The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe cover

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively is the first of her many books for children that I’ve read and I really enjoyed it. It was first published in 1973.

It’s the story of the Harrison family who have recently moved into an old cottage in Oxfordshire. There’s mum and dad and two children James and Helen and Tim the dog. James and Helen have a typical brother/sister relationship, often at loggerheads but occasionally united.

The house had needed a few repairs to be done to it before they moved in, James’s attic bedroom hadn’t been used for years, in fact the workmen had had to remove nails from the door to get in, it had been well blocked up.

James likes his bedroom but strange things happen in it. Things move and get broken, there are often cold draughts, and old fashioned writing appears in various places and Tim barks at thin air. With his reputation of being a bit naughty it’s not surprising that James’s parents blame him for all the nonsense that’s been going on. He’s in trouble and knows that there’s a poltergeist which has travelled from his room and is broadening its horizons, beginning to cause trouble in the village too.

It seems that the poltergeist is the spirit of a 17th century sorcerer called Thomas Kempe and he wants James to be his apprentice, but Thomas is not happy with the way modern life has evolved since he was last on the loose.

I would have loved this book as a child but like all well written children’s books it’s just as enjoyable a read for adults too. Lively won the Carnegie Medal for this book. I think the only other of her children’s books I have is The House in Norham Gardens. Have any of you read any of her books for youngsters?

Hill of Tarvit House

Hill of Tarvit House is a mansion house about ten miles from where I live in Fife. It’s a Scottish National Trust property that we’ve visited several times before, but not since the SNT decided that interior photography would be allowed.

The photo below is of the main hall with its lovely wood panelling on the walls and ceiling. The chandelier looks dazzling in this photo but it’s actually quite a dark room, mainly to protect the very old tapestry that can be seen on the back wall.

Hill of Tarvit House Main Hall

The staircase comes off the hall.

Hill of Tarvit House  stairs

The sitting room in the photo below is also just off the main hall. This property ended up being handed over to the Scottish National Trust because the man who would have inherited it from his parents died in a very well known train crash, he was on the train going to meet his fiancee to take her to his family home. Sadly he was an only child.

Hill of Tarvit House sitting room  room 1

This is an Arts and Crafts house and I think it’s the most homely of any of their properties that I’ve explored. A lot of the small contents are the sorts of things that can be seen at antique fairs, so there’s not a lot that seems too precious. Below is a photo of the library, quite cosy really.

Hill of Tarvit House drawing room

The other end of the library.

Hill of Tarvit House  library

And a close up of some of the books in the house, I don’t know if you’ll be able to make out any of the titles though. Isn’t that lampshade ghastly!

Hill of Tarvit House  books

Below is the built in cupboard in the butler’s pantry. It has some local pottery (Wemyss ware) in it which in its day was not too expensive, but it is now, mainly because the Queen Mother was a keen collector I think.

Hill of Tarvit House butler's pantry

The owners were friends of Sir William Burrell of Burrell collection fame and some of the contents of the cabinet below were wedding gifts from him.

Hill of Tarvit House upper landing

It’s difficult to get a photo of the whole house, below is the best I could manage.

Hill of Tarvit House exterior 2

The garden isn’t huge although there is a croquet lawn which is often in use, it’s surrounded by some really scenic countryside/farmland though which you can see here and here in two previous posts.

Hill of Tarvit House Trees

Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell

Christmas at High Rising cover

Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell is a collection of her short stories which appeared in various magazines such as Cornhill Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar ranging in date from 1928 to 1942.

I was slightly disappointed with this collection because due to the title I had been under the impression that the stories were all Barsetshire related – but they aren’t. The ones that are mainly feature the Morlands and George Knox. Although Knox is a character that Thirkell was obviously having a bit of a laugh at as a typical know-it-all poser and bore, she generally takes him just a wee bit too far ending in him being a bit too tedious as far as I’m concerned.

The stories feature such things as a trip to a pantomime, an arty one involving people at a private view and some children who live in London with their parents and a nanny who is very much in control – compared with the mother anyway.

If you’re a fan of Thirkell you’ll probably want to read this book as we all tend to want to read whatever of hers is available – unless of course George Knox drives you round the bend!

St Andrews Castle in Fife

A couple of weeks ago I was sent the most recent copy of Historic Scotland magazine and I was surprised to see that the article about St Andrews Castle – in St Andrews north-east Fife – featured photographs that I didn’t recognise at all. Obviously there were parts of the castle that we had somehow missed in previous visits!

St Andrews Castle

St Andrews castle

So a couple of days later we went there to do some investigating and discovered the tunnels underneath the castle that had been mined in an attempt to undermine the castle during a siege in 1546-47. We also saw the bottle-dungeon that people were lowered into, unlikely ever to see the light of day again. It’s a long way down!

dungeon

dungeon

The times were brutal, these were religious fights with the castle being held by the Catholics to begin with. When a Protestant faction gained access they murdered the cardinal who was in residence. In an attempt to regain the castle the Catholics started to dig a mine under the castle and the Protestants dug a countermine. Click on the link above if you’re interested in the history of the place.

And so on down to the mine, mind your head, it’s only about three and a half feet high in most parts!

mine

It’s a long way down.

mine  St Andrews Castle

And there are a lot of stairs

mine  at St Andrews

And even a metal ladder to negotiate!
mine  St Andrews Castle

mine ladder

You can get an idea of the lay out from the board below, although that makes it look a lot shorter than it is.
Board (mine)

I’m not claustrophobic – but I was glad to get back above ground again!

St Andrews castle + sea

Crimson Snow edited by Martin Edwards

Crimson Snow cover

Crimson Snow winter mysteries is a collection of vintage crime short stories edited by Martin Edwards. Reading this book gave me an opportunity to read a lot of vintage crime authors that I hadn’t read before.

The contributors are: Fergus Hume, Edgar Wallace, Margery Allingham, S.C. Roberts, Victor Gunn, Christopher Bush, Ianthe Jerrold, Macdonald Hastings, Julian Symons, Michael Gilbert and Josephine Bell.

Most of the stories are fairly short but the one by Victor Gunn is about seventy pages long so it’s really a novella and I don’t know if it’s because that one is longer – but I think it’s my favourite story. I’ll definitely be looking for more books by Victor Gunn anyway. I’ve seen a lot of his books on my travels but had no idea what they would be like and didn’t give them a go. No doubt now I won’t see any of his books in shops for yonks. That’s what happened to me with Dornford Yates, he was all over the place until Valerie said some of his books were good – and now they’ve disappeared after me being just about haunted by them previously.

I enjoyed this collection of short stories which are all set around winter/Christmas celebrations although the stories that I liked least were the ones by authors that I’ve read most. Margery Allingham and Macdonald Hastings disappointed me, maybe I just expected too much of them.

Published by British Library Crime Classics of course and the cover is taken from a vintage St Moritz travel poster. There’s a wee biography of each writer on the page before their story begins, which was interesting but I would have liked it if they had also added the date the story was originally published and which magazine it first appeared in. That’s me nit-picking though. This was perfect Christmas bedtime reading, why is murder and Christmas such a good combination?!

Wintry Walk in Fife

Come on – how about coming with me on a wintry walk in Fife, it’ll help blow the cobwebs away! One afternoon a couple of weeks ago during a really cold snap we went for a walk in nearby woodland.

Balbirnie Estate trees

And then we left the woodland, crossed the road and set out for the open farmland surrounding the woods.

Estate Trees

Farm Track

It was the middle of November but the trees were still holding onto leaves and looking quite colourful, I think some of them are beeches.

Trees

In the summer these fields will have crops of wheat, oats or barley in them.

winter Trees

The fields had been boggy after all the rain we’d had earlier in the year but where there were tractor tracks the puddles in them had been frozen over. We kept to the farm track, in the photo below you can just see a small bridge that goes over a railway line, there’s a concrete and brick structure above and beside the track which looks like a World War 2 pillbox.

Railway  Bridge and pillbox

Presumably the pillbox was built to defend the track in the event of attack.

Pillbox

Below is the track going north.
Railway  track

And below the track is going south to Edinburgh.
Railway  track, Fife

We disturbed some pheasants in one of the fields and they flew off in that awkward way they have that makes me think that anyone who shoots them for ‘sport’ is akin to a murderer as it seems they can’t fly away very well, having said that they were too fast for me to get a photo of them.

Trees in Fife

By then we were frozen to the bone so we turned for home, it was coffee and cake time! I’m sorry I couldn’t share that with you, but I hope you enjoyed your rural stroll with me in Fife.
Road

The land around here isn’t that far from Falkland Palace and I imagine that when Mary of Guise, Mary Stuart and King James lived there this area would have been part of their riding and hunting ground as Falkland was built as a hunting palace. It would have been much more heavily wooded in those days. The Palace is mentioned in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles

Jedburgh Abbey, Scottish Borders

The main reason anyone will go to Jedburgh I imagine is to see Jedburgh Abbey, what’s left of it anyway. As you can see from the photos below it’s quite grand still, even as a ruin. It was founded by King David I in 1138.

Jedburgh Abbey

Jedburgh Abbey

Jedburgh Abbey

Jedburgh Abbey

Some parts of it still have the roof intact.

Jedburgh Abbey

Other parts of it are just piles of stones where the kitchen and sleeping quarters and such were. Over the years as the abbey became poorer they just abandoned buildings that they couldn’t afford to upkeep. Now it’s maintained by Historic Environment Scotland.

Jedburgh Abbey

You can see more images of the abbey and town here.

The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett

The Disorderly Knights cover

The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett is the third book in her Lymond series and was first published in 1966.

I had a look at Goodreads to see what other readers thought of this one because although I loved the second half of the book there were parts of the first half that dragged for me. I really wasn’t too keen on the bits that were set in Malta and Tripoli, but by the time the action switched back to Scotland I found myself sitting up in bed – still reading at 2.30 am.

I don’t even think that this book is really perfect for bedtime reading as you have to concentrate on it, but when it got to 2.30 I had sworn to myself that I would put the light out at the end of the chapter and then I noticed that the next chapter sub-heading was Dumbarton, April/May 1552 – which just happens to be the town that I grew up in! I forced myself to give up for the night though, despite dying to know what was going to be happening at Dumbarton.

As it turned out I was slightly disappointed because Dunnett didn’t describe the town’s surroundings at all, which makes me think that she didn’t go there to do any research as there are lots of lovely hills and crags around Dumbarton to describe, and the castle rock is visible for miles around and would have been even more so in those days. Mind you nowadays you could just get on the internet and look at Google earth if you want to describe a location.

Dunnett wound this tale around actual historical events and a few of the people were real too. As ever I really started to dislike Lymond a lot, for most of the book he seemed like an out and out baddie, but I should have known better by now. When he gets back to Scotland he has the job of training a large amount of men who are going to be used to keep the rule of law in the Scottish Border country where the land has been constantly fought over by the Scots and English, in truth those Border families were only ever interested in their own survival, seeing themselves as being on neither the Scottish or English side, and who could blame them for that. Lymond is also thinking of himself as he is being employed by the English to keep the peace in the Border lands, but that’s easier said than done.

Meanwhile Graham Reid Malett/Gabriel who is a ‘high heid yin’ in the Noble Order of Knights Hospitallers is making a good job of putting Lymond in a bad position, making him look like an absolute swine!

Queen Mary’s House Jedburgh, Scottish Borders

One day last month we decided to visit a couple of towns that we hadn’t been to before – Jedburgh and Melrose in the Scottish Border country. They’re situated just a few miles from each other and both have the ruins of large abbeys. They’re quite small and sleepy towns nowadays but in the past they were important.

But this post is about a house that neither of us had even heard of before – Mary, Queen of Scots House in Jedburgh. It’s owned by the town council now I think and we saw a signpost pointing to it as we parked the car. As you can see from the photo below it was being painted while we were there. There’s a bit more of its history here.

Queen Mary's House

This house has had a bit of a chequered past and there even seems to be a bit of a dispute as to whether Mary did actually live in it although I don’t see why not as she seems to have been just about everywhere else!

Mary Queen of Scots House

The house is unusual because it has a left hand spiral staircase, it seems that it was probably designed originally for the Kerr family as they were a famously left-handed Border reiver clan and coincidentally feature heavily in Dorothy Dunnett’s third Lymond book The Disorderly Knights – which I’ve just finished reading.

Annoyingly I can’t find any photos of the inside of the house, I’m sure I took some but they’re hiding at the moment. You can see a few images of it here.

I was quite impressed with the house, not particularly because of its possible Mary Stuart connections, but just because it’s an interesting really old place with panelling, a tapestry and various other exhibits.

When we were there it was quite busy with tourists, in common with just about everywhere this year, it must have something to do with the weak pound I suppose – or the Outlander effect maybe. Amazingly there is no entrance fee and I think they are missing a trick as they don’t even have a donations box although you can put a coin in a machine to register whether you would have been a Mary Stuart supporter – or not. Always a tricky one that!

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively

Life in the Garden cover

Life in the Garden by Penelope Lively was just published earlier this year and it has also featured on BBC Radio 4 extra, you might still be able to listen to it here if you’re interested.

I loved this book and this time of the year made it a perfect read for me as it has suddenly got too cold to do anything in my garden, reading this was a good way of dealing with my withdrawal symptoms.

Penelope Lively was born into a family of keen women gardeners and from them she inherited the genetic tendency to plan and plant gardens wherever she could. Her first garden experiences were in Egypt where she grew up but eventually her family moved back to England where her grandmother, a very wealthy woman, gardened on a grand scale. It sounds like it must have been a wonderful place but as is often the way with gardens, it no longer exists, having been built on. I think that this is something that all gardeners realise – no matter how much work you put into them, in the end they’re very ephemeral and all it takes is a few seasons of neglect and that garden begins to disappear back into a wild state.

Penelope Lively talks about the various large gardens she has planned in different parts of England before settling in her vintage years in a small London garden. It’s a bit of a memoir of the gardens she has known and the books she has read. This is one of those dangerous books that mentions lots of other books and I found myself noting titles down for future reading, in fact I’ve already purchased one of them, English Flower Garden by W. Robinson, but a lot of the fiction books she mentions because they feature gardens. They’re mainly classics and most readers have probably read them all – Alice in Wonderland, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Secret Garden. Authors such as Beatrix Potter, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West and lots more.

She talks about the changing fashions in plants, and roses of course feature quite heavily. She mentions that as she’s now 83 she can’t do everything in her garden herself and sometimes has to rely on getting a man in to do some jobs, with some disasters ensuing. She has admiration for gardeners in other parts of the world who aren’t lucky enough to have a climate such as Britain’s as we don’t have to cope with really awful low temperatures.

I really enjoyed this one, I’ll give it 5 stars on Goodreads I think, the only gripe I have about it is that although it’s a hardback and has an attractive cover, it was published by Penguin and has been bound so tightly I found it quite difficult to hold it for any length of time. I was the first person to borrow this one from the library so probably it will ease up eventually, but the actual paper used isn’t very good, I don’t think it will age well. Having said that I will probably buy Life in the Garden at some point as it’ll be great for dipping into during bad weather.

If you haven’t tried Penelope Lively’s fiction you should give her books a go!