I made no posts in June or July. My only excuse is the I have been busy bouncing edits to and fro with my editor progressing my second novel, ‘BIRCHLAND HALL, toward publication in September. I’m now waiting for a proof copy through the post to get the physical feel of the book in my hand.

Birchland Hall is a novel of family drama revolving around a Victorian mansion in the West Yorkshire town of Dewsfield, set in the late 1990s. Birchland Hall Chip Cover.jpegCousins Mo and Freddie Holtbury, strangers since an unfriendly childhood, now in their fifties, meet on a bleak October day, the only family at Aunt Ethel’s funeral. Neither has married, both are only children. The dilapidated mansion, built by their great-great grandfather, with its contents, is their joint inheritance.

Strangers to Yorkshire, they discover the sway their Holtbury forebears held in the once proud manufacturing town. They face an unsought responsibility to bring life back to Birchland Hall.

Over months the cousins’ lives entangle, searching for family connection.

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Last week I went to see the film ‘Dunkirk’. It was at a small cinema, an afternoon showing in the second week. There were less than twenty people watching. Looking round I guessed I was the only one there alive in 1940. Two weeks after my first birthday I was blissfully unaware of the time we were living through. My mother, married for eight years with two sons, 5 and 1, and her husband in France not knowing whether she would see him again.

My father did get home. Captured by the encircling enemy, he seized a firearm, shot his captor, jumped from a window and fled on foot getting back to his regiment and to the Dunkirk beaches. He got a place on a British paddle steamer that was bombed and sunk mid channel. He stripped off and swam eventually getting rescued, stark naked, by a French warship, which explains why he arrived in Dover dressed as a French sailor.

My brother must have had some understanding of what was happening, but it was only years later that I understood how harrowing a time it had been for my parents and so many families, many less fortunate than ourselves. All through the film I was thinking of the crisis  the country, so many families and my mother and father had lived through. It was an emotional journey and strange to leave the cinema into the summer daylight to find the small town outside going about its day-to-day business.


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I can’t let May 2017 pass by without mentioning, again, the House Martins that have flown back to Fordhollow. How many of these are from last year’s brood (or broods, we think there were two hatched from the one nest)? we cannot know. Today there are a great number here flying up to the eaves of the house and building nests. They must carry a lot of mud as the nests build rapidly, in a couple of days, and the door and windows below are splattered with mud where vital material has dropped before its intended destination.

The abundance of House Martins nesting on the house was a good reason why we moved here twenty-three years ago. IMG_1432Not the sole reason, but a significant attraction. For several years we enjoyed their return each May, then numbers declined, in part because our abundance of sparrows fought off the new arrivals breaking the old and new nests. For two or three years we had no House Martins here at Fordhollow although they were in the area.

Three years ago we put up two artificial nests, another year without, before last year they occupied one of the artificial nests. This winter we added two more artificial nests – with some difficulty stretching as high as I could from the top of the ladder.

Now we are rewarded. This May the House Martins are back in good numbers – so far we have two, out of four, artificial nest occupied, five new nest built with another on the way, and, unexpectedly, IMG_1439a ‘first floor’ nest built on top of one of the latest batch of artificial nests

We are woken every fine spring morning by the glorious acrobatics of the hard working House Martins adding to their ‘adobe’ structures and showing the first signs of breeding. You might expect them to rest after their journey from Africa; no, they are at once setting up to produce another generation.

They are most welcome.

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Canna, my dog named after the Hebridean island, is good at scenting. The other day she stopped pointing into the fresh grown long grass. Close examination showed the chequered plumage of a hen pheasant, unmoving, flat to the ground.

Sadly, next day, the grass was disturbed and feathers lay on the ground. It was likely that a fox had taken the nesting bird. Two eggs were in the nest, two eggs of differing colours, one dark, one light, yet both pheasant eggs. By afternoon both eggs had gone, probably taken by a Jackdaw of which there are many round and about.

A favourite bird of mine is the Raven, Their slow flight overhead, a pair barking their call to each other, is wonderful sight. An unhappy ‘bird tale’ on Farming Today’ earlier in the week reported Ravens ganging up into large groups, maybe forty at a time, to attack and kill lambs. The report was from Dartmoor, but the same has happened on the Dorset / Wiltshire border. Ravens are a Protected Species, but it is possibly to get a special licence to cull them if extensive lamb killing is proven. The interviewee, a sheep farmer of 60 years, said he would not want to see the protected status of Ravens overturned, but there is a real problem when large flocks of sheep are lambing in open fields and Ravens congregate in large numbers. It is a frequent habit of all animals, from humans to the mammals in the seas, once packs are formed, to attack vulnerable individuals.

On a much happier note our House Martins are back in good numbers, already occupying some of the artificial nests on the house. The spring blossom, apple, wild cherry and the ever beautiful flowering of the wisteria, are fine signs of spring beckoning bees to develop the season.


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MAY 5th

The fifth of May is in my memory from schooldays when the first swifts arrive back from their African migration, usually picked up first from their whistling calls, then seen in their wheeling flight arcing round the Abbey and ham stone buildings round The Courts.

It was a reliable date, always around the fifth of May. Swifts are more a town bird than a country bird in that their nest sites are found in the crevices of buildings. Their hardly credible feats of endurance on the wing, eating, sleeping and travelling without any need of landing other than to breed, are a wonder of nature.

Our swallows have been back for a week or so, but not in the numbers we would like. A problem they face is that non-migratory birds, in our case the many jackdaws and sparrows, have already set up nests in the areas the swallows are seeking. Although their nesting sites may differ, the ‘air traffic control’ problems can easily put the late comers off to seek nesting sites elsewhere.

The best news this morning is that the house martins are back, visiting and trying out for size last year’s nests. 2016 was the first time they have used the artificial nests we attached under the eaves – sparrows having caused problems with the house martin constructed mud nests. We have doubled the number of artificial nests – only from two to four, but  a few hours up and down the ladder and drilling into stone walls to fix the nests, was a difficult task.

POSTSCRIPT. My daughter reports she saw swifts in Taunton this morning; right on cue.

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Changing times; yesterday morning here at Fordhollow we were lucky if we could see a broadband download speed of 1Mbps. By midday we had a download speed of 30Mbps! We have had to cope with the broadband oddities of living far from an exchange at the end of a copper wire snaking through the countryside, battered by trees, looped from pole to pole.

As of yesterday we have the benefit of an initiative in both the Exmoor and Dartmoor national parks to increase cover of fast broadband to the many homes and farms tucked away in the valleys of the moor. Enter AirBand whose system is by radio signal. With a line of sight to one of the aerials installed in farms and churches and other such places, you have the chance of a good outcome.

And so it has proved. The next task is to get cover throughout the house bearing in mind the stone and cob farmhouse walls were built to withstand the moorland weather, not to aid radio signals around the dwelling.

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My second novel is complete, in terms of a ‘final’ draft MS. Now it is time to put it on one side for a short period, then get back to it for review, revision and third party edit.

20170317_200827BIRCHLAND HALL has not been at the head of my work list, it was first drafted a few years ago, but in January when I was in two minds on the best way forward for PUFFBALL, a current novel set in West Somerset, my best course to keep writing was to revert to work on Birchlands, now written as a final draft with a revised outcome.

The novel is set in the 1990s, the tale of two long estranged cousins, strangers to Yorkshire, who inherit the dilapidated Victorian mansion built by their great-great grandfather when Mayor of Dewsfield. Neither has married, both are only children. Despite differing circumstance, they are bound together in their search for family connection, in an endeavour to bring life back to Birchlands. Strangers to Yorkshire, they discover the sway their Holtbury forebears held in the once proud manufacturing town, drawing the cousins back into serving the Dewsfield community.

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