Sunday, 5 July 2020

Brilliant Bookish Places to Visit in England

Over the years, England has produced huge swathes of talented writers whose words have transported us to new worlds, given us a glimpse into the lives of others, and stayed with us through the ages. Here’s a list of some great places around the country where you can walk in the footsteps of your favourite author, enjoy the landscapes that inspired them, or imagine yourself in one of their books.

 

Haworth, Yorkshire

One of my favourite places and an absolute must for Brontë fans. Their home has been carefully transformed into a museum, the house itself returned to the state it was in while they lived there, with an exhibition space at the end where you can see their famous little books, childhood toys, and some of their other creative work. Directly opposite is the church and graveyard in which all but Anne are buried, giving you a sense of what it must have been like to grow up surrounded by death. Venture a little further and you’ll find yourself on the windswept moors that they loved so much. A bracing (well signposted) walk will take you to Brontë falls, and for the heartier walkers, a steep climb up to Top Withens, thought the be the inspiration for the location of Wuthering Heights. You can either retrace your steps across the moor or loop back through Stanbury, allow the best part of a day. The moors are beautiful and feel timeless. On a sunny day you might have to share with a lot of other Brontë fans but if you go out of season you’ll have them largely to yourself. Haworth Main Street is full of independent shops selling an eclectic mix of goods, but they don’t have set opening hours and if you’re there out of season might find that most of them are shut. The Black Bull pub was frequented by Branwell and you can still enjoy a meal there or a well earned pint at the end of a long walk. Haworth also has an additional gem for fans of the film of The Railway Children as the steam train that passes through was used in the film. On my first visit to Haworth I walked from Keighley station meaning I happily got to see some of the countryside en route. It’s a beautiful part of the country and there are so many places to walk in the surrounding areas.

Brontë Parsonage Museum

Oxford, Oxfordshire

Oxford is a city that has played host to some of our most well-loved authors – Philip Pullman, Lewis Carroll, and J. R. .R Tolkien to name but a few, and is rich in literary history. Exeter College is reported to be the inspiration behind Jordan College in Pullman’s His Dark Materials. A little outside the city you’ll find Godstow Abbey and The Trout pub, both of which feature in La Belle Sauvage. The pub itself is a great place to stop for a drink and delicious meal by the river. Speaking of pubs, The Eagle and Child was the meeting place for The Inklings in the 1930s and 40s. This informal group would meet to discuss literature and included J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Any book lover visiting Oxford won’t be able to resist a tour of the Bodleian Library (which also featured in the Harry Potter films). Founded in 1602, it has a remarkable history and collection that includes a First Folio of Shakespeare and manuscripts of Tolkien’s works. All those books will doubtless leave you hankering for some new additions to your own shelves and Blackwell’s is just the place for you, the original of the chain. There’s also an excellent Oxfam bookshop.

 

Bath, Somerset

Jane Austen fans flock to Bath for its beautiful Georgian buildings and the glimpse they offer into the life of a much-loved author. It’s worth taking time to just wander around this historic spa town, but there are a few stops that no Austen fan would want to miss. The Jane Austen Centre delves into her life and what the city would have been like when she lived there (1801-6). The Fashion Museum is housed in the Old Assembly Rooms which feature in two of her novels, and in which Charles Dickens gave readings. The Fashion Museum itself is worth a visit in its own right, as well as offering the opportunity to try on some period costume yourself. Even if you’re not a big Jane Austen fan, Bath has a rich history, and some excellent bookshops, including Mr. B’s Emporium, which all bookworms will want to check out.

Hill Top

 The Lake District, Cumbria

This stunning area of England has inspired many a writer over the years, including Arthur Ransome, Beatrix Potter, and William Wordsworth. Lake Windermere and Coniston Water provided inspiration for Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, and visitors can get out on the water in a kayak or boat to experience a slice of adventure for themselves. Beatrix Potter did a lot to preserve the natural beauty of the area and the breeding of Herdwick sheep. You can visit Hill Top, preserved as she left it with a gorgeous garden you can just imagine Peter Rabbit scampering around in. There’s also a great Gallery dedicated to her work in Hawkshead, and the National Trust has put together a guide for the some less well-known places of interest. William Wordsworth wrote some of his most famous works in the Lake District and you can visit his home, Dove Cottage, where he hosted other literary giants such as Walter Scott and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

 

Dorset

Thomas Hardy spent most of his life in Dorset, and the landscape appears in all of his major novels as Wessex. He is known for his heavily descriptive writing style and the central role the locations play in the plot. You can visit the home he designed, Max Gate, where he wrote Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. Dorset County Museum holds a large Hardy collection and have on display some of his manuscripts and a reconstruction of his study at Max Gate. Visit Dorset have put together a handy leaflet with places of interest for Hardy fans.


Ashdown Forest

 

Ashdown Forest, Sussex

Ashdown Forest, better known as the Hundred Acre Wood, makes the perfect day out for Winnie the Pooh fans of any age. A.A. Milne lived on the edge of the forest and took inspiration from it for creating the wonderful world that holds a special place in the heart of anyone who grew up with his tales. On the walk you can even play Pooh sticks on the original bridge. The forest is more rugged heathland than wood but it’s a beautiful place for a walk. In nearby Hartfield village is Pooh Corner, a shop dedicated to everyone’s favourite bear, which also has a café to refuel after a frolic through the forest. 

 

London

You can barely turn a corner in the capital without stumbling across a bookshop, a literary location, or a blue plaque relating to an author. From wandering the streets of Bloomsbury channeling your inner Virginia Woolf to heading to Baker Street to do some sleuthing, or rushing to King’s Cross to live out your childhood dreams of finding yourself at Platform 9 3/4 (and don’t forget to pop next door to the British Library for an incredible encounter with their collections). There’s the Charles Dickens Museum to visit, Shakespeare’s Globe to enjoy, and the bookshops of Charing Cross Road to browse. There’s enough literary history in London to write a whole book about. To get a sense of the huge array of independent bookshops check out the London Bookshop Crawl.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 85 Years Old

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After taking a year off from diary writing, Hendrik Groen is back with his amusing observations and deeply felt musings on some of life’s big questions. The Old-But-Not Dead Club are still going strong, although they have to come to terms with the need to recruit new members as their number inevitably dwindles. Hendrik stoically makes the best of his twilight years while also planning for his end.

He continues to mock the behaviour of certain of his fellow residents while admitting to finding himself falling into some of the same traps. There have been changes to the criteria for taking in new residents, meaning a steady increase in the average age and infirmity, making life more depressing for those still wanting to exercise their minds. Despite the emotional difficulty of the experience he continues to visit a dear friend in the closed ward. Grietje herself is always in good spirits but the other patients make for a sorry sight. ‘I can’t bear having to see the humiliation of it, and the helplessness.’ He perseveres nonetheless, proving himself to be a good friend.

Along with dwindling resident numbers they also have to contend with a change in director, who quickly proves to be no more amenable than their predecessor. The Old-But-Not-Dead Club pull off a political coup in dominating membership of the Residents’ Committee but have a fight on their hands when attempts are made to sideline their responsibility exclusively to social events. Hendrik offers some insightful thoughts on the running of the home, observing that many of the residents behave like children because they are treated as such. When considering why the garden is kept locked in winter and surmising that it’s probably because they don’t want responsibility for any residents freezing to death he offers this gem of wisdom – ‘There’s a big difference between wanting to be in charge, and wanting the responsibility.’ The book is littered with these moments of clarity amidst the humour and daily updates.

Toward the end of the year he begins to struggle to keep his spirits up and highlights the importance of good friends lifting you up when needed, refusing to allow the lethargy to set in. Determined to keep trying new things and not let inaction settle in their lives, the Old-But-Not-Dead Club make life worth living.

This sequel maintains the humour and entertaining characters from the first book but allows a little more space for dwelling on the challenges of life. This is balanced by yet more ambitious Club outings and hilarious accounts of their adventures. A wonderful book about growing older but with messages that are relevant at any age.

Pick up a copy: Foyles Waterstones

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks

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Sacks’ interesting book on language use by deaf people was published in 1989, and although some of the realities have shifted since its publication, many of the misconceptions around sign language remain. The book is comprised of three articles edited into a book, meaning that there is some overlap between sections. It does nonetheless help to build your knowledge throughout so you always feel equipped for each section. The first section gives a brief history of the treatment of deaf people and the way attitudes have changed (and sometimes regressed) over time. The second is the most scientific, discussing the neurological changes that occur in native sign language speakers, and the importance of language acquisition at a young age. The final section is the easiest to get into for the general reader, discussing the protests at Gallaudet College to get a deaf president in post. It is the section where deaf culture is discussed the most and the discussion becomes less about science and more about people.

There have been debates throughout the past few centuries about the best way for deaf people to communicate. Prior to the eighteenth century deaf people we dismissed as ‘deaf and dumb’ and remained isolated. Abbé Sicard began to question why this was and Abbé de l’Epée became fascinated by the sign language used on the streets of Paris. He began to understand that there was more to it than mere pantomime, and this change in attitude paved the way for better understanding and opportunities. It came to be seen that using sign language rather than enforcing speech allowed for greater success and integration. Unfortunately, a lot of this progress was lost at the Milan Convention of 1880 when oralism was voted in as the best method. This meant deaf pupils were prohibited from using sign language, which hampered the development of students who had been born deaf especially. Since then it’s been a long and slow process to have the importance and validity of sign language acknowledged.

Research by the likes of William Stockoe, Ursula Bellugi, and Helen Neville have demonstrated that sign language meets all the criteria of language as well as being processed as such by the brain. Recognition of sign as a language helps in arguments against oralism and for the teaching of it in schools. Sacks also discusses the unique visual skills associated with those fluent in sign language and the naturalness of it to a developing child.

Gallaudet College is mentioned early in the book as a haven for deaf students to flourish. It comes as a surprise therefore to read of the less than ideal governance and exclusion of deaf people from the role of president. In 1988 there were week-long rallies against the appointment of a new, hearing, president. Sacks witnessed these rallies first hand and reports the peacefulness of the experience. He also discusses his own sense of otherness as everybody around him conversed in sign language, of which he knew none. His experiences that week made him appreciate the beauty and fluidity of sign language and inspired him to learn some himself.

This is an interesting read, but focuses more heavily on language acquisition than deaf culture. Despite some parts now being outdated, it is nonetheless a useful reminder of the struggles deaf people have been through to have their languages recognized and to be allowed to use them. It is shocking how recently some of these breakthroughs came. Sacks admits that he enjoys going off on tangents and has included these as endnotes – they are numerous and lengthy, which can distract from the main narrative. I found it easier to go back at the end and read them in isolation as there’s much to be gained. I would recommend this book but perhaps also to combine it with something focused more on deaf culture and some supplementary reading for a more up-to-date position.

Pick up a copy:

Foyles

Waterstones

Sunday, 14 June 2020

Crossing in Time, D. L. Orton

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This post is part of the ultimate blog tour for the novel. Thanks to the publishers and The Write Reads for providing me with a review copy of the audiobook.

Isabel and Diego’s relationship takes centre stage in this light sci-fi novel. They live through a time of huge global difficulty, nuclear war threatens and a deadly disease is spreading fast. It becomes clear that going back in time to mend their broken relationship is the only way to save humanity, even if it means risking their own lives. With both characters unreachable in different times and places, will they be able to save the day and find their way back to each other?

From the first time we see them together, in a chance meeting after years apart, we see how their relationship crumbled. Isabel blames Diego for letting her go after she had an affair, taking little responsibility for her own mistakes. When she goes back in time and meets a younger Diego who hasn’t met her yet, she spends her time lecturing him on how to put up with her own problems and inconsistencies, putting all the emphasis on his behaviour. In many ways she doesn’t come across as particularly likeable but the experience does at least teach her to see their past in a new light. Despite their problems, there is an undeniable attraction between them that always draws them together, whether it works out or not.

A recurring theme throughout is Isabel’s relation to men and their attempts at dominance and violence against her. From the opening, a dystopian world in which people are trading laptops for food and in which she has reluctantly come to realise she needs a gun, the men she interacts with all seem to have one thing on their mind, and they are a threat to her. Later, when she is alone and vulnerable, an anonymous attacker attempts to rape her, and, in a different way, her ex-husband tries to maintain dominion over her. He uses his position to force her hand in terms of her work and manoeuvres the situation so that she has to hand over all her research. Perhaps this goes some way to explain why she is so demanding of Diego, she sees it as a relationship she has some control over.

A sci-fi novel might seem like a good source of escapism at the moment, but there are certain parallels that are a bit too close to the real world at the moment. There are some brief mentions of climate change and the need to act, but more so is the pandemic rapidly spreading and the desperate hunt for a vaccine that hasn’t been corrupted. There are throwaway remarks about the possibility of shortages of supplies such as flour and toilet roll, the weak and incompetent leaders delivering the response, and the impact this will have on international relations as well as civil unrest. Everyone is also told to stay home yet many ignore the advice. This was an unexpected aspect of the book and it was strange seeing our own world mirrored so closely in fiction.

Overall, an average read - the plot doesn’t entirely make sense the whole time and the characters aren’t ones you particularly root for. Isabel is blind to her own faults and Diego speaks largely in platitudes and puns. There’s a lot of work around developing their relationship so if you’re after a fast-paced sci-fi adventure then this is probably not the book for you. The most successful aspects are the most human – the grief, the reaction to a broken relationship you can’t move on from, and the little quirks only one who loves you would notice add a sense of reality to the characters. The first in a series, there’s still a lot more to be uncovered.

Pick up a copy:

Foyles

Waterstones

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Lorna Doone, R. D. Blackmore


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Published in 1869 and set in the seventeenth century, Lorna Doone is Blackmore’s most famous book, and the only of his once popular novels that is still readily available. It tells the story of John Ridd, an Exmoor yeoman, and his love for Lorna Doone. The name Doone is met with fear and disgust by the locals, having been terrorized by them for years, they even killed John’s father. Lorna however, rejects their way of life and wishes for the freedom to be with John despite other plans being firmly in place to keep her within the Doone family.

John narrates the tale, although does at one point pass the narrative over to Lorna. He speaks directly to the reader at times, giving glimpses of what his future looks like as well as little asides on his views and opinions which are not always endearing to the modern reader. He is however largely portrayed as kindly if a little vain and you do find yourself hoping that things turn out well for him.

It may be Lorna’s name on the title page but she is not often part of the action, being in large part the greatest dream of John’s heart, who is utterly enchanted from their first meeting. Some readers accuse her of being weak and overly compliant yet there are glimmers of strength within. For example, she tells John that the Doones are ashamed of their villainy in front of her. She must therefore have expressed her distaste for their behaviour, to hold some kind of power over her manipulative and uncaring relatives is no small feat. She is also resilient, growing up in violent surroundings with very little love shown to her, and then trying to fit into the Ridd family when there is a certain level of distance due to her social standing.

The novel is rich in descriptive detail and the landscape is brought to life in much the same way you find in a Hardy novel. Indeed, one of the reasons the local community turn against the Doones, aside from their violence and thievery, is the way they misuse their land. In many ways this is a moral tale, but one in which people are easily forgiven if they exhibit signs of kindness. ‘Everybody cursed the Doones, who lived apart disdainfully. But all good people like Mr Faggus – when he had not robbed them – and many a poor sick man or woman blessed him for other people’s money…’ Mr Faggus is a highwayman, but his involvement in the community and the occasional kind action allow him to be embraced by the very people who may well be his next victim.

This is a long book that could likely have been cut down while still retaining its appeal. For the moments where it drags however there are many more where you become completely absorbed in the story and the writing, which at times feels almost poetic. The Doones are brilliantly drawn villains and never fail to live up to their reputation. There are moments when the tale seems to go off on a tangent and you’re left wondering quite how you got there. Nonetheless, this is a great read with a dramatic, violent climax.

Pick up a copy:

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Cookbooks Galore

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We’re now two months into lockdown, the supermarket shelves are generally full once more, and we’ve all been doing a lot of home cooking. I thought this would be a good time to share some of my favourite cookbooks.

I picked up this book over a decade ago before heading off to University and fending for myself for the first time. It’s a great book designed for cooks with limited equipment and money in mind. The spicy risotto and chocolate pudding were firm favourites but there’s so much more on offer. All recipes are rated on difficulty so you can choose your food according to how ambitious you’re feeling.

I feel like almost everyone I know has a copy of this book on their shelves, and it’s a good’un. Full of great ideas for getting more veg into your diet. Personal favourites are the beetroot hummus and a newly discovered peanut noodle salad (even after years of use it’s got some great treasures to discover).



A great book for anyone wanting to take a tentative step into the world of vegetarianism (or those already firmly committed). It offers suggestions for every meal of the day, seasonal ingredients, and even some yummy desserts to round off the day. My most made recipes are the giant wholeweat cousous and sweet potato, and the porcini risotto. The blueberry pancakes are also great as a treat to start the day.

A brilliant book for any health conscious cook, this book is packed full of healthy meal ideas (and healthier desserts), with details about what nutrients each recipe supplies and more general advice about making sure you get enough of what you need. The walnut burgers are great, as are many of the salads and the smoothies. This is probably the book I’ve made the most variety of recipes from, they generally don’t take more than about half an hour to make so it’s perfect for mid-week meals.

A wonderful book full of wholesome, nutritious meal ideas. There’s rarely a week that passes where I don’t make one of her recipes. She has a great website so you can try out some of her recipes before buying the book. They’re often fairly lengthy recipes so make great weekend meals, and the leftovers are perfect for packed lunches during the week.

I’ve had this book on my shelves since it first came out and it’s probably my most used baking book. Lots of tasty, homely recipes, both savoury and sweet, it will inspire you to bake more often. A few of my favourites are the custard creams, chocolate chip cookies, and the blueberry muffin loaf.

Paris Boulangerie Patisserie: Recipes from Thirteen Outstanding French Bakeries by Linda Dannenberg
The first time I went to Paris I fell completely in love with the delicious treats on offer in its boulangeries. It completely ruined the British equivalents for me and I came back determined to learn how to make them myself. This book is a wonderful way to do so. It gives details about some of the author’s most loved Paris boulangeries and offers some recipes from each. The recipes are generally very labour intensive but absolutely worth the effort.


This is a fairly new addition to my baking bookshelf but every recipe looks delicious. There’s a great range of bakes and so far they’ve turned out just as tasty as they promised. Currently munching my way through the white chocolate and coconut semifreddo.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

The Bookshops of Hay-on-Wye

The Hay Castle Bookshop


It’s that time of year again, when book lovers would usually be descending on the small town of Hay-on-Wye for its famous literary festival. Unfortunately, the physical festival has had to be cancelled this year, but they’re still offering an impressive array of virtual events for us all to enjoy. The local bookshops will be suffering the financial hit of losing out on their biggest period of sales for the year and so I thought I’d do a run-down of some of my favourite bookshops there and how to support them during this time. I’d also highly recommend visiting when things are open again as it’s a wonderful place to visit at any time of year. The surrounding areas are stunning and Shepherds Ice Cream parlour is the perfect place to refuel in between all that book shopping.

Murder and Mayhem
Addyman Books own three bookish spots across the town – Murder and Mayhem, devoted to detective fiction, Addyman Books, and the Addyman Annexe. Their shops are full of quirky nooks and a great selection of books. You can support them online here.

The Hay Cinema Bookshop is a large converted cinema which is now filled with seemingly endless rows of books. They keep some of their stock outside so you can browse in the sunshine before heading in to lose a few hours browsing. They can be found online here.

Pemberton’s Bookshop is a great spot for those who prefer their books brand new. They offer a great range at good prices and also stock a range of greetings cards and similar. Find them online here.

Richard Booth’s bookshop carries the name of the man who was instrumental in giving Hay its book town status. It’s a wonderful, spacious spot that offers a huge range of both new and second hand books, and there’s even a nice café and cinema. Check them out here.

The upper floor of Richard Booth's bookshop
This is just a small taste of the bookshops in this wonderful little town. Many of the shops specialize in particular subjects whether it be children’s books, music, poetry, or natural history, there’s bound to be something for every reader. Check out the full list.