I'm making the most of the glorious weather and swimming as much as I can at the moment. The perfect way to reduce my current stress levels with the house move! And chance to play with the new underwater camera at Lake Windermere.
If you haven't read any of my Bertram Bile books, then now is your chance to grab preview copies for free, along with hundreds of other books this April. Most of the books are for adults, but there should be something for you, no matter what age or genre you prefer. Click on the image to get your copies.
Well this is a first for me. I've just checked in on Amazon to see if the new audiobooks have gone live yet, and whilst I was there, got a very nice surprise! Books 1-8 of the Bertram Bile time travel adventure series are in the Amazon Bestselling Children's Book chart. They were also featured in the hot new release section. Not quite caught up with Dr Who or A Wrinkle in Time, but I don't expect I'll ever have 8 books in a row like this again!!
For the next two Saturdays (the 24th March and the 31st March), you will be able to download the first 8 Bertram Bile books for free from Amazon. This should give you plenty of reading for the Easter holidays, if you are lucky enough to have the Easter off. I'll put the links below.
The whole collection will be on a Kindle Countdown deal between the 17th-24th April, starting at $0.99 on the 17th April, so if you want to grab the whole Tewksbury Mead collection then 17th is the best date to do so. I would really love some reviews on all of the books, so if you get a chance, please take a few moments and leave a review. Remember that the more downloads and reads the books get, the more expedition bursaries will be on offer to 12-18 year olds. Every little really does help.
I've been connecting with schools worldwide free of charge for the past seven years or more, thanks to a platform called Skype in the Classroom. It is easy to sign up for a page if you are a teacher, and once you have set up your page, you can invite guest speakers like myself into your classroom to connect with your students. Mystery Skype games and virtual field trips are the easiest way to start.
But this isn't the only free resource that Microsoft Education has on offer for schools, and if you are based in the UK, you can now sign up to attend one of their free roadshow sessions. Not only a chance to try out new technology, but an opportunity to meet and network with other teachers and to find out what other teachers are doing with technology in their schools. Since I live in the Lake District, I'll be attending the Cumbria event, in Barrow-In-Furness, so I'll see you there if you are coming to that one.
UK Roadshow Dates
For all the information that you need to sign up, click here.
I'm delighted to announce that Book 1 of my Bertram Bile time travel adventure series has been included as one of the 170 free books available to download from Instafreebie between now and the 1st April 2018. A great opportunity to get lots of science fiction and fantasy books for free and to try out new authors and styles of writing.
As you know, I write middle grade fiction, so please be aware that most of the books in the promotion are aimed at young adults and adult readers, and some are romance books.
Over a hundred and fifty top notch and tasty stories, novels and previews of great writing by top urban fantasy, science fiction, fantasy and paranormal writers.
Bertram’s eyelids began to droop. It was late afternoon and the warmth of the classroom was making him feel very sleepy. He always struggled in the lesson after eating his lunch and enjoying the fresh air of the playground. It didn’t matter what the subject was, he always felt sleepy in the afternoon.
Molly laughed at him a little as she tried hard to keep him awake, but Bertram’s body was leaning away from the desk and towards the empty space between the classroom tables.
Molly grabbed his arm, pulling him back to an upright position, concerned that the other students were starting to giggle at him, and she desperately didn’t want Miss Petrenko to catch him dozing. It couldn’t be easy for Bertram what with the new baby at home waking him up several times during the night.
‘Today class, we shall take a test, and the results will be added to your end of year grades’ announced Miss Petrenko.
As always, Miss Petrenko took great delight in springing such an important test upon them with no notice at all.
‘Anyone who FAILS the test, will have to re-sit the whole year. You will need to get EVERY SINGLE question right. Anyone who scores LESS than 100% will fail the test. Do you understand?’ Miss Petrenko smiled an evil smile, barely noticeable to anyone, apart from those who really knew her well, and how evil she could be.
The students looked at each other, eyes wide and jaws open. ‘Whaaatttt?’ they mouthed in silence. Surely, she couldn’t do that to them? Could she?
‘Don’t worry’. Exclaimed Angus the class bully, just loud enough so the class could hear him, but not Miss Petrenko. ‘My mum is on the school governors and she won’t let us be held back a year. Not when I tell her what Miss Petrenko says. You just wait and see’.
‘Oh yeah?’ replied a group of students sat on a nearby table. ‘Well if your mum is so powerful, then WHY is Miss Petrenko still teaching us? Everyone knows she isn’t qualified. She only got the job because the head mistress was afraid of her. Why doesn’t your mum tell the governors to give her the boot?’.
Angus’s face turned bright red, right to the tips of his ears. He didn’t like being made a fool of. But he had nothing to say, so he simply turned his back on the students and held his head high, crossing his arms in defiance.
Molly woke Bertram from his unscheduled nap, concerned that Miss Petrenko might catch him. Miss Petrenko would want Bertram to fail more than anyone else in the class. Miss Petrenko couldn’t stand Bertram, and Bertram wasn’t overly fond of her either. She would need very little excuse to fail him.
Bertram picked up his pen, and pulled out a sheet of paper, as Miss Petrenko gave the class instructions about the test. It was to be carried out in COMPLETE silence. There would be no cheating, and the students were required to move their chairs around the tables to ensure that each student was far enough away from their neighbour.
‘Question 1’ said Miss Petrenko. ‘What do we mean by TRANSPIRATION?’ Miss Petrenko rolled the r in the word ‘transpiration’ as she said it loudly and clearly. She knew full well that they had not yet covered this topic in class, and she hoped to punish the students for leaving her behind in the forest during their recent field trip to the River Thames.
The students hadn’t wanted to abandon her at all, but since Miss Petrenko refused to accept that they were walking in the WRONG direction and had decided of her own accord NOT to accompany them as they followed the correct route on the map, they had no choice but to leave her behind in the forest ON HER OWN.
Miss Petrenko was certainly getting her own back on the students now, and they all knew it. They had been waiting for her to get her revenge for a while, and the wait alone had been horrendous. Far better to get their punishment over and done with.
Luckily for the students, they had set up their own revision sessions for geography, teaching themselves in secret because they had been covering the same topics with Miss Petrenko for a full year and knew she would never teach them anything useful for their actual exams.
Miss Petrenko had a nasty habit of springing tests on them at the last minute, just as she was today, so they liked to make sure that they were always prepared for whatever she might throw at them next. It was important to remain one step ahead always, at least where Miss Petrenko was concerned.
Bertram thought back to his revision sessions with Molly. Now what was it about transpiration? He remembered it had something to do with plants, but what was it exactly?
Bertram had a clever little trick for remembering and working out answers when you weren’t exactly sure. A hack that Molly had taught him. When you were stuck on a word, the best thing to do was to think about similar sounding words. By being a word detective, you could often figure out the answer to any question at all.
Bertram thought hard about the word ‘transpiration’. It sounded a bit like the words ‘respiration’, and ‘perspiration’, and he knew that both words meant taking in or getting rid of something, a kind of transfer of moisture.
Bertram remembered it now. Transpiration was the transfer of water from plants, into vapour in the air. He scribbled the answer down on his paper, sure that he had got THAT question right. Phew, what a relief.
‘Question 2. What is a river basin?’. Miss Petrenko sat on the edge of her desk as she read the question out aloud from her clipboard. She looked around the room, raising an eyebrow in the hopes of putting students off as she stared at them intensively, as if she were somehow WILLING them to fail.
Molly breathed a sigh of relief. They had been studying river basins at the weekend and she was hopeful that both herself and Bertram would get this question right. A river basin was the area drained by a river, and it was higher at the edge and lower in the middle.
‘Question 3’. Miss Petrenko went deathly silent, leaving a long, dramatic pause. The students had barely seconds to write down the answer to question 2 and adding the time pressure was her equivalent of tightening the thumb screws as she tortured them with her test. ‘What do we call the large stones that get rolled along the river bed?’
Weirdly, as much as Bertram hated geography lessons with Miss Petrenko, he was starting to quite enjoy them lately and knowing the answers to the questions felt like he was finally starting to get his own back on Miss Petrenko and her bullying of students.
If he studied hard, he might JUST make it through the year, even with her attempts to get him expelled. He scribbled down the answer frantically, as his memory jumped back to walks along the dried-up bed of the River Thames with his aunty Hester, who was a witch of over 100 years old. She had taught him so much about the river lately and it was important that he should understand rivers as much as he could, what with it now being his job, as the last living norn (user of magic) to protect the River Thames from its death.
It was a big responsibility, especially for an 11-year-old boy, but he was turning out to be very good at protecting it from harm.
Bertram visualised the rocks in his mind, as he saw the energetic and powerful river water lift the big rocks and roll them along the river bed. The process he remembered, was called ‘traction’.
Bertram imagined a great big tractor rolling rocks along the ground. It was easy to remember things if you had a picture in your mind, even if the picture was a silly one or not actually true. Bertram chewed the plastic cap on the end of his blue biro, getting ink over himself without realising.
With all the students concentrating and sighing hard, it wasn’t long before the classroom heated up, making the students more irritable and longing for the end of lesson bell to ring.
It seemed like Miss Petrenko’s geography test would never end. She was evidently determined to make sure the students failed and had to stay back a year. Very few students were looking happy or relaxed now, and some seemed to have given up completely. One boy had his head on the table, and was making tiny paper balls from his exam paper, flicking them across the room with his thumb and finger. He looked thoroughly broken as the reality of another year with Miss Petrenko sank in.
‘Question 17. What is impermeable rock?’ Miss Petrenko was walking around the room, stopping from time to time, and turning students’ papers towards her, before giving a little snort and a look of disgust at the pathetic student whose paper it might be.
Usually the students knew the answer and were just about to write it down, but Miss Petrenko’s presence was enough to make them forget even their own name. Some students said that Miss Petrenko had evil powers and that she put a brain freeze curse on you as she walked by, wiping your mind completely so there was nothing left but white blankness.
Bertram wrote the answer on his paper as Miss Petrenko headed towards him. Lest he forget it. ‘Permeable and permeate’ were words that meant something was ‘porous’ that things could travel through it, and words that started with ‘im’ meant the opposite, so ‘IMpermeable’ meant that the rock did NOT let water through it.
Bertram remembered Hester’s explanation of flooding and how she had told him that one of the reasons why rivers flooded was because the rocks in them were impermeable so the water could not go through the rock, and just had to sit on top, and would get higher and higher if the water kept coming.
Hester told him that even though the source of the River Thames was difficult to find, because the water was underground, sometimes when there had been a lot of rain, the water would collect in a large puddle underneath the old ash tree. Once in the 1960s, it had rained so much, and for so long, that some children even managed to kayak across the field and towards the tree.
‘And finally, Question 100. What is a long-term response to flooding?’ Miss Petrenko looked rather pleased with herself.
This question would catch them out for sure. She felt confident they must have all failed the test by now. Her revenge had been served to them, all wrapped up in a neat little bow. That would teach them a lesson! No one messed with Miss Petrenko and came off lightly.
Only a couple of students were still scribbling down answers, as most had asked to be excused from the lesson, suddenly feeling unwell, and others were sat with heads resting on their desks, feeling thoroughly miserable. What was the point in even trying, they had surely failed already. The thought of another year with Miss Petrenko was mortifying.
Only Molly and Bertram still looked calm and happy with their progress. The answer to the final question was easy enough, it was a dam, and Bertram and Molly felt confident that they had gotten all 100 questions correct.
At last, the end of lesson bell rang, and the students hurriedly packed up their things, stuffing them into their school bags as fast as they could. No one wanted to be the last one out of Miss Petrenko’s classroom. No one wanted to be alone with her, not even for a millisecond.
At the end of the school day, Molly and Bertram left the school by the main entrance and waved at Molly’s mum, who was waiting in the car for them outside the front of the school. She didn’t like them to walk home on their own after a long day, and she always enjoyed spending time with them and hearing about their news. Molly smiled and waved at her mum.
‘Hi mum’ said Molly, opening the passenger door and sliding into her seat. ‘Ooh, it’s roasting’. Molly was careful not to burn herself on the faux leather seat covers and metal buckle on her seatbelt against her bare skin. Even with all the car windows wound down it was still hot. Molly wiped the sweat from her forehead.
‘Hi Bertram, how’s your mum getting on with the baby? I bet your all exhausted with the little fella crying all the time?’ Molly’s mum smiled at Bertram as he told her about his new baby brother ‘Clarence’, or ‘Lar’ as Bertram had named him for short.
‘How was geography with Miss Petrenko?’ Molly’s mum asked, pulling a funny face as she did an impression of Miss Petrenko.
Bertram and Molly giggled. It didn’t matter how good or bad their school day had been, life was always perfect as soon as they got into the car with Molly’s mum. She had the power to make them feel that everything was right in the world, even if school had been awful. Molly’s mum looked in her wing mirror, and released the hand brake as she pulled away from the school and drove along the road.
‘I don’t know about you, but I fancy an ice cream, what do you reckon?’ Bertram and Molly couldn’t agree more. It was the perfect plan on such a hot day.
Jack woke with a start. His fifteen-year-old body was too big for the child-sized bed. At least it wasn’t winter.
Jack pulled the thin blanket tightly around him, trapping the warm air, as the hairs on his skin stood on end in an icy shiver. The blanket didn’t quite reach the ends of his long gangly legs.
It was almost daylight. Not much longer now. Soon, Jack would be free, and able to earn money. He had one recurring dream: to buy a ticket for the ship to New York. If Jack could make his own fortune through hard graft, then he could one day be the master of his own destiny. No one would tell him what to do anymore.
Jack felt the bed sheet beneath him. It was still dry. Jack had not wet the bed for the first time since that fateful night when he arrived at the orphanage in London.
Jack rubbed his hands together so the friction might warm his chilly fingers. As far as his brain was concerned the fingers were right where they ought to be. But when Jack touched the space around his arm, he knew that his brain was playing tricks on him as it always did. There was no hand. Not since the surgeon had amputated his arm on the night he arrived at the Foundling Hospital School as a five year old.
Apart from being left at the foundling school by his mother when he was a baby, life had been fairly good for Jack, right up until his fifth birthday. He had been placed with a young couple and their two children at a foster home in the countryside, and they had cared for him as if he were one of their own children. On Sundays, they went to church together, and at harvest time, Jack loved to help his foster dad on the farm with the crops. Everyone had been kind to Jack and for that he was grateful. Not all foundlings were so lucky.
Jack lay in bed, watching the rays of sunlight ripple through the bars on the dormitory window. It would be morning soon. Unusually, Jack’s mind was far away, at home with his foster family. Today was his fifteenth birthday and he imagined how it would be if he was with them now at their farm.
A big smile moved across his face as he played over the scene. His foster parents would have rushed into his bedroom, smothered him with bear hugs and kisses, and wished him a very HAPPY birthday.
Jack sighed as his thoughts returned to the grim reality of the boy’s dormitory, and he wiped a tear of sadness from the corner of his eye. He would give anything to see his foster family again. He missed them with all his heart, but he’d intentionally shut them out of his mind for the past ten years.
It was all he could do to survive. The memory of his foster family was just too painful when he was miles away from them.
But today was an exception. Today he was leaving the Foundling Hospital School for good. Today he could finally resurrect his childhood memories of what it was like to be a part of a family. To know what it was like to feel LOVED.
‘Happy Birthday Jack’ whispered the image of his foster mum inside his head as she blew him a big kiss.
‘Happy’ was not a word that Jack often associated with birthdays, and his fifth birthday was as far from happy as it could have been.
The day had started well enough; perfectly in fact. His foster mother had bought him a smart new outfit and black leather shoes, and his foster brothers had given him a fluffy toy bunny. Then the family had gone into the town together, where everyone knew Jack and wished him Happy Birthday, and Jack had been allowed to choose all of his favourite foods to have with his guests as part of a special birthday tea.
But Jack never did get to enjoy his birthday tea. Nor did he get the chance to open up his beautifully wrapped presents, or to say thank you to everyone who came to wish him health and happiness for the future.
In the blink of an eye, Jack’s life had been turned upside down as the unwelcome guest knocked at the door of the family’s home.
* * *
BANG…BANG…BANG… The wooden door of the cottage shook on its hinges. The locks just about holding fast.
It was NOT the sound of a party guest, but of a GIANT, ready to devour the occupants of the house. A big bad wolf, come to feast on the juicy little pigs huddled together inside. Fearing for their lives. At least, that was how it had felt for Jack when he heard the rap at the door, and saw the helpless expressions on the faces of his foster parents.
Their reactions to the knock on the door were far worse than anything he would ever experience again. The fear in their eyes was the worst thing he had ever seen. His foster family knew that there was NOTHING they could do to save Jack from what lay ahead and that thought alone was enough to terrify them.
‘It can’t be, can it? Not today surely? On his birthday, of all days. So soon?’ Jack’s foster mother appeared pale and ghostly as her husband placed his hand tenderly on her arm.
She was right to be worried. Foundling children were only allowed to live with foster families until the age of five, and now the horse and cart had arrived to take Jack away. Jack would NEVER see them again. Those were the rules.
Jack’s foster mum sobbed as she gave him one last hug. It didn’t matter to her that Jack was not her own flesh and blood. To her, Jack was her son and she had cared from him from just a few days after he was born. She had been there when he said his first word, and when he cried as his new tooth came through, and saw him take his first steps as a toddler. She had not had a single day away from him from the moment he arrived at their home, and now he would be taken and they would never meet again.
‘Just remember Jack, you are our special boy, and we love you, wherever you are. You need to be very brave now Jack. Promise you won’t forget us’.
His foster mother tried hard to give Jack hope and strength for whatever was to come. She pulled him to her, tightly. Wrapping her arms around him.
Jack’s foster parents had tried hard to prepare Jack and their other children for this day, but it had made no difference when it came to finally saying goodbye.
Everyone’s heart was broken. Five years of life with Jack had flown by so fast and as they watched their two own boys grow up and get married and have children of their own. They would always wonder where Jack was now and hope that he was happy and loved and that he longed for nothing.
‘Come on lad, I haven’t got all day’. The driver was not one for children. Poison dwarves he called them. Children were noisy, rude, and irritating creatures. Always leaving muddy footprints in his carriage or needing to stop for comfort breaks. What was it to him if the child had no parents?
Perhaps his mother should have thought about that before abandoning him at the Foundling Hospital School, expecting her baby to be cared for out of the goodwill and charity of others. It wasn’t right that.
Surely the foster family knew they wouldn’t live together forever, so why go getting attached to the child. It wasn’t necessary. Life was tough in the real world, and the sooner the boy understood that, the better. It did no good being soft on a child.
Jack climbed the steep steps up to the dark, gloomy carriage, as his foster mum hurriedly gathered his belongings in a suitcase.
If only she had known when the man was coming with the horse and carriage. At least then she might have had time to pack Jack’s things properly, instead of throwing them in his case in such a rush. There were so many things she wanted to say to him, and now it was too late. There was no time left.
The driver shook his head, tutting loudly as he snatched the suitcase from Jack’s foster mum and threw it into the carriage.
He knew matron would confiscate the bag as soon as they arrived at the Foundling Hospital School, Jack wouldn’t see anything of the suitcase again. What did he need all that stuff for anyway? The driver hated goodbyes and he saw no point in dragging things out.
The driver slammed the carriage door closed, and climbed up to his seat, grabbing the reigns and clicking the horses on. He was not looking forward to the long, cold journey to London.
The large wheels on the carriage rolled slowly forwards, and with that they were off. Trotting along the stony track. It was a very bumpy ride. The movement vibrating through the carriage frame, right through Jack’s bones, but Jack was too upset to notice anything right now.
Jack’s world felt dead and empty. The colours, magic, and excitement of daily adventures GONE.
Jack held his toy bunny to his cheek. It was soft, and smelt like home. The scent comforted him a little as he cried and rocked himself to sleep.
* * *
It was after midnight by the time the horse and carriage arrived at the metal gates of the Foundling Hospital School. A man unlocked the gates with a key, and let the carriage through to the gravel track outside the large, stone building.
The driver stepped down from his seat, his bottom numb from the journey as he gave the horses some hay and water to refresh them after their long journey. His footsteps were loud on the gravel track with it being so late at night and the surrounding city still and covered in thick white fog. It might be summer, but the driver was frozen, and he could see his breath in the air as he coughed up the black tar from the industrial city air.
The driver knocked hard on the building’s oak doors… Nothing…. He knocked again, only louder and more persistent than before. If there were no answer this time, he thought to himself, then the boy would have to sleep on the steps until morning. After all, the boy was not his responsibility, and he was keen to get home and warmed up before his next journey.
‘OK, OK. I’m coming. Just wait will you’. A woman complained bitterly from behind the doors, as she slid back the iron bolts. The woman peered around the door, dressed in a long, black gown, her face lit by the moonlight and the flicker of a flame from a candle that stood in a brass candlestick in her hand.
She eyed the driver suspiciously. The driver recognised her immediately, what with her sour expression and slicked back hair. There was no mistaking matron.
‘Oh it’s you’. She said, not impressed at being disturbed at such an ungodly hour. Now she would have to forego sleep to check the boy in as a foundling. There would be no extra money or compensation for being woken in the middle of the night, nor would she receive thanks from the governors for her troubles.
Matron resented the governors more than any other member of staff at the hospital. They were always on her case and for no real reason than they were do-gooders, interfering and thinking they knew best for the children in her care. They wanted the children to be fed, clothed, nursed, and educated, but all without the financial or staffing means to do so.
It was All Hallows Eve as Thorkell pulled out a hunk of bread and some mouldy cheese from his three-pronged hat. Eyeing it with great delight. He hadn’t eaten for 300 years and it wasn’t often that visitors to the spring forgot to pick up their food stash, as they rode off on their horse. The horse rider would be most annoyed when he realised later on, too late to turn back and search for his food.
Thorkell picked up the pig’s bladder flask and gave it a sniff. It was full to the brim with honey mead, and a very fine batch at that. The rider had indeed looked like a noble man, and the quality of the honey mead, and craftwork on the flask confirmed it. Thorkell had a little sip.
‘Ahhhhh. Jobs a good ‘un’.
Thorkell smacked his lips together, savouring the taste for as long as his dead body would allow. Being dead was definitely a hindrance when you loved food and drink as much as Thorkell did. Still, it was the closest he’d been to sustenance in a long while and at least he had his memories of banquets and feasts and Christmas with the King. His memories would fill in the gaps where his taste buds now failed.
Of course, he hadn’t REALLY got to enjoy the big royal banquets. Not PROPERLY. He was normally too busy entertaining the palace guests with jokes, music, and stand-up-comedy. But he did get to finish off the scraps in the kitchens afterwards, ONCE his comedic work was done.
He loved being a court jester, but it wasn’t all showbiz and glamour. It was a hazardous and important vocation, particularly when the king was your best friend.
Once, Thorkell had been in battle alongside the king. Aethelstan was his name and a fine king he was too. Firm but fair. Everyone said it.
The jester and the king had been stood shoulder to shoulder, preparing to fight off the Vikings, but the English soldiers were dropping like flies, afraid of what was to come in the fight.
Those Vikings were fierce, especially the berserker ones in their bearskins and being all…well, the only word for it was ‘berserk!’ Crazy men they were. Pure evil. And they spoke in such a strange language. The English soldiers were afraid of them with good reason for it.
With the bread and cheese in his hands, and honey mead and flask by his side, Thorkell’s mind was flowing with a torrent of memories. (Mainly connected with food!).
‘Ahhh those were the days. Great days’.
Thorkell nibbled on the bread as he recalled his most important day of all.
One by one, the soldiers started to step back from the front line, trying hard to stand behind other soldiers. No one wanted to be the first to die on the battlefield.
Thorkell the jester and King Aethelstan could sense the fear creeping up from behind them. Things were not looking good. King Aethelstan’s army was larger and stronger than their Viking enemy, but the Vikings had the upper hand, what with being more brave and all. There was only one thing for it.
Thorkell sprang into action. Riding his fine horse (a gift from the king), up and down the ranks of soldiers. He sat proudly, one hand on his sharp sword, the other on the reigns of his mighty horse.
It was up to Thorkell to jolly the troops. To get their fighting spirit back. Without Thorkell, they would all die on the battlefield today. He HAD to do SOMETHING to raise their spirits.
Thorkell mustered up the biggest, deepest, most powerful, and confident voice he could summon, as the King nodded his head at him - awarding him the royal seal of approval for his plan.
Thorkell cleared his throat. ‘Men.’ He boomed. Commanding the attention of EVERY SINGLE soldier for hundreds of miles around. ‘Where does the king keep his armies?’
The soldiers looked at each other for a moment. Trying to work out the answer.
‘Oooh. That’s a tuff ‘un. I dunno? Where does the king keep his armies?’ A tall soldier tried hard to see the man on horse back through a chink in his oversized metal helmet. Looking around him to see if the others had worked out the answer yet.
Thorkell smiled at the men. ‘Up his ‘sleevies’ of course’.
There was a roar of laughter from the soldiers. Some of them got the joke faster than others.
‘I don’t get it?’ One soldier said, looking at the soldier next to him with a very serious face. He was clearly puzzled.
The soldier next to him did his best to try and explain the joke but it was all in vain.
‘Look, it’s like this, Thorkell asked the question “where does the king keep his armies” right, so obviously, the answer is “up his sleevies”. It’s a play on words’.
The soldier waved his arms at the confused soldier as he said ‘armies’ before grabbing the sleeves of his uniform and repeating the word ‘sleevies’ several times.
The soldier didn’t get the joke at all. He simply shook his head. He had a blank, lost, expression on his face.
‘Oh never mind’ said the soldier. He knew which battles were worth investing energy in, and this was not one of them.
Only later on the battle field, as the soldier died from a spear through his chest, did he finally get his light bulb moment. As he breathed his final breath, his last words were ‘oooh I GET it. Up his sleevies. Ha-ha that’s brilliant’.
Thorkell rode his horse along another line of soldiers. They were looking braver already. A couple more jokes should do it. Take their mind off things.
Thorkell was careful to project his voice in all directions so as many soldiers as possible could partake in the battle field entertainment. Those soldiers at the back might end up with a bit of a ‘Chinese whispers’ version of the joke, BUT the laughter of the rest of the troop would lift their spirits regardless, AND get them ready for war.
Thorkell waited until he had all eyes upon him, and the soldiers hanging on his every word.
‘Why didn’t anyone react when the king farted?’
The soldiers looked briefly at King Aethelstan, not sure whether Thorkell might have gone a bit too far with his king jokes. But the king simply beamed with joy as he sat on his horse in his fine armour, his crown perched up on his head at a jaunty angle.
It was one of the king’s favourite jokes. But he wasn’t sure that ALL of the soldiers would understand the answer to the question. Chemistry wasn’t a popular subject amongst the soldiers. It wasn’t even popular with the knights at knight school. But if it got the troops ready to beat the Viking invaders trying to take over the kingdom, then it was worth a shot.
With the joke given the royal seal of approval, the soldiers thought long and hard for the answer. Thorkell suddenly concerned that this joke might be over the heads of the majority of the soldiers.
Thorkell’s favourite topic of conversation was chemistry and this joke was one of his best science jokes of all time, even if people did think him a geek for it.
The soldiers looked up, still not guessing the answer. It would be a huge tragedy if a jester could not make people laugh at times as serious as this.
Thorkell put them out of their misery. ‘Because it was a noble gas’. He spoke slowly; to give the soldiers chance to process the answer. A few of them got it, much to Thorkell’s relief, and those who didn’t, couldn’t help but laugh anyway for deep belly laughter was completely contagious.
‘OK, OK’ boomed Thorkell. ‘I’ve got one more for you. WHEN is a piece of wood like a king?’
‘Oooh, I KNOW this one, I know this one’. An overly enthusiastic young soldier was jumping up and down on the spot, raising his arm as high in the air as he could. He was desperate to attract Thorkell’s attention. It was his first battle, and he’d been so excited about it that he had barely slept a wink. He had high hopes for promotion and had studied EVERY SINGLE aspect of soldiering he could, much to the annoyance of his classmates at soldier school. He’d even read up on Thorkell what with Thorkell being one of the most famous jesters in England. The young soldier couldn’t believe that he was REALLY here on the same field as his hero Thorkell. He hoped that one day he could be a jester on the battlefield just like Thorkell and he didn’t mind how hard he had to work or study to get there.
Thorkell spotted him in the crowd, keen to give him a boost. ‘Go on’.
The young soldier looked like a cat that had got a bucket load of cream for Christmas. Now was his time to shine and the king was watching him too. It was the BEST moment of his life.
‘When it is a ruler’ the young soldier answered.
He was a bit star struck at getting to ACTUALLY speak to his hero Thorkell. His parents would NEVER believe it when he told them about today, - that was of course, IF he LIVED to tell the tale.
War was an unpredictable beast; all you could do was hope for the best. The young soldier had waited his whole life to be in the king’s army and he rather hoped that the king might one day take him on as Thorkell’s young apprentice.
Thorkell praised him. ‘Exactly. When it is a ruler’.
There was a huge roar of laughter spreading like a tsunami across the sea of soldiers
When writing The Upside Down Man, I was inspired by stories of the Norse God Odin and the story of how he lost his eye whilst 'riding' a tree (hanging from it). He was hoping to seek wisdom from the tree of life, and whilst he was hanging there, a raven pecked out his eye. When he came down from the tree, he found his answer in the rune stones that appeared at the base of the tree.
I thought this story might be a little bit too gruesome for my tale, so I decided to tell the story of how The Upside Down Man (loosely based on Odin) won the hand of his true love, a giant who could turn into a bird of prey, by solving a series of riddles.
I hope that you enjoy reading it and I would love to hear your stories of Odin and the tree of life. What might happen next in the story? What riddles would you set for the Upside Down Man? Would you give a stranger your watch? Have you ever built a compass like Molly did in this story?
The Upside Down Man Blurb
This is the fourth book in the Bertram Bile Time Travel Adventure Series.
Bertram rubbed the crusty sleep from his eyes. His pyjamas soaked with sweat and anxiety. He hated nightmares. Thankfully, he didn’t have them very often, but when he did, they were terrifying and in full-colour. His nightmares always had the same theme; Miss Petrenko out to destroy him in some painfully slow process she had cooked up for his demise.
Bertram looked at his wrist watch. It was 6 O’clock in the morning. He didn’t have to be at school for ages yet. OR DID HE?
Bertram smiled, suddenly remembering that there was NO SCHOOL TODAY. It was the best fact ever! School had been cancelled for a staff training day, and tomorrow would be the weekend. Three WHOLE days off from school.
Feeling quite relaxed and back to his usual happy self, it didn’t take Bertram long to doze off, this time to more pleasant dreams of magic and epic adventures.
‘Alllllaaaaahhhhh. Allaaaahhhaaaaa’. A baby screamed in the room next door. A horrible loud noise, and quite incredible that a sound so ear splitting could come from such a tiny baby. It was swaddled up in a blanket inside its Moses basket. There was nothing wrong with the baby’s lungs, that was for sure!
Bertram woke with a start, rudely awoken by the baby’s screams. His heart now racing so fast he thought it might just jump out of his chest. His mum had only brought the new baby home from hospital last night and already it felt like the house had been turned upside down.
Bertram had a number of siblings, most of them older than him, and he had hoped that JUST FOR ONCE the newest addition to the family might be a sister, rather than another smelly and competitive brother.
Yes, he wasn’t especially fond of the sisters he had, but it was different with them. They were older sisters and annoying ones at that. Always complaining about boys and make up, but he thought that a YOUNGER sister might be a nice change. A baby sister that he could spend time with, and might grow up to be more like his best friend, and only child Molly. She was kind and caring, and very smart and interesting. Bertram would love to have a sister like that, one that could enjoy the same things as him. But fate had other plans, and instead of a sweet little sister, Bertram was landed with another brother. This one the noisiest of them all when it came to crying.
Bertram climbed out of bed, and folded back the duvet, careful not to wake his three older brothers snoring away in the bunk beds beside him. The baby was still crying but his mum had not woken up, nor had any of his brothers and sisters. Unless of course they were just pretending to be asleep so that none of them would have to deal with it, which he suspected might be the case with his older siblings.
Bertram crept very quietly into his mum’s bedroom, pushing her door ajar slowly so as not to startle her if she was woke. The floorboards were creaky in mum’s room, and it was tricky not to bump into anything, what with mum’s room being the smallest room in the house.
Bertram leant over the Moses basket, and tucked his warm hands underneath the baby, making sure that the head was supported, just like mum had shown him. The baby was as hot and sweaty as Bertram was, only the baby was hot from crying loudly, rather than from any nightmares about Miss Petrenko. The baby was lucky not to have those nightmares!
Bertram peered in his mum’s direction. She was fast asleep, and looked exhausted. She could really use a good rest right now, and since Bertram was awake anyway there was no need to disturb her.
Bertram held the baby close, it had that smell that all new-born babies have about them, kind of sweet like talcum powder.
The baby looked so perfect and yet so small. Bertram held the infant’s tiny fingers in his own. His hands looked like the hands of a giant compared to the baby’s perfectly formed teeny-weeny fingers and fingernails.
Bertram hadn’t much liked the name that his mum had chosen for the baby, it was a bit old fashioned, but in a funny way, now that he looked closely at the baby’s face, it did seem to suit him. Clarence Verne Bile. But it was a bit of mouthful. Bertram decided to shorten it to Lar. That way, when it came to the baby learning his name and trying to speak for the first time, it would be much easier for him to say ‘Lar’ than ‘Clarence’.
‘There there Lar. It’s OK. Shush now’. Bertram held the baby close and rocked his own body from side to side in an attempt to soothe the bay’s cries. From the smell of him, Bertram was pretty sure the baby needed a nappy change, and luckily for baby Lar, his big brother Bertram was very experienced with babies, what with having so many siblings already.
The baby opened its mouth as it tried to eat Bertram’s t-shirt. It was ready for a feed by the look of things. Not surprising with all the growing ahead of it.
Bertram carried the baby downstairs to the living room, and pulled out the changing mat. Mum was very organised with these things, and all of her children had been changed on this same mat as babies and toddlers. Mum had thought it a waste of money to throw things out for new ones, even though the mat was shabby and torn. Mum had bought it for her first child when he was a baby, and he was now 20 years old and away at university. Mum was so efficient when it came to organising things for the baby, everything needed for a nappy change or a feed was always close to hand and ready and waiting.
Bertram was a pro at changing nappies, and it didn’t take long to make the baby more comfortable. Baby Lar smiled up at Bertram. At least, Bertram THOUGHT it was a smile, but it might have just been wind? Either way, the baby already seemed happier. He was definitely hungry and he was trying to grab and pull anything within his grasp, into his mouth, including the baby wipes and dirty nappy which Bertram had thankfully placed just out of the baby’s reach. Good job too otherwise things could have got very messy!
Bertram gently placed the baby in his bouncy chair, careful to make sure the straps were fastened, and gave it a little push to start the rocking motion. The baby kicked his legs out and waved his bare arms, apparently delighted with his seat. He looked so sweet and content now. Very different to the baby that had been screaming its head off just a few moments ago.
Bertram walked into the kitchen and took one of the bottles of baby milk that mum had prepared the night before. He took great care, and heated it up, splashing drops of milk on his arm to check the temperature was just right.
Baby Lar sucked hard on the bottle, making loud slurping noises as he filled up his belly. He must have been starving. He obviously took after Bertram in the food department!
Bertram picked up the baby, and with a white cloth strategically placed on his shoulder to collect any baby sick, he tenderly patted the palm of his hand on the baby’s back.
The baby let out several VERY LOUD, air filled BURPS. If there was a prize for baby winding, then it would definitely go to Bertram. He was a super hero when it came to babies and was often praised by his mum and her friends for being so great with the little ones.
It didn’t look like the baby was going to go back to sleep any time soon. His eyes were wide open as he tried hard to focus on his surroundings and the face of his new big brother Bertram.
If it had been a school day, Bertram would have been tired and ready to return to his bed, but for some reason he was wide awake today, and decided to sit with the baby on the floor of the living room telling him stories. The baby listened closely to every word Bertram told him and moved his arms and legs in great delight, hiccoughing every few moments, and startling himself in the process. The world must have seemed very strange to the baby having only been in it for a matter of days. How weird it would be to see things for the very first time and not knowing who or what they were.
Bertram had so much he wanted to teach baby Lar about the magical world, and he hoped that one day he might be able to introduce the baby to their aunty Hester; a kindly witch who lived deep inside the roots of a beautiful old ash tree. Bertram would have to ask Hester’s advice on how to transport the baby through time first. In case it hurt him somehow. He’d have trouble explaining a lost baby to his mum, that was for sure!
The baby stared intensely as Bertram told him all about Eagle Hawk the heron who lived at the top of the tree, and of Niddy the worm who thought he was a dragon, and Ratty Ratto the rude squirrel with the leather jacket and pierced nose and ears.
Bertram told Lar about the other aunties; triplets, Wryd, Verdandi, and Skuld. They were the guardians of the past, present, and future. He told the baby about aunty Hester’s yummy cakes and of the magical golden goggles that transported him and his best friend Molly through time.
Hester had given Bertram and Molly cloaks to wear that changed their clothing to whatever was right for the time they were in, and had presented Bertram with his very own wand made from the wood of the old ash tree. Hester had even taught him his first spell, and promised to teach him more as he got used to being the last norn (user of magic) in the whole world.
Bertram told the little baby about his responsibility to make sure that the old ash tree; the tree of all life, and the protector of the River Thames never EVER died. He told him the baby that one day, he would show him this magic world.
As Bertram chatted away to the baby who seemed to be listening closely to his every word, Bertram began to feel that JUST MAYBE having a baby brother instead of the sister he had hoped for, wasn’t so bad after all. This little brother would be different to the others. Bertram could just sense it. There was something about him that was different to the other babies.
The third book in the Bertram Bile time travel adventure series is now available to buy. The story is set at Tewksbury Mead (Thames Head) which is the source of the River Thames. The Hexed Child is based on a British folklore act of passing a sick child through the trunk of an ash tree. This practice continued until at least the 1920s, and there is a tree in Richmond Park which still bares the scars. You can read more about the ash tree folklore here.
Thomas Chillingworth, […] now about thirty-four, was, when an infant of a year old, passed through a similar tree, now perfectly sound, which he preserves with so much care that he will not suffer a single branch to be touched, for it is believed the life of the patient depends on the life of the tree, and the moment that is cut down, be the patient ever so distant, the rupture returns, and a mortification ensues, and terminates in death.
The Hexed Child Blurb
A crying child, an old ash tree, and only a witch with the ability to cure, but at what cost? A Bertram Bile time travel adventure, set at Thames Head, the source of the River Thames, in Gloucestershire, England. Based on a true story.
Bertram did his best to avoid eye contact. Trying hard to look like he was listening, but without drawing any attention to himself.
Bertram was Miss Petrenko’s least favourite student, and since no one else attempted to answer the question, she used the opportunity to pounce on him for the answer.
Miss Petrenko pointed a longer and quite possibly magical finger at Bertram, as if drawing him up and out of his seat, as he suddenly found himself stood next to his table, EYEBALL to EYEBALL with her.
‘Bertram Bile, I very much doubt that a silly boy like you will know the answer, but go on, WHAT is the name of the place where a river begins? Hmmmm?’
‘The source, Miss’. Bertram was careful not to sound too confident, but he knew that no matter what he said or how he said it, he was in for the wrath of Miss Petrenko. She was in an even worse mood than usual.
‘Yes it IS’. Miss Petrenko looked most disappointed that Bertram had the got the answer right, and quickly slithered off to find her next victim, releasing her invisible grip on the back of Bertram’s scarlet school blazer.
Bertram dropped to his seat in a wobbling heap. ‘Phew that was a close call’. Molly, who had been staring hard at the floor to avoid Miss Petrenko’s gaze, looked up at him and smiled reassuringly as only a best friend can.
‘And what do you suppose we call the streams that feed into a river? I bet NONE of you know the answer do you?’. Miss Petrenko had singled out a shy girl, who was now stood trembling in front of the nasty teacher. The girl was looking very pale and pasty, and it was no surprise to the rest of the class when she fainted on the classroom floor. Every student had fainted under Miss Petrenko’s beady eye at one point or another, especially when stood at close range.
‘Oh for goodness sake. Someone take the child to the school nurse’. Miss Petrenko shrieked at the top of her voice as she stepped over the girl and flicked a speck of dust off her jacket.
‘Tributaries.’ Molly answered to no one in particular. She looked incredibly bored. They had been going over the same lesson for the entire school year, for no other reason, than Miss Petrenko was lazy and couldn’t be bothered to come up with more than one lesson plan. The only reason she got away with it, was because all the other grown ups were terrified of her. Not one of them dared enter her classroom, let alone challenge her about her teaching.
‘Bertram.’ Molly whispered, but Bertram didn’t hear her. Molly gave him a kick under the table.
‘Psst. Bertram! Let’s go and see your aunty in the old ash tree. At least we might ACTUALLY learn something’.
Bertram rubbed his leg. He would love to see his aunty again. He didn’t even know he had an aunty until recently, and now he had four aunties; one of whom was a witch who lived in a house inside an old ash tree, and the other three were the witch’s younger sisters.
Bertram’s stomach gave a loud rumble. At least his aunty would feed him. He was starving. He would have had lunch, but a boy called Angus had stolen it from him at breaktime, along with the lunches of all the other free school dinner kids.
Angus was the biggest boy in the school and it wasn’t like he was starving. His mum packed him enough food for a lifetime, and that was just snacks in case he got hungry around his hot dinner at school.
Molly felt around inside her school bag under the desk, careful not to let Miss Petrenko catch her. It would be a disaster if the two pairs of golden goggles fell into the wrong hands.
With the goggles and bag secured beneath the table, Molly passed them secretly to Bertram, and raised her hand to get Miss Petrenko’s attention. Now was the perfect opportunity for them to leave the classroom, with the excuse that they were taking the girl who had fainted, to see the school nurse. No one else had dared offer, so there was no way Miss Petrenko could refuse, and Molly would OF COURSE need help to carry the girl.
’Shall I take her to the school nurse for you Miss Petrenko? I don’t mind doing it’. Molly’s plan was pure genius.
‘What? Oh yes, yes. Take her away’. Miss Petrenko waved Molly away, not wanting be bothered by such trivialities.
‘Bertram. Can you give me a hand? I think I might need some HELP to carry her to the NURSE’. Molly winked at Bertram.
Bertram knew immediately what Molly’s plan was, and grabbed her school bag from under the desk, hiding it behind him as they backed away through the narrow classroom door. Luckily the girl who had fainted was quite light, but they did their best to make her seem much heavier than she actually was. They didn’t want to get caught at this stage, or worse still, separated. Then they would be forced to sit here and would miss out on a visit to Bertram’s aunty in the tree.
‘Thank you so much’ the girl whispered as they reached the school infirmary. The girl had long since come around from her fainting spell, but couldn’t face the rest of the lesson with Miss Petrenko. So she kept her eyes closed until she knew they had reached the safety and understanding of the infirmary nurse.
Bertram knocked on the door and was greeted by the school nurse. She gave the three of them a big smile. ‘Ahhhhh! Miss Petrenko’s geography lesson I’m guessing? That woman really does have a SPECIAL way with children. I’ve had four students in already this week, and it is only MONDAY!’.
Bertram and Molly left the girl with the nurse and made their departure as quickly as they could.
‘We’d best be going nurse. Miss Petrenko will have out guts for garters if we are late back by even a second’. Molly was very convincing and the nurse was impressed at their commitment to their education.
Of course Bertram and Molly had absolutely no intention of returning to class. They were about to go off for another time travelling adventure.
As quietly and cautiously as they could, they snuck into the boy’s toilets and put on their shiny, golden goggles. The cogs already starting to turn on the side straps as they prepared to travel through time. It took a fraction of a second to reach the old ash tree where Bertram’s aunty, the witch lived and she was very pleased to see them.
Another early start, but this time just a short train ride between Kendal and Lancaster before meeting some fellow swimming friends, and driving south to the city of Cambridge (about 50 miles from London). The journey passed very quickly, mainly because we were laughing and having so much fun. Three and half hours it took and I was tasked with the job of navigating (fortunately with a little help from the Google maps app on the phone!).
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We arrived in Cambridge in very good time, and were soon checked into our Travelodge Hotel in Lolworth, Cambridge, just across the road from the Hallmark Hotel, where the event was taking place. That gave me time to unpack, have a very quick nap, and to play some very funny card games with my friends before we got into our gladrags.
The event itself was very nice, but it did take a while for me to recognise everyone, since I've only met people at the swimming events before, so they usually only wear their swimming costumes and only their swimming hat is visible in the water! But tonight they were all in tuxedos and posh frocks.
It was lovely to see so many familiar faces though, as I'm a relative newcomer to the group, and lots of them have been members for 20 years or more. Plenty of offers for a drink from the bar, and hugs and kisses all round as everyone caught up with each other. Most people hadn't seen each other since the end of the swimming season last year, and the next races won't start again until about May time when the water is a bit warmer.
A quick check of the table settings, and I found my name on the board. As soon as I smelt food, my stomach started to rumble!! But it was definitely worth the wait; three courses, with prawn cocktail, soup, or pate for starters, followed by beef, mushroom pasta or chicken for main course, and lemon pie, lemon compote, cheese and biscuits or chocolate brownie for dessert. Plus coffee.
It all tasted DELICIOUS!
Since this was my very first BLDSA annual dinner event, I wasn't really sure what to expect, as there was grace, raising glasses to the Queen, speeches, and of course prize giving, trophies, and photos of winners in between each course. This worked out really well, as it gave ample time for eating, and to make space in my tummy for the next round of yummy food.
What struck me the most, was that, if you had entered the room and not known what the event was for, you wouldn't have had a clue that all the people there were swimmers or kayakers and boating support crew for swimmers. The youngest swimmers were around 15 years old, and the oldest were in their 90s, many had swum across the English Channel one or two way at least once before.
It just goes to show that you should NEVER judge a book (or a person) by it's cover! Looks can be deceptive. There were thin people, fatter people, tall people, shorter people, and people of all shapes and sizes. Breaststroke swimmers, butterfly swimmers, and front crawl swimmers. I think that is what I love most about the BLDSA and the community of people I have met through swimming - they are all passionate about setting themself a personal challenge. It isn't about who is the fastest swimmer, or about competing against others, but about competing against yourself, raising the bar with each swim, trying to do better than you did before.
As a newbie, that was incredibly inspirational, and gives me scope to build up my swim stamina and experience over the coming years. Starting with the 1km swims this year, and trying to swim a little bit further each year after that. I was really encouraged to see people in their 80s and 90s who were still swimming and setting world records, and I think if I can still be swimming and doing the same as them as I grow older, that will be amazing for me as a long term hobby and community.
There were lots of trophies available, some very shiny indeed. But not really awards for coming first, second, or third, but memorial trophies, in memory of swimmers who had passed away at ripe old ages, for things like positive attitude, perseverance, miles swum throughout the season. What a lovely way to be remembered and to be able to inspire other swimmers, even after you have died.
After the dinner and thank you speeches there was a guest speaker, a lady by the name of Ros Hardiman, a paralympian, and Channel Swimmer. I didn't get chance to chat with her at the dinner, but I had a very lucky encounter as I bumped into her whilst visiting the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge on the journey home. The perfect end to a wonderful weekend, and a chance for me to ask Ros lots of questions about her work in museums, her swimming career, life, and her incredible attitude in general. Definitely a new hero for me!
After the talk from Ros at the dinner the night before, there was a fundraising raffle for a children's charity, and plenty of fun before heading back to the hotel for a well earned sleep.
Sunday morning was a little more leisurely. We didn't need to be back at the Hallmark hotel for the BLDSA AGM until 10am, so we stopped off for a quick breakfast at a place called Herbies American Diner, for some pancakes and maple syrup.
The plan for post AGM was to all go for a swim in the River Cam, but whilst looking for the swim location, we spotted the Fitzwilliam Museum and decided that none of us were feeling particularly swimmie after all, and maybe we should go to the museum instead. Even better, the museum was free entry and had lots of Egyptian things, as well as a live piano recital, paintings, and a cafe with some very nice soup, cakes, and other things to keep us going for the long journey home. All in all, a great weekend, and a nice start to a busy few weeks ahead for me, as I work on my books. I think I'll need to start visiting museums and art galleries a lot more often, as I was getting lots of ideas for stories and characters for my new books!
I love that there is a role for everyone. I can work on my ability as a swimmer, but I'd also like to learn how to kayak, so that I can be swim support to longer distance swimmers, and I can also see myself being of use on the shore, as I have done since I first came along to the BLDSA swims.
Not only would that give me something to do for each event, but it would help me as a swimmer to have a better understanding of the roles of everyone around. To understand my support kayaker when they are guiding me on a swim. How does their perspective differ to mine as a swimmer? But also about building up those personal relationships and getting to know people in different settings, so that if I'm supporting them on swims, I know when to motivate and encourage them, or when to put me foot down and tell them that they need to stop their swim.
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The sun was just about to set as we left, but the water was fairly calm and there was just a little snow on the mountain tops. We actually remembered to bring the thermometer today, and as expected the water was 3C which means recent swims have indeed been fairly chilly ones. Here's to the next swim!!
After my stay at the Ibis hotel in Wembley following on from last night's school talk to parents and students in Rickmansworth, it was time for me to wake up, and to catch the train to my next school talk, in Leicester, a city in the East Midlands. It felt strange to be going to the East Midlands, as a few days ago, whilst filming for a Channel 4 documentary about my genealogy, I discovered that my paternal grandfather was born in the city of Lincoln in the East Midlands. I don't know any more than that at the moment, but until recently I had no idea that I had ancestors born in the Midlands, so now I'm keen to find out more.
Last night when I arrived at the hotel, it had just started to rain, but this morning the weather was sunny and from my hotel bed I could see the sunrise, sunlight, and it looked as if it would be a lovely day. Funny to think that just a few days before, I had been stranded in Macclesfield, whilst filming, due to a snow storm, named by the media as the 'beast from the east' and 'Storm Emma'!
From Leicester railway station, I walked to the Haymarket bus station, and was able to stuff my face with lots of unhealthy breakfast options during the hour or so's journey to the school (chocolate, crisps, and a cheese pasty!). The bus driver wasn't exactly sure where my stop was, but the map app on my phone meant that I at least, knew exactly where I was going, even if the driver didn't.
The bus didn't go all the way to the school, but it was a very nice walk past Bennion Pool, about 15 minutes away, and the perfect opportunity for me to stretch my legs and wake up a little bit before reaching the school.
This week is quite an important week in my school speaking calendar because we have International Women's Day on the 8th March (I was named by Skype as a Woman Changing the World through Technology back in 2014 and I was born in 1975 when the very first International Women's Day took place), it is also National Apprenticeship Week and National Careers Week.
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Before I knew it, I was setting up my computer ready for the presentation, and a hall full of 10 and 11 year olds were arriving to listen to me talk. The best thing about talking with students, is that they are not afraid to ask questions or to tell you what they think, especially about your books, and this really helps me, because I get direct feedback on their favourite characters or things that students are most interested in, and I always leave feeling very happy, and buzzing with energy, because children's enthusiasm for learning and asking questions, and for exploring, is ALWAYS contagious.
I had to wait about 50 minute at the bus stop, before the bus finally arrived, because it was very late, and then at the Leicester train station, my train was cancelled, and the next one was late. But I didn't mind to much, because my head was already wizzing around and thinking up new stories for the next Bertram Bile book and even though I was very tired, I was itching to get back home, to start work on my books again.
A little while ago, I learnt a bit of a trick about travel by train. You see, if you go to the Virgin Trains website, and look for 'best fares' AND you buy lots of different tickets by splitting up your journey (even if you stay on the same train), then you can actually get your tickets for a lot less money, and better still, if you book it in advance, you can usually get a First Class ticket, for less money than you would spend on return standard class ticket. This means that you get a seat for your journey, you get fed and watered at no extra cost during your journey, it's nicer, cleaner, and quieter, and you get to use the First Class passenger lounge. This works out a lot cheaper for me when I'm away on longer journeys, because things like coffee and tea or snacks can be really expensive if you buy them on the train or at the station, but are included if you travel First Class. It takes a really long time of searching through all the route options, times, and fares, but if you are lucky, you can save a lot of money in the process, and have an upgrade to First Class.
So instead of me sitting on a freezing cold platform, waiting for my train from Birmingham New Street to Oxenholme the Lake District, I instead got to sit in the First Class lounge, which was warm, had nice seats, television, wifi, power points for charging your phone or laptop, a nicer toilet, AND unlimited drinks and snacks whilst waiting.
I met a very nice lady on the train home and we chatted a little bit, and then I listened to some podcasts about how to be a better writer and how to plot your stories, so it was very useful to learn whilst I travelled home. My last train from Oxenholme was unfortunately cancelled so I had to get a taxi, but I got home at 10.30pm, had a quick shower, made a nice cup of tea, and then snuggled up with my cats and my dog. That is ALWAYS my favourite thing about coming home, and I love it when they are happy to see me. They say that a change is as good as a rest, and I always feel like the break of travel and speaking at schools leaves me feeling ready to get back to writing. I can't wait until my next school visit. I wonder where it will take me to next?
A very busy couple of days for me, but I was very excited because speaking at schools and meeting students is one of my all time favourite things to do in the world! Even better, if it means that I get to visit new places, and to meet new people and make new friends from other places.
My first talk was at a school in a town near London (about 20 miles away), called Rickmansworth in the county of Hertfordshire. I had never been there before, and I was really pleased to visit since the town's river (the Chess), joins the river Colne, and eventually empties into the River Thames where I'll be swimming from source to sea later this year. The town of Rickmansworth has a lot of history and gets its name from the Saxons (tribes from Saxony in Germany) who settled there.
The name town's name 'Rickmansworth' comes from the name of a Saxon who owned the land, and his name was 'Ryckmer', and the 'worth' part comes from the Saxon word for 'farm'. But people were living here long before the Saxons, even before the Stone Age! I expect that the people decided to live here because of the three rivers; the Chess, the Colne, and the Gade because water is what you need for cooking, eating, growing crops, for your animals to drink, and for washing in.
A lot of the jobs that people have had here through the ages, have all depended on the water from the three rivers. It was an important place for growing a plant called watercress (that you can eat). A water mill was built for corn milling, and people have had jobs making paper, weaving silk, brewing things like ale and beer to drink, leather tanning, straw plaiting, and making stocking or tights! The things that were produced here were probably transported by boat along the rivers to lots of other towns and cities.
I then arrived by train at Rickmansworth and didn't have far to walk before I reached the school. The train station wasn't built here until 1860-1862 so if I had wanted to visit before the Victorian era I probably would have needed to travel by boat or by horse and cart, which would have taken me a few weeks to get to from the Lake District! Just think how lucky we are to be able to travel as much as we do today.
It took me quite a long time to travel from the north of England to where the school was, near London, but I really enjoyed seeing lots of new things through the train window (including some very colourful and amazing graffiti), and walking around places I had never been to before. I met lots of lovely parents, teachers, and students at my talk, and after I had finished (it was an evening talk), the teacher gave me a lift in her car to the train station and I travelled to my hotel in London, to a place called Wembley, which is famous for having a big stadium for football events and concerts.
When I was about 7 years old I got really jealous of my brother, because I had been working hard at school all day, and when I got home from school, I found out that he had been to McDonalds in Bournemouth on the day it opened, and I had never been to one. He was just a toddler, but they only served a few things on the menu back then. Hamburgers, fries, and a drink called 'root beer' which everyone said tasted like the stuff the dentist gives you to swill around your mouth at the dentist after you have your teeth cleaned! Both me and my brother ended up getting jobs at McDonalds as adults (but in different stores and not at the same time). My brother cooked food in the kitchens, and I worked as a cleaner. It was great experience for us before joining the army and navy. Sometimes the customers were very rude and they often left a lot of mess, but it was good for 'character building' and the pay was fairly good, plus we got free food, and if you wanted to travel, you could just do your job, but in any McDonalds anywhere in the world.
It was hard work mopping the whole restaurant but very rewarding too, and because it was always really busy you didn't have time to get bored, and the shift went by very fast.
After I ordered my McDonalds food, I didn't have too far to walk to get to my hotel, and my room had a great view over Wembley. I could see for a long way from the ninth floor, and it was lovely to see all the lights, especially as I live in quite a rural place. It started to rain very heavily just as I reached the hotel, so I got very wet, but the hotel room was lovely and warm and it didn't take too long to dry off. I had a lovely, hot shower, ate my food, and then did a little bit of my office work for Oceans Project, before finally getting to bed at midnight. I slept very well, and the bed was super comfy so I was nice and refreshed by the time it was morning.
Bit of a chilly Sunday today with the air temperature hovering at around 3C, but feeling more like -1C with the wind (total guess as I didn't check the temperature).
Still a little snow on the ground and at one point it was sleeting a little. Not sure what the water temperature was, but it was VERY cold!! In some ways, the temperature doesn't really matter to me, as it depends how I am feeling within myself. Sometimes the temperature is warmer than usual, but I perceive it as more cold, other times the water is colder but I sense it as warmer. It all depends on how tired or hungry I am, and what the weather is like around us.
But, what better way than to catch up with fellow swimming friends, and to pay a visit to Capernwray Dive Centre for our weekly swim.
I've had a sore back this week and my muscles have been a bit tight, so the cold was a little uncomfortable on my legs at first, but soothing at the same time, and within a few moments they felt really good, and my Hunter-Lewis reflex kicked in as it always does, leaving my skin hot to the touch all over. I never fail to be in awe of this phenomenon, and I'm sure that my getting in the water slowly really helps.
I wasn't feeling in tip top condition today anyway. I've had a busy week with a lot of travelling, and I woke up with a bit of a headache, and haven't been very active this week. Plus I was tired, but I like to swim anyway, even if it is more of a dip, because it always leaves me feeling refreshed afterwards. I just know that it is important to listen to my body, and for that reason I didn't swim out as far as everyone else today, but stayed closer to shore and swam widths instead, and enjoyed diving under the water and scooting along the bottom looking at the very big fish that live in the quarry. The water is crystal clear, and from the surface you can see all sorts of unusual objects at the bottom of the quarry - a devil baby from Blackpool fair, a boat, rocking horses, and other such items. No point pushing myself when I have a few hectic days ahead, sometimes it's just about taking part, rather than going for a distance swim. I'm totally OK with that.
As always, I was the last one out of the water, I'm always reluctant to leave, but in the winter, it's important to remember that whilst you feel hot and fine and like you could stay in for ages, your temperature is plummeting dramatically as hypothermia sets in.
Thankfully, my 'after drop' is generally minimal, and I don't often find myself shivering after my swim, and I warm up pretty quickly. The important thing is to get out, get dry, and dressed, as quickly as you can, and to get some hot drinks down you...and of course cake! This is definitely one of the bonuses of swimming regularly at Capernwray all year round, because there is always a lovely mug of hot chocolate sat waiting for us when we come out of the water!
I'm a very long way from being able to complete an ice kilometer or even an ice mile, but I'd like to think that one day in the future it will possible. As long as I work on my cold water acclimatisation, and improve on my fitness and swimming technique as much as I can over a few years. But for now, it's time to get ready for a new week ahead.
Last year, I was invited to take part in a new Channel 4 television documentary called Genealogy Roadshow, which was previously commissioned for broadcast in the USA and Ireland. As far as I know, this is the first time the series will run in the UK, and it was a great opportunity for me to get involved and to find some answers to a question that has been on my mind for a very long time...where does my love of exploration and watery environments come from, and what more can I find out about my surname Weldon.
It always felt strange to me, that I should carry the surname Weldon, and that in many ways this would be my own legacy to any children I might have in the future - they would inherit the Weldon name from me (unless I took my husband's surname of course!). Yet I know absolutely nothing of my Weldon roots and I've always felt a bit strange using my surname, like it somehow didn't belong to me. And whenever I asked my father or nan about the name, I always drew a blank, no one seemed to know very much at all. Was there some dark family secret, were they ashamed of the name, or did they genuinely know nothing about it's origins? A large piece of my own personal identity was missing, there was just a hole.
You see, my father's father (my grandfather) died when my father was just a boy, and even when he was alive, he was away at sea. All I knew of my grandfather, was that he died of a heart attack and was probably buried in Fife in Scotland. I didn't know very much more than that about him, not even his Christian name, where he was from, or what kind of a person he was?
Whenever I felt the tiniest sensation in my chest, or pushed myself whilst ice swimming or training in the gym, or when I was in hospital or having a nurse check up and was asked if there was any history of heart problems in my family, a little part of me always felt nervous. Why did my grandfather have a heart attack in his 30s? Was it something he was born with? Was it genetic? Could it have been passed along to his descendants? I hated not knowing, and it was like subconsciously living with a ticking time bomb. What if it happened to me?
Unfortunately, what with the 'Beast from the East' and 'Storm Emma' many of the trains had been delayed or cancelled, and at one point I didn't think I would even make it to Macclesfield for filming. But thankfully I did, and the highlight of my day was meeting with three primary school children (and their mum) who had missed school because of the snow and were enlisted to be in the audience during my interview on the stage. Whilst they were there, they met with some of the genealogists and it turned out that they were related to Guy Fawkes, the man who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, and whom we attribute 'Guy Fawkes' or 'Bonfire Night' to on the 5th November every year. "Remember, Remember, the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason, and plot". I couldn't help but think how cool it would be to be at school and to tell your teacher that she was talking about one of your ancestors!! Imagine that!
Well today I had my questions answered, as I took part in the second of our filming sessions, ready for the Genealogy Roadshow, and the historian filled me in on a lot of information, some of which confirmed things that I remembered being told about by family as a child, and other things that were completely new, and some of which were a big surprise. I don't want to write too much here, and spoil the episode when it goes on the telly in a few months time, but I can say, that even though I have even more questions to find answers to now, for the first time, I feel like I have closure. I finally feel like I can grow into my surname, I can finally feel proud and know where I come from.
Because of the weather, my trains home were cancelled, but the lovely production crew managed to put me up in a local hotel for the night, and I even got to treat myself to some fish and chips.
It took a really long time to get home the next day, but I didn't mind too much. My mind was full of all this new information about my Grandad Weldon. Though it was lovely to snuggle up with my pets when I got back, and to catch up on some work. All in all, quite an exciting little adventure!
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An early start for me, and no time for breakfast until later in the day. Today was my BLDSA (British Long Distance Swimming Association) Postal Swim. So I was up at 5am, walked a few miles to the local pool and met up with fellow swimmer Jean, official adjudicator for my swim.
My goal was to swim as many lengths of the pool as I could within the hour. And Jean would tick off each length on the official document.
Then you send off your form before the 1st March, along with your badge fee (£4 if you are in the UK, $9 USA, $9.50 for Australia and Canada). Medals are awarded by age, gender, and disability categories, and everyone receives an embroidered badge. Then you take part again a year later and see if you've beaten your previous result.
It took me a couple of minutes to get into the feel of the water, and I really missed the cool water of the lake! I've not swum this far in a long time, but one day I would love to swim an ice mile. Today felt like one step closer to achieving that goal, but I'll need to get a lot fitter and faster, especially swimming breaststroke and being in the water for the kind of time to complete that distance as it would be very dangerous in cold water. It would need a lot of careful training and preparation. For now, I'm planning to swim most mornings, not outdoors, but in the pool - aiming for distance rather than cold endurance. (Though we have snow and winter conditions forecast for the next few days, so I'd like to get some shorter ice swims in whilst I can)
Here it is, the second book in the Bertram Bile time travel adventure series. This one is actually based on a British superstition and folklore of placing a shrew in the trunk of an ash tree to create an 'ash shrew'. People thought that this would break the shrew's curse on them. Next time you see an ash tree, look for signs of this taking place!
I've included the blurb, covers, and an excerpt for you below.
The Deadly Shrew Blurb
A Bertram Bile time travel adventure series, set along the length of the River Thames
When a milkmaid spots two deadly shrews close to her prized cow, their death is the ONLY thing on her mind. Little does the milkmaid know that the shrews are 11-year-old time travellers Bertram and Molly.
What will the milkmaid do to Bertram and Molly if she catches them? Could this be the end of our magical time-travelling duo?
Based on the actual British folklore of the ‘shrew ash’ long believed to be a cure for a lame cow.
He reached a shaky hand to his head, desperately trying to pull off the goggles. But they simply would not budge. In a moment of panic and confusion he flailed his arms around, hoping that his best friend Molly would be close by. Molly always knew what to do in times of trouble. But not this time. Molly was just as scared as him. She grabbed hold of his hand, reaching out for reassurance, desperately trying to make sense of the noise and confusion swirling around in her head.
One minute they had been sat enjoying the summer time shade of an old ash tree on their geography field trip in Gloucestershire, the next, two pairs of golden goggles had fallen from Bertram’s lap and they had decided to try them on. They were no longer carefree, ordinary 11 year olds. Suddenly they had become reluctant time travellers. Hundreds and hundreds of years flashing past them like individual flakes of snow falling from a grey and twirling sky. Bertram’s head hurt with all the motion as he tried hard not to throw up.
The cogs on the sides of their goggles whirred and clicked as time sped up and slowed down with the momentum as they passed through it. One moment they were in 2050, then 1594, 1960, and 1801. They were travelling backwards, into history. Travelling towards the past but leaping sideways to the present, and forward to the future, before hurtling backwards again as if on a waltzer at a fairground attraction. Their bodies pulled and stretched in every single direction. Surely they would be destroyed in the process? At first they fought hard against the movements and spine shaking jolts, but as they relaxed into things, the journey felt easier and the rhythm less chaotic and bone splitting.
No sooner had they got used to the world spinning around them, then it came to an abrupt halt and the clickety clack and whirring of the cogs became silent and still. With quivering hands, and breathless bodies, they took off their goggles and waited for their eyes to adjust to their new surroundings. They had no idea what to expect, no concept of where they were in the world or in time itself. Were they even on Earth or had they been dispatched to some far away galaxy they had never heard of? Were they still alive? Was this even real?
Carefully opening their eyes for fear of sudden shock, or aliens lurching at them, they began to come to. So far so good. Bodies still in tact. Stomachs less queasy. It could certainly be a lot worse. They both breathed a deep but cautious sigh of relief. They seemed to be sat under the old ash tree, in the same place that they had been when they tried on their goggles. Only, this time, it had changed.
It was still a hot summer’s day. Everything LOOKED the same. There were the same meadows with golden yellow buttercups around the old ash tree, and cows grazing in the field. Even the tree looked the same, only, this time everything seemed, well…BIGGER and more IMPOSING!!
Bertram let out a high pitched squeak as he realised he was holding Molly’s hand. At least he THOUGHT it was Molly’s hand. He wasn’t exactly sure what it was now he actually thought about it. It had five fingers, possibly six (he didn’t want to explore it too much and appear overly familiar). It was holding onto his hand with the same intense feelings of terror and utter dizziness that he felt. But where moments ago there had been warm fingers, there were cold, long, and very bony digits with sharp claws instead of Molly’s pretty painted nails. The fingers were splayed and a LOT more hairy than he remembered Molly’s hands to be a moment ago. He was quite afraid to look at them, for fear of what it was he might find, caressed inside his own hand.
Bertram looked at Molly’s face, desperate to make sense of the situation. He instantly recognised her as Molly, and yet she was DIFFERENT. Where her nose had once been perfect (in Bertram’s humble opinion), it was now long and thin, and her face was covered in soft grey-brown fur and long white whiskers. Molly’s pretty little human ears had moved to the top of her head and were now small and round, and her black, shiny eyes looked tiny compared to the rest of her face.
To Bertram, Molly seemed as if she were a cross between a mole and a mouse. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. She reminded him of a creature, but what creature he couldn’t be sure - especially given that his head was still SPINNING after his first experience of time travel. That was it. She looked just like…like…a SHREW! An animal he remembered from his biology lesson as being closely related to the mole and the hedgehog. Not a rodent at all, but an insectivore, and one of the oldest mammal groups on the planet, having been around for 135 million years. Surely they hadn’t travelled that far back in time? Had they? Well there were no dinosaurs about the place so far, so chances were they hadn’t travelled quite that far back in time. That was a relief.
Thankfully Bertram was not yet conscious enough to perceive the fact that not only had Molly become a shrew, but so had he. Nor had he noticed that Molly was staring at him with her mouth wide open as she surveyed his own fur covered face and snuffling whiskers.
‘ARRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHH’!!!!!!! They screamed at the exact moment the reality of their situation caught up with them. Which is probably quite an appropriate reaction to finding out that you are in fact a shrew and no longer a human being. There weren’t many occasions when Bertram would have preferred to be in the company of his awful geography teacher Miss Petrenko or his arch enemy Angus, but if you had asked him in this particular moment, which he would have preferred - to be a shrew, or to be in a room with Angus and Miss Petrenko, there would have been no contest.
‘Ahhh Bertram, there you are. Hardly recognised you young man. How are you my fine fellow. Lovely day isn’t it. Cracking weather’.
It was Eagle Hawk the heron and he suddenly seemed ENORMOUS and TERRIFYING to Bertram and Molly. He could easily have devoured them both for dinner and still had room for a main course AND a dessert. He gave them both a smile and whistled happily to himself as if it were just another ordinary day.
‘Eagle Hawk, what is wrong with us, why have we been turned into shrews? Have we been cursed? Will we have to stay like this forever? What if something tries to eat us?’
‘Cursed?’ laughed Eagle Hawk. ‘My dear boy, you are not cursed but blessed, for you are the last remaining Nurn in the world. You are magical, and that is why I gave you the very important task of saving the tree of life, this old ash. The world needs you Bertram. The River Thames needs you. We all need you’. The heron patted his round tummy with his long grey wing as he laughed heartily to himself. He was very elegant with perfect posture. Tall and refined. A little monocle dropping from his eye as it dangled on its shiny chain.
‘But why couldn’t I just be a boy, why did I have to become a shrew? I’m so tiny now. What if something eats me? How can I possibly be of any use to anyone when I am so small and powerless?’. Bertram examined his new hands and feet as he spoke, feeling rather clumsy and like a danger to himself as he carefully rubbed his nose with his razor sharp claws. They were sure going to take some getting used to, and he suddenly had a craving for worms. He was sure he could smell one close by. The aroma was making his tummy jump about with delight.
‘Ahhh. All will become clear in time dear Bertram, fear ye not. Do you still have the golden goblet I gave you when we last met?’ The heron squinted and leant forward a little to see the two small shrews more closely. His long beak just inches away from where Bertram and Molly were now huddled together under the old ash tree.
Bertram fumbled around, not exactly sure where a shrew might carry such a thing on him, given that he was no longer wearing any clothes, and as a result had no pockets as far as he could tell. He’d been given one simple task, to look after a magical golden goblet. Surely he hadn’t lost it already? He knew he was the wrong person for the job. The world was doomed if its fate was dependent on him.
‘Here it is’. Said Molly as she produced it from her backpack. Bertram couldn’t believe she was still wearing it, but that was Molly for you, never without provisions and solutions to every situation. Phew what a relief!
‘Superb! I can see why you two make such a great team. You have no idea how much the world depends on you right now. Just look at the poor ash tree. It is supposed to be the tree of life, and yet it is dying in front of our very eyes. The tree needs water Bertram, and only you have the magic and skills required to gather it. Everything will make sense in time. Good luck my young friends’.
And with that the heron disappeared.
Clap! Clap! Clap! Came a noise from a branch above them. It was Ratty Rato the squirrel. Bertram had only met him once before, and had taken an instant dislike to him. He was a punk rocker with a black leather jacket, silver piercings in his ears and nose, and a bad stink of an attitude. Bertram had never met a creature quite as rude as this one.
‘Going to save the world are you eh Bertram? You and your lady friend? Haha, that’ll be the day. I was telling Niddy about you and that stupid Eagle Hawk. Niddy reckons you and that bird are both a sandwich short of a picnic. Both BIRD BRAINED with your teeny-weeny pea sized brains - bird brained eh, get it, get it. Ah only a genius like me would get it, don’t worry your tiny brain boy, you might catch on later eh, or then again, maybe you won’t!’.
Bertram didn’t like people insulting his friends, and he felt an urge to chase the rude squirrel and give him what for. He certainly had the teeth for it now he was a shrew, and he had heard that the bite of some shrews was venomous and deadly. Had Bertram not felt quite so small in comparison to the obnoxious squirrel, then he might have gone through with it. But the squirrel wasn’t sticking around. He was already running up the tree, no doubt to provide some other lies and insults to Eagle Hawk. Ratty was a malicious troublemaker who liked to stir up bad feeling but never did anything for anyone other than himself.
‘Come on Molly, let’s get out of here. Let’s go and find the river’.
Molly tucked the golden goblet back into her backpack and ran on all fours beside Bertram. It took them a few minutes to get into the feel of running on four feet instead of two but once they got the coordination sorted it actually felt quite efficient. It needed to be when the world was vast now they were just a few centimetres tall and weighing 12 ounces each. In their normal life, Bertram and Molly were both keen runners and fairly good at it too, one of the reasons why they were less popular at their new school because they won all the sports day races. But today they did not feel like champions. They had no plan for how they would save the tree and the world, and they didn’t like it one bit. All they could do, was to try to find the River Thames and to fill the golden goblet with river water, before pouring it onto the old ash tree. The tree really had looked in a bad way. The leaves were shrivelled and brown and the trunk was covered in lesions and fungus, leaving it vulnerable to insects and worse still, to Niddy the worm who particularly enjoyed chewing on the roots and causing as much damage as he could.
Bertram looked everywhere for the river, but he couldn’t see any sign of it. Everything was so dry, even the soil and plants around them. What was it that Eagle Hawk had told him the first time they had met? That the water was only visible to those who really wanted to see it? That you had to OPEN your eyes? That it was WITHIN you, ABOVE you, and BELOW you. The words were of no help to him right now. They made no sense at all.