The Incredible Crime

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A Review of The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh

‘The Incredible Crime’ by Lois Austen-Leigh

As if I didn’t already love Golden Age murder mysteries enough, this one came with the added incentive of an author related to Jane Austen (1). Who could resist?

The Incredible Crime came out in 1931 and was penned by JA’s great-great niece – or should I say ‘neice’ as JA herself always misspelled it – Lois Austen-Leigh (1883 -1968). Apparently she wrote her books on Jane Austen’s desk, later donated by her ‘neice‘ to the British Library. (Mm, pity I don’t have any nieces, they’re starting to sound extremely useful.)

I was also attracted by the academic environment of much of the story. The Cambridge University setting is beautifully realised, as indeed it should be by someone who in real life was the neice, sorry, niece of the Provost of King’s College, Augustus Austen-Leigh and his wife Florence Lefroy Austen-Leigh (2). In case all of these Austens weren’t enough, there are even a couple of cheeky references to JA herself and Northanger Abbey.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the heroine of the novel, Prudence Pinsent, is the spinster daughter of the Master of the fictional Prince’s College (I particularly enjoyed this as I made up my own Oxford College for my first murder mystery) (3). Prudence herself is well over 30 but doesn’t look it, and although a clergy daughter and generally dignified, will swear like a trooper when provoked.  Her main ambition in life at first seems to be gaining as many months as possible in the countryside for fox-hunting.

One definitely is fed the inside scoop over port in the ‘Senior Combination Room’ and the cosiness of afternoon tea and college gossip at a don’s fireside. Reminiscences of the eccentricities of past academics and students add authenticity and spice to the atmosphere. For example, join me in a Professor’s rooms:

“His man came in with a bright copper kettle which he put on the fire; it started to sing at once. He then drew the curtains and brought in an ample tea, putting a plate of hot cakes in the fender. Nothing more comfortable could be imagined.” (4)

‘The Nine Tailors’ by Dorothy L Sayers

The other very authentic aspect of the setting is the author’s descriptions of the Fenland country around Cambridge and Ely and stretching towards the east coast, which was very reminiscent of Dorothy Leigh Sayers’ 1934 mystery The Nine Tailors. Austen-Leigh writes:

“They turned into the flat fen country and drove at a reasonable pace. On a bridge over a broadish bit of water they pulled up for a moment. ‘This is very fascinating,’ said Prudence, ‘is it a ‘drain’, the Ouse, or the Cam, I wonder?’ ‘I think,’ said Thomas, ‘that this is what you might call a drain – it’s the New Bedford Cut. It was made I don’t know how long ago by some Duke of Bedford, and cuts off a long bend in the Ouse; we shall pass the depleted bit of river farther on.’ ‘Is this how you get from Cambridge by water to the sea?’ ‘No, you do that by going down the Cam into the Ouse by Ely, by Denver Sluice into the Wash.’ (5) (I chose that quote because I thought Sayers’ fans would enjoy talk of Dukes and Denver!)

The descriptions of the Suffolk coast are also splendid, as are the wonderful meals and rooms enjoyed by Prudence stopping off at Ipswich at the ‘Great White Horse’ Inn (1518 with a Georgian facade). It was also used by Dickens and by his creation Pickwick, and it made me want to go there immediately. How disappointing to look it up online and find that it closed as an inn in 2008, is now part-Starbucks and is to be made into a business centre by the local council. Apparently the 16th century builders failed to take into account the 21st century desire for en suite.

As with many of the books of this period, it can be hard to visualise the characters accurately as to their age – everyone is so tweedy and old fogeyish and smokes a pipe if male. And one doesn’t necessarily pick up on the hints about the women from their appearance and habits either. I was continually astounded that everyone was about 20 years younger that I had first assumed. The way an “independent” woman is described is very different to how we would describe a single woman today, much of which we might find laughable. This also applies to the attempt at ‘romance’ in the story – if you’re a single woman who values her independence, be prepared to choke at the ending! Again, I can’t help but compare this to Dorothy L Sayers’ far superior attempt at romance in a detective novel set in the academic world in the glorious Gaudy Night.

If I am taking my time getting round to the plot itself, perhaps it is because this was the least compelling part of the book for me. Suspected drug smuggling and chemical experiments at the university are the substance, but unfortunately much of the searching for smugglers in underground tunnels reminded me of Famous Five novels, no doubt unfairly as Austen-Leigh’s book preceded Enid Blyton’s by about ten years. (I think it was the unscrewing of a window seat to discover a tunnel that really did it, although no doubt such things existed aplenty in ancient coastal country houses!)

Crime Novel Reviews of Dorothy L Sayers

In view of the many reminders of Sayers’ work that this book sparked off in me, I thought I would consult the new collection of Sayers’ crime reviews from the early thirties (6) to see if she had anything definitive to say on her contemporary and part-namesake. But sadly neither this book nor the other three by Lois Austen-Leigh were among them. However, I did open the book at another review (7) to see that I had underlined Dorothy’s succinct criticism of what apparently had already become a cliché by 1933: “rather too much secret passage and dopery”. I couldn’t have put it better, Dorothy! I, for one, will now be forever wary of what people are really up to at night when they claim to have been out “duck-shooting”.

But I can’t resist finishing by returning to the Jane Austen references. A tobacco-smoking don in Cambridge is horrified at the thought of possible drug-smuggling at the university and has to go to a service at King’s College Chapel to “take the nasty taste out of my mouth and make me feel clean again.” I am pleased to report that after listening to Scripture and the singing of hymns “he left the place feeling like a different man.” (8) And he was the one who felt he had the courage to quote Jane Austen at a CID officer, using the words of Henry Tilney to Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey:

“If I understand you rightly, you have formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to… Consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.” (9)

I would give The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh 5/5 for Setting, 4/5 for Characters, and 3.5/5 for Plot.

For my latest novel Murder and Mr Rochester, see: www.jeanettesears.com/wp/?p_id=789

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOTES

(1) Lois Austen-Leigh, The Incredible Crime, British Library, London, 2017, edited by Martin Edwards. A reprint of the 1931 edition published by Herbert Jenkins.  Available from Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=lois+austen-leigh

(2) See Introduction to the novel by Prof Kirsten T Saxton.

(3) Jeanette Sears, A Murder in Michaelmas, Piquant Editions, Carlisle, 2012. See www.jeanettesears.com/wp/?page_id=27

(4)Lois Austen-Leigh, op.cit., 65%, loc.1979 of 3092 in e-version.

(5) Lois Austen-Leigh, op.cit., 10%, loc.294 of 3092 in e-version.

(6) Martin Edwards (ed), Taking Detective Stories Seriously: the Collected Crime Reviews of Dorothy L Sayers, Tippermuir Books, Perth, 2017.

(7) ibid., p108, in her review of Watch the Wall by Laurence W Meynell (1933).

(8) Lois Austen-Leigh, op.cit., 54%, loc.1646 of 3092 in e-version.

(9) ibid., 53%, loc.1620 of 3092 in e-version.


Charlotte Brontë and the Strange Companion

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Charlotte Brontë and the Strange Companion

Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Shirley’

In ‘Shirley’ (1849), Charlotte Bronte describes a Mr Yorke who is devoid of imagination and empathy.  Chapter Four begins: “A Yorkshire gentleman he was, par excellence, in every point.” (1), which in itself perhaps shows a lack of imagination on Bronte’s part in choosing his name!

Apparently Mr Yorke lacks the “organ of Veneration” and can’t look up to anybody, even God. “He believed in God and heaven; but his God and heaven were those of a man in whom awe, imagination, and tenderness lack.” (2). She then goes on to list so many other inadequacies of his personality that one starts to think ‘Why should I care about this character at all?’ There are several pages of Brontë telling us about Mr Yorke rather than showing us what he’s like, acceptable in a novel written in the 1840s but which wouldn’t get past an editor today. But this does allow her to speak about the importance of the imagination as a “gift of the mind” and the error of those who dismiss it:

“…who cares for imagination? Who does not think it a rather dangerous, senseless attribute – akin to weakness – perhaps partaking of frenzy – a disease rather than a gift of the mind?”

It’s very easy for me as a writer at the beginning of the twenty first century to look back to the beginning of the nineteenth and to imagine that it was a period when writers and those living by the products of their imagination were in a privileged position compared to my own time.  What would it be like to be an artist or poet in the Romantic era, or a novelist in the glory days of the Brontës, Gaskell, Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot?

But this section of Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Shirley’ makes me think that it was just as hard then to be taken seriously if one took the imagination seriously and viewed it as an essential of life. She states that probably all people think the imagination is more of a disadvantage in life or even more like a “disease”, unless you actually possess it. Those who think they have strong imaginations speak very differently about it:

“To hear them speak you would imagine that their hearts would be cold if that elixir did not flow about them; that their eyes would be dim if that flame did not refine their vision; that they would be lonely if this strange companion abandoned them. You would suppose that it imparted some glad hope to spring, some fine charm to summer, some tranquil joy to autumn, some consolation to winter, which you do not feel.” (3)

Here Brontë seems to be claiming some sort of aristocracy of the Imaginative, and is depicting how the claims of the Imaginative can look like a superiority complex to others.  She gives Mr Yorke’s view: “An illusion, of course; but the fanatics cling to their dream, and would not give it up for gold.” (4).  Mr Yorke, we are told, did not consider a poetic imagination a necessity of life.  He could “tolerate” the results of it as works of art in the form of a good picture or music, but could not tolerate all the talk of the struggles of a quiet poet, who “might have lived despised, and died scorned, under the eyes of Hiram Yorke.” (5).

Bronte then gives a fascinating description of the character of the imaginative artist, “the true poet”, who has to somehow survive the fact that “there are many Hiram Yorkes in this world”:

“… it is well that the true poet, quiet externally though he may be, had often a truculent spirit under his placidity, and is full of shrewdness in his meekness, and can measure the whole stature of those who look down on him, and correctly ascertain the weight and value of the pursuits they disdain him for not having followed. It is happy that he can have his own bliss, his own society with his great friend and goddess, Nature, quite independent of those who find little pleasure in him and in whom he finds no pleasure at all. It is just that while the world and circumstances often turn a dark, cold, careless side to them – he should be able to maintain a festal brightness and cherishing glow in his bosom, which makes all bright and genial for him; while strangers, perhaps, deem his existence a Polar winter never gladdened by a sun. The true poet is not one whit to be pitied; and he is apt to laugh in his sleeve, when any misguided sympathizer whines over his wrongs. Even when utilitarians sit in judgement on him, and pronounce him and his art useless, he hears the sentence with such a hard derision, such a broad, deep, comprehensive, and merciless contempt of the unhappy Pharisees who pronounce it, that he is rather to be chidden than consoled with.”

Perhaps Charlotte realises she is getting a bit carried away here and so comes back with: “These, however, are not Mr Yorke’s reflections; and it is with Mr Yorke we have at present to do.” (6).

Charlotte Brontë

But perhaps these words do stand as a rebuke to all those who mainly emphasise the outward “bleakness” of the Brontës’ lives and don’t look further into these glowing recesses of inner creativity and hope.  Bronte’s own images for the imagination here – comparing it to an elixir, a flame, a refiner of vision, an imparter of hope and charm, joy and consolation, bliss, a festal brightness and cherishing glow that can make all things bright and genial – these images inspire our imaginations too. And we are convinced by her conviction that true imagination is utterly necessary for tenderness and awe and veneration to exist in us, even for a truer appreciation of God and heaven. Who wouldn’t want more of imagination by her definition, this “strange companion” ?

 

To enjoy more of Charlotte Brontë’s imagination in the form of her most famous novel ‘Jane Eyre’, you can read my latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ which intertwines a contemporary murder mystery with the experience of a reading group studying her great classic.

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

You can buy this at Amazon UK:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Mr-Rochester-Jeanette-Sears-ebook/dp/B01M28IXFD/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1477392333&sr=1-3&keywords=jeanette+sears

Or at Amazon US:

https://www.amazon.com/Murder-Mr-Rochester-Jeanette-Sears-ebook/dp/B01M28IXFD/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1478345205&sr=1-1&keywords=jeanette+sears

 

 

NOTES

(1) Charlotte Brontë, ‘Shirley’, Penguin Classics edition, London, 1994, p44.

(2) ibid., p45.

(3) ibid., p46.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid., p47.

(6) ibid.


Emma-Jane Austin and the Brontë Birthplace

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Emma-Jane Austin and the Brontë Birthplace

In my novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’, Emma-Jane Austin visits the birthplace of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë in Thornton, West Yorkshire.  She is really keen to take photos for an exhibition at her place of work, Bromley House Library.  But it is also the weekend of Mother’s Day.  And the other members of her reading group, the Rotic Club, are keen to see Thornton too, since it is 200 years since the birth of Charlotte Brontë in 1816 and they are studying her masterpiece ‘Jane Eyre’ together.  So a quiet contemplative solo trip turns into a more social pilgrimage and a celebration for Emma’s mother and grandmothers who swell the numbers – and the fun!

Their journey begins at Nottingham train station with a disagreement over changes to the architecture of the victorian building

Nottingham train station

eg. have the lovely old art nouveau features been sufficiently enhanced in the recent refurbishment?

Art nouveau detail on station gates

Fortunately the train is on time and on the way to Bradford the women share some of the Brontë memorabilia and objects of interest to begin their study day.  A taxi takes them through thick snow to Thornton and their rented cottage on Market Street, the same street where the younger Brontës were born.

Brontë birthplace plaque

You can see more at www.bronte-country.com/thornton.html .  But the highlight was having lunch at ‘Emily’s’, the lovely bistro that is now situated in the Brontës’ former home,

‘Emily’s’ bistro and Brontë birthplace

‘Emily’s’ bistro, Thornton

and that still has the original fireplace and some of the furniture from their time.  You can see this, plus a map of a walking tour of Thornton called ‘Brontëland’, at www.delucaboutique.co.uk/about-us3.html.

‘Emily’s’

Fireplace at ‘Emily’s’

Over their meal, the women compare photos of Charlotte B from various biographies.  Of course there is the portrait of the three sisters by Branwell

Brontë sisters

and the photo on the cover of Lyndall Gordon’s excellent biography.

At ‘Emily’s’ cafe the women also enjoy looking at drawings of the Brontë family growing up as imagined by Joan Hassall in ‘The Brontë Story’ by Margaret Lane.

Margaret Lane’s biography of the Brontës

They also hand round a copy of ‘Charlotte in Love’ by Brian Wilks and have quite a lot to say about Charlotte’s own romance and marriage.

Charlotte’s love life by Brian Wilks

This means that they are not just delighted at being in the Brontës’ birthplace but also wonder about a trip to Haworth Parsonage together, where the sisters and their brother grew up and practised their art.  The parsonage has become a place of pilgrimage for Brontë fans even more than Thornton, and Emma’s mother and grandmothers have some surprises for the younger women in the form of catalogues and guidebooks from their own visits to Haworth in the 1980s.  One of Emma’s grandmas has a 1967 guide to Haworth bought there in 1981.

1980s guide

And Emma’s mother produces a booklet called ‘Sixty Treasures’ from 1988, which shows 60 items kept at the Parsonage.  The women exclaim over the photos of everyday household items and artistic materials used by the family, and particularly Charlotte’s tiny dress and boots and her wedding veil.

1980s guide

Rosanna, one of Emma’s reading group, gives them some very useful web addresses for keeping up with Brontë news and fandom, such as www.eyreguide.awardspace.co.uk and www.bronteblog.blogspot.com and www.bronteparsonage.blogspot.co.uk .

She also shows a picture of her favourite painting of the character Jane Eyre by Sigismond De Ivanowski from 1907.

Jane Eyre by De Ivanowski

One of Emma’s closest friends, Nattie, talks about reading the famous novel by Jean Rhys which imagines life for Rochester with his wife before they come to England and Bertha Mason descends into madness.  Nattie has also enjoyed the Persephone edition of Frances Towers’ collection of short stories ‘Tea with Mr Rochester’ from 1949.

Tea with Mr Rochester

The Persephone books are plain grey on the outside but all have beautiful endpapers inside and matching bookmarks that fit in with the era of the story.

Persephone pattern

To everyone’s amazement, even Emma’s grandmother ‘Grambo’, who has been less than enthusiastic about the trip and its theme so far, produces a memento from a visit to the Brontës’ home from many years before – an old toffee tin!

1980s souvenir tin

She had even filled it again with toffees for their journey home!  The tin is rather lovely – very Puginesque – with victorian photos of the main Brontë sites on each side.

Side of tin

The only member of Emma’s reading group who cannot be with them on the trip is Maria, the German teacher.  Instead she sends them something of interest to read that is referred to in ‘Jane Eyre’ and comes from her own culture.  This is an extract from Friedrich Schiller’s ‘Die Rauber’ or ‘The Robbers’ from 1782.  Not everyone appreciates having to read this!  (You can find it at www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/6782 )

Schiller’s ‘The Robbers’

Instead Emma suggests they read ‘Henry Brocken: his Travels and Adventures’ by Walter de la Mare from 1904, a fascinating story imagining visiting fictional characters as if they were real – for example Henry Brocken goes to see Rochester and Jane and their dog Pilot in their small house in a dark wood after their marriage.  (You can read this at www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/15432 )

This shows that re-imagining the characters from ‘Jane Eyre’ and writing new stories about them is nothing new.  My own novel, ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ is in this category in a sense, as Emma-Jane Austin not only discusses Charlotte Brontë’s characters with her friends and family but feels she is meeting with them again in some form in her own life as she struggles to solve a murder mystery.  I am sure the Brontës would be amazed, and hopefully gratified, to know that we have still felt compelled to revisit their novels and even their birthplaces and homes in the twentieth and twenty first centuries.

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

You can read all about Emma-Jane and her friends in ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ as an ebook on Kindle at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Mr-Rochester-Jeanette-Sears-ebook/dp/B01M28IXFD/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1477392333&sr=1-3&keywords=jeanette+sears


Emma-Jane Austin’s Library

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Emma-Jane Austin’s Library

The main character in my novel Murder and Mr Rochester works at Bromley House Library in the centre of Nottingham. Although Emma-Jane Austin is fictional, the library most definitely is not. It is a Regency gem on Angel Row, next to the Council House and the main Market Square. 2016 has been the library’s 200th birthday.

Nottingham Council House and Market Square

Nottingham Council House and Market Square

Here are some photos so you can appreciate more fully the beauty of the building where E-J is privileged to work, and also see the setting for the terrible crime that takes place there in the story.  (There are some hints here to help you solve the murder too!)

In Murder and Mr Rochester I mention that many people do not even know of the library’s existence. All you can see at first is a mysterious doorway in between the usual sort of city centre shops.  The entrance sits discretely between Barnardo’s and a newsagent’s. But if you ignore the traffic, erase the shops and look up you can begin to imagine the size and grandeur of the house itself.

Bromley House Library on busy Angel Row

Bromley House Library on busy Angel Row

Once inside, you are in a hallway that leads either to the back of the house

Doorway to garden

Doorway to garden

and a walled garden

View of garden from upstairs window

View of garden from upstairs window

or up the stairs to the main desk and reading room.

Librarians in regency costume at main desk for 200th anniversary

Librarians in regency costume at main desk for 200th anniversary

Of course, the most intriguing feature that strikes you as you enter the main part of the library is the spiral staircase.

Spiral staircase from side

Spiral staircase from side

It was not part of the original structure of the house when it was built for George Smith of the famous banking family in 1752 but was added along with the gallery.

Gallery above main reading room

Gallery above main reading room

Let’s follow Emma-Jane on her journey on that terrible afternoon of the (fictional) murder in the Library…

She is in the George Green Room sorting out books for the library’s Charlotte Brontë exhibition. (The room is named after the Nottingham mill owner and pioneering mathematician.)

Door of George Green Room

Door of George Green Room

After switching off the lights, she walks towards the gallery that runs around the main reading room.

Left hand side of gallery

Left hand side of gallery

She turns to the right and walks along the middle section of the gallery,

View of right hand side of gallery

View of right hand side of gallery

but then witnesses the ghastly ‘accident’ on the stairs to her left.

View of stairs from right side of gallery

View of stairs from right side of gallery

Here is a close-up of the brown wooden stairs (the colour is significant!)

Wooden stairs

Wooden stairs

and the stone hearth around the fireplace. (The modern radiators in the library are necessary to control the heat and humidity more accurately than a gas or real fire.)

Fireplace hearth with stone edging

Fireplace hearth with stone edging

There is a gap between the bottom of the spiral staircase and the fireplace that will be of significance…

Bottom of stairs and hearth

Bottom of stairs and hearth

Here is the longcase clock that chimes loudly early one morning and scares Emma-Jane when she is in the library on her own, trying to solve the mystery.

Longcase clock

Longcase clock

Bromley House Library really did have a display of Charlotte Brontë’s books in the Spring of 2016 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of her birth, which is featured in the novel.

Display of Charlotte Bronte books

Display of Charlotte Bronte books

And for the 200th birthday of the library itself in April 2016, which in the story Emma-Jane is looking forward to, the real librarians held a birthday party in regency costume!

Librarians in regency costume for 200th anniversary

Librarians in regency costume for 200th anniversary

You can be a member of the library even if you don’t live in Nottingham – a ‘Country Member’ pays half the usual subscription fee.

Do have a look at the Bromley House website at www.bromleyhouse.com. It has more photos and some short films that really give you a feel of the place. There are many more beautiful rooms, old and new, to explore.

No wonder Emma-Jane Austin in my story feels very lucky to work there – apart from the murder, of course!

My latest novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

You can buy Murder and Mr Rochester by Jeanette Sears on Kindle at www.amazon.co.uk or www.amazon.com.


Emma-Jane Austin and The Tunnel

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Emma-Jane Austin and the Tunnel

In my novel Murder and Mr Rochester, the heroine Emma-Jane Austin discovers a shortcut in the centre of Nottingham called ‘The Tunnel’.  It is one of the most interesting architectural features of Nottingham but is now largely hidden from view.

Access to hidden Tunnel

Access to hidden Tunnel

It is tends to just be called The Tunnel, or if one wishes to be more helpful and accurate, The Park Tunnel.

The Tunnel in Nottingham

The Tunnel in Nottingham

It echoes the days when Victorian engineers were blasting great big holes through anything that stood in the way of modern transport. This time it was in 1855 and was a way to gain a shortcut from Derby Road in the centre of Nottingham through to the new residential Park Estate owned by the fifth Duke of Newcastle.

It provides another fascinating revelation of the huge area of sandstone rock and caves that form the foundation of the centre of the city.

Tree and the sandstone Castle Rock

Tree and the sandstone Castle Rock

The Dukes of Newcastle were no strangers to this geological formation as their castle stood on the highest section of sandstone which was pockmarked with entrances to strange tunnels and caves beneath.

Nottingham Castle on Castle Rock

Nottingham Castle on Castle Rock

The job of designing the man-made tunnel and much of the new estate was given to the fifth Duke’s surveyor, Thomas Chambers Hine (1813-1899).

Thomas Chambers Hine

Thomas Chambers Hine

He also designed the layout of the roads and many of the magnificent houses, as well as having approval of other intended house plans in order to maintain the estate’s architectural integrity. Unfortunately the Tunnel was obsolete almost as soon as it was built. The gradient was slightly too difficult for horse-drawn carriages. Also other roads were built at around the same time that meant the Tunnel was no longer necessary.

Steps in central part of Tunnel

Steps in central part of Tunnel

But it remains an eccentric and hidden part of Nottingham’s history. And, despite electric lighting and an opening for natural light in the middle,

Artificial and natural light in the Tunnel

Artificial and natural light in the Tunnel

it can still be scary at night, as Emma-Jane Austin finds out in my murder mystery novel Murder and Mr Rochester.  Not a place where you want to bump into strangers in the dark…

My novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’


Welcome to Emma-Jane Austin’s home!

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Welcome to Emma-Jane Austin’s Home!

The heroine of my murder mystery, Emma-Jane Austin, gets to live in her dream house. It is the beautiful Regency building that she has loved since childhood, that she used to call the Big Doll’s House. And you can see why.

Regency House

Regency House

It is a perfect example of a Regency style house right in the middle of Nottingham city centre, Grade II listed and standing at Canning Circus since 1820 on the outer perimeter of the very grand Park Estate.  This was land that used to be owned by the mega-wealthy Dukes of Newcastle when it was indeed just grassy parkland for the Dukes’ deer. Now called the ‘Beverly Hills of Nottingham’, the area is full of stunning Regency and Neo-Gothic homes in a gated community (although, fortunately for the rest of us, most of the gates are left open so we can explore).

Welcome to Park Estate

Welcome to Park Estate

One of the unusual things about the Park Estate is that it still has gas lighting.

Gas light on Park Estate

Gas light on Park Estate

Until 2015, a man in a vintage car used to light the lamps each evening, but now it is done automatically by an electronic trigger in each lamp.

Gas lamp on Park estate

Gas lamp on Park estate

But every two weeks or so a man has to come and reset the automatic triggers – not quite as romantic, but great that they are still gas lamps as in their Victorian heyday.

Resetting timer on gas lamp (Credit: Mike Hallam)

Resetting timer on gas lamp (Credit: Mike Hallam)

The light they give is whiter and paler than modern neon lights and doesn’t radiate as far, which does mean the Park can look rather Dickensian and creepy at night – though ideal for murder mysteries!

Park estate gas lamp at night (Credit: Mike Hallam)

Park estate gas lamp at night (Credit: Mike Hallam)

I too loved this house when I was a child, which I could see out of the bus window on the way into town each week.

Regency house at Canning Circus

Regency house at Canning Circus

Even though it was a dirty cream colour then and looked rather run down, it still stood out from the grottier modern buildings around it on a historic street called The Ropewalk. Now the house is a cool pale green with gold relief work on the plaster angels and wreath on the central pediment and is divided into flats. I have given Emma-Jane a room at the top on the left hand side at the back of the building.

Back of Regency House from road below

Back of Regency House from road below

Below her room is a large stone-flagged terrace above two garages where she and her flatmates can sit outside in sunny weather.

Patio

Patio

From her bedroom window she can see across the Park to Nottingham Castle on its sandstone rock.

Nottingham Castle

Nottingham Castle

In my novel the flat covers the top three floors on the right of the building and is owned by Penelope Galthorpe-Brown, who owns several florist shops throughout the Midlands. Another tenant is Jennifer Wright who owns a restaurant in town and is a successful chocolatier.

Top flat

Top flat

The flat provides a beautiful and cosy backdrop for the meetings of Emma-Jane’s reading group, especially as this architectural gem contains many of its original features, including a functioning fireplace in the main drawing room. In ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ they are of course studying Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ together.

My novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

In future books they will be delving into the works of Jane Austen, for which this stunning Regency house will be even more appropriate. But of course the novel is not just about women reading classic romantic novels together. The fact that Emma-Jane’s house was also next to a (very small) police station (before it closed in April 2016) is going to become somewhat appropriate as well…

Canning Circus police station

Canning Circus police station

Police station sign

Police station sign


The Kilns – What Was and Could Have Been

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The Kilns – What Was and Could Have Been

As a fan of C S Lewis, I love it when bits of Narnia or other elements from the life of Lewis weave their way into my everyday life.

Recently a friend gave me a special treat. It was a lunch out in the countryside nearby to celebrate finishing the final draft of my latest novel. It was to be at the Bottle Kiln in West Hallam, an unexpectedly beautiful place in a small Derbyshire village [1].

The Bottle Kiln

The Bottle Kiln

It was also unexpectedly crowded. No doubt the school holidays contributed to some extent, but in retrospect I can see that the quality of the place drew people like the proverbial magnet and we were lucky to get the last parking space at lunch time. Plus the weather couldn’t have been more gorgeous or the sky more blue.

Bottle Kiln and garden

Bottle Kiln and garden

This meant that my first view of the old kiln was doubly delightful as it rose above the surrounding brick buildings that now house a café and the sort of shops that translate me into retail heaven.

But, of course, the kiln itself was bound to remind me of C S Lewis’ home, the Kilns, in Oxfordshire, so I was hoping to find interesting resonances. At the Bottle Kiln there is an intimate garden at the back where people can eat their food and chat to friends but that is also quiet enough for contemplation.

photo 27

It is called a Japanese tea garden and I was immediately struck by the effort taken to make a tranquil space that was both friendly but that encouraged people to just stop and be quiet for a while.

Bottle Kiln Garden

Bottle Kiln Garden

We certainly couldn’t ignore the fact that this kiln had once produced bricks. They were everywhere, not just in the construction of the kiln itself and the outbuildings but also beautifully laid out in systematic patterns for paths. Even the tabletops in the restaurant were made of bricks and mortar. The whole place has been rescued and renovated with very creative and artistic touches.

Garden tiles

Garden tiles

The various chambers around the central kiln are now four selling areas for Gifts, Home and Accessories, Handmade items, and the Card Room, with the restaurant on the other side.

Central chamber of kiln

Central chamber of kiln

The design motif throughout was one of my favourites – Orla Kiely’s iconic leaf pattern. The predominant colour of green blended well with the brickwork and reflects the green ethos of so many organic and recycled items on sale, all of which were laid out with the precision and good taste of a magazine shoot.

Orla Keily wallpaper

Orla Kiely wallpaper

My friend knew I would love this, and I did!

Contemporary pots on sale

Contemporary pots on sale

It was also interesting to stand in the middle of the building and look up – to see right through to the sky above through the narrow outlet of the kiln’s original chimney.

Bottle Kiln Chimney

Bottle Kiln Chimney

It formed such a contrast to the vibrant life and colour all around me. For the brick flue was huge, dark, bleak and silent with the longest cobwebs I’ve ever seen draped from the top, like a spider’s dusty version of the hanging gardens of Babylon. Looking up at the sky, I felt as though I was in a tunnel again – the feeling I’d had for the last few months while writing my novel – head down, prioritising work, not seeing people, utterly concentrated and largely isolated. That’s not to say it’s been a negative experience – I’m an introvert and I love it! But one can’t do everything in life, and when I’m concentrating on a book, other parts of my life (like going out to restaurants with friends) just tend not to happen (like my blogging too, for that matter)!

The Tunnel in Nottingham

The Tunnel in Nottingham

This time there’s the added factor that a massive tunnel in the centre of Nottingham – just called ‘The Tunnel’ – features at the beginning and end of my novel (which is called ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ in case you were beginning to wonder). The Nottingham Tunnel is a huge Victorian construction blasted out of sandstone. This has often been in my mind as an image for the writing process – one enters the darkness of the imagination to construct an alternative reality in prose, which can feel like blasting one’s way through rock to find what’s on the other side. Then one day it’s all over and you emerge blinking into the daylight of normal life again. And friends take you out to lunch…

The light at the end of the Bottle Kiln’s towering chimney reminded me of this – I’m at least out of the tunnel of the final draft of my novel at any rate. I couldn’t help remarking to my friend how marvellous it would have been if the Kilns that used to be next to C S Lewis’ house of the same name had survived and could have been refurbished just like the Bottle Kiln here.

Original plan of Bottle Kiln

Original plan of Bottle Kiln

The home that Lewis bought with his brother and Mrs Moore in 1930 that is now a study centre would be enhanced by such a development next door, especially if still surrounded by the fields and wild countryside that so attracted the Lewis brothers. The original kilns in Headington in Oxfordshire could have become a similar visitor centre with beautiful shops, a café (or pub!), and a garden next to the lake and part of the nature reserve that’s still there. What a ‘go to’ spot that would have been for visitors to the area, and an even greater pull for The Kilns’ and the C S Lewis Foundation’s attempt to stimulate further interest in this great author and teacher. Instead of a small house in the middle of a modern housing estate, my mind’s eye could now see a much larger enterprise, with the chimneys of the old kilns visible for miles, like a sign, like the towers of a cathedral calling out to visitors to come and find.

Original Bottle Kiln

Original Bottle Kiln

I can imagine Lewis would have approved of a refurbished set of Kilns in the countryside next to his house where people could come and eat and drink with friends, talk about art and literature, contemplate nature, de-stress, and generally have good fellowship together or mediate on their own in God’s good creation. That was exactly what I was able to do with my friend. I could just imagine the Inklings having a drink and a meal here together, discussing their latest work in the restaurant or garden, as we were able to do.

Bottle Kiln restaurant

Bottle Kiln restaurant

Even the retail side of my experience was a blessing. I was delighted to find the very things I needed to buy – some kilner storage jars for the kitchen (plus they were about half the price of shops in the centre of town)!

Glassware

Glassware

But to go back to the very centre of the building, not only did the opening at the top of the kiln itself remind me of a tunnel, it brought to mind the experience of Jill Pole in C S Lewis’ ‘The Silver Chair’ when she and Puddleglum and Eustace have been in the dark Underland for what seems like ages. Then at last Jill sees a glimpse of light up above and can now emerge, with the help of friends pulling her out, into the heart of Narnia again. Then, what should I see in the restaurant at the Bottle Kiln after our meal, but a little bit of Narnia in the form of a children’s book on the newspaper and magazine stand. There, along with the Tatler and the Times, were a couple of picture books on the bottom shelf within the reach of children. I must admit I hadn’t seen this version of a Narnia story before, but there on the cover were none other than Puddleglum and Jill Pole in a version of part of Lewis’ The Silver Chair! [2]

Version of 'The Silver Chair'

Version of ‘The Silver Chair’

I love it when this sort of Lewisian synchronicity/serendipity happens. It seemed to affirm my experience of the light at the end of my own personal tunnel-cum-kiln.

And this linking of tunnels and kilns is not as fanciful as it might sound. Yesterday I looked at kilns on the web to see if there was anything else of interest. Well, there is even a ‘Tunnel Kiln’, apparently! And both the kilns next to Lewis’ house and the Bottle Kiln I visited this week were both built in the 1920s. There were two brick kilns and a brick drying barn about 100 yards away from Lewis’ house which was built in 1922. The area used to be known as the Clay Hills when the brick industry flourished there in the late 19th century.

But a glance at the Ashmolean Museum’s website revealed a much more ancient heritage for this area of Oxfordshire in its Archaeology section. Here we’re told that “large numbers of pottery kilns have been excavated in south and east Oxford. The numbers have suggested to some archaeologists an “industrial zone”, coincidentally but interestingly centred on the modern industrial zone around Cowley, but also stretching to Headington, Rose Hill, Littlemore, Sandford and as far south as Betinsfield. The kilns cluster around the Roman road…’ [3]. These were developed in the early 2nd century AD to provide good quality domestic ware, mostly for dining and kitchen storage, using the pure white clay of Shotover Hill.

However, these early kilns fell into disuse when the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century and it was only in the Victorian era that serious pottery and brick production began in this area again. But we can still see some of that early Roman homeware from the Oxford Potteries in the Rome gallery on the ground floor of the Ashmolean Museum.

Roman pots in the Ashmolean

Roman pots in the Ashmolean

Did Lewis ever look at any of these old pots and reflect that they could have been made just a few yards from his home 1600 years before? And how interesting that Lewis is buried at Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry – named after the stone quarry there that provided some of the stone for the building of the Oxford colleges.

So, two of the main places most associated with C S Lewis are named, not after any high-flown literary or romantic themes, but after two of Oxfordshire’s oldest and most down to earth industries – the Kilns and a Quarry.

Model of bottle kiln

Model of bottle kiln

Perhaps my own envisionings of the imaginative process of writing as hewing through rock, or journeying through a dark tunnel, or trying to find the sky through a dusty and cobwebby chimney of clay bricks, are also sufficiently down to earth images and experience on which to build a creative literary life.  The kiln can become a model for how I think of my work.

Inside model of bottle kiln

Inside model of bottle kiln

And if that’s whetted your appetite to read the novel I’ve been mentioning – yes, it’s published now and you can find it on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Mr-Rochester-Jeanette-Sears-ebook/dp/B01M28IXFD/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1477392333&sr=1-3&keywords=jeanette+sears

My latest novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

NOTES

1] You can see more at www.bottlekiln.co.uk.

2] Hiawyn Oram, The Giant Surprise: a Narnia Story (HarperCollins, London, 2005) based on C S Lewis, The Silver Chair  (Geoffrey Bles, London, 1953).

3] From www.ashmolean.org/ash/britarch/roman-oxon/oxon-pottery.html, written by Susan Walker, 15 Dec 2011.


Donna Fletcher Crow interviews Jeanette Sears

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I was delighted to be interviewed recently by the well-known American novelist Donna Fletcher Crow for the International Christian Fiction Writers website.  Here are the text and pictures:

A Murder in Michaelmas:  Jeanette Sears Interview by Donna Fletcher Crow for ICFW

Jeanette Sears

Jeanette Sears

Donna: Jeanette, welcome to International Christian Fiction Writers! We are so privileged to have an internationally known C. S. Lewis scholar visit us. Before we get to talking about your last novel tell us about your contribution to Women and C. S. Lewis.

Jeanette:  Thank you so much, Donna, for inviting me. It’s great to speak with you, and thank you for asking about my non-fiction as well as fiction. Yes, I was asked by one of the editors of Women and C S Lewis, the wonderful Carolyn Curtis, if I would write a short opinion-piece for this Lion Hudson book which has been published in the UK and USA this summer. The aim was for around 30 contributors who regularly research and write on Lewis to say what influence he has had on them, particularly in the area of Lewis and women. Did Lewis have a bad attitude to women? Has his teaching had a negative impact on them? That was the sort of question we were to address in our response. Well-known writers such as Alister McGrath, Michael Ward, Colin Duriez, Crystal Hurd, Monika Hilder, Randy Alcorn, Malcolm Guite, Holly Ordway, David C Downing, Don King and others all chipped in to reassert Lewis’ reputation and standing in this area. I suspect the piece that’s most critical of Lewis is probably mine! I take him to task on the subject of women priests. But basically we’re all fans who are very grateful to him for his influence on our lives and we hope that this book on a popular level will be interesting for fans and critics alike.

New book 'Women and C S Lewis'

New book ‘Women and C S Lewis’

Donna:  And you also published a guide to C. S. Lewis’ Oxford, didn’t you?

Jeanette:  Yes, I’m glad to say that The Oxford of J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis has sold around 7,000 copies and is in Blackwell’s and the main tourist shops in Oxford. I had been taking people on Inklings tours of Oxford and approached Oxford Heritage Trails who had published walking tours on different themes for many years. I’m glad to say it’s become their best seller, even beating the one on Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland!

'The Oxford of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis'

‘The Oxford of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis’

Donna:  Now, tell us about A Murder in Michaelmas. Of course, I loved it because it’s set in Oxford, revolves around Arthurian legends and has an American heroine— subjects all dear to my heart. It must have been quite a challenge weaving all those strands together.

My novel 'A Murder in Michaelmas'

My novel ‘A Murder in Michaelmas’

Jeanette:  I thought you might like it! I’ve just enjoyed reading your A Newly Crimsoned Reliquary, so I suspect we have a lot of interests in common! I lived in Oxford for 10 years – as an ordinand at theological college, a curate, a student chaplain, and a Summer School Director for a college – so I got to know the life there from the inside. I found myself using it as a setting for a murder mystery very naturally, as of course have many before us. Oxford seems to bring murder out in people, in literature at any rate! (By the way, I used to live on Fairacres Road in Iffley, as did your heroine for a while.)

Donna:  Have you always had a love of things Arthurian?

Jeanette:  Not particularly. No more so than any other Brit – perhaps it’s in our DNA. But I wanted to have a plot that reflected the medieval setting of Oxford and that could easily include the theme of witchcraft and the occult. I had been to the Oxford Arthurian Society (which sadly no longer exists) and so made up my own Lancelot and Guinevere Society. I thought this could be a re-enactment group where students dress up as characters from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, the nastier characters as well as the good guys. Was the murder a re-enactment that went horribly wrong, or did the victim’s death have some other cause? You may have noticed that I also love the Preraphaelites, and often quote them at the beginning of chapters. Well, they loved Tennyson and the Arthurian legends, and so I suppose I love Arthur because I love them. Of course, C S Lewis rather liked them as well – I really love That Hideous Strength in which he draws on these medieval stories.

Donna:  Why did you choose to work with an American heroine?

Jeanette:  My heroine, Eve Merry, was originally written as British, but then it occurred to me that her being American would work better, especially as a contrast to the English upper-class hero and fellow student Crispin Martin de Beauchamp-Massey. She’s studying Theology, he’s reading English Literature. She’s from a poor background, he’s rich. She’s a Christian (although struggling after her father’s death), while Martin is a bit of a cynic. So I thought to have them as different nationalities would add to the conflict and interest. I lived in Boston, Massachusetts, for 4 years in the 1980s so I thought I could have Eve heralding from there, plus Oxford is blessed with many keen and enthusiastic American students, so I figured that would fit well too.

Donna:  Eve and Martin are such interesting characters. Will we be seeing more of them? Do you envision this book as being the first in a series?

Jeanette:  Oh, thank you. Yes, I hope this will be a series. I’ve started writing the second ‘Merry and Massey Mystery’ – it’s called Death of a Sluggard. The first mystery had the theme of Christianity versus the occult; this one has the debate between Religion and Science as the ideological background which the murder throws up. Eve and her friend Charlie Boscombe, who is a Biochemistry student, will be tackling the so-called New Atheists, with eccentric help from the irrepressible Martin of course.

Donna:  Your website says you’ve been a church minister, a university lecturer, a London bookseller and a writer. What a wonderful variety of experience. Do you find all this background helping you in writing your novels?

Jeanette:  Definitely. I’m sure you find that as a writer now you have to also be a public speaker, event planner, book seller, sales and marketing expert, teacher, pastoral counsellor, etc etc, as well! So it all comes in handy, whether it’s plotting the books, talking about them in public, or getting people to buy them. My children’s novel (although really it’s for everybody) called Pig’s Progress began as stories I told to live audiences at church and school.

'Pig's Progress'

‘Pig’s Progress’

Donna:  You also lecture on Dorothy L. Sayers— another of my favorites. How has a love of Sayers influenced your writing?

Jeanette:  She’s my heroine. I first read her Clouds of Witness when I was 10 and immediately wanted to be a writer. I include talking about her on my Inklings tours of Oxford, even though she wasn’t officially an Inkling. As a theologian and a writer of murder mysteries, she’s got to be my patron saint. If I can reflect any of her intelligence, style, faith and imagination in my writing, who could ask for more?

Donna:  You have so much to keep up with it must be hard to keep all your hats in a row. What’s next for you?

Jeanette:  Mmm, you’re right, it can be tricky combining everything. At the moment I have a lull in speaking events so there’s more time to concentrate on the writing. I’ve been finishing a comic literary novel called The Last Romantic. Then I’ll be writing the first of (I hope) a series of murder mysteries set in my home town of Nottingham. Oh, and finishing Death of a Sluggard, and working on more non-fiction on C S Lewis and Dorothy L Sayers.

Donna: Jeanette, thank you so much for taking time in your busy life to be with us today. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Jeanette:  It’s been my pleasure. The next publication is my contribution to C S Lewis at Poet’s Corner (Wipf and Stock) which should be out fairly soon. One of the highlights of recent years was being able to be part of the events surrounding the inclusion of Lewis in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, and this is the written form of those events, plus lectures and blogs it inspired.

Donna:  And where can we find you and your books on the web?

Jeanette:  My web address is www.jeanettesears.com and my books can be accessed on Amazon from there. Donna, many thanks again, and may God bless you and yours. (Perhaps we’ll get to meet in Oxford sometime?!)

[You can find the original of this interview at:
http://internationalchristianfictionwriters.blogspot.com/2015/09/a-murder-in-michaelmas-jeanette-sears.html and Donna at www.donnafletchercrow.com]

 


The Jackdaw Richard the Third

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The Jackdaw Richard III

1970 orange and purple Scrapbbook and Josephine Tey novel

1970 orange and purple Scrapbbook and Josephine Tey novel

When all the fuss about the discovery of Richard III’s body erupted recently, one of my first thoughts was: “Oh, if only I still had my Jackdaw folder about him!” Then last year when clearing out old boxes from my parents’ garage, I found it again, albeit in the form of a scrapbook from 1970 containing pared down papers from the Jackdaw that I’d carefully trimmed to fit the pages and sellotaped into the album when I was eleven years old. Why do children love scrapbooks so much? What’s so appealing about cutting out pictures and sticking them in albums? I certainly had several scrapbooks when I was growing up, usually devoted to my favourite pop stars. But when I was eleven I developed this much more unlikely craze for a dead king, prompted by reading the classic detective story ‘The Daughter of Time’ by Josephine Tey.

It featured her main detective Inspector Grant who was holed up in hospital with a broken leg and was itching to do some detecting regardless. A friend suggests one of the great mysteries of history and so he settles on who murdered the Princes in the Tower – was it their “evil uncle” King Richard the Third, or his successor Henry the Seventh, the first of the Tudors? The evidence presented in this brilliantly told reconstruction of the crime convinced me forever of Richard’s innocence and Henry’s guilt. I then read everything about Richard I could lay my hands on back in 1970, including this wonderful Jackdaw folder.

Jackdaw 24: Richard III and the Princes in the Tower

Jackdaw 24: Richard III and the Princes in the Tower

It was first published by Jonathan Cape in 1965 but my copy is by from the Paragon Press in 1970. It was edited and compiled by J. Langdon-Davies, an interesting character in himself.  I can still remember the metal carousel in W H Smith’s that contained the Jackdaw folders and the feeling of adventure that they generated as I span it round – which person or event from history shall I find out about next? These Jackdaw folders were bulging with fascimiles of historical documents to fascinate schoolchildren with the feel of handling primary sources. There were reproductions of oil paintings, family trees, the stories of famous people, and beautiful calligraphy in bold black Latin on thick brown paper. It really did make you feel like a detective handling original documents in the excitement of solving one of the greatest mysteries of all time. Plus there was the Justice angle – my eleven year old heart swelled with indignation at the thought of this poor wounded king who had been so maligned by history. I became a (no doubt very annoying) apologist for King Richard to anyone who would listen, wrote a long essay on him for school (which never got marked – it was so long it was overdue and handed in too late) and carried on collecting for my scrapbook, now entitled ‘HISTORY and other things eg. books, News-paper cuttings, Drawings etc. Jeanette Sears VOLUME ONE’. I can also see from my copy of ‘The Daughter of Time’ that this coincided with being given a Dymo label writer for Christmas which meant I labelled all my possessions with my name embossed on red plastic tape. It’s also evident that the fashionable colours for 1970 were orange and purple, judging from the cover of the novel and my scrapbook. I seem to remember my bedroom was painted orange then purple too (or was it purple then orange?)

Since the reburying of King Richard III this week in Leicester Cathedral has generated so much interest worldwide, I thought I would share the contents of my old Jackdaw folder for any of you interested who now can’t get hold of a copy easily. As I said, I cut up the papers it contained and stuck them in a scrapbook with sellotape that’s now brown with age, so they won’t look pristine but I think still of interest. It begins with the well-known portrait of Ricardus III Ang. Rex. by an unknown artist and a fascimile of part of Thomas More’s ‘History of Richard III’ [not shown here] written in 1557.

 

Rous Roll and portrait of Richard III

Rous Roll and portrait of Richard III

I can still remember the fury of Josephine Tey’s detective every time he came across the ‘backstairs’ gossip’ of More’s account in any so-called ‘evidence’. Above are also  drawings of Richard and his wife and son with their coats of arms from the Rous Roll.

'Richard through contemporary eyes' and 'Richard Crookback'

‘Richard through contemporary eyes’ and ‘Richard Crookback’

On large sheets of pink paper there are accounts of ‘Richard through contemporary eyes’ and ‘Richard ‘Crookback’’, featuring the notorious performance of Shakespeare’s play by Laurence Olivier and how the Tudors attacked Richard’s reputation and physical image. This sheet ends with: “One of the most exciting uncertainties of Richard’s reign is the story of the little princes, supposed to have been murdered by their wicked uncle in the Tower of London. Today historians admit that they do not know who the criminal was – it is not even certain that there was a crime. There is no certain evidence on which a jury would convict Richard; it would even be possible to make out some sort of a case that the real criminal, if there was one, was Henry VII.”

'Did Richard murder the primes?' and an account of his acts as king

‘Did Richard murder the primes?’ and an account of his acts as king

Then on orange paper an article entitled ‘Did Richard murder the princes in the Tower?’, containing a brief review of the evidence and concluding that we only hear about Richard’s guilt from his enemies whose accounts can’t be trusted. On the contrary Richard seemed like a good and just king from his other actions and  no court could convict him of the crime on the evidence available. Opposite on pink paper is ‘What do we know of Richard’s acts?’ asking “Was Richard a hypocrite or was he sincere?” when he passed good laws, was merciful to his subjects, etc. There is a list of just and righteous actions done by the king that make him sound the ideal Christian monarch. The conclusion is: “In short, as far as we can see from the documents which have been preserved, Richard’s rule was just and progressive. Indeed, there is a possibility that his unpopularity with some of the rich and aristocratic classes was due to a tendency to stand up for the underdog and undermine some of their privileges.” Reading through these actions of Richard again, I must say it is a very convincing case that he helped the poor and oppressed wherever possible and deprived the fat cats of their unjust gain. Did his spine condition give him an empathy for the oppressed and downtrodden? It makes Philippa Gregory’s description of him as “the People’s Plantagenet” seem very appropriate. It does look as though, when we lost Richard, we lost a very good king. There is even evidence of kindness to his rivals and enemies that makes it look very unlikely that he would have killed his nephews.

Facsimile document and pamphlet on the Battle of Bosworth

Facsimile document and pamphlet on the Battle of Bosworth

On the next pages lie a fascimile, on thick brown paper, of an extract from the Act of Parliament Rolls for the first year of Richard’s reign with a typed transliteration (almost as hard to read as the original but giving even a youngster a feel of medieval English).

Typed transliteration of medieval document

Typed transliteration of medieval document

There is an account of the Battle of Bosworth of 1485 where Richard lost his crown.

Next is a copy of a letter from Richard to the keeper of his wardrobe, Piers Curteys, from 31 August 1483.

 

Richard's letter to Master of Wardrobe

Richard’s letter to Master of Wardrobe

He is requesting clothes such as “one doublet of tawney sattayn lyned with Holand cloth and enterlyned with Buske”, as well as banners and “trumpet bands of sarcenet”. The transcription underneath meant that it was possible even for an 11 year old in 1970 to read the handwriting of 1483. The accompanying notes say that even experts on medieval costume don’t know what “spurves” and “guynysans” were!

The pamphlet ‘Edward V and Richard Duke of York: the Princes in the Tower of London’ gives photos of the Tower areas where the princes were kept and possibly buried, plus diagrams and rather gruesome photos of skeletons of children from the period.

 

Leaflet on Princes in the Tower

Leaflet on Princes in the Tower

The next page has a copy of a letter from Richard to his Lord Chancellor from 12 October 1483 with a transcription on the opposite page. I think the handwriting round the edge is Richard’s own.

Richard's letter to Lord Chancellor with own handwriting round the edge

Richard’s letter to Lord Chancellor with own handwriting round the edge

The guide to the Jackdaw documents assures children that “with a little patience… you will become quite an expert in reading fifteenth century handwriting” !!

I was then intrigued to see that I had a leaflet for a performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ at Nottingham Playhouse from Oct-Dec 1971, starring the comic actor Leonard Rossiter.

Nottingham Playhouse producing Shakespeare's 'Richard III' in 1971

Nottingham Playhouse producing Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ in 1971

This amazed me as I had completely forgotten this. It is described in the leaflet as “a vividly macabre performance”. Since Robert Lindsay has also played Richard, there must have been a trend for a while of having him played by comedians. And gosh, the prices of tickets – 50p for the stalls, 25p for the balcony, and travel subsidies were available if you were coming from elsewhere in the Midlands! They were certainly keen to get people into the theatres in those days and more willing to subsidise it with public money.

The next page shows ‘How Richard became King’.

'How Richard became King'

‘How Richard became King’

In my scrapbook this is juxtaposed with Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More.

IMG_7162 copy

This is because the only other Jackdaw folder I owned was about him. I also have a hard time not saying “Boo!” after his name, as it was his propagandised account of Richard which Shakespeare used for his play. As an all-or-nothing 11 year old, to me this made Thomas More a baddie.

There was a general introductory booklet to the Jackdaw folder which for some reason I pasted at the end of my display rather than the beginning. It gives a run down of all the ‘Exhibits’ and questions for you to ‘Think for Yourself’, which begins: “This ‘Jackdaw’ shows how the story of Richard III may have been distorted by later historians to make a better case for the kingship of the Tudors. Can you think of any other well-known instances of history being rewritten?” Another question is “What do you think would have happened if Richard had won the Battle of Bosworth?”, then “How would you persuade anyone living in about 1500 that a crippled body does not necessarily mean a wicked soul?”, and lastly “Suppose the little princes were alive in 1485, what do you imagine they thought about it all? Perhaps we never heard of them again because they thought “Anything for a quiet life” and preferred to remain “lost”?” Hmm – rather a loaded question. There is then a list of ‘Books to Read’, including Josephine Tey’s novel of 1954 and the biography of Richard by Paul Murray Kendall (1955) which I can remember devouring in the school library on rainy lunchtimes.

I had then cut out the photos from a paperback on the Plantagenets by John Harvey (1967).

Portrait of Richard III

Portrait of Richard III

The portrait of Richard has him looking worried and placing a ring on his own finger (was this a symbol of usurping the throne?) as with the more well-known picture. He still looked preferable in my childish eyes to Henry VII who reminded me of a weasel.

Next to this in my scrapbook was a surprise. I had completely forgotten about the magazine version of Winston Churchill’s ‘History of the English Speaking People’ and that I owned No. 30 of the 112 issues (which apparently came out every Thursday) and was edited by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Hugh Trevor-Roper and A J P Taylor (BPC Publishing 1970).

Magazine cover: 'The Princes in the Tower'

Magazine cover: ‘The Princes in the Tower’

The cover shows the portrait of the Princes in the Tower by the Victorian artist Millais, the boys looking very much like Bubbles dressed as Hamlet.

Contributors to the magazine

Contributors to the magazine

It contains articles by H M Colvin, A R Myers, John Gillingham, and G D Ramsay, most of whom were Oxford dons.

Winston Churchill on Richard III

Winston Churchill on Richard III

Churchill’s own account follows Thomas More’s and so was anathema to me as a stout little Ricardian. There was also an article on the Tower of London plans of the Battle of Bosworth

 

Battle lines at Bosworth

Battle lines at Bosworth

and a taste of the arguments against Richard as the murderer of the princes, but this is pretty half-hearted. Perhaps no one felt they could come out too strongly against Churchill’s view when the whole magazine was supposed to be honouring his version of history.

Image of 'evil' Richard III and the princes

Image of ‘evil’ Richard III and the princes

I am intrigued now as to why I was such a ‘fan’ of King Richard III at such a young age. I think it was the injustice done to a young king that touched me, plus the fact that it was wrapped in one of the greatest mysteries in history. The Jackdaw folder gave me a ‘hands on’ experience in learning about it and the feeling that I was in touch with the historical characters concerned. The Josephine Tey novel brought the story to life in a way that completely gripped my imagination. It has only just occurred to me as I write this blog that the first murder mystery that I have written concerns students who like re-enacting scenes from the late fifteenth century from Malory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur’ – exactly Richard III’s lifetime. Perhaps I have Richard III to thank for my own first murder mystery!

My novel 'A Murder in Michaelmas'

My novel ‘A Murder in Michaelmas’

I also think that it is no coincidence that shortly after my fascination with Kind Richard as an 11 year old I became a Christian – it was possible to also see Jesus of Nazareth of the first century as a young King who had had great evil and injustice done to him, who had suffered a cruel death and whose truth needed to be defended. From the wounded king of medieval chivalry to the wounded King on a cross wasn’t too great a leap. Now that we know more of King Richard’s own Christian faith and his desire to live as a chivalric Christian knight, this is perhaps not surprising. I was particularly struck by this aspect of Richard’s life when hearing Philippa Langley speak in 2013, the amazing woman who led the discovery of Richard’s body in the Leicester car park.

 

Meeting Philippa Langley in Southwell Library, Nov 2013

Meeting Philippa Langley in Southwell Library, Nov 2013

I was determined to shake her hand and thank her, as I believe many have done this week. It was also very moving to see a young girl putting the crown on Richard’s coffin during the reinterment service at Leicester Cathedral, a girl about the same as as me when I ‘discovered’ him, in a sense reinstating him as a good Christian king.  Who would have thought that the supposed ‘evil child-killer’ King Richard III would have become a type of Christ for me as a young child?

Little girl 're-crowning' Richard III

Little girl ‘re-crowning’ Richard III in Leicester Cathedral in March 2015


In Switzerland with Sherlock Holmes – Part Two

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Statue of Sherlock Holmes in Meiringen

Statue of Sherlock Holmes in Meiringen

Of course, Sherlock isn’t dead! Conan Doyle was forced to ‘resurrect’ him in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ when it became clear that the public were not happy doing without their hero. I’m sure you know the story. Holmes comes again to Watson after three years’ absence in the Spring of 1894 and the tough ex-military doctor faints with the shock. When he recovers, he exclaims, “‘Holmes!… Is it really you? Can it indeed be that you are alive? Is it possible that you succeeded in climbing out of that awful abyss?’” He even grips Holmes’ arm to check that he is not a spirit. It is described almost like one of the resurrection appearances of Christ. Holmes then explains all about how he escaped Moriarty at the Reichenbach Fall. And as well as a joyful reunion, Holmes and Watson are now also able to solve the case of the murder of the Honourable Ronald Adair and capture the crack shot who has been stalking Sherlock. Watson is thrilled to be with his great friend again and be in an adventure: “it was indeed like old times.”

It would seem that we too are not willing to let Sherlock Holmes die, or to just be a character on the page or TV. And the good people of Meiringen in Switzerland have been doing their bit to keep the character alive, with the help of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. And the Sherlock Holmes Society of Switzerland is actually called ‘the Reichenbach Irregulars’, founded in 1989.

Statue of Sherlock HolmesIn Meiringen, as I found on my trip this week, it is impossible to avoid the influence and ‘presence’ of Conan Doyle’s creation. There is a wonderful life-size brass statue in the centre of the town

 

 

 

 

 

Conan Doyle Place in Meiringen

Conan Doyle Place in Meiringen

in the aptly named Conan Doyle Place

 

 

 

 

 

The back of the Park Hotel du Sauvage

The back of the Park Hotel du Sauvage

outside the hotel where Conan Doyle (and Holmes and Watson) stayed,

 

Sherlock pub in Meiringen

Sherlock pub in Meiringen

there are pubs named after Sherlock,

 

 

Sherlock Holmes Hotel, Meiringen

Sherlock Holmes Hotel, Meiringen

and a Sherlock Holmes Hotel and restaurant, where we had a coffee and a fantastic view

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View from the Sherlock Holmes Hotel

View from the Sherlock Holmes Hotel

of one of the many mountains surrounding Meiringen in brilliant sunshine.

 

 

 

 

 

Sherlock chocolates!

Sherlock chocolates!

There were Sherlock chocolates in the town’s many sweet and cake shops (although no Sherlock-themed meringues that I saw, even though Meiringen is supposed to be where meringues originate).

 

 

 

 

Sitting outside the Sherlock Holmes Museum

Sitting outside the Sherlock Holmes Museum

The main joy was the wonderful Sherlock Homes Museum, with a much better than expected range of artifacts and displays, including police uniforms from both the London and the Meiringen police forces of the 1890s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The interior of the English Church

The interior of the English Church

Sadly it is in what was the English Church, now unused as such, although one can still enjoy it as a piece of neo-gothic architecture from 1891.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A large part of the joyful atmosphere created at the Museum is due to the wonderful Marlyse Dettmar who has been looking after the collection for around 15 years and is now in her eighties, I believe, and is full of a bubbling enthusiasm and kindness, as well as speaking perfect English, of course.

1st May Opening Day at the Sherlock Holmes Museum

1st May Opening Day at the Sherlock Holmes Museum

She and her team are volunteers and were so kind as to open up the museum especially for our group on our arrival, so we could visit it on the same day as seeing the Reichenbach Falls. We were also there for the official 1st of May opening day of the season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the original story, Mrs Hudson the landlady understandably had “violent hysterics” at the re-appearance of Holmes. And Sherlock found that his brother Mycroft “had preserved my rooms and my papers exactly as they had always been.”

Reconstruction of the living room of Sherlock Holmes

Reconstruction of the living room of Sherlock Holmes

I was extremely impressed with the re-creation of Holmes’ living room at 221B Baker Street in the basement of the museum. It did seem astoundingly authentic and is based on every detail from the Conan Doyle stories that could be culled. It felt to me as if Holmes and Watson had just stepped out for a moment, with the violin and newspapers left lying around and the fire burning, the lamps lit, and the intriguing corners full of Holmes’ experiments and notebooks. When watching the Jeremy Brett TV series, I had never felt that the living room was really Sherlock’s – I kept thinking “I’m sure he wouldn’t have chosen those curtains – was it Mrs Hudson’s taste?’ etc. But in this museum’s re-creation everything felt right straightaway: “the old landmarks were all in their place.”

Foot of Sherlock Holmes statue

Foot of Sherlock Holmes statue

Later in the week, I noticed that the feet of the main statue of Sherlock in the town were shining in the rain, the brass looking like the foot of the statue of St Peter in the Vatican that is touched and kissed by pilgrims. Is this how Sherlock’s feet have been worn to a shine??!! Hopefully the fans’ devotion is not that extreme!

 

 

 

 

 

But the main surprise came on the first night. At dinner some of our fellow guests at the hotel began to peer out of one of the windows in the corner of the room as it got dark. When asked why, it turned out that there was an image of Sherlock Holmes being beamed onto the side of the mountain near the Reichenbach Falls. I could hardly believe my eyes – it was like a Bat signal over Gotham City! It was a small circular image that changed every minute or so, alternating between two different profiles of Holmes with his trademark deerstalker and pipe. It turns out I could also see this from my room, although my camera failed to capture it properly – it just looks like a pinprick of light in the centre of the picture, although one can see how large it is compared to the lights of the town below.

Sherlock image over Meiringen at night (the pinprick of light in the middle!)

Sherlock image over Meiringen at night (the pinprick of light in the middle!)

It was rather strange, to have that image watching over us, like a beneficent presence.  If any proof were needed that Meiringen had taken Sherlock Holmes to its heart, this was it.  I began to wonder what the town would actually be like without this added literary aspect.  It is certainly a beautiful place and the hotel and food and Swiss trains were fantastic, our guide charming and delightful, and our fellow travellers fascinating and super-friendly, so I think we would have had a marvellous holiday regardless.  But there’s no doubt that Sherlock and his adventures at the Reichenbach Falls do give the town of Meiringen an edge over its competitors it wouldn’t otherwise have, and I am delighted that not just the Swiss but people from all over the world can enjoy what Conan Doyle obviously saw in the dramatic beauty and story potential of this historic place.

 

But of course Conan Doyle’s short story ends with Holmes and Watson now based back in England again, as am I: “once again Mr Sherlock Holmes is free to devote his life to examining those interesting little problems which the complex life of London so plentifully presents.”

It’s been a privilege to be able to follow in the footsteps of Sherlock Holmes on such a wonderful holiday.  Hopefully there will have been plenty of inspiration for my own future writing of murder mysteries in this great tradition.

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Outside the English Church with Sherlock Homes statue


In Switzerland with Sherlock Holmes – Part One

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Portrait of Conan Doyle at Sherlock Holmes Museum, Meiringen (with my camera in reflection!)

Portrait of Conan Doyle at Sherlock Holmes Museum, Meiringen (with my camera in reflection!)

I have loved Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories for years, since student days when my friends and I would read them out loud to each other and relish the marvellous language, laugh at the unintentional humour, and of course enjoy the wide-ranging adventures. We also were great fans of the Jeremy Brett TV series, who became ‘our’ Sherlock, just as much as Basil Rathbone was for an earlier generation and Benedict Cumberbatch is for today’s. And as a murder mystery writer myself, it’s easy to view Sherlock as a kind of patron saint of fictional detectives.

So when I was given the chance to go to Switzerland, in the very footsteps of Sherlock and his faithful Watson (and of course, before them, Conan Doyle himself in 1893), I decided to make the most of it and compare my own ‘adventure’ with the original stories.  This begins with “Adventure XI – The Final Problem”.  Watson was writing this after “that event which has created a void in my life which the lapse of two years has done little to fill.” Moriarty’s brother has been bad-mouthing Sherlock in public and so Watson feels he has no choice but to defend the honour of his great friend by writing a true account of the events of third and fourth of May 1891 in Meiringen, Switzerland. “It lies with me to tell for the first time what happened between Professor Moriarty and Mr Sherlock Holmes.”

Holmes had come to Watson’s consulting room on the evening of the twenty fourth of April, in an unusually nervous state, having been in a fight and concerned that someone is out to kill him. Watson knows him well enough to take this seriously when Holmes proposes that the doctor should “come away with me for a week to the Continent”. They then have a attempted secret, fraught and complex journey that ends at the Reichenbach Fall at Meiringen in Switzerland with the seeming death of Sherlock Holmes at the hands of Moriarty, today, the fourth of May.

I have just returned from my week on the Continent, a journey that included 30 separate train journeys and felt almost as fraught at times as Sherlock and Watson’s! We weren’t being pursued by murderous maniacs but it could feel scary climbing up snowy mountain passes and overlooking gorges thousands of feet deep as we explored the same terrain in Switzerland. Apparently it was “not in Holmes’ nature to take an aimless holiday”, nor is it in mine, and I am delighted to be able to share with you some of the amazing scenery and historic sights that form the backdrop to this most famous detective story.

On that April night, Holmes gives to Watson a detailed description as to how he is to get to Victoria station in London where they are to meet up on the train: “the second first-class carriage from the front will be reserved for us.” On our trip last week, we too had to take the equivalent of Watson’s brougham (a taxi) to the station but were to travel instead with ‘Great Rail Journeys’ and leave from St Pancras International on the Eurostar to Brussels, however it was usually the first class carriage at the front of the various trains that were reserved for us as we shot across the continent.

Eventually.

We arrived at Eurostar to find they had mysteriously voided our tickets (our wonderful and unflappable guide said this had never happened before in her experience!) and we had to wait half an hour to be re-instated. But Watson’s relief that “my luggage was waiting for me, and I had no difficulty in finding the carriage” I’m glad to say was usually our experience after that wobbly start. S and W get off the train at Canterbury as they are being followed, meaning to go to Newhaven to cross to Dieppe, fooling Moriarty with luggage labelled for Paris. The intention is to “make our way at leisure into Switzerland, via Luxembourg and Basle.” This was exactly our route, although “at leisure” is hardly the way to describe our one-night stay. Again, there were no master criminals on our trail to stop us, only several thousand students demonstrating in Luxembourg at an unearthly hour of the morning (for students), blocking our way to the train station (just across the road). There were several occasions when I could sympathise with Watson at this point in the story, “looking rather ruefully after the rapidly disappearing luggage-van which contained my wardrobe…”. There was also the same problem as when to snatch snacks at the various stations and stopping points. Sherlock is well-known for always interrupting Watson with the promise of adventure when he is just about to eat. Watson must have groaned inwardly when Sherlock declares: “The question now is whether we should take a premature lunch here, or run our chance of starving before we reach the buffet…” You and me both, Watson.

Instead they too make their way to Brussels, then on to Strasburg and Geneva. Holmes tells Watson to return to London, as Moriarty now has nothing to lose and is a desperate man. But “it was hardly an appeal to be successful with one who was an old campaigner as well as an old friend.” Watson is determined to be faithful and not let Holmes go on alone, whatever the cost.

Tiny spring alpine flowers

Tiny spring alpine flowers

They have a “charming” week wandering in the Rhone Valley, going through the snow of the Gemmi Pass by way of Interlaken to Meiringen. “It was a lovely trip, the dainty green of the spring below, the virgin white of the winter above…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interlaken

Interlaken

But of course Holmes cannot forget that they are hunted men. Near the Daubensee a large rock is dislodged and falls down next to them from the ridge above. Holmes is not depressed by this, however, but seems to exalt in this ultimate competition of two great intellects and strategists. “Again and again he recurred to the fact that if he could be assured that society was freed from Professor Moriarty he would cheerfully bring his own career to a conclusion.”

 

 

“It was on the 3d of May that we reached the little village of Meiringen, where we put up at the Englischer Hof…” in 1891.

Park Hotel du Sauvage

Park Hotel du Sauvage

This is where we also stayed – now called the Park Hotel du Sauvage,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Furniture at hotel

Furniture at hotel

and still with many of the period details of the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hotel where Conan Doyle stayed in 1893

Hotel where Conan Doyle stayed in 1893

And the plaque to prove it…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View from hotel window

View from hotel window

We had large rooms with stunning views of the mountains. My room looked out on the Reichenbach Fall area itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reception at the Park Hotel du Sauvage

Reception at the Park Hotel du Sauvage

Like Watson and Holmes, we found that all the Swiss running and serving in the hotel spoke excellent English. Watson wrote that at the advice of the owner of the hotel “on the after noon of the 4th we set off together, with the intention of crossing the hills and spending the night at the hamlet of Rosenlaui.” (I was amused to be given ‘Rosenlaui’ as the codeword for the day to use the wifi at a local institution).

 

 

 

 

 

Watson continues, “We had strict injunctions, however, on no account to pass the falls of Reichenbach, which are about half-way up the hill, without making a small detour to see them.” This week we were very glad of a mini-bus to take us up the hill as we knew it was an hour and a half to make the steep walk back down again.

Reichenbach Falls 2014

Reichenbach Falls 2014

Conan Doyle’s description of it as “a fearful place” was true as to the rock formations – basically when you looked down – but when you looked up at the falls itself, instead of a “torrent, swollen by the melting snow”, we only saw a small rivulet of water (someone unkindly described it as “the Reichenbach Trickle”). We were wondering whether Conan Doyle had seen it later on in the year when more snow had melted, but no, he seems very precise about it being on the fourth of May. So this is rather a mystery in itself, unless global warming is to blame.

 

 

 

Beneath the Reichenbach Falls

Beneath the Reichenbach Falls

There was “an immense chasm” underneath but the rock did not look particularly “coal-black”, nor was there a “boiling pit of incalculable depth, which brims over and shoots the stream onward over its jagged lip.” The waters did look green, but there wasn’t a curtain of hissing spray that with the swirling water could “turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamour.”

 

 

 

 

 

Restaurant at Reichenbach Falls

Restaurant at Reichenbach Falls

If we did go giddy it was due to less oxygen than usual at that height, plus the need for tea or coffee at the local restaurant, fortunately situated on the path back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

View from Reichenbach Falls

View from Reichenbach Falls

Of course, Holmes and Watson are ‘tricked’ by a fake message about someone who needs the doctor’s help back at the hotel and so Watson writes: “As I turned away I saw Holmes, with his back against a rock and his arms folded, gazing down at the rush of the waters. It was the last I was ever destined to see of him in this world.”

Or so he thinks…

 

 

 

 

Swiss Flag at Reichenbach Falls

Swiss Flag at Reichenbach Falls

Part Two will look at the impact of Sherlock Holmes on Meiringen and the amazing way that this small Swiss town has taken him to their hearts.