Category Archives: Cumbria

An author interview

Me (in Madeira, a couple of years ago)

I’m delighted to say that this week my long-term internet friend and fellow author Anastasia Abboud posted an interview with me – find it on Goodreads at, or directly on her blog at

What’s in the interview? Well, a whole lot of background stuff about my own move from London up to Cumbria, as well as something about my writing history and the transition from ancient history to science fiction… and back again.

Kindle Cover - Half Sick of Shadows
Kindle Cover – Half Sick of Shadows

The immediate trigger for the interview was when Anastasia read Half Sick of Shadows, and we talk a little bit about that book in the midst of other things.

As an extra incentive, my historical fiction series (In a Milk and Honeyed Land, Scenes from a Life, and The Flame Before Us), together with two of my science fiction books (Far from the Spaceports, and Timing) are on Kindle Countdown deals this week, with price dropped to £0.99 and $0.99 on Amazon UK and US respectively. Navigate to for some extracts from the historical series, or for some from the speculative ones.

Finally, there’s a longish extract from what I am provisionally calling Quarry, which is my leap back into the even more remote past. Quarry explores the Langdale Axe factory and the people who lived and worked there – it’s at a very preliminary stage just yet, but hopefully as lockdown eases and life goes back to normal I shall have more time to develop it.


Elterwater Quarry and the Langdale Pikes
Elterwater Quarry and the Langdale Pikes

Life has been busy of late with one thing and another, hence another gap in blogging. There are lots of reasons for this, lots of different things going on, but one of them has involved a lot of trips to Elterwater Quarry in the Langdale Valley, to collect lots of slate chippings (“20mm crusher run“, to be precise). Of course, once the chippings arrived back at the house, there was all kinds of wheelbarrow and shovel work to get them where we wanted, but that wasn’t what I was going to write about.

Langdale axe, found at Ehenside Tarn, now in the British Museum (J Miall, on Wikipedia)

The picture above shows one of the many piles of chippings at the quarry. In the background are the Langdale Pikes, where, something like 5 or 6000 years ago, there was a highly skilled and specialised quarry. Stone axes made from Langdale stone have been found throughout Britain and Ireland – one estimate suggests that over a quarter of all stone axes found in the British Isles come from Langdale. Some evidence suggests that the work at Langdale was largely extraction and rough shaping, with final polishing and finishing happening just north of what we now call Sellafield, near the west coast of Cumbria. Quarrying at Langdale went on for a very long time, and my suspicion is that all manner of work, from generic to skilled, happened there at one time or another.

The truck at Elterwater Quarry
The truck at Elterwater Quarry

There are many quarries in Langdale, and the valley routes through the Tilberthwaite area, down towards Coniston. Most of them are much more modern than Langdale, and most of them are slate quarries, though here and there you will find places where metals or minerals used to be extracted. Almost all of them are worked out now – Elterwater is one of the few still operating in any capacity. The Tilberthwaite walk takes you through and past long avenues of slate spoil heaps, left among the trees which are steadily reclaiming the area. It is easy to imagine a time when these quarries would have been the workplace for hundreds of local men. At one stage many of the quarries were small-scale, family or team enterprises. As time went by they gradually aggregated into larger organisations.

Moving slate at Elterwater
Moving slate at Elterwater

As well as the numerical decline in active quarries, there has been a parallel decline in skilled stonemasonry work. Until about this time last year, Elterwater sold not just stone and chippings, but worked stone. Skilled stonemasons were employed – slate is a very attractive stone to see in buildings, but it is tricky to work with. Last winter all that changed: the skilled workers were laid off, and the quarry transitioned to selling raw material only. When you go now, there is a handful of people working – a young lad at the weighbridge who takes your money as you leave, and a few guys operating heavy machinery. Our little truck was one of the smaller vehicles there, and it is common to see much larger lorries heavily laden – our vehicle takes around a ton and a half with comfort, which is rather less than a single scoop of the digger in the picture, and considerably less than most vehicles leaving the quarry.

Elterwater and older quarries up the side of Lingmoor Fell
Elterwater and older quarries up the side of Lingmoor Fell

It is a strange feeling to be both participating in an industry that has been carried out in this area for millennia, and also witnessing what may well be its final decline. There’s a lot of slate still lying around, but as you wander about it takes hardly any time to see similar piles of slate now abandoned – Lingmoor, Chapel Stile, and the Langdale Pikes themselves all stand out. Now, if I lived in the villages of Elterwater or Chapel Stile, I might well be heartily fed up with the regular passage of heavy lorries, with all the vibration, noise and dust that are produced. Maybe it’s a better solution to ship stone around the world from somebody else’s quarries, though it’s hard to believe that it makes economic sense.

Turning to fiction, I still have a long-term aspiration to write about the Neolithic quarrying on the Langdales – the very beginnings of all this stonework that still continues here, albeit in a different form. At the time, the Langdale valley was thick with hazel trees and squirrels, as well as skilled masons. It also has a number of sites showing the as-yet-undeciphered rock art originating in the same era, of which the most prominent is at Copt Howe, just outside Chapel Stile. One opinion is that the markings on this outcrop served as a kind of map of the valley and its mineral wealth. If so, we cannot read the map any more.

Looking to the future, I am sure that quarrying will continue into the future I write about in Far from the Spaceports and its sequels. I’m sure that habitats on moons and asteroids will be constructed by devices derived from today’s 3d printers, but they will need raw material, and what better substance than the granulated and ground rocks of the surroundings? I suspect that the process will be more automated, and so involve even fewer people, than Elterwater Quarry employs nowadays.

Elterwater quarry and the Langdale Pikes
Elterwater quarry and the Langdale Pikes


Grimspound (Wiki)

Grimspound is a Late Bronze settlement in Devon, in a rather wild and remote part of Dartmoor. I went there years ago – about which more later – but my present focus on it has been because of listening to the track of that name by the prog rock group Big Big Train (it’s on the album of the same name).

Now, my visit to it was with two friends as part of a summer trip down to the west country in the university holidays – a considerable part of the time was spent sampling local ales and ciders, including a particularly memorable evening in Exeter. One of the three of us was studying archaeology, and took us over to Grimspound: a long drive on remote roads followed by a walk of a little over a mile to the ancient monument.

One of the hut circles at Grimspound (Wiki)

Looking back, this was one of the most significant parts of the whole time away for me – I had been curious, in a vague sort of way, about history before that, but never really about ancient history, or prehistory. The way that my friend talked about Grimspound, and what we know of the culture that spawned it, caught my attention and kindled a fascination for these remote times. That holiday was a very long time ago – over 40 years now – but the fascination has remained with me ever since.

White Moss circle, Eskdale Moor, with Great Gable on the skyline

Now, the opening stanza of the song goes:
What shall be left of us?
Which artefacts will stay intact?
For nothing can last

– rather melancholy, perhaps, and the whole song has the feel of a lament. But like so many of the Bronze Age and earlier monuments I see up here in Cumbria, there is a sense of enormous loss. Typically, the places where these sites are found – presumably each a thriving nexus in its time – are desolate and remote, located far from the locations that we prefer in our own age. The adjacent picture is taken on Eskdale Moor, nowadays a vast and empty expanse between Eskdale itself and Wasdale, but back in the Late Bronze a busy spot which has left us numerous enigmatic remains.

Hence the lyrics of the song. Grimspound, White Moss on Eskdale Moor, and a whole host of other similar relics have left us perplexing hints as to a lost culture. These places were thriving settlements, or religious centres, or trading markets, or reminders of political alliances, or… something. We just don’t know what, and the loss of that sense of human activity occasionally weighs very heavily. No doubt at the time they expected that their way of life would be remembered by those who came after, but we have forgotten it, and no longer have any clear understanding of what the stones and their alignments signify. So we too should be asking, what will remain of us?

One of the many structures along Hadrian’s Wall

It’s nice to imagine that in a modern world, with writing commonplace and electronic recording devices readily available, that everything will remain – the dull and dreary along with the exciting. But perhaps not. Even within the electronic age, we have a great deal of information stored in formats, or on storage media, which can no longer be accessed. Go back a few years, and the problems multiply. As some know, I have recently finished walking Hadrian’s Wall – built during an age when writing was reasonably common, and as part of an empire which was at times slightly obsessed with recording minute administrative details. But you cannot walk the wall without becoming aware of how little we know of that structure. What, for example, was the function of the Vallum? There are lots of suggestions, but no consensus. Why did the design specification change between laying the foundations and building the wall? Even – and this is such an obvious thing – how much toing and froing was there from one side to the other on a daily basis? So much of the wall is a riddle, and there are many questions we would love to ask of those who built and lived along it.

If, as I hope and expect, humanity starts to settle on other planets and moons than Earth, I wonder how long it will be before are descendants lose touch with things that we take for granted. It’s something of a trope in science fiction – Isaac Asimov’s books presuppose that the location of Earth is lost, and scholars debate endlessly which of several contenders was the original cradle planet. But I’m not so much talking about the loss of sense of a home planet – it’s more the loss of how life was lived that intrigues me here. I have very little idea how my British forebears of a couple of thousand years ago lived, even with all the artefacts that have survived. Go back another thousand years to the time of Grimspound and Eskdale Moor, and I have vastly less idea. What will remain of us?

Here, for the curious, is the YouTube link to the Big Big Train song (…

“The Immortal Yew” – Some Thoughts

Cover, The Immortal Yew (Amazon)

As a digression from my recent science fiction posts, here’s one about the natural world, and its intersection with history. I have been reading through the Royal Botanic Gardens’ book The Immortal Yew, written by Tony Hall, and finding it fascinating.

The first part of the book covers, in a kind of whistle-stop tour, various snippets of curious facts and suppositions about yew trees, while the remaining 4/5 lists a total of 76 particularly impressive yews around the country. Most of these are in England and Wales, with a few in Ireland and one in Scotland.

I guess most of us encounter yew trees in churchyards – the jury is out as to whether the origin of this custom was spiritual (yew trees have symbolised immortality and resurrection in more faiths than just Christianity) or practical (it stopped farm animals from grazing their way through the graves). Either way, this location has meant that the trees were protected from casual lopping, and so have survived. And indeed the majority of the showcased yews are in churchyards.

Martindale Yew branches
Martindale Yew branches working their way across the soil

It is surprisingly hard to determine how old a yew tree is – the main trunk hollows out after a few centuries, losing all the heartwood and almost all the associated tree rings. To add confusion, a few centuries later still, the tree puts down another central shaft which, as it were, grows in place of the original trunk. All the while, the original bark keeps growing around the outside like a kind of shell. Low branches drape along the ground and frequently put down their own roots, resulting in a cluster of rooted trunks. It is often hard to tell whether we are looking at a single tree or several grouped closely together. Historical records can help, and typically tell us that some of these yews are well over a millennium old. How much over a millennium? We just don’t know, but there is circumstantial evidence that yews can live for perhaps 3000 years. Such trees considerably predate the churchyards they find around them. It is likely that yews are the oldest living things in Europe. The Martindale Yew (close to Ullswater lake) may well be 1500 years old. The church building (known as Old Martindale church, to distinguish it from the new one up the road) dates back to 1220 – a respectable age, but dwarfed by the tree it nestles beside.

With such antiquity, and a whole slew of medicinal and military associations, yews have a firm place in European folklore. One snippet I particularly liked related to Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life connecting the various worlds. Normally reckoned to be an ash tree (Wikipedia certainly thinks so), the references in the Poetic Edda suggest it is both evergreen and needle-bearing… neither of which applies to ash trees. Was Yggdrasil a gigantic yew tree? Seeing some of the magnificent specimens photographed for The Immortal Yew, it is easy to think so.

So next time you are near a churchyard, drop in to say hello to the yew tree which will almost certainly be growing there, and think about what it has witnessed during its lifetime. Each and every yew has quite a story wrapped up in its substance, and could be woven equally into history or fantasy.

The Martindale Yew with the church in the background

Preparing to build

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about aluminium smelting. Today’s topic is a little more prosaic, but historically has been a much more frequent part of building projects.

The various bits of wood – house beams in front, oak timbers behind

One part of remodelling the bar at The Good Sport is to replace the bar worktop. The old one was a hybrid affair with some chipboard and some stone – the new one is made of wood taken from various sources. There are former house timbers dating from some time in the mid 19th century. They’re very cool, not least for the history they have witnessed. Then there are frame support pieces made just from builders’ merchants supplies, probably pine or something similarly quick growing. But the best sections are two large pieces of oak, rescued by a local craftsman when the tree was felled. These are cut top to bottom along the trunk, so you cannot count the rings and find out how old they are – but my guess is that they considerably outdate the rest of the installation. (The top-to-bottom orientation means that the grain runs along the counter top).

But the thing I want to talk about today is not the age of the wood, but the preparation that has gone into it. The two pieces had been supplied to us reasonably smooth – but “reasonably smooth” menas “not smooth enough” when it’s a thing that people will be leaning on. So one of my jobs these last few days has been to turn “reasonably smooth” into “really smooth”.

One of the pieces of wood, together with the belt sander

Now, since this is 2019, I used a selection of power tools to effect this change, mostly a belt sander with a number of different grades of sandpaper. Even with that, it took a decent time to go over the top surface multiple times, working from coarser to finer passes. I was extremely happy with the result, but it also led me to consider how things might have been in the many ages of our world before power tools were invented. After all, sanding wood is an activity which lends itself to thinking about other things while you’re working away. How long, I mused, would this have taken me if I was doing it all by hand? And would the final result have been anything like so pleasing? After all, wood-smoothing is not something that I have done much of in my life to date, and I wouldn’t call myself especially skilled at it.

Swimming reindeer, c.13,000 years old (BBC)

Human history is full of exquisitely crafted objects, meeting needs somewhere between religion, art, and practical necessity. This swimming reindeer figure was made around 13,000 years ago – I don’t know how long it took the original artist to fashion it, but I’m guessing that it was rather longer than the time I put into smoothing two essentially flat pieces of wood. Not to mention the huge number of practice hours he or she had put in since childhood.

Now, I only smoothed one side of the wood – the pragmatic nature of today’s world means that I wasn’t motivated to do much to the hidden side except to make sure it was proof against various kinds of wood pests. But back in the day, if the kings or the priests felt it important to take just as much care on the hidden side as the visible one, then you would just have got on with it.

Which brings me to the future. There’s a developmental principle in some games – those in which the time frame of the game is spread out over many years – that items which are available only to the wealthy in one era get diffused more and more widely through the population as a whole as you go forward in time. I guess the standard example is computing power – back in the 1950s and 60s, computers could only be owned by large institutions or extremely wealthy individuals. Now we all have much more powerful machines we carry around in our pockets. Similarly for smooth bits of wood – once upon a time it took real skill and craft to create something smooth and shapely from a rough-hewn piece of timber. Nowadays anyone who wants can go out and buy power tools and achieve something similar by themselves (not necessarily with artistic flair, but certainly with polish).

The world’s first 3d-printed house (BBC –

Now, as and when we get to build colonies and habitats in various places around the solar system, my bet is that we will use 3d printing as our construction technique. After all, it’s way simpler and cheaper to ship out a large printer to wherever you’re going, and use that to construct tools, equipment, and habitat sections – much cheaper than paying for the fuel to send actual construction materials. That’s very cool, but unless the technology advances in aesthetic ways as well as practical ones, I can’t see 3d-printed building materials having a wood grain that can be sanded and then picked out with oil. On one level it doesn’t really matter – you’d prefer that your house on, say, the asteroid Ceres was airtight and warm, even if that meant not having a wood grain to look at. Or maybe we’ll have a printer add-on that will simulate the grain in whatever direction you want.

After preparation…

Metal Working

Civilisation Box Art (Wiki)

Since I first discovered it – many years ago – I have loved the game of Civilisation. I was introduced to version 1 of the computer game by a work colleague, and since then have played various variants of both the computer and the board game. Of course there are all kinds of opinions about which is best, which I don’t propose to go into. But one of the key features was the technology tree – the very very long series of inventions and ideas you pursued in order to build new stuff and so develop your culture.

Now, one of the very early developments was Bronze Working (which allowed specific kinds of military units and civic wonders). This was a prerequisite for Iron Working and – after a very long time – Metallurgy.

The smelting fire
The smelting fire

So, what has this to do with today’s blog? Well, yesterday, as a small part of a sizeable remodel of The Good Sport bar, we had cause to do some invention ourselves. We weren’t working with Bronze or Iron, but rather Aluminium. Now, a purist will perhaps object that Aluminium is not on the Civ tech tree – at least, not any of the variants I have played – which is true. And also that we were not starting from bauxite or any other naturally occurring raw material, but rather from some handy spare aluminium sheets that were lying around. All that is true: nevertheless we did have to melt said stuff and refashion it for our own purposes.

Now, aluminium melts at just over 660° C, which is well above the temperature of a domestic oven, or camp fire. So our solution was an old beer keg, lined with cement to retain heat and equipped with an air inlet to one side. Inside was a charcoal fire, and a handy air compressor pushed air in through the tube to keep the charcoal burning fiercely. Aluminium was cut into small strips and put in a steel jug – steel having a much higher melting point. And then we waited, entirely unsure whether the whole thing was doomed to failure.

About to pour the liquid aluminium
About to pour the liquid aluminium

But as you can see, it all worked! Slowly but surely the aluminium melted into the rather fine puddle that you see in this picture. It would be nice to say that we had been totally confident in all this, but not so – we were as amazed as anyone when this happened. We felt, just for a few moments, like real discoverers. Yes, all the technical data about melting points is easy to obtain these days, and yes we had those handy aluminium sheets as starting point, but even so the sense of triumph when it turned into liquid was extraordinary!

Pouring the liquid aluminium
Pouring the liquid aluminium

So what did we do with our liquid aluminium? Well, here it is being poured into a surface hole in a piece of wood. Why that destination? Well, that will all become clear – hopefully – over the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, this all set me thinking about metallurgy in general, and how it has affected human society. Of course Civilisation focuses on just a few things – military units that can now be built, particular buildings that facilitate further development, and “wonders” which enhance your prowess (ie score) and make your people happier. But in reality, metal working permeates every aspect of life.

We take it for granted now that a household object is made of whatever material is most suitable – metal, ceramic, fabric or whatever. We have whole fields of study concerning the various properties of these materials, such as their hardness, ability to transmit or suppress noise, colour, safety, electrical conductivity, and so on. But starting way back in the mists of time, and carrying on through all of our history until now, people have had to find these things out by trial and error. What were the properties of those shiny veins in rock layers? Why could I shape one metal easily and not another? Would my camp fire soften them? How must I change my camp fire so I can work with the more intransigent metals? How can my sword edge be sharper, or my armour tougher, or the wheels on my vehicle stronger? In a very small way, we felt something of the same exhilaration that our hugely distant ancestors must have felt, seeing copper melt for the first time, and be shaped into something new – something distinctly human.

Spacehounds of IPC cover (Wiki)

Looking ahead into the future, we generally assume that we will carry the ability to fashion metals (and other useful substances) with us wherever we go. But every so often you get stories where someone is stranded and has to build it up again. This was an especially popular theme in the 1930s and thereabouts – Spacehounds of IPC being a classic example. Our Hero, forced by circumstance onto an uninhabited moon (with breathable atmosphere) has to start from next to nothing except a small tool pack, and build his way up through small camp fires to blast furnaces and ultimately the ability to recharge the power banks on his derelict lifeboat. Until yesterday, I was totally sceptical about this storyline… but having turned an old keg, some charcoal, and a handy air compressor into something that could melt aluminium, I became slightly more convinced!

More of this another time: for now here is a final picture of the “forge” as it died down in the late evening. You can easily imagine us around it, feeling foolishly triumphant…

Around the camp fire
Around the camp fire


The empty fireplace
The empty fireplace

This week I helped swap over an old wood-burning stove for a new one. As has been my experience of all practical jobs, what had promised to be a fairly straightforward out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new process ended up having unexpected wrinkles. The chimney pot also needed replacing (since the old fire didn’t draw very well), and a new chimney liner had to be put in. And there was an old liner which had to be pulled out – both liners follow a chimney which is about ten or eleven metres high, so these were interesting tasks in themselves.

The new fire installed
The new fire installed

Then an old hearth had to be taken out (which has already happened in the picture above, thanks to the very large drill on the floor, plus a sledgehammer and other hefty tools). Then the new stove had to be moved into position and the exit pipe fastened to the chimney liner with suitable gunk.

Then the paintwork had to be touched up where it had been bashed about by all this. And finally the copious amounts of dust – from stone, soot, brick and ash – had to be cleaned up on pretty much every surface in the room!

The story has a happy ending – the new fire really does light, as you’ll see below, and early impressions are that it is doing a better job than the old one. But while doing this job, I had plenty of time to contemplate fire. Or more widely, energy.

There are some places on planet Earth where people can live without using any energy source for heating, though most places need something at least in wintertime. But every society that I know of, world-wide, has harnessed fire for cooking. This isn’t just for aesthetic or culinary satisfaction – the process of cooking food makes a much wider range of nutrients accessible to our digestive system in much more reliable quantities. So the harnessing of fire for cooking – something like a couple of million years ago, give or take – liberated our hominid ancestors to get on with other things rather than have to forage endlessly. They could prepare food so as to use it more efficiently, and store it so as to survive lean times.

The Venus of Willendorf, c. 30000 years BCE (Wiki)
The Venus of Willendorf, c. 30000 years BCE (Wiki)

They could invent fish hooks and jewellery in their spare time, create artwork and conduct sacred ceremonies. (They also designed weapons of increasing effectiveness, and social orders which exaggerated differences in wealth between individuals, but we’ll skip over that for today). The use of fire for cooking seems to coincide with one of those great leaps forward in the often-slow process of human development, signalling this opportunity for our remote ancestors to explore and comprehend their world with intelligence.

Cover - In a Milk and Honeyed Land
Cover – In a Milk and Honeyed Land

All this happened in remote prehistory – long before the Late Bronze Age of In a Milk and Honeyed Land and its sequels, and long before the Langdale world where Quarry will be mainly set. By those times, fire and cooking were established parts of life whose origins were lost in the unfathomable world of the ancestors. But fire – energy – has remained a key part of our expanding world. Our ability to inhabit every part of the world has relied totally on our ability to maintain adequate warmth in our houses. An unprotected human in the middle of an Antarctic winter wind would die within thirty minutes at most, and would be crippled long before that.

A wood-burning stove is basically a very old bit of technology – except the one I helped with was made of metal, which pushes the date much more recent. But the problem it is helping to solve is perennial. Nowadays we don’t actually need to burn wood to generate heat, though many people find the experience of being warmed by an actual fire to be more comforting and engaging than just switching on a radiator. Energy from many sources is fed into our electricity grid – coal, water, wind, oil, nuclear, solar – and whatever the source, it runs an electric fire very nicely. The choice of our national energy spectrum of sources is – and should be – made according to national and global considerations, not whether I personally happen to have one device or another.

Artist's impression, Juno probe near Jupiter (NASA/JPL)
Artist’s impression, Juno probe near Jupiter (NASA/JPL)

And the situation become more stark as we go out into space. Space, as well as being mind-bogglingly big – is a weird place. In one sense it is freezing cold – a warm body will radiate away energy at a steady rate. But in another sense it is full of energy – light from the sun, electromagnetic radiation, and down at a quantum level a whole sea of vibrant energy just waiting to be collected. Whether we send out a robotic probe like Dawn, or we go elsewhere in person, we either take our energy with us or we collect it from the void around. The Juno probe has huge solar power collectors – each of those three panels in the picture is about the height of a typical house – and it is operating  almost at the outer limit of where such solar panels can be used. Probes that go further from the sun must carry their energy with them, and when it runs out they will die.

Cover, Tau Zero by Poul Anderson (Goodreads)
Cover, Tau Zero by Poul Anderson (Goodreads)

Most science fiction writers assume that the spaceships that they write about can refuel somewhere in space – maybe by gathering up interstellar hydrogen as they travel about using one variation or another of an idea of the physicist Robert Bussard – Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero was a relatively early novel making use of a Bussard ramjet, and at some stage Star Trek script writers decided that this was how the Enterprise and other similar ships gathered fuel (alongside matter-antimatter reactions and dilithium crystals). That way your ship can carry on boldly going without the inconvenience of having to stop at a nearby starbase just to load fuel into the necessary bunkers.

However it’s done, people will continue to need energy – fire – wherever they go. I think it’s most unlikely that energy sources in my science fiction books look anything like a wood-burning stove, but whatever they do look like, they serve the same purpose.

The new wood-burner alight
The new wood-burner alight

Invasion, migration and assimilation

Cover - 1066 and All That (Goodreads)
Cover – 1066 and All That (Goodreads)

Last weekend, a whole bunch of people, including a number of my online friends, have been remembering and reenacting the events surrounding the Battle of Hastings – 1066 and All That. It so happens that everyone I know who was at Hastings the other day favoured the Saxon side, from which perspective Harold is a fallen hero, who came so close to repelling the invaders in the south as well as the north. But I suppose that a great many of the participants took the Norman side, and so found themselves once again victorious.

In fact, most people I know prefer the Saxons, and harbour a deep-seated wish that things had gone differently. Perhaps this comes from a desire to cheer on the underdog, or from hearing about how viciously the Normans set about securing the land they had claimed (especially in the north). But I suspect it is also because we were brought up on tales of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men, striving as disenfranchised and downtrodden Saxons against their wicked and uncouth Norman overlords.

Hastings reenactment 2016 (Getty images via BBC)
Hastings reenactment 2016 (Getty images via BBC)

I have to admit that, personally, I struggle to see the Saxons as unequivocally the nice guys in our history. My own historical preference is earlier, often swimming in the uncertainty and veiled mystery of times before the written word gave us its particular perspective. And from my view, the Saxons (and Angles, etc) are new arrivals who themselves had claimed a new land by often violent methods. The tales of Arthur and his Companions, stripped of their courtly Medieval topcoat, tell us of a time when British and Welsh leaders tried to protect their homes from wave after wave of incoming aggressors.

Statue King Arthur at Tintagel (Trip Advisor)
Statue King Arthur at Tintagel (Trip Advisor)

Ultimately their stand was a failure – from south to north the Saxons defeated and occupied British land, and the points of resistance were only sandcastles in a rising tide. Perhaps the last to fall was Dunmail, in what we now call Cumbria. As this last king of the British lost his last battle, his last few loyal men took his crown and cast it into Grizedale Tarn, so the new usurper would not have the satisfaction of claiming it. Like Arthur, the promise is that Dunmail will – one day – arise again to claim his crown and kingdom.

Grizedale Tarn from Dollywaggon
Grizedale Tarn from Dollywaggon

So – making what I suspect are controversial statements – I kind of feel that there was something karmic in the events of 1066. The Saxons had arrived and pushed aside the earlier occupants, and now something very similar was happening to them.

Now, arrivals into a country are a curious thing. It’s worth thinking about how we reconstruct what happened. In the past we have had to rely on written perspectives, often put down on paper, papyrus, or clay many years later by the winners or their ancestors. Or we look at archaeological remains, which by their nature can only say so much about their owners. Did the same culture adopt new artefacts quite suddenly? Or did a new culture simply reuse the same things as their predecessors? Nowadays we can have a bit more insight from DNA testing, and the outcome of this has sometimes supported and sometimes challenged prior expectation. More of that later.

DNA map of Great Britain (University of Oxford via The Independent)
DNA map of Great Britain (University of Oxford via The Independent)

There are basically two ways that new arrivals interact with those people already there. Sometimes there is violent displacement of the old by the new. This seems to have happened in Bronze Age Britain, where there is hardly any genetic continuity between the Beaker People and their Neolithic precursors – the great stone monument builders have left almost nothing of their genetics throughout most of Britain. This DNA result rather overturned the prior thinking that the change represented a peaceful transfer of ideas.

Other times the old and new quietly absorb each other and are enriched by the process, playing out on a national or regional level the process of human reproduction, with all its delights and difficulties. Newcomers might arrive for all kinds of reasons, martial or peaceful, but after a few years one finds a fusion of the two emerging – a child of both originals.

A beaker of the Beaker People (Natural HIstory Museum)
A beaker of the Beaker People (Natural HIstory Museum)

Now, at the time of arrival, nobody knows what will happen, and it’s natural for the current inhabitants to fear and deride the incoming hoard. So the Saxons did to the Normans.. so the Britons did to the Saxons… so the Neoliths did to the Beaker People… and no doubt so the Neanderthals did to the Homo Sapiens clans. We still see this played out today, as nationalist politics finds innovative ways to arouse anxiety about “the other”. They’ll take our jobs… they’ll impose their religion… they’re not like us… slogans about “the other” can be found in pretty much every part of our world, fuelled by migrations and flights from war and famine. Personally I remain optimistic, and look for the creative fusion of cultures rather than the catastrophic collision. But looking back at history, it takes effort to find creativity, and we humans don’t always manage it.

Going back to DNA, there are still limitations. We can now – tentatively, and extrapolating from individual cases – identify where intercourse has combined the heredity of two cultures. So we know that the DNA map of Britain correlates pretty well with some historical events, and not with others. We know that pretty much all humans outside Africa have a significant percentage of Neanderthal DNA. We know that a teenage girl’s finger from Siberia shows her to be the child of one Neanderthal parent and one Denisovan parent, some 90,000 years ago. But what we don’t know is the circumstances of the intercourse. Was it a socially sanctioned event, even a personally consenting one? Or was it something darker, the result of forced prostitution or rape? DNA cannot tell us, but that’s the kind of detail we would like in order to uncover the interactions of peoples. It’s one of the great anxieties of mankind – do the newcomers arrive in peace or war?

Siberian cave where the girl's finger was found (Bence Viola/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)
Siberian cave where the girl’s finger was found (Bence Viola/Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)

Weather – here on Earth

"Alexa, open Cumbria Weather"
“Alexa, open Cumbria Weather”

I thought I’d blog about weather today, firstly because it often matters when writing about the past, and secondly as a kind of shameless advert for my most recent Alexa skill. Let’s get that out of the way first – it’s called Cumbrian Weather, and it requests a short-range forecast from the Mountain Weather Information Service. Why not just use the built-in weather service on Alexa? Well, MWIS focus on weather insofar as it impacts outdoor pursuits such as walking, cycling, rock-climbing and so on. So the forecast includes essential things like whether the peaks are covered in cloud, what the temperature is at 750m, what height you reach freezing point as you climb up, and the like. All of which interest me, so I have accessed this data-feed and present it through Alexa. Like all my Alexa skills to date, it is entirely free to enable and use.

Rough weather on Bryher, Isles of Scilly
Rough weather on Bryher, Isles of Scilly

Which brings me nicely to the impact of weather on historical fiction. You get macro-level events that shape the whole story, such as drought, floods, a long winter, and so on. These are often used to set the scene, or the tone, for a book. Storms at sea are a staple of maritime fiction, and are a handy device for placing characters in unforeseen circumstances.

But in daily life as well as fiction, it’s also the smaller scale events that can derail the best intentions. And the nature of these events varies hugely with location. In London, where I am writing this, then the impact is often seen on transport – the famous autumnal “leaves on the track” problem which no doubt will be affecting commuters before long. A century or so ago, pollution and fog could easily combine to produce an unpleasant, unhealthy, and all-but-impenetrable smog.

Puma Mountain rescue helicopter practicing in low cloud near Fairfield
Puma Mountain rescue helicopter practicing in low cloud near Fairfield

Up in Cumbria, a night’s rain in the wrong place can end with localised floods. Storm Desmond, back in the winter of 2015, left major roads unusable, and washed away several bridges, quite apart from the impact on houses and shops. That aside, you can have a run of several days when even low peaks and ridges are invisible because of low cloud, frustrating work and movement between valleys. The various mountain rescue teams are regularly called out to succour people who have been caught by surprise up a height, and are completely unprepared for a weather change.

These more rapid, more local shifts and switches are every bit as important to fictional characters, as their real life equivalents are to us. Naturally, the particular kinds of weather change that matter to people vary from place to place – one location may have low cloud and mist, another one sudden blizzards, and a third sandstorms. It’s as well to find out what your characters might have to contend with!

Next week I’ll be having a quick look at weather on other planets. Not yet an everyday topic for most of us, but potentially it will be in a few years.

Meanwhile, here’s another quick reminder of Cumbrian Weather… available now in the UK Alexa store, and to appear soon in other stores world-wide.

Amazon Dot - Active
Amazon Dot – Active

A first extract from Quarry

I’ve made occasional comments about a prehistoric novel I am planning, set in what we now call Cumbria, and tentatively called Quarry at this stage, Well, I had thought that this was only at a very early planning stage, and that I wouldn’t start actually writing anything until The Liminal Zone was done and dusted – and possibly The Authentication Key (=Far from the Spaceports vol 3) as well. (For any readers waiting for those two books, fear not… they are definitely in progress…)

But as things turned out, Quarry has been nagging at me until I put something down, so here is an extract. It is probably from very near the start, if not the actual opening. Bonus points to anyone who can not only identify the high ground mentioned, but also the tarn… (tree cover in the period in question was much more extensive than now)


Quarry image
Quarry image

Bran woke, all at once as the unfamiliar sun kissed his eyes. He had bedded down the previous evening at the edge of a stand of short trees, all bursting into greenleaf. A broad swathe of grass ran down to a round pool.

The clouds had lowered as he reached the mere, and he had read that as a sign to stop. Not that the sign meant much, as cloud and springtime mist had walked beside him from the moment, two days ago, when he had started to climb up from the broad valley into the hills. The stones of a gathering circle, straddling the place where five ways crossed, had swum out of fog as he neared them, and he had turned half-left and stumbled along the ancient ridge track, anxiously placing his feet where so many others had walked, until the next cairn appeared. And the next, and the next, until he was weary of half-seen forms, and chilled by the wind and the droplets of water that clung to wool and leather, hair and skin.

The mist had stayed with him through all of that day and the next, veiling the peaks and ridges on either side. When he finally stood in the travellers’ place at Pen-y-lugh, the long lake it stood on was shrouded, the east and west shores soon fading to shapeless bands of darker grey. The townspeople, seeing the set of tools at his belt, and the tattoo of the stone-workers clan, had directed him up a gentle track. He had left the settlement again, and worked an easy way around the side of a crumpled hill.

Now there was morning sun, and a still air that left not a ripple on the circle of water in front of him. His shadow fell across it as he stood, and the trees opposite – oak and birch, hazel and holly – stood upright on the heels of their own reflections. He looked down at their length stretched out in the water, and saw below all of them an arc of grey rock, speckled with white.

He looked up again, eyes tracing the trunks and the leaves, until he was looking at the real spur instead of the reflected one. It was his first sight of the place where he would work. From here, it was a two-headed beast. A long curved ridgeback ended in those proud upraised horns. Perhaps it had once settled from the skies onto the valley wall, its fiery ardour slowly solidifying into crag and rock. Or perhaps it had welled up from the world below, forming these shapes as it contended with the outward air. Now it was cold and hard, and the snow of winter still streaked its spine and flanks.

He leaned back against the rowan tree which had sheltered him last night, and gazed, filling himself with that first sight. Somewhere below those outcrops, he supposed, his dwelling-place was waiting, though it was hidden from him by all the forest between. But his task, day after day, would be to clamber up between the beast’s paws, to find and follow its congealed veins as they wound their precious way back into the stone body. There he would tease out the best of the unformed teardrops of rock, and shape them into gifts. Gifts for war or gifts for love: each one would be a thing of beauty drawn out from the mountain.

A squirrel chattered nearby, and a family of wagtails began to dabble along the water’s edge. It was time to go; it was time to finish his journey to the quarry.