Christina here. As writers, we do a lot of background research for our books and personally I like to go and look at the settings for my stories if at all possible. Having decided that my hero and heroine were going to end up in the north-east of England (Northumbria and Mercia as it was called in the 9th century), I really wanted to visit those places for myself to see first-hand what it was like. I persuaded my poor long-suffering husband to come with me, and as we had two very elderly dogs they came along for the ride too. And what a ride it turned out to be!
A 775 English miles roundtrip in two days – it was what I would definitely call an epic journey. And all done in torrential rain, which is very tiring for the driver (mostly my husband). But somehow it all worked out very well and although this might sound very fanciful, I actually felt as though the Norse gods were with me, helping me to find exactly what I needed. Because the weirdest thing happened – although it was raining the entire two days – and I’m talking deluge here, not just a shower or two – each time we stopped at a site I wanted to see and photograph, the rain stopped for just long enough to give me a chance to do that. Coincidence? I started to doubt it. I mean, what are the chances?
There were other lucky occurrences too. Our first stop was the tiny village of Torksey in Lincolnshire, where the Viking Great Heathen Army overwintered in 872/3 AD. I’d read that they camped by the river and I knew there was an old castle ruin nearby so I thought it would be easy to find the approximate site. Not so. When we arrived, you couldn’t see the river at all and there was no sign of any ruins (even though I’d seen a picture of them and knew they had to be there). We drove through the village three times – nothing. Eventually we stopped a man walking his dog and he told us there was a disused railway bridge, reached via some newly built steps, and from there you could see both the river and the ruins (the only way unless you went into someone’s back garden). We must have driven past those stairs several times and not noticed, but once we found them – bingo! The bridge gave a perfect view of what I needed to see and, as I said, the rain stopped just long enough for us to walk across it and back to the car.
I then wanted to see the Humber estuary, specifically the outermost point – Spurn Head. As luck (or the gods?) would have it, the tide was out, the rain stopped for ten minutes, and I was able to see this amazing place in all its glory. It was truly magical – a bit bleak perhaps (especially on a rainy September day) but majestic and awe-inspiring. So much sea and sky, making me feel very small, but I couldn't stop staring at it. It was like stepping into a Turner painting and I didn’t want to leave. It was also very windy though and I could imagine it’s not a nice place to be during the autumn storms – our little dogs nearly blew away!
Our third stop was Marsden Bay, a beach in Northumberland just south of Newcastle. Again, the rain stopped just as we got there and I went to have a wander on the sand. I think I was extremely lucky in that the tide was out there as well – the beach could have been very small otherwise. Here too were the enormous skies and vistas across the North Sea – unbelievably beautiful. I had come in search of a specific place on the beach – I needed a cave for my story – and there it was. Serendipity? I honestly don’t think so.
Finally, we headed for the village of Repton in Derbyshire, where the Viking army over-wintered in 873/4 AD. I’d read that they used the church of St Wystan’s as part of their defensive walls and wanted to have a look. Obviously, nothing remains of those, but the church is still there, including a crypt where the kings of Mercia were said to have been buried.
Now, I’m not good in dark spaces that may or may not contain spiders, but for the sake of research, I had to be courageous. Having found the narrow steps leading down to the crypt, I braved the spiders (yes, I saw some – yuck!), took some photos and fled. Not just because I was scared of the creepy crawlies, but I received the distinct impression I wasn’t welcome! My imagination supplied the answer – the souls down there knew I was visiting because of the Vikings, who presumably had desecrated their holy space, and any descendants (plus the Norse gods) were not wanted there. Fanciful, moi? Possibly, but you can’t persuade me otherwise.
So it would seem I owe huge thanks to the Norse gods for helping me with what could otherwise have been a very difficult reconnaissance trip! The result was my new novel WHISPERS OF THE RUNES which is published next week.
I hope you enjoyed my research journey vicariously – have you ever been to Northumberland and if so, did you like its wild beauty? Or have you been on any trips where you really felt luck was on your side?