Saturday, July 4, 2015

Next Mystery Will be Set in Venice

The second Sargent/Paget Mystery is set in the dreamlike, watery city of Venice -- a tourist attraction even in 1879 when the likes of Henry James, John Sargent, James Whistler, and many other artists, literati and socialites from all over the world gathered to glide along the canals and drink espresso at Florian's in St. Mark's Square. I spent some days in Venice about two years ago, and it made a deep impression on me as I walked through the narrow calles and stone campos, looking for all the places that John Sargent may have planted his easel and painted watercolors evocative of the antiquity of this city-state. Here are some comparisons of his paintings and my photographs. (I like the paintings better!)

Friday, November 28, 2014

Glastonbury--Avalon--The Isle of Glass

Whatever name it's called, the area of Somerset that cradles the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey beneath the watchful Chapel of St. Michael high on the Tor is a mystical, magical, serene and uncanny place, and has been since the Dawn of Time. In addition to the spirits of nameless and pre-historic peoples, Druids and Irish hermits, two intertwined legends are synonomous with Glastonbury--and form the groundwork of the mystery that is investigated in The Spoils of Avalon.

Arthur and Guenevere 
Somerset is often a watery plain, with frequent floods and rains and marshy ground, and the high, strange Tor (Welsh for 'hill') can often appear as an island floating in a sea of glass. The village is some sixty miles west of famous Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, and not very far from the Welsh border where the sea-swept and rocky fortress of Tintagel still holds fast the secret of King Arthur's birth. It is said that Arthur met his fate in Glastonbury, when the Lady of the Lake took back his sword into her realm, and she and her ladies bore him off to the Isle of Glass, to return
again in a time of great need. However, in 1191, the monks who lived at the great Abbey claimed to have found the tomb of Arthur and Guenevere in their graveyard, buried sixteen feet down--the bones had been laid in the hollowed-out trunk of an enormous oak tree. Nearly 100 years later, with great pomp and ceremony, and with  King Edward I and Queen Eleanor attending, the bones were removed to a magnificent tomb inside the great church, embedded in the floor before the high altar, and marked with a slab of shining black marble.

St. Joseph and the Thorn Tree

On Wyrral Hill close by the village of Glastonbury, it is said that Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of the Virgin Mary and great-uncle, therefore, to Jesus, plunged his walking stick into the ground to signify the founding of a church on this holy place, and that the stick became a thorn tree, which forever after bloomed in the midst of darkest winter, on Christmas Day. The original tree is gone, but shoots were taken from it through the centuries and grafted onto other trees, of which there are at least three still to be seen in Glastonbury and on the grounds of the Abbey ruins. 

Joseph is also widely believed to have brought the Holy Grail to Glastonbury, and buried it in an ever-gushing spring of water, known for centuries as The Chalice Well. The water, though clear and very drinkable, has stained the rocks around it a rusty, dark red, like blood, which lends credibility to the legend.

Friday, November 14, 2014

In the Shadow of Hadrian's Wall

In The Spoils of Avalon, the characters of Gwillem Moor (the blind Welsh bard) and Arthur Joseph, the young monk of Glastonbury Abbey, set out on a journey to the far north of England, near the Scottish border -- to Lanercost. It takes them a month to walk about 400 miles, through lowlands, forest, hills, mountains, up to the Lake District with steep crags and mountain lakes, to reach the fells and downs of Cumberland.

The tiny hamlet of Lanercost, on the grounds of the estate of great Naworth Castle, is just half a mile from the path of Hadrian's Wall, which Roman soldiers began building in about 117 CE. It marked the northwest limit of the Roman Empire at the time, and extends across the narrowest part of the country, from Bowness-on-Solway in the west to Wallsend in the east -- about 73 modern miles (117 km). Major forts were located 8.2 Roman miles apart, between which where smaller "fortlets" or milecastles, with two small turrets between every milecastle.

At the time of my novel, the Wall had long since been plundered for local building--Lanercost Priory itself, with its barns and stables, is largely made up of stones from the Wall, as are many medieval farm houses and stone walls marking property lines. But the Wall loomed large--figuratively and literally--in the minds of the people, and signified both history and legend of greater times. When I stood on the spot in the photo below, it was almost a spiritual experience to think about Gwillem Moor and Arthur Joseph catching sight of the Priory from a similar vantage point.
View of Lanercost Priory from Hadrian's Wall Path

This wall section (on left) was thought to be part of the original Wall for centuries, until early 20th century archaeo-logical testing showed it to be only a reconstruction of the Wall, but using actual stones from it.

On right is a stone wall on grazing land, some of whose stones are undoubtedly from Hadrian's Wall.

One of the great camps for Roman soldiers and their families is a site called Vindolanda, which is still yielding important discoveries today about daily life in the early 100's C.E.  The Wall was just on the other side of the ridge above the camp. Visiting this place made me want to write in some scenes where Violet and John visited the camp ruins, but not everything you learn can go into a story!

From the Museum at Vindolanda, some artifacts found on the site in recent years:

 A fine Samian ware bowl, imported from Europe, and a carving of a goddess (Ceres?).

Friday, November 7, 2014

Naworth Castle - The Mighty Fortress of Cumberland

Naworth Castle has a long and enduring history in Cumberland, particularly as the fortress that helped keep the "rievers" (the Scottish raiders) at bay over many centuries. Home to the Dacres family, then the Howards (all inter-related), the castle is famous for "Belted Willy's Tower", seen above with the flag on it, as it is the primary section of the original castle (along with the outside walls) remaining after a disastrous fire on May 18th, 1844. It is in this tower that amateur sleuths Violet Paget and John Singer Sargent have a great and marvelous adventure in The Spoils of Avalon.

Some thirty years after the fire, the heir to the title of Earl of Carlisle, Mr. George Howard, (who became the 9th Earl in 1896), hired Morris & Company to re-design and re-build the main halls of Naworth, with stained glass designed by Edward Burne-Jones, and architecture by Philip Webb. The rooms are gloriously Arts & Crafts, with painted ceilings, lovely sconces and hand-carved stairwells.

I was privileged to visit Naworth Castle, the country residence of Mr. Philip Howard, on my research trip recently, and I was given a glimpse of the round, stone staircase leading up from Lord William's bedroom to the Tower rooms above--it is indeed very narrow, perhaps about 18 inches in width, and the steps are roughly hewn from solid stone. Seeing it helped me picture very intensely how it might have seemed to Violet and John as they ascended it by candlelight and lamplight during a raging storm!

N.B. - The photo above was taken by me from the public road. Although I was graciously allowed to take a few photos during my visit, I promised I would not publish any of them, in order to protect the family's privacy.

The road to Naworth from the main Brampton Road ascends through a woods to the top of a plateau, from which one can gaze upon the surrounding meadows and rolling hills, with mountains (fells) in the distance. It was fascinating to be on the spot of the scenes I had been describing in my book, and fortunate, too, in that I was able to re-write a few descriptive scenes more accurately--including one in which I had Violet "looking out for a glimpse" of the crenellated towers of Naworth as they rode along the Brampton Road--turns out that was not possible! But easy to correct! 

Friday, October 31, 2014

Lanercost Priory -- History in Stone and Land

The priory was founded in 1116 by Robert de Vaux, second Baron of Gilsland. Close to the border of Scotland, Lanercost was continually being raided, and de Vaux, tiring of the constant depredations to his land, proposed a "cease fire" and a meeting on neutral ground with the Scots leader--whom he treacherously murdered on the spot. Stricken with grief (apparently), he paid his penance with the founding of the priory. In 1306, Edward I  and Queen Elinor visited there in October, when he fell ill and was obliged to take up residence for several months--an occurrence which taxed the resources of the Priory considerably, but which Edward later made up for by giving them gifts and churches for income. Lacking male issue at some point, ownership passed to the Dacres, kin to the de Vaux, and ultimately to the Howards, male cousins who married female Dacres cousins. Nearby Naworth Castle (more on that in a future post) is still a country residence of the Howard family, upon whose estate the Priory was built.

The following descriptions of the Priory Ruins are from an account published in 1844 by one Reverend Percy Strutt. The ruins would have appeared much in this way to John Sargent and Violet Paget during their brief visit (in my novel), on their way to Naworth Castle, the ancestral home of the de Vaux, Dacres and Howards. The photographs are from my recent research visit to Lanercost.

"The ruins of the monastic buildings are of considerable extent; and being situated in a secluded vale, watered by the meandering Irthing, surrounded by well-wooded heights, with the grey mountains in the distance, present an exceedingly venerable object, and give a peculiar interest to the beautiful landscape."

"The approach from Carlisle is over a stone bridge (probably the one erected by the munificent Lord William Howard,) and serves to prepare the visitor for the scene of former religious solitude to which he is introduced."

 "The ancient gate-house...the arch of it alone remains, bearing a profusion of ivy and hanging shrubs..."

"There is a fine verdant the centre of which, raised upon a small platform, is the stump of what appears to have been a cross." [The cross itself, below, was discovered years later, and now stands inside the church.]


"The south side of the nave, against which the cloister abutted [see the pointed outline of the roof on the wall] is differently constructed from the generality of churches...four lofty lancet-shaped windows [are] placed at unequal distances from each other..."

 "...the splendid ruins of the eastern parts of the church, with the rich monuments of departed heroes, open to the day, present themselves with a peculiarly imposing effect...the roofs...are gone...the groined vaulting supports a great accumulation of soil, affording nourishment to several trees, which together with the shrubs...add to the picturesque effect of the ruin."

"The eastern end of the choir is lighted by six lancet windows...beneath them is a square recess, to contain the sacred vessels of the high altar..."

"In the wall on the south side of the altar, is a tomb, under an arch in whose mouldings in the toothed ornament...leaving little or no doubt of its being the tomb of the founder."

"Of the other tombs...there are two which, for richness of sculpture, and the illustrious persons whose memory they commemorate, are deserving particular notice."

The succeeding generations of the Earls of Carlisle, their wives and children, are also buried inside the church and the ruins. A lovely old graveyard provides a peaceful, almost cloistered walk for the thoughtful visitor.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Hamlet, Village, Town or City? All Smaller Than They Sound!

When I was travelling in Cumbria (formerly Cumberland), I learned that there are fiercely-held distinctions among the people there about what to call an inhabited area:  hamlet, village, town, and city.

Lanercost  is a hamlet. It includes the Priory with its ruins, St. Mary Magdalene Church (the east section of the old Priory church), three "farmhouses" (c. 1870, one of which was the B&B where we stayed) and three other residences down the road, plus the Lanercost Tea Room, part of the amenities attached to the Priory, which is an English Heritage Site. 

The 'farmhouse' in front is the Lanercost B&B, with the Priory Ruins
and St. Mary Magdalene Church behind it.
There's an ancient mill up the road by the River Irthing, which is also a B&B these days. So, fewer than ten homes--a hamlet. There is only one road, no sidewalks, no street lighting, no house numbers, no noise--and everyone knows everyone's life and business intimately.

Brampton, two miles east of Lanercost, was probably more of a village in the early times, but by the late 19th century, when my story takes place, it had acquired the status of a town, partly due to its having a railroad station of its own--albeit, about a mile and a half from the actual center of town, literally in the middle of a field--which was a kind of spur off the main railway that had been built between Newcastle on the east coast and Carlisle, both of which were then and are now, cities.

As a village, Brampton has a small town center (a market square, where the Moot Hall sits), a "high cross street" that runs straight through but above the market (literally, up
a small rise, and yes, there is a "low cross street," too), and three or four winding alley-like streets connecting the High Street with the Market Square.

The Howard Arms hotel and pub is the principal hotel, and always has been since the village began. 

Currently, as a town, it has added a few housing developments in its suburbs, and a few more paved streets connecting the major streets with each other, and a fair amount of infill housing and retail stores.  

St. Martin's Church (below) was built in 1878, by Philip Webb of Morris and Co., and has exquisite stained glass windows designed by Burne-Jones.


The nearby city of Carlisle, about ten miles east of Brampton, is an absolute maze of one-way streets (like London, I believe the roads started out as paths made by cows and sheep and were simply paved over in later days). The lords who lived in Lanercost at Naworth Castle eventually had bestowed upon them the title and domain of Earl of Carlisle, a title which the Howard family holds to this day. Carlisle is situated at the confluence of three major rivers, and only ten  miles from the Scottish border. It was started as a Roman settlement, established to serve the forts on Hadrian's Wall. During the Middle Ages, Carlisle became an important military stronghold. Carlisle Castle, still relatively intact, was built in 1092 by William Rufus, and once served as a prison for Mary, Queen of Scots. In the early 12th century Henry I allowed the foundation of a priory in Carlisle. The town gained the status of a diocese in 1122, and the priory became Carlisle Cathedral (shown just up and left of the center of the photo). (Thank you, wikipedia, for the info about Carlisle!)