Tuesday 19 December 2017

A Very Marley Christmas...

Christmas for the Marley family starts the night before, when we choose a favourite Christmas movie to watch, usually Elf. When the children were younger, I would read them ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and then we’d look out the window to try and see the lights on Father Christmas’s sleigh. We would leave a mince pie out for Father Christmas, and a carrot for his reindeer, and have no trouble persuading the children to go to bed early. Unfortunately they would wake up early too, eager to see what Father Christmas had brought, but now they’re teenagers we get to wake them. I think this is known as ‘payback’.

It snows a lot in Wales...
Because my husband is convinced we’ll be burgled if we leave the presents beneath the tree, he doesn’t put them out until everyone has gone to bed the night before. This means when we come downstairs on Christmas morning, the tree lights are on and it all looks very magical. This is a minor Christmas miracle in itself as fairy lights hate me and I have to buy new ones every year. As we all believe in Father Christmas, including the teenagers (they’re not daft!), we all have Christmas stockings, but we open our main presents after breakfast. While everyone plays with their new ‘toys’, I cook Christmas dinner – accompanied by loud, cheesy Christmas music and a glass of champagne.

Each decoration tells a story...
We have a traditional Christmas dinner, which we always eat at lunchtime – I have no idea why! Afterwards, we force the teenagers to play an old-fashioned board game, usually The Simpson’s version of Cluedo or Scrabble, and then, if they’ve been really good, we allow them to beat us on their new video games.

Four Marleys with three degrees between us, plus one writer -
this is the best we could come up with...
Of course, Christmas doesn’t always go according to plan. Actually, it hardly ever goes according to plan, but the most disastrous one was when we were snowed in. I’d ordered all the presents online as well as the Christmas groceries to be delivered – and nothing arrived! It was Christmas Eve before the roads had cleared enough for us to inch our way to the nearest supermarket, fill a trolley and skid back home.

Yes, that's me. On a sledge.
 Strangely enough, that Christmas turned out to be our best one ever. Instead of a ‘traditional’ Christmas, we built snowmen and went sledging – and I made a start on writing a snow-themed story that turned into Something Wicked...

This post previously appeared on Becca's Books

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Wednesday 15 November 2017

Newstead Abbey: Lords Behaving Badly

Confession: I've never read anything by Lord Byron - but (in the immortal words of Captain Jack Sparrow) I have heard of him. As I read an awful lot of historical romances, it's actually hard to avoid hearing about him. And after visiting his ancestral home, and reading about his life, I'm starting to see how his exploits (and those of his ancestors) have probably inspired generations of romance writers - and those exploits certainly sound very entertaining! Unfortunately the guidebook was a bit sketchy on the juiciest stories...

Bryon was the first modern celebrity. Or, as he supposedly said himself, 'I woke up one morning and found myself famous'. One of his exes, Caroline Lamb, thought he was 'Mad, bad, and dangerous to know', but from my 21st century viewpoint he did seem a little too 'try hard'. Skull drinking goblets? Really? But I did love his house!

Lord Byron spent very little time here at Newstead Abbey. He inherited both the estate and his title from his great-uncle, the fifth Lord Byron - who was nicknamed 'The Wicked Lord' and sounds perfectly horrible. The Wicked Lord spent both his own inheritance and that of his wife, and then let the house fall into ruin just to spite his son, who had married against his wishes. It was a waste of time, because he ended up outliving both his son and grandson, and the estate passed to his great-nephew instead. 

Newstead Abbey

The house was originally an Augustinian priory, founded in the late 12th century by Henry II. In 1540 the estate was bought by Lord Byron's ancestor, Sir John Byron of Colwick, following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Sir John dismantled much of the church and re-used the stone, but left the very dramatic-looking 13th century west front.

Newstead Abbey - the ruined church.

George Gordon, the sixth Lord Byron (1788-1824), inherited the title and estate at the age of ten but did not move in until shortly before his twenty-first birthday. His great-uncle, 'The Wicked Lord' (I do love writing that), had long since sold off the contents - furniture, silver and a famous collection of paintings - and the house was virtually a ruin.

Newstead Abbey, the East side

Byron didn't have the money to renovate the whole building, so he only redecorated a few rooms, such as his bedroom and study, and left the others empty. He used the Great Hall (below) for pistol practise and the Salon for boxing and fencing. (The hunting trophies are from a later date - see below.)

The Great Hall

This bed (below) actually did belong to Byron. He brought it with him from his student rooms at Cambridge. 

Byron's Bed!

Like his great-uncle before him, Bryon excavated the grounds of the Abbey hoping to find the rumoured buried gold belonging to the monks who'd lived here before him. Unfortunately (also like his great-uncle) he only found bones. He decorated his rooms with some of the skulls (the ones on show now are replicas) and sent one off to a Nottingham jeweller to be turned into a silver goblet. This goblet held an entire bottle of claret and was very popular with his guests! (The one shown on the table below is a replica.) The original goblet was laid to rest at a secret location a century later. The screen in his study (below) also belonged to Byron, and shows boxing scenes on one side and theatrical scenes on the other.

Byron's Study

As well as his dogs (there is a monument in the garden to his favourite, Boatswain), Byron kept a tame bear and a wolf. When his friends arrived for parties, he'd get them to wear monks' cowls. They'd all get drunk, release the bear into the garden - and then have a great time trying to find it in the dark!

In the cabinets are copies of his books and many of his original belongings, including his boxing gloves, a silver toothpick in the shape of a sword and scabbard, and the sabretache (cavalry officer's satchel) he used while in Greece. I liked this inkstand, made of brass, with amethyst glass bottles.

Byron's Inkstand

Byron only lived at Newstead Abbey until 1814, before selling it to his old schoolfriend, Colonel Thomas Wildman for £94,000.

Colonel Wildman (1787-1859) spent over £100,00 renovating the abbey, and much of what can be seen now is due to him. He took the medieval theme and ran with it, decorating the rooms with stained glass and ancient armour, and buying tapestries and furniture.

The Salon

Because so much money had been spent in renovations, after Wildman died his widow was forced to sell the Abbey. The new owner was William Frederick Webb (1829-1899), a wealthy landowner. He installed gas lighting and central heating, and was responsible for the redecoration of the chapel. His many African hunting expeditions provided the 'trophies' on display in the Great Hall. There were once animal skins too, and a enormous rhinoceros head over the fireplace that would be decorated with a wreath of holly at Christmas.

It is believed the walled gardens at Newstead Abbey were originally created by the fourth Lord Byron. Like the rest of the Abbey, they were renovated by Colonel Wilding.

Small Walled Garden

After William Frederick Webb's death, the estate passed onto his children. The Japanese Garden was laid out for Ethel Webb in 1907 by a Japanese landscape architect. Many of the stone ornaments and plants were brought from Japan.

The Japanese Garden

The estate was finally inherited by Webb's grandson, Charles Ian Fraser, who put it up for sale. The Abbey was bought by a local philanthropist, Sir Julien Cahn, who presented it to Nottingham Corporation in 1931.

Detail from the Small Walled Garden

Newstead Abbey is open to the public and houses a collection of Byron memorabilia. There's even a gift shop, where you can buy any amount of merchandise illustrated with Byron's likeness.

What would he have thought about it, I wonder? To know he was still famous, after all these years...


Newstead Abbey Guidebook (Nottingham City Council)


Newstead Abbey

Thursday 9 November 2017

Erddig: Where Time Stands Still

A couple of weeks ago I found a guide book for a National Trust property called Erddig. I love reading about old houses so I bought it - and then promptly forgot about it until a week later when my husband suggested going out for the day - and why didn't we visit an old house he'd heard of called Erddig? When I showed him the guide book and said what an amazing coincidence that was, he rolled his eyes and pointed out that Erddig was the only National Trust house in the area we hadn't visited!

East front of Erddig, overlooking the garden

Erddig Hall was built by Joshua Edisbury between 1684 and 1687, two stories high, with a basement and a central cupola. Unfortunately it wasn't long before Joshua was deeply in debt and, although his brother attempted to bail him out, they both ended up ruined financially. The house was bought in 1714 by a lawyer, John Meller, who added the two wings on either side. When he died he left the estate to his nephew, Simon Yorke, and it remained in the same family for the next two and a half centuries.

The estate was supported by coal, but the industry was nationalised in 1947 - and then approval was given to mine beneath the house, causing catastrophic subsidence. Despite all the sacrifices made by the Yorke family to keep the estate going, it was handed over to the National Trust in 1973.

West front of Erddig, overlooking the park

The front of the house appears different to the back, because it was re-faced in stone in 1772-73. Not due to any particular fashion; exposure to the elements was eroding the brickwork.

Erddig is different to other National Trust houses in that you enter through the outbuildings and servants' quarters, rather than the main entrance. This is to appreciate how the owners of the house were very fond of their servants, treating them almost like members of the family. A collection of portraits and verses on the walls provide a fascinating record of those who worked on the estate - although I do wonder how the servants felt about being immortalised this way! 

The outbuildings include the blacksmith's, a saw mill and joiner's shop. There are also stables and carriage houses filled with old bicycles and vintage cars.  Because the house remained in the same family throughout the centuries, nothing was ever thrown away!

One of the Carriage Houses

This 1907 Rover was Erddig's first car. It was bought in the 192os from the chimney sweep, who in turn had bought it from the local vicar!

Electricity was never installed at Erddig, and visitors are not allowed to take photos with a flash, so I'm afraid my photos are not of the best quality. But the rooms pictured below were my favourites.

I was particularly intrigued to see the dining room, which was remodelled by the architect Thomas Hopper in 1826-7. He was also the man responsible for revamping Penrhyn Castle, one of my favourite places to visit, and the inspiration for Hurst Castle in Nemesis.

The Dining Room -
The pillars hold up the floor above!

The library wasn't created until 1775. It had originally been the little parlour. The books came from what had been John Meller's study, and there are more than 1,500 volumes - arranged from right to left! 

The Library -
I would love to work in a room like this,
although I'd prefer more interesting books!

Chapels always fascinate me but I was particularly interested in this one, because the windows include fragments of 15th century French glass. 

The Chapel

As we visited Erddig during the 'winter', it meant that some of the rooms weren't open. So that definitely means we'll go back again!


What I found most fascinating about Erddig were the people who used to live here; the Yorke family, who always called their male children either Simon or Philip. There was the first Philip (1743-1804), who had such a fear of fire, he built a new kitchen completely detached from the rest of the house. The second Philip (1849-1922) was bullied into marriage by his father; his bride left him shortly afterwards, cadging a lift on a milk float! 

The two Yorkes I admire most were the brothers Simon IV (1903-66) and Philip III (1905-78), who tried so hard to keep the estate going, yet had to admit defeat and pass it over to the National Trust. But as Philip III said to a friend, 'It was probably what my father would have liked - the old place restored to its former glory.'

The old and the new


Erddig (Official National Trust guidebook)

Saturday 30 September 2017

When in Paris ... Again!

We previously visited Paris in December last year. Beautiful, sunny weather, but a bit chilly! So when we had an unexpected opportunity to visit again this year, we chose late September which, coincidentally, is my birthday!

Like last year, we made a list of the places we wanted to visit. I voted for the Musée du Louvre, my husband wanted to see the inside of the Notre-Dame Cathedral (we only saw the outside last time). For something quirky, we picked the Conciergerie - a former royal palace, later a prison during the French Revolution. And decided to follow that up with a walk through the Tuileries Garden, and on through into Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Élysées.

Arc de Triomphe

Musée du Louvre

I could probably have spent all day in the Louvre. Unfortunately, we didn't have all day so we headed for the Denon Wing, mainly to get a glimpse of the Mona Lisa. And a glimpse it turned out to be, for the world's most famous painting is hidden behind bullet proof glass and a barrier to prevent anyone getting too close. So if you do want to 'see' the Mona Lisa, be aware that it will be mostly so you can say you've 'seen' it - from a distance!

The Mona Lisa!

We had to queue outside the glass pyramid to get through security but, once inside, the Louvre is so vast we were able to pick up a floor plan (essential!) and pay for our tickets using a machine without queuing again. We also had a very nice lunch in the mostly deserted café. The museum did become busier after lunch though.

Musée du Louvre

Before it was a Renaissance palace, the Louvre was a 12th century fortress, and some of the original foundations can  still be seen in the basement.

The medieval garrison fortress
beneath the Louvre!

Notre-Dame Cathedral

The two things I always remember about the Notre Dame is that it can hold 9,000 people and was one of the first buildings to use flying buttresses (arched exterior supports) after cracks appeared in the walls. It's the quirky stuff that seems to stick in my mind! Also, Napoleon had his coronation here. It's free to get in, but there is a charge to go up the tower or visit the museum.

Notre-Dame Cathedral

Inside the Notre-Dame Cathedral

Inside the Notre-Dame Cathedral

Shakespeare and Company

This remains my favourite bookshop (sorry, Waterstones!). I just love the maze of rooms, the atmosphere, and all the lovely books. (I've previously blogged about it here). I've bought rather too many books recently, however, so had to content myself with this pretty notebook instead.


The Conciergerie 

With its turrets and spires, the Conciergerie looks very much like the royal palace it once was, but during the French Revolution it became a prison. It's most famous prisoner was Marie-Antoinette, who spent her last two months here before her execution in 1793. In 1815, her cell was transformed into an expiatory chapel in her honour, complete with altar and three paintings showing scenes from the last few weeks of her life. A number of objects that supposedly belonged to her have also been carefully preserved in glass cabinets.

Chair once used by
Marie-Antoinette - allegedly!

Clothing once worn by
Marie Antoinette - allegedly!

One of the paintings of
Marie Antoinette from
inside the expiatory chapel

Place de la Concorde

After the Conciergerie, it seemed logical to visit the Place de la Concorde - once known as the Place de la Révolution. This was where many victims of the French Revolution died on the guillotine, including King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette. It is the largest square in Paris, at one end of the Champs-Élysées.

The obelisk in the centre is known as The Luxor Obelisk, and was originally located at the entrance to Luxor Temple in Egypt (it's twin is still there!). It is 75 ft high and over 3,000 years old, and was gifted to France in 1831 by Muhammad Ali Pasha.

The Luxor Obelisk

There are two monumental fountains in the Place de la Concorde. This one is the Fountain of River Commerce and Navigation, and was completed in 1840.

The Fountain of River Commerce and Navigation
Place de la Concorde

Arc de Triomphe

Napoleon commissioned the Arc de Triomphe in 1806 in honour of his 'great army' and his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz - but it took 30 years to finish it. At the base is the tomb of the unknown soldier, and every evening at 6.30 pm a torch is lit in memory of a French soldier who died in battle during WWI. Until we arrived, we didn't realise that it is possible to view Paris from the top of the building. Unfortunately it was growing dark and, while Paris is beautiful by night, we thought we'd wait until our next visit (hopefully!) to see this fabulous city by daylight!

Arc de Triomphe


Tuesday 1 August 2017

Gladstone's Library, Hawarden

If you follow me on social media, you'll know that in addition to old houses and castles I also love book shops and libraries. Last week I finally got around to visiting somewhere I'd always wanted to go, Gladstone's Library in Hawarden, with two of my friends from Novelistas Ink: Valerie-Anne Baglietto and Sophie Claire.

Gladstone's Library, Hawarden

It's a beautiful old building, built in 1906 to replace the original one, and is Grade 1 listed. We arranged our trip on the pretext of calling it a business meeting but although there was lots of talking, and much coffee and cake consumed in the cafe, there wasn't a lot of 'business' discussion!

A statue of Gladstone in the grounds

I'm sorry that my photos are a little bit blurry. The library is a place of work and understandably expects visitors to maintain complete silence. I became a little self-conscious about using my camera, which emits a cheerful electronic trill every time I take a picture, so I switched to using my mobile instead!

The Reading Rooms

Gladstone's Library is named after William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), who served four terms as Prime Minster - more than any other person. He was also Britain's oldest Prime Minister, finally retiring at the age of 84. He had a large personal library and was keen to make it accessible to others not so fortunate, donating over 32,000 of his own books - mainly theology and history.

The Reading Rooms

Legend has it that he carried the books between the family home at Hawarden Castle and the library himself, with only the aid of a wheelbarrow, his valet and one of his daughters.

Some of Gladstone's personal possessions

The library is now home to more than 150,000 books, journals and pamphlets. Some are over 400 years old, some are first editions. Some still contain Gladstone's personal notes written in the margins!

The library is also a residential library and has 26 bedrooms available for anyone wanting to 'sleep' with the books! Anyone can visit but only residents and 'readers' can use the library (it is free to join). But there are short tours lasting about ten minutes, known as 'Glimpses', three times a day. The library also hosts various programmes and events, including their annual festival, Gladfest. There is a cafe, Food For Thought, open seven days a week, and conference rooms available for hire.

I think I feel another Novelistas' 'business meeting' coming on ...

Left to Right: Valerie-Anne Baglietto
Louise Marley and Sophie Claire
(in the cafe!)


Photo Credits:

All photos were taken by me, except the group shot © Sophie Claire.

Monday 29 May 2017

The Italian Blog (or, what I did on my holidays...)

You may have noticed I've been a little bit quiet. This is because I've spent the past week in Venice! I did go with my usual intention of keeping up with emails, social media and the rest. I even packed my work-in-progress - but was hampered by packing four chargers and not a single adapter. #EpicFail. And you know how I love my Kindle! As it turned out, we were too busy sight-seeing to miss our phones and Kindles.

Basilica di San Marco
We got lost three times on the first day, and twice on the second day - and then we lost our map. But we soon realised this was the best way to 'discover' the real Venice, and we stumbled upon several fabulous churches (containing the most incredible art), along with museums, exhibitions and palaces. So we spent the rest of the holiday happily getting lost!

Lots of shopping!
We had a lovely hotel just two minutes walk from St Mark's Square. It meant we could get up early and explore the city before it grew too busy.

The Grand Canal
 I didn't fancy a ride in a gondola but a water taxi was provided as part of our transfer to and from the hotel, and that was fun - although every time we went under one of those little Venetian bridges I was reminded of the video for Madonna's Like a Virgin and instinctively ducked. 

The tickets to get into these places
were works of art in themselves!

The Basilica di San Marco

My favourite place was the Basilica di San Marco, because of the fabulous gold mosaic ceilings. The original basilica was built to house the relics (bones!) of St Mark the Evangelist - stolen from Alexandria by Venetian merchants with the help of two Greek monks (there's definitely a story there!). The mosaic over the entrance shows St Mark being welcomed to the city. The present building dates from about 1093 but has been greatly embellished and those gold mosaic ceilings cover an area of more than 43,000 feet.

Front Entrance
The Basilica is free to enter (hence the huge queues; once inside, you shuffle around in one long crocodile) but you can access various extras such as the museum, the treasury and the Pala d'Oro for a few Euros.  Entry to the museum also gains you entry to the gallery, where you can see the ceiling at close range, the famous bronze horses (the ones outside are replicas), as well as the outside balcony with views of St Mark's Square.

Palazzo Ducale

The Palace was the residence of the Doge - a kind of chief magistrate. The Doge's Palace was in the most part constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries, and some of the greatest painters of the 16th century were responsible for the beautiful ceilings that show scenes from Venetian history.

The Doge's Palace is on the left
(photo taken from the Basilica balcony)
The Doge's crowning took place at the Scala dei Giganti (The Giant's Stairway), so called because of the huge statues of Mars and Neptune at the top - symbolising the power of Venice over land and sea.

Scala dei Giganti
(The Giant's Stairway)
Fabulous ceilings -
you'll spend a lot of time looking up!

The Bridge of Sighs

The Bridge of Sighs was built in 1600 to connect the prison with the interrogation rooms in the Doge's Palace with two parallel corridors. While beautiful on the outside, it is fairly grim on the inside! The most famous resident of the prison was Giacomo Casanova, who managed to escape through the roof, re-enter the Palace and then walk out through the porta della carta (the entrance to the court). The bridge was given its name due to the story that prisoners would sigh as they crossed from the palace to the prison and caught sight of the outside world through the windows.

The Bridge of Sighs
Not so pretty on the inside!

The Campanile di San Marco

If you get the chance, you must view Venice from the top of this famous bell tower. Although originally built in the 10th century, it suddenly collapsed in on itself in 1902. It has since been rebuilt using as much of the original stone as possible. The queue is relatively short compared with other sites, there is a lift to the top and you can see the whole of Venice stretched out beneath you.

The Campanile di San Marco
(The Bell Tower of St Mark)
The bells, the bells!
View from the top

Teatro La Fenice di Venice

We stumbled upon this theatre by accident. We couldn't arrange to see a performance, as there weren't any during our visit, but for a few euros you can pay to tour the interior, which is pretty spectacular - as you can see from the photo below. The original building (which burned to the ground in 1996) was founded in 1792 and staged a number of world premieres, including operas by Rossini and Bellini. Maria Callas debuted here in 1947 and there are several souvenirs from her performances on display.

Teatro La Fenice di Venice
(The Phoenix Theatre of Venice)
Ca' d'Oro

This is one of the palaces on the Grand Canal. The name means 'golden house', because it was once decorated with gold leaf. It's currently home to Baron Franchelli's art collection. There were lots of famous paintings (van Dyck, Bellini, Titian, etc) but they all went over my head a bit. Because I love old buildings, it was the palace itself which fascinated me!

Ca' d'Oro
(Photo taken from the Grand Canal)
The interior courtyard
Amazing tiled floors
Santa Maria della Salute

This minor basilica is on the other side of the Grand Canal, almost opposite St Mark's Square. It was built in 1630 to give thanks for deliverance from an outbreak of the Black Death in 1603. Most of the objects of art within the church reference the plague. It's an iconic part of the Venetian skyline and has been painted by many artists, including Turner and Canaletto.

Santa Maria della Salute
Iconic view!
Santa Maria della Salute


Related Posts:

A Writer's Holiday - in which I visit Tuscany, Florence and Luca
When in Paris ... 

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