Nostalgia and Spitfires in Bewdley

During a Sunday afternoon visit to the small town of Bewdley, Worcestershire situated on the River Severn, Frank and I stumbled across a 1940s-themed event along the Severn Valley Railway Line at Bewdley train station. GIs, Tommies, civilians, landgirls and glamorous ladies were out in their glad rags strutting their stuff up and down the platform. How wonderful to be transported back to a simpler time when we didn’t have omnipresent, tyrannical technology at our heels. But I told myself I shouldn’t get too nostalgic; I wouldn’t have enjoyed rationing, air-raid shelters, blackouts or indeed any of the fears and deprivations that ordinary folk endured during WWII.

It was pure escapism though on a very hot day with tunes from a less cynical age such as Mairzy Doats, playing in the background. Old-fashioned trains shunted in and out of the the station without much care for deadlines or timetables; time slowed to a more manageable pace. On the other hand, I was also quite glad it was 2018 because it meant I could take a few snaps with my phone and share them with you. Toodlepip! Until the next blog!

Two cool ladies that went the extra mile to look good!

Two cool ladies that went the extra mile to look good!

Taking a picnic along - love the sun umbrella

Taking a picnic along – love the sun umbrella

Welcome shade while waiting for the train

Welcome shade while waiting for the train

Found this vintagey dress at the open-air sale behind the ticket office so quickly changed!

Himself in front of the iconic Spitfire that epitomised Britain’s fighting spirit during the darkest times of the Battle of Britain.

More photos of our train trip in 2014 along the Severn Valley Railway Line.

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Celebrate National Flash Fiction Day!

16 June is National Flash Fiction day! Founded by writer, Calum Kerr in 2012, this relatively ‘new’ genre of micro-stories is growing in popularity and there are more and more opportunities for writers to submit and see their work published online or in print. Indeed, now we are all so busy flash fiction can be the ideal form of entertainment to fill otherwise redundant time when sitting in a waiting room or standing on a station platform. Its brevity makes it perfect for reading on a mobile device.

Anyway, I will cut to the chase! My story, ‘Swanning Around’ went live on the National Flash Fiction Flood between 6-7 am CET this morning  but you may read it at your leisure via the link below. It’s a 500-word piece about a late bloomer, a stroppy swan and an ice sculpture. If you are intrigued how these disparate elements form a story then please click and don’t forget to bookmark the link for other stories! There will be new ones posted throughout the day and they have all been curated by experts in the world of flash fiction. Enjoy! My piece, Swanning Around






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Sing for your supper, or is it dinner, or perhaps even tea?

A Dutch student learning English once asked me when British people have their supper. A deceptively-simple sounding question, isn’t it? One which I could have answered simply enough by telling him that supper is a simple snack of a sandwich or biscuits with a hot drink before going to bed. But then, if I did that I would have missed out on the chance to explain (or at least attempt to) the rather complicated English class system. It’s always easiest to start with oneself as an example so here goes.

Soap for Tea
Growing up as a smallholder’s daughter in 1970s Britain I believed myself to be working class with middle-class aspirations. We mixed with people from all levels of society through our love of horses and that included upper and middle-classes whom we got to know through show-jumping and Pony Club membership. At home breakfast was cereal or toast (from the Rayburn) with a few rashers of bacon, dinner was a substantial hot meal served about 1pm, tea was a cold meal, bread & cheese and cold meats followed by cake at 6.30pm. This meal always coincided with watching the Brummy soap series, Crossroads on telly, and then if still feeling peckish around bedtime, a cup of tea or Ovaltine accompanied by crackers or biscuits was in order for supper. Having hobnobbed a bit in the tuck shop at Pony Club Camp with posh people’s children I learned that they had supper around our teatime and that it was a hearty warm meal with two courses eaten in an informal manner.

The Rayburn

The Rayburn with toasting fork

Tea table at home

Tea table at home

Supper snack

Supper snack

After tea, washing up

After tea, washing up – All sketches by yours truly anno 1979

Class Divisions
When I went to university I was suddenly surrounded by middle-class people who had their main hot meal or dinner in the evening, a light lunch around noon, tea was something sweet eaten between lunch and dinner and supper a pre-bedtime snack. Are you getting confused? Believe me, I was. After finishing university and learning about garlic, avocado and Liebfraumilch wine, I travelled overland in Africa with a group of northerners and unsure of my provenance they quizzed me about what time of day I had dinner. Even though I had adopted some middle-class habits and nomenclature during my student days, dinner was still firmly embedded in my consciousness as a warm midday meal. Happy I had given them the right answer, I was warmly taken into the fold! Northerners consider themselves generally working class; the hard-working webbed feet of the elegant swan that is England anywhere south of Nottingham.

Source of Comedy
You’ll be relieved to hear I didn’t go on at length to my student as I have done here but I simplified my answer somewhat. But even so, being Dutch and wanting a straightforward answer to a straightforward question it probably sounded waffly. In the Netherlands you have ontbijt, lunch en avondmaaltijd and that’s it.

Is it perhaps time to ditch this outmoded way of pigeon-holing people into working, middle or upper class? But then where would we look for rich sources of comedy? So many of our best loved sitcoms were based on class idiosyncrasies. Only Fools and Horses, The Good Life, Are you Being Served, To the Manor Born, Dad’s Army, Keeping up Appearances and Hi-de-Hi are all built upon observations of the different layers of English society exaggerating each group’s aspirations and absurdities. Maybe that’s why there are so few good comedies being written today as society merges into one homogeneous whole in which everyone is vaguely middle-class. I’m curious to hear what time of day you have supper? What class do you belong to or perhaps you consider yourself classless?

Further ramblings on supper on The Guardian.

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Hair, it’s our Crowning Glory

At least that’s what women are led to believe from an early age and the beauty industry is more than happy to divest us of our money in pursuit of that ideal. I’ve been thinking about fictional characters’ hair a lot recently. In films and novels Caucasian women often have character-defining hair. Black; witchy and duplicitous, red; fiery and vivacious; blonde; angelic or tarty, brown; plain and intelligent, grey/white; wise and intellectual, curly; unpredictable and bubbly, straight; cool and calculating. This left me with a dilemma because I was struggling to choose the hair colour and type of my young, female protagonist, but I didn’t want to push her into any of those stereotypes.

woman-586185_640 (1)
In a Tangle
So I began to tackle the problem in a circuitous way and by happy accident discovered the fascinating, non-fiction book, Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair by Emma Tarlo. Now, like you, I knew that both men and women can need wigs for a variety of medical, cosmetic or religious reasons but I had no idea of the global, largely covert, billion-dollar trade in the procurement and processing of human hair into wigs and extensions. Sourcing hair generally starts in third world countries. Some women sell their hair to barbers for a short-lived respite from poverty in China, India, Myanmar and Pakistan. On the other side of the world, relatively wealthy women choose to boost their income by selling their hair directly to the client via the Buy and Sell Hair website. The reasons for sale are as various as the hair types on offer. Hindus have their hair tonsured in Indian temples as a way of showing thanks, or to seek rebirth; indeed the vast temple of Tirumala acts as a magnet for pilgrims drawing people and hair from all over India. Each year the tonsured hair adds around 20 million pounds to the temple’s coffers.

Giveaway Hair
Sometimes, hair donation is purely altruistic as in the recent case of the Duchess of Cambridge donating seven inches of her locks to the Little Princesses Trust (based in Hereford) for children and young adults who have lost their hair through cancer treatment. How bizarre to think that a sick child somewhere will be wearing our future Queen consort’s hair. Truly a crowning glory! The hair is sorted anonymously so no one will ever know that their wig contains Kate’s tresses.

Decisions, Decisions
While all these hair stories make fascinating reading, it isn’t taking me nearer a solution in my writing dilemma! What it does show me though is how important this decision is and how much identity and status are invested in luscious locks or lack thereof. Would Dennis the Menace be as naughty without his black, unruly mop? Could Heathcliff have been blonde? Could Pippi Longstocking have had mousey-coloured hair? Would Bond villain, Blofeld, have been as menacing if he weren’t bald? How do you decide your characters’ hair colour and type? Can you think of fictional characters defined by their hair? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Embed from Getty Images


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Tulips, skunk cabbage and the BFG meet in Yorkshire

On our second house-sit of the year looking after a cat and Koi fish in Yorkshire, the sun came out and because we probably won’t visit the Keukenhof this year (my husband isn’t a fan of the regimental neatness and selfie-stick wielding hoards) we went to Harlow Carr Gardens in Harrogate instead. Spring has been a long time coming but at last; tulips and daffodils are in abundance, lambs are gambolling in the fields and the Koi fish we are looking after will probably need feeding as they become more active. A few photos of our day out below. Nice and jumbly, The Big Friendly Giant (Roald Dahl) enjoyed the sunshine as well. Really eye catching (and smelly) were the bright yellow Skunk Cabbage plants lining the side of the stream. And of course, a visit to the unsurpassed, Betty’s Tea Rooms was in order to round the day off perfectly…


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First House-sit of 2018!

Our first house-sit of the year looking after dogs; Lilly and Bertie; cats; Thomasina and Purdey, in Walmer, Kent. A few highlights;

  • ‘Beast from the east’ weather meant hunkering down against the elements inside a very cosy house. Warming up again after walking the dogs on the Walmer seafront.
  • Falling in love with rescue dog, Lilly. Her owners saved her from being killed in a particularly vicious way in Mauritius. She was going to be run over by a car as her ex-owner held her down. Thank goodness she yelped loudly and was rescued by her kind and courageous present owners. We also doted on her long-suffering father figure, Bertie who has to put up with her rather spoilt, girly ways.
  • A walk along the White Cliffs of Dover after tooing and frooing past them for 34 years.
  • Visit to the picturesque town of Sandwich and the nostalgic Empire cinema to see feel-good movie, ‘Finding your Feet,’ and a lovely lunch at No Name restaurant.
  • Fish and chips don’t travel, and even though lots of Amsterdam restaurants think they are serving British fish and chips, the Dutch always seem to get the batter and the chips all wrong. So an authentic Fish and Chips is always on the cards on a UK visit. We found the best in Sandwich at Ossie’s
  • Visiting the spectacular Turner Contemporary in Margate and seeing the curated-by-locals visual response to T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land. Enjoying the views of the sea from the cafe!
  • Walmer Castle and its lovely garden designed by the Queen Mum. Loved the topiary hedge which is very weirdly shaped. Apparently in the winter of 1947 the heavy snow stunted its growth. When the Queen Mum was asked if she wanted it put right, she said no, she liked it as it was, all higgledy-piggledy. We also saw the original Wellington boots in Walmer Castle where the eponymous boot-wearer spent his last days.
  • An invigorating hack at Owl House Stables and enjoying the views of the sea from the clifftops.
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Magical Objects and Hidden Shoes

Apotropaice Devices by Alice Pattullo

During a visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park last year a print by illustrator, Alice Pattullo caught my eye. The picture was entitled, ‘Apotropaic Devices For the Home.’ I wasn’t sure what apotropaic meant, but the mirror-image china dogs triggered a childhood memory of dutiful visits with my mother to an elderly neighbour who had the same ornaments on her mantelpiece. We had few decorative objects in our farmhouse apart from photos of prize-winning sheep or horses displayed on a sideboard. Our main source of heat was a Rayburn (similar to an Aga) so we didn’t even have a mantelpiece to put china dogs on but still, I coveted them. After googling the word, I learned that apotropaic meant designed to avert evil, and discovered that china dogs were not merely ornamental, they also guarded against malign forces entering through the fireplace.

Even though we never had china dogs, Mum was quite superstitious; always buying J-cloths or scrubbing brushes to appease Gypsies who called at our house and so prevent them from casting spells upon us, always turning a horseshoe right side up so the good luck didn’t fall out and always closing umbrellas before entering the house. Naturally, I inherited some of these behaviours. As I sit here typing, I can see at least three protective talismans in my home. The Indalo man (dating from the Paleolithic period), which was a lovely gift from fellow WA member, Chris Nedahl; a nazar (stylized glass eye) which I bought in Istanbul; and a Mexican Day of the Dead skull which I bought in Leiden’s Museum of Ethnography.

Hidden Shoe from Northampton Museum Collection

Story Inspiration
Since leaving the depths of the countryside and living amongst the more rational Dutch I have become less superstitious but for our second WA anthology, Foreign Encounters, I wrote a story, ‘Blow Me a Kiss,’ about a curious object which fascinated me. Displayed in the tiny but entrancing Butcher Row House Museum, in Ledbury, Herefordshire, was a child’s shoe which had been found bricked up in the chimney of a local cottage. The museum attendant told me it was common practice to place shoes in portals of the home, i.e. chimneys or above windows or door lintels. The shoes were meant to ward off  malicious forces, luring evil entities to attack the shoe rather than the wearer. A child’s shoe might also promote fertility so my initial belief that a child had died in the house was unfounded. The Ledbury shoe had merely been outgrown and granted a second life protecting the home’s inhabitants.

Archive of concealed shoes

An Archive of Hidden Shoes
The custom was so widespread in the UK that in the 1950s a Hidden Shoe Index was set up by former curator June Swann, at Northampton Museum. The index lists just under 3,000 shoes found in properties from the Shetland Islands to the Isles of Scilly, with the greatest number being from the south-east of England. The museum also holds 250 found shoes, the oldest dating to the 1540s, from St John’s College, Oxford (pictured above) The practice was taken to the New World by immigrants where it continued into the 1920s and 1930s. The current curator still receives two or three messages per month about found shoes from as far afield as the US, Canada and Australia. The museum index has recently been digitized and should you want to research further there is also a user-generated, online catalogue of hidden shoes with their locations on Historypin.

Are Writers More Superstitious?
So in an age where science and technology rules our lives what makes some of us still superstitious? Are writers and creative folk generally more superstitious than others? Does a writer’s need to attribute meaning to events or objects when creating a story make us more susceptible to magical beliefs? Do you have apotropaic devices in your home or perhaps you are even wearing one? Would these objects be a good way of describing a character who owned them? Or even the catalyst for a short story like the shoe I saw in Ledbury. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

With thanks to Alyson Hillbourne who reawakened my interest in hidden shoes by sending me this article.

Images courtesy of Alice Pattullo and Dr Ceri Houlbrook

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Love-lock Bridges in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a romantic city, full of canals and pretty bridges isn’t it? So you would expect to see many, many more of those love-lock bridges around town. But no, we have only two, de Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge) and de Staalmeestersbrug. The love-locks on the Magere Brug have recently been drastically pruned by the Amsterdam Council  so only a few remain, clinging a little forlornly onto the bridge’s warning light.

View from Magere Brug

View from Magere BrugMagere BrugLove-locks on Magere Brug

UPDATE – Jan 2019! The last time I went to the bridge there were no love-locks. I think local residents/council have really clamped down on it. Many Amsterdammers feel that their city is overrun with tourists and the distaste for lovelocks is an expression of that resentment.

The Staalmeestersbrug with the tower of the Zuiderkerk in the background, puts on a better show. As I took my photos I met a lovely couple who were searching for the padlock they had placed there to seal their love, three years ago. The man even scaled the bridge’s chains, rifling through all the other padlocks in a desperate search for it. Sadly, it was gone, but the couple are still together, which strikes me as the most important thing! I wonder if Amsterdam council workers ever have any qualms while wielding their bolt-cutters destroying the pacts sealed by all those lovers? Knowing the pragmatic Dutch: probably not.

Love-locks Staalmeestersbrug

Love-locks on StaalmeestersbrugZuiderkerk Tower in the backgroundLove is Always Hopeful

IMG_20180108_142045.jpgScaling Great Heights for Love

Where did it all begin?
According to Elisabeth Timmermans who writes a great blog called, ‘Love in the Time of Tinder’ (in Dutch) this tradition of lovers engraving a padlock with their names, chaining it to a bridge and then throwing the key in the water dates back to the eve of WW1. In Serbia, the stunningly beautiful, Nada fell in love with Relja, a Serbian officer. Relja was conscripted to fight in the war against Greece but the couple sealed their love and swore eternal fidelity to each other by getting engaged before Relja went off to war. Months and months passed and after a series of love letters that remained unanswered, it finally dawned on Nada that Relja would never come back home. Not because he had been killed, but because his heart no longer craved her or his native Serbia.

In Greece Relja had fallen madly in love with a woman from Corfu and subsequently broke off his engagement with Nada. Her heart broke. A lost soul, she wandered through the Serbian town of Vrnjačka Baja and jumped off the famous footbridge in Serbia, the ‘Most Ljubavi’ (literally translated as Love Bridge). She died from her injuries. Since then the ‘Most Ljubavi’ has been covered in love locks. According to legend, all soldiers return faithfully to their fiancée after their love is sealed by means of a love-lock to ‘Most Ljubavi.’ This ritual practice has now spread over many cities and even though Amsterdam Council does its best, it can’t totally control the lovers that are drawn to this romantic city with its shimmering canals and picturesque bridges.

Love Undeterred
The couple whom I met on the Staalmeestersbrug were undeterred however and set off to buy a new padlock and attach it to the bridge again, this time hopefully for eternity, or at least until the next bolt-cutting killjoy comes along.

Undeterred Lovers



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Happy Christmas from Amsterdam!

It snowed here last week and I got caught in a storm on my way home through the Erasmus park in Amsterdam west. I was glad I was just five minutes away from a warm apartment and not slithering in my car on the A10 (Amsterdam’s ring road) or out doing hard, physical work, or worst of all, homeless. It’s definitely the time of year to look back and count one’s blessings.

The weather has gone back to normal now and the fairytale snow has all melted. The photo of the Christmas tree above, was taken in the beautiful English Reformed Church in het Begijnhof. If any expats are feeling like a taste of home over the festive season there will be a Christmas Eve service held there on 24 December at 10pm. But go early as it’s VERY popular.

To round of this wonderful year, dear blog-lovers, it only remains for me to wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Don’t forget to head down to the the Rijksmuseum and get your skates on in 2018!


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Interview with bestselling author, B. A. Paris

B. A. Paris

Bestselling author, B. A. Paris has achieved the kind of commercial and critical success that most writers dream of. She has very kindly agreed to share a few of her secrets with us.

Bernadette, welcome to my blog! You too are a writer abroad. Why and when did you decide to leave the UK and settle in France?

Thank you, I’m delighted to be answering your questions! I left the UK to live in France over thirty years ago as I wanted to be able to speak French fluently. I thought I’d stay for a year but I was enjoying Paris so much I decided to stay a while longer. During my second year there, I met my husband. I always thought we’d go back to the UK but then we started having children and before I knew it, I’d spent more years living in France than in the UK. We also spent four years living in The Hague – my youngest daughter was born there. We’re now moving back to the UK, for family reasons. My parents are elderly so I want to be able to see more of them, my sister and brothers too. My eldest daughter lives in Paris and my two youngest ones are both at university in Lille, so we’ll be going back to see them regularly, and to catch up with our friends. I won’t be abandoning France completely!

Did you start writing when you moved abroad or were you writing fiction before?

I only started writing a few years ago, when my two older daughters were away at university. With only three daughters at home, I began to have some time to myself. So I did what I’d always wanted to do, and started writing. That was in 2008 and I haven’t stopped since.

You write psychological thrillers with female protagonists. Which authors have influenced your writing the most, and in what way?

I’m not sure that I am influenced by other authors, in relation to my female protagonists. I was an avid reader of Agatha Christie when I was in my early teens, so she probably had the greatest influence on me. The other writers I enjoyed reading are Leon Uris, James Clavell and Wilbur Smith, who wrote/write huge sagas rather than psychological thrillers.

I very much enjoyed ‘Behind Closed Doors’ (soon to be made into a film) and ‘The Breakdown’ which were both set in the UK. I was wondering if you plan to set a future book in your adopted country, France?

I’m glad you enjoyed them! I don’t have any plans to set future books in France, although ‘Bring Me Back’ starts in France. My fourth book will be set in the UK too.

In ‘Behind Closed Doors’ you chose a potentially controversial and sensitive subject, psychological control and abuse. How did you tackle the research for this?

When I set out to write behind Closed Doors, I had no idea it would turn out the way it did. When I realised that it was going to be much darker than I intended, I researched cases of women who had been kept prisoner – the internet is a great source of information. Some were so harrowing that I had nightmares. One woman was kept in a pit – not a room, just a hole dug under the house – and her captor would throw food down to her, as if she were an animal.

The one thing that touches me are the messages I receive from woman who have been through something similar to Grace, and who are grateful that Behind Closed Doors has helped bring the subject of psychological abuse into the open. With psychological abuse there are no physical signs which means it is much harder to detect – and so much more difficult to talk about.

Do you plan everything before writing or does your story unfold as you write?

I’m not a planner at all. I usually know the beginning and the end, and then the rest is a journey, often led by my characters. It’s like going on an adventure!

Does living abroad create barriers to getting agents and publishers in your opinion? 

No, I don’t think so. In these days of email, agents and publishers wouldn’t really know someone lives abroad unless they are told in a covering letter. And I think it would only add something to a writer’s profile, not detract from it.

We would love to hear more about your new book, ‘Bring Me Back.’

‘Bring Me Back’ is another psychological thriller and comes out in March 2018. It tells the story of Finn, whose girlfriend disappeared twelve years before. He told the police the truth about the night she disappeared – just not quite the whole truth. Now he’s moved on – but his past won’t stay buried.

Do you have a set place to write in or do you write wherever you are?

I recently bought myself a little writing desk and a comfortable chair, which I’ve set up in front of a window, so that’s now my favourite place to write. But I can write anywhere – on a plane, a train, even with lots of noise going on around me.

Most writers don’t enjoy the self-promotion aspect of their job. How about you?

It’s something I really don’t enjoy. I would rather not do any self-promotion, although I will tweet that I have a new book coming out. I’ll also retweet any reviews or comments about my books. But I draw the line at asking people to buy them.

If you could invite any famous people to a dinner party, who would you invite?

This is such a difficult question and my answer changes every time I’m asked it! My only constant is Oscar Wilde so I’m going to pretend you said dead or alive and choose a tête-à-tête with him.

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