All’s Well in Clerkenwell

After two hours spent mudlarking on the Thames foreshore, I might be thought to be ready to return to the twenty-first century. Not so! Granted, I was ready to crash in my hotel room for a while, but as it happened, the hotel where I was staying was like stepping back in time.

The Rookery Hotel’s unassuming entrance on Peter’s Lane.

Anyone of John Pickett’s day would have balked at reserving a room at any place calling itself the Rookery; in the nineteenth century, the word was synonymous with poverty, overcrowding, and general squalor. Today, however, it’s the name of a boutique hotel comprising three houses built in 1764 and still retaining a Georgian atmosphere. It’s located in Clerkenwell, a section of London due north of the City (“the City,” capitalized, refers to the portion of central London that was once enclosed within the old Roman wall) and a part of town I’d never visited before.

The Rookery Hotel as seen from Cowcross and St. John Streets. It’s the three gabled brick buildings at center left. Peter’s Lane, where the entrance is, is so narrow you can barely even make it out. (It’s just to the left of the brick building with the red lettering above its ground floor.)

The hotel’s address—12 Peter’s Lane, Cowcross Street—gives a clue as to the area’s history. I discovered this on my first afternoon there, when I took an exploratory walk in search of the nearest Tube station. (It proved to be Farringdon, in quite the opposite direction.) I turned a corner and found myself facing the Smithfield Market, London’s stockyard and meat market since the Middle Ages, and possibly as early as Roman times. Regency readers may know it best from the disparaging term “Smithfield bargain,” meaning a marriage made as a financial transaction. Suddenly Cowcross Street’s curious name made sense; cattle would have been driven right up the street here on their way to the market. (Can you imagine living in one of these houses, and stepping out your front door just as a drover was coming past, herding cows to market?)

Smithfield still operates today as a wholesale market, the only market in continuous operation since medieval times. The elaborate arched building dates to the second half of the 19th century; prior to that, it would have been an open-air market.

Turning back to the north, I soon came across a bit of still earlier history. St. John’s Gate, dating from 1504, is just about all that remains of the former headquarters of the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller. After Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries a few decades later, it was used for a number of different purposes, and in 1731 was the birthplace of the Gentleman’s Magazine, one of whose early writers—Dr. Johnson, no less—would later investigate the hoax known as the “Cock Lane Ghost,” which also took place nearby.

St. John’s Gate (And yes, I walked through it. Because of course I did.)

If any ghosts roam up and down the stairs or lurk about the corners of the Rookery hotel, I was blissfully unaware of them. I slept soundly until morning, when I checked out somewhat reluctantly, headed for the airport at Heathrow and twenty-first century life.

The library, one of the ground-floor common rooms.
Look closely: that’s not a door, just a very clever way to make sure guests don’t wander into places they don’t belong.
Another common area. This one has an “honesty bar” and opens out onto…
…the terrace.

Mudlarking!

As I mentioned in a recent post, my trip to the UK last summer was specifically to research John Pickett Mystery #9, Into Thin Eire. Still, I already knew what Book 10 would be about, and one of my experiences on this trip provided a spark for that book as well. For while I was in London, I went mudlarking!

In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, mudlarking was an early form of recycling in which people, often children (called mudlarks), scavenged along the exposed riverbank of the Thames at low tide for anything they could sell. John Pickett was an occasional mudlark in his misspent youth, so I thought it would be fun to try something that he would have done. (The other option, pickpocketing, is, alas, frowned upon.)

I went online to learn what I could about modern-day mudlarking, and discovered that, for one thing, you have to have a permit from the London Port Authority. I also learned that they don’t recommend you go by yourself. If you do, you should at least be aware at all times of the location of the nearest stairs; when the tide turns, the river rises very swiftly, and it’s possible to be cut off.

So I searched for a guide to take me out. (Another advantage of going with a guide is that he has the permit issue taken care of.) I eventually made a date with Steve Brooker (aka the “mud god”), who’s been featured on the History Channel and written up in Time magazine and elsewhere. But while searching, I came across an article on mudlarking that quoted a curator at the Museum of London as saying (I’m quoting here as nearly as I can remember), “almost everything we know about childhood in the Middle Ages comes from finds the mudlarks have brought in.” It’s often said that times may change, but human nature doesn’t. Children lose things, whether in the twelfth century or the twenty-first.

Steve Brooker, aka the “mud god,” my mudlarking guide.
The skyscrapers in the background make up the
Canary Wharf business district on the Isle of Dogs.

Still, the idea of those toys, lost somehow in or along the river only to be washed up decades or even centuries later, started me thinking. In Book 10, Brother, Can You Spare a Crime?, John Pickett discovers he has a ten-year-old half-brother. That half-brother, I knew, would have had an upbringing very similar to John’s; what if he, too, had been an occasional mudlark, and had found a toy of some kind—one not necessarily of any monetary value, but something that he, a poor child having so little, prizes? And what if he (like all those medieval children) dropped it—not in the River Thames, but at the scene of a crime? I hadn’t even gone on my own mudlarking adventure yet, but thanks to the internet, I already had a head start on my next book!

You’ll be able to see how this element fits into the book when it releases on June 12, but in the meantime, here are a few photos of my own mudlarking finds. Contrary to what you might expect, we did not use a metal detector (in fact, the “mud god” has strong views about the use of metal detectors along the foreshore, and the role they play in erosion); instead, he taught me how to read the tides as the nineteenth-century mudlarks would have done.

I met up with Steve in Greenwich at the Cutty Sark, and we walked through the tunnel beneath the Thames to the Isle of Dogs, the peninsula formed by a deep bend in the river east of the City. (Incidentally, whenever you see London referred to as the “City”—capitalized—it refers to the portion of central London, roughly one square mile, that was once contained within the old Roman wall.) Why that particular spot? Because once upon a time, the Isle of Dogs was the site of a dumping ground for one of Henry VIII’s palaces. Dead people’s garbage dumps are a historian’s playground; so much can be learned by what people threw away, either by accident or deliberately. Which makes me wonder what historians will learn about us someday, but that’s a topic for another blog, written by another blogger.

THE PHOTOS:

My favorite out of all our haul: a Victorian penny, about the size of a US half-dollar.
The reverse side gives the date as 1900.
A clay pipe, the “cigarette butts” of their era and one of the most common of all mudlarking finds.
George V half-penny from 1934,
just a bit larger than a US quarter.
A “sea biscuit” fossil; some modern-day mudlarks search for them exclusively.
George VI half-penny from 1939. (If you’ve ever seen the film The King’s Speech, he was its subject.)
Fragments of garnet, although not gem quality. In fact, these are industrial waste; the “sand” on sandpaper is actually finely crushed garnet. All waste products should be so pretty!
This half-penny says “new penny” because the UK had just switched from the old pounds/shillings/pence monetary system to
100 pence = 1 pound. (The half-penny was not removed from circulation until 1984.)
Dress pin from the Tudor era. (Ink pen included to show scale.) We found three pins in all, and Steve seemed surprised/disappointed that there weren’t more. Apparently they’re usually very plentiful in the area, thanks to that Tudor-era garbage dump.
Not all of the coins we found were British. Here’s a 1 rupee coin from India, dated 1999.
WWII bullet & casing. We found a whole cache of these, and I told Steve, “Well, there was your problem: you were supposed to put the bullets into the guns and then fire them at the Germans!”
10-cent piece from West Germany, 1970.
A fragment of Blue Willow china. This stuff was all over the place! Most of it was blue, but there were a few shards of rose pink, too. And I wish so badly that I’d snagged a whole bagful of it! I’m sure I could have found something to do with it.
5-ruble coin from Russia, 2016.
We found several pieces of petrified wood. Here are two of them.

There was more, including modern coins from the UK as well as a US quarter, a small brass button, a number of 19th-century nails. . In fact, I haven’t yet got around to cleaning it all! We were on the foreshore for about two hours before the tide made it necessary for us to curtail our hunt. Here’s a photo of all our finds:

I can’t wait to go again! Hmm, I wonder what I’ll find next time…

Research Trip 2019: London to Holyhead to Dublin

The current ban on international travel makes me especially glad that I managed to visit the UK last year, although pleasure wasn’t the first thing on my mind when I made the trip. I’d been working on Into Thin Eire (aka John Pickett mystery #9), and I’d just finished the chase through England, Wales, and finally Ireland that makes up a good deal of the book. But when I read back through those chapters, I realized there was one big problem.

“This could be set anywhere in the world,” I complained to my husband, “and it wouldn’t matter! It needs detail to ground it in a particular place.” I looked online, but internet research has its limitations; I just wasn’t finding what I needed.

“Do you need to go?” my husband asked. “If you do, book a flight. I’ll see you when you get back.”

At Denver International Airport, waiting to board!

And so I did. Since my husband didn’t have enough vacation time to take a week off (we’d taken a South American cruise back in February, and he’d used most of it up on that trip), I went alone—my first solo trip out of the country. (Mom was convinced I was never coming back alive.) I’d bought a BritRail pass at the same time I’d booked my flight, and so after taking a day to recover from jet lag, I set out from my hotel to Euston Station. My objective: to follow the path of my characters, making notes on topographical changes along the way.

After boarding the train and finding a window seat with a good view, I pulled out a little notebook I’d bought for the trip. As the train traveled westward, I made notes on the landscape: the flat green fields of the Midlands, dotted with sheep and occasionally bisected by canals (the latter sometimes affording glimpses of brightly colored narrowboats) giving way to the steep slopes of Snowdonia, the peaks hidden beneath a blanket of clouds, until finally setting me down in Holyhead, Wales, where I’d booked a room for two nights at a quaint bed and breakfast called Witchingham.

Sheep seen from the window of the train.
Witchingham, the bed & breakfast where
I stayed in Holyhead, Wales.

Once in my room, I walked the short distance to the water and strolled along the Anglesey Coastal Path, stopping to eat dinner at the Yacht Club restaurant. From the water’s edge, I could see the ferries returning; this was the reason I’d come to Holyhead.

The view from the shore.
Boats near the Yacht Club.
Note the castle ruins in the background!

Early the next morning, I called for a taxi to take me to the port, and took the Swift ferry to Dublin. The name refers to Jonathan Swift, not to the boat’s speed, although that would fit, too: I made the Irish Sea crossing in just over three hours, whereas for John Pickett and his traveling companions, even a smooth crossing would have been seventeen hours or more. The boat itself was like a small cruise ship, with a buffet brunch included in the fare, along with comfortable seats and big picture windows along the bow and sides. But I wasn’t the only person making a work-related trip: one entire deck was reserved for commercial trucks (lorries), with lounges set aside specifically for their drivers.

The ferry returning to Holyhead.

When we arrived in Dublin, I realized that in one instance, at least, John Pickett would have had the advantage over me: his packet sailed right up the River Liffey into the heart of Dublin, whereas my ferry docked along a rather nondescript commercial waterfront, from which we walk-on passengers had to take a bus into the city proper. After a day in Dublin, it was back to the ferry for the return trip, arriving in Holyhead just after midnight. (And me, with my north-Alabama/Appalachian-foothills accent trying to communicate by telephone with a Welsh taxi driver was the only real problem I had on the whole trip!)

Courtyard of Dublin Castle

In the morning, I took the train back to London for my next adventure—mudlarking along the Thames foreshore! But that’s a subject for another blog . . .

On the Trail of Patrick Colquhoun in Scotland

Last time I was in London, I posted a blog sharing some of the places that would have been familiar to John Pickett, the young Bow Street Runner who is the hero of my Regency-set mystery series. Since I had a chance to visit Scotland this past summer as part of a 2-week British Isles cruise, it only makes sense to give his magistrate, the real-life Patrick Colquhoun, equal time.

While our ship was docked at Greenock, my husband and I arranged for a car and driver—Mike made it very clear that he did not intend to spend his vacation learning how to drive on the wrong side of the road!—to take us to some of the places that would have been familiar to Patrick Colquhoun.

Dumbarton Castle, as seen from across the River Clyde

Our first stop was Dumbarton, where Patrick Colquhoun was born in 1745. You can see Dumbarton Castle long before you get there, as it is situated on the north bank of the River Clyde—directly across the river from the road that connects Greenock to Glasgow, which means you must go some way past it before you can cross the river and backtrack. It is visually quite imposing, built on a volcanic plug that has been fortified since the Iron Age, and would certainly have been a familiar sight to our man.

Me, standing on a bridge overlooking the River Kelvin.

His wife, Janet (whose maiden name was also Colquhoun), was also from here; in fact, her father was the provost (think “mayor”) of Dumbarton. Going his father-in-law one better, Patrick Colquhoun became Lord Provost of the much larger Glasgow—a position which meant he was also Lord-Lieutenant of the County of the City of Glasgow and a Commissioner of Northern Lighthouses. He built an estate in Glasgow’s West End, along the River Kelvin, and called it Kelvingrove. The house no longer stands (and, alas, he sold it in 1792, some years after moving to London, which means I can never send John Pickett there), having become Glasgow’s first municipal museum in 1872 and demolished in 1899, when the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum was built in its place. Its grounds were absorbed into what is now Kelvingrove Park. I spent a very pleasant hour wandering through the park and along the river, imagining myself following in his footsteps.

Kelvingrove Park. The spires of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum are visible in the background.

One thing I noticed was that the locals seemed very gratified to discover that I knew how to pronounce “Colquhoun” correctly! (For the record, it’s “Ca-HOON.”) Upon learning what I was doing there, more than one boasted that, yes, “Glasgow is Colquhoun country,” and asked if I had visited Luss. I was pleased to tell them that I had.

Luss, besides being a picturesque little village on the shores of Loch Lomond, is the ancestral home of Clan Colquhoun. Although he was never chief of the clan, not being in the direct line of succession, Patrick Colquhoun would certainly have been aware of the connection, and might well have visited the village or the ancestral seat, a fine Georgian manor called Rossdhu House.

Rossdhu House. Since I didn’t get to see it in person, I looked it up online!

(Rossdhu, by the way, now serves as the clubhouse of the Loch Lomond Golf Club, and still contains many of the original furnishings and artwork, on loan from the family. My driver tried to get me close enough for a glimpse of the house, but the gates were locked, and the landscaping blocked any view; apparently they’ve seen me driving off the tee.)

Picturesque cottages of Luss.

Loch Lomond.

Foiled in my attempt to get a look at Rossdhu, I had to content myself with strolling through the village and down to the loch, finishing up my time in Luss by trying haggis (yes, really!) at the Loch Lomond Arms Hotel, a former coaching inn owned by the present clan chief, Sir Malcolm Colquhoun, 9th baronet of Luss.

Lunch at the Loch Lomond Arms Hotel: haggis (center) with neeps (turnips, at bottom) and tatties (potatoes, top).

Mediterranean Cruise

One of the questions writers hate the most is “Where do you get your ideas?” Usually, the reason we hate it is that the honest answer would be, “Duh, I don’t know.” Seriously. Out of more than twenty books, there are only three or four that I could definitely say what inspired the story.

A recent exception would be my first romantic suspense novel, Moon over the Mediterranean, which was just released. When my husband and I started planning this trip, I thought it would be nice if I could get a novel out of it. Since the setting wouldn’t really lend itself to the Regency period (because, you know, Napoleon was running amok all over Europe), I decided to try my hand at the type of book that I credit with giving me a lifelong craving for travel: a romantic suspense novel in the tradition of Mary Stewart, M. M. Kaye, etc. Since the book’s publication, several reviewers have recommended it as a summer “beach read,” largely because of its exotic setting(s). So now, I’m going to be like that annoying neighbor who invites you over and then proceeds to show you all the home movies from his vacation. Except in my case, it’s not movies, but some of the sights we saw on our trip, which also figure in the novel.

Hubby Mike and me on Formal Night. (No, I’m not that short; he, at 6’5″, is that tall.)

Since I’m a firm believer in not talking down to readers, I’m not going to tell you what this is. I’m sure you’re smart enough to figure it out.

Me, standing in front of the Spanish Steps in Rome. The two-toned cream-colored house in the right middle ground is the Keats-Shelley House, where the poet John Keats died in 1821. It’s now a museum dedicated to the English Romantic poets.

Stunning view along the hair-raising road from Naples to Sorrento.

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. In the book, Robin has a fright here; while I wasn’t assaulted, like she was, I did find the too-aggressive salesmen too much of a deterrent to do any shopping.

The windmills of Mykonos, Greece.

The section of Mykonos known as “Little Venice,” because of the way the balconies hang out over the water. One of the “mushier” scenes in the book takes place here.

Street scene in Ephesus, Turkey. The large building on the left is (or was) the Celsus Library.

The Parthenon, Athens.

The Erechtheion, with the “Porch of the Maidens.” It’slocated on the Acropolis, like the Parthenon, which is only a stone’s throw away. (No pun intended.)

A close-up of the Porch of the Maidens.

The Doge’s Palace in Venice, as seen from the balcony of our stateroom.

 

 

The Bridge of Sighs in Venice, with the Doge’s Palace on the left and the prison on the right. The “sighs” were from prisoners glimpsing the outside world for the last time as they crossed the bridge.