Friday, 28 August 2015


The Cahooties were here a few days ago, and the sun was so happy that it shone beautifully for them. We pointed the car north-east and the first stop was Morwick Mill. When I was a very new Girl Guide, Morwick Mill was a cold soggy campsite. Now it's home to Daisy the Cow and her friends who make the yummiest of ice creams at First time I've ever had amaretto ice cream. Next time Turkish Delight. Sadly the wasps like ice cream too, so we ate in the cafe instead of sitting in the sun.

Then Alnmouth beach. Oh! I carry Alnmouth beach around in my heart, but after a while the colours fade, and when I go back it takes my breath away all over again. The great wide spaciness of it, the changing blue and white of the summer sky, the dazzle over the vast water, the drifting patterns on the sand. Above it stands St Francis House, where the Franciscan brothers live. Their chapel looks over the sea and is the original of the Gathering Chamber on Mistmantle. From there Urchin, Needle and their friends would run down to the shore and splash about. Between that edge-of-the-land stretch of Alnmouth and Mistmantle shore there is no clear dividing line. It's a breathy, unspoilt place. You can breathe the sky.

Finally we went on to Alnwick Garden at, where small people in fairytale costumes went on magical treasure hunts, the fountains sprayed sparkly cold water on to hot arms and faces, the flowers were spectacular, and yes, I did do the wobbly bridges in the tree house. I have very special and happy memories of going round there with The Mistmantle Pilgrims from Virginia some years ago. We even saw Lady Aspen's garden.

Finally to Barter Books, one of the best second hand bookshops in the world, and over to my sister's to flop down at the tea table. A long drive home at night, and a face to face encounter with a barn owl. What a spectacular day. Alnmouth beach stays with me.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Otterly Fingal

We're pretty unique, us Mistmantle otters. Rivers, sea, it's all the same to us. So long as you can swim in it, it's good. But She of the Stories was telling me about these sea otters in some place with a funny name - what was it, Swanfeather? - thank you, Monterey Bay. They're very particular and only like the sea. Call themselves otters? She'd seen some on that magic box that she looks at.

These sea otters are stocky little chaps, and don't use any more energy than they absolutely have to. Something to do with keeping warm. They have very thick coats and carry a pet stone round with them for breaking into shellfish. (They also eat sea urchins. Can't wait to tell you-know-who about that!) When they're not hunting they just wallow about on their backs with their cubs sitting on their chests. (You can see them on the BBC website, whatever that is. Some kind of Threading, she tells me. A mostly blue one, called Big Blue Live.)

But those sea otters do have the energy to groom themselves. Just because you never do much, there's no need to let yourself go. So they scrub up. All the time, honestly! They wash their faces, their ears, and their babies. They must have itchy noses, because they rub them a lot. I'm impressed, we still can't get Tide to do more than lick his whiskers, and he only does that because they taste of whatever he last ate. Fish usually.

However, She of the Stories thinks these sea otters are a bit sweet and funny. They sound pretty boring to me. And eating sea urchins? What does that do to your insides?

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

House for Hobbits

The Hobbits - Daughter and Daughter's chap - moved house on Friday. The one they've just left was a delightful little place, but a tight squeeze even for two small people who enjoy being together. The new one is a lot more spacious, with plenty of garden.

It has been much neglected over the years and needs love - and love is what it will have. In fact, it already has love. Within three days they had all the carpets up and were stripping the wallpaper. Apparently nobody in that house ever stripped wallpaper before, they just put another lot on top. The hobbits are chiselling their way through and are almost down to the Iron Age layer. By the time they've got it all off they'll find the hall is six inches bigger in every direction.

The garden is so overgrown that Daughter can only go in there with a compass and a whistle or we'd have to send police dogs in after her. I'm thinking of sending Much to check it out, because there could be feral gnomes in there who need seeing off. Come to that there could be anything, tigers, dinosaur skeletons, yeti, a neighbour who came to borrow some sugar in 1998. The important thing about both house and garden is to take photographs. 'Before' photographs, so that when they've got it all sorted and beautiful we can look back and admire how much they've done. And I feel that the house is deeply grateful for all of it. As are the neighbours, I should think.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Happy Hampshire

Well, that was lovely. We've just come back from a few days in Hampshire, staying in a lovely house beside the River Test. Trout wove their way in and out of reeds in the clear waters, mallards, coots, and moorhens pittered and pottered about, there were woods and gardens to wander in, and we visited Steventon Church.

If you like Jane Austen you've already said 'ooh!'. Steventon is where she grew up. Her father was the rector there, and apart from a bit of Victorian painting it can't have changed much since the days when the Austen family occupied the first couple of pews. Or more. There were a lot of Austens. Stories must have been setting seed in young Jane's mind as she tried to sit still in the sermons. The village is a bit of a trek from the church and paths were rougher than they are now, so she must have sat with a damp hem on wet days. I hope her feet were dry. And on a sunny day, the Austen children might have run off their after church energy chasing each other round the grounds. There is a massive yew tree in the grounds, a great place for hiding.

The story about the yew tree is that the church key, which was nine inches long and weighed 4 pounds, used to be kept in the hollow trunk until it was stolen. Tony reckoned that they keep the curate in there now. He also suggested that there might be a community of animals in the yew tree and gave me that sort of look as if I should write about it. Oh, no. Partly because I was on holiday. But also because this was Jane Austen's territory. I am not worthy.

Saturday, 8 August 2015


For any newcomers to The House of Stories, Much is a plain grey stone gnome riding on a snail. I met him when we moved to the previous House of Stories. He had been there considerably longer than we had, so when we moved we left him there, but we sort of felt he missed us, with nobody to talk to except an occasional passing tooth fairy. (There were a couple of other gnomes there and they were nice enough chaps, but they didn't make conversation.) Much is old and so weather-beaten that some of his features are blurred, but that doesn't stop him having his say. He is a Yorkshire gnome after all. We named his Much as in 'Much of a muchness', and Robin Hood's friend Much, and the well known expression 'you can always tell a Yorkshireman, but you can't tell him much'. Or maybe he chose his own name and told it to us, the way Padra did.

Sun's come out. 'Bout blooming time. Any minute now I'll see 'er prancing down the garden with a watering can like Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary. 'Er were a bit puzzled when 'er went to pick them gooseberries. Them gooseberry bushes is only young ones and she didn't expect much of 'em yet, but all the same, 'er thought she'd get more berries than that. I said nothing. My snail likes gooseberries too. 'E may be slow, but in the course of a night 'e can get to the gooseberry bushes and back, and what's more 'e don't mind them prickles. He leaves some for 'er, too, and most of the Alpine strawberries, cos 'e aint too fussed about them.

The apples are starting to fall, but they're cookers, so 'e don't bother with those. And there's mint around us, too, so we smell good. Hey, missus, get off that computer and get gardening, the weeds won't pull themselves up.

Just let me update them on The Archers first. Also for newcomers, The Archers is a radio soap that has been running in the UK for over sixty years. It's lovable, frequently implausible and predictable, heart-tugging, makes you shout at the radio, and it's totally addictive. It's set in a fictional farming community somewhere round about Oxfordshire/Gloucestershire.

OK, now concentrate. Ready? Rob Tichener (boo!)and Helen Archer just got back from a holiday and announced that they've got married. Rob has been cooking the books and Charlie is on to it. Helen doesn't know this (she's a complete muppet where Rob is concerned). It will all end in tears. Tony Archer has retired, Brian Aldridge refuses to, and Ruth's mother is in a care home. Susan wants to update the shop so Lynda is horrified. Pip got a 2.1 in her degree and has been herding sheep. Kenton is still cross.


Monday, 3 August 2015

The first otter

Whatever is happening? I must have left the front door open at The House of Stories and it's full of visitors. Find a seat and I'll tell you about the first Mistmantle otter.

It was, I think, thirteen years ago and I'd begun to think about Mistmantle. I knew squirrels lived there, and I wanted a few other animals too. Hedgehogs I was sure about, and I'd pretty well made up my mind about the moles, but I wasn't sure about otters. They're bigger than the others.

It was autumn, and the evenings were growing long and dark. In North Yorkshire there is a very beautiful ruined abbey called Fountains. It started off with a few monks huddling against the cold all winter, but then they got an injection of money from somewhere, did some serious building, and found out about sheep farming. It became one of the biggest and most prosperous abbeys in the country until Henry VIII got in the way. Now, it's a vast and impressive ruin run by the National Trust. On weekend evenings in autumn they floodlight it and play monastic plainchant as visitors stroll about. It's magical.

I was in that 'otter or not-an-otter' stage one Saturday evening in autumn when Tony and I were wandering about Fountains. There's an old mill house and a stone bridge, and we walked away from the monastic buildings to stand on the bridge and look down at the river as it wiggled away over the stones.

Something was moving in the water, something long and big, just under the surface. I wanted it to be an otter, but it couldn't be, couldn't possibly be, because in those days otters were rarely seen in Yorkshire rivers. I could tell from the way he watched that Tony wanted it to be an otter, too.

"It can't be," I said. "It's a pike."

Tony wasn't sure, and as the creature slid under the bridge we dashed to the other side to watch like a couple of kids playing Pooh Sticks. The thing that couldn't possibly be an otter swam to the bank, scrambled out, shook itself dry and lolloped away. OK, I thought. I get it. Within a week Padra had made up his own name and walked into the book, wearing his sword, circlet, and captaincy lightly, and giving that reassuring feeling that as long as he's there, it'll be all right.

The next year we saw another otter, or possibly the same one, in the same place. By then, Mistmantle was on its way to publication. And though I've seen many otters since in animal sanctuaries and such, I've never again seen one in the wild.