoke Tour, Meonstoke Ferrand and Meonstoke Waleraund (later Meonstoke Perrers), each with a distinct history (‘Parishes: Meonstoke’, Paragraph p4).

Meonstoke Tour was land granted by Henry III to one Geoffrey Peverel but, in 1240, it was back again in the hands of the king, who then granted it to his serjeant Henry de la Tour. The manor remained in the hands of the de la Tour family from then until 1353, when it was sold to no less a personage than William de Edendon (or Edington or Edyngton), the Bishop of Winchester. In 1366, the then king, Edward III, wanting to reward William for his long service, tried to appoint him Archbishop of Canterbury, but William was already in failing health and he declined the honour. He died in the October in nearby Bishop’s Waltham, and is buried in Winchester Cathedral. The new bishop was William of Wykeham (a Meon Valley man, born in Wickham, and one of the area’s most illustrious sons), who bought the manor from de Edendon’s executors and merged it and the other two manors back into a single “Meonstoke” manor (‘Parishes: Meonstoke’, Paragraph p7).

Winchestercathedralheadonwilliamedingtontomb
Effigy of William Edington in Winchester Cathedral (full reference below)

Meonstoke Ferrand’s land was granted by Henry III to his Gascon crossbowman Ferrand in about 1233. A Ferrand then held the land until 1305, when it was sold to John de Drokensford, who was bishop of Bath and Wells. For the next fifty years, Drokensfords held the manor, until it seems to have been sold as part of a larger transfer of messuages (dwellings with their adjacent buildings and lands), other land and mills by one Maurice le Bruyn. The buyer we have met already – William de Edendon, the bishop of Winchester. After his death, Meonstoke Ferrand was also bought by his successor, William of Wykeham, who merged it with the other manors (‘Parishes: Meonstoke’ Paragraph p6).

WilliamOfWykeham
William of Wykeham (1320-1404) (full reference below)

And so we come to Meonstoke Waleraund, or Meonstoke Perrers, as it later became. And this is the story in the BHO that particularly intrigued me because of its second name… It is first mentioned as a separate manor in 1224, and was held briefly by a de Percy but, in 1229, Henry III granted it to one Fulk de Montgomery. But, two years later, Fulk sold it to Sir John Maunsell, who obtained a grant of a weekly Monday market in Meonstoke and a yearly fair on the “vigil, feast, and morrow” of St. Margaret, and, two years later, also a grant of free warren (permission from the king to kill certain game within a stipulated area) in all his lands in Hampshire.

Sir John was a favourite of the young King Henry III and is thought to have obtained vast numbers of benefices all over the country, perhaps more than any other clergyman, including the provost of Beverley, in 1247, the livings of Howden, Bawburgh and Haughley, the prebendaries of South Malling, Tottenhall, Chinchester [sic – I assume Chichester], the dean of Wimborne, the rector of Wigan, and the chancellorship of St. Paul’s, London, as well as papal chaplain and chaplain of the King (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Maunsell). He also served as the Lord Chancellor of England. A powerful man indeed!

But when Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, grew in power, King Henry was forced, apparently against his will, to deprive Sir John of his possessions, granting them to Simon in 1263. Although, another story says that it was after the battle of Lewes in May 1264, when de Montfort defeated Henry and took power, that he deprived Sir John of all his lands. Whether the “deprival’ included Meonstoke I am not clear, but perhaps it was at one time owned by the notorious de Montfort.

512px-Leicester_Clock_Tower_Simon_de_Montfort_2
Simon de Montfort, Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower, Leicester (full reference below)

However, after the battle of Evesham in 1265, when de Montfort himself was defeated, Sir John was already dead, and Meonstoke passed to another de Percy. But, only three years later, he sold it to Robert Waleraund, and the manor remained in the hands of Waleraunds or their descendants until perhaps 1370 or thereabouts, when the manor escheated (was returned) to the king, Edward III. And he then granted it to trustees for the use of his mistress, the famous, or infamous, Alice Perrers, at which point the manor came to be called Meonstoke Perrers.

Whether or not Alice ever visited her new manor of Meonstoke Perrers I have no idea, as I believe she had many manors to choose from to rest her head, but it is nice to imagine that she might have spent a night or two at least in the lazy backwaters of the Meon Valley…

Alice_Perrers_and_Edward_III
An imagining of Alice Perrers and Edward III, Ford Madox Brown, 1868 (full reference below)

However, in 1376, the “Good” Parliament banished Alice and deprived her of her possessions, although in the following year, the “Bad” Parliament reversed the decree and she regained them. But then, in the first Parliament of Richard II, the sentence against her was reconfirmed, and Meonstoke escheated once more to the crown. The manor was put into the hands of stewards until 1379, when the sentence against Alice was yet again revoked, and the manor was granted to her husband, William de Windsor. But, only months later, he sold it to our friend William of Wykeham, bishop of Winchester (and also chancellor to both Edward III and Richard II), who merged it with the two other Meonstoke manors and eventually granted it to his foundation, Winchester College (‘Parishes: Meonstoke’ Paragraph p5).

This must have been the lot of hundreds of manors throughout the country – this toing and froing between owners as their status soared and dived at the whim of those in power. One wonders what the tenants thought of it all? Probably nothing. It was no concern of theirs. They undoubtedly just kept their heads down and got on with their work. I suppose, in many cases, tenants scarcely knew their “lord”, if he or she was of the absentee type, as I am sure all of those I have mentioned here must have been. As far as tenants were concerned, their masters were the reeve and steward or bailiff, and their own lives were lived with no connection to the, possibly illustrious, person who actually benefited from the results of their labours.

REFERENCES

A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 3: Edited by William Page. Covers eastern Hampshire, including Portsmouth, Southampton, Petersfield and Havant. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1908. Ref.: A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 3, ed. William Page (London, 1908), British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/hants/vol3 [accessed 11 July 2017].

‘The hundred of Meonstoke: Introduction’, in A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 3, ed. William Page (London, 1908), pp. 245-246. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/hants/vol3/pp245-246 [accessed 11 July 2017].

‘Parishes: Meonstoke’, in A History of the County of Hampshire: Volume 3, ed. William Page (London, 1908), pp. 254-257. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/hants/vol3/pp254-257 [accessed 11 July 2017].

PICTURE REFERENCES

‘Sussex Fines: 21-25 Edward I (nos. 1072-1118)’, in An Abstract of Feet of Fines For the County of Sussex: Vol. 2, 1249-1307, ed. L F Salzmann (Lewes, 1908), pp. 159-169. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/feet-of-fines-sussex/vol2/pp159-169 [accessed 11 July 2017].

‘Sussex Fines: 11-15 Edward III’, in An Abstract of Feet of Fines For the County of Sussex: Vol. 3, 1308-1509, ed. L F Salzmann (Lewes, 1916), pp. 88-102. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/feet-of-fines-sussex/vol3/pp88-102 [accessed 11 July 2017].

The Medieval Records of A London City Church St Mary At Hill, 1420-1559, ed. Henry Littlehales (London, 1905), British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/early-eng-text-soc/vol128 [accessed 11 July 2017].

Map from British History Online, ‘The hundred of Meonstoke: Introduction’, Paragraph p2

Effigy of William Edington in Winchester Cathedral. (By Ealdgyth [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

William of Wykeham (1320-1404) (Contemporary portrait [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Statue of Simon de Montfort on the Haymarket Memorial Clock Tower in Leicester (By NotFromUtrecht [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Detail of Ford Madox Brown’s 1868 painting of Chaucer reading to the court of King Edward III, depicting Alice Perrers and Edward III (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Motorways or country lanes?

A relatively short blog post today, I’m afraid…

As I explained in last month’s post, Why does it all take so long!, I’m deeply embroiled in revising and editing A Woman’s Lot, book 2 of my “Meonbridge Chronicles” series, and it’s a long-drawn-out and, at times, all-consuming, not to say energy-draining, process. I’ve now received some feedback from my “beta readers”, and I’m excited by the input and insights they have brought to my work. Some of it is criticism, yes, but it’s constructive criticism. Advice I can work with to make the book better.

And so I plough on, reviewing and revising until I feel satisfied…

INF3-108_Food_Production_Horse-drawn_plough,_land_girl_Artist_Laura_Knight
Land Army Girl (1939) (National Archives) By Laura Knight [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But, at the same time, I am rattled by stuff I read (mostly via social media) that leads me to think that I’m making too much a meal of it all, taking too long to write, and writing so “badly” that I have to spend weeks and months putting it right… I read of writers who produce thousands of words an hour, words that are so good they barely have to edit them at all. Really? Then there’s a guy who says, if I follow his method, I could write a book from blank page to publication in two months, getting it right first time, so I don’t even need to edit…

In fact I’m not doubting that this sort of “speed writing” is possible. Who am I to say it isn’t? In my previous post, I mentioned a writer I know who writes fast enough to put out two or even three books a year, which I certainly do admire, in a wistful sort of way. There’s definitely a little voice inside my head that mocks me for not writing faster, not even fast enough to publish ONE book a year.

But then I wonder, would I really want to follow any of these speedy writing methods?Wouldn’t they take the pleasure out of writing?

For the very process of writing – for me at least, and I’m certain for many others – is a joy, by no means a chore to be hurried through. The writing of the first draft, the initial creative burst, is undoubtedly hard work, and can be frustrating and dispiriting and even debilitating. But, at the same time, it is thrilling and inspiring and energising! Writers who love writing, love the process of it, indeed the very agony of it – don’t they? If your aim is to write as quickly as possible – albeit, trying to write as well as possible too – mightn’t that detract from the sheer contentment of the writing craft?

And what about revising and editing? I think many writers enjoy revising their work even more than writing it! I think I do…

As Emma Darwin has said (in her blog, This Itch of Writing), there are different levels of the revising/editing process, including the macro, structural level, where, inter alia, you take a broad view of how your story is put together and how the characters work, and the detailed, nitty-gritty level, when you consider all the infelicities I mentioned in the last post, the wrong words, the clunky sentences, the typos, and so on.

Of course, revisiting your work can be a destructive process, if you discover that it is so full of plot holes and inconsistencies that it needs a complete rewrite. On the other hand, it can be even more creative than the original writing, as you reappraise, reshape and refine your first attempt into “the book you thought you’d already written” (another of Emma Darwin’s expressions), the fulfilment of your vision.

So, would I even want to write a first draft so good that I didn’t have to revise it? I’d be denying myself the delight of seeing my initial creative bud blossom slowly into a glorious flower. Though perhaps the speed writers do also enjoy this blossoming, only they prefer to watch it play out in fast-action rather than slow-mo?

But, of course, we’re all different, with different ways of working, and different ways of expressing our creativity. On our creative journeys, some of us like to take the motorway and others prefer quiet country lanes.

Much as I like the idea of publishing more frequently than I do, I’m not sure I like the concept of racing through the creative process in order to achieve it. Of course, it’s true that I’m not attempting to make a living from writing – if I were, my attitude might well veer more towards brisk efficiency than languid contentment. I understand that.

No, I write simply because I want to. I have no need to write, or publish, any faster, except perhaps to fulfil the wishes of those of my lovely readers who’ve said they are looking forward to my next book. I do have a sense of responsibility towards them, and because of that I’ll do my best to publish A Woman’s Lot, and then book 3, in as timely a fashion as I can.

However, I don’t think I’ll be following anyone’s “methods” to be even more timely. No doubt, as I write more, I will – simply through practice – become a little more efficient at writing a first draft that is, at least, structurally fairly sound. But, I will still take my time before I hit Send and wing it off to the publisher. For, as I said last time, many writers say that a novel cannot, indeed must not, be rushed. And I guess, in my writerly moments, I agree with that.

Anyway, I’ve always preferred country lanes to motorways…

Country_Lanes_-_geograph.org.uk_-_172636
Scott Rimmer [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Lost worlds, changed lives: life beyond the Black Death

I first posted this piece in June on The History Girls blogspot, but you know how much I love talking about the Black Death, so I thought I should share it again here.

 

I have always thought, perhaps along with many people, that, after the devastation caused by what we call The Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, huge numbers of communities, villages and hamlets, must have become deserted. But historians and geographers have known for quite a while now that this was not in fact the case, but rather, where medieval villages were “lost”, and they obviously were, it happened over a matter of centuries, not as a direct result of that terrible plague.

danse_macabre_by_michael_wolgemut
Danse macabre by Michael Wolgemut, 1493

But perhaps what happened in the longer term did have its genesis in the events of the fourteenth century, and I thought it might be interesting to examine how the change in the structure of the English countryside unfolded.

It is hard to imagine what it must have been like – indeed, felt like – to see a third to a half of all your family, friends and neighbours killed within the space of a couple of months, or maybe even only a few weeks.

In the fourteenth century, death was everyday – illnesses were mostly incurable, accidents commonplace, life subject to all manner of risk. Medieval people were “fatalists”, or rather they ascribed every disaster, be it the loss of a child, dead cows, a bad harvest, or the failure of the butter to churn, either to God’s will or the Devil’s work. People did not believe they were in control, so they might as well accept whatever occurred and get on with their lives. However, I am not suggesting that this means people were intellectually feeble, but rather that they remained resilient in the face of tragedy.

Nonetheless, how truly devastating it must have been to witness death on such a scale! You can imagine that survivors might have found it too grim a prospect to try and carry on in a place where the memories – ghosts? – of so many dead friends and family still lingered. Despite the fact that their families had lived there for generations, they might well have preferred to abandon their community for somewhere new, where they could start again.

Some chroniclers of the fourteenth century, such as Henry Knighton, a canon in Leicester, have suggested that many settlements were abandoned, as a direct result of the plague:

“After the pestilence, many buildings, great and small, fell into ruins…many villages and hamlets became desolated…probable that many such villages would never be inhabited.”

But, while you can easily envisage that whole communities would have been wiped out, especially small hamlets, where every member of the few families who lived there succumbed to the disease, in fact, according to what records show us, it seems that this happened only rarely.

Downland
Chalk downland, Hampshire cc-by-sa/2.0© Oswald Bertram geograph.org.uk/p/4425731

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a period of relative growth and prosperity. Fair weather and successful harvests produced surpluses that financed the building and rebuilding of castles, cathedrals, monasteries and churches, and encouraged and created flourishing towns and expanding villages. Expansion and wealth meant a growth in population, which in turn meant a demand for more land to sustain it. As a consequence, some new settlements were created on more marginal land, including heathland and woodland areas, and, for example, on the higher downland of Hampshire. Assarting, the clearing of land to make new settlements, took place on the edges of the Forest of Bere, in the Soberton area, close to my fictional “Meonbridge”.

Winchester castle
The Great Hall, added to Winchester Castle by Henry III 1222-1235

The countryside around “Meonbridge”, the valley of the River Meon, being relatively close to Winchester, was probably quite prosperous. The area between Havant and Fareham, a bit further to the south, was highly productive in cereal growing. But prosperity was also growing on the back of an expansion in the farming of sheep, including in the areas around Winchester, to support that city’s thriving wool and cloth industry.

However, while England was a reasonably prosperous place by the end of the thirteenth century, the growth in population and the resulting pressure on land was already bringing inevitable poverty and, with it, unrest, particularly among the poor and landless. Then, by the second decade of the fourteenth century, increasingly poor weather brought a series of bad harvests, and with too many mouths to feed and too few resources, people began to show their vulnerability. Famine took hold and continued for several years. Cynically, one might say that it began to ease the strain of overpopulation, but it must have been seriously debilitating to soul as well as body, even to those resilient medieval fatalists.

Then, in 1348-50, came the worst plague in history, taking a much more dramatic toll on the population. Further outbreaks of plague occurred throughout the century (and indeed beyond, up until the 1800s), and it took a very long time for the population to even approach again that of the thirteenth century.

But, for those mid-fourteenth century English men and women, the Black Death meant that, with far, far fewer of them, working people – the farming and labouring majority – were suddenly much more valuable, while land was no longer at a premium. The world had turned upside down, and things were going to – had to – change.

The shape of the countryside and its communities were perhaps most affected by two principal factors: the breakdown of the feudal system and a gradual change in farming practices.

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Peasants harvesting wheat with reaping-hooks.
Queen Mary’s Psalter (Ms. Royal 2. B. VII), fol. 78v (Public domain)

The old order, the system of lords and bonded tenants, had already begun to change. But when a third to a half of the tenants in a manor died in the space of a few months, it soon dawned on the tenants how valuable they had suddenly become, and also that the emptier world offered them considerable opportunities. Tenants became increasingly less prepared to submit to their lords’ wishes, such as forcing them to provide “boonworks” (unpaid work provided as partial “rent” for their tenancies) on their demesnes, or imposing constraints on their freedom of movement, and labourers were no longer willing to work for low wages, if they could get more elsewhere. The lords, if at first they resisted change, pleading with the government to help maintain the status quo, at length had to accept that change was happening and they could not stop it. Despite the government’s labour legislation, the 1351 Statute of Labourers, working people did not submit.

Some undoubtedly did leave the manors their families had lived in for generations, sometimes to receive better wages elsewhere, either on other manors or in the towns, sometimes to take up valuable land holdings on other manors, sometimes, perhaps, to occupy “abandoned” hamlets or villages. Despite the memories and ghosts, the draw of land was probably very strong and, like pioneers and settlers everywhere, they repopulated many initially deserted locations surprisingly quickly. The evidence from records does seem to suggest that, if hamlets or villages were abandoned, mostly it was only for weeks, months, or perhaps a few years. Some communities were invigorated by “fresh blood” and a determination among the incomers to succeed in the new window of opportunity. It is said that Winchester city could not in fact attract sufficient workers from the countryside to replace those it had lost because the opportunities of taking up abandoned land holdings were simply too attractive to pass up.

Even in the most tragic of times, some people – lord, freeman or bondsman – might respond in opportunistic vein. For every one who died in the plague, there was perhaps someone else who simply saw the availability of more resources. They were probably not actually grateful that the plague had given them these opportunities (to do so might invite some sort of divine retribution!), but the entrepreneurial spirit in those who would go on to make England prosperous again was perhaps released. In some cases, freemen or even wealthier tenants grew rich on the acquisition of land, eventually building holdings that would become the grand estates of later centuries. In contrast to the generally rather gloomy picture one has of the fourteenth century, in fact, in Hampshire at any rate, for some, there was a considerable expansion of fortune in the latter part of the century and beyond.

So, change in the structure of society was one concomitant outcome of the Black Death. Another was the change in farming practices.

Again, farming practices had already begun to alter, but the change accelerated in the century following the Black Death. The farming of arable land further declined. It must, after all, have been difficult to sustain such a labour-intensive form of agriculture with the availability of far fewer workers, both skilled and unskilled. Equally, with fewer mouths to feed, it was perhaps neither necessary nor worth the effort to maintain it on the previous scale. The growth of sheep farming was already happening, and the wool trade was thriving. With fewer working people available, farming sheep was undoubtedly easier to manage than arable. Evidence from the Winchester bishops’ estates shows that, by the mid-fourteenth century, a third of the arable land had ceased cultivation by comparison with a hundred years earlier. Presumably, the bad weather and poor harvests, and also a possible decline in soil fertility caused by poor husbandry, meant a move from arable to sheep was likely to prove more profitable, especially perhaps in Hampshire, where the downland was perfect for rearing sheep.

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From The Luttrell Psalter, British Library. 
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Lords, freemen and tenants, any of them might make the change to farming sheep, anyone indeed who wanted to jump on the bandwagon of the burgeoning wool economy. In some cases, sheep presumably simply became a more important aspect of farming life in a mixed agricultural economy. But, in the worst cases, the change had a profound effect on the community, where a particularly acquisitive lord might turn his tenants out of their homes to make room for more pasture. Some “generous” lords might build cottages for the displaced tenants elsewhere, but others just pushed them out – they were simply not needed any more. So, in some cases, communities were indeed deserted through these actions, although in practice it did not happen all at once. For example, Lomer, a small community just above the villages of the Meon valley, did eventually die out through such a gradual change of land use, but not until the seventeenth century.

Certainly sheep farming did change the shape of the countryside. But other structural changes also had an impact, the creation of parks – “emparking” – being one of them. In the fourteenth century itself, these often took the form of hunting parks. However, in the next couple of centuries, one of the eventual results of some wealthy people acquiring more (and more) land was that their expanded holdings would one day develop into great estates. And owners of such estates wanted the trappings of their wealth, a great country house and a fashionable park to set it in, and they were again more than willing to evict their tenants to realise their ambitions. Again they might build them a new village outside the estate, but equally they might not. In the Meon Valley, the village of Warnford is an example of a village where the medieval settlement was moved to a new site, to be replaced by a landscaped park. The still standing church and the ruins of the manor house are evidence of the location of the original village. At Idsworth, a few miles to the south-east, a church stands in the middle of ploughed fields, showing where a community was once removed entirely in favour of a park for the owners of Idsworth House.

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Idsworth Church cc-by-sa/2.0 © Roger Pagram geograph.org.uk/p/2046565

But much of this emparking and widespread eviction of tenants from communities came in later centuries. Famously, the poet Oliver Goldsmith wrote of it in his 1770 poem, The Deserted Village, where he bemoans the fate of a settlement destroyed by the ambitions of the landowner:

“The man of wealth and pride, Takes up a space that many poor supplied; Space for his lake, his park’s extended bounds, Space for his horses, equipage and hounds”

Although it seems clear that the Black Death did not directly lead to the long term desertion of villages, maybe what happened in the middle of the fourteenth century – the huge loss of population, the breakdown of the old way of life and the large scale move towards sheep farming – did at the very least accelerate changes that had already begun, changes that would, eventually, have significant effects on the shape of the English countryside.

Why does it all take so long!

It’s been a while since my blog was actually about writing, and I thought it was time to put that right. As it happens, this week, when I am coming to the end of the writing and editing process of the second of my “Meonbridge Chronicles”, seems a suitable moment for me to tell you a little about this new book, and to attempt to justify, or at least comment on, why it is taking me so long to get it to publication!

The current title of book 2 of “The Meonbridge Chronicles” is A Woman’s Lot. That title might change, but I’m pretty happy with it, because the story is indeed about the diverse fates – happy or otherwise – of women. It is set two years after the end of Fortune’s Wheel, picking up the lives of four Meonbridge women, all of whom – if you have read it – you will have met before in Fortune’s Wheel.

Fortune's Wheel and Meon Valley

I showed in Fortune’s Wheel, and have discussed in one or two of my blogs that, after what we call the Black Death, the huge loss of population countrywide meant greater opportunities for those who had survived, for them to earn more money, take on land they couldn’t have had before, enter new occupations. The rigid feudal structure of society was already breaking down and the devastation caused by the plague accelerated it. Working people were no longer willing to accept the constraints imposed by their feudal lords, of giving unpaid service, having no control on wages and not being permitted to leave their manor.

All this did change. People began to move about in a way they’d not really done before, seeking higher pay, better work, greater opportunities. And this applied to women too.

medwomenatwork3But I mustn’t overstate the case. Some historians have said that the later fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were some sort of “golden age” for women, in terms of their opportunities, although others dispute this. Perhaps the opportunities for women were greater in the towns, and especially in London. Maybe, if there was a golden age, it did apply mostly to those living in the city. In the countryside, change probably took longer, and, anyway, opportunities for women to become, say, artisans or businesswomen would not have been so commonplace in rural communities.

However, I have combined what I have read about the lives of medieval working women, with what I imagine might have been their situation. With half the population dead from the plague, it seems almost inevitable that everyone – men and women alike – would, initially at any rate, have had to step into the “manpower breach” and work at whatever was needed to return the life of the community to some sort of normality. Which is why, in my novels, and particularly in A Woman’s Lot, I have women trying to – or at least wanting to – contribute in ways in which they might not have done before.

However, once the immediate crisis was over, even if the feudal system had fallen away, society was still society, and that meant men in charge, men with all the rights and privileges, and women still essentially subject to their rule, and to the rule of their husbands. And that too is reflected in A Woman’s Lot.

But this is a novel and not social history, so my female characters do of course struggle with themselves and with the constraints that others – men! – impose upon them. They remain – I hope – essentially mediaeval women in the reality of the lives I give them, but I see no reason why they should not also have desires and ambitions, which may or may not be fulfilled. It is the lot of all fictional protagonists, to want something and to struggle to achieve it. Whether or not they do so is what gives a story its tension and motivation…

I won’t say any more, but I do hope that sounds potentially intriguing. And makes you eager to  know when you will be able to get your hands on it…

But I’m sorry to have to say ‘not yet’.

I had hoped to be publishing it this summer – round about now, I suppose. And when those lovely readers of Fortune’s Wheel told me how much they were looking forward to my next book, I probably said, ‘Oh, definitely, 2017!’

But in fact I’m not sure now that it will be available even this side of Christmas. The editing phase is by no means finished. I’m close to the end of my own editing, but I’m then sending it out to a couple of beta readers and a critique partner for what I hope will be some critical feedback (in the sense, I hope, of “involving or requiring skilful judgement as to truth, merit, etc.”, rather than “inclined to find fault or judge severely”), and my editing process will then continue. After that, it will go to a professional editor, followed of course by yet more editing…

Then, because I’m not directly self-publishing but will, as with Fortune’s Wheel, use a professional publisher to produce my book, the publication process will take another three months or so. So you can see that time will pass, and it may well be 2018 before I hold my new book in my hands…

Which is disappointing, of course, but – as other writers tell me endlessly – it cannot, must not, be rushed. I have to ensure that the book is as good as I can make it.

But why does it take so long?

Some writers, after all, put out two or three books a year of similar length to mine. So am I just a slow writer? Yet some others take much longer. Famously, Donna Tartt has published just three novels in twenty years: The Secret History in 1992, The Little Friend in 2002, and The Goldfinch in 2013. She certainly didn’t rush! Not that I am comparing myself with Donna Tartt. But I suppose a novel simply takes as long as it needs to take…

Having said that, I am pretty keen to get this one out, and then the next one. So what is holding me back? A few thoughts…

A particular writer I know writes very fast. She is currently writing books in series, which of course I’m doing too. She has also many published books – she’s a very experienced writer.

law courtAn advantage of writing a series is one’s growing familiarity with the world in which the novels are set and at least some of the characters, so you do not have to create those aspects of the novel from scratch each time. Although there are still likely to be some aspects that are new – in my own case, for example, for A Woman’s Lot, I had to learn about coroners and courts, and the work of carpenters.

An advantage of being an experienced writer is that the techniques of writing – while never, ever, easy – undoubtedly do become a little easier. If you’ve successfully published a dozen books, then you probably have a fair idea of how to structure a book, how to plan and pace, how to write coherent, flowing sentences and choose the “right” words, how to make your characters come alive on the page. As with any skill, the more you practise writing, the more proficient you become. Whereas, with just one published novel (although I have completed, or half written, four others) I am simply much less practised at my craft. But I am learning, and hopefully improving all the time, so the “nuts and bolts” of writing will eventually become almost second nature.

So, that is one reason for me taking so long to write my novel. I am still practising my craft and it simply does take time.

But it is not the only reason. For I am also quite pernickety.

I read a fair number of books, many of which I enjoy simply because of their wonderful story. Sometimes the writing itself is wonderful too, and I notice how very good it is. But more often, and I think this is important, the writing is so good – well-structured, well-paced, good characterisation, proficient grammar, mellifluous, or at least coherent, easily-read sentences, good word choice – that the reading experience is such an easy pleasure that I can simply let myself be drawn into the story. And I think that this is what you want and expect from a good novel, whether it’s historical fiction, a romance, a thriller or whatever: to get entirely lost in the world that the author has created.

Conversely, what you don’t want as a reader is to be constantly thrown out of the illusion of the story, to have your pleasure interrupted, by being pulled up short by, for example, hard-to-fathom sentences, poor or plain wrong choice of words, what Jane Austen called “infelicities and repetitions”, sloppy grammar or punctuation, or frequent typos. Yet this pulling up short happens to me really quite often and, I have to say with much regret, more so with self-published novels than with those traditionally published. The latter are not immune from errors, but they do seem much less frequent.

I find this very disappointing. Yet, sometimes, if I go to Amazon to see if other readers have had the same unhappy experience of a particular book, I find that the answer quite often is, they haven’t! Or, if they have, they haven’t mentioned it in their review. So did they not notice? Or didn’t they care? How I would love to know the answer…

We new indie writers are urged often to ensure our work is properly edited – professionally edited, if possible. But surely those books with so many “infelicities” cannot have been? Yet, if the readers of those books don’t seem to mind, the obvious question is, how much does it really matter?

silverwoodWell, I think it matters to agents and publishers. They definitely notice. It matters also to professional, if non-traditional, publishers like SilverWood, who won’t take on a book that has clearly not been very carefully edited.

And, anyway, it matters to me! Partly, perhaps, because I spent more than thirty years in a career – technical writing – where good, clear, grammatical, well-spelled writing was expected, both of me and by me. After all, good writing aids reading and understanding and, in the context of a novel in particular, enjoyment. Bad writing can make a book difficult to read, possibly confusing, and may result in it being thrown across the room!

I don’t think it’s necessary to get too heavy about all this. I’d be mortified if anyone thought I was setting myself up as the “grammar police”. This is not about being critical of others for the sake of it, it’s about writers producing the very best books for their readers to enjoy.

So, I am – yes – quite pernickety. That is not to claim that I achieve perfection – but I do aim for it. What I do is read and reread my work, many times, stripping out or rewriting “infelicities” of every kind. As part of my editing process, I work my way through one or more of the writing advice guides that I have. Two, very different, but useful, books spring to mind. First is Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. The chapters include basic advice on show and tell, dialogue, interior monologue, point of view, each with a checklist to help you in your editing. The Word-Loss Diet, by Rayne Hall, is quite a small book and formulaic in style, but its simple premise is to help you cut unnecessary words from your draft and, my goodness, it works. Even if you think your book is well-written, you may still find that it’s full of words you really can do without. The result of the ”diet” is simply a more tightly-written book. That’s all it does. But I do recommend it.

self editing book         word loss diet

All this reading and rereading does of course take time. A lot of it. But, for me, it’s most definitely worth it. It has always been important to me that, when I publish, my books would be the best that I could make them. That’s all.

So I’ll keep at it and hope that A Woman’s Lot will be up on Amazon’s virtual shelves before too long.

The “industrious” Meon Valley

This is a piece that I first posted in May on The History Girls blogspot but which I thought I would like to share again here.

 

At this time of year, my daily walk takes in three of the “industrial” features of this lovely part of Hampshire, the Meon Valley: the River Meon itself, the long defunct Meon Valley Railway and the remnants of a royal hunting ground, the Forest of Bere.

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The River Meon at St Clair’s, Soberton
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

The peace and beauty of the Meon’s landscape – with its gently flowing stream, the occasional heron or egret fishing for trout at the river’s edge; the lush water meadows, sometimes occupied by grazing cattle; the odd rushing weir; and the few surviving stone and brick arch bridges that span it at various points along its length – somewhat belie its powerful past. The railway once played its part in bearing passengers and goods from leafy Hampshire to noisy London (and had an important role in World War Two). And the forest – particularly lovely at this time of year, when the bright green foliage is just beginning to clothe the branches of the beech trees, yet is still sparse enough to allow the sun to light up the glades of bluebells – is but a small part of a much greater forest that has a long and important history.

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Map by William J Blaeu,
Amsterdam, 1645

The River Meon is not a grand river, only twenty-one miles in length, and, for much of that length, a somewhat shallow chalk stream – in summer months, at any rate. The river rises in the South Downs, near the village of East Meon, and winds and meanders through the other villages of the Meon Valley, until it rushes, broader and deeper, out into the sea, the Solent, to the south of Titchfield.

The early form of the name, Mēon, is Celtic or pre-Celtic. The meaning and etymology seem unclear, but it may be associated with a word that means ‘damp’ or ‘to wash’.1 Yet that seems unromantically mundane, and I prefer to think of the lovely Meon simply as the river that meanders…

But despite the apparently gentle, meandering nature of the Meon, it nonetheless has power.

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The River Meon in flood in the 1950s

 

Within the past few years, villages at either end of the Meon’s length – East Meon and Titchfield – have experienced severe flooding when the river burst its banks and overwhelmed their roads and houses. In 1953, the flooding in East Meon was the worst seen for forty years.

More helpfully, for centuries, the steep gradient of the terrain over which the upper reaches of the river flow has enabled the water to be exploited for a surprising variety of manufacturing processes – iron working, cloth processing, paper making, tanning, and flour milling.2

Until the seventeenth century, the Meon was navigable as far as Titchfield, which at that time was a significant port, and the area was heavily involved in the woollen industry and also produced iron, tanned goods and cloth. Eventually, silting restricted the passage of ships and, in 1611, to ensure that Titchfield could remain a port, the Earl of Southampton, Thomas Wriothesley, had a canal built directly from the sea to the town, and the Meon estuary was blocked off. Some say that, at one time, boats could come up the river as far as Soberton, where smuggled goods were unladen and hidden in the church vault, though one does wonder at the veracity of this romantic tale.3

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Soberton Mill 
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

There were mills all along the River Meon, from one end to the other, including ones at Titchfield, Funtley, Wickham, Soberton, Droxford, Meonstoke, and East Meon. Many buildings survive, although they are not necessarily original. The mills were mainly used for grinding grain, although at Warnford was one of the very earliest paper mills in Hampshire, and at Funtley there was an iron mill in the 17th century. The water mill below Bere Farm in Soberton Heath – Soberton Mill – was probably, in the 16th century, a fulling mill, where cloth was scoured (cleaned and whitened) and milled (felted and then rinsed), before being stretched. Later, into the 20th century, Soberton was used as a flour mill.

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Chesapeake Mill, Wickham
Photo © Richard Thomas

Chesapeake Mill in Wickham replaced an earlier watermill on the site. The present mill was built in 1820 using timbers from HMS Chesapeake, the former United States Navy frigate USS Chesapeake, captured by the Royal Navy in 1812. The outside of the mill is of brick, but the beams, joists, and floors are built from the ship’s deck timbers, still, apparently, blood-stained from the ship’s fighting days. The mill, used for producing flour, remained in operation until 1976.4   

Both Chesapeake and Soberton mills sit not only on the river but also alongside the defunct Meon Valley railway line, now just a woodland track, on which you can walk (or trot or cycle) all the way from Wickham through Soberton to West Meon.

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Bridge at Mislingford
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

The Meon Valley Railway opened in 1903 and ran for 2212 miles (36.2 km) between Alton and Fareham, closely  following the course of the River Meon. It was intended to be part of a through route from London to Portsmouth, but it never fulfilled its purpose. The line passed through the Forest of Bere before heading across the water-meadows at Wickham on an embankment. The meandering course of the River Meon, the constraints of the landscape and the railway’s ruling gradient meant that the railway needed five under-bridges within half a mile (1 kilometre), three to cross the Meon and two to cross roads in Wickham.

In the early days of the railway, it was used for shipping local agricultural and horticultural produce, including watercress (from the still active watercress beds at Warnford), fruit (especially strawberries and apples), milk and cattle. Local residents and businesses apparently had high hopes for the railway, and an inn was built next to Droxford station in the hope of accommodating tourists and travellers.

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The Meon Valley Railway trail
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

People were impressed by the line’s speed, the scale of its engineering works, the high quality of the stations and the beauty of the scenery it passed through. Unfortunately, the expected London through-traffic never materialised, and after only fifty years passenger traffic was cut in 1955. The line was closed altogether in 1968, and subsequently, 17.5 km (11 mi) of the route was made into the trail for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders.

However, the Meon Valley Railway did have an important role to play during World War Two. During the build-up to D-Day, men and equipment had to be moved to the south of England, and large numbers of tanks were moved by rail to Mislingford goods yard, from where they were then dispersed to local lanes and fields for temporary storage.

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Old loading gauge at Mislingford

(As an aside, I’ve a small tale to tell… I’m not really a particularly mystical individual, but I’ve often sensed “something” at this spot… Ghosts perhaps of those D-Day soldiers disembarking from the trains? In fact, there’s a timber yard quite close by, so maybe it has only ever been the noises from there, the clanking of machinery, and the sound of workmen’s voices that I’ve heard…? Or maybe not…)

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Droxford station in July 1975
Photo by Nick Catford

The railway’s most famous wartime role came on 2nd June 1944, when Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet met General Eisenhower, General de Gaulle and other Allied leaders in a special train parked at a heavily guarded Droxford station. Their mission was the final preparation for the D-Day landings. The station was only a short car journey from Eisenhower’s invasion headquarters at Southwick, and, being mostly hidden, was considered a safe location for the crucial meeting.

If the river and the railway run alongside each other, so the railway line also runs alongside the remains of the Forest of Bere where it lies within the parish of Soberton.

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Forest of Bere, near Soberton Heath
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Bere Forest was once very extensive, stretching from Romsey, south towards Southampton, east to beyond the Sussex border, and as far north as Winchester. It is presumed that the Norman kings used Bere Forest for hunting, as well as the New Forest over in Dorset, and it is reputed that Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I also hunted here.

But the Forest of Bere was not just a royal hunting ground.

Evidence of a Roman bloomery, a type of furnace once widely used for smelting iron, was found during excavations for one of the forest’s car parks in Soberton Heath. For centuries, the oak woods provided timber for building and acorns for pigs. Villagers of the southern part of the village (Soberton Heath) had rights to turn their cattle into the forest, including horses and pigs but not sheep. The deer that roamed the forest – which we often still see these days both in the forest and on the road – were not of course for the common people (except, one supposes, illicitly).

In the 13th century oaks were cut in quantity to repair warships and build bridges, and for building work in Winchester. At the beginning of the 14th century the size of the forest began to decline, presumably because of the amount of timber being taken. In Tudor times, the timber was reputedly used extensively for Henry VIII’s shipwrights, including perhaps the building of the Mary Rose, which in 1545 would sink in the Solent at the far end of the Meon Valley, and can now be seen in all its wonderful glory at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth. In the 17th century, Cromwell, Lord Protector, reputedly used a vast quantity of Bere Forest timber to repair his ships, then, in the later 18th, there was so much work for Portsmouth dockyard associated with the Napoleonic Wars that, by 1815, there was apparently no suitable oak left!! Replanting didn’t start until 1855.

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Crater pond in the Forest of Bere
Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Great quantities of timber were again felled during the First World War and then again over the period of WWII, this time for the building of aircraft, using beech wood. During WWII, two land mines were dropped on the forest – the enemy was probably looking for the railway – creating two large and very deep ponds. Alongside the involvement of the railway in the war effort, our lovely forest was also used, both to hide tanks within the trees, and to shelter people who, during the worst of the bombing, came out from Portsmouth to find a degree of safety.

It’s somehow wonderful, and somehow humbling, to remember, in these places where I take my walk, and where I sometimes stop to stand and stare, how very many men and women have been here in the centuries before me.

References 

1 From “Saxons in the Meon Valley: A Place-Name Survey” by Dr Kelly A. Kilpatrick, Institute for Name-Studies, University of Nottingham, Sept 2014. http://www.saxonsinthemeonvalley.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/MeonValleyPlaceNameResearch_Sep2014.pdf

2 The River Meon, National Rivers Authority, Southern Region, July 1993. http://www.environmentdata.org/fedora/repository/ealit:3872/OBJ/20003280.pdf

3 Stories of the river, railway and forest can be found in The Story of Soberton and Newtown by Ann Pendred (1999).

4 From The Warship and the Watermill https://web.archive.org/web/20081030083543/http://www.chesapeakemill.co.uk/historypdf001.pdf accessed 10th May 2017.

Picture captions

The River Meon at St Clair’s, Soberton Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Map of Hampshire by William J Blaeu, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1645. From: http://www.geog.port.ac.uk/webmap/hantsmap/hantsmap/blaeu1/bla1smaf.htm

The River Meon in flood in the 1950s. From East Meon History Archive: http://www.eastmeonhistory.org.uk/content/catalogue_item/east-meon-floods-1953/severe-flooding-in-east-meon-in-the-1950s-picture-gallery

Chesapeake Mill, Wickham Photo © Richard Thomas [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Soberton Mill, Soberton Heath. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

The Meon Valley Railway trail. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Bridge over the Meon Valley Railway at Mislingford. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

The old loading gauge at the former Mislingford goods yard. Photograph in Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Droxford station building in July 1975. Photo by Nick Catford. From: http://www.disused-stations.org.uk/d/droxford/

Forest of Bere (Upperford Copse), near Soberton Heath, Hampshire. Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Crater pond in the Forest of Bere (West Walk). Photo © Carolyn Hughes

Those pesky topiary elves again…!

I first posted the basis for this blog back in November 2016. At the time, I was a bit apologetic that the piece was only marginally to do with writing historical fiction, but I now am of the view that, when I write about gardens or plants, or indeed birds and wildlife, instead of historical fiction, it simply reveals another aspect of “who I am”, and is no bad thing. Gardens and gardening do often have a place in my novels, but I have always been interested in plants and nature, and so writing about them in my blog does seem just as natural as writing about writing!

The November blog was basically about topiary. And the reason I want to talk about it again is that, here in France this summer, we have revisited the wonderful, and surprising, shrub sculptures that sparked my post last year, but that I have also a sadder tale to tell about them…

You may or may not much care for topiary – clipped box, yew and suchlike – but I really rather love it. I maintain a few little box hedges and balls in my own garden. But, in the Vercors mountains, in south eastern France, an area where we’ve been going for our summer holidays for twenty-five years, there are certain remote mountain roads where you will find hundreds of clipped box hedges, shapes and sculptures. There are hedges, with straight sides and flat tops, balls and pyramids and, most astonishing of all, funny faces, and all of them are on genuinely isolated mountain roads. I think the faces are a relatively recent addition, for I don’t remember seeing them twenty-five years ago. They seem very much in keeping with the French sense of fun in their public art – public gardens and roundabouts, for example, are often wonderfully quirky and delightful. (More of this in a moment…)

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2016 photos © Author

The first time we saw them, all those years ago, we thought it hilarious that someone was apparently travelling these mountain roads with a pair of topiary shears. Because, honestly, there are miles and miles of bushes, painstakingly and (it would seem) lovingly clipped to crisp or curved perfection. Now, we still think it’s delightful that someone – who I wonder? – takes the trouble to do all this work. Is he/she alone, or is there a gang of them? And does someone pay for it to be done? And why?

To discover these clipped wonders along mountain roads for the first time was so surprising that it seemed almost magical, as if – as we used to say to the children – the elves had done it!

We have never seen the topiarist(s), even though, again this year, some of the clippings were clearly quite recent. We live in hope that, maybe, one day… Unless, of course, it is the elves. (And, actually, if anybody does know the answers to these questions, I’m not sure I really want to be enlightened! I think the idea of the topiarists being elves is just too charming…)

It was lovely this year seeing some of the same “sculptures”, and some I’d not noticed last time.

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2017 Photos © Author And, yes, it’s the same chap! His friend from last year is still there too. I have a suspicion that one or two of the round ones are potential candidates for sculpture…)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the blog last November, seeing the mountain sculptures again last year had set me wondering about how long topiary had been an art, and, specifically, whether they had topiary in mediaeval gardens, given my particular interest in mediaeval times. If you’d like to read that blog, it’s here… https://carolynhughesauthor.com/2016/11/23/topiary-elves-and-mediaeval-gardens/

But, this time, I want to talk about something much more contemporary, a modern invader – albeit a pretty enough little creature – that hasn’t yet attacked these wonderful mountain sculptures, but very well might…

1854 - Cydalima perspectalis - Box tree moth
Photo © David Hughes

You may have come across the Box moth, if you have box hedges and if you live in a place where they have become invasive. The RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) says that the moth is a native of East Asia and became established in Europe in 2007. The adult moth was first reported in the UK in 2008, whereas the caterpillar wasn’t found in gardens until 2011. But since then it has become widespread in London and surrounding counties.

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The understory is (was) box © Author
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A hedge in a country garden. The green leaves are, sadly, not box © Author

It’s clearly here in France. As we drive around we can see the devastation that it causes – box trees stripped bare of leaves. It looks horrible!

We have noticed that some trees do seem to grow new leaves, but presumably only to be eaten again…

(By the way, this is not the notorious “box blight”, which is a fungal disease that results in bare patches and die-back on a bush, and I think is pretty difficult to get rid of.) In a garden, if you are willing to do so, chemical sprays can be used – quite successfully, I understand – to control the box moth, though of course spraying does have potentially serious side effects to wildlife.

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Photo © David Hughes

Our gîte owner sprays his hedges (and his topiary squirrels) and, so far, they have not been attacked. I suppose that all owners of topiary gardens, and especially perhaps those whose gardens are famous for their topiary – like the Château de Villandry, for example –must take steps to guard against the dreaded moth…

But, out in the countryside, what can possibly be done? I suppose the “elves” could take a spray with them when they go out clipping – perhaps they do – but, seriously, it’s hard to see how anything could prevent the moth attacking these lovely sculptures.

 

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Pretty (?) box moths Photo © Author
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Beautiful lavender, rather spoiled. Photo © Author

And our fears about the potential danger were confirmed when we drove into a different mountainous area specifically to look for a particularly wonderful field of lavender that we knew would be growing along one of those windy roads. We found the lavender, growing, as it has for the past several years, in all its lovely heady glory, but it was absolutely covered in – box moths!

This field wasn’t particularly close to our mountain sculptures, but these pretty little horrors can of course fly! It would simply be so very sad if they flew that way and destroyed all that wonderful topiary work…

So, that’s a potentially worrying prospect, but let me end on a much more cheerful note.

I mentioned earlier the French sense of fun in the way they present their public art, such as in gardens and on roundabouts. And, as an example, and following the topiary theme, I give you these…an elephant and a dragon.

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Elephant and friend. Photo © Author
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Dragon and friend. Photo © Author
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These two charming creatures can be found in “our” village, close to our gîte, Montelier, which is one of only eighteen four-flower villages in the Auverge-Rhône-Alps region (out of 516 villages and towns in the region with all levels of  flower label). The town gardeners go in for  particularly charming animal “sculptures”, including topiary, as part of their plant displays. (More on the Concours des villes et villages fleuris – “towns and villages in bloom competition” – in a future post, perhaps…)

 

You probably can’t see from my photos that each topiary animal has a “person” riding them… And who might these be, one wonders…? Here is a slightly closer, yet still rather mysterious, view of one of them…

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A topiarist elf perhaps?