A Library of Your Own

Christina here. When I was young, I dreamed of having my own library. The old-fashioned kind, of course, with built-in shelves in the Gothic style and special ladders for climbing up to reach the top. Perhaps even a double-height room with a little balcony running round the top where you could walk around to peruse those shelves. It has to be the ultimate fantasy for a booklover and I can’t help but picture the library in the Disney film Beauty and the Beast – just perfect!

Saltram House(There is a list of five real life libraries here that would suit me just fine, although with slightly more realistic expectations, my ideal is the one at Saltram House, a National Trust Property in Devon).

My library was going to be very specific though, not like the general one downtown. It would be specially curated to contain only romantic fiction, some historical fact/biographies, possibly a few thrillers, and coffee table books, including those relating to my favourite artists. And the romantic books had to all have Happy-Ever-After endings – no sad ones allowed. No Gone With the Wind (although I might make an exception for that one as it’s a classic), absolutely no Tess of the D’Urbervilles and no Thorn Birds. And yes, even if I hadn’t read the books added to that library, I would have checked the ending of each and every one just to make sure.

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Confessions of a Country House Tour Guide

Ashdown 1 Nicola here. Now that we are into May, I’ve restarted my volunteering at Ashdown House, the 17th century hunting lodge in Oxfordshire where I work for the National Trust. It’s a great pleasure to be back, not least because we have only been open intermittently during the last two years of the pandemic and I really missed being in one of my favourite places.

I love visiting historic houses myself and when I go, I’m always curious to see the tour guides and volunteers in action. So often, things seem to run so smoothly yet when you’re behind the scenes you know it isn’t always the case at all. As with organising anything, there’s mad paddling going on below the surface!

I’ve worked at Ashdown for 20 years now. For years I drove past the stunning little 17th century white stone house that sat looking mysterious in the middle of a wood. I wondered a lot about its history but I always seemed too busy to visit. It was seldom open to the public and then only by guided tour. However when I gave up my job to become a full time author I was looking for something to do that would get me out of the house and meeting real people. Since history was my obsession, volunteering with the National Trust seemed like a good option.

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Island Stories

220px-FiveOnATreasureIslandNicola here. Since the time I first picked up a book I’ve been fascinated by islands, both in real life and as the setting for stories. Whether it's Five on a Treasure Island or The Island of Adventure by Enid Blyton, or Robinson Crusoe or Lord of the Flies (well not so much that one, perhaps) there is something magical about an island.

Islands offer the idea of escape and retreat and also the opportunity to start afresh. They are places set apart where you can take time and space to think. They appear solitary and pure in some ways, an earthly paradise. But they can also be too isolated, even savage, which is perhaps they make such great settings for crime novels. An island, if you can’t get off it easily, is the perfect “locked room” mystery as Agatha Christie proved and countless other crime and thriller authors have used the setting.

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Let There Be Light!

IMG_3920Nicola here. At this time of year when the evenings are long and dark and the days are short there is nothing that I enjoy more than seeing a light show. If there is snow (or at least a hard frost!) and stars sparkling overhead that’s an added bonus. Perhaps its’ a throwback to the distant ancestors who lit up this time of year with a number of fire festivals: Samhain, Halloween, All Souls and Guy Fawkes Night, all with bonfires and lanterns. The precursor of Christmas lights were the candles that German families would attach to the branches of trees with wax and pins as far back as the 17th century (fire hazard alert!) A hundred years later they had developed candle holders and glass balls for the candles and the tradition of the Christmas tree lights spread across Europe. The advent of electricity, of course, meant that we could all go wild with our lights if we wanted, both inside and outside!

It was a huge treat for me to go the Christmas Lights at Cotehele Manor gardens in Cornwall this year. Cotehele is a Tudor house with Cotehele Garland glorious gardens and a fascinating history. The Cotehele Christmas Garland is a tradition dating back to last century. Normally it adorns the Great Hall of the Manor House. The flowers for the garland are grown in the gardens from seeds sown in early spring. The plants include purple and blue statice and yellow helychrysum.

Garland close upThe flowers are picked in the summer, each individual stem is stripped of leaves and then they are hung up in the potting shed to dry. Construction of the garland begins in November using a sixty foot long rope which is first wrapped in evergreen foliage. Between 15 and 30 thousand flowers are then placed among the greenery and the huge garland is hung in swags across the Great Hall. It sounds an amazing creation and I wish I could have seen it but this year, of course, things are different. The house was closed and so the National Trust had had the brilliant idea to bring the decorations outside.

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My Tudor House is Falling Down!

Exterior LMHNicola here and today I'm sharing a visit I did recently to an amazing country house. Just to the side of a busy main road in Cheshire, surrounded by houses and traffic, lies a throwback to another time. It’s called Little Moreton Hall and whilst it’s not a stately home it certainly isn’t that small either. Built 500 years ago, it’s a time traveller from the Tudor era to the present. It was built to impress; a half-timbered house with decorative timber, plasterwork, painting and glazing that is totally dazzling.

I hadn’t been to Little Moreton Hall since I was a child and it’s a tribute to what an amazing place it is that I remember it so well. It was wonderful to revisit it. My first thought when I saw it, though, was to wonder how on earth it had managed to stand for so long. It looks like a house that is crumpling under its own weight. It bends, sags and buckles and the floors and walls are nowhere near straight. It is extraordinary.

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