Monday, May 30, 2016

England: Whitby

It's my last week here in England but certainly not my least. This weekend I hung out in Whitby with a bajillion other people. Apparently it's the place to go. Don't worry . . . I brought you along too. Here's a shot of the narrow lanes.

A super cute bookstore . . .

The Whitby Bookshop
A street performer . . .

But what Whitby is really known for is the ruined abbey at the top of the town.

This was Bram Stoker's inspiration for Dracula. There are 199 steps leading up to it. Yes, I counted. But that wasn't enough exercise to burn off the fish and chips I ate for lunch (another thing Whitby is famous for). So I toodled over to Robin Hood's Bay via bus.

Then hiked 7 miles of coastline back to Whitby. It took a little over 3 hours. The sun even came out for a little while.

But by the time I made it back, the sun was just about setting, the mist was rising, and I think I saw a ship coming in that might've had a black dog leap from the deck.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

England: 1820's Farm Life

Beamish, the Museum of the North, was on the docket today. It's another living history museum, spread out over acres, and divided into different eras. Naturally, I toodled over to the 1820's which happened to be all about farming. Usually when you think farm, you think this:

But actually, this farm was quite impressive and not nearly as rustic as you might imagine. Here's the front of the house . . .

And here's the view from looking out the front door . . .

Not too shabby, eh? This is the house of the farm manager, the fellow who was responsible for all the farm workers, the crops, and the animal husbandry on the estate. He reported directly to the lord of the manor. He was at the top of the food chain when it came to commoners. Here's a picture of his wife in the kitchen . . .

She'd be responsible for running the home, overseeing all the female staff, and making sure meals were served regularly for all the farm hands. Here's the dining room . . .

And here's their bedroom . . .

Compared to lots of other folks living during this era (except for the gentry, of course) being a farm manager was a pretty sweet gig to have.

Friday, May 27, 2016

England: Black Country

Black Country isn't so black anymore. Thankfully. Located in the midlands of England, this area was known for it's coal mining, hence the name.

The coal industry boomed in the Victorian era. Coal was needed not only to heat homes but also for steam engines and for making iron. It's got a distinct smell when it burns and it puts off black smoke, coating everything with soot. Because of that -- and the pinched, filthy faces of the poor that lived in this area -- whenever Queen Victoria chanced to travel past, she ordered that the windows of her coach be drawn shut so she didn't have to see the bleak blackness.

Mines were abundant, as were the workers. Here is what an average company house looked like on the outside.

And on the inside:

This one room was your kitchen, living room, laundry room, dining room, and parlor. Upstairs was your other room. A bedroom. For you and your spouse and however many children you had. The bathroom was outside and you shared it with 8 other families. But generally during the day no one was home. The men were all at the mines, as were most of the children (from 5 years old on up) and the women worked as well. Here's what one of the entrances looked like.

The conditions were cramped, damp, and dangerous. Many men and children lost their lives. But these were stalwart people who took pride in supplying England and much of the world with coal and the iron produced here. 

Sundays were special days even if you couldn't make it to church. Sometimes the church came to you, such as this traveling Wesleyan missionary car.

The inside was all decked out. What current trend does this remind you of?

Methinks those Methodists were way ahead of their time with this tiny house!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

England: Downton Abby Doppelganger

Today I visited the Shugborough Estate, which was the home of the Earls of Litchfield. It’s not anymore. Now it belongs to the county and the National Trust because, unlike the Crawley family, the Anson family couldn’t come up with a way to pay the death duties. Another case of land rich but cash poor. Good news for the public, though, because now the house is open for gawkers like me.

Like Downton, the upstairs family lived quite differently from the downstairs servants. Here’s a comparison from the very posh to the spartan.
Queen Victoria actually slept here while she was visiting as a teenager (before she was queen).
Where the kitchen maids slept.

The family originally moved onto the land in 1624. This house wasn’t built until early 1700. Until then they lived in a relic of a medieval moated manor.

This room was also used for balls.
The house is absolutely enormous. We spent the day there and didn’t even see a third of the rooms.

The library was my favorite room. Imagine cozying up with a pot of tea and a good book here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

England: The Darby House

One of my future books will be set in Ironbridge and that means I needed to learn about one of the most influential families in the area . . . the Darby's. Here's a picture of their house.

The house Abraham Darby built in Coalbrookdale.
I learned lots of interesting things about the family, but I'll save those tidbits for my story. In the mean time, there were lots of quirky things in the house. Check out this small cabinet of drawers. Victorians were superstitious, so there's no number 13.

Notice the iron tobacco box on the right of the pen and ink stand on the desk. I couldn't get closer to get a real clear shot, but the embossment on top is that of a slave. Not that the Darby's were pro-slavery. Quite the opposite, bringing attention to the plight of slaves.

When I think of a dumb waiter, I think of a tiny elevator-type shaft that one can send food up from the kitchen to the dining room. Not in this house. See this terraced stand that was in the corner of the dining room? Yeah. That's a "dumb waiter."

Moving upstairs to the bedroom . . . even back then reading in bed at night was a relaxing pleasure. The reading light was a candle and see the porcelain upside-down little cup next to it? That's the snuffer.

And last but not least, umm . . . what if you had too many glasses of water before you went to bed? I'll just leave you with this picture and let you figure it out. This is what's in the bottom drawer of the night stand.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

England: the Victorian Era

Today I travelled back to Victorian England. Blists Hill is a living history village where you really get a feel for the sights and sounds (and even some of the smells) of the 1800’s.

Usually when you think Victorian you conjure up images of sepia-tone, as if color weren’t a thing of the past. But check out the lively colors in the dressmaker’s shop . . .

Obviously the roads would’ve been more congested than this recreation, but public transportation was in operation. A man would’ve been driving this “bus.”

So what was an appropriate occupation for a woman? Here’s a list of domestic staff and their yearly wages.

And if you’re wondering about the men, a gamekeeper earned the tidiest sum of 100-150 pounds a year compared to the lowly stable boy who earned 6-12 pounds a year. I’m not sure what a mailman made but he sure had a great uniform.

Stay tuned for more historical adventures and lessons tomorrow.

Monday, May 23, 2016

England: Ironbridge

If I could live anywhere in the world, it would be in Ironbridge, England. It’s a small village nestled on the banks of the Severn River, known for being the birthplace of the industrial revolution and, well, the first iron bridge.

The bridge was built roughly between 1779-1783. There's a toll house on one side (a setting for a future story of mine) and a hotel at the other end. The Tontine Hotel is apparently haunted by several ghosts, most notably in room number 5 (the farthest window on the right at the top). But I didn't see any when I looked in the window.

St. Luke's church was built in 1837. Later on a stairway was dug beneath the graveyard. Apparently that's haunted as well, but again, I didn't see anything paranormal . . . except for God's handiwork in the sky. I think it's a sign that I should move here.

As part of my research on the town, I went on a ghost walk tonight, so that's why all the spooky story business. I just might incorporate a creepy tale or two when I write my next book set here.

Friday, May 20, 2016

England: Hampton Court

King Henry VIII isn't usually within my realm of research, but when you're speaking at a school that's literally several blocks from the dude's palace, you go for it.

This is the front entrance but not the one normally used by ol' Henry. Travel by road was notoriously rough going so he most often came in via the Thames through the golden gates at the back.

Everything about the palace was large and in charge. It's a way bigger complex than you'd expect. Here's the great hall, which is where big dinners were held.

Even the 500 year old tapestries on the walls were grand.

And don't forget to look up. Every ceiling was different.

Warning: don't lose your head over the admission ticket. It's a little pricey to visit this place, but living large like Henry VIII is a once in a lifetime event, eh?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

England: The Village Shop

After a few wrong turns (yeah, I know most people plan to go to Stonehenge yet we managed to end up passing it . . . twice . . . and it wasn't on the itinerary), we safely arrived at Morwellham Quay, a Victorian living history village. Today's lesson: the village shop.

Fancy a new hat?
The village shop, a common staple of every Victorian small town, sold everything from tea to lamp oil to rope.

I'll take a pound of chocolate, please.
This particular shop was unusual in that it was leased and operated by a woman. A single woman. How scandalous, eh? Her name was Jane Martin and by the late 1860s she was so successful that she purchased shares in the barges that carried goods up and down the river.

Apparently Amazon didn't deliver. You had to pick up your own packages.
Customers generally ordered the goods they wanted from the shopkeeper and came back later for the supplies. The shopkeeper had to pull the goods from the back room or measure or weigh the items. There was no self-serve or individual packaging. Unlike this:

Umm . . . dude, in my part of the world, flapjacks are pancakes. Stay tuned for more culture shock tomorrow here at Writer Off the Leash.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

England: Mountain Biking Minehead

Today my man talked me into mountain biking up to the top of the highest part of Minehead, a coastal city lying on the south bank of the Bristol Channel. He said, "You had four kids. This will be a piece of cake."

Note to self: anytime anyone ever begins a statement with "you had four kids" just go right ahead and karate chop them in the throat and don't look back.

Okay, so yeah, I did manage to get my fanny on a bike:
But it didn't take long before I looked like this:
Sweet mercy! I had no idea thighs could smoke like that. But I pressed on, mostly by walking my bike, following the crazy man I married . . .
This man is certifiably insane.
But I have to admit that once we reached the top, it was worth it. The Bristol Channel to our right and pastoral countryside to the left.
The coastal waters 1100 feet above the town of Minehead.

A patchwork of Somerset farms off in the distance.

So . . . since there were no museums or lectures involved in today's activities, what exactly does any of this have to do with writing historical fiction? The experience. I felt the strong gusts of wind wreak havoc with my hair. I tasted the damp, briny air as I watched the tide come in. I smelled skunks and cows and sheep as we rode past pasture land. I lived in the moment, soaking in everything the rural southwest England land offered and it was indeed awesome.

Except for the burning thigh part.

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