Writers in the Cabin

The seven authors in our writers’ group are eagerly anticipating our forthcoming ‘Writers in a Cabin’ residence. Will we cope with the lack of electricity, phone signal and sanitation? How will we interact with the resident insect life? Will anyone want to come and say hello? As yet, all great imponderables, although some of us have already made up their minds about the spiders. In the hope of persuading you to spend time in a very special place and of course increasing the footfall for us, may I encourage you to read on?

Writers in Cabin flyerNestled at the bottom of the hill in the little fishing hamlet of Bucks Mills, lies The Cabin. This two-roomed hut began life as a fisherman’s store before being acquired by Judith Ackland’s family. Together with her friend Mary Stella Edwards, Judith used the building as an artists’ retreat for half a century. The solitude and spectacular views across the rugged North Devon coastline make it ideal for those seeking inspiration. Now in the care of the National Trust, the Cabin is almost exactly as the artists left it in 1971.

From 29 April – 1 May, it will once again be a setting that encourages creative talents to flourish. Between 10.00 and 4.00, the seven members of the North Devon authors’ group will take it in turns to use the cabin and its wonderful surroundings as their muse. The work of all these writers is rooted the past, in the local landscape, or both. They look forward to discussing their work, both past and forthcoming and signing copies of their books. This will be a unique opportunity, not only to view inside The Cabin, which is rarely open to the public but also to talk to enthusiastic and friendly authors about their writing.

The Writers in the Cabin will be:

Ruth Downie writes crime novels set in Roman times. Ruth’s book Medicus has recently attracted a ‘Discovered Diamond’ award for historical fiction.

Susan Hughes writes books set in the first half of the twentieth century. Her debut novel A Kiss from France was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2017. She is now writing her second book.

Wendy Percival is the author of mystery novels featuring genealogy sleuth Esme Quentin, which include The Indelible Stain, set on the North Devon coast, near Hartland.

P J Reed is a poet and author who writes of the beauty and ethereal nature of the changing countryside. Her latest anthology Flicker was published last month.

Liz Shakespeare’s books are inspired by the people, history and landscapes of Devon. Her latest novel The Postman Poet, which was launched last month, is based on the true story of Edward Capern who composed poems and songs whilst delivering letters in Victorian North Devon.

Pamela Vass writes North Devon based fiction and social history. Her novel Seeds of Doubt debates whether the Lynmouth floods of 1952 were an Act of God or the Act of Man.

and Me!

Who Do You Think You Are? Live Days 2 and 3

Day 3? Day 3 is not yet over – how can she be posting about Day 3 already? Read on and all will be revealed.

Day 2 dawns and we wend our way back to the NEC. This time the motorway is kind to us but the shuttle bus fails to play the game, or indeed turn up at all for twenty minutes. Finally, back in Hall 2, I spend a couple of busy hours promoting online genealogy courses on the Pharos stand then, after a little more chatting, it was another expert’s session with an interesting enquiry about a will that appeared to have been proved twice, fifty years apart. In the interests of pacing ourselves, we sneak out a little early to rest aching feet, backs and vocal chords.

Day 3 brings its own problems in that a fisherman of my acquaintance wakes up barely able to move, having pulled a muscle in his back. I assume my ‘care in the community’ role and tie his shoe laces for him. Today is the day that Master Christopher and Mistress Agnes are due to make an appearance, so we are fully equipped with our seventeenth century costumes. Sadly, one of us is not currently equipped with the ability to dress himself unaided, particularly as his costume involves thigh boots. We need a safe place to change. Normally, we would both repair to our respective gendered toilets but this is clearly not going to work today. We discuss the relative merits and demerits of the ‘fully accessible’ toilet and the baby change area, both of which seem gender neutral. The disabled toilet wins, clearly one of us is not currently fully abled. Amidst groans of anguish, we manage to transform Master Christopher into his seventeenth century self. We hope that no one has been listening outside or spots us emerging or they may be wondering what we were up to.

A successful few hours of networking follows. Actually it was a little too successful in some respects. I approach one of the big companies who are exhibiting to request that they may part with 35-40 of their promotional bags for us to use at a conference. The lady in charge eagerly presses a box of 200 bags upon me. I demure, I really only want 40 at the most. She insists. She is on a mission and clearly has no intention of taking this box back with her. Have you any idea how large, or indeed how heavy, a box of two hundred bags is? I stagger along to stash my loot, wondering how well this is going to go down with my chauffeur.

Mistress Agnes and Master ChristopherNext a photo call. Mistress Agnes and Master Christopher have been selected to promote a future conference. I am not sure quite what sort of attendee we may attract but our souls were duly stolen and our portraits painted. I should point out that the photograph on this blog is not said promotional photograph. No prizes but I am waiting for the eagle eyed to spot what is ‘wrong’ with this picture. More interesting conversations follow and contacts are made. By this time, Master Christopher is in some parlous state and needs to revert to his twenty-first century self. On the way to accomplish this mission we pass a stall selling back massaging machines. You are correct in your assumption that this has nothing whatsoever to do with family history and there are rather more unrelated stands than would seem desirable this year. I guess spaces have to be filled. It was somewhat incongruous to see a seventeenth century character wired up to modern technology but the lady doing the demonstrating seemed keen to have her photograph taken with us. The pause at her stall did ease Master C’s predicament long enough for him to get changed. We repeat the fully accessible toilet exercise in reverse. This is trickier than our earlier escapade as, by this time, there are rather more people to avoid. A couple of hours later and it really is time for him to lie down in a darkened room, or at least lie down. Not only do we have enormous, heavy boxes of bags to transport but other display materials as well. Taking what appears to be part of a stand out of the hall before close of play is tantamount to a hanging offence and as for trying to bring a car through the security cordon in order to load it before the appointed time….. In the end our plight is heeded and indeed one of the security guards is clearly concerned to see that our wounded soldier is going to drive. Believe me this is safer than the alternative of letting me loose on a motorway in a car that I am not used to. Fortunately we only have a very short journey back to the van. So sorry to all those I didn’t get a chance to see or say goodbye to. There is always next year.

Who Do You Think You Are? Live Day 1

Yes, Yes, I know it is the end of Day 2 – give me a break, it’s pretty full on all this networking lark. For once no trolleys were harmed in the process of our Who Do You Think You Are? Live experiences (see previous blog post for links to further details). Today (that’s of course now yesterday) was my busy day. On arrival we were guided to a car park that was as far as possible from the hall as the NEC complex allowed and took the shuttle bus down the hill amidst many folk who looked like they were in for a fun day at some form of transport convention or what appeared to be an OFSTED conference.

I hastened to get my presentations uploaded ready for later in the day (Miss Efficiency me) and was flattered to be remembered from last year by one of the technicians. Then it was off to the experts’ advice tables. Always a good plan to offer to be an ‘expert’ as it does at least ensure that you are able to sit down. I did have one of those ‘arrgggh’ moments. My appointment sat down early for their twenty minute slot, as my previous satisfied customer had gone away early. ‘I don’t know anything about my great grandfather Joe Brown’ (the name has been changed to protect the guilty but it was an equally common name). A large sheaf of typescript, which appears to have been taken from Ancestry is proffered. This contains dates of birth, marriage and death, entries in every applicable census, parentage, spouse and offspring of the ancestor about which the enquirer ‘knows nothing.’ ‘It says here he was born on 6th January 1870’, say I, ‘where did you find this information, was it from the family?’ ‘Oh that’s definitely right.’ says the enquirer.  I pursue the named parents, finding their marriage index entry. I explain how to get a marriage certificate and how that should hopefully give Joe Brown’s grandfathers’ names. I find Joe Brown’s father in more than one census. I find Joe’s spouse’s line back to grandparents. ‘You haven’t told me anything about Joe,’ is the response. I point out what we had discovered. ‘Oh but I knew all that already.’ I gritted my teeth and resisted the temptation to point out that I had not only answered the question he had asked but also the question he should have asked – what more could be expected, great granddad’s shoe size? Well that was thirty minutes of my life wasted then.

Sheridan Parsons

Photo by Sheridan Parsons

It was then time for my first talk, twenty minutes on inspiring young children to take an interest in history and heritage. This session was the best kept secret of the convention, somehow having been left off the website and display boards. Nonetheless it did attract an audience of more than one and led to a very interesting contact. Then it was pretty much straight off to my full length presentation in the main studio. Mustering ‘rent a crowd’ is no longer possible now these sessions are charged for. Nor can you rely on acquiring an audience from those who need to rest their bunions after a long day on their feet, so I was worried about speaking to an empty hall.

John Boeren

Photo by John Boeren

In the end, this was a sell out session with over two hundred people who had parted with real cash in order to hear me talk about finding elusive ancestors. This included several friends who had turned out to support me – thank you. My worries that the audience would demand their money back if they couldn’t find their elusive ancestors by the end of the session were unfounded. I did explain that I had left my magic wand at home. Despite something very weird happening to the formatting of my slides as they translated to the double screen, the talk did seem to go done well and I had a large queue of questioners outside the studio afterwards.


On the strength of the book sales after my talk, I then invested in the most expensive bottle of water in the world, in the form of a ‘free’ gift as a recompense for purchasing a Living DNA kit. This involved a charming young man watched me scraping the surface off the inside of my cheek, all in the name of discovering where my geographical origins might be. At the end of a long day we joined in a world record attempt for how many people you can cram into a shuttle bus and then crawled along the motorway back to the caravan to collapse in preparation for doing it all again tomorrow.

More Talks (by me and others), Another Award and Time with Friends

After three hours of non-stop chatter on Friday, whilst single-handedly womaning the registration desk at the Guild of One-Name Studies conference, my errant voice had all but deserted me. This did not bode well for my presentation on Sunday. Cue throat sweet overdose. To be fair, there were others assigned to the registration desk but they were needed at the main reception to welcome folk in, leaving me to fling bags and badges at what seemed to be a never ending stream of delegates alone. I took a much needed break and attempted to learn more about autosomal DNA with Barbara Griffiths. Having been hard at work all day, we forewent the pleasure of one of Alan Moorhouse’s fiendish quizzes and repaired to the caravan.


Photo by Peter Hagger

The following day, it was back to the melee by 8am in order to greet the new day’s delegates. We were provided with our room ‘key’ (card), which bizarrely depicted Peppa Pig – nope, no idea. The chance to actually inspect said room was not forthcoming. During the AGM, I was surprised and honoured to be presented with a Guild ‘Award of Excellence’ for an article I had written about a member of the Braund family, whose census entries were an amazing work of fiction. I was very glad that fellow awardee, Marie Byatt, was also in the audience. At least this spared me from smiling inanely at the camera, clutching my award, on my own.

The first presentation of the day was Suzie Cox who told us about the archives of the P & O company. This was followed by Ian MacDonald’s story of the Mewburn family. I then chaired Kim Baldacchino’s session on the Navy in Malta. There’s another destination on the future holiday list then. The final presentation was by Michelle Patient from New Zealand, with some interesting insights on migration. The two hour special general meeting that followed meant that preparations for the banquet had to be swift and we finally got to inspect our room. We were provided with water (free) in an £8 bottle and a coffee making machine but no kettle. We never did tackle the learning curve that may have allowed us to boil water in order to a) fill a hot water bottle or b) dilute ginger cordial (good for non-existent voices). Despite leaving the banquet at what for most people would have been an early hour (the middle of the night by my estimation) sleep eluded me.

After no more than two hours sleep I was required to be alert and audible enough to give my own presentation. This actually seemed to go remarkably well (I did at least stay awake). I promised to pass on a few websites from the talk, although the complete handout can be accessed here. Three of my favourite finds were the British Southern Whale Fishery  database, with 13,500 entries from 1775-1859. The details are mainly taken from The National Archives’ Board of Trade records. Then there is the list of  Lost Trawlermen of Hull. Finally a record of Hastings’ fishermen, which not only provides a list from 1623 but also records nicknames of later fishermen. How do you fancy being related to these characters: Tambourine Jack Cobby, Hard Pudding White, Rum Cheese Tassell, Whip-me-naked Gallop or Licksnot Sutton? Bob Cumberbatch followed on with a session on Caribbean surnames. We then had video presentations from Peggy Chapman and Tessa Keough on Canadian and US records and the day ended with Jean-Marc Bazzoni entertaining us with tales of the London Dock Police. All in all another great weekend, the best part of which was the opportunity to be amongst friends.

Next up a couple of days’ rest. Rare is it that I can describe days with Edward as a ‘rest’ but sandwiched as they were between the conference and Who Do You Think You Are? Live, they did seem comparatively restful. So, I have helped to pitch tents, identified wildlife and spent a day at the Birmingham Think Tank. This was followed by a trip to L**l’s for supplies. A staff member trundled by with a large wire trolley full of yoghurts and other goods to be put on shelves. Regular readers will remember that Who Do You Think You Are? Live is, for us, not infrequently accompanied by wheels falling off things (see 2013 and 2014) and yes dear reader the wheel fell off this trolley leaving groceries descending or suspended precariously. A fisherman of my acquaintance leapt to the rescue and was to be seen supporting trolleys and grovelling on the floor trying to refix wheels. Meanwhile I continued shopping and attempted to remain unobtrusive. P.S. I am still shamelessly touting for an audience for my two Who Do You Think You Are? Live talks on Thursday, especially the one at 2.15 in the Education Zone, which does not yet appear in the programme – come and find out how to inspire young people to take an interest in history – this one is free!