Back to life on other planets…

Our solar system - comparison of sixes (BBC)
Our solar system – comparison of sixes (BBC)

It’s a while since I added to my occasional series concerning the exploration of life on other planets, so here are some thoughts about the giant planets in our solar system. Largest of all is Jupiter, followed by Saturn, then Uranus and Neptune. Each of these has a collection of moons, but I’ll deal with them another day. We also know of a number of exoplanets of this size circling other stars – big planets being easier to detect than smaller ones, other things being equal – but that’ll be the subject for another day.

These large gas giants are characterised by hugely deep atmospheres, in which the pressure rapidly builds to intolerable levels as you drop down through it. It is unclear whether there is a hard surface at any point, or whether the gases of the upper layers simply get progressively denser and more viscous with depth. With no obstructions to stop them, wind currents circle the planet and stir up giant storms that can last for decades. It is not an obvious place for life to thrive.

Spacehounds of IPC - cover (Goodreads)
Spacehounds of IPC – cover (Goodreads)

Science fiction writers have, nevertheless, speculated about life here. Some authors simply ignore what we know (or were writing at a time when much less was known), while others try to weave their stories alongside the facts as we understand them. Typical of the first is EE (Doc) Smith, who was never shy of hypothesising life anywhere, and took great delight in speculating how environmental pressures would shape an alien race’s outlook on life, as well as their physiology. He placed several races on gas giants, including Jupiter. Such races, in his view, would be not only squat and strong – to cope with the gravity – but arrogant and condescending towards the weaklings of other worlds. A large part of Spacehounds of IPC deals with a long-running war between the hexans and the Vorkuls, inhabiting two opposing cities and fighting an impeccable war against each other. The Earthlings help resolve the fight by siding with the more morally upright side – they have little enough in common with either, but the hexans turn out to be unacceptably vicious and ruthless.

The Algebraist - cover (Goodreads)
The Algebraist – cover (Goodreads)

Iain M Banks, on the other hand, tried to take a more nuanced view. A couple of his books – including The Algebraist, for example – present life on gas giants as essentially floating, by analogy with oceanic creatures here on Earth. Different kinds of life coexist at different levels of the multi-layered atmosphere. Some of these interact, for better or worse, and others never meet.

Current scientific thinking is less optimistic about life of these giant planets, preferring to think about their moons. That’s a subject for another day. But there was a fascinating piece of analysis I read recently, trying to tackle the question of whether denizens of the gas giants would develop space travel. Basically, the rocket problem is that of managing your fuel. You need a certain amount of fuel to send your object of interest – the payload – up from the surface to orbit. But the payload has a protective casing, which you don’t need in orbit but which weighs something. Then there’s the fuel you’ll burn, and the container holding it… and these also weigh something. So you need more fuel to push up all that lot… and so on. Think back to how small the Apollo moon landers were compared to the entire Saturn V launch system.

The most fuel-efficient way to accomplish this is to have booster stages that are used in the early part of the flight, and then detached when empty to reduce weight for the next stage. Until the advent of reusable vessels like the Space Shuttle, and more recently Elon Musk’s launch vehicles that return to a soft landing, all of these lower stages were single-shot throwaway items. Now, that’s a problem for us here, but in turns out to be a much bigger problem if you are starting from a larger planet. Even one twice Earth’s mass would present difficulties, and Jupiter has about 300 times the mass. Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket can place about 50 tons of payload into low earth orbit. Taking off from Jupiter, the same rocket could only get 40 kilograms into space. Would a race of beings living on one of these gas giants – even supposing they wanted to look through dense layers of cloud to see what was outside and spark their curiosity – have the resources to embark on space exploration?

One of Cassini's last images of Saturn (NASA/JPL)
One of Cassini’s last images of Saturn (NASA/JPL)

Weather – away from Earth

Last week I talked about weather on Earth, both in fact and fiction. This week, suitably enough, it’s time to think about the other planets in our solar system. And there’s plenty to talk about.

Dust storm front, northern latitudes of Mars (ESA Mars Express)
Dust storm front, northern latitudes of Mars (ESA Mars Express)

The obvious first place to start is Mars – the atmosphere is thin there (ground level on Mars is about the same as 30 km altitude here, high above the Himalayan peaks), but it’s well able to have weather patterns. There are seasonal changes, with the polar ice caps (frozen CO2, or dry ice, rather than water ice) growing and shrinking as the planet tilts one pole or the other towards the sun. Then there are erratic changes, such as dust storms which can build up over a substantial area. The Martian opened with one such storm, and the book version had a second which threatened Mark Watney’s journey towards rescue (the film skipped over this one). In the real world, back in the summer, one such storm of vast proportions cut off communication between NASA’s Opportunity rover and mission control. The problem here is not actually caused by fierce winds buffering the craft, but that the dust has blocked its ability to capture sunlight and so generate electricity (the exact problem Watney faced late on in The Martian).

Storm on Saturn seen by Cassini probe, 2010 (NASA)
Storm on Saturn seen by Cassini probe, 2010 (NASA)

Venus has ferociously fierce winds, and if ever we try to build a permanent settlement on the surface there (which personally I doubt, since orbital or high atmospheric bases would probably suffice) then they will need immensely strong anchors, and extraordinary resistance to high levels of heat and acidity. There are outline plans at present for building a lander able to survive for a few months, rather than the few hours which is all that has been achieved to date. Jupiter and Saturn have no discernible surface – probably one exists, but the pressure would be intolerable well before you reached it. They also have huge storms spreading thousands of miles across.

Artist's impression, dust storm on Titan (PGP/Labex UnivEarthS/University Paris Diderot – C. Epitalon & S. Rodriguez)
Artist’s impression, dust storm on Titan (PGP/Labex UnivEarthS/University Paris Diderot – C. Epitalon & S. Rodriguez)

But several of the moons of the giant planets are more promising. Recently, dust storms were spotted on Saturn’s moon Titan… not sand as might be on Earth or Mars, but great clouds of organic hydrocarbon molecules are stirred up into its atmosphere. So there’s definitely weather on Titan, and pretty much everywhere else we look.

Moons like Titan have been known to have atmospheres for some time, but as well as this, our solar system contains a lot of small bodies which used to be thought of as entirely airless. Closer investigation has shown that many of these actually have very thin layers of air around them. In some cases these are probably generated by underground deposits of liquid and gas which slowly ooze to the surface and evaporate. In others, we don’t yet know how they came into being. But these discoveries are reshaping how we think of our sibling worlds, and by extension the worlds we are spotting around other stars.

New Horizons image of clouds on Pluto (NASA/JPL)
New Horizons image of clouds on Pluto (NASA/JPL)

Back in 1950, EE (Doc) Smith, in First Lensman, could describe Pluto as being rocky and entirely barren. We couldn’t say that any more, not after the New Horizons probe sent back this fantastic image of air and clouds above Pluto. In Liminal Zone, my protagonists on Pluto’s moon Charon witness such changes both outside the dome where they live, and also when they look up at Pluto. Weather, it seems, is pretty universal, and will go on forming a topic of conversation for a lot of years to come.

And in a final stop-press, the existence of a new dwarf planet has just been announced. The finders were actually looking for the enigmatic Planet Nine, whose existence is suspected from a variety of gravitational anomalies in the orbits of other far-out objects. That has still not been detected, but instead they found 2015 TG387, dubbed The Goblin for simplicity. This newly recognised member of our solar system has a fantastically elongated orbit. At closest approach it is still well outside the orbit of Pluto, and at aphelion it strays 35 times as far away. It takes around 40,000 years to complete an orbit: last time it was in its present position we were sharing much of the planet with Neanderthals.

Orbit of 2015 TG387 (Roberto Molar Candanosa and Scott Sheppard, courtesy of Carnegie Institution for Science)
Orbit of 2015 TG387 (Roberto Molar Candanosa and Scott Sheppard, courtesy of Carnegie Institution for Science)

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.


Red dwarf stars, and life away from Earth

After a few weeks in which I have been thinking about ancient Cumbria, this week I’m back in space again. In particular, this post looks at some possible locations for alien life which, until recently, were considered most unlikely. Over the last few years, thousands of planets have been identified by equipment both on Earth’s surface and in orbit. We now know that planets are exceedingly common in the galaxy, and that on average, each star has more than one planet. There are more planets near us than stars. Many of these are large in size, gas giants like our own Jupiter and Saturn – larger planets are obviously easier to detect than smaller ones – but a great many are small and rocky, more like Earth.

Artist's impression - the seven planets of TRAPPIST-1 (ESO)
Artist’s impression – the seven planets of TRAPPIST-1 (ESO)

The most extreme case we know of is designated TRAPPIST-1 (the acronym originating from the Chilean telescope which first detected them). This has seven planets, so the system is broadly like our own. And a very recent analysis suggests that each of them has liquid water at its surface, and in some cases considerably more water than we enjoy here. If we were to travel the forty light years to get there, we might well find a world which is entirely ocean.

But as well as the striking nature of the planetary system, the sun itself is interesting. Up until fairly recently, the search for life elsewhere was focused on stars which were as similar to our sun as possible. It was assumed that this was necessary in order for the associated planets would be like Earth. But TRAPPIST-1 is not at all like our sun – it is a comparatively cool red dwarf star. Red dwarfs are extremely common in space, but they are small and dim, and until modern orbital telescopes revealed the true situation, were thought to be rare.

Comparison of solar system sizes (ESO)
Comparison of solar system sizes (ESO)

Now, red dwarf stars are much cooler than our sun, between 1/3 and 2/3 of the effective temperature, so for a planet to be in the Goldilocks Zone – neither too hot nor too cold – it must be much closer to its sun. But that’s OK – in the TRAPPIST-1 system, all seven planets orbit well within the distance that super-hot Mercury circles our sun. Indeed, that system is not much larger than that of the moons of Jupiter. Red dwarfs are miserly with their energy, so you have to huddle in close to the fire to get any warmth. But along with that, they burn at their low rate for a hugely longer time than our sun will last. The hotter and brighter the star, the less time it shines for. Too short a stellar lifetime, and their might not be time for life to develop on whatever planets are around. Red dwarfs give their planets massive amounts of time to develop.

Right now we have absolutely no idea whether any of the TRAPPIST-1 planets supports life – or indeed any of the myriad other red dwarfs and their planets in our quadrant of the galaxy. But if you were a betting person, you’d be more likely to bet on life arising around a red dwarf than a super-hot star like Sirius.

Artist's impression, Ross-128b (ESO)
Artist’s impression, Ross-128b (ESO)

Now, 40 light years is inconveniently far away from Earth for exploration in reality or fiction. Our current generation of telescopes can find out a decent amount of information about the 7 planets of circling TRAPPIST-1, but not nearly as much as one would like. And if you consider near-future science fiction, without warp drives, wormholes, or other exotic ways to travel around space -as I do – then 40 light years is well beyond a realistic journey time. Happily, there are other red dwarfs much closer to us. One of these, which has been studied with great excitement for a few years now, is called Ross 128 (the rather boring name coming from a catalogue number). It has at least one planet (Ross 128-b) which appears to be a little larger and more massive than our Earth, and some calculations suggest that its surface temperature may well be around 21C. Ross 128 is only about 11 light years from Earth, so is getting towards the we-might-send-something-there territory.

I thought about using Ross 128 as the focus of interest in my in-progress novel The Liminal Zone, but in the end pitched for the even-closer Gliese 411 – another catalogue name, which for fictional purposes has been rebranded something more interesting. Gliese 411 is under 9 light years away, and is the 4th-closest star system to us. The planet Gliese 411b is, so far as we can tell, larger than Earth, and almost certainly rather hotter, but (probably) not so hot as to preclude interesting things there. And its proximity to us makes it a credible target for the Breakthrough Starshot project, in which tiny “spacecraft” with roughly the capability of a mobile phone are boosted towards their target by a laser beam shining against a light-catching sail. The miniature spaceships are called Sprites, and last year were tested for their ability to communicate from space after being launched from Earth. Each is just a few centimetres square, weighs just 4 grams, and costs a few tens of dollars. The entire actual cost of the mission is in the devices needed to boost these Sprites to their final speed.

Starshot’s current plans are for Proxima Centauri as target – the nearest star to us, a little over 4 light years away – and a boost to 1/5 light speed. Proxima Centauri is in fact another red dwarf star, and a very recent theoretical study suggests its planet may have a large ocean and survivable temperatures… though so far we lack real observations which might confirm or refute this, and other studies have suggested that the radiation levels are uncomfortably high for life to thrive.

My fictional version is a little more ambitious – Gliese 411 and 1/2 light speed. A journey time of about 17 years, plus the time taken for the homeward bound signal on arrival, means about a 25 year lag from lift-off to analysis of results. It’s still a long time, but less so than some space projects – it is now over 41 years since the two Voyager spacecraft left Earth, and we are still following them. A very recent theoretical study

As to what happens in The Liminal Zone once these little ships get there – well, it’s still work in progress, but hopefully you’ll get a chance to see for yourself early next year!

The Liminal Zone (temporary cover)
The Liminal Zone (temporary cover)

High Street, ancient trackways, and Romans

Ullswater, looking roughly south-west towards Helvellyn
Ullswater, looking roughly south-west towards Helvellyn

As well as Boot and the Hardknott Pass, which I’ve been talking about the last couple of weeks, I spent a fair amount of time around Ullswater while in Cumbria. It’s the second longest of the lakes (after Windermere) and has often been claimed to be the most aesthetically pleasing. For example, Wainwright called it, “that loveliest of lakes, curving gracefully into the far distance“. Be that as it may, it certainly has a wealth of natural beauty and historical interest. But the fact that at many points around its shores, the hills encroach very steeply, means that it is only thinly settled, and parts of it are quite difficult to approach except on foot or by using one of the several launches that go to and fro.

Helvellyn against the skyline
Helvellyn against the skyline

The particular part I want to focus on runs down the eastern side of the lake. It is another part of the Cumbrian network of ancient trackways – later adopted by the Romans for their own purposes. This one is now called High Street, running by the hill of that name a little further south, and ultimately connects to Ambleside… and hence Hardknott, Boot, and the coast.

The Cockpit, looking roughly south
The Cockpit, looking roughly south

My starting point, after some gentle approach climbing up from the lake, was at an ancient stone circle called The Cockpit. Nobody knows the original name, or indeed the original purpose. It probably dates from the Bronze Age, could be up to about 5000 years old and is one component of a large collection of ancient sites on Moor Divock. Whenever and whyever it was built, it lay then as now on a crossroads. A roughly north-south route from Penrith to Ambleside crosses a roughly east-west route coming across from Castlerigg (near Keswick) to the Eden Valley and Shap. The much later Romans would be making similar journeys, though they were more interested in their settlement near Cockermouth than in looking at the Castlerigg stone circle. And nowadays casual explorers like me go there.

Milepost marker
Milepost marker

So from The Cockpit you head south – like Burnmoor near Boot, the current terrain is wild and slightly boggy, but back in the days of prehistoric occupation it was rather more pleasant. There’s a long steady climb up towards Loadpot Hill, but well before you get there you can see many of lakeland’s most dramatic peaks in the distance – Blencathra, Skiddaw, the whole length of the Helvellyn ridge, and then Fairfield and others heading south. You also regularly see other signs of human occupation, from other prehistoric arrangements of stones through Roman mileposts, to a very few much more recent (and ruined) dwellings. The track itself stretches out in front of you, and there’s a real sense of walking in the footsteps of a whole throng of ancestors. You really could walk on through the Kirkstone Pass and down to the shores of Windermere, provided you were equipped for the journey.

(Former) Roman altar, old St Martin's church
(Former) Roman altar, old St Martin’s church

I didn’t do that, but turned off the ridge into Martindale, where one last historical treat awaits. The current old church of St Martin’s dates from Elizabethan times, but a church has been there since the Middle Ages. The font – which has been used there for some 500 years – was originally a Roman altar, retrieved by some enterprising villagers from somewhere along High Street. In the graveyard is an ancient yew, which some believe is among the oldest living trees in England and could be up to 1300 years old. That would probably predate the first appearance of Christianity here, and would mean that, like the Roman altar, it had once been involved in very different expressions of spirituality.

All in all a great walk, and one to revisit at some stage. And, of course, all good raw material to stir into the (pre)historical novel Quarry which is slowly coming together in my mind.

The ancient ways...
The ancient ways…
...and the ravens overhead
…and the ravens overhead

Hardknott Pass and the Roman fort of Mediobogdum

The road up to the Hardknott Pass, from the west
The road up to the Hardknott Pass, from the west

Last week I talked about my trip across to Boot and thence up onto Burnmoor to enjoy the prehistoric monuments there. Readers will remember that I had got there over the Hardknott Pass. But the pass itself enjoys another ancient ruin – the much more recent Roman fort of Mediobogdum. It is surprisingly well preserved – presumably because it is far enough away from any of the nearby farms that the stones were not robbed too extensively for building projects.

Galava (?) Roman Fort, Ambleside
Galava (?) Roman Fort, Ambleside

It’s one of those forts which makes you curious about the Roman predilection for building forts at regular intervals. At least, I presume that this is the reason for building just here. The next fort along is down at Ambleside, at the top end of Windermere – we suspect that this is either Galava or Clanoventa as mentioned by Antonine, and the local publicity strongly favours the first of these. That fort – which is also worth a visit – has been nicely reconstructed so you can easily imagine the life of the garrison, with easy access along northern, north-eastern, and southern land routes, and a decent-sized port to access the lake. But from Ambleside you can also head  more-or-less due west, towards the distant sea. To get there you have to cross ridges containing some of the highest Lakeland peaks, and the Romans – like modern road-builders – chose to go over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes.

(As an aside, just to finish the chain of forts and roads, you can head roughly north-west from Ambleside to get over the High Street route (which was an ancient track long before the Romans borrowed it) up to near Penrith and thence on to Hadrian’s Wall. I’ll be saying more about High Street in another post soon. From Penrith you could also go along what is now the A66 west towards Troutbeck, or east towards Appleby-in-Westmorland. Or southwards towards Kendal, Kirkby Lonsdale and Lancaster.)

Hardknott Fort, looking towards the Irish Sea and Isle of Man
Hardknott Fort, looking towards the Irish Sea and Isle of Man

But then we get to the business of regular intervals, The Romans could have marched on a few miles further down into the valley before building their next fort – say down to the village of Boot, which is comparatively sheltered and protected. But no – the fort was built high up in the pass. In summer it is a spectacular place, with views all the way down Eskdale to the Irish Sea and over to the Isle of Man. The road ended at the sea, at Itunocelum. Now, on a fine day, it would be a great place to be posted. But even in summer, you get a lot of days with low cloud pressing a long way down the pass, or wet trade winds bringing drizzle or worse up from the sea. My guess is that even in summer, you get the great views at most one day in three.

Hardknott Fort
Hardknott Fort

And then there’s the winter days, when a soldier in the garrison would expect lots of gloom, cold and darkness! If you had come up here from southern Italy, you might well be wondering where on Earth you had come to! It’s not even as though there were large numbers of hostile natives to keep at bay – it would have made more sense to site the fort somewhere else.

But here is Mediobogdum. On a clear day it is genuinely spectacular, and also gives a peculiar insight into Roman military thinking.

Hardknott Pass
Hardknott Pass

Prehistory between Eskdale and Wastwater

Burnmoor Tarn, with Scafell and Great Gable behind
Burnmoor Tarn, with Scafell and Great Gable behind

A few days ago I finally achieved a long-standing goal of walking north from Boot (in Eskdale, Cumbria) up towards Wastwater. Boot is quite remote, to say the least. The shortest route from Grasmere, by a considerable margin, is over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes, but these are difficult in a lot of weather conditions, so some folk take the longer route around southern Cumbria via Ulverston and Broughton-in-Furness. Happily the weather smiled on my journey, so the passes needed only ordinary care – and I’ll be writing a bit more about Hardknott on another occasion. Wastwater has a reputation of being the most remote lake in all of Lakeland, but since it has a fairly direct route up onto Scafell or Scafell Pike (depending which track you choose at the start, down in the valley) it still attracts a decent number of people.

Looking toward the Irish Sea from Burnmoor
Looking toward the Irish Sea from Burnmoor

The attraction for me was the chance to see some of the prehistoric sites just north of Boot. Today the region is a rather damp and unprepossessing tract of moorland, but back in the Neolithic and Bronze ages, it supported a reasonable population who (presumably) found it a pleasant spot to live. Times change. Back then, the sea level in the north-west of England was probably somewhere between 10 and 30m above where it is now. The change is principally because the land has risen rather than the sea level falling. As the weight of ice fell away from the land after the close of the last ice age, say about ten thousand years ago in round numbers, the land bounced back (the technical term being “isostatic rebound“). If you take a map of present-day Cumbria and shade in another 20 metres worth of sea, you find that places like Boot were not so far away from the coast.

Not only that, but the vegetation was quite different. Much larger tracts of land were wooded. It is not yet clear whether the trees formed continuous forest, or were scattered in coppices, clustered around the various tarns and streams. Whichever of these is the case, the landscape back then would look very different from what we see today. This change is partly climatic and partly to do with land clearance – the (fairly recent) adoption of sheep farming in the hills has had the side-effect of considerably reducing the tree cover. Some places have kept a decent amount of woodland, but others have almost completely lost it.

Rocky outcrop above Boot ("the altar")
Rocky outcrop above Boot (“the altar”)

As you climb up from Boot, passing some comparatively recent peat-cutters’ houses, you come up onto the moorland plateau. To your left is a belt of lowland, leading to the Irish Sea. Ahead, if you have picked the correct track up onto Burnmoor, is a large rocky outcrop. It overlooks not just one or two stone circles, but no less than five! The first – Brat’s Hill – is the largest, comprising 42 stones in a 30 metre ring, and containing 5 burial cairns in the interior. Following this are two pairs of two smaller circles – White Moss are closer, and Low Longrigg further away.

Brat's Hill circle, with Great Gable in the distance, and the slope of Scafell to the right
Brat’s Hill circle, with Great Gable in the distance, and the slope of Scafell to the right

Why five circles so close? Did they serve different purposes? Did some fall into disuse and needed to be replaced? Did they belong to different clans or religious groups? Or take turns of importance according to some rota? Were the smaller ones practice rings for children or novices? We just don’t know. Most people assume that the outcrop was used as an integral part of the whole – perhaps to summon people to the place, or address them once there. Was it used for group exhortation, religious ritual, treaty negotiation, or social debate? Whatever the original use, it is often now just called “the altar”. Today, as well as the sea off to one side, the great peaks of Scafell and Great Gable overlook the plateau. It is a magnificent place. Perhaps the stone circles were originally in woodland glades – in which case some of the distant views would not be visible. But my personal suspicion is that the trees stopped well short of this area, and that the long views of mountain and sea were an important part of the experience.

Maiden Castle
Maiden Castle

Further on – once you have torn yourself away from the rings and skirted the fringe of Boat How – you get to Burnmoor Tarn, nestling in a hollow of the surrounding ridges and overlooked by Scafell. On the northern side the path goes over a saddle and down into Wastwater. And up in the saddle there is a more substantial ring of stones, called Maiden Castle (as so many of these places are). The stones are about 7m across, and are positioned on a slightly larger dry area, raised a little above the damp moorland. It is almost certainly a burial cairn, and you have to wonder who wanted to be buried here, overlooked not just by Scafell and the Gable, but also several other more northerly peaks which have by now become visible.

From here, I turned back to Boot, but you could go on exploring this plateau for a considerable time. But whether you stay a long or short time, the area leaves more questions than answers in your mind. What were these circles used for? Politics, religion, or just fun? One day, I intend exploring these questions in fiction, with an as-yet-untitled story centred on the stone axe “factory” in Langdale… I now have a working title – Quarry – but not much storyline yet…



My music album challenge

Something completely different for today – I was challenged on Facebook a while ago by a friend to name ten albums which have had a great influence on my life. I found the whole exercise to be hugely rewarding, and got a great deal of pleasure out of searching back through years of memory to identify suitable items.

So I decided that it would be silly to squander the work on ten posts scattered here and there in Facebook, and so have gathered them all together into one place – for my own convenience as much as anything else!

So here we go…

Cover image - Yes... Going for the One (Wiki)
Cover image – Yes… Going for the One (Wiki)

1. The first is an album which I first discovered at university (feeling very risqué at the cover), and which I still listen to now. It’s Going for the One, by Yes, full of tracks which I love (and a few I’m not so struck by). The cover image is courtesy of Wiki…
Here’s a YouTube link to Awaken, perhaps the finest track on the album, and long enough it is in two parts…



Cover image - Pink Floyd... Dark Side of the Moon (Wiki)
Cover image – Pink Floyd… Dark Side of the Moon (Wiki)

2. The second album goes a little bit further back than the first – back into school days in fact when this album grabbed all of us by storm. Yes, it was Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon (cover image courtesy of WIki). Originally a London group, I have never heard them play live.


Cover image - Wishbone Ash... Argus (Wiki)
Cover image – Wishbone Ash… Argus (Wiki)

3. Day 3 of the album challenge took me back to university days again. This time it’s Wishbone Ash, and Argus, something I listened to over and over. Another British band, this time from the West Country (rumour had it that they were the loudest band ever to play Exeter University). The YouTube extract is Time Was… a splendid track to introduce this album


Cover image - Peter Finger... The Elf King (Amazon)
Cover image – Peter Finger… The Elf King (Amazon)

4. Day 4 marks a transition from things that influenced me as listener to things which I tried to imitate as player. And I start with Peter Finger, a German acoustic guitarist who I tried (almost entirely unsuccessfully) to emulate. He did wonderful stuff with open tuning as well as conventional. This album – The Elf King – is the first of his that I came across.
The track I’ve chosen from this excellent album is Sabine… well worth a listen…


Cover image - John Fahey... The Best of John Fahey (Amazon)
Cover image – John Fahey… The Best of John Fahey (Amazon)

5. Day 5 continues the theme of albums that influenced me as player. Peter Finger’s music was always seriously above my ability level, but John Fahey was a different story, and I tackled a lot of his work. He played a lot of pieces in dropped-D or various open tunings, of which this – On the Sunny Side of the Ocean – is one.
And in a never-before-heard-by-the-general-public move, I am linking to a very old and quite noisy recording of me playing this wonderful piece…


Cover image - John Renbourn... The Hermit (Wiki)
Cover image – John Renbourn… The Hermit (Wiki)

6. Day 6 brought another of my playing influences. This time it’s John Renbourn, and out of all his sundry guitar work I have picked something from The Hermit. Specifically, it’s a selection of three pieces originally by the Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan, transcribed for guitar. The pieces are
1. Lamentation of Owen Roe O’Neill
2. Lord Inchiquin
3. O’Carolan’s Concerto
I played these on both guitar and lute (for a while) and loved them. The rest of the album – and the rest of Renbourn – is well worth dipping into as well!

Cover image - 10 Classic Rags ( (Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop,
Cover image – 10 Classic Rags ( (Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop,

7. Day 7 was another playing choice, and this time it’s a compendium called 10 Classic Rags for Guitar by Scott Joplin, as played by various artists.
I’ve chosen Weeping WIllow, played by Ton Engels, not because I know very much about Ton or have listened to much of his playing, but because this was a rag I worked on a lot. I’m not saying I ever got especially good at it, but it’s a nice, pleasant but challenging piece to play. I’m sure it’s available still in tablature somewhere…

Cover image - Mike Oldfield... Tubular Bells (Amazon)
Cover image – Mike Oldfield… Tubular Bells (Amazon)

8. Day 8 took me back again to my listening choices rather than playing… and back a lot of years to an album that hugely affected me and a great many other people… Tubular Bells, by Mike Oldfield. How many of us practiced saying “Mandolin” in the privacy of our rooms?
Here’s a link to the full album, original (remastered) version…

And if you want a very different – and very compelling – version, here it is live at Montreux in 1981…


Cover image - Camel... The Snowgoose (Amazon)
Cover image – Camel… The Snowgoose (Amazon)

9. Day 9, and once again it’s a band which I started listening to many years ago, and still do now. I even heard them once at what was then Guildford Civic Hall (it’s much posher now and called by a much grander name). The group – Camel… the album, well it;s the first of theirs I got to know, namely The Snowgoose, a thoroughly splendid instrumental piece, thematically built around the Dunkirk “small ships” rescue.
The track? Well, it’s not an easy choice, especially as the pieces flow and merge into each other, but I’ve gone for Flight of the Snowgoose, a central part of the whole album…
Whole album

Flight of the Snowgoose


Cover image - Kayak... Merlin, Bard of the Unseen (Amazon)
Cover image – Kayak… Merlin, Bard of the Unseen (Amazon)

10. And finally for Day 10, last one of the series, I thought I would come into the present day, and a band which (surprisingly) I only encountered recently. The band: Kayak… the album I have chosen: Merlin, Bard of the Unseen, with its overt Arthurian theme.
Album cover courtesy of Amazon .
And the specific track is Lady of the Lake (Niniane)

Why this? Well, my own writing is tending to draw on Arthurian themes just now, and Ninane in particular is a fascinating figure who (in time to come) will get a bit more narrative treatment from me in her own story…

That’s it folks, all ten albums, spanning something like 35 years of my musical life! And a great trip it has been… and will no doubt continue to be…

In memoriam – Diana Milne

In Memoriam
In Memoriam

Many of my blog readers will know that Diana Milne died recently, and although we all knew that her health was not at its best, her death came very much as a surprise. Among her many talents, I best knew her as co-admin of The Review blog, where her sense of humour and incisive mind are hugely missed. Others will know her in different capacities – family member, friend, business person – and will, no doubt, be remembering her in their own ways. But as well as that interaction, I wil also remember her as someone who enjoyed and commented with appreciation on my flower pictures, which are scattered around this post.

I’ve decided to pick out a few extracts from the “Diana talks to…” interview which she did with me back in January 2017

In Memoriam
In Memoriam

D: If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?

R: I’m a rebel here and an enthusiast of epublishing – so I’d want my readers to pick their own font at will rather than feel they had to put up with my choice. Just for fun, I tried seeing what my books look like with the fairly recent dyslexic font available in many Kindles – I couldn’t read it all the time but it was a useful exercise seeing what it was like.

D: Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?

R: The founding statement of principles of the first colony on the asteroid Ceres, at the point it transitioned from being just a commercial mining settlement into a real human community.

In Memoriam
In Memoriam

D: Have any of your characters ever shocked you and gone off on their own adventure leaving you scratching your head??? If so how did you cope with that!?

R: A minor character from Far from the Spaceports has developed something of an interesting life of her own – and will continue to do so in #3 (provisionally called The Authentication Key). I just went with the flow, presuming that my subconscious knew all about this.

D: How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?

R: For historical fiction, yes, lots, and yes I have (some of the Greek islands, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel). For science fiction, I’d certainly be up for a trip to the asteroid belt – or even Mars – if anybody offered it. Sadly, the opportunity has not yet presented itself. For the emerging fantasy books, I guess the research is more into internal space rather than external.

D: Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?

R: Never hated them – I wouldn’t bother to write about them if I hated them. But there are definitely people that I would get seriously fed up with if I had to work with them. But love some of them, oh yes.

In Memoriam
In Memoriam

D: What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?

R: Mostly good science fiction or good fantasy. I have got a bit chary of some historical fiction as there is a trend for high body counts and the like. But when I find a book I like then it doesn’t really matter what genre it is. As a rule, I prefer novella or novel length books to short stories.

D: What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?

R: Russian Caravan tea. [Note from Diana… Russian Caravan is a blend of oolong, keemun, and lapsang souchong teas, all produced from Camellia sinensis the Chinese tea plant] Or maybe a really nice Jasmine green tea. Or just possibly a local ale if something stronger takes your fancy.

And we must not forget her staple question…

D: Marmite? Love it or hate it? 

RIP Diana…

In Memoriam
In Memoriam

Writing, both historical and speculative