Away For Christmas ~ new release!

Away for Christmas Cover MEDIUM WEB Jonathan Jones has written a novel. Losing his job a few days before Christmas means the pressure is on for his book to become a bestseller, but when his partner drops her own bombshell, the festive holiday looks set to be a disaster. When he’s bequeathed a failing bookshop in their seaside town, it seems that some of his prayers have been answered, but his publishing company turn out to be not what they seem, and when his ex-wife suddenly declares her romantic intent, another Christmas looks set to be complicated. Is everything lost, or can the true meaning of words, a dog called Frodo, and the sheer magic of Christmas be enough to save Jonathan’s book, and his skin?

Away for Christmas is about the joy and pain of publishing books, the joy and pain of fractured relationships, and of course, the joy and pain of Christmas itself. The festive period is not always fun for everyone, but most of all, this is a story about staying true to oneself and looking for the real Christmas spirit beyond the baubles and the glitter. 

The story is set over three Christmastimes, and because I feel sure you’ll be looking for a few hours of warm and cosy escapism at this time of the year, I can assure you that there’s a happy ending by the time Jonathan makes it to 2017. 

Regular readers will know that my characters tend not to be in the first flush of youth, and that the joy and pain of relationships are often par for the course. Christmas is very much a family time and can unearth a multitude of unwelcome emotions and in the case of my character, present plenty of troublesome hurdles before the festivities can be enjoyed. His ex-wife doesn’t always make life easy, but Jonathan is determined to be a better dad, against all the odds. 

Facebook Xmas promoAnd finally, the joy and pain of publishing books! There are some great publishers out there, ones who achieve results, look after their authors and understand the industry from the ground up. This story isn’t based on them.

It’s no secret that I’ve been round the houses and back again with regard to writing and publishing. Thirty years ago I used to believe that a good book would always be snapped up by a publisher regardless of genre, style, and content. In the real, commercial world, this just isn’t true. I see on a regular basis, writers excited by offers from vanity publishers, or those who operate under the guise of assisted publishing, not realising the implications until it’s perhaps too late. Even contracts from those real publishers with seemingly no pitfalls or upfront costs, can dissolve into a horribly disappointing experience. Of course, my poor character thinks he’s landed lucky when a small publisher offers him a three-book deal. What could go wrong? If you’ve ever dreamed of writing a book or maybe you’ve just typed THE END to your manuscript, you might think twice about your next step…

finished_spiced_01

Bookmuse Magazine: “If you’re a writer you will laugh, despair and sympathise with Jonathan Jones, and the trials and tribulations he faces as he battles to become a published author. And if you’re a reader, you’ll be captivated by the excellent story-telling that weaves Jonathan’s complicated life into a page turning drama. A real feel good novella, perfect to curl up with on a stormy winter’s afternoon…” You’ll enjoy this if you like: Jojo Moyes, Jill Mansell, Erica James. Ideal accompaniments: Hot chocolate with marshmallows and a plate of shortbread.

AWAY FOR CHRISTMAS: an excerpt.

He wondered whether to kiss her goodbye or wish her a happy Christmas, but that had gone horribly wrong with Denise. He really wanted to hear her laugh and bury his face in her hair, but neither of those things were likely unless he managed to fall down the reception steps and she caught him in her arms. He resorted to a handshake instead which felt much too formal but it meant he could escape before he made a fool of himself.
Twenty minutes later he turned into his parents’ drive on auto-pilot, ignoring the twitching curtains on either side of number 46 and the slowly deflating Santa on the roof of number 32. He felt like a teenager again, minus the excitement of dare or discovery. He was simply reliving all the embarrassing parts; Christmas with his parents, angst over his love life, and not nearly enough cash. No doubt Annabel and his parents would play their well-rehearsed roles and ask the same old questions. He knocked on the door of their bungalow and a dog barked from within. This was strange because his parents weren’t really animal lovers and they’d had a no-pets rule since about 1975, not since Annabel’s ferret had fallen foul to a fox and left a trail of entrails amongst the begonias.
Once Jonathan was inside the dog followed him down the hall, and the second he came to a halt in the kitchen, began a thorough inspection of his feet. His mother proffered a cheek while she fussed with baking trays and hot plates.
‘Look at you with no hat or scarf on a day like this, you must be frozen.’
‘I’m wearing three woollen vests and a pair of long-johns to compensate.’
She rolled her eyes at this and his dad pushed a glass of something fizzy into his hand.
‘How’s business, Jon?’ This was Jim’s standard greeting, as if everything was measured by the success of business, and one which always grated. He knew his parents were disappointed in him, both for leaving a well-paid job for what they called an airy-fairy reason, and for selling Farmhouse Mews for less than the extortionate market valuation. But most of all, for breaking-up with Catherine whom they considered to be a thoroughly decent person, although that hadn’t been part of his master plan – if he could call his current predicament the result of a plan…

Away For Christmas is available to preorder: myBook.to/Away4Xmas

 

 

 

Advertisements

Six Reasons Not To Write A Book

What’s killing the indie author? Writers are sensitive souls often plagued by despondency, worn down by mindless promotion, and the inability to find a reason to not write. So I wrote this…

woman-trowing-booksDo we really need any more books? The enormous volume of material available to download to Kindle alone renders the vast majority of new books coming onto the market, as more or less invisible. The number of books being published has exploded. According to the Bowker Report in September 2016 more than 700,000 books were self-published in the US alone, which is an increase of 375% since 2010. This doesn’t account for commercial publishing, or those 13 million previously published books recently made available to Kindle. Surely, the market cannot absorb this amount of reading matter? The market is completely saturated. https://www.bkconnection.com/the-10-awful-truths-about-book-publishing

The cost of visibility is increasing Readers and new authors might be shocked by the cost of advertising – BookBub is the current most effective site which offers amazing results to authors and publishers – but it comes at a price. It’s not unusual to pay in the region of £1,000 to advertise a single title. Lots of smaller sites have sprung up and they charge considerably less, but of course they don’t command anywhere near the same number of subscribers. Submit to a handful of these sites at £30 to £50 and you can soon be out of pocket. This leaves many authors at the mercy of social media, and at the risk of annoying their followers with mindless promotion. Even the commercial Facebook ‘Page’ has changed to one of pay-as-you-go. Visibility of posts has been severely restricted unless you hit that promo button and start entering your card details.

when-you-pay-peanuts-you-get-monkeysFree books Publishers have always used the loss-leader approach with free copies, usually in exchange for a review, but not always. Where does this leave the individual publisher? I don’t know any indie author who willingly gifts paperbacks on a regular basis – they cost in the region of £5-£8 to print, depending on where you get them printed, and the exchange rate. This is without factoring in the shipping costs, and not forgetting those small background invisibles such as editing, proofreading, formatting, and cover design. And this is without factoring in the time you’ve taken to actually write the book. The profit from selling a paperback can be as little as £1. Unfortunately, readers are used to browsing a huge selection of free material for Kindle and although print costs can be waived in respect of electronic formats; writing, editing, formatting, cover design, and advertising, is exactly the same as for a print book.

j5rftldnPoor Production Homemade covers and un-edited books give all indies a bad name. They do, but a word of caution. Authors should strive for excellence, not perfection. There is no such thing as a perfectly produced book. This is partly because a lot of the time perfection is subjective to any one individual. Even traditional publishers get things wrong and mistakes slip through. Some bloggers are quick to judge a book purely by the amount of typos, incorrect punctuation or too much padding and waffle. It’s easy to say there’s no excuse for this – and a lot of the time, there isn’t – but I do take a slightly kinder approach, albeit only slightly and I do feel some of the internet Grammar Police out there need taking to task on this and on the errors of their own scribblings. Tut-tut I spotted a run-on sentence once on a blog post written by a particularly over-zealous reviewer. This person ripped a perfectly good book to shreds with their painfully acidic views on punctuation and vocabulary. Let’s get this into some perspective.The overwhelming reason to read a book is to enjoy the story. If the story holds up, i.e. no serious, consistent issues, and I’m entertained, then I can overlook the occasional blooper, that something which takes me out of the story. Story is everything. A missing comma is just that…  However, there’s another side to this woolly coin. The vast quantity of poor, unedited material out there gives the conscientious author a bad name the minute he declares himself self-published. Editing at any level attracts a cost, likewise with proofreading; but it’s a vital part of publishing a book for public consumption, and the competition to sell and be seen is at an all-time high, so, why wouldn’t you?

2d0f3fdf0189d37ce0feaf8ebcab9330Reviews Another reason to develop a second skin or buy a mouth guard to prevent nightly grinding of the molars. The current product review system employed by Amazon is clearly open to error: One star: totally loved it! Three stars: not read it yet, won’t download. And abuse, on various levels: Doesn’t make any sense, completely unreadable, don’t bother. Reviews which have the power to connect with other readers do help visibility and authors can use them to some effect through social media, but not all readers review books, even if they enjoyed their free or 99p book and would have no hesitation in recommending it to others. The frustration of garnering reader-reviews is real, but then authors can be their own worst enemy. I’ve seen some writers attack readers on social media for posting a low-starred review and going on to label said reader as a troll. (Could it be that they just didn’t like the book? Consider that other potential readers will perhaps read this and back-off reviewing for fear of reprisal or getting it ‘wrong’) And if the review does have a whiff of vindictiveness about it, then surely the most sensible thing to do is to stop drawing attention to it, since this is usually the intent. And then there’s always the option to pay through sites such as Net Galley – the big book giveaway for bloggers and book reviewers in exchange for reviews, although the publisher/author has to pay a handsome sum to be listed. I do think some sites and reviewers have become a bit too powerful, but some authors are desperate enough to pay for a handful of (glowing) reviews – from any source. Amazon have a problem controlling the unethical ones, and their sister site, Goodreads, actively encourages ‘readers’ to simply rate books with no purchase required, or even a simple acknowledgement that they’ve read the book in order to validate the rating. Why not get rid of all the star ratings? If a reader has an opinion about a book, have them write a review using prompts such as characters/plot/setting/ etc. Or, is it time to do away with book reviews completely? After all, we don’t rely on this system in a real bookshop. The sample and the book description should be enough to have us decide if we want to spend our precious 99p (That’s 35p to the author).

Success. Written a best-seller? Great! Now your agent/publisher/annoying little man in your head strongly advises you to write at least two more before the end of the year, otherwise no one will remember who you are and all those knock-on sales will be lost…

Strawberry Sky: Reviewed by Bookmuse

Blog Banner

What we thought: I was looking forward to this book having enjoyed the first two in the series, and I’m pleased to say I was not disappointed. The novel emerges you right into the heart of the complex lives of sisters, Laura and Maggie, as we follow the next chapter of their story. And it’s an emotional one! The author embraces the world we find ourselves, amid the wild open hills of North Wales, and that confidence shines through in her writing. Well-paced, this story plays with the reader’s sympathies and loyalties, reeling you in right from the start, into their world so we care about the outcome of the characters. I particularly enjoyed the excellent twist in the tale.

Laura has lots to celebrate in her life. James is on the road to recovery following his near death accident, and the equine business is booming with plans for further expansion. But there are dark shadows also; her desire to get pregnant threatens her marriage, plus her worries about family ‘bad blood’ remain unresolved.

Maggie has her own family crisis to manage. Her daughter, Jess, flees to America leaving her (literally) holding baby, Krystal, and Pete has a health scare that could shatter their world. But with Jess, nothing is ever simple, and trying to keep the family together and find time for herself becomes a challenge.

Bookmuse Award BadgeIt was a real joy to be back in this equine-based world and in the remoteness and beauty of the North Wales setting. The location and local characters as always brought another dimension to the story. And this story is a page turner, full of dramatic highs and lows, it grips the reader to the very end. I read the whole book over one weekend, with the need to read more mixed with the dread of reaching the final page.

Knowing it was the final book of the series, I thought the author did a brilliant job in bringing all of the threads together into a satisfying conclusion – although I secretly hope she decides to write more in the series in the future.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Jojo Moyes, Dick Francis, Clare Chambers.

Avoid if you don’t like: Horses.

Ideal accompaniments: Strawberries with ice cream and a glass of Prosecco.

twitter post sky series (2)

C is for Camera, Coffee, and Colon

Christmas already seems a long time ago but it’s a fairly big contender for a C word so only fair to mention it early on; especially since I’m currently writing a Christmas themed novella. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is something cosy (come on, you know me better than that) It’s about an accountant who writes a novel in company time and how his subsequent literary journey with a small publisher impacts on his life. Obviously, it’s mostly satire.

This year, I was given a Cannon camera for Christmas. I also received another type of camera entirely – thankfully much smaller – in the form of a colonoscopy. I’m rarely ill but when I am I tend to do it in grand style. On this occasion, it was deemed by my doctor that since I was creeping up to one of those birthdays with a zero on the end, I should take advantage of the screening on offer and get checked out.

‘You’ll forgive me,’ she said. ‘Eventually.’

Fred-Gwynne-as-Herman-Munster-laugh3This wasn’t what I wanted to hear the week before Christmas. I’m well versed in the use of the colon: although I don’t always get it right. Semi; or full? Thank goodness for my wonderful editor. An empty colon is something else entirely. The preparation for such an investigation is pretty miserable. No solid food for 36 hours and awash with two litres of unspeakably vile liquid flavoured with artificial lemon, is arguably the NHS version of the Beverly Hills detox. And the Colonoscopy Clinic must be one of the most miserable waiting rooms – down to the fact that everyone in there is famished and not only dreading the procedure, but not especially looking forward to the distribution of those fetching paper shorts. Maybe it’s because I’m generally an upbeat sort, but I always find my writer’s observational slant is a good antidote for such times. Take my consultant; impossibly tall with unruly hair, booming voice, broken English. He laughed a lot too as he led my feeble body onto an operating table. I can’t recall his name but I still think of him as Herman Munster. The student nurse couldn’t find any veins in my arm in order to insert a cannula (something I’d happily gone along with as it promised mild sedation). Herman’s expertise with the needle in this respect was at least reassuring. And then we were off. I could even watch the whole thing on an overhead monitor.

Er, no thanks.

CDm5rGCXIAEAP0OThey never did find anything wrong with me, despite several biopsies. I worried I’d be sent for again; for another, more intensive examination, but several weeks later I received a letter to say I was discharged. Possible gluten sensitivity, it said in the notes. I reckon one is either intolerant, or not. I know stress is blamed for pretty much everything without a specific medical name, but I’m more inclined towards this than any other explanation. Do upbeat personalities become more prone to physical distress; are we guilty of putting on a brave face once too often? I think there may be some truth in this. I’ve taken the suggested course of action in reducing all stress on my digestive system. This comes down to reducing gluten heavy foods, cutting out caffeine and further reducing my moderate consumption of Chardonnay.

So far, so good

But what of less visible stress? My brother and I have recently had to make the awful decision to place Mum into a dementia care home. It’s clean, safe, caring. But her quality of life is pretty dismal. Are we compromising quality for longevity? Without a doubt. Hidden, disguised stress is evident for all the family, especially Mum, who is trapped in an alien world in every sense of the word. Of course, any fiction writer knows that worlds are not required to be physical to exert considerable power. Authors often exist in an online bubble too. And this generally contrived world can be creepily competitive: Look at my amazing sales rank! Look at my gut-busting daily word count! Writing and publishing at speed is counter-productive to what was once, for me, an enjoyable experience. Or maybe I’ve simply exhausted my current genre and my writing brain needs a colonic! This comes down to reducing unnecessary reading matter, cutting out all trash and further reducing my moderate consumption of social media.

So far, so good…

550x358_emmerdale_soapsshowdown_week20_pic19As a result, I’ve spent considerably more time playing with my new camera than I have tapping at the keyboard. Why does this make me feel vaguely guilty? How crazy that the pressure of social media to present a constant stream of material can coerce and control the mind. It’s often an insular place to be on a permanent basis because much of the time, content is not only manipulated but it’s severely watered down. Real stories and information are difficult to find. When the soaps first started on the telly they were broadcast a couple of nights a week for half-an-hour, with ad breaks in-between. From the script-writers point of view this amounted to a manageable window of creativity. Now, of course, they’ve had to up their game, resulting a lot of the time in plot holes, repetitive devices to move the story on (eavesdropping is a big one), implausible character motivation and the worst of all – gratuitous violence. As a precursor to these pleasures we are warned before each episode that viewers may find some scenes upsetting. 

imagesI’m not being especially pedantic. A lot of the time I like Coronation Street. I think it’s the northern humour, and I fully understand the concept of wanting to sit and watch something which takes little or no effort. But I still want good content. Light entertainment, in much the same way as books labelled as light fiction, still need to offer a story. I don’t want more books and blog posts to read, I want less! In the case of blog-posts, lots of these amount to barely disguised advertising, and we’re already gagging from an abundance of that. The compromise for quantity is always going to be quality, although I shall strive to discover the pearls amongst the vast quantity of mediocre material out there… So, did you get anything good for Christmas? I got a colonoscopy! And a reminder that producing and absorbing good content paves the way to greater contentment. Now pass me a small and very expensive glass of vino; I want to toast those quieter books.

 

 

In the Chair 79

11102784_844407928976852_7866671121152746412_nWelcome, Gabrielle Mathieu

How would you describe your writing style in only three words?

Gabrielle: Brisk, suspenseful, seductive

If you could have a relationship with one of your fictional characters who would it be and why?

Gabrielle: I would love to get cozy with Tenzin, the tough but moral son of a Swiss missionary and a Bhutanese nurse. Tenzin is my heroine’s moral compass, a teacher, but yet, not without flaws himself. His greatest gift is his compassion, and his willingness to listen. He’s also hot!

If you had to exist for a week in one of your books … which one would it be? Would you be a central character or simply watch the story unfold from the sidelines?

CvHOuFxUAAEjTl3

Gabrielle: My third book, which will come out in the summer of 2018, is set in Munich and the Himalayas, in 1967.  I would have loved to see Kathmandu then. It must have been a paradise. I’m not that interested in the availability of marijuana in the sixties, but I would have liked to see the city before its current infestation of vehicular traffic and homeless, starving dogs.

Dead or alive literary dinner party: who would you invite, and what would you serve?

TenzinGabrielle: I’d host all the Oxford dons: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Philip Pullman. I’d just have to hope that being upper-class British, Pullman wouldn’t fight with the other two, since he does have issues with their story-telling. Of course Lewis and Tolkien were products of their times, just as we are products of ours. We would have to dine in one of those delightfully old restaurants in London’s Fitzrovia or Bloomsbury, where the tables are crowded together in a small room, in a narrow building with creaky wooden stairs and a ceiling blackened by smoke. I’m not one for meat and potatoes myself, but I guess with that crowd, we’d have to have a traditional meal, washed down with some nice red wine. It’s true I might find the fellows a mite stodgy, but they influenced my writing. And I couldn’t bear to have dinner with George R.R. Martin, though I think he’s a fantastic contemporary story teller. His tortures are just too vile.

If you had to write in a different genre which would it be and why?

Gabrielle: I have a related genre I’ll be returning to in my next series: epic fantasy. I like creating everything from scratch: the names, the customs, the rules of magic. (There better be rules. I don’t like it when all problems are solved by magic. That should be a last resort, because magic exacts a heavy toll.) It’s an interesting challenge to create a complex background, and then extract what’s necessary for the story.

What do you dislike the most about being an author? Gabrielle: I dislike having to compete with the flood of books on the market.

Favourite word?  Gabrielle: Imagine.

Gabrielle Mathieu was in the chair, author of: The Falcon Flies Alone

Web: http://gabriellemathieu.com/

Celtic Connections Library Event

By Cathy Ryan.
Conwy library recently hosted two local authors, Jan Ruth and Gillian Hamer.
After an introduction by Tracey Mylechraine-Payne, head librarian at Conwy, Jan and Gillian talked about their books, the inspirations and passions which motivate and compel them to write.

 

Jan and Gillian’s books are set in North Wales and Anglesey but differ in subject matter. Jan’s books are contemporary and very much character driven with family and relationship issues, the landscape featuring vividly, while Gillian’s writing incorporates history, the paranormal and murder mysteries, again with beautiful backdrops.
Jan read passages from her books Silver Rain, a compelling family drama, and Dark Water, the second book in the Wild Water trilogy which features an element of crime and veers into the darker side of human nature.
Gillian also read from her books Crimson Shore, the first story in The Gold Detectives series, and The Charter, a story based on the Royal Charter which was wrecked off the north-east coast of Anglesey in 1859.
Gillian and Jan then discussed their publishing journeys and how the notion that self published books are inferior is still prevalent, unfairly so. After much frustration and disappointment, they both made the decision, with no regrets, to stick with self publishing. 
After which there was an informal chat, questions were asked, books discussed and bought and several glasses of wine consumed. All in all a very pleasant and informative afternoon. Thanks to Cheryl Hesketh, head buyer; pictured with Jan and Gillian.

What I did on my Holidays. 37 Years Ago

Ferniehirst Mill, Jedburgh, Northumberland 1979.

Day one, and we stopped in a vast forest throbbing with birdsong to gather mushrooms, easily filling one of the saddlebags with our cache. Hopefully, we’d picked a non-poisonous addition for breakfast the following morning. My horse for the day, Cinnamon, was the colour of, well, cinnamon. Standing at 16h I needed a handy rock to perch from in order to scramble back on as he wasn’t keen on standing still and I’m on the short side. We’d already passed some sort of horsemanship test together by hurtling down the steep grassy slopes of an ancient fort, galloping out through what would have been a drawbridge. An excersise our leader informed us, ‘Sorts out the wheat from the chaff,’  before we got onto the serious part of the ride, a four-day trail across The Cheviots.
jans-horses-015The Cheviot Trail – a loop reaching from Jedburgh in Northumberland all the way to Kirk Yetholm, just inside the English border – was no pony trek. Our horses were thoroughbred-cross, corn-fed and super-fit. To the uninitiated, this meant it wasn’t for novice riders. John Tough (pronounced Tooch, although tough suited him just as well), was no ordinary leader. If I had to make a short list of people who’d made an impression on me in my life then this guy would be close to the top. Not one to pander to any British Horse Society regulations, Tough set his own high standards and had little regard for officialdom, preferring to trust his own instincts about people, as well as horses. Hosting riding holidays for total strangers, some of whom spoke no English was clearly not for the faint-hearted, but if Tough decided after day one he didn’t like the way you handled his horse then your holiday ended right there with a full refund and a lift to the train station. There’s nothing like the burr of a Scottish accent in full flow to overcome any language barriers. No one, argued with him.
jans-horses-009I was bunked-up in the local village with Hope, an Irish woman who claimed to work in the only undamaged building in Belfast – the library. She’d travelled with two male companions, Mike, a solicitor, and Barry, a TV news reporter. Mike was perhaps the least capable rider of the three and the butt of many jokes. Since he was allotted a sturdy cob – Midnight Sun – he was also saddled with the saddlebags, which other than a token first-aid-kit and a hoof pick, were mostly stuffed with cans of beer. Part of the lunch-stop ritual was finding a suitable stream to cool down the cans. After three hours of bouncing they’d built up a considerable head of steam. The saddlebag straps even came adrift on one occasion, hanging beneath Midnight’s belly in full gallop and I don’t think Mike and Barry ever got over losing two cans of lager in a bog. All three of the Irish contingent partied hard, able to drink copious amounts of whisky, perform a reasonable demonstration of Irish dancing – with the aid of two riding crops crossed on the floor, and a good ‘diddler’ – and still ride for five or six hours the following day. Like the best of stories though, it wasn’t all laughs. By midweek, the drama cranked up several gears. Five thoroughbred horses and a cob carrying booze high on the moors in a high wind was maybe the precurser for some sort of misadventure. But before all of that, we were lulled into a sense of false security in the June sunshine; trotting through bubbling burns and stopping for ice creams and cigarettes in quaint hamlets such as Mossburnford and somewhere called Bloody Laws.
11-15-2011_20On Tuesday at the start of the serious trail, I was allocated a different horse – a chestnut mare called Flick. Tough told me she disliked men. Not all men, but most of them, and there was no knowing her level of tolerance until it was too late. This was one of her two, less endearing idiosyncrasies. Since I discovered she was perfection to ride, I worried about the other trait for most of the morning. There was plenty of distraction though, in the form of big scenery and fast riding. Northumberland is designed for premier horse riding, it’s simply the best terrain. Whereas my native Snowdonia lends itself more to pony trekking because of the mountains and hard tracks, the Scottish border country is softer, combining undulating grassy hills crossed with Roman roads such as the famous Dere Street. Miles of uninterrupted moorland dotted with mysterious stone circles and the relics of hilltop settlements, long since deserted to the Jacob sheep and the wind, decorate a landscape that probably hasn’t changed much since Roman times. And Tough had a good liaison with local landowners and this meant we could wander across territory normally inaccessible, riding virtually road free for the entire day.
jans-horses-007Lunch was as civilised as it could get up on the remote heathland by a disused farmhouse at Pennymuir, and brought to us via our own personal Roman chariot, the Land Rover from The Mill. Rolls filled with thick slices of beef, a buttery fruit and treacle cake and gallons of coffee. Why does simple food taste so good outside? This was despite being fortified only hours before with a full cooked Scottish breakfast – including haggis, and those wild mushrooms. The horses had earned a break too, and rolled free of tack in a huge meadow. True to form, they all trotted to the furthest point until they were a spec on the horizon.
And then the catch. After lunch, I discovered that my horse was the only one which was basically uncatchable. My companions were all tacked-up, remounted and ready to go, whilst my mare watched from afar with pricked ears, her saddle still perched on an old gate and her bridle slung over my drooping shoulder. ‘You’ll be alright walking for a wee while, won’t you?’ Barry deadpanned, already out of the gate and on the track heading towards Capehope Burn. It was only when my mare thought she was actually being left behind for real – and so did I at this point – that she finally cooperated and came flying down the hill like Black Beauty, mane and tail streaming behind. She even paused mid-gallop to throw out a beseeching whinny. She looked pretty amazing, but then I guess she knew how to work the crowd! As soon as she came within touching distance, Tough caught hold of a chestnut ear as if she were a recalcitrant teenager, and she stood patiently.
jans-horses-001Saddle and bridle back on and a leg-up from Tough, and we were back on the trail, cantering alongside the foaming burn and scattering long-eared Border Leicester sheep, disturbing rabbits, partridge and pheasant. The occasional stag leapt from cover, startling ourselves as well as the horses. The open hills grew steadily more remote as we climbed, where the cry of the curlew became a constant, familiar wail. Where possible, the riding was fast, challenging and exhilarating. We were assured of the safety under-hoof, as long as we stayed in single file behind Tough and his horse, Carita. This was the general guideline for not descending into a bog, or encouraging the horses to race alongside each other on open ground. Tough would raise an old, battered riding crop to signal he was slowing down, or there was a gate across the track (good excuse to take a nip out of the hip flask) or something needed negotiating at a slower pace. We knew we were in for a long steady amble when the whistling started (usually Mull of Kintyre) and then it was a slow descent into Hownam where the Land Rover was waiting for us at our designated B & B. First though, it was dinner for the horses – a tasty selection of oats, nuts and sugar-beet tipped into a selection of washing-up bowls. Several acres of grazing stretched towards the horizon, and I was concerned about the distance Flick could put between us overnight but I needn’t have worried. The orange washing-up bowl proved key…
jans-horses-018Our destination for the following day was Kirk Yetholm, over the border into England, an area well known for its turbulent history between the Scots and the English. There was no sign of any turbulence as we resumed the trail with blue skies and light cloud, splashing through wide burns and meandering the sheep tracks as we headed towards a remote hill farm above the Bowmont Valley. The Billinghams were Flick’s previous owners and in both senses, we enjoyed a warm welcome in the hills. Tea out of big copper kettles. Fruit cake slathered with butter on willow-pattern plates. Shortbread warm from the Aga and a trio of drooling sheepdogs. We lazed in the garden until the sun slowly withdrew and the clouds began to roll stealthily over the Pennines, but it was the increasing wind which had us gather ourselves together, ready for the final push into Kirk Yetholm. Horses and strong winds are never the best companions. Barry’s horse, Silus, a lean ex-steeplechaser, was perhaps the most perturbed and Barry had his hands full from the off. The weather worsened as we climbed onto higher ground. Craik Moor, Blackborough Hill and Windy Rigg already had predetermined personalities, and they lived up to them. Gunmetal grey skies and powerful crosswinds – the sort that could lift a well-secured riding hat – made for heavy going. And then the rain started.
Most of us had set out in waterproof attire, but Barry’s jacket was still tied around his waist. His mistake was to try and put it on with his reins in one hand. Tough said he didn’t think it was a good idea, twice. Barry had about three seconds to realise he was probably right, when the wind whipped the kagoul from his grip like flotsam. The real problem started when the toggles somehow wound themselves around the reins and then the flimsy material clamped itself limpet-like to the side of Silus’ head. Silus reacted predictably; reared, then bolted, covering the rise of boggy ground to our left as if it were a stretch of flat turf. Man and horse seemed to melt into the windswept moorland, lost to sight in the blink of an eye.
jans-horses-010Tough prepared to set off after them. ‘Stay right here, on this track. Don’t move an inch.’  Midnight, Flick, and Hope’s horse, Kelly, were not happy that two of the party had set off without them, and we had our own battle trying to keep them more or less stationary. The errant pair did eventually return, with Barry walking down the hill leading Silus. It didn’t look good, but at least they were both still walking. Both of them were plastered in bog. Amazingly, other than looking and smelling pretty bad there was no real damage, although Barry was white-faced. Silus had clearly run an impossible race against the wind, flanks heaving, eyes bulging. The culprit, the bright blue kagoul, was shredded and got stuffed in a saddlebag out of harm’s way. The hipflask came out. Should I have been flattered that Tough insist that I swap horses with Barry or was it down to my unflappable jacket? I wasn’t overly keen on losing my mare to a powerful thoroughbred with wind-fright, but at age 22 I was always up for a challenge where horses were concerned. Taking into account the amount of mud between horse and rider, Barry and I looked an odd duo, but no one was quite ready to laugh at that point. Tough was angry with Barry for not heeding his earlier warning, and the mood dropped. Every time Carita moved into canter, Silus was like a coiled spring right on her tail. It was a tough afternoon and none of us really settled until we’d dropped down a few hundred feet and left that dark hill and the screeching wind behind.
jans-horses-011We joined the Pennine Way and a small group of wet hikers stumbled alongside us for the last couple of miles, warming their hands on the horses and feeding them polo mints. The long, final stretch of this 267 mile long hike from Edale in Derbyshire is boggy and desolate, and many walkers are defeated by it where the terrain is mostly peat moor and incredibly inhospitable. None of the walking party had seen anyone quite so filthy as Barry (it was especially strange since he was riding a relatively clean horse). ‘Hell, man! What happened to you?’ Barry, recovered by then, obliged with an embellished version of events such as a herd of kelpies enticing his horse into a bog. Despite the mud and the chill wind, the atmosphere warmed-up considerably and as the village came into view Tough struck up Mull of Kintyre. The hikers began to sing along and we clattered off the hill and down the main street flanked by several footmen, all of us anxious to get within sniffing distance of a pub and a hot bath. Our billet for the night was a stone house full of faded opulence, and its fair share of clocks and antiques. Virtually everything ticked. But there were rocking chairs and books around a roaring fire – yes, after all it was still only June – and a rattling Georgian tea trolley materialised, loaded with a substantial afternoon tea. The diminutive landlady took a moment to take in Barry’s appearance. ‘Och, now, has the wee man taken a tumble?’ Tough waited till he’d selected a cream scone and tested it. ‘Aye.’
We didn’t make the pub.
The sinister mood of the hills continued the following day. We ate breakfast in silence, aware of tree branches tapping the windows, warning of another furiously windy day ahead to negotiate College Valley. Barry was impressed that his riding gear had been cleaned and dried overnight, less impressed about riding Flick for another day, claiming she was hot to handle. Since Tough wanted me to take Silus again, neither of us had much choice but to get on with it. Trotting out of Yetholm, Silus shot across the village green and we narrowly missed a leaning telegraph pole. Barry was struggling with Flick too and at the first opportunity a playful buck had Barry halfway up her neck. We paused on a track above the village and Tough lit a cigarette, using his hat as a wind shield. He decided that I was best riding Flick again. Barry scrambled onto Carita and Tough took care of Barry’s overwound steeplechaser.
jans-horses-016We were enchanted and battered in equal measure by every weather condition as we left Kirk Yetholm and crossed back into Northumberland, hit first by rain, and then hot sun would break through thick, swirling mist. Ethereal and atmospheric. Not much imagination required to expect a Roman army to come marching over the horizon. We cantered across the sodden heathland, stretching into a gallop up a long hill which eventually pulled us up and out of the Scotch mist, and then we were looking down at skeins of floating cloud. But then by afternoon we were in pale sunlight again, riding across a labyrinth of rolling countryside through the renowned College Valley. Vivid and intense, rainbows would be there one second, gone the next. It wasn’t only the scenery which was mesmerising, it was the growing bond with our horses, too. Riding the trails certainly evoked a deeper connection to this historical land, those ancient routes of the Border Reivers and the bloody battles between the Scots and the English. We fell into companionable silence, enjoying the low moan of the wind, the clink of horseshoe against stone, the creak of a leather saddle. Cold and wet, or dirty and sweaty ceased to matter. Minor discomforts became inconsequential, small victories where we’d pushed our personal boundaries became more important. How could we go back to ordinary jobs after this? I think I even told my parents not to bother collecting me.
jans-horses-008The final day and we headed back to The Mill via Sourhope, along steaming wet lanes in bright sun, trotting into a flat-bottomed valley like a Scottish prairie. There was a herd of feisty bullocks grouped beneath the trees, flicking tails and watching our progress with interest. A breath-taking gallop, the horses full of spring on the lush expanse of damp turf, knowing they were homeward bound. The thud of hooves seemed to echo in that hollow space and then we realised why it was so loud – we had serious company. About 200 head of cattle had decided to follow us! Fortunately, they lacked the pace and stamina of our horses and we soon left them behind. A warning clink-clink on the tarmac warned of a loose shoe. Of course these were the days long before mobile phones and we had to find a phone box. An hour later, the Land Rover trundled towards us and Tough, ever resourceful, pulled out his farriers last and secured Flick’s nearside hind shoe. Problem fixed, we completed our ride across familiar territory as we dropped down through Birkenside Forest again. Soon, the mill house was in sight and our horses whinnied advance greetings to stable-mates they’d not seen since Tuesday.
It was our leader’s birthday – he’d kept that quiet all day – but we made up for it with a night of dinner, drinking and diddling at The Carter’s Rest in Jedburgh. The Irish trio were actually late, turning up halfway through the starters, still in grubby riding gear and holding each other up with leery grins. All of this attracted the attention of the next group of riders assembled in the bar. Barry made a makeshift sling from a couple of big white napkins, and began to hobble towards them. ‘Are you here for the Cheviot trail? No, don’t be put off by the bandages. We all really enjoyed it.’
‘Don’t listen to his tall tales,’ Tough said.
jans-horses-005Once upon a time, John Tough bought a rundown mill on the River Jed and restored it. Then he bought horses, some of them with problems, both physical and otherwise, and nurtured them to full health. His reputation for riding the Cheviots, grew. In 1980 he built a lodge on his land, for rider accommodation. I returned – of course I did – from 1979 to 1986, riding in many different seasons, including colourful autumn trails and once, during the heavy snow of early spring. Tough retired at the end of the eighties due to ill health. Did I set out to write a book about John Tough, and Beryl, the young interior designer from London who never went home after her riding holiday? Surely, this was the stuff of fiction! Not that I was aware of, but I guess it’s an example of how more than 30 years later, the subconscious finds a story somehow, pulling together characters, historical facts, impressions and experiences… one I’ll never forget.

 

Untitled design (35)