Inspiration for the Polly books

The idea for the Polly books came from the story of Great Aunt Hannah who, back in the thirties in order to survive through difficult times, sold off all the furniture save for an earthenware bread bin and their bed. The bread bin thereafter held their food, and acted as a table or stool. With the money and her husband bought second hand carpets from auctions and better class homes, which Aunt Hannah cut up to sell on the local market. They also bought any other items offered, such as small pictures, clocks, jugs and vases, even chamber pots, anything saleable was grist to the mill for them to survive. Everything would be loaded on to a two-wheeled hand cart and transported home to their rented terraced house.

Carpets in those days were a luxury, most houses in working class areas covering their floors with lino, although kitchens were generally just scrubbed flags, perhaps with a rag rug made from scraps of old clothes. But when they first went into business they did not have the space or the facilities to properly clean the carpets before putting them up for sale. On one occasion Aunt Hannah was showing a carpet to a prospective buyer when a huge cockroach ran across it. Fortunately he didn’t see it as she quickly grabbed the horrible thing in her hand and held it until the customer had paid for the carpet and left. She must have been a tough lady.

They also bought the entire set of carpets from the German ship SS Leviathan which was being scrapped. In order to do that, and having refurnished from the profit made, they sold everything all over again, repeating this process several times. They then expanded, renting the shop next door, employing many women to sew and bind the carpets, and later bought property where they began to sell new carpets, as Polly does in the books. Aunt Hannah still had the bread bin when she died in the fifties.

Aunt Hannah was such a kind lady that when my parents, who had married early in the war, finally set up home together in 1945 in rented premises as a shoe repairer, living behind the shop, she gave them a brand new carpet as a gift. They treasured this for much of their married life, as they only had Dad’s demob money at the time, and otherwise would have been on bare boards.

I often use family stories, suitably adapted and fictionalised. In this case my aunt had a very happy marriage, not suffering the traumas that Polly was forced to endure.

These books have now been republished by Mira Books. I hope you enjoy them both. And as soon as I can find the time I may well write a third to find out what happens to Benny and Lucy.

Polly's Pride

Polly's War


Living in Two Countries as a Writer

I live on the edge of a quiet, typically Spanish white village high in the mountains of Almeria in South-East Spain. We already knew the area as we had a holiday home there for a few years. Then we bought an olive grove and built a house in it. The best advantage I have found from living in Spain is an improvement in my health. Since I suffered badly from arthritis in the UK I was in much less pain and therefore able to pursue my writing, and my life, with fresh vigour. I’ve also found peace and tranquillity, of mind as well as body, all essentials for a writer.

When I write my family sagas about England, I find that writing from a distance gives me a rosier view, which seems to work well in fiction. Of course I have countless books on the area of the Lakes, where I used to live, and videos and recorded interview that I’ve taken when visiting. The downside is that the story can sometimes make me feel quite homesick. But then I have many readers in such places as Australia, New Zealand and Canada who love that sense of nostalgia, and reading about places they remember from their own youth back in the mother country.

I also write historical fiction and love researching the history of Russia, France, Spain or wherever, for these books. I do feel very European living in Spain, and have friends of all nationalities, which I think widens my perspective on life.

An advantage is my lovely Spanish garden, which I love, and is a wonderful place to relax in and let the creative juices flow.

The major disadvantage is in marketing and promotion. I used to do regular talks for libraries, the WI and other women’s organisations, but all of that has had to be greatly reduced, which is a shame. We now spend several months each summer in our holiday lodge in the UK, so I’m able to fit in some talks and events during those periods.

Fortunately, interviews can now be conducted online, as can blogs, chatting to my readers on Facebook, and other aspects of social networking. That in itself is demanding, but at least it doesn’t matter where I live. A writer is no longer dependent upon such events as talks, although I still love doing them, and always attempt to make them entertaining.

As well as Facebook, Twitter, a website and blog, I send out a regular newsletter to my readers, hold contests, prize draws and the occasional giveaway, and take part in many forums and loops. All part of being a writer. Wherever writers live they still have the problem of balancing time needed for writing with that spent on promotion. There’s no perfect solution.

On a more practical working level, as all contact with publishers is also available online, not only with emails but for copy-editing and proofs, it’s much simpler to work at a distance now than it used to be when I first moved out to Spain. Then I’d be waiting for parcels for editing or proof reading that never did arrive on time. The world is growing smaller and I have no regrets.

There is a certain myth that the weather is always hot in Spain. Brits have this vision of swimming in the pool in February. Well, let me explode that one. It ain’t gonna happen. True, it’s not as cold on the Iberian peninsula as it is back in the UK, and certainly warmer than Shap Fell where we used to live back in the 80s, but winters can be cold, windy and wet, which on really bad days can result in power cuts. Not good for a writer dependant on her computer but really quite romantic in a way. We light our candles and sit by our blazing log fire and read our books. What could be better than that? I feel I have the best of both worlds.


The Amber Keeper - Readers Book Club Questions

The Amber Keeper 

After her mother’s suicide, Abbie Myers returns home to the Lake District with her young child—and no wedding ring. Estranged from her turbulent family for many years, Abbie is heartbroken when she hears that they blame her for this tragedy.

Determined to uncover her mother’s past, Abbie approaches her beloved grandmother, Millie, in search of answers. The old woman reveals the story of how she travelled to Russia in 1911 as a young governess and became caught up in the revolution.

As Abbie struggles to reconcile with her family, and to support herself and her child, she realizes that those long-ago events created aftershocks that threaten to upset the fragile peace she longs to create.

Set against the backdrops of the English Lake District in the 1960s and the upheavals of revolutionary Russia, The Amber Keeper is a sweeping tale of jealousy and revenge, reconciliation and forgiveness.


Here are the Readers Book Club – Questions - have fun.

It felt to Abbie that a mistake she’d made in her past as a teenager, had ruined her life by damaging her relationship with her family. Is this something we all suffer from on occasion, and how can it be resolved?

Did Millie make the mistake of being too outspoken with the Countess from the start, or was she right to stand up for herself?

Could Stefan have done anything to prevent the Countess from pursuing him, and do you think he encouraged her in any way?

Was it sensible of Millie to take part in the demonstration which ultimately sparked off the rumblings of revolution? And was the Countess right to sack her for having done so, or her attitude symptomatic of what was happening in Russia?

Would you describe Millie as naïve or courageous in the way she handled the problem of being handed a child at the cost of her reputation? What would you have done?

Is it right to keep a secret which involves others, or should we reveal all to our offspring no matter what the consequences? Do you think there are any lurking within your own family?

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Birds in our Spanish garden

I thought you might like to know a little more about the kind of birds we have here in Spain.

The Black Redstart male looks a little like a wagtail with a black chest and face. The female is grey but both have a flash of red under their tails. Their call is a distinctive tseep tseep tseep followed by tak tak tak.  They're very fond of insects and larvae so useful to have around. They are more often seen in northern Spain but we have quite a few pairs in our neighbourhood.

Our favourite bird is the Black Wheatear. It is quite rare and the only all dark wheatear in Europe with a white flash under its tail. It has a hard scratchy call with coarse rolling sounds like schrl rl rl rl and thin shee or stee noises. It's very tame and rather cheeky, like the robin who also comes to stay with us for the winter. One we call Willy, spends most his nights nestling in our space heater on the back terrace.

The Crested Lark is rather stately in appearance and very common in the Mediterranean. They like to sing on our electricity lines and feed on insects and seeds.

We also have the Hoopoe with its far carrying poo poo poo call. Looks quite spectacular in flight with its black and white wings and orange body but can often be quite difficult to see on the ground. It has an orange crest with black and white tips.


Bee Eaters visit us in quite large flocks in the early summer. They make a lot of noise when a flock settles in a tree or on overhead wires. The mature bird is very colourful in blue, yellow and reddy brown. They feed on insects on the wing.


There are various warblers including the Orphean Warbler, Pied Wagtails, Yellowhammers, Robins, Swallows and House Martins, and Kestrels and Buzzards of course. Sometimes we're fortunate enough to see a Bonelli’s eagle. The adult is black and white with a five foot wingspan. It happily feeds on all these small birds and small mammals. Oh dear! It is more usually seen in the larger mountain ranges nearby but comes visiting occasionally.         


Canaries Cruise

We enjoyed a wonderful cruise around the Canaries over Christmas. I did put some of the photos up on Facebook, but thought I'd put a few on my blog too, as they are so lovely. We began with a visit to  Cadiz in Spain, then on to Lanzarote, Gran Canaria and Tenerife, finishing with a visit to Lisbon.


Our first call was at the Columbus Museum, which was fascinating, giving wonderful insights into the history of this man.

Here's a reproduction of his cabin. I must say I wouldn't have found this one as comfortable as the one we had on the Queen Elizabeth. (Big grin)

The views over the seas from Lanzarote were quite stunning.

On Gran Canaria we took a trip over the mountains. Rather too many windy roads for me, but the views were equally stunning.

Here is one of the wonderful dragon trees on Tenerife. Very rare and even extinct in some places, but they grow well in the Canaries.

Agatha Christie was apparently inspired to write The Mysterious Mr Quin, following regular visits to the Orchid Garden while holidaying on Tenerife.


The orchid house is a wonder to see.
 For more information you can visit their website.
Teneriffe Orchid Gardens

Queen Elizabeth


The Magical Attributes of Amber

Amber lifts the heart, delights the eye, and excites our imagination. We think of amber as a precious stone but unlike most jewels it is not a mineral. Like pearls, diamonds and jet, amber is of organic origin, coming from the petrified resin of ancient forests. The Baltic region produces the best amber as this is from the prehistoric Pinites succinifer tree, which is at least 50 million years old and now extinct.

As the sticky resin ran from these ancient trees, leaves, twigs, fungus gnats, dragonflies and other insects could be caught up and become an inclusion in the amber. These add to the value and reveals priceless information about the flora and fauna of the ancient world. A moment in time frozen forever.

Neolithic tribes believed that amber was a piece of the sun fallen to earth and sunk into the sea. Greek myths claimed that amber represented the tears of Apollo’s daughters, Apollo being the God of the Sun. Priestesses wore amber beads for the magical energy stored in these beautiful stones. Ladies of the court of Rome thought that touching and stroking amber would create in them a youthful appearance, cool their hands in the summer heat and enhance fertility. As amber was said to bring good luck to the wearer, gladiators stitched pieces of amber into their clothing before a fight. Native American amber is said to represent the east wind of grandfather sun, Amber is still seen by many to be a sacred symbol of the sun. It is often called Tears of the Sun, Gold of the North, Hardened Honey, or Captured Sunshine.

The Amber workshop at Catherine Palace

Amber has long been considered to have therapeutic value which will improve health and mental clarity, fight depression and promote healing, particularly for children. A belief that continues to this day as baby teethers, beaded amber necklaces, amulets of amber hearts or crosses, and bracelets, are still a traditional gift for a child. Amber oil is also believed to be effective for rheumatic diseases. Rubbed into the skin it improves blood circulation and eases muscle pains.

Photography is not allowed in the room, so I’m afraid I have no pictures, but we also enjoyed visiting the workshop.

Best of all the attributes of amber is its pure beauty and the hundreds of glorious shades, generally from white through yellow, honey, butterscotch to a reddish brown. The darker the colour, the older the amber.

Catherine Palace

One of the world's most valuable art treasures, the Amber Room in Catherine Palace was made entirely out of amber. When the palace had to be evacuated during World War Two the panels were covered up, but tragically lost, or rather stolen, by the invading Nazis. But it has since been rebuilt, a perfect replica of the original which has taken at least twenty years to achieve. We visited when on our Baltic cruise, which sparked off the idea for The Amber Keeper.

If you own some amber, then keep it in a sealed plastic bag away from heat. Amber is soft and a tiny drop of olive oil will help deal with any scratch. It will always look beautiful and very special, in addition to all its magical properties.

Prologue 1933 

My snow-boots were worn through so that I walked on the ice that coated the rough mountain path, the soles of my feet numb with cold. Gasps of breath formed frozen crystals on those parts of my nose and cheeks not protected by scarf and fur hat. I had long since lost my small pony, the poor animal having bolted home in terror when the guns started, although whether she’d ever arrived is doubtful.

Home, if that is what you can call the house in which I had resided for so many years, no longer existed. It was but a shell of its former glory. I remembered how the darkness of the night seemed to press in upon me, almost as if I were back within those prison walls. I had closed my mind to the horrors I’d left behind, attempted to set aside my fears about those loved ones dear to my heart who had vanished from my life. Instead I’d fixed my weary gaze on the heels of my guide trudging ahead of me, knowing that if I was to survive, I must stay focused. This was my last chance to get out of Russia.

We walked for days, through ice, snow and blizzard, sustaining ourselves with hunks of none too clean stale bread, and with nothing to wet our palates but sucking on icicles. When, hours later, we staggered into a cave my knees gave way and I fell to the ground, weak with gratitude. I remember feeling a huge relief that at least I could rest for a while, thankful to be out of the bitter wind. The last two nights - or was it three -we’d slept in the open, not even daring to light a fire in case the
Bolsheviks should spot it and come searching. Curling myself thankfully into a corner, rubbing my hands and feet in an effort to stave off frost-bite, I pulled up my collar, tucked my knapsack beside me and told myself firmly that I must not fall asleep. I was afraid I might never wake again, due to the fierce cold.

But despite my best efforts I must have fallen asleep instantly out of sheer exhaustion, for I knew nothing more till I was woken by a shaft of daylight filtering into the cave at dawn, and some strange sound that had alerted me. I sat up abruptly, looking around for my guide. He was nowhere to be seen. The man to whom I’d paid an exorbitant sum, every last kopek I possessed, had deserted me. I was quite alone. But as the sound of horses’ hooves clattering over rocks penetrated my befuddled brain, I realised I was about to experience some unwelcome company.

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Life as a Governess in Russia

Russian Imperial Royal Family

Hiring a British governess was quite fashionable among Russian aristocracy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They loved English style and wished their sons to turn into little Lord Fauntleroys. Being able to speak English was considered to be a necessary social accomplishment. French too was fashionable among the upper classes so employing an English governess who could speak the language was ideal. A tutor might also be hired to provide instruction in Russian and history, and perhaps someone to teach the piano or violin, but the governess was in charge of everything else. Lessons would take place in the mornings with the afternoons devoted to teaching drawing, painting and sewing for the girls. Boys spent the afternoons taking part in field sports and fishing. Very much in the style of British aristocracy.

Books were hard to find. Those brought into the country were often assumed to be politically suspect and not allowed in, a situation which worsened once the revolution started. Education was seen by the Bolsheviks as a problem since it gave people ideas and tended to make them difficult to rule. Families who owned precious books learned to keep them hidden away, along with their jewels and personal treasures.

Children were expected to take afternoon tea and dinner with their parents, and the governess must accompany them. This requirement differed very much from the situation in England where a governess was held in something of a limbo between servants and master. Millie was thankful that she’d learned about aristocratic etiquette from her former employer. The children, however, were quite capable of embarrassing her.

Discipline was an important part of a governess’s job. Not always easy with children who had led sheltered, spoiled lives. Some governesses lost patience and made them stand on a table, or put sticky paper over their mouth. Millie did not approve of such punishment.

A governess was also expected to attend church with the family most Sundays. The congregation would stand throughout the long service, even the Tsar and Tsarina, and all servants of the household must wear their best clothes. A fine hat was essential, the more flamboyant the better.

She could also visit the British and American Chapel in St. Petersburg on her day off, which Millie did, once she had convinced the Countess that she was entitled to some free time of her own. After the service the governesses would get together to chat as this wasn’t simply a place of worship, but also a social club. It provided evening classes, a library, chess club, choir, amateur dramatics and jolly picnics. It was the place to make friends, and hear of new jobs on the chapel grape-vine. Very much a home from home for ex-pats. It was here that Millie met the love of her life, but did he feel the same way about her?

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