Five Miles of Sunshine

One of my new projects is going to be a short guide to a local nature walk, and today I was joined in my research by two of my customary literary travelling companions. We began with a long-awaited detour around Sandford Quarry and All Saints church, visiting some key sites from my first novel The Strange Discoveries at Wimblestone Road. We looked at the lime kilns on Quarry Road, where Jack, Zander and Max first meet Poppy, and looked down the alley that leads to Wimblestone Road and the box room window the three boys in the novel climb through in the dead of night. We also took a little time to inspect the remains of an old forge that was once very busy on the side of the hill. The gates to the quarry itself were open, so we couldn’t venture inside; this may sound like a paradoxical statement, but I find it best not to trespass when the owners are inside…

Next stop was the church and its curious door ornament, proof if any were needed of revered goblins in the Sandford neighborhood – go and check it out. It features in my novel, and is a rather unnecessary depiction of a small humanoid with long arms, bandy legs, and a large head upon which sits an elaborate crown. Not your everyday Church of England symbolism.

Then we set off walking from Sandford to Yatton along the old railway line, or Strawberry Line after the fruit trains that used to take strawberries from Somerset to Bristol and beyond. It was a gorgeous March morning, with blue sky above us and a warm sun to counter the still cool air. The rain of the last few days had withdrawn, and although much of the path was still bepuddled, much more of it was not, and we ambled amiably along listening to the songs of the various little birds that were busying themselves in the trees and hedges.

Other passages from the novel suggested themselves at intervals, such as the location of Poppy’s enchanted rowing boat, Nimue, in a field of long grass beside one of the larger rhynes. This section of the old railway runs atop a small embankment, perhaps five or six feet high, and below us on either side, through the brambles and moss-covered branches, water glinted in ditches and marshes, and stretching across the flat landscape, reflecting the sky, were the rhynes. One of my friends has a fondness for the light that falls through trees onto water, and she fell further and further behind at this point, engrossed in the beauty of it all around us. This land remembers it was once submerged, and like the green shoots that reach up from the dark soil at the end of Zola’s Germinal, these flat, wet fields remind us, too, that they could revert to being a lake bed or a swamp with very little effort at all. We found a bench made from an old railway sleeper and waited for her to catch up again.

We met a number of dog walkers, dog runners, strollers and cyclists, and at one point heard the heavy thuds of a jogger’s footsteps. Very heavy thuds. As the thuds overtook us (at a pace only a little livelier than our own) we observed the thudder to be an elderly gentleman wearing a knitted pullover, denim jeans and walking boots, jogging with great purpose. We each raised an eyebrow and carried on. We were then joined by a very friendly poodle-cross-something-most-likely-a-fox with the busiest tail I have ever seen on a domesticated animal. He trotted along with us quite merrily for a while, ignoring all exhortations from his owner to rejoin her, and might have become a permanent member of our group had he not been trained to stand still at the first sign of a bicycle.

The terminus of our walk was Yatton Station, which still served passenger trains from Bristol and Exeter; specifically, the very pleasant tea room on Platform 1. We ordered two full breakfasts and a ploughman’s platter, and were delighted with the quality of the cuisine, although we were tempted to order two soups instead. In the novel, Poppy, Jack and Zander cycle here and have chocolate cake, and Poppy introduces the boys to the legends of Somerset, most notably that of Goblin Coombe which is just down the road. At the end of Bristol airport’s main runway, in fact. That might be another blog!

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Catch 22

Fans of Joseph Heller will be impressed with this gem from the English legal system. I’m sure we all know the expression ‘catch 22’, and many will know its origin; in Heller’s novel about the second world war, an airman can apply to be excused from flying missions only on grounds of insanity, but catch 22 states that any person asking to be removed from such a dangerous situation cannot be deemed insane, and so there is in fact no means of being excused from the dangerous missions. A wonderful piece of satire, I’m sure you will agree.

But here’s the thing: catch 22 is alive and well in 21st century Britain, under the new name of ‘a statutory declaration’. A statutory declaration can be applied for to contest additional fines you may have incurred by not responding to a Notice of Intended Prosecution such as a speeding fine. For example, if you move house around the time of the speeding offence and the NIP is sent to your old address, when you are charged with non-payment you can apply for a statutory declaration to reset the case to the original offence.

Except that you can’t. Legally, you can only apply for the SD “if you are unaware of the charge against you”. It is a pure homage to Heller’s satirical novel, and a piece of sheer genius in its simplicity. You receive a letter charging you an extra hundred quid for ignoring a letter you never received; you phone up to contest it, and are told to ring another number and ask for the SD; that person tells you in the most calm and deadpan manner that because you have contacted them with the case number on the extra fine that you received, you don’t qualify.

It’s brilliant, truly. The next stage is to appeal to the magistrates court, and apparently, it is also legal for them to add another hundred pounds for continued non-payment while you wait for the appeal. And this is Britain in the 2020s not Stalinist Russia or South America. It just goes to show that you can never write anything more crazy and diabolical than real life.

50 Words Every Month

One of my writing friends sent me a link to a monthly micro fiction competition run by The Scottish Book Trust, which involves writing a story in up to fifty words. February’s story had to include a fox. I have decided to repost all my entries here once the results have been published.

All My Grandmother’s Fault

After a trip to the dentist, she bought me a stuffed fox in hunting attire. She thought it looked cute, but I saw what it was. And now the headmaster rakes me over the coals for my A-level art centrepiece, Christ on the cross dressed as an SS Hauptsturmf├╝hre.