John Owen Smith’s log for 2008

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Christmas, 2008

A Happy Christmas!

We've been down in Devon for a week – renting a house in Maidencombe to be exact – spending Christmas with the extended family, and all 12 of us voted it one of the best ever. The house overlooked the sea, and despite a chilly easterly wind the weather was kind. Several coastal walks, and visits to the pub at the bottom of the hill (a long climb back!) Mind you, we spent more time in the games room with a full-size billiard table and CD juke box and in the indoor swimming pool.

We were less enthused by shopping in Torquay, but it may just have been a national malaise that in pre-Christmas week it seemed more like the start of the New Year sales!

Father Christmas in Brixham harbour!

Nearer to us was St Marychurch, smaller but with all we really needed, and we chose to shop there for the rest of the week.

By a quirk of fate, we were quite near to Brixham where a blue plaque to Flora Thompson had been unveiled a couple of weeks before. I had missed that occasion, but took the opportunity of paying a visit to the house this time. We were warmly welcomed by the owners. It was the house in which Flora had died in May 1947, and had originally been a farm-house built in the 1700s. There was a very cosy feel to it, although it's now hemmed in by other more recent buildings.

They say the house is at a crossing of ley lines. I was quite sceptical of these lines of force until some years ago a group of us, led by a National Trust warden on a sandstone ridge in Surrey, were invited to walk across one holding metal rods in our hands. The rods moved as we crossed the line, and the experience was repeatable. Truly there are "more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Coming home, we passed by that well-known centre of superstition, Stonehenge. Also now a well-known centre for traffic jams! I was glad we were travelling east – the queue coming the other way was something to be best avoided.

Lauriston, where Flora Thompson wrote most of Lark Rise to Candleford, and died in May 1947

15th December 2008

Down to Hastings for Rowan's birthday. If they'd still been living in Somerset we wouldn't have got there due to the floods, but Hastings is in the opposite direction for us and the forecast wasn't too ominous in that direction. Still, it rained and we spent the afternoon in a restaurant in Battle having lunch by a roaring log fire, unwilling to leave. When we finally did hit the road home, the puddles had deepened, and at one point on a minor road we hit 3ft of water unexpectedly. I now know what it feels like to drive a hovercraft – but fortunately the engine kept going and our wheels hit dry land on the other side – and we made it home.

Eleven of the magnificent 18 who met in Wales last weekend made it the the Royal Albert Hall for a carols sing-a-long this Sunday. We met "by the big animal" in the Natural History Museum entrance hall. From here, the girls decided to go shopping in High St Ken while the lads went round the Science Museum saying, like old cast members from The Last of the Summer Wine, how it wasn't the way they'd remembered it! Miraculously, nobody got lost and we all came together again at what we used to call the South Ken Gasometer when I was a student at Imperial College, to take our seats in 'the choir'. Very enjoyable.

Incidentally, I'm told that the pedestrian tunnel from the South Ken tube station up to the museums was built as a spur line to run trains to the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, but that following complaints from the scientists in the college that the rumbling would ruin their delicate experiments the idea was abandoned, and the tunnel left half-completed as we see it today. Can anyone confirm that?

After the sing-song we went across town to Covent Garden to one of our favourite restaurants, the Rock Garden. Excellent meal again, but sadly they say they're closing down for good on New Year's Eve as the building is being bought – so next year we'll have to find somewhere else.

8th December 2008

A weekend away in Wales – well, just in Wales, by about 100 yards.

There were eighteen of us sharing a house, and the weather was kind – crisp, clear, dry frosty days just right for walking. And walk we did, where we could. Powys, from our observation, doesn't mark footpaths well. Rights of way on the OS map didn't seem to exist when we actually tried walking them.

Certainly no walking over this bridge…

The high spot (literally!) of the weekend was a group walk over the Pontcysyllte aqueduct. I'd been over it years ago in a boat, but it was well worth another visit. Amazing how there's just a few inches of cast iron trough between you and oblivion!

After that, we went shopping in Llangollen itself – a lovely town which I'd never been to before (we hadn't taken the boat that far). According to those of our group who had visited Oswestry the previous day (not I), Llangollen was a far better choice. Come on you Oswesterians, tell me differently!

… and you need to choose the right side to walk over this one!!

1st December 2008

So what's your take on Christmas Trees? Up to now we've been dead against synthetic ones, even if leaf-drop from the real ones is a tad annoying. But this year it was suggested that, since we'll be away for much of the festive season, we might as well go for plastic. No watering needed – wilt not wilt.

After some soul-searching my view was that, if we're going to go silly, let's go really silly. So we bought a little pink one and a big white one. Here are friends at supper on Saturday trying to look as if they approved of our choice!

The London Eye
from Charing Cross railway bridge – image par Michel Digard


We welcomed three friends from France for the weekend and took them for a walking tour of London. It was a bit chilly, it has to be said, and we were glad to find indoor places to visit to warm ourselves up before the next part of the route-march.

My standard tour starts at Waterloo station then goes clockwise via the London Eye, Westminster Bridge, Big Ben, Whitehall and Horse Guards' Parade, Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden, double-decker bus down The Strand and Fleet Street to St Paul's, then walking through the City via the Monument to the Tower, over Tower Bridge and back along the South Bank to Waterloo. This time we cut back to Oxford Street by tube to see the illuminations instead of walking straight back to Waterloo from the Tower, and then we walked through Soho and China Town to go over one of the footbridges by Charing Cross railway bridge back to Waterloo. Home for a warming bowl of soup!

24th November 2008

On Friday night we went to see (and hear of course) Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth at Ronnie Scott's in London. Wonderful! And they're both 81 now, which gives all of us hope, doesn't it.

17th November 2008

Oh ye of little faith!! Both my worries of last week are now ex-worries.

The slate plaque was mounted on Thursday morning with only a minor panic when the stone mason realised he would have to chip away some of the plaster and hadn't brought any material to make good afterwards. The back-stage crew of the panto came to the rescue during the rehearsal that evening and constructed a fine wooden frame to hide the damage, and Dil constructed a fine unveiling mechanism. So the following night the unveiling ceremony took place as scheduled and was a happy affair.

The pictures show before and after Meg Wilkins did the deed. The framed calligraphy to the right is by Hester Whittle, who sweated over literally dozens of versions before arriving at one which satisfied her. If you click on the right hand picture you can read it.



Also the VW Passat now goes backwards in reverse and forward in 1st, as it should, and it took all of 5 minutes to mend. A nut had come loose on the gear shift mechanism – simple as that. It just needed a man who knew what to look for. Thank you, John.

10th November 2008

On Friday we are supposed to be unveiling an inscribed slate plaque to the memory of Joyce Stevens, benefactor of the village. I say supposed to be, because as usual everything is last-minute.

We were supposed to have cleared a space on the wall of the foyer of the Village Hall to mount said plaque, but as I write it hasn't been done yet. Also the stonemason has left it till this week to come and instal the thing, and I only hope he finds no problems with the site. The plaque is 2 inches thick and has to be embedded into a solid wall. And of course we have to fit in his work with all the other users of the Hall, which means we have to leave it till Thursday – the day before the unveiling. Heigh-ho! I'll leave you (and me both) in suspenders now and let you know next Monday what happened.

At least I know that the caligraphy has been done – I saw it this morning. Hester has made nearly two dozen attempts at it and will be sorely glad to have finished. It's going for framing now and should be ready for the great day. We plan to mount it on the wall next to the plaque – assuming the plaque gets mounted!

We have an interesting problem with the old VW Passat – you put it into reverse gear and it goes forward! Friends have told me of a man who fixes such things and he will come to look at it on Wednesday. Meanwhile the car sits with its nose against the house wall, an immovable object.

3rd November 2008

So we're into panto rehearsal season again – us and 'The Archers' both! This year (well, actually it will be next year by the time we perform in January) we're doing Dick Whittington, but the tale as told by Fred Chaucer, Geoffrey's less-talented brother who was there at the time. Not to be missed. Tickets already available!

Spent most of Saturday sitting in Woking Leisure Centre trying to sell books on a stall at the Genealogical Fair there. As usual, I got as much from chatting to the customers and swapping information as I did from selling the books. And the weather outside was horrendous, so I didn't even feel I'd missed doing much else.

Last night we remember, remembered the 2nd November when we went up the road to see Grayshott's firework display. Pity about the low cloud – I'm sure the display pleased any low-flying aircraft, but we saw little of the high-flying effects. Ergo, no photographs.

27th October 2008

Dil and I are feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, having walked nearly 50 miles over the last 4 days. This from people to whom a 5-mile walk is normally a bit of a slog! Luckily we had company all the way, and chatting takes the mind off aching limbs.

The weather was kind to us on the first 3 days – almost perfect walking weather as we travelled from Guildford to Buriton by way (and by Wey!) of Godalming, Hydons Ball, Chiddingfold, Haslemere, Liphook, Liss, Steep and Petersfield. We found a gem of an eating house in Liss which we hadn't known about, and of course enjoyed a bowl of their famous soup at The Harrow in Steep. I had an order for more of the Walks book from One Tree Bookshop in Petersfield, so I delivered them by rucksack as we passed through!

On the fourth day the weather turned on us a bit, but we still enjoyed our damp trek over the top of the South Downs from Buriton via Chalton and Rowlands Castle down to Langstone and the warmth of the Royal Oak. Then to friends on Hayling Island for a welcome chilli supper before making it home.

Now we know there's no need to complain about a 5-mile walk ever again!!

20th October 2008

On Saturday we lost a dear friend to cancer. Andrea had lived life to the full for her 50 years and as a nurse had helped many others through their troubles with her care and attention. In the end she slipped away quietly and peacefully in the night.

This week we are embarking on a 4-day walk to inaugurate the publication of my new book. Andrea helped me to walk several of the routes, the last time as recently as June this year. We planned this walk some time ago, and she should have been with us. We shall miss her every step of the way.

13th October 2008

Funny old thing, time. I was having a conversation the other day about holidays we'd had in the past, and couldn't for the life of me figure out when they'd happened or even which order they'd come in. I looked back in some old diaries today and was surprised how long ago these 'recent' holidays had happened. Tempus fidgets, as I remember a barmaid at my local in London was always saying.

All these financial shenanigans at the moment do make you wonder, don't they, why people should think that growth is good. Granted nothing is ever perfect, but why can't the status quo be thought of as an acceptable situation more often? For centuries generations of us saw no change in anything much, and then suddenly we have to grow, expand and multiply. Enough doesn't seem to be good enough any more. Or am I just being a reactionary old fart? (That was a rhetorical question, by the way!) I do enjoy Staus Quo anyway, and once even thought I'd found the fourth chord.

6th October 2008

Another year older! Dil organised a birthday party for me in the village hall on Friday and it turned out to be one of the best. Family and friends turned up with their musical instruments and gave some quite remarkable performances. My thanks to them all. However, if I drink all the bottles that people brought for me I may not live to see the next birthday!!

I have a strange feeling. With the publication of Walks from the Railway, I no longer have a book on the go. Any suggestions?

23 September 2008

You've been very patient! Here's a vignette of some of the things we saw in northern Spain and Portugal –

Ceramic dispays which 'talked' to us in Ribadesella
Flags in Santiago – the British appeared to be upside down!
Portuguese water hydrant
For those in peril on the coast at Sao Pedro de Moel…
…you can always use the plentiful board-walks, down by the sea.
A sand sculpture at Marinha Grande, glass-making centre of Portugal
The sardines in Portugal were heaven!
Possibly the worst translation into English I've ever seen!!
If we'd known, we wouldn't have stood on it
Home from home at the camp site
in Sao Pedro
Artists in Lisbon like yellow trams
…but they do come in other colours
Ceramic tiles cover houses in Lisbon
Eucalyptus trees are all over the place in northern Portugal and Spain
They use their traffic signs for target practice here too
(as in Crete)
What poor beast was this on the beach?
Tapping pine trees
A traditional Portuguese fishing boat – sadly out of the water now
We stayed a night in Friar Gabriel's room in the old monastry at Belmonte…
…but was it really Mc Jesus who cleaned our room there?
And finally – it's a long way to go still on the Pilgrims' Route to Santiago when you're still in Burgos!

I'm ploughing through a fortnight's paperwork now speak to you next week.

1st September 2008

So, it's officially autumn and we don't feel we've had a summer yet. On the plus side, we still have a fortnight's holiday to take in sunny Spain – at least we hope there will be sun, although we're not going to the blazing south but rather touring the north and west coasts which are noted for – rain! I'll let you know about it when we get back.

On Saturday we were lucky with the weather for our official 'shed warming' party. Dil now has a sewing den at the bottom of the garden and we celebrated the event with a barbecue and, wonder of wonders, it was warm enough to sit out till midnight.

We have bought ourselves an off-road bike each. Well, we've just about done all the local walks now, so biking further afield seems the logical progression. Today we took them out for their first spin, around Alice Holt Forest, and just about survived the experience. Much more of that and we'll be in danger of becoming fit.

Meanwhile, there will be no log to read for two weeks as I don't intend to fight for internet access abroad just to appease my ardent fan. (Sorry!)

25th August 2008

This is about as early as an August Bank Holiday can get, and it's causing a lot of confusion to some people (including me!) that September won't actually start until next week!

The Headley Theatre Club ran its annual Treasure Hunt yesterday. The rules say that whoever wins has to organise next year's – so of course we all try to come second. Sadly the other teams must have been even more useless that Dil and I were, because we won. Hey ho! – so where would you like to go next year?

One novel feature this year was the opportunity to play a silly game for points. It was held down by the river in Tilford, and fortunately the general public was more interested in watching the cricket taking place behind us on the Green. I can't remember the official name of this game (it must have had one) but it involved running round with a plastic plunger and putting it over whatever colour plastic cone the thing's metallic voice told you to choose next. The team who did it quickest got most points. Here's Adam having a go – he seems to be listening very intently to it. I'm ashamed to say, however, that even at my advanced age I was the quickest, and I have the stiff joints today to prove it!

Here is advance warning: Assuming my Walks from the Railway, Guildford to Portsmouth is published by then (it was!), we intend to organise a walk from Guildford to Hayling Island over four days towards the end of October along the route shown in the book. The plan is to start from Guildford on the morning of Thursday 23rd October and end at Hayling Island on the afternoon of Sunday 26th October (when the clocks go back). Anyone wishing to join us on any of the legs will be very welcome. Let me know if you're interested. The projected timetable is:—

Start Lunch End Distance
Thurs 23 Oct Guildford Godalming Chiddingfold 12.5 miles
Fri 24 Oct Chiddingfold Haslemere Liphook, Black Fox 11 miles
Sat 25 Oct Liphook, Black Fox Steep, The Harrow Buriton 11 miles
Sun 26 Oct Buriton Rowlands Castle Langstone, The Royak Oak 12.5 miles

[We did it — see 27th Oct]

OK, so Langstone isn't quite Hayling Island, but I think we'll all have had enough by then – and there may be the opportunity for a BBQ with friends on the Island afterwards if things go well. [It was indoors due to precititation outside]

Those purists who would like to complete the walk to Portsmouth (11 miles) the following day are welcome to do so – I'll see how I feel! [We didn't!]

18th August 2008

It's done! And yet it's only just begun. I mean the new book: Walks from the Railway, Guildford to Portsmouth.

We completed the last connecting walk on Sunday – now all I have to do is write the whole lot up, draw the maps and look up points of interest to add along the way. A snip, really.

As for the walk – nul points to Havant Borough for their waymarking, or lack of it. Dil and I tried to follow the Staunton Way from Havant to Rowlands Castle and got lost three times. There really are no signposts at all along the Havant section. They start to appear as soon as you cross the border into East Hampshire District – hats off to them although, frankly, it's supposed to be a Hampshire County matter so it shouldn't matter which district you're in. I have filed my complaint!

We had to cross this ditch to a newly-installed metal kissing gate on our way along the Staunton Way. Not sure if the supermarket trolley was supposed to be used as a bridge or not!!

Returning to Havant by train, we walked down part of the old 'Hayling Billy' track to have lunch at the Royal Oak on the water's edge in Langstone. After that, conveniently we had friends on Hayling Island to visit. Two doughnuts and a cup of coffee later we were headed for home to bask in more vicarious glory as we watched Olympic medals being won.

11 Aug 2008

I missed posting an article here last week, and nobody noticed – or at least, I haven't been deluged with messages concerned about my welfare!

Sorry, but we were away taking visitors round Bath and its environs at the time, and when I got home I just plain forgot.

In the meantime what else have I done? Been to IKEA and spent my time reading the display books (in Swedish!) on the bookshelves while the girls shopped. Actually some of the books are really good quality and, since there are so many of them there, a Swede could easily go walk off with quite a nice library and I'm sure no-one would notice. Had another band night – this is where we of little instrumental talent (so far) beg leave of those more practiced to let us improve our playing skills without too much rancour and disbelief. Dodged the rain to have a barbecue in dry weather. Helped half the world (or so it seemed) celebrate their birthdays – in some cases an 'official' birthday rather than the real date. Typeset a book for a friend, and got closer to finishing off my own new Walks book – just one more walk to do now.


28 July 2008

Yesterday I led a 'dramatic walk' round Waggoners Wells dressed up at Sir Robert Hunter, founder of The National Trust. It went well, with a dozen or more actors discovered at various points round the course acting out scenes from local history. The weather was kind – in fact perhaps a little too kind, as we all sweated it out in our over-dressed costumes. No photos to show you yet, though I'm sure some will come as there were people snapping away all over the place. (If you were there and have some, please let me have copies – thanks!)

I see the press once again have been giving their views on two of my favourite hobby-horses. See a novelists view on e-book readers from the Observer – and more about printing books on demand in the UK from the Times. I still think they'll have to give away e-book readers virtually for free before they really catch on, but interesting to see a novelist rather than a producer of non-fiction waxing positive about them. As far as POD is concerned, I think I may have said before that I'm a little unclear as to where they are going to get the digitised text from for these things. Who is going to be bothered to set up my books, for instance?

21 July 2008

Today, I've been paper-making again (see this time last year) at Woolmer Hill School. Three sessions during the day, and we made a wonderful mess on the floor as we sloshed water around. No press photographer to snap the happy scene this year though.

I also took along the design of a paper-maker's hat which we made out of broadsheet newspaper pages (tabloids aren't big enough) and the kids left school wearing paper hats.

Over the weekend I tried unsuccessfully to escape from Petersfield. One of the walks I've planned for the new book heads for Butser Hill from Petersfield station, and it looked a doddle to follow the footpaths shown on the latest OS map. But it turned out to be one of those routes which dares you to cross the fast dual-carriageway of the A3 through a gap in the crash barrier. Not one I'd recommend. So back to the drawing board to find a better route.

le 14e juillet 2008

The name's Bond, James Bond.

We did our 'Casino 007' night on Saturday, and even brought the Aston Martin along. Here's yours truly playing the part.

Vicky, our organiser, can now die and go to heaven having been handed the keys to the car at the start of the evening. Sadly she had to give them back again at the end!

The evening went well, and I think I managed to string my bass-guitar lines along adequately during the musical sequences.

Now we have to decide what to do next, music-wise, or we'll all forget how to play. We have an idea to get together regularly with whatever instruments we're learning: so far it appears to be guitars, bass, drums, tenor saxophone pipes and accordian. Eat your heart out Status Quo!

7th July 2008

Driving over the brow of East Worldham hill, I've often wondered where the prominent hill escarpment you can see in the distance dead ahead of you to the east lies. I mentioned this to Dil as we drove back from Alton the other day, and she said why not look it up on Google Earth.

I hadn't thought of using it that way. You can tilt the earth surface, point it in the right direction and start it 'flying' across the landscape. Cheaper than real flying. And there was the escarpment coming at me on the screen! For those wishing to know, it's Hascombe Hill.

On Saturday morning we did one of the bits missing from the proposed Walks book – a 5-mile round trip from the Halls Hill car park above Buriton down to the Red Lion at Chalton and back. Although it was a bit breezy, the weather was kind and we ate lunch outside the pub, said to the the oldest in Hampshire.

On our way there we saw a set of 5 car wheels laid out on the verge at the side of the lane. It looked for all the world as if a car had just disappeared leaving only its wheels as evidence of a previous existence. Abduction by aliens?

Do you know the difference between a moth and a butterfly? I though I'd read somewhere that a butterfly opens its wings when 'poised' while a moth closes them. The beastie on the right closed them. We had to encourage him to open them with a gentle prod, and he flew off in disgust a split-second later. Anyone know what he is? He lives on the South Downs. [Thanks to George Robins, I now know it was a butterfly, a Silver-washed fritillary Argynnis paphia.]

Exploding car?

Moth or butterfly?

On Sunday, the weather was altogether different. Wet from above and wet from the grass beneath as I led one of my monthly 'Walks to Health'. I'm not sure that it did anyone's health much good. At the end, I upended my walking shoes and let the water pour out of them!

30 June 2008

Our village entered for this year's Calor Hampshire Village of the Year competition, and I was involved in leading the presentation to the judges today.

When we were deciding whether or not to enter some months ago, many of us thought it would be a waste of our time. In a village of declining retail outlets, poor public transport and no definable centre what was there to boast about? In the end, following much hard graft by a small team, we decided to emphasise our social structure: all the many societies and organisations within the parish, and in particular those aimed at youth and the disadvantaged.

We won't know if we've won the competition until August – but we have already won a great deal for ourselves just by doing the exercise. We all learnt a great deal that we didn't know before about what's going on in the parish. An achievement in itself.

If you want to know more about Headley, have a look at the Village Website.

23rd June 2008

Feeling chipper with myself this morning. My grandson left his waterproof jacket somewhere in the middle of Ludshott Common on Saturday, so this morning I set out in a vainglorious attempt to find this needle in a several-hundred acre haystack. And much to my surprise, I found it! It will soon be in the post back to him.

I haven't talked about the heady world of publishing books for a while, but today I was intrigued by an article saying that Blackwells were to offer "print on demand" in one of their UK bookshops. If you want to know more about the type of machinery they plan to use, have a look at the site of OnDemandBooks. The question I have, of course, is where will they get the PDF files from? In particular, how can they get their hands on my books if someone asks for them. No doubt all will be revealed in time, but I suspect that my share of any money made from it will be a pittance.

16th June 2008

Reporting from Whitstable

Expensive beach huts overlooking the Thames estuary

Preparing for a beach marriage

The starving of Sheppey prepare for action!

A starfish with attitude (sadly an ex-starfish!)

9th June 2008

Reporting from Northumberland – in particular from the coast near Dunstanburgh Castle.

Sombre – the castle from the golf links

Empty beach at Embleton Bay

Sheep at the seaside!

The castle from the direction of Craster

A rock pool

2nd June 2008

Everyone's saying "Can't believe it's June already – where's the year going to," etc, etc… The weather here certainly isn't fit for June. I'm glad we got our fortnight of sun in Crete – we're seeing precious little of it now.

Despite this, I managed to get two walks in over the weekend, one for the new book and one for the Walk to Health initiative. Both about 6 miles, and then we did gardening, so I had legs like lead this morning.

Next weekend we're off up to Northumberland for a wedding – the proper North as I keep telling my Yorkshire and Lancastrian friends! Not a journey we care to do in one jump, so we'll be taking two days to travel each way and staying with friends conveniently located halfway up in Nottinghamshire on the way.

28th May 2008

So we're back from the dry heat of Crete to the damp greyness of an English summer. Definitely worth a visit. We were up the wilder west end of the island, just above Kolymbari (or Kolimvari, or Kolimpari – they don't seem to be able to decide how to spell it themselves, so what hope have we!) The weather there was good, the food was good and the people are welcoming. We won't mention the roads or the signposting.

No major problems except for a 9-hour delay to our flight home (thanks to Monarch Airlines) as we're told our plane was diverted to pick up people from Egypt. Arriving at Gatwick at 4am in the rain isn't the best end to a holiday, particularly when the person meeting you hasn't been told the new arrival time. What's the point of websites that don't get updated?

We were staying in a converted old olive mill, and some of the equipment had been left in place. Here's yours truly with drink in hand surveying the millstones, now part of the kitchen. (And yes, we did celebrate a 50th birthday while we were there, but it wasn't mine!)

The watering sytems for the olive trees feed black plasic pipes which travel for miles, occasionally looped over the tree branches. I don't know how old the majority of the trees were, but we were quite close to one reputed to be the oldest in the world (or in Greece, or in Crete!) – supposed to be 4,000 years old and still giving olives.

Some of the plant life was spectaular – this succulent in particular made the gilrls' eyes water! We also wondered what this 'upside-down' tree was called – it seemed to be everywhere.

Some of the animal life was less endearing, including Chaunticleer next door who woke at 3am every morning – and the scorpion which Deb found in her bedroom the last night we were there. Lucky it wasn't the first night!

12th May 2008

Tomorrow we're off to Crete for a fortnight, so no weblog for a while. (Burglars please note, the house will be supervised while we're away!)

We've never been there before, though we're going with people who have. To set the scene we had a 'Greek supper' on Saturday with lots of 'krasi', which we have to learn means wine. (I'd do it in Greek lettering, but my version of Dreamweaver doesn't want to accept it).

I'm told the weather over there hasn't been too good by their standards recently. I hope it will improve there for us, because the weather here is just brilliant at the moment. We went walking on Sunday – had planned to do 7 miles, but in the face of temperatures reported at 27°C we cut it down a bit. Just as well – we were all flagging at the end. I wonder what there is in Crete as refreshing as a good pint of bitter after a long, hot walk? I'll let you know.

The taxi picks us up at 6am tomorrow bound for Gatport Airwick. Adios. See you anon!

5th May 2008

Did you hear me on Radio 4? ('Making History' at 3pm on 29th April) – I forgot to listen, but thanks to the website 'listen again' facility I managed to pick it up later. Due to their good editing I thought I even sounded mildly intelligent!

Heard my first cuckoo on 23rd April this year, and now the swallows are back we must be heading for summer! I thought of things natural over the weekend as I was near to the place in Wiltshire where they are filming the second BBC TV series of 'Lark Rise to Candleford'. You can see the sites across fields but can't get to them (at least, not legally!). They seem to have a crop of yellow rape next to 'Lark Rise' – I wonder how they're going to edit that out of the filming? I don't think rape seed was the crop of choice in the 1890s!

28th April 2008

"For there is none of you so mean and base
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit; and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'"

It was St George's Day on 23rd April – did any of you remember?

I can't say I'm one who gets too het up about celebrating the days of patron saints and so forth, but it did seem a little ludicrous that we should hold a Burns Night every year in our English village and do nothing to celebrate our Englishness. So this year we organised a Bard's Night to celebrate William Shakespeare, his death and (supposedly) birth days being conveniently the same as St George's Day.

We set out the Village Hall with long runs of tables adorned in hessian to give them a more medieval look, and served an Elizabethan banquet to the customers while entertaining them with madrigals and extracts from Shakespeare – a scene each from Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew to be precise.

We're told it went well, and so we'll hope to repeat the event next year, and every year thereafter. "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…"

21st April 2008

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish'd and burnish'd by Aldershot sun…

Joanna Jackson died last week. Not everyone in the village knew she was Betjeman's muse. I met her only once, when I sold her a book of mine. Always wanted to record her story for our local archives, but never got round to it – and now, sadly, never will.

We've started on a set of walks to complete my latest project – a book of walks from and between railway stations on the Guildford to Portsmouth line.

This Sunday it took us to the village of Blackheath near Guildford. None of us had been there before and it was a gem of a discovery. After lunch at The Villagers Inn, we walked down to the Tillingbourne valley to visit the old gunpowder works. Amazing to think how that peaceful place could once have been a hive of industry, and such a dangerous industry. I took this picture of the information board (wish I'd taken it head-on rather than on the squiff!).

Next day I was interviewed by Richard Daniel of Radio 4. He normally heads up the Home Planet programme, but this time was working for the Making History programme. The subject was Whitaker Wright, one of the wealthiest men in the world in 1900, and we talked 'on location' outside the walls of Witley Park where he lived, and by his grave in Witley Churchyard where he was buried after he committed suicide in the High Court after being convicted of fraud. On the left is Richard, setting up to interview me there.

Quite a story is Whitaker Wright's, and one which I had always intended to dramatise some day. He did figure in one scene of my Balance of Trust, but deserves a whole play to himself. Maybe a project for next year??

14th April 2008

So it was down to Bournemouth mid-week to see the unveiling of yet another blue plaque to Flora Thompson on one of the houses she lived in – this time 2 Edgehill Road in Winton. Another attraction was that Olivia Hallinan who plays Laura in the BBC TV series of 'Lark Rise to Candleford' was going to be there to help do the unveiling – and a very nice lady she turned out to be. I gave her a copy of Heatherley so that she knew where her character would be going next!
In this group, standing under the plaque, we have (L to R): Gillian Lindsay whose biography on Flora Thompson I publish, Tony Webster of the Old Gaol Musuem in Buckingham where they have a room dedicated to Flora Thompson, Olivia Hallinan, myself, and Carol Knight who is the granddaughter of John Thompson's brother George.
After the event, Dil, Mel, her kids and I went down to the seaside for the afternoon – had fish and chips at Harry Ramsden's and rode up the cliff railway. The weather was kind, and a good time was had by all.

Walking along one road there, I was intrigued to see that they had put a seal of what looked like blue sealing wax on every iron cover in the street. Was this supposed to prevent them getting stolen? Can't imagine it would be much of a discouragement to a determined thief! Anyone else have an alternative idea? [I've since been told by two correspondents that the drains are sealed by the police before party conferences are held in Bournemouth]

7th April 2008

On the first Sunday of each month, I lead a 'Walk to Health'. It's a spin-off from the weekly weekday walks which only go a couple of miles, and is for those wanting something a bit more taxing. Last year in May, I chose a route through a well-known bluebell wood – only to find that all the bluebells were over.

This year I thought I'd take the walk in April instead – and woke up to 2 inches of snow! Not only that, but the bluebells had only just started to come out, so the picture to the right was about as good a view of them as we got.

Perhaps next year I'll have to organise a 'halfway-through-April' walk.

We did see various snowmen on our walk though, and lots of new-born lambs looking dirty already in the snow.

31st March 2008

Over the weekend we moved Deb into her new flat – or, actually, we half-moved her because arrangements to shift the heavy stuff from our house fell through – so we're still treating a pile of boxes in our lounge as a roundabout until next weekend when, hopefully, they'll finally go.

It's in Surbiton, an area which was new to me. I'd always associated the word in my mind with 'surburbia' and its worst connotations, but just at the bottom of her road is the Thames and a fine river-side walk to the centre of Kingston, just a quarter of an hour away – or ten minutes if you 'yomp'.

Naturally we found ourselves shopping – not my favourite occupation – but I think I know the centre of Kingston quite well now. And if I need to refresh it, we're up there again next weekend!

24th March 2008

You win some, you lose some.

We were to catch the fast ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg, but they cancelled it due to weather conditions at sea – so we trolled down the coast to Poole to catch the 'proper' overnight ferry, with the prospect of spending the night perched on a pitching seat, since all the cabins were taken. Imagine our joy to be told when we got on board that as our seats were in the middle of a party of French schoolchildren they had taken pity on us and found us a cabin after all – for free!

The weather in and around Cherbourg was bracing over the weekend – and it was probably appropriate that we went to visit an old working windmill and saw how it coped with the gusty conditions. We also learnt about the different types of wheat, in French. I think I sort of understood most of it.

Coming home, today we went out to lunch with friends at a local hostelry – I won't tell you which one, or you'll all want to go – or you will if you're gentlemen – or perhaps I mean not gentlemen.

The picture here was taken of the wall in the gents' loo. Some of you may know the place, well – the rest will have to guess!

It may or may not help (or be appropriate) to know that it is associated with David Lloyd George who, famously, "knew my father".

17th March 2008

The power of television! Not only have sales of my Flora Thompson books rocketed since their current series of Lark Rise to Candleford began, but also ITV gave an unexpected (to me) 10-minute airing to the Hilltop Writers of Hindhead – so now I'm getting sudden and urgent requests for that too. No complaints, of course, other than that if I'd had warning I could have got some stock in – as it is, I'm down to my last copy with orders still coming in, and no stock likely to show up for another week or more.

10th March 2008

So we stayed in a railway carriage for the best part of a week (see pic) and it was good. It was at the old Coalport Station by the River Severn, sitting on a railway line but going nowhere (the Severn Valley Railway doesn't get that far north.) The weather was kind rather than bountiful.

We got our 12-month 'passport' to visit the Ironbridge museums and managed, I think, three of them. The Victorian Town at Blists Hill is really very good – even in mid-week in March there was plenty going on and knowledgeable people to tell you how things were done in the old days. For example, did you know the origin of the expression 'out of sorts'? Nor did I – but apparently it was when a printer ran out of letters (sorts) in a particular font and had to start using a different one – which was why old posters used so many fonts!

We did some walking too, including one which went up a never-ending flight of rustic steps for a view over the Ironbridge gorge (and the Iron Bridge of course). There was supposed to be a geocache here, but as my GPS gadget told me it was 5 meters away in thin air down a sheer cliff face, we decided not to pursue it.
We also drove out to Ludlow, one of our favourite towns, and to Bridgenorth, which was new to us and a pleasant surprise. In Bridgenorth, we parked in the lower town and took the cliff railway up to the upper town – then had fun trying to find our way back again by foot. There are at least seven sets of steps, but we had to try a steep path down through woods which ended up nowhere, and then struggle all the way back up again before taking a more traditional route.

3rd March 2008

I had a choice over the weekend – go shopping in Guildford with Dil and Deb, or do a 9-mile walk. Guess which I chose?

It's research for one of the walks in my new book, Walks from Railway Stations between Guildford and Portsmouth. I did it in three and a half hours (including a scramble up the hill to St Martha's Church) – and when I arrived back in Guildford they were still shopping!

This week we're having a few days away in a railway carriage near Ironbridge. I'll let you know next week how it went.

25th February 2008

Everyone's asking me, so I suppose I'd better answer. What do I think of the BBC TV version of Lark Rise to Candleford?

Some people are rather surprised when I say that I like it. I think they're expecting me to take a purist's view – that it isn't the same as the book. "Just as well," say I – because if it were we'd all be asleep by now.

What they've done, and rather cleverly I think, is to take the characters out of the book and woven stories around them. I always say to people in my writing classes that, when they create characters for their novels, they should know those characters so well that they could drop them into any situation and know what they would do.

I think the BBC has done just that – taken the characters which Flora gave them, put them into the initial situations which she also gave them, and then let them evolve naturally into other situations.

I'm enjoying it. Let me know what you think.

18th February 2008

Is it really February? We're going about in shirtsleeves – well, if you're in the sun – I grant you it's a bit chilly in the shade! I'd always thought of February as a miserable month but perhaps I'll have to change my mind if this goes on.

Back to an old hobby-horse of mine. I see in the Sunday Times that they're getting all excited sbout the coming of the e-book. My readers may already know my feelings on this (see 17 Jul 2006) – it will come, but I don't think it's here yet. Not while the thing is a solid, unfoldable lump and costs upwards of £200. Make it foldable and free, and then we'll be talking! Anyway, I've added my twopenn'orth to the Times website.

11th February 2008

I expect the houses of most couples of a certain age are storage depots for the left-overs of their children. These are the things which are so precious to them at the time they flew the nest and yet which they could find no room for in their one-room garret. Years pass, and nobody has the heart to decimate the heap in the loft and so there it sits, a pile of unknown contents.

Then one day something happens to make you look at it and take some action. In this case, Deb has bought a house of her own and so she and Dil spent a happy few hours over the weekend sifting through old memories. We now have a pile beside the recycling bin, too large to fit in it!

We are also to lose our piano. You see it's really Deb's piano, and now she has a house… To be truthful, we don't use it much – in fact hardly at all, though we like to kid ourselves we will knuckle down one day and learn how to play it. If it only took one day we probably would! So we've kidded ourselves that we'd be far more likely to use an electronic keyboard – all the effects you can get on it! – and went out to see if we could find one that might fill the gap left by the piano when it goes.

You know how it happens – you go out to look at something with an eye to getting it in the future, and then suddenly you've found you've bought it today. So the piano is still here, and so is the keyboard, and we no longer have room for the dining table in the dining area – we're perching where we can to eat at the moment. And to add insult to injury, because we've had to stand the keyboard next to a radiator, one of the cats has taken up permanent residence on it!

I'm always assured that one day we will have a house with all rooms fully operational, but –

My 'laugh out loud' of the week, thanks to the late Miles Kington and his famous Franglais – the French Navy's slogan is "To the water! It is the hour!" (translate)

4th February 2008

I'm Skyped! I knew about it before, but never really thought I had a use for it – no close family abroad now, etc – but then it struck me that a) it's free and b) I could usefully chat over details of current work on The Peverel Papers with Ruth in Chicago who's working on the project with me.

I already had a microphone which I'd got for using with voice-recognition software, so what's to lose? Well – nothing yet. It worked like a dream to Chicago – we could almost have been in the same room it was so clear.

I'm just a little concerned not to let it get out of hand though. When e-mails started, one of the great boons was in being able to leave a message with someone in a different time zone without waking them up – and vice-versa. Now, if there's a temptation to jump to Skype as a first resort, it could all get very bleary-eyed – plus the fact that nothing is written down. That can be an advantage at times perhaps, but usually I'm scrabbling around weeks later trying to find the information I'd agreed with someone, only to remember it came as a phone call and any record I may have scrawled down is lost.

Dil was called by a BBC researcher last week and asked to take part in a House Sale programme on behalf of our Am Dram company – they wanted her to go and buy a chest for charity! This she duly did yesterday – so we are now the proud owners of a red chest that needs a little repair work done on it but will have a part in our next play and then be used to store our archives. All for £21 and in a good cause (though I'm not quite sure what the cause was!).

28th January 2008

Are you one of those people who makes lists? – or even worse, lists of lists! I once got to three levels down – that's a list of lists of lists – but I hope I'm over it now. Or maybe it's just that I have fewer but larger jobs on at the moment.

Anyway, the list at my side now (and I won't bore you with details) is nine items long – ten if you include writing this log. You'd think that would give me enough to be getting on with, but don't you always find that there's a blockage in the pipe-line with nearly all the items?

So you go for the ones which you can shift, but they're the ones with a really low priority. And then there are the jobs which arrive and aren't on the list at all – by that I mean, generally, phone calls and e-mails. I should by rights leave e-mails to be dealt with later, but I'm beginning to treat them like phone calls, to be answered straight away. Nice for the recipients, and saves me adding to the list (or, heaven help us, making a new list), but bad for my scheduling.

Then there are the 'avoidance' jobs which you invent when you don't really want to do (or convince yourself you can't do) any of the others. I won't include the dreaded Spider Solitaire in this (oh, alright, I will then – don't ever get hooked on the most difficult level!) but I'd certaily include tidying up computer file directories. Has to be done sometime, I suppose – or does it?

And I suppose writing this log is another – so …

21st January 2008

So, the panto's over for another year. If you want to have a look at the pictures.
Here's one of the final curtain call…

Next day a small group of us went to look for a local geocache
– and found it…

14th January 2008

So the BBC TV version of Lark Rise to Candleford finally hit the airwaves yesterday, and the wires have been buzzing ever since.

Generally the reaction was favourable, even from dyed-in-the-wool sceptics who thought it couldn't be done. Well, actually it wasn't done, if by that you mean a faithful recreation of the book – but what was done used the medium of television well in my opinion. For one thing, they're running the stories of all three of the books in the trilogy in parallel, so from the start we get life in the town compared with life in the hamlet. There are some minor things which intrigue me, such as why they decided to call the family Timmins rather than Timms, and why they gave Flora's father the fictional name of Robert (he was Albert) while they gave her mother the real name of Emma. But all in all, I think the series is a winner that I will enjoy watching.

As a result of the programme, I've already sold a boxful of books, been invited to speak to three organisations, been interviewed as an 'authority' by both radio and the press, and been asked to lead a walk round the real Lark Rise. I imagine the interest will wane now, but with nine more episodes to go, who knows?

Right now, I have to plough on with preparing The Peverel Papers for publication – I already have orders for it and it isn't even at proof stage yet!

7th January 2008

A Happy New Year to all my readers! I hope you got through the Festive Season without catching too many of the bugs which have been going around. Nearly everyone I know seemed to go down with something. For me, I was 'loose' for a while – for others it was 24-hours of talking to the big white telephone. But enough of that, I hear you cry…

I've been indoctrinated into the dark arts of Geochaching! Dil bought me a GPS thingy for Christmas, and David (alias Mullet's Dad) showed me how to use it to search out hidden plastic boxes containing soggy little knick-knacks. So here I am, on New Year's Day, looking glamorous, thingy in hand, having just discovered my first geocache. If I look cold, I was!

I had to choose an alias of my own to log in to the geocache site. For reasons that some of you will know, and others will have to guess, I chose 'Tidy Bill'.

Continued …

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