Across the border (a week in Liddesdale 1/2)

Some of you will know, from odd comments I’ve made here and there, that I’m working on a new ghost story set in the Scottish borders. A little bit of fun with a set of randomly generated map coordinates landed me dead on the border at the bottom of Liddesdale, which turned out to be a place with more history and legends than any one book can do justice to. I’ve been writing from the comfort of my study in the home counties, but I was beginning to hit the limits of what I could do without setting my feet on the ground and breathing in the actual place, so last week I headed north for three days to see it for real.

One of the first things I picked up when I got to my guesthouse was a guide to local walking routes. I was delighted to see that the longest one in there was very close to a hike I’d had my protagonist do early in the book (he’s younger and fitter than me, so does a longer loop, but this was as close as I was willing to try). The loop took me from the village of Newcastleton, where I was staying, up into Kershope forest, and then down to the border, along it for a few miles, and then back up an abandoned railway line to the village).

You’ll have to excuse the occasional giddy tone to this write-up, because the whole trip was one of those magical holidays you just fall into sometimes, to the extent that I’m feeling bad about inflicting such a nasty ghost on such a wonderful place. The first day began with surprise Bucks Fizz over breakfast, courtesy of the other couple staying at the guest house, who were celebrating their silver wedding and insisting on splitting the bottle around the table.

Heading out with a spring in my step, I began the climb out of the village. Newcastleton is a relatively young village, built in the 1790s by a local landowner as a model village for weavers. His grand plan was a financial failure, but by then the original settlement further up the valley had been flattened. It’s a pretty little place these days, and the only settlement of any size for miles and miles.

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Here it is in its entirety, sitting along the bank of the Liddel Water.

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Climbing up the lane, views of the hills to the north open up. This all looks serene now, but go back five hundred years and this was one of the bloodiest and most war torn places in Europe. The border clans of Liddesdale and the surrounding valleys were reivers of the worst kind (more on this in my next post, because I spent the second day of my holiday visiting some of their sites).

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Up and up, towards the edge of the forest. The trees are relatively new–the first trees were planted in the 1920s when the land was given over to the Forestry Commission. These days, timber is still the main product of the area, but the forest is also a centre for mountain biking, with trails leading off towards Kielder Water, ten miles to the east.

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Into the woods…

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Despite the cloak of trees, this is still moorland, and everything is damp. Streams trickle out of cracks, moss covers every exposed surface, and every path oozes thick mud.

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I think this is the Clintheugh Linn (I’d lost track of myself on the instructions by this point, but since there was only one path, wasn’t too worried).

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And then there was a landmark! Here, where three paths met, I found a carving. There’s nothing there to give any context or explanation. It’s just a lump of rock, with a hole in the middle and the words to Jerusalem carved on one side and those to Auld Lang Syne on the other (honestly, I giggled for the next mile–so bizarre!). 

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Confident of my location again, I set a good pace south towards England.

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That next ridge is on the far side of the border.

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This is the fabulously named Muckle Thwater Gill, running down towards Kershope Burn.

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Heading downhill.

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And this is the border itself. The line between England and Scotland runs along the Kershope Burn here. I’d used this river as the model for a fictional one in my WIP, so my excitement levels were rising. Just look at those brooding hills! 

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Standing on the border (okay, on the bridge over the border)!

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The path turns downstream on the English side until it comes out on this road. In my WIP, this leads up to a scatter of houses, included a very haunted old fortified manor. In reality, there is nothing here but forest.

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Several minor characters meet an untimely end on this road which runs north from the same point. I probably shouldn’t have been grinning so happily as I took this picture.

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Further along the river, and here’s another little feeder stream tumbling down into it.

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Looking north from the English side–pretty much the view my protagonist has from the window of the haunted house.

The path then met the road again at the tiny hamlet of Kershopefoot, from where an old railway line turned footpath runs back up to the village. I was footsore and weary by the time I stumbled along it, but this was one of the best walks I’ve done for a long time.

And the best was yet to come…

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Recovery: Meet the characters: Esen

It’s just a month to go until Recovery is released, so I thought it might be fun to start introducing some of the cast. Here, to get us started, is a familiar face. Those of you who have read Reawakening will remember Esen (if you haven’t read Reawakening, stop now, because this post will include spoilers!). Here she is a few weeks before Recovery starts, arguing with a dragon (as you do).

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Continue reading

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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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