• Walk the Cleveland Way: Dracula Country


    Turn a blustery cliff top walk into a Halloween Adventure with a Dracula inspired walk from the seaside town of Whitby to Robin Hood's Bay.  Inspired by holidays spent in Whitby, Bram Stoker chose to set his Victorian gothic vampire tale in its cobbled streets and eerie churchyards. The skeletal remains of Whitby Abbey preside over the town and set a suitably ghoulish backdrop.  Climb the 199 steps up to St Mary's Church and take a spine chilling walk around its graveyard,  Dracula's haunt in the Victorian melodrama. Watch out for bats!


    'For a moment or two I could see nothing, as the shadow of a cloud obscured St. Mary's Church. Then as the cloud passed I could see the ruins of the Abbey coming into view; and as the edge of a narrow band of light as sharp as a sword-cut moved along, the church and churchyard became gradually visible... It seemed to me as though something dark stood behind the seat where the white figure shone, and bent over it. What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell.'







    A good day's outing would be to start at Whitby Abbey and take the dramatic coastal path all six and a half miles  to the picturesque village of Robin's Hoods Bay, once the haunt of smugglers. Here you will find a plethora of pubs and cafes to suit all tastebuds.  Then hop on the bus for the 20 minute ride back to Whitby.  Alternatively, keep going! 

    The Cleveland Way runs for 110 miles through beautiful landscape including heather moorland and stunning coastal scenery. Opened in 1969 it was the UK's second National Trail. It includes a number of circular walks, one and two day walks and some shorter easy access routes.  







  • Landscapes in Children's Literature No 2

    Mary Hoffman, author of the compelling Stravaganza series of young adult books, shares the inside story on the settings of her novels.  Intriguingly, each of the six books is set in a fictionalised version of a real Italian city back in the 16th century. Mary also reveals how her favourite childhood read, Tolkein's Lord of the Rings influenced her writing. 

    Mary Hoffman's Tales of the City

     When Clare Lewis (who I’m proud to say is my cousin!) suggested I might contribute something to this series, I realised that both in the books I read as a child and in the books I now write for teenagers, it was cityscapes rather than landscapes that made the biggest impression.

    In fact my Stravaganza series for teenagers (Bloomsbury), has six titles which all begin "City of....", which tells you something! Each one took a city in Italy, beginning with Venice, and transferred it to the sixteenth century, in a parallel universe.

    It was important for me that each city should become a character in the book. Here's a little taste of City of Masks, the first book, where "Bellezza" = Venice. 

    “The crowd in the square was getting merry with wine and the sheer pleasure of a three-day holiday. The Bellezzans and islanders knew how to enjoy themselves. Now they were dancing in ragged circles, arms linked, singing the bawdy songs that traditionally accompanied the Marriage with the Sea. The climax of the evening was coming. Rodolfo’s mandola had been spotted making for the wooden raft floating in the mouth of the Great Canal, which was loaded with crates and boxes. Everyone was expecting something special for the Duchessa’s twenty-fifth Sposalizio – her Silver Wedding.

    They were not disappointed. The display began with the usual showers of shooting stars, rockets, Reman candles and Catherine wheels. The faces of the Bellezzans in the square turned green and red and gold with the reflected light from the display in the sky over the water. All eyes were now turned away from the Palazzo and from the silver-masked figure watching at the window. …

    After a pause, the dark blue sky began to brighten with the fire-pictures of Rodolfo’s set pieces. First a giant brazen bull pawing the sky, then a blue and green wave of the sea, out of which grew a glittering serpent. Then a winged horse flying above them andseeming to sweep down into the water of the canal, where it disappeared. Finally, a silver ram seemed to emerge from the sea and grew massively large above the watchers below before it dissolved into a thousand stars.”

    Here I was trying to convey the feeling of Bellezza without actually describing the city itself. There are no set pieces in which I say what the city looked like; the reader picks it up from the mention of bridges and little canals and squares and sottoportegos.

    When I was a kid, the books that most affected me were Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and my favourite – then and now – was The Two Towers. I fell in love with Minas Tirith, the great city of Gondor, and it thrilled me to the marrow to see Peter Jackson’s recreation of it in the film he made.

    I can distinctly remember having a pair of studded sandals that made me feel like Pippin, one of the Gondor Citadel Guard and playing that game all day. And that’s not because I didn’t find the Forest of Mirkwood or the treehouses of Lothlorien attractive. It was just that Minas Tirith was a city, made by and inhabited by people. And I felt then, as now that we interact with our built surroundings and the influences go both ways.

    Here is a description of Minas Tirith:

    “Minas Tirith was situated on the Hill of Guard – the "out-thrust knee" of Mount Mindolliun, connected to the main mass of the mountain by a narrow 'shoulder'. It faces eastward towards Osgiliath, over the Pelennor Fields surrounding the city, fertile townlands stretching from the walls of the city proper to the Rammas Echor. 

    The city was built on the hill with seven concentric tiers cut on the hill culminating in the Citadel at the summit. The outer wall was called the City Wall and was black, of the same material used in Orthanc. The City Wall was vulnerable only to earthquakes capable of rending the ground where it stood.

    Each of the seven levels stood 100 feet higher than the one below it and was surrounded by a white wall. Each wall held a gate, and each gate faced a different direction: only the great gate and that of the seventh level faced east; the gate to the second level faced southeast, and that to the third faced northeast; so altering between the two such that the path up through the levels wound to and fro rather than following a straight line. An outcropping of rock as high as the seventh level bisected all the lower levels except the lowest on the line of the Great Gate. The winding path through the city therefore passed through tunnels in this 'keel' five times.”

    A very thorough piece of world-building, I think you’ll agree.

    Maybe that’s it. The glories of nature are there ready-made and I enjoy them on my weekly Nordic walks. But what moves and involves me in a book is something created by the writer, not described. An environment in which the characters, equally well conceived move and live and act out whatever destiny the author has prepared for them.

    I’d love to know what are your favourite fictional cities.





  • Walks in the Slad Valley: Laurie Lee

    The intoxicating scent of Laurie Lee's languid coming of age novel, brought to life again in the current BBC Sunday night drama, draws us all to the innocent wild of the Cotswold countryside.  Lee set his stories in the landscape of his childhood, the Slad Valley in Gloucestershire.  The bucolic portrait of hay carts and wildflowers belies a harsher world of rural poverty and death in post first world war England.  Lee left home at 19 and walked to London to make his way in the world, playing his violin and writing poetry.  He ended up walking all the way to Spain, scraping a living as a musician and walking his way through the landscape.  In 1937, he went back to Spain to join the International Brigade in the fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.  The story of his journey is told in As I walked out One Midsummer Morning.  When he came home, he worked as a journalist and scriptwriter before becoming a huge success with his novel Cider with Rosie in 1959. The money he earned from this novel allowed him to buy a little cottage in Slad, the village where he grew up, and to become a full time writer. 

    Slad remains much as it was, with its honey-coloured seventeenth century cottages and welcoming roadside pub, The Woolpack.  Lee lived in a run down cottage here with his mother and six brothers and sisters, now a restored cottage called Rosebank.  Lee's grave is in the churchyard, overlooking his beloved pub; the church has a memorial window.  The wooded narrow valley and steep countryside around the village is laced with footpaths and it is easy to create a circular walk of different lengths to suit.  

    A good place to start is at the lay-by at Bull's Cross (described by Lee as 'that ragged wildness of wind-bent turves') on the B4070 from Stroud.  Follow the footpaths round towards Steanbridge Mill.  Walk in to Slad if you wish to visit the village, otherwise turn left after the pond where Lee would skate in winter, and walk over the fields towards Furners Farm.  Follow the footpaths in a loop back past the disused quarries and through the woods towards Bull's Cross.  That's about 4 miles.  Or explore the ancient beeches of nearby Frith Wood.  The leaves will be wonderful at this time of year. 

    Book at The Woolpack to secure a table.  01452 813 429

    Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust have created a 6 mile Laurie Lee Wildlife Way, following a series of 10 poetry posts

    Map:  OS Explorer map 179


  • Insider Secrets: Caroline Lawrence's Guide to Naples

    Well what a treat !  This week's Guest Blog is from the wonderful children's author Caroline Lawrence, most famous for her Roman Mysteries stories.  This time Caroline is in Naples, researching her latest thrilling story -  See Naples and Die.... 

    See Naples and DON’T Die   

    by Roman Mysteries author Caroline Lawrence

    I love Naples, Italy. Last month I went back for a week to check some facts in a book I am writing called See Naples and Die.

    ‘See Naples and Die’ is an expression first quoted in a book by Goethe, a wise man who lived about 150 years ago and who loved Italy. It means: Once you have seen Naples you can die happy, knowing you have seen something special.

    But the hero my book, a 12-year-old British girl on holiday in Naples, could really die when she gets caught up in a plot to steal a priceless artefact from the nearby island of Ischia.

    Here are ten things you should do if you want to See Naples and NOT Die.

    1. Mount Vesuvius looms over the town. If the wind had been in a different direction when the volcano erupted that first time way back in AD 79 it might have buried Naples rather than Pompeii. But don’t worry; the city’s patron saint, San Gennaro, has protected the people from Vesuvius for over 1500 years. Say a prayer to him at the Duomo.
    2. Until as recently as 1973, Naples suffered terrible cholera outbreaks caused by water with human waste (poo and pee) in it. Today, make sure you drink from public fountains with the sign BUONA DA BERE (Good to Drink). Or buy bottled water.
    3. For good luck, rub the bronze skulls on Via dei Tribunale or the statue of St Moscati in the Church of New Jesus, but make sure you clean your hands with a handiwipe after; dozens of people have touched them before you.

    4. Don’t get run over by a Vespa or SmartCar on the narrow streets in the most ancient parts of the city. People drive fast even in the Area Pedonale (pedestrian zones).

    5. Don’t believe the little green man at busy street crossings. Neapolitans think traffic lights are Christmas decorations! If you tell yourself that everyone in a car is a homicidal maniac out to get you and act accordingly, you’ll be fine.

    6. Don’t get caught in the crossfire between rival clans of the Camorra. There are lots of monuments to innocent victims of the Neapolitan version of the Mafia.


    7. Don’t eat too much pizza, pasta, gelato and pastries, even though those things are utterly delicious in Naples.


    8.  Don’t lean too far over the side of the boat to Sorrento, Capri or Ischia. If you don’t drown, the sewage in the Bay of Naples will kill you.

    9.  Watch your pockets! Naples is famous for pickpockets who work in teams especially on buses and busy museums. Keep your cash in a money belt, sock or a little pouch around your neck tucked under your shirt.

    10.  Don’t be afraid to go. Naples may be dangerous but it is one of the most exciting cities in the world, full of delicious food, breath-taking views, amazing history and colourful characters. If you are sensible, you will have a fabulous time in Naples and fall in love with it, too.


  • A Child's Eye view of the Big Apple

    Writing our family guides, we always try to put the child at the centre of our planning. Not so easy in New York, you might think, a city much better suited to teenagers and above.  But hang on.. what about  E.B White's classic, Stuart Little and his agreeable adventures in Manhattan.  Head for the east side of Central Park and Conservatory Water, scene of the brave little mouse's adventurous boat race.  Every Saturday morning at 10am, children come here to race their boats against the Fifth Avenue skyline. Join in by renting a boat from the little boat house or watch from the cafe at Kerbs Boathouse.  The water is open till the end of October for boating,and is turned into a magical ice skating pond in winter.  Red-tailed hawks soar in the skies high above.  A little bit of wild in the big apple.

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