Monday Magic ~ Red Admiral On Doronicum And A Slice Of This Writer’s Life

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So far my Monday has been unusually zippy. This morning I did the final edit on a short story and emailed it off to a literary magazine that specialises in ‘emerging writers’. Because the thing is, and this can be a commonly depressing condition for many long-published, but still unknown writers, after many years of publication, and awards won on three continents – (am especially proud of the Golden Duck for my contribution to children’s science fiction writing,  Write Your Own Science Fiction Stories), I am still emerging. It is a damn slow process too – being half in and half out of my chrysalis. Nor am I entirely sure if those parts which are out  have fully metamorphosed.

Anyway, I was quite pleased with the story and, having despatched it into cyberspace, I then felt free to go gardening for three hours. The allotment is verdant because at last we’ve had rain that has soaked into the soil. The runner and French beans have switched into prolific mode; I have a polytunnel full of groovy little yellow squashes, and the tomatoes are beginning to ripen.

Out on the plots there were butterflies everywhere, and for a while I faffed about with my Canon Ixus running after them in daft-bat mode. I also got the mower out and cut all the paths around my one and half plots – not my favourite task. Then I faffed some more, snapping an artichoke which proved a particularly absorbing subject.

Around 2 pm I thought I ought to head home and provide lunch for He Who Is Teaching Himself To Make Mortise And Tenon Joints So He Can Create A Shed Door, (where would we be without those life enhancing You Tube videos that show you such things as how to skin a dover sole, make almond milk and clean the stairs properly?) And it was then I spotted this Red Admiral on the Doronicum beside said evolving, currently doorless shed.

I am taking the butterfly as inspiration. This is how it will be when I’m full emerged. What I splash I’ll make. How high I’ll fly. Though I do hope for a slightly longer life span. In the meantime here’s a rather fascinating view of life inside a gone-to-seed globe artichoke.

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Happy Monday

P.S. Did you spot the web?

Seize The Day ~ A Lesson In Flowers

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You  have to be out of bed rather earlier than I am to catch the Morning Glories unfurling.  That is probably lesson  number one: be up and doing earlier in the day; nurture the creative impulse before the world of dreaming totally recedes and mundane matters like doing the washing impose.

Then there is the lesson of making the most of opportunities as they arise, and at least here I came up to scratch. I dashed outside in my night attire to capture this scene. The hoverfly will feast. The Morning Glory will be pollinated. And I am watching, recording and posting. Everyone wins.

All the same, on the side lines my writer’s nerves are jangling. There are other lessons here. For one thing I have several works in stasis, projects that I dearly wish to complete. But for some reason I’m not attending to any of them. The danger is that procrastination may soon transmogrify into something toxic – a stultifying sense of failure that in turn becomes a downward spiral of non-doing and self-recrimination. The writer’s vicious circle.

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But wait! I’m hurrying back to see what has happened to the Morning Glory. By late afternoon the sky coloured canopy of the day’s high hopes has imploded – the colours deepening, bruise-like.  It is hard not to feel a pang of loss for such swiftly passing loveliness.

Yet there is a beauty here too in the subtle end-of-spectrum shades. Not failure, but process. Deep within the crumpled sheath things are happening. The hoverfly has done its work. There will be fruit in the making, new seeds to ripen and sow. Tomorrow is another day. Another chance to bloom. Time to get back to work then.

 

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

 

P.S. For more beauty in decay, pop over to Sue Judd’s blog. It is a theme she explores in many arresting photo essays

Did The Earth Move For Me? Not Blooming Likely. More A Case Of DIY

All right I confess. I’m a fraud. I call myself a writer, but in reality I move soil.  Year in and year out I move soil. It has become my lot in life – not only on the home front with The Man In My House  Who Keeps Having Ground Moving Notions, but also on my own time up at the allotment. How did this happen? Was this the plan I had for myself?

This time last year we were busy shifting ten tons of gunky green Silurian clay and the junk of builders past, removing a huge and hideous waist-high flower bed outside our back door. We had lived with it for ten years, but finally it had to go. Ground Moving Man, then became Wall and Steps Building Man – using traditional mortar and the old bricks and limestone lying around to place to build a much neater, narrower raised border, and safer steps to the top of the garden. (Our cottage is built into a  bank).  The effort was as momentous, as it was cunning. The Wall and Step Builder had devised a way of dismantling the old steps in tandem with building the new ones so that we always had access to the upper quarters of our small domain, and thence my path to the allotment. Hats off to you, sir!

Here are views of the work as it proceeded.

A wintery before:

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During the synchronised step demolition and rebuilding (pretty good work for a retired plant pathologist):

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After – a bit heavy on the limestone perhaps, but we had it on site, which is always a bonus when you live on a road where deliveries can be tricky:

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Most of the clay spoil and erstwhile builders’ rubble that had been hidden behind the steps and in the bed was barrowed round the front of the house and tipped into a Hippo Bag. This natty item is sent through the post in return for some loot. You fill it with 1.5 tonnes of stuff, and then a truck comes and cranes it away. Ideal for people who live on a busy main road, and have no room for a big skip. We had several of these handy mega bags.

Meanwhile up at the allotment I was dismantling a forty-year old allotmenteers’ spoil heap the size of Everest, and using the substance, which only vaguely resembled compost, to make new raised beds and terraces on my polytunnel plot.  I shifted probably sixty barrow loads, and all with the aim of creating (ultimately) a NO DIG gardening system. I know this may sound mad.

The year before I had started clearing the plot by slicing off the neglected, weed-choked surface and piling the turves into pallet bins in the hopes that one day they would decompose into something usable. This was in no way compatible with the principles of NO DIG, but was my quick and dirty method of checking the buttercup, couch grass, and dandelion infestation. After learning the error of my ways early last spring, I gave it up for covering the remaining uncleared ground in layers of cardboard, and tipping a good six inches of spoil heap soil on the top. He Who Builds Walls and Steps then knocked up a few raised beds. (Those of you who come here often will know all this.)

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This year I find that ants have been busy in the horrid heap of weedy turves, and the ensuing soil is usable, so am now repatriating it to the areas whence I cleared it two years earlier. So good on the ants, but more earth moving required.

Meanwhile, the notions of NO DIG, also require the seasonal application of deep layers of compost to the surface of all beds. The only problem with this is making enough compost. You need tons and tons. However, last autumn I made an effort and amassed material in bins and heaps all over my two plots – wherever there was space in fact. And now these need digging out, or at least turning.

NO DIG, it seems, does not mean the end of wielding forks and spades – not by a long chalk. So there we have it – ‘my days’ career’ as a young Kenyan farm wife once described to me her life of endlessly hauling things about.

And back on the home front  this year we have already dug up the front lawn and replanted the bank beside the road. And we have dug up the back lawn and moved more soil so He Who Builds can now branch out into shed construction, though we did at least have two strong young men come and lay the paved concrete slab from which said edifice will arise. I am told it will have a curved roof.

The arrival of the shed will next dictate the remodelling of the back garden flower beds. All of which makes  me feel as if my  life is founded on shifting ground; the strata beneath my feet in perpetual motion and always needing to be somewhere else, and in some other shape. Perhaps one day all the earth in my vicinity will be in the places where we actually want it – no more moving required. Then perhaps I can give up the fraudulent writer posture and finish off a book or two; return to mental heaving and lugging, re-shaping and visualising, create the content and structure exactly as I want it – and all this without heft of spade or putting on my wellies. Perhaps…

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copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

Twilight On The Sytche ~ Night Views From My Room

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If I stand on the bed in my office, I can open the roof-light and place my digital camera on the glass. It makes for some quite interesting twilight effects, and means I can use zoom and more zoom – i.e. as in playing, not writing. But then all writers/creators need to do lots of playing: it’s all part of nourishing the imagination. The knack, of course, is knowing when to stop, and get down to some hard graft. Not today, I’m afraid.

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This Thursday at Lost in Translation Paula asks for twilight, and who are we to refuse her.

Vibrant: me on Lamu Island far too long ago

 

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It was a four day trip over Christmas. We’d been living in Kenya for three or so years by then, and another five to go before we would return to the UK for good. Lamu Island  set my imagination alight. Later I began writing a teen adventure aimed at the African schools literature market. It was published by Macmillan in their Pacesetters series around the time we left Kenya in 2000.  It’s still in print, and even if I say so myself, quite a good yarn. I have a feeling my brain cells were a little more vibrant back then. Perhaps they are craving the African light…

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Vibrant

Travelling Hopefully ~ The Writer’s Way

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The writing life is full of snags and snares, setbacks, tanglements, diversions and dead ends.  Written words demand so much mental application – from the writers who deal in them, and the readers who receive them. After all, before the writer’s meaning can be de-coded, willing victims readers must actively choose to engage.

Even then, nothing is certain. Reader engagement is always provisional. Only when the decision is made – that sticking with the decoding process will yield rewards, do writers have the chance to have their say.

Readers want a good pay-off from the writer’s words. But for their part, writers cannot read readers’ minds to know precisely what they expect. It’s all very precarious.

Interaction-wise, the applied and performing arts definitely have the edge. They communicate directly with an audience’s senses and emotions, often bypassing the need for intellectual effort input altogether. Reactions to such works may be superficial and fleeting, and the creators’ deepest intentions not fully grasped, but engagement at some level swiftly takes place. The experience is vivid in its fullest sense. Excitement can be instantaneous. Written texts simply cannot compete with this kind of immediacy.

Also words can be such tricky things. Lumpy. Clumsy. Rife with ambiguity. Achieving absolute clarity on the page involves hard labour, although this is only half the battle. In fiction writing plain speaking is not enough. The construction must be affecting. Fascinating. There must be mystery –at the very least the hook of: ‘how will this turn out?’ Then there is the matter of authenticity and the creation of a convincing, fully functioning reality. (Even fantasy worlds must have believable existence.)

In its crudest form, writing a story is like devising and setting a trap. How do you lure in the reader? What does it take to hold them until the final word is read?

So this means there’s a craft to be learned, and practised and practised. Then practised some more. And when you finally release your carefully worked contrivance onto the unsuspecting and uninterested world there will be rejection. (See Lynn Love’s post on this and how to murder it HERE). It is part of the learning process. It teaches you to target your work more carefully; to read more; to develop powers of objective self-appraisal; to learn from negative comments; to become better at what you do.

You also need to bear in mind that this apprenticeship may take a life-time; that success in material terms may never happen. The act of creating is a vocation; an act of faith too. But at the heart of it, you write because you must. Perhaps that should be enough. I seem to have hopes of it. It anyway keeps me going – one word at a time.

 

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

 

Related:

Losing Kui ~ An Extract

Kui’s 5* Review on Kindle

Tish Farrell Books & Short Fiction

 

DP Weekly Photo Challenge: Optimistic

Go here for more hopeful responses.

 

Climate change before my eyes? Sweet Peas on 28 October

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Up at the allotment my teepee of sweet peas has been flowering since June. Twice I have thought they were over, and thought of pulling them up. But here they are (photographed yesterday) still budding and blooming, and it’s nearly November. The sky is pretty impressive too.

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In fact there’s a lot going on on my plot. My cabbages and Brussels sprouts have grown another six inches in the last few days, and are fighting their way out of their protective enviromesh. The leeks are fat and juicy, and the courgettes are still (just) producing a few fruits. The new strawberry bed is finished, the asparagus mulched, and the over-wintering onions and field beans are in, and sprouting. And, most exciting – to me at least – I have created two huge new compost heaps. Next up, is leaf collection to make leaf mould. It’s a slow process, but worth doing for seed compost. This week on BBC Gardeners World, Monty Don, told me to gather every single leaf because they are so precious. So I shall.

Because if ever I heard a mega-tactic to avoid writing, then this is it. Sorry, can’t write the novel. Must pick up leaves – one at a time.

Actually, I have been writing, though not the novel. Two short stories completed in the last few weeks. In fact today it’s far too wet to go out leaf collecting. So maybe, just maybe, I’ll take a leaf from the sweet peas’ book, and go and grow the masterwork.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

#Cee’sFlowerOfTheDay

Fiction Writers, Are You Reading Enough? Just Thought I’d Ask…

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…because there was a time in my adult life when I read no fiction at all. I went from avid child-teen reader (some favourites above) to wilful adult non-reader. The reason was not reasoned. As a child I decided I would be a writer ‘when I grew up’, and when I grew up I further decided that reading other people’s works would block the ethereal visitation that, any day soon, would deliver the lightning bolt of writerly inspiration, that in turn would drop into my mind the fully formed novel idea, and thus spur me to sit and write the thing.

It was not a good start – a case of locked-in block before I had written one word.

There was a further obstacle, one I did not even see until I had returned to reading. By then it had also occurred to me to buy a writing magazine, and that was a turning point. Instead of a lightning bolt of inspiration came a thunder blast of reality: I might be a whizz at writing dissertations and museum guide books, but I knew nothing of the mechanics and craft of writing fiction. I was astonished to discover that people had so much to say about it: story arcs, characterisation, foreshadowing, pace, mood and setting etc etc. Good heavens. Who knew!

Of course it might be said that you can become too knowing, that absorbing too much ‘how to’ can lead to self-consciousness and a lack spontaneity or originality.  I think my answer to this is you need to cover the ground, embed what you can through practice, then move on. It is rather like a painter learning how to prepare their canvas and mix their pigments before the real composition can begin. It is also about opening up mental pathways that clear the way for the story-making. This means reading other writers critically, and not simply reading with your discretion turned off. Two and three readings might be needed to see how and why a piece of fiction works. The best writers, after all, aim to be seamless, not to display their working methods.

So for some swift and pleasurable enlightenment on the fiction writing process I can suggest no better start than to visit the children’s section of your book store or library.  Some of the most impressive and imaginative fiction around is for young adults. Works for this age group are tightly written, multi-layered, have memorable characters, affecting themes and energetic plotting that is character-driven. The writing will be economical, but also resonant, and often very deep. The best and most telling words will be chosen. There may also be a repeating motif that is more suggestive of poetry than prose, and which may lift the tone of the book in unexpected and magical ways. There is also the overall impression of the story having been well distilled, and thus being refreshingly free of the kind of self-indulgence found in some adult literature. In other words, every word will count.

My own favourite writers for this age group include Geraldine McCaughrean (The Kite Rider), Sharon Creech (Walk Two Moons), Kate di Camillo (Because of Winn-Dixie), David Almond (Skellig and Kit’s Wilderness ), Philip Pullman ( Dark Materials Trilogy), Frances O’Roark Dowell (Dovey Coe) and Gillian Cross (The Great Elephant Chase). All these stories may be characterized by the fact that they have something worth saying, and that this ‘something’, framed in highly original ways, gives their stories stature and substance as well as making them darn good reads.

And aside from learning fiction’s nuts and bolts, there are other good reasons why writers must keep reading.  It is not so much about borrowing (stealing) ideas, but more about drawing on the creative energy of other works, and using it to fuel your own writing.  And I am not talking about plagiarism, but of tapping into the spirit of someone else’s creation. Reciprocating, if you like. Striking up an engaging conversation.

If you think about it, it is obvious. As children, we learn to speak our native tongue through exchanges with others. We learn not only vocabulary, but also rhythm, inflexion, idiom, innuendo, puns, riddles, jokes, and narrative skills – all the tools we need to communicate effectively.

With writing we thus have a paradox. Writers, as some of the world’s great communicators, generally struggle to wring out their words in isolation. It has to be done that way. There are no answering voices except the writer’s own. But if that is the only voice, how is the writer to learn, grow and and test the boundaries of their art? How will they keep their edge? And yes I do know that many writers, new ones especially, fear losing their own voice if they resort to reading other writers’ fiction.

I would argue that through continuous reading, writers replenish their imagination banks, hone their language skills, explore different modes of expression, learn new things, grow wise, develop insight and understanding, find new ways of telling a story. What they read in the external world, and their reactions to it, will all be stored in the subconscious for further processing and reworking.  And I believe that this is all part of learning how to make oneself heard, of building one’s true and distinctive voice.

Best of all, if  a project has stumbled into a dead end, then visiting another’s writer’s world may provide the very thing  to turn the work around. I personally find that I write best when I am reading a book that carries me away. My most recent writer’s refuelling came courtesy of Malaysian writer, Tan Twan Eng  and The Garden of Evening Mists.  This is an adult book, but I will also return to Geraldine McCaughrean’s The Kite Rider  whenever I need a fix of this writer’s airy prose.

So for those of you writers who have not been reading much lately, time to join the big fiction conversation. Read, read, read. You will be glad you did.

 

Related: Fun and Games at the Writer’s Block Party

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Still Life: Winter’s Harvest

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I confess I’ve been bogged down in the post-viral doldrums for the past two weeks – feeling very sorry for myself. This is definitely a bad place for anyone to be. I did not want to do ANYTHING. And everything I attempted to do I judged hopeless, and pointless, and badly executed. My writing came in for a very large amount of stick, which gross assault was especially demoralizing and depressing.

But wallowing in bouts of self-castigation has to have some limits. In fact wilful incapacity finally led to something distinctly nourishing and wonderful. I lay down all day for several days and read Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, followed by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. I let myself be psychically transported, and I cannot say how grateful I am to the spirits of those two fine women writers. They knew how to create unforgettable characters. They knew how to conjure an under-your-skin sense of place. And the tales they told, although very much of their time, also possess many timeless qualities, as well as addressing themes (the position of women, for instance) that are still very much with us today.

So this is my first winter’s harvest – a darn good read. In fact I finished Jane Eyre late last night. When I woke this morning the dark mood that had weighed me down for a fortnight had miraculously lifted. On the skylight above the bed were large snow flakes frosted on the pane, a blue sky and everywhere lit up by an other-worldly, early morning sun. My inner eyes were open again too. Finally I could see how lucky I was. The mild depression I had been feeling was absolutely nothing compared with the perpetual darkness that so many have to contend with.

When I got up I found that it had not snowed much – just enough to cover the field behind the house in a thin white dusting. By the time I set off across it, the thaw had already set in, but it was good to be walking out in a white world. I realised, too, it was high time to venture out in pursuit of another kind of harvest. What had been going on at the allotment during my absence?

As you can see, the answer is: quite a lot. I’m amazed how much there was still to pick in the middle of winter: broccoli, purple and romanesco cauliflowers, leeks and parsnips. The brassicas are growing under enviromesh, and seem lush and healthy. In the polytunnel frilly lettuce, rocket, mizuna, bok choy and two kinds of parsley are quietly growing under fleece. Elsewhere on the plot the overwintering onions look well sprouted, and the field beans (mini broad beans) have germinated quite strongly. There will be crops of purple sprouting broccoli in the early spring, and the Swiss chard is still hanging on in sheltered corners. In fact all seems to be thriving on the additions of Biochar organic fertilizer that I added to every vegetable’s planting hole last year. It is supposed to be magic stuff – a form of charcoal that not only improves soil and feeds plants, but also possibly helps to reduce the effects of carbon emission by means of carbon sequestration.

And so, finally, to all of you who might be suffering the January blues, here is my third harvest: the blackbird caught this afternoon on my frosty crab apples. May this image transform any darkling tendencies, and the colours kindle sparks of elemental joy. There is life still…

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© 2015 Tish Farrell

Losing Kui -Final[1]

ON AMAZON AND ePUB BUD

Secrets, conspiracies, tragedy,

dark comedy – a fast-paced

novella of interwoven tales set

somewhere in East Africa

First Post Re-visited: By the Silurian Sea

All is peripheral in the place where I live – our house beside the path, beside the field, whose name on the 1847 tithe map, Townsend Meadow, marks the old town boundary of Much Wenlock. The town, itself, is very ancient, and only in recent times has it outgrown the frontier along Sytche Brook. It anyway has a more remarkable periphery than this – the edge of Wenlock Edge under which it lies.

I cannot quite see the Edge from my house, but I see the big sky above it: the dramatic false horizon that the wooded scarp creates, and thus the endless movement of weather along it. Hours can be wasted sky watching: the breezy march of clouds across our roof lights, the flush of hundreds of rooks from Sytche Lane wood, peppering the skyscape at dusk; their raucous cries, their enigmatic feats of aerial choreography.

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That you cannot see the Edge from the town is something of a paradox given that its massive presence has shaped the place in so many ways, and not least in the fabric of its cottages, parish church and ancient priory. To get a proper glimpse you need to leave Wenlock – take the steep hairpin-cutting down to Shrewsbury, or the tree-lined road that strikes across the Edge top to Church Stretton, or else meander along the labyrinth of lanes beneath it. The villages down there have old world names – Church Preen, Hughley, Rushbury, Longville. Above them the wooded ridge bristles like a giant hog’s back – a long, dark spine nearly twenty miles in length. It is all unavoidably mysterious.

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Photo: National Trust

Rushbury beneath Wenlock Edge

Photo: Rushbury Village below the Edge

The limestone flanks have been dug into for centuries, creating vast gaping wounds. As you take the road over the top, there are dizzying glimpses through verge-side trees where the ground shears away. All the quarries are unworked now, but in earlier times, for a millennium and more they were the source of most of the area’s building stone.

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Then there was the burning of limestone to make fertilizer – another important local industry. Lime is an essential additive to unlock the nutrients of the sticky clay soils that lie below the Edge. Today, you can still come upon the remains of many kilns on Much Wenlock’s outskirts. Once their fumes must have hung like an ill-smelling fog above the town.

But perhaps the most important use of Wenlock limestone – at least as far as the history of world technology is concerned – was the crucial part it played in the production of iron at nearby Coalbrookdale. This small Shropshire settlement, just across the River Severn from Wenlock, has been called “the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution”. It was here, in 1709, that the Quaker brass founder, Abraham Darby I, first smelted cast iron using coke instead of charcoal. Into his blast furnace went iron ore, coke and limestone, the stone to act as a flux and remove impurities that would compromise the quality of the smelted pig iron.

And this was only the start. It was in Coalbrookdale too, in 1779, that Abraham Darby III pulled off a monumental PR stunt to promote the family trade. He built the world’s first cast iron bridge across the River Severn at a place now called Ironbridge, and thereby spurred on huge innovation in construction techniques that spread around the globe – from cast iron garden seats and cannon to iron ships, railways and skyscrapers.

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So it was that Wenlock limestone (from this now sleepy part of Shropshire) played its part in the great march to industrialisation.

In more recent times, only the quarry spoil has been used – crushed to produce aggregates for road building. It has been many years since Much Wenlock’s homes shuddered in a pall of white dust whenever the quarrymen were blasting, or the streets vibrated to the endless rattle of passing stone trucks.

Of course there are other sources of disturbance on our mediaeval thoroughfares – over-sized farm vehicles and garden fencing trucks. They pass by on the other side of my house, which is not so scenic, although interesting in other ways.

For instance when I’m standing in the kitchen eating toast, I might look up to meet the serially startled gazes of a tour bus party as their coach nudges past our windows, brushing hard through our privet hedge in order to wheedle a way past another HGV. It is the only way to do it on a road too narrow for two large vehicles to pass.

We locals amuse ourselves by taking photos of the trucks and buses that several times a day get jammed outside our homes. We send ‘the evidence’ to officers at Shropshire Council who shrug helplessly, quite unable to say what their predecessors were thinking when they upgraded a bottle-neck lane into an ‘A’ road. There’s nothing to be done, they say. It is hard to believe. One day, I tell them, a European mega-truck will drive down from nearby Telford and block the road forever. Then what will you do?

But for all the present day shove and shunt, there is still a sense of romance about the town and Wenlock Edge. Spirits from the past make their presence felt in all sorts of ways. Housman set the Edge in verse; Vaughan Williams rendered it in song; the explorer, Stanley, sat upon it, his dark heart brooding on his time in Africa as he surveyed the more benign Shropshire landscape below. Even Henry James and Thomas Hardy came visiting, James more than once, and it is said he worked on The Turn of the Screw while staying as guest of the Milnes Gaskells in the old Prior’s House. (When Henry James Came to Wenlock).

Then there is the Shropshire writer-poet, Mary Webb who spent her adolescent years living on the Edge at The Grange, and was well known about the town. When in 1949 her novel, Gone to Earth, was turned into a film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, some of the scenes were shot locally. In fact my neighbour tells me that one of the film’s extras used to live in our house, and that he was also the town’s projectionist. He would thus have shown Gone to Earth in the little town cinema that is now the museum, thrilled to bits as the scenes flickered on the screen: seeing himself and other townsfolk alongside Hollywood star, Jennifer Jones. (Jennifer Jones Comes to Wenlock).

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But the Edge itself has far older stories than these. Back in the Silurian Age, some 430 million years ago, it was a tropic seabed, and in rare moments when my mind can embrace such vast temporal constructs, I imagine my house on the shore of the Silurian Sea. (A Solaris moment perhaps). Of course back then the ground on which my house stands was not even in the Northern Hemisphere.

No. Back then the earth’s landmasses were still on the move, shifting up the globe from the South Pole. The English Midlands and Welsh borderlands, that I think I know so well, lay 15 degrees south of the Equator in what is now the Indian Ocean. They were part of the micro-continent of Eastern Avalonia that in turn bordered the Iapetus Ocean.

And so while Shropshire lay somewhere off Mozambique, the world warmed and the Ordovician ice caps melted, the low-lying lands filled to become the Silurian Sea. I like to imagine that, after living in East Africa for seven years, returning to settle in Much Wenlock is, in some convoluted sense, a return to the place where I was. It has a feeling of alchemy about it, and time travel, that lessens the loss of Africa.

Our much travelled escarpment is understandably a fossil hunter’s paradise and, as such, is the most famous Silurian site in the world. In its seaside days, warm, shallow waters were home to sea lilies, corals, multi-radiate starfish, trilobites, gastropods, brachiopods and fish. Indeed, somewhere over my garden hedge, there may have been some reef lagoon that hosted ammonites, squid and, horrifically, water scorpions five feet long.

My house is of course composed of these Silurian deposits, dug from those vast quarries along the Edge. I thus inhabit a re-purposed fossil seabed. There are crinoid stems and corals in the chimney-breast, all belonging to an age before the birth of amphibians or dinosaurs, or before there were mammals and birds in the world.

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While I can easily picture my house on a flat, gravelly shore beside a teeming shallow sea, it is hard to conjure the great absence of earth-life. We might easily imagine that the terrestrial world would have been a very quiet, still place, but this, I gather, would be a grave misconception. The land may have been lacking in life forms, but there was instead a perpetual wind. And because the paucity of land life meant there was little with which to bind the earth’s surface, the Silurian seashore would have been a dreadful place of roaring sandstorms and lashing gravel.

Not so now. Today, the farmland that surrounds the town is lush and homely. It has sheep and cattle, arable crops and pasture, woods and thickets, the old quarries and sundry ruins, remnant green lanes and farm cottages. There are deer and rabbits, foxes and rodents and also, as far as the town’s allotment owners are concerned, far too many birds. That said, though, it is good to hoe and dig to the mewing of buzzards, and cawing of rooks.

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Most of the land within the town boundary, and this includes Townsend Meadow behind our house, is still feudally owned and tenanted. It is within these little bounds of landowner imposition that the small market centre has grown up and been continuously lived and worked in for the last thousand years.

It is probable, though, that the first human settlement took place a few millennia earlier than this. Perhaps the first Wenlockians were Bronze Age Celts who, as venerators of water, would have been drawn to the many springs that rise below the limestone escarpment. The Celts were also skilled metal workers, and Wenlock Edge would have provided a natural, upland byway for itinerant smiths and metal traders going to and from the mineral-rich hills of Wales. Certainly Bronze Age hoards have been found in and around the nearby River Severn which, through many ages, was one of the country’s busiest inland trade routes.

There is certainly evidence for Roman settlement in the town – a large villa on the site of the Priory, and one which apparently had its own Romano-Christian chapel.

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Water, and sacred water at that, is another of the themes that runs through Much Wenlock’s settlement history. The town has many holy wells, including ones dedicated to St. Milburga and St. Owain. Milburga was a Saxon princess, who in 680 AD became abbess of a monastery for both monks and nuns, founded here by her father, King Merewald of Mercia. The monastery was built near the site of the Roman villa, perhaps chosen because of its already Christian associations. The invading Saxons established their authority by building chapels and monasteries. Later, the invading Normans did the same, but on a grander scale.

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The Benedictine priory that succeeded the Saxon abbey in 1079  (and whose remains you see here) was part and parcel of the Norman master plan to control all aspects of Saxon life. Much Wenlock’s age-old reputation for holiness guaranteed that the local Norman earl, Roger de Montgomery, would choose the town for a big demonstration of power and piety. He invested heavily in the priory that was to become one of the most imposing religious houses in Europe. To ensure its future prosperity, all that remained was to annexe St.Milburga’s reputation for miracles, in particular her ability to strike holy springs from the ground. A new shrine was built to honour her sanctity, so ensuring a steady influx of  pilgrims and traders throughout the Middle Ages.

Roll forwards a few centuries and the town has another claim to fame, one that has significance to all of us today. In 1850 the town’s physician and apothecary, Dr William Penny Brookes (1809-1895) founded the Wenlock Olympian games that were to become the driving force behind the modern Olympic movement. Brookes fervently believed that exercise brought moral, physical and intellectual  improvement to all who took part in it. He was a campaigner of national standing, and responsible for the introduction of physical education into British schools.

His ideas spread, and in 1890 when Baron Pierre de Coubertin came to see the Wenlock Games for himself, Brookes shared with the young man not only his visions for everyone’s health and welfare, but also his wealth of experience from running the Games. He even designed and had made at his own expense wonderful medals for the winning competitors. Sadly, he did not live to see the first modern international Olympics in Athens in 1896, although De Coubertin did give him due credit as the inspiration behind the modern Olympic Games. Tribute was also paid to his home town in the 2012 Olympics when ‘Wenlock’ was the name chosen for one of the mascots. I hasten to say that this strange, one-eyed being bore little resemblance to any living Wenlock resident.

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The Linden Field ,where Brook’s Olympian Games first took place, is now a public park, bequeathed by a former feudal worthy for the pleasure and recreation of the people of Much Wenlock. Every July the Games are still held here, and with competitors from all over the world.

The field is only a step from my house, and I sometimes toy with idea of running down the avenue of lime trees that Dr. Brookes planted there 150 years ago. Musing on his notions that exercise breeds mental and physical improvement, I think the activity might relieve the creative doldrums, spur on the story-telling process, help me escape the peripheries, and finally get some work done.

Of course one of the hazards of being a writer, apart from devising ever new means of diversion and prevarication, is the hoarding of story ideas. Like the Silurian seabed, they go on accreting: stuff and more stuff, piles of notes and scribble and memory sticks slowly compacting on every surface in my office. Hopefully they do  not enfolding anything as alarming as a five foot water scorpion. And now that I’ve conjured this monster, I rather wish I hadn’t, although you never know: there’s maybe a story in it.

© Tish Farrell 2014

 

Afterthought:

I wrote the first version of this blog’s first post as the means of showing what ‘Writer on the Edge’ was about, namely the importance of evoking place (at least in some sense) in all creative writing. It is also a portrait of the place where I live and think; it is the edge on which I reside both physically and metaphysically. For although I lived in Africa for some years, Shropshire is where my roots are. At least I think this is the case. Once you have lived in foreign places for a time, it is often hard to know where home is.

 

*Historical source: Vivien Bellamy A History of Much Wenlock, Shropshire Books, 2001

 

Related:

When Henry James Came to Wenlock

Jennifer Jones Comes to Wenlock

Songs from and Inland Sea: “On Wenlock Edge”

Old Stones of Wenlock: Repurposing the Silurian Sea

 

#WenlockEdge #Shropshire #TishFarrellWriter #HenryJames