A Creative Setting, Frozen in Time

View from the Cabin, Bucks Mills, North Devon

View from the ground floor window of the Cabin, Bucks Mills

The Cabin at Bucks Mills in North Devon, a National Trust property, is rarely open to the public. It is a memorial to two local artists, Judith Ackland and Mary Stella Edwards, who followed the traditions of British romantic landscape painting. Their studio remains exactly as it was left decades ago, frozen in time.  I am one of seven local authors who have been invited to use it over the coming holiday weekend and take inspiration from it.

Devon artists, Judith Ackland & Mary Stella Edwards

Local Devon artists, Judith Ackland & Mary Stella Edwards

The stone-built cabin is tucked away in a secluded spot, on the cliff-side above the East Lime-kiln, in the hamlet of Bucks Mills. It’s surrounded by a rugged, natural landscape: the westward-facing sea, a shingle beach and towering Devon cliffs. It is an ideal spot, as Mary Stella Edwards said, for ‘the spring light on the high land.’

By contrast, the inside of the cabin is quite spartan and purely functional (and no electricity), apart from a dresser of pretty patterned cups and plates which add a splash of colour. It was the two women’s studio between 1935-1971. After Judith Ackland’s death in 1971 the cabin was abandoned. It looks, however, as if they have just stepped out and intended to come back.

Artists materials Ackland/Edwards

Original artists’ materials used by Judith Ackland and Stella Edwards

Hopefully, we authors will find our own muse in the location and setting. I wonder whether we’ll feel the spirit of Judith Ackland and Mary Stella Edwards encouraging us?

Authors Ruth Downie, Janet Few, Susan Hughes, Wendy Percival, PJ Reed, Liz Shakespeare and Pamela Vass will be at the cabin over the May Day Bank Holiday Weekend, 29 April-1 May 2017, 10am – 4pm.

Crockery in the Cabin, Bucks Mills

Crockery in the Cabin, left untouched for decades


The Ackland-Edwards Collection of watercolours, drawings and dioramas of local topographical or historical interest, is on permanent display at The Burton Art Gallery and Museum in Bideford, North Devon.


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A Wound in our Nation’s Psyche: The Somme

19240 Shrouds of the Somme

19240 Shrouds of the Somme, Northernhay Gardens, Exeter, Devon, 1 July 2016

One hundred years’ ago today, the Battle of the Somme – one of the Great War’s bloodiest battles – ended, having begun on 1 July 1916. On the first day alone almost 20,000 British soldiers died.

To mark its centenary, an art installation memorial, 19240 Shrouds of the Somme, re-imagined the physical reality of the losses on the day the battle began. Laid out in rows on the grass of Northernhay Gardens, Exeter, were 19,240 twelve inch figures in shrouds.  Each figure represented a British soldier killed on the first day of battle. It brought home an idea of the scale of the carnage to our 21st century eyes. It was almost beyond belief.

The men the figures represented gave their lives for King and Country, but the impact went far beyond the battlefield.  Each soldier’s loss was felt by a particular loved one and then by a family unit back home. Then, as the full horror gradually emerged, this sense of loss spread and spread until it sliced a deep wound in our nation’s collective psyche that perhaps will never fully heal.

19240 Shrouds of the Sosmme

Individual figures from the 19240 Shrouds of the Somme.


Even a century later, the name The Somme, still stirs a visceral horror in our hearts. It continues to echo down the decades and retains the power to move us.

Photographs by Susan Hughes


WWI Centenary. Lest we forget.


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Skeletons in Cupboards

photo of Wendy Percival authorToday I have the honour of welcoming Wendy Percival, author of the Esme Quentin mystery series (Blood Tied, The Indelible Stain) onto my blog. Wendy is also actively engaged in researching her own family background, which constantly throws up ever more questions.

Wendy, my inspiration for my first novel came from some WWI postcards I found among my grandmother’s possessions. What was it you found out about your family that inspired you to write fiction?

First page of FT articlePleased to be here! It was the discovery of a 19th century death certificate, issued in Australia, in the ubiquitous ‘old box in the attic’ that set me off.

How did you follow up this intriguing discovery?

Questions began to flow about the identity of this Charles Gabriel Barker – a musician. Why was he on the other side of the world? When had he gone? How had he got there? Where were the other family members mentioned on the document? It took me a few years to consult birth records, marriage certificates, censuses, schools’ records, orphanage admission books, ships’ passenger lists and newspaper archives to get some answers. It was a steep learning curve and I wrote an article about my discoveries in Family Tree magazine. Later I researched convict ancestry information specifically to write The Indelible Stain.

These days we are blessed with access to a vast amount of information about the past. Which is your favourite go-to historical source?

One of the family historian’s key tools is the census. Taken every ten years from 1841 (due to the 100 year closure rule, records are currently only available up to 1911) it holds a wealth of valuable information:

• the name and address of the person in question

• the rest of the members of the household, their relationships, ages, occupations and where they were born.

It allows us to learn more about these people from the past, even with only a few names and dates on the ancestral family tree to go on.

Tell us about one particular discovery you made during your family tree research? Death certificate of Henrietta Benbow 1854I discovered that my 2x great-aunt, Henrietta Benbow, died young in 1854, aged just 23.  Her occupation was listed as ‘china burnisher’.  From research I found out that she worked in a porcelain factory in Coalport, Shropshire, and that her job was to polish pots after firing to improve the finish. Henrietta’s death certificate stated the cause of her death as consumption, a common respiratory disease in nineteenth century England.

However, reading further about an ancestor’s occupation can be revealing. A study of 1864 showed that the average rate of death of potters was much higher than that of  the general population. When I discovered that 60% of their deaths were attributed to lung and respiratory diseases I realised that her occupation likely contributed to her untimely death.

In my family, a hush always fell on the room when a certain relative was mentioned. Any black sheep in your family?

More than one!  When trawling the census looking for my great-grandfather, I found a series of clues which indicated that he’d been living a double life with two ‘wives’ and two families of young children. They lived only streets apart in London in 1880s. He’d got away with it, it seems, for a least six years before my great-grandmother learned of his deception and kicked him out!

Great-grandfather's mistress calling herself Mrs Colley on 1881 census

Great-grandfather’s mistress, calling herself ‘Mrs Colley’ on 1881 census

You gave your fictional protagonist, Esme Quentin, the job of genealogist, thereby mirroring your own research efforts. How does that work?

As a mystery writer it’s all to do with following clues and solving puzzles – exactly what I do when researching my family history. It seemed quite natural to dovetail the two together – especially when there’s a suggestion of a dark family secret afoot. Like me, Esme can worry away at the information, following a trail of clues, but sometimes going down a blind alley and being sidetracked by occasional red herrings, until finally the whole picture emerges and all is revealed.

So you have had to be every bit as tenacious as Esme in finding out the truth?

Yes, but Esme is way, way, more intrepid than me, and so much more adventurous! Which is much safer for me and more interesting for Esme, as she can get up to things I’d never dream of doing…

Sounds like the perfect solution. What’s the next mystery for your fictional genealogist to solve?

I don’t want to give too much away here, but the clandestine past of the Second World War provides the secret world into which Esme must delve to uncover the truth for my third novel.

So much intrigue in that period to fire an author’s imagination. When can we expect to get our hands on a copy?

I haven’t quite finished it yet, and need to decide on a title, but it will be published soon.

I’ll look forward to that, Wendy. It’s been a joy to have you on my blog today. Thank you.


BLOOD-TIED cover image9781781322819-PerfectCOVER.inddYou can find out more about Wendy’s fiction on her website.  She shares her most intriguing discoveries from her own family history research on her Family History Secrets  blog. Wendy has also written articles for Family Tree Magazine, Writers’ Forum and Shropshire Family History’s Quarterly Journal.

Blood Tied A desperate crime, hidden for 60 years…but time has a way of exposing the truth.
The Indelible Stain Secrets from a tainted past.


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Linking the Past to the Present

WW1 memorial

Upper North Street School Memorial.

On this day, 23 June 1919, a memorial to eighteen London school children killed during a German Gotha raid during WWI was unveiled in Poplar Recreation Ground, London E14.

Such memorials are each unique pieces of public art which link the present and the past and form part of our common history and belong to our collective memory.

I came across this striking memorial as I was walking along the East India Dock Road in London’s East End.  The angel statue stands on top of a four-sided pillar upon a white stone stepped base. The inscription reads:


The date of the tragedy also marks the first day of German aircraft daylight bombing raids on London during WWI. Prior to this, most air raids had taken place under cover of darkness. Poplar was near the commercial docks – a frequent target during enemy air raids in both world wars – and Upper North Street school may not have been the intended target when Gotha airplanes dropped their bombs on that day, but the school suffered a devastating direct hit.

Most of the dead were infants, aged between four and six. It caused a huge international outpouring of public grief and sorrow as well as outrage and outcry, inciting widespread rioting against German owned shops and premises in Britain. It prompted questions in the House of Commons about the pressing need for a more effective air raid early warning system.

Some of the schoolchildren's names

Some of the schoolchildren’s names

Before the 1914-1918 war,  most war memorials were of famous generals who won celebrated victories in battle. After the slaughter in the trenches and deaths from air raids on the Home Front, there was a change in public mood and this change is reflected in the many and varied public memorials commissioned in its aftermath. These are visible in our cities, in town squares, on village greens, in local churchyards, in parks, at railway stations and in the designs on church windows. They speak to us of commemoration and sacrifice – of civilians as well as service personnel – not celebration.

Above all, they allow us and future generations to remember. And hope for peace. Always.

What about you? Are there war memorials in your home town? How do you feel about them?


WWI Centenary. Lest We Forget

Quote from de Toqueville "When the past..."






Photographs © Susan Hughes


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Poster Girls of WW1

Picture of women munitions workers

Shell-making Edinburgh

I was pleased to be invited by Helen Hollick to write a piece for her Tuesday Talk slot on her blog, Let us Talk of Many Things; of Books and Queens and Pirates, of History and Kings…

On it I talk about the WW1 female munitions workers (known as munitionettes) who inspired my novel, A Kiss from France.  You can read it here:-


Helen Hollick is the author of piratical and royal tales and Managing Editor of the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews.

image:  painting  by Sir John Lavery (Public Domain) via Wikimediacommons

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