A Cold Misty Day on the North Downs Way

I wrapped myself up in three layers today and took off for the hills. My route today was one I know well–out to the outskirts of town, along the riverbank, and then up onto the North Downs Way to meander along the edge of the ridge through the woods until I cam down into Guildford fifteen miles later.

Much as I love exploring new places, there’s a special delight to a well-known path. This stretch of the North Downs Way was the first solo hike I ever did, and I’ve walked it many times since, both alone and in company. You build up your own mental map over time–not the landmarks recorded on maps or described in guidebooks, but ones made of memories–the fairy door, the knoll where we saw the adder, the bank where I saw a deer on the way home from work once.

It was a lovely day, and one of startling contrasts. In the shades, the frost never lifted but in places lay as thick as snow. Under the sunlight, the woods were golden. The usually soft paths were rock hard underfoot and the mist hung in dips.

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Welcome to 2017

Well, 2017 is here at last, thank goodness. I suspect it’s going to be a tough year for many of us, but at least we’re ready for it this time round.

2016 ended very quietly for me. I’ve been struggling a little to find writing time while managing new responsibilities in my day job, but I eventually scraped through to meet my annual wordcount target right at the end of December. Christmas was protracted but delightful, with lots of time spent with family. Another highlight in December was the 2016 Rainbow Awards. I’d entered two books, Resistance and A Frost of Cares. Both were finalists, A Frost of Cares placed second in its category, and both placed in the top twenty for Best Gay Book, which left me feeling very proud.

Looking forward to 2017, my only current scheduled release is Recovery, the third Reawakening book. I’m quite enjoying the break from editing–last year, between my own redrafting and publisher edits, I edited just over 4600 pages. Most of my writing this year will be ghost-related–I’m 30k into a novel set on the Scottish borders which draws on legends about Hermitage Castle. That said, my muse is a whimsical thing and may lead me off in all sorts of directions before we’re done.

To finish up, have some slightly random pictures of Cardiff Castle, taken just before Christmas. Mum and I went up there for a couple of days to attend a family funeral in the valleys (it was for my 97 year old great aunt who had lived her whole life in the village and I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. We don’t do funerals like that down here in the home counties). We then took a day to explore Cardiff and do a bit of Christmas shopping and I dragged her round the castle (if you’re ever in Cardiff, do the same and take the guided tour, because it’s the most bonkers stately home you will ever set foot in and a lot of it, including the tower top middle eastern style roof garden, can only be seen on the tour).

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This is called ‘The Abandoned Soldier.’ It stands on the corner of the outer battlements and commemorates soldiers who have suffered the after effects of war and not been treated as heroes. There’s a website about the sculpture here: 

http://www.theabandonedsoldier.com/

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Here’s the old Norman keep with the later house behind. All of this is contained within the outer walls.

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Reflections in the moat, with glimpses of the Principality Stadium beyond. 

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The old keep. Yes, the steps up there are just as steep as they look.

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And the Christmas tree outside. 

And with that, Happy New Year all. May it be a brave and beautiful one, full of joys great and small.

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Writing Spreadsheets for 2017 (freebies for writers).

As many of my followers will know, I really like planning and tracking data. This year I’ve been using a very complicated spreadsheet to manage my writing projects. I’m not aware of one with similar scope out there, so I thought I’d offer up the 2017 version for others.

The sheet tracks ten projects across four aspects–wordcount, pages edited, research time and marketing time. There is a simple instruction page included, but once you’ve set up your first project, it’s fairly self-explanatory.

Screenshots of bits of last year’s below to give you an idea of what to expect. Links to download the excel sheets from Dropbox are at the bottom (sheets are saved as .xlsx, which should work in OpenOffice variants too. If you need another format, message me). Any questions or queries, drop me a comment. Hopefully, some of you will get some use out of these.

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Projects Page (top row)

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Yearly progress tracking (yes, I fail at marketing)

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Example of a monthly tracking page

I’ve had a go at different colour schemes (they don’t look right in the Dropbox preview but what you see below is what you should get once they’re downloaded):

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ETA: If you downloaded one of these before January 1st, monthly research and marketing targets will not be calculated correctly. The problem is now fixed.

 

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Autumn on the Surrey-Hampshire border

I went for a ramble today, heading out from my own front door to roam back and forth across the boundaries between my town, Aldershot, and our upmarket neighbour, Farnham. The two towns are in different counties, with the River Blackwater forming the border for much of its length. There are many routes between them, mostly by road, but my favourite is the path along the riverbank from the eastern edge of Aldershot southwest towards the eastern outskirts of Farnham. It’s a pleasant little path, about half an hour’s walk out of town, which avoids roads, and links to many tracks and trails–turn north instead and it crosses the towpath of the Basingstoke Canal before continuing onwards towards the Hampshire-Berkshire border. South, and it connects to the North Downs Way heading east towards Dover, or the web of tracks and trails that rise into the North Downs on the Surrey-Sussex border (seriously, I live and work in liminal spaces).

Today I turned a different way, leaving the river to wind through lanes and backroads until I crossed the northern edge of Farnham through the lower end of Farnham park. I stopped for lunch in the town centre, and then climbed back up to the top of the park–once the deer park of the Bishops of Winchester, who had a country retreat here–and out into the fields and woods west of the town to circle back towards the far end of Farnham. It was one of those walks where I adapted my plans as I went, and I was rewarded in the last few miles with a stunning path I’d never walked before. Pictures below (sorry, no captions, because I’m a) knackered and b) 16k down on Nanowrimo).

 

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Small creepy things

So, last week, I celebrated Halloween with hourly mini-horror stories on Twitter. None are longer than a single tweet (although I had to sacrifice some full stops to manage that). I thought it would be good to collect them all together, so here are all forty-three.

Enjoy and don’t have too many nightmares.

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The barrow is quiet—cold. You back out, unsure why you’re afraid.

The cold follows you home, whispers, “You’re not welcome here.”

Rain blusters against the window. You pull the covers up, feel a warm weight by your feet, hear soft purrs.

You don’t own a cat.

Your radio-controlled clock is still running backwards, faster and faster. As it does, your wrinkles smooth away.

It never stops.

4.

This storeroom was an air raid shelter.

The door swings shut.

The lights go out.

The lock clicks

And in the distance, the siren wails

The cold wind scuds across the moors to where you wait by the bus stop.

You’ve been waiting a long time.

A very, very long time

6.

Your car breaks down in the Fens. No signal. You start to walk.

A dog follows you.

You can’t see it.

But you hear it getting closer

You hang charms over every door and window to keep out the vengeful dead.

But did you remember the old coal chute in the cellar?

The motion sensors switch on the lights as you walk along the hall. It’s not until they go off that you hear her breathing in the dark.

Playing hide-and-seek in your new garden, you discover a headstone behind the weeds. A child whispers, “Found you.”

Tap, tap, tap.

You’ve never been in the attic. The hatch is painted shut.

Tap, tap, tap.

But there’s something up there now.

Tap

Tap

Tap

You find a broken mirror on the beach that shows a distant dark shape.

Each time you look, it gets nearer.

Soon you’ll see its face

The airfield closed years ago, but as you sit by the graffitied ruins, the sky shakes with the throaty roar of a Spitfire engine

Every night, you dream of his mouth on yours. Every morning, you wake to find your lips a little paler.

In the fog, you hear a woman weeping. You follow her tears to the very edge of the cliff.

In front of you, she laughs

And you slip

Ivy grows over your windows, one leaf at a time. Soon it will cover the doors too.

Your battery died hours ago, but don’t give up. Keep banging on the lid. Someone will dig you up eventually.

There’s a dead child standing at the top of the stairs in the boarding house. Don’t get too close—he might push you down.

There are no children in the village.

“We send them away, until they’re old enough to be safe.”

The old man doesn’t say from what.

You wake to find a lipstick mark on the outside of the glass, red as blood.

On the glass of your fifth floor window.

First snow and footprints in the middle of your lawn. No prints lead away.

Maybe they’re still there.

Still watching.

As you step into the holloway, the woods go silent. Hairs rise on the back of your neck.

Keep walking.

And don’t look back. Don’t.

No one lives in the schoolmaster’s house now, but the old headmistress still watches the children’s games from the window.

23

My love?

Are you listening?

Can’t you hear me, love?

I can hear you breathing—can see you there.

I can’t hear myself.

My love?

As you approach the tunnel, you see the fading lights of a train, hear the singing of the rails.

The line closed in 1967.

“Beautiful things die so soon.”

“Sir, where is your daughter?”

“Here,” the moth collector said, reaching for the next cabinet door.

You hid her broken body in your compost bin.

Next spring, every flower in your garden was the exact blue of her eyes.

Lithe, golden, laughing—you see him in clubs, at the park, by the garden gate

“Don’t,” Grandpa warns. “He took my brother. In 1943”

The swings creak and sway against the wind, long after midnight. Children here don’t like to play outside.

The power is out and your internet’s down, but your song keeps playing. From downstairs, your dead lover starts to sing along.

You’ve worked the late ferry 50 years. He’s been crossing longer. Tonight, you finally see his eyes.

Your last crossing. Not his.

There’s something hungry in the cupboard under the stairs. It’s waiting for you to go to sleep.

  1. 7

You see the light of a phone ahead, and follow the man in the hoodie to the chapel door. He turns, revealing your own dead face.

A little girl sits on the steps outside every night. You finally stop to ask if she’s okay.

She smiles, and crumbles into ashes.

Your father’s waiting for you to come home again, son. He’s waiting by the bridge.

Waiting, because he can’t cross running water.

The old town gibbet stands in the museum yard, roped off as a curiosity.

The shadow it casts sways.

You’ll climb it one day.

You miss the daylight so much.

You wake to find a dead man standing in your bedroom door, stinking of salt and rot.

Trees separate the playground from the churchyard, but still the children trespass. Sometimes they bring back strange friends.

Your neighbour’s shed is wreathed in brambles. Its windows and door are boarded up

Today, a voice from inside calls your name.

There were wreckers on this coast once, luring ships to doom.

On stormy nights, their lights still show.

You’re the last to leave the beach party. Your car won’t start.

A wet, swollen hand paws at your window. “Take me home.”

They built the hospital on land reclaimed from the water. Now, in the dark hours, the cries of the drowned echo through the wards.

43.

“The grave’s a cold and lonely place,” he sighs. “Don’t send me back without you.”

 

 

 

 

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A little place in the country (Osborne House and the boat to Cowes)

Recently, Mum and I gave into the lure of our sea fever and caught a train for the coast. We were heading for the Isle of Wight, via Southampton. We had deliberately kept our plans vague, but we were determined to visit Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s country retreat, even if we did nothing else. It turned out to be worth a whole day.

Our plan was to get the bus from the station to the ferry terminus at Southampton, and sail across the Solent to Cowes on the Isle of Wight (UK Meet folks may want to know that the ferry terminal is opposite the Meet hotel). Unfortunately, our journey went a big wonky at that point. There is, in theory, a connecting bus which meets the London train. Unfortunately, there’s only a minute’s change and it had gone early. So we walked down the main road, cutting across the car park of the Novotel and two Ibises, past IKEA, and then past the Grand Harbour Hotel where the Meet will be. We even spotted some zebras on the way…

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These were just the ones we walked past–we spotted a lot more from the bus back to the station that evening 😀

Unfortunately, in the rush to get there by foot, we made a silly mistake with the boats. As you enter the ferry terminus by foot, there’s a ticket office immediately to your right. We dashed in there, not realising that it was for the car ferry and that the much faster passenger ferry was a little bit further into the complex. On the plus side, it was a lovely day,  so we sat outside at the front and got all the cobwebs blown out of us, which we wouldn’t have been able to do on the fast boat.

Once we got to Cowes, we headed uphill to Osborne House. Built in the late 1840s, as a private family home for the royal family, it’s an Italianate mansion overlooking the Solent, parts of which were designed by Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert (among other things, he insisted on making the central staircase from stone so it is inflammable).

We started our exploration of Osborne and its grounds by walking to the Swiss Cottage. This is a sizeable house in the grounds which was the domain of Victoria and Albert’s nine children. The cottage was part of Albert’s approach to the children’s education and came with a kitchen where they learned to cook, a dining room with space for the whole family, and a kitchen garden. Each child was given their own plot to grow fruit, flowers, and vegetables, which their father would buy from them. There’s a little toolshed in the grounds where you can still see their childsize gardening tools. Their learning in the cottage was meant to give them an understanding of ordinary life, but also gave them some freedom away from the main house during those times when affairs of government followed the family to their country retreat.

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The cottage is still surrounded by fruit gardens.

Osborne was always meant to be a family home. It was Victoria’s favourite residence–she referred to it as ‘cheerful and unpalacelike.’ Significantly, she and Albert paid for the furnishings of the new house with the funds raised by selling off the far more flamboyant Royal Pavilion in Brighton. The family went to Osborne at least four times a year and the impression you get as you walk around is of an idyllic bubble protecting what was one of the most high-profile families in the world.

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In the grounds of the cottage is the model fort two of the princes built as a surprise for Queen Victoria’s birthday one year (her sons clearly never grew out of this particular  style of present giving, as there’s a very large gun at the foot of the main stairs which younger son Arthur later sent her as a gift during his long and distinguished military career). Pity the poor governess who once got held prisoner inside the brick fort by a very naughty princess.

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We then followed a nature trail through the woods to the sea. All along the path are wooden sculptures of the wildlife that lives in the woods. 

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And there’s a beach. The tide was high when we got there, but there’s a lovely line of stripey deck chairs along the grass and a cafe selling ice cream. We got there at lunchtime, so every deckchair was full, but still found a bit of grass to sit on and eat our sandwiches. We spent some time watching a little boat moving from yacht to yacht before it got close enough that we could read the sign on its side–it was selling ice cream. Also by the water is Queen Victoria’s bathing machine, a formidable contraption. The children had an enclosed swimming bath built off the beach where they learned to swim (the boys taught by their father and the girls by a young Frenchwoman, Eugene Loby). 

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And here’s the house itself, viewed from the path from the beach. 

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The grounds are beautifully landscaped. The house itself has a very different character depending on which floor you’re on. The ground floor contains various rooms of state as well as the parlour and billiards room, Victoria and Albert’s private rooms are on the first floor, and the children’s rooms and nursery are at the top. The route around the house also takes you down into the cellars to get a glimpse at the kitchens and life behind the scenes. 

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It’s quite dim inside, and was very busy, so I didn’t take many pictures, but this piece of furniture caught my eye. It’s a conversation seat, with space for gentlemen to sit on the ends, whereas a young lady (and her chaperone) would need the larger central seats to allow for the width of their skirts. 

We also loved the nursery with its wooden ark and doll’s house and row of cots. One of the neighbouring rooms details the marriages and descendants of Victoria’s children, most of whom married into other European royal families. They and their children all spent time at Osborne–if you were to pick a crowned head of state from any part of early twentieth century Europe, there’s a pretty good chance they once slept in one of those little wooden cots in the nursery at Osborne.

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This is the Durbar Room in the newer wing of the house, built in the early 1890s, which was used for state dinners. Although it’s hard to see, the walls and ceiling are all decorated with intricate plasterwork designed by Punjabi architect Bhai Ram Singh.

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Back outside and looking across the terrace. You can see two of the three fountains that are set at varying levels.

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And here, with my back to the highest fountain, is the view down towards the Solent. This was landscaped during the building of the house, and was one of the draws for Prince Albert, who compared it to the Bay of Naples. You can clearly see the mainland, and we could even pick out a few landmarks, including the Spinnaker tower in Portsmouth.

We wandered slowly back down to the ferry, past a sign commemorating the very first speeding offence committed by a motorist in the UK, and decided that it was time to head for home. Back on the ferry, we sat out on deck for most of the trip, enjoying the views over the Cowes Marina and then along the Solent and across Southampton Water.

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We were there the week before Cowes Week, which is one of the UK’s biggest yachting events, and the marina was already starting to fill up.

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Cowes gives way to the Solent. It was slightly choppy as we crossed back towards the shelter of Southampton Water, setting off a whole chorus of car alarms on the decks below.

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There are several big oil refineries along the edge of Southampton Water and these tankers were docked at the pipelines. With the weather just starting to turn, we were glad to get back to dry land.

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Rainbow Snippets is back to school

Here’s something new for this week’s Rainbow Snippets. I’m trying to get started on a new ghost story set in two very different schools. Here’s Raj, one of my protagonists, explaining how things start going wrong at one of the schools. It’s rough, because I’m still trying to find Raj’s voice and still working out the details of how Peter went from here to a very posh and very haunted country boarding school. Sadly, all of these bright ideas came from schools I know and some of them are the reasons why my colleagues now work with us instead.

We had a new headteacher, our third in five years, and this one had ideas. Some weren’t bad, like the redesign of the website and inviting local businesses to sponsor relevant departments (“Never English or Maths,” Peter grumbled on the last time he came out to Friday drinks, “because clearly we’re not sexy enough.” Then he hit me on the back as I choked on my pint). The new admin block was a nice idea, especially as it also included a new media centre, (“Why not a new library?” Jenny lamented so eloquently the next week that only I noticed Peter wasn’t there). The new uniform policy was the one the kids I worked with hated the most—some study had claimed schools that strictly enforced traditional uniforms got better results, so it was out with polo shirts and in with blazers and ties, which enraged parents enough to get us into the national media briefly as educational scandal of the week (I was sympathetic, though wise enough by then not to say so—uniforms are expensive and a lot of our parents couldn’t afford the cheap basic we’d had before, let alone this). What the outrage police didn’t know was the other half of the policy, which put any kid in the wrong uniform in lunchtime detention. With so many kids suddenly deprived of their lunchtimes, they had to be separated into multiple rooms, which meant an extra rota of staff duties suddenly landed on department heads and other senior teachers (like Peter, who had never been one to linger over his pack lunch at the best of times).

Rainbow Snippets is a wonderful little Facebook group in which writers gather every weekend to post a six-sentence peek at one of their works. All genres are included but the snippets must be from books with a LGBTQIA+ protagonist.

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