From Lambeth Marsh to Southwark Priory: a Meander

In Temse whan it was flowende
As I be bote cam rowende,
So as fortune hir tyme sette, 
My liege lord par chaunce I mette; 

So wrote one of my favourite poets, John Gower, in the 1390s, when a poet rowing down the Thames really could meet his monarch by chance and be summoned aboard the royal barge and commissioned to write one of the first great poems in the English language. It was to Gower’s London we went today, wandering along the South Bank from Waterloo Station, built in the 19th century on what had been, in Gower’s time, Lambeth Marshe, to Southwark Cathedral, once the priory where the poet lived out the last thirty years of his life.


Here, outside the back entrance of the Royal Festival Hall, we spotted thus marvellous miscellany of Christmas trees. We also stopped here for a cup of tea overlooking the Thames on the other side of the building.


Looking over the Thames towards Somerset House.


Towards the City, St Pauls, and Blackfriars Bridge, with bonus bird.


More shots of the City and some of the more bonkers buildings of the last two decades, including the Walkie-Talkie and the Cheesegrater.


Ferry going under Blackfriars bridge, which is itself a railway station.


Inside the Tate Modern, where the current exhibition in the Turbine Hall is lots of three-seater swings made out of orange piping. I have no idea what the artistic significance is, but great fun was being had by all 😉


Once we’d had a go on the swings, I dragged Mum upstairs to look at the Living Cities gallery (aka the only one I like) and then we headed up to the viewing platform on top of the gallery. Here’s the Shard, one of the newest and most striking additions to London’s skyline.


And here’s the boiler room tower of the Tate Modern and St Paul’s Cathedral opposite. St Paul’s still dominates the skyline, despite all the modern additions.


And looking back towards Blackfriars and distant hills beyond.


All of those cityscapes came well after Gower’s time, but this is a scrap of old Southwark–all that remains of Winchester Palace, once the London residence of the bishops of Winchester, whose diocese stretched as far as the south banks of the Thames. Southwark was not part of the city of London, then, but a lawless place packed with markets. prisons, brothels and actors (we’re only a few hundred metres from the Globe here). Here in the ‘Liberty of the Clink’ even the bishops grew rich on the wages of sin–so many brothels here paid rent to Winchester Palace that Southwark whores became known as ‘Winchester Geese.’


But amongst the chaos of Southwark stood a priory, which eventually became Southwark Cathedral in 1905, when it was decided that South London really wasn’t part of the diocese of Winchester (a city seventy miles away). Today it is tucked away between tall buildings–not the sort of cathedral that is as much tourist attraction as place of worship, but a quiet place of refuge from the busy city life. Here, in its churchyard, you can still get a sense of how little Southwark has changed. The herb garden here is hemmed in by the edge of Borough Market. The quiet of the cathedral gives way to the noise of the city and the railway line that passes within metres of its walls, and the air smells of meat and spices. I’ve been to a lot of cathedrals which sit gracefully in polite and restrained greens, but this felt authentic–surrounded on all sides by business and energy, its towers in the shadow of the Shard. They were all like this once.


And, of course, I found a dragon–although I think this may actually be a proper London wyvern–and some marvellous gargoyles.


Here’s a close-up. Wyverns are the heraldic animal on the crest of the City of London and they appear all over the place–most notably as statues guarding the entrances to the City.


Inside the cathedral. This was for a long time simply the Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie.


And here lies John Gower, London poet. His monument shows him resting his head on his three books (written in three different languages). It is unusual in so far as the colours have been kept renewed over the centuries so his tomb is just as bright as it would once have been. I’ve been wanting to visit here since I first read the Confessio Amantis in 2001. Opposite him, across the nave, stand a memorial to Shakespeare and his life in Southwark, and besides that one to Sam Wanamaker, who is responsible for the reconstructed Globe. Shakespeare drew on Gower’s work in writing his plays and Gower appears as a prologue in one of them, so it’s a very fitting combination.


Back out on the riverbank, the light was starting to grow long and low and so we turned our faces back towards Waterloo.

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Lost in the Hampshire Hills: my inspirations for The Holly Groweth Green

Many of you will have noticed that I have a new Christmas short story out. In fact, those of you who have signed up to the Dreamspinner Advent Calendar should have received your copy today 🙂 It’s a little piece of whimsy which I hope has brightened a few people’s days at this busy time of year, and I thought I’d tell you how it came about and share pictures of some of the landscapes that inspired it.

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The story has its roots in two things: a fairy tale and a play about fairies. Many years ago, I had the idea to write a story about a prince who had been turned into a holly bush and could only be saved by true love’s kiss. It was one of those ideas that never really grew wings and I tucked it away and forgot about it until the urge to write a Christmas story grabbed me last summer. Of course, writing Christmas stories in high summer presents its own challenges, and this year we had a heatwave. I had also, like every English teacher in the world, picked that term to teach A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Those threads came together in my mind to create Avery–an Elizabethan wizard who has offended the fairy court and been cursed for it. Avery needed a hero and the scenario which was beginning to take place in a mind needed a place which could be cut off by snow. That’s not easily done in the modern English countryside, so I investigated the worst winters in British history. The winter of 1946-47 immediately leapt out at me, and very soon I had Laurence too–a war veteran who is more than a little lost after a head injury which has left him with long-term problems with coordination and calculations. Laurence is muddling through at the start of the book, with no sense of what his future holds or how he will ever find a purpose again. The magic begins when he meets Avery, who has almost given up hoping for a hero.

The story is set in the rolling hills of North Hampshire, even now a quiet corner of the world, dreaming away between the urban bustle of London’s commuter belt and the more dramatic rise of the South Downs nearer the coast. It’s a country best known for Jane Austen, and one I’ve walked extensively. Unfortunately, none of my walks have taken me to the real lanes in the story and so their description should be taken as more of a rural fantasia than true representation of the real Privett as it is today.

Above, you can see some pictures of the villages of North Hampshire. Below are some of the roads and tracks. It’s a deceptive landscape–at least one of these views entirely conceals a large town which lies deeper into the valley. It’s an easy country to get lost in (I speak from experience) and it’s getting lost–stepping off the familiar road and into the unknown–which throws Laurence into his midwinter night’s dream.

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Even the railway which brings Laurence into this countryside has vanished today. The Meon Valley line used to be an alternative route from London to Portsmouth. It was closed to passengers in 1955 and altogether in 1968. All that remains is a few bridges, a couple of sealed tunnels, and some station buildings turned into country homes. You can see the remains of one of the bridges in the pictures above.

What we do still have is a heritage railway about five miles to the north–the Watercress Line. This was once the ‘main’ line from which the Meon Valley line branched off.

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Sadly, I don’t have any pictures of trains in snow to share, but it’s snow on the railway which leaves Laurence stranded in the countryside on Christmas Eve. With the tunnel ahead blocked, he can’t get to his destination, Portsmouth. Nobody’s expecting him, so he decides to find somewhere local to stay.

Instead, he finds Avery.

Oh, and that Shakespeare influence? If you look closely, you’ll find multiple allusions to and quotations from the Dream in the story, alongside the titles of several of Shakespeare’s other plays (I think there are six in total). Happy hunting 😉


Dreamspinner Press

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Fog and Marsh (Essex Walks 2/2)

After an evening of shimmering mist in March, we emerged from our hotel to thick fog to continue our walk east of Southend, back out into the marshes and islands of the Essex coast. Our final destination was only a few miles north as the crow flies, but the coast here curls around creeks and inlets.


Looking towards the first stage of our walk from just outside our hotel on the edge of Southend.


And out to sea from the same spot. Not only the far side of the estuary but even the edge of the water were completely invisible.


Beach huts at Thorpe Bay, still closed up for the winter.


Cutting inland to buy sandwiches for lunch, we found ourselves picking our way around and over this railway depot. Shoeburyness is the end of the line along the north bank of the Thames. I’m always vaguely fascinated by quiet rural termini and the way they are such an inverse of the great city behemoths at the far end of their lines.


Winding out way back towards the water, we passed a rather striking scarecrow O_O


Unfortunately the red flags were flying when we reached the edge of the military land which runs along the water’s edge, so we had to cut inland and meet the coast further up. As we did, the mist began to lift.


And here’s the view from the seawall, once we reached it. Islands of mud barely rise above the tide. Most are uninhabited, or have a lone farm, or belong to the army. A network of low bridges now joins them to the mainland, but once the only routes in were along causeways at low tide. The most infamous is the Broomway, which connects distant Foulness with the mainland–running along a sandbank a mile out to sea, it is separated from the land by deep mud flats except for three narrow and unmarked paths to shore. If the army land had been open, we would have passed the end of the path. It was last used by vehicles to get aid to Foulness after the 1952 flood left the island nearly underwater and cut off from the road. 



Here, in the distance, you can see one of the military bridges carrying the road across the inner islands towards Foulness. I think this is the one between Rushey Island and Havengore Island, but it’s hard to pick out enough landmarks to place anything on the map.


Inland, looking back at the farm by the seawall. The light was soft and hazy all day, even after the thick fog lifted.


Further along the coast lies this community of houseboats, few of them seaworthy, and only accessible via a rough road–or by boat.



The coast winds in and out of creeks. Here we were staring ahead at our next walk, still several hours away.


As the afternoon came on, the tide rose up between the islets and tussocks of marsh.


And here, at last, the creek narrowed and we came back to land, in the village of Little Wakering.

Our plan was to return to Little Wakering in August and continue the walk back to the town of Rochford. Unfortunately it all went a little wrong. The first setback was in getting back to the start. We’d stayed in Rochford the night before and decided to get a taxi back to the end of the creek. The path comes out in the middle of a suburban street and you have to know exactly where to look, but our taxi driver was confident he could get us to the right road, and we didn’t mind walking down a bit.

His confidence was misplaced. It wasn’t until we’d spent a couple of minutes trying to spot something familiar that we realised he had dropped us off in the wrong village–not Little Wakering, but Great Wakering, a couple of miles south. We cut across the fields to get back to the start, but by that point the heat of the day was settling onto us. It was almost as hazy as it had been in April, but that day’s haze came with a late heatwave. If you’ve never tried walking around a marsh during the first really hot day after a week of rain: don’t. Just don’t.


We left the road at Barling church, where the graveyard was full of wildflowers.



The headland where the river met the waters coming out from behind the islands of the last walk. Those dots are midges.


View inland from our lunch spot, a couple of miles out of Rochford. Also the spot where we decided to give up and head inland in search of a bus stop. One arrived just as we did and so we headed back towards Southend. We’ve worked out that it’s a landscape best walked in spring, so we’ll be back next year. 


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Back to the Sea Again (Essex walks 1/2)

It’s been a while since I wrote about our walk along the coast of Essex, but we’ve actually come quite a long way since my last post, about the miseries of redirected footpaths through endless marshes, so I thought it time to catch up. After staggering our way to Pitsea station in July 2016, we returned a few weeks later to continue our walk. This time, things went much more smoothly. Our path led alongside the railway line, through summer fields. We were aiming for Southend, or at the very least Leigh-on-Sea, on the outskirts of the town, where our estuary walk would finally meet the sea again.


Alongside the railway, already warm, but with pleasant views to compensate.

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At the Top of the Harbour (Portchester Castle)

About a month ago, I posted this picture of the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour on Facebook. I was standing on a meeting place of old and new, on the edge of a modern outlet shopping centre, Gunwharf Quays, but below the figure head of HMS Marlborough, a nineteenth century navy ship. As the name suggests, the site has a long history and remnants of that past are tucked between the designer outlets and cafes–there’s another figurehead, from HMS Vernon who, like Marlborough, ended her long service as an accommodation hulk moored just off the edge of the quays. The torpedo school which stood on this site once also took the name of HMS Vernon, and there are other little echoes here and there–an old crane, a grand military gate, a little low guardhouse tucked in the shadows of the modern blocks of flats which rise above the shops now.

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Meet the Characters: Recovery: Kastrian

One last meet the characters post, this time for a certain pirate prince. Recovery is now out!


The wind, at least, was honest.

It blew clean towards Aliann and the north, carrying Kastrian and his ship away from the Isles as the sails strained above him and Conquest cut through the water as sharply as the weapon she was under the trappings of diplomacy.

Kastrian stood by her rail, half listening to the calls and banter of his crew, half recalling the islands they had just left—their bare golden cliffs, the forests of pine that crept across their hill tops, the pirates that lurked in their bays, demanding tribute of the fisher folk and the farmers.

Poor foolish land folk, he thought bitterly, who had still not learned to run as soon as the black ships came into sight.

“You going to open that?”

He hadn’t heard Rinor approach and he jumped a little.

“Sorry.” Rinor offered him an easy grin of apology and came to lean against the rail, breathing in easily. The wind caught his hair, lifting it off his forehead, and he laughed. “Good to heading home, isn’t it?”

Kastrian managed a careless-seeming shrug of his own. His secretary was only a few years his junior but sometimes he made Kastrian feel very old and very weary. “Aren’t the isles our home, our true and first hearth?”

Rinor’s smile didn’t fade but he met Kastrian’s gaze squarely. “I don;t know. Are they, Prince of the Sea?”

Young, yes, but the boy wasn’t stupid either. Kastrian stared back at him, neither of them speaking, until Rinor’s gaze fell away.

And wasn’t that something to be proud of—that he could still intimidate his closest employee, the only soul in Aliann who still had any trust in him.

“What’s the box, Kas?” Rinor asked again.

Kastrian looked again at the same wooden chest by his feet, the one Gorlan had taken out of the safebox in his cabin and gifted to him with such a smile that Kastrian knew whatever it contained was a taunt, not the reward he craved most. He didn’t want to open it—didn’t want to see what his king had commanded this time. He said, because Rinor was also the only person left that he had even a scrap of trust in himself, “‘Beware of the gifts of kings.’”

“‘They come bound in expectations,’” Rinor said back. “Stop quoting the Book of the Dragon and get it over with.”

Kastrian couldn’t stop his mouth from twisting up in amusement. Before his nerve failed him again, he reached down and flicked the box open.

Inside a fold of leathery cloth covered something. A note sat atop it. It said simply, Wear this.

“Is that—?” Rinor started, his voice shaking.

Kastrian shook his head. “Goatskin. Look at the colour.”

Rinor relaxed slowly. “I thought.”

“Our king likes to play games.” Kastrian tossed the note overboard, watching in satisfaction as the wind snatched it away. Then he folded back the goatskin and recoiled.

A mask looked up at him—a festival mask for a winter in Aliann, but one whose like he had never seen before, a blue-green monster with fangs and bulbous eyes, half-fish, half-lizard, all vile. Kastrian’s hands tightened around the coverings, every instinct telling him to hurl the thing overboard.

“Don’t!” Rinor said sharply. “We’re still on open sea. He’ll know.”

That was true, and Kastrian took three long breaths, forcing back decades worth of rage and hate again. He did not want to wear this thing—did not want to carry it into Aliann, the city which had always welcomed him.

“What is it?” Rinor asked, his distaste showing in his voice.

“A hydra,” Kastrian said, closing the lid of the box so he didn’t have to look at it. “You know the stories they tell of such things in Aliann.”

“He wants you to attend balls masked as their legendary foe? Is it meant as a threat?” Rinor looked puzzled. “That’s indirect, even for him.”

“A threat, yes,” Kastrian said, but did not elaborate. Rinor was still a relative innocent, a minor player in this dangerous game that he and Gorlan played in regard to the floating city. Rinor did not need to know that this was more than a threat to Aliann. It was a promise, one that could be already swimming in their wake or clinging to their hull, a promise Gorlan would force Kastrian to keep.

One which would destroy Aliann, if he couldn’t find someone to do what he could not. He could never be a hero for Aliann—would always be the monster from the sea.

Kastrian looked up, north to where the first hazy hint of the lagoon bar showed against the horizon, and hoped with all his heart, that someone there would be ready to fight him.

Every monster had its matching hero, after all.

Didn’t it?           DSP Publications

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Recovery: Meet the Characters: Roland

With five days to go until Recovery comes out, meet another of the characters. Here is Lord Roland, Voice of Shara on the ruling council of the city of Aliann.

Roland quote

Sometimes, even after all these years, Roland wakes and doesn’t know where he is.
It’s as if, no matter what his waking mind knows, in his sleep he forgets he is in Aliann and wakes expecting the cold dry bite of a winter dawn in Shara or the sound of the prince’s guard matching outside his window.

It’s always a surprise to wake to the soft sound of water on the quay, the long calls of the boatmen, the creak of timbers. The air feels heavier in Aliann, damp and mild in winter, humid in summer, weightier somehow but also softer. It is easy to let things slide here, to make deals rather than stick to resolutions. There’s always something moving in Aliann, alliances shifting, promises being redefined, power and influence dancing around each other faster and faster until the inevitable stumble and bow of defeat.

But his prince would never have sent him here at all if he was the sort of man to stick rigidly to a principle rather than do whatever was needed for the sake of Shara. He is here to speak for Shara, to deal for Shara, to lie for Shara.

Except last time he went back to the city where he was born and all roads end, the cold haunted him and he dreamed of Aliann every night. He looked at the steep, winding roads of Shara and thought of the gleaming canals, watched the summer storms gather over the mountains and yearned for the mists that rise from the lagoon.

Sometimes, sitting in the council he thinks of Aliann’s interests first and Shara’s second and he’s not sure if that means he should resign his position or hold to it all the more.
Behind him, the mattress creaks and Philammon says, voice soft with sleep, “It’s to early to be worrying.”

“I’m not worried,” Roland lies and turns onto his back. Philammon props himself up on his elbow and grins down at him. His hair is on end, curls springing in every direction. There’s a line of ink down the side of his cheek, and he’s already starting to fidget with the energy that drives him through every day at a pace which is dizzying, even for this restless city.

He’s far too young and beautiful and brilliant for a weary old politician. His presence here in Roland’s life, the easy way he loves him—it is yet another way that Aliann confounds him.

“Worrying,” Philammon says again and leans down to kiss the end of Roland’s nose. “About?”

“Places,” Roland says. “Loyalties.”

Philammon wrinkles his nose. “Nothing I can print then?”

“You only want me as a source,” Roland grumbles.

His lover grimaces. “Don’t even joke about it.”

Roland almost argues that he wasn’t the one to start the joke. But Philammon’s attention has shifted, his head up as he listens. Roland goes quiet, hears voices passing, running feet, the distant clang of the tide bell, the faint whisper of wind.

“Tide’s not due to turn, but the bell’s ringing and the watch are running,” Philammon murmurs. He’s already moving, throwing his clothes back on in a rush, pulling his hair into a messy knot at the back of his head.

Roland watched him, a little bemused. He still doesn’t understand how anyone can tell all that from a few moments listening. Perhaps you have to be born to it, to the rhythm of the tides and the curl of the wind. He reluctantly heaves himself upright, though. Philammon’s instincts are rarely wrong, and if this is more than a dock fight, the palace should know.

“If it’s something I need to know—” he starts.

“I’ll yell at the guard until they go running,” Philammon says, grabbing a quill off the desk, shoving an ink bottle into his pocket, and tucking a curl of paper through his belt. He darts back across the room, kisses Roland quickly and firmly, and then is gone at a run.

Left alone in the quiet, Roland shakes his head and smiles, before staring to look for his own clothes. This too is Aliann—unpredictable, so fast to react he is left blinking, but never dull, not for a moment.

Whatever worries haunt him in the first light of dawn, he knows he’s never going to leave.


Wondering how Roland will manage his torn loyalties? You’ll just have to read the book. Pre-order links below:

DSP Publications

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