We Wish You a Merry Christmas!

Stencil.default (1)Nicola here, wishing you a very Happy Christmas to those who celebrate the festival and happy holidays to everyone celebrating their traditions. Today is the first day of Word Wenches’ annual tradition of short daily blogs over the Twelve Days of Christmas.

This year for the first time in as long as I can remember, and possibly the first time ever, I’m spending Christmas in a hotel. Every year for the past forever we’ve either been at home, hosting family and friends, or visiting them as their guests. This year, though, my mother-in-law went into a care home near my sister-in-law’s home in the North of England so we are staying nearby in order to see everyone over the festive season. I’m writing this before we go and I’m wondering what it will be like. The hotel promises all manner of wonderful treats: delicious food including the full Christmas dinner, festive afternoon tea, carols and other live music and the chance to work off all the food in the gym and pool. It sounds great. But even at Christmas I find I still think about writing – will it be the sort of hotel that would be a good setting for a murder mystery? Stencil.default (2) What will our fellow guests be like? Will there be rows – or romances? (I’ll be taking note!) Will it snow??? All will no doubt be revealed as our Christmas trip progresses! Wherever you are in the world and however you celebrate, the Wenches wish everyone peace and joy in the year ahead.

How are you spending the holiday season? Will you be at home, or away? Are there any special holiday traditions you enjoy with family and friends? 


Snowdrift 2Nicola here, talking about the unexpected delights of being stranded in a remote community. It’s a familiar and popular trope in books, whether it’s being marooned in the snow with a handsome hero or, in crime novels, stuck in an eerie house with a bunch of suspects, but I’ve always wondered what it would really be like to be stranded somewhere. When I was a small child, we went on a family trip to the Lake District at Christmas time and did get stuck in the snow. We all ended up rattling around in an empty hotel – they opened it up specially for us – and it felt like a great adventure to me but then I didn’t have to work out the logistics of how we were going to get home! I suspect that Wench readers in countries with more extreme weather than the UK are used to that sort of thing!

Last month, on our holiday in Alaska, we got stranded again. Our trip was heavily dependent on 0033 IMG_5089
the Alaska Marine Highway, the ferry system that takes you all the way along the coast. We started out in Juneau on the MV Columbia and travelled up to Skagway, Sitka and various other intriguing ports along the coast. It was fabulous – along with admiring the stunning scenery we met and chatted to some very interesting people; locals who used the ferry system for their work, holiday-makers like us, a big family on their way to a wedding, lots of other very interesting people doing very interesting things. We disembarked on Wrangell Island to stay for 5 days with the plan of hopping back on another ferry after that to take us down to Prince Rupert in BC.

0028 IMG_5080However, we’d been only a day in Wrangell when we heard that the ferries were on strike. There was no way we were going to be able to get the ferry out of Wrangell, which, of course, had implications for all of the rest of our trip. We weren’t the only ones by any means. There were stories of towns along the coast where they were putting stranded travellers up in school and church halls because there wasn’t enough accommodation for everyone. Alaska Airways put on a special flight to help a stranded school party get home. We hoped that the wedding guests we’d met along the way had all made it in time for the ceremony even if they couldn’t get home afterwards! For all these villages and towns along the coast, especially those with no road access, the ferry is literally a lifeline, and necessary for food supplies to be delivered and businesses to run and all sorts of other communications.

We were very lucky. We were staying in a lovely float house on the harbour and the owner very kindly told us we could stay as long 0218 IMG_5927as we needed. Our neighbours, living on the other boats, generously shared their freshly-caught prawns with us so there was no danger of us starving! The shops and museum in Wrangell provided plenty of things to do and we got to know people far better than we would have done if we’d just been passing through. Meanwhile we tried to find some options that would enable us to stick to our itinerary as best we could. The scheduled flights were all fully booked as there was only one a day and they went in the wrong direction; we realised it would take us four more flights to get back to where we were supposed to be! We couldn’t drive since we were on an island… There weren’t any other boats going south to Prince Rupert. Then one of our new friends came up with a suggestion: The local air charter company could squeeze us in to their schedule as a favour if we were prepared to be flexible in terms of when we could go.

0227 IMG_5958As the ferry company had very kindly refunded us our costs, chartering a light aircraft was possible but then we hit the next problem. The weather was awful and a small plane couldn’t fly in it. We’d have to wait, which didn’t help my “nervous flyer” stress! Finally a clear day arrived. We chartered our very own aeroplane complete with standard-issue hero-style pilot to take us to Prince Rupert. Once I’d got over my nerves I almost enjoyed it. The views were amazing and there was a lot less queuing than on a scheduled flight but for lots of reasons I can’t see it becoming a regular thing!

I guess the lessons we learned from a real-life stranded situation was how friendly, helpful and kind people were and also how interesting it was to have time to get to know a place better than we might have done on a shorter visit. These days, with improved communication links it’s a lot more unlikely people are going to be castaway on an island for years, or stranded in a remote wilderness for months at a time although it is still possible.

Coach in fogIn the past it was often poor weather that would maroon our ancestors somewhere isolated. Fog as well as snow was a particular hazard. As early as the 13th century, the government records show concerns over air pollution in London from the burning of sea coal and by the mid 17th century the combination of natural mist and fog in the Thames Valley plus the industrial smoke had given rise to the term “London Particular.” In the Regency the term “pea soup” was coined to describe “a fog as thick and as yellow as the pea-soup of the eating house.” In December 1813 the Prince Regent set out from Hatfield House to visit the Marquis of Salisbury but the fog was too thick for him to proceed. One of his outriders fell in a ditch and he was obliged to turn back. Meanwhile, the Maidenhead coach overturned in the fog and various other carriages drove off the road, ending up down alleyways and in gardens. Coachmen ended up leading their horses.

0170 IMG_5352I used the pea soup fog idea to inspire a short story set in Bath, and the idea of being stranded by snow in another Regency short story. It’s definitely a trope that I enjoy reading and writing!

Have you ever been stranded anywhere, and if so how did you cope? Is it a theme you enjoy reading about in a book?

Snow, Ice — and magic

Anne here, just back from a writers’ retreat, nursing a cold picked up on the plane, and thinking about my fellow wenches and friends who are battling with snow and ice and bitter cold. It made me reflect on some of my own few experiences of snow, and how they opened up another world for me.

Coming from a mediterranean type of climate, I don’t have a lot of experience with serious cold — it almost never snows in my part of the world —  but when I was a little girl we lived inland, and on some winter nights the temperature dropped right down below freezing point. Killer frosts.  Eisblumen_4

I grew up knowing Jack Frost was real, because after those bitter nights I’d see the magical ice paintings he’d leave etched on the windows. I’d stare into the swirls and ripples of ice and “see” all kinds of strange and wondrous images. To me, they were a little like Arthur Rackham paintings —the more you looked, the more you’d see.

I’d also play with the frost. On chilly nights, I made little “frozen gardens” by putting a saucer of water on the back step, filling it with flowers and little snippets of greenery and leave it to freeze overnight. Then in the morning, I’d bring it inside and put the saucer with its little frozen arrangement on the breakfast table. 

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Snow“All Heaven and Earth, 

Flowered white obliterate… 

Snow…unceasing snow” 

― HashinJapanese Haiku

Nicola here! Are you currently wrapped up warm against the weather or one of the lucky ones basking in the heat of summer? Here in the northern hemisphere it was a modest –4 degrees Celsius when I took the dog out this morning, which I’m told is about 25 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The threat of “snowmaggedon” in the US and the polar vortex here in the UK has had people rushing to share bodily warmth. No one seems to want to be snowed in alone.

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Ways of keeping warm in the Regency Period

SnowAs the wind whistled in from the Arctic this week and I
added another layer of thermals I started to wonder what it must have been like
trying to keep warm in the days before there was efficient heating. I love
gorgeous old stately homes but those high ceilings and large rooms must have
been impossible to keep warm in the winter. Like my little country cottage, the
old houses were also cursed with ill-fitting windows and doors, and wicked
little draughts that spring up from nowhere to chill your ankles. In the days
before central heating I imagine people needed to be very imaginative to find
ways to keep warm.


The wood burning stove in our living room is the hub of the
house at times like this and I imagine that
Open fire the vast open fires in old houses
served the same purpose in the past, with people huddled around them. In my
last house, built in the 17th century, the inglenook fireplace was
so vast it took up half of one wall and contained a bread oven as well as a
grate. An open fire is special. It provides heat, light and comfort with the
warmth, extremely important when the rest of the house might be so cold that
ice would form on the inside of the windows.

I do remember that with a big open fire it’s possible to
have a very warm body but a cold head! Of course ladies in the Regency would
actually use a fire screen – a decorated panel on a pole – to protect their
complexions from the direct heat of the fire. Larger room screens partitioned
off warmer parts of a hall or sitting room and kept out the draughts.

Wing chairSimilarly those gorgeous wing chairs weren’t just designed
in that style for the fun of it. The high back and sides are great for keeping
out the cold. In humbler cottages wooden high back chairs served a similar
purpose. You piled them high with cushions for a very cosy seat.


Like me with my four layers of thermals, the savvy Regency
person would not wear a thin muslin dress in freezing cold weather but would layer
on a lot of clothes. Linen, cotton, wool and fur were popular with huge muffs
for ladies to wear. The heroine of my current book comments that in the
Scottish winter she was seen carrying such a huge fur muff that it gave rise to
reports that she was hiding a family of orphans inside it. Sailors on the
Arctic expeditions of the early 19th century wore coachmen’s great
coats in a vain attempt to keep out the cold.

Then there were the petticoats.
Four or five were in no way unreasonable, with socks, stockings, shawls,
gloves, caps and hats. If one was travelling on the outside of the stagecoach
every one of these layers would prove necessary in the winter and even then you
were risking death from exposure.

Keeping the feet warm

There is a school of thought that says that if you keep the
feet warm the rest of the body will follow.
Warming pan Regency footwear for women was
pretty flimsy and even the leather half boot wouldn’t necessarily keep you warm
and dry. For men the standard outdoor footwear was the riding boot, which was
considerably more hard wearing.

Carriages were not heated, so a hot brick to keep your feet
warm was essential. These would be heated up in a stove, wrapped in flannel and
could then retain their warmth for quite a while, particularly if insulated
under layers of travelling rugs.

And so to bed

The great bed of wareThese days the four poster bed is the height of luxury but
in Regency times a tester bed or four poster with thick bed hangings was a must
to keep the warmth in and the draughts out.

The earliest type of hot water bottle was the warming pan,
which dates back to the 16th century. A metal pan, it contained the
embers of the fire, and had a long handle so that it could be moved across the
bed to heat up those chilly corners! These were pretty dangerous if left in the
bed for too long since they could set it on fire, providing rather more heat than one actually wanted.

Large stone wear hot water bottles were safer. These were
also known as foot warmers. They followed the same principle as today’s hot
water bottles; they were filled with near boiling water, sealed and placed in
the bed.

If all else failed you could always go for shared bodily
warmth! You could also sleep in the same space as your animals. In many
Angus 1 cottages this is exactly what
happened; the one room housed both people and their animals. At Ashdown House
some of the servants’ quarters were above the stables. Apparently it was quite
cosy with the heat rising from the horses. And a dog or cat on the bed is as warm as a hot water bottle. More than
one of my heroines has let their pet sleep on their bed for warmth and one of
my relatives came across this on a recent stay at a castle in Ireland where the
hostess offered all the visitors a dog to keep them warm.

What about you? Do you think you could have survived a
Regency winter? What is your favourite way of keeping warm in a cold climate?