Location, Location, Location #9

Speke Hall, Liverpool

Today’s stop on our literary tour through my novels takes us to a specific location in South Liverpool. Grade 1 listed Speke Hall has a fascinating history, and a whole novel could have been constructed around a number of events associated with the house and its inhabitants. However, it purely serves as a backdrop to my story.

My familiarity with the building is connected to the tea-rooms there, and not just for the coffee and cake, although as any writer knows, that would be reason enough. It was, among a number of venues, where I used to meet with members of my team to conduct their appraisals. We were all home-based workers, probably some of the first back in the early noughties, and following a remark from one of my neighbours about the number of ‘gentleman callers’ I’d had to my house, I realised that having home-based meetings was probably not such a good idea. Hence I came to know the nearby tea-rooms at Speke Hall rather well. Not all the meetings were easy, but the lovely setting made the whole business a little less stressful, and allowed my reputation to recover.

Speke Hall – tea-rooms and visitors’ centre

Speke Hall is a beautiful old manor house, with parts dating back to Tudor times, and it’s just the kind of place that wicked Lord Childecott, the antagonist in Following the Green Rabbit, might have lived, although I had to whisk it away to the next county for the purposes of my story. In addition, the estate’s former farm buildings, which were converted into the tea-rooms, could quite easily have served as one of the outbuildings in which Mr Eyre was imprisoned by the evil Lord, if you picture them without windows and with a thatched roof, as they probably would have been in the past.

I was deliberately vague about the time-period in which the novel was set in order to avoid becoming embroiled in too much historical research, but we’re somewhere in the late sixteenth century. Like William Norris, a Royalist, who lived in Speke Hall at the time, Lord Childecott would be suspicious of both the French and the Jacobites. Of course, my antagonist is suspicious of any stranger, but to tell you more would give the game away if you haven’t read the novel.

I had in mind the Great Hall with its grand fireplace and oak paneling, as the setting for the scene below.

Speke Hall, The Great Hall

Excerpt from ‘Following the Green Rabbit

Up at the Manor House, Lord Childecott was getting nowhere with his new prisoner. Despite his best efforts, Mr Eyre was failing to co-operate. True, he hadn’t resorted to violence yet, and that was always a possibility. His chief enforcer, Smiler, so named because of his lack of teeth, was a dab hand with the thumb screws and other less than dainty tools. However, he had a feeling that such methods would only work if Eyre was to watch them being applied to someone he cared about. If local gossip was true, then he knew just who that would be.

Lord Childecott paced the room while Mr Eyre sat patiently on the chair to which he had been bound. Since his capture that afternoon, he’d been locked up in a dusty outbuilding. He had tried to find a way out, but although he’d succeeded in freeing himself from the ropes which tied his hands and feet, escape from the building had proved impossible. Now it was evening. He was hungry and thirsty and he was facing his captor and his questions.

“I’ll ask you again, Eyre, where are you from?”

“And I’ll tell you again. I came from the other side of the wood.”

“You were on my land and that’s forbidden.” Lord Childecott glared at him. What do you want here?” He strode over and fingered Mr Eyre’s jacket. “And why are you so strangely dressed?”

Had his hands not been bound to the chair, Mr Eyre would have raised them in a gesture of exasperation. “If I told you where I’m from, you wouldn’t believe me.”

“Try me,” Lord Childecott snarled, an inch from Mr Eyre’s face. Mr Eyre tried to avoid grimacing at the stench of Lord Childecott’s rotten-toothed breath.

“I believe I’ve come from the future. More than two hundred years in the future, judging by what you’re wearing and the style of the buildings here,” Mr Eyre replied glancing around the room.

“Don’t trifle with me, Eyre.”

“I’m not. Look, you say I’m strangely dressed. This is how gentlemen are accustomed to dress in the first decade of the twentieth century. Look in my pocket” he indicated his jacket pocket. Childecott didn’t move. “Well, go on, look.”

Childecott reached into Mr Eyre’s pocket and brought out the Box Brownie.

“That’s called a camera. It’s a new invention. Something from the future,” said Mr Eyre. “It takes pictures, likenesses if you will.” Mr Eyre thought for a moment. “Like an automated artist.”

Childecott turned the camera over in his hands. He put it to his ear and shook it. “In this little box?”

“Do be careful with that,” Mr Eyre pleaded.

Childecott tossed the camera onto a nearby couch where it rolled over and came to rest on its side. “I don’t believe you. Some foreign toy, no doubt,” he sneered. “Now, who are you working for? The Jacobites? The French?”

“I’ve told you. I’m not working for anyone and I’m not a spy. I’ve told you what I believe has happened.”

“Enough! You are trying my patience.” Lord Childecott thought for a moment, then turned to one of his men who was standing by the door. “Lock him up again and fetch Martha Stebbins, I’m sure we can give you an incentive to talk once you see what Smiler here can do to your friend Mistress Stebbins.”

Two of Lord Childecott’s enforcers untied Mr Eyre, then taking him firmly by the arms, frog-marched him from the room.

“No! No!” He struggled against them wildly. “You leave Martha out of this. I…” At Lord Childecott’s signal one of the guards stuffed a grubby piece of material in to Mr Eyre’s mouth and he could speak no more.

As the two enforcers dragged the struggling Mr Eyre across the courtyard and back to the barn, he noticed a flash of movement behind the Manor House. The guards, however, were too preoccupied with trying to manoeuvre their resisting captive to notice the two boys watching from the other side of the yard. Mr Eyre was manhandled through the barn door, all the time protesting through his gag. One of the men yanked it out of his mouth.

“Go on, you can yell all you like out here. No one will hear you.” He laughed and heaved the door closed, dropping the heavy wooden plank into place and barring the door shut.

Mr Eyre got to his feet and started to hammer on the door with his bound hands, bellowing at the top of his voice to be released.

“Right then, we’d better go and fetch old Martha,” the guard said to his companion as they stomped off, leaving Mr Eyre cursing and yelling and banging on the barn door.


Following the Green Rabbit
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Image credits: Rodhullandemu, wikiwand, countrylife.co.uk

Location, Location, Location #5

Location No. 5 – Daresbury, Cheshire

The latest stop on our literary journey through my novels takes us to Daresbury, one of the numerous villages located in the rolling Cheshire plain, which was the inspiration for the village near Bluebell House, home to Bryony, Bethany and their tutor, Mr Eyre in Following the Green Rabbit.

Daresbury is not so physically close to Alderley Edge as the fictional village in the novel, but the overall impression of this pretty little village, with its narrow lanes and Victorian cottages, was the perfect backdrop for the action that was to play out in the story.

I first stumbled on this quaint little village (I’m hoping it still is) during a narrow boat holiday back in the 1980s. Searching for lunchtime refreshment, we set out from the canal, and struck out towards the nearest village, which actually turned out to be quite a tidy step! Even now, I remember the hedgerows that lined the narrow lanes, where we picked blackberries for a not-very-successful dessert that evening. We passed the church, and a little further along, we found the all-important ‘Ring’o’Bells’ public house.

Not at all relevant to my story, but of interest, is the fact that Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) was born at the vicarage in Daresbury. All Saint’s church has some wonderful stained-glass windows depicting scenes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Lewis Carroll inspired window in All Saint’s Church, Daresbury

There’s a print of this lovely depiction hanging in my bathroom. Was it from this connection that I unconsciously introduced a strange green rabbit into the story? We don’t actually visit the interior of the church in the book. If we had, it might have sent Mr Eyre down a whole new rabbit hole. But I digress.

The village green is a key location in Following the Green Rabbit, but as far as I recall, there isn’t much of one in Daresbury, and I found myself remembering the one in the village in which I grew up, in Upper Poppleton, near York, way across the Pennines in Yorkshire. I have the impression that there were stocks on the corner of the Green at one time, but I think that’s just my imagination!

The Village Green in Upper Poppleton

Excerpt from ‘Following the Green Rabbit’

The village was a pleasant fifteen minute walk from Bluebell Wood House. The narrow lane was lined with leafy hedgerows where insects buzzed. “We collected blackberries and elderberries for jam along here last year, Mr Eyre.” Bryony pointed out a row of tall bramble bushes. “Look Bethany, there are so many again, and they’ll be ripe soon.”

“And did you eat as many as you picked?” Mr Eyre said, laughing as he rummaged about in the bushes, examining the fruit. “I know I did as a boy.”

“Do they have blackberries in London?” asked Bethany.

“Well, not in the city itself, apart from in some of the parks. But I grew up in Kent. I only went to London later on.”

They walked a little further. “So tell me, ladies of the flowering vine and house of figs, what other useful plants can we find here in the hedgerows?” He rubbed his chin. “You know we really should’ve brought a flora.”

“A flora?”

“Yes, you know, Miss Bryony, a book for identifying flowering plants. No doubt your Papa has such a volume in his collection?”

“Oh yes, I’m sure he has.”

Mr Eyre plucked a couple of likely samples from the hedge and tossed them into Bethany’s basket. He crouched before her, eyes wide with enthusiasm. “Maybe you could try drawing some of them?”

Bethany nodded happily.

“And I could label them,” added Bryony.

“Splendid idea,” Mr Eyre exclaimed, rising swiftly to his feet and waving his forefinger in the air. “Using the original Latin names, of course.” He spun around and pointed down the lane. “Now let us press on into the village.”

The lane broadened out at the crossroads at the edge of the village which boasted a line of neat brick-built houses arrayed around the village green. There were couple of stone water troughs for passing horses and, much to Mr Eyre’s delight, the old village stocks, which fortunately were padlocked shut, or otherwise, no doubt, he would have felt himself obliged to demonstrate.

The post office and general store was on the far side of the green. Mr Eyre lengthened his stride on seeing his objective and the girls almost had to run to keep up.

The little bell above the door tinkled as Mr Eyre opened it. Rosy-cheeked Mrs. Gilbert was standing behind the post office counter. She greeted the two girls warmly and asked when they were next expecting a letter from their parents. “So exciting dealing with post from so far away!” she exclaimed. Bryony answered politely and swiftly introduced Mr Eyre, who she noticed was twitching with impatience.

He rubbed his hands together. “Mrs. Gilbert, delighted to make your acquaintance. Tell me, have you a package for me? I am expecting one.”

“Likewise I’m sure, Mr Eyre, I’ll have a look in the back.” Mrs. Gilbert bustled through into the storeroom. A few moments later she returned with a parcel almost the size of a shoe box neatly-wrapped in brown paper. She looked at it inquisitively, peering up at Mr Eyre from behind her half-moon glasses.

“May I?” Mr Eyre put his hand out.

“A mystery parcel from my newest customer. What can it be?” she said curiously.

“Aha, you will have to wait and see, Mrs. G.” Mr Eyre replied, touching the side of his nose. He turned to the girls. “Miss Bryony, Miss Bethany, will you accompany me further?”

“Well I never did. Not a word of an answer,” said Mrs. Gilbert to herself as they left the shop.


Following the Green Rabbit is available in paperback and ebook.

Image Credits: GoogleMaps, haltonheritage.co.uk

Location, Location, Location #2

Location No. 2 – Alderley Edge, Cheshire

In the second of my series discussing the settings for my novels, come with me to Alderley Edge, in Cheshire, NW England.

“Alderley Edge is an abrupt and elevated ridge, formerly the site of a beacon, which bears the appearance of having been detached by some great convulsion of nature. … The sides are varied with cultivated land, wood and rock; and the entire mass presents a striking object to all the surrounding district over which it commands a most extensive prospect.” The History of the County Palatine and City of Chester, George Ormerod (1819).

This looming escarpment provides the backdrop to my third novel, ‘Following the Green Rabbit’, which I began writing during NaNoWriMo in 2018. By this time, I’d been living in South Africa for eight years, so I was drawing heavily on my carefully stored memories of the English countryside for the setting.

Alderley Edge still towers over a patchwork of fields and farmland and small villages. It has an ancient, timeless quality. I drove past it numerous times when making the journey home from North Wales to Liverpool, and I can still see it clearly in my mind’s eye: a massive stark shape hunched over the surrounding landscape, dark against the glowing afternoon sky. This, and the open countryside beyond, the wide Cheshire Plain, peppered with old villages that still hold the essence of the past, was the perfect setting for the novel.

This location also provided the setting for two of my favourite childhood novels, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath, written by British novelist, Alan Garner. Garner lived locally and the timeless quality of the place and the legends associated with it, inspired him too. It’s a place where anything might happen at any time in history.

The towering escarpment, presiding as it does over a flat, low-lying landscape, is a metaphor for the wicked Lord of the Manor in the novel, whose presence looms over the lives of the people who live in the village where my two plucky heroines find themselves.

Excerpt from ‘Following the Green Rabbit’

They stood up, wondering where to run. The sound of the hooves was getting louder. A horse snorted and they heard a man cry out.

“Quick. Behind the house.” Bryony grabbed her sister’s hand and they ran around the back of the damaged building.

Seconds later the clearing was full of stomping horses. The girls cowered under the window at the back of the house.

A man shouted. “Where did he go?” Another voice: “Search the buildings.”

Bethany gasped. Bryony held her tight. Over her shoulder she saw something moving in the bushes. A boy’s head appeared. His eyes were wide-open and startled-looking. He stared straight at Bryony, who froze, clinging on to her sister. Bryony was aware of more shouting at the front of the house. The men were arguing. She focused on the boy’s face. It was scratched and dirty, his hair was sticking out wildly from under his cap and his shirt was torn. He looked to left and right, then beckoned to her, nodding and mouthing words to her.

Bethany twisted around to see what Bryony was looking at. She gasped in surprise. The boy beckoned with greater urgency. At the front of the building the shouting stopped.

Then suddenly, they heard the order. “Find him! Spread out! He’s got to be here somewhere.” The voice was harsh and the accent strange to Bryony’s ears. She looked at Bethany and nodded. They scrabbled into the bushes and followed the boy as he disappeared deep into the undergrowth.

He moved rapidly and the girls struggled to keep up. But they did. The men’s shouts as they rode around the glade on their heavy-hoofed horses spurred them on. Low branches tugged at their hair and their clothes, while brambles scratched their bare legs. They stumbled over roots and crawled over logs for what seemed like ages. The boy glanced back a couple of times to check on their progress, but he didn’t slacken the pace. Finally they came to a steep bank where he stopped.

“Get ourselves over that,” he nodded at the bank, “they’ll not follow. A bit further on there’s a place where we can stop and talk.”

The girls weren’t used to climbing but he showed them how to use the tree roots as hand and foot holds and they soon managed to clamber up. A series of rocky outcrops on the other side made it easy enough for the girls to scramble down.

“Follow me,” the boy said. The girls obeyed, picking their way along the rock-strewn path. Both were grateful to still be wearing their sturdy outdoor shoes from their morning walk into the village. A little further along he stopped again and led them down another dip in the land to a wide flat slab of stone at the entrance to a cave.

The boy flopped down on the ground just inside the cave. The girls followed his example, leaning back against the smooth cave walls. “That was a close call,” he said. “I thought me goose was well and truly cooked.”


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Image credit: Brian Abbott