Castle/home: Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn to George Herbert, the Princes of Powis

P1210230Powis castle sits proud on its hill, looking east to England, and in every other direction surveying Wales. Its red-brick, elegant fenestration and statued courtyards belie its early history as a defensive castle for the Welsh borders. The gatehouse is still there. It overlooks what was the main barbican before the carriage road was laid and you can see the remains of the soldiers stairway between floors, cunningly hidden inside the elegancies of later times.

Inside, it is very much a stately home of Britain, now kept as in its Edwardian heyday. A hodgepodge of stuff, from 8th century BCE Grecian urns, doubtless collected on some Grand Tour to fine chonoiseries , the multiple prizes of Clive of India, and the very latest decorative plasterwork. I only had a short time but you could spend a day in these low-lit halls, admiring the spoils of four hundred years of peace at home and conquest IMG_0205abroad. There is even a spectacular Royal Bedroom, prepared by the grateful survivors for Charles II. It’s not known whether he ever slept here, but I was assured that Edward Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), and George VI and Queen Mary had indeed used the balustraded, magnificently hung four poster bed.

Outside, the castle is surrounded by magnificent IMG_0204baroque gardens. They step down the escarpment in broad terraces lined with borders in the grandest of styles. Ancient, topiaried yews dot the landscape and hedge around the croquet lawn, with careful gaps to show off the house or especial statues. Like the house, they are a mixture of the homely – variegated geraniums and species fuschia – and the storied, exotic, unknown plants brought back from wilder spots, thriving in the warm damp of north Wales.

Beyond the formality lies a deer park, a swathe of managed countryside now full of pathsIMG_0202 and nooks. The rain was a haze blurring the windless surface of the lake so reflections moved even as the water and the trees were still. Amidst all the opulence and confusions of history here was a touch of the eerie, the hills that had been there long before the pond was made.




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Giants lived in Mwnt: how the coastal path was made

Giants lived in Mwnt. They were long-lived and clean limbed and very tall, though they built small with doors more fat and wide. It made them safe, they felt, from the sea-monsters and storms of the Irish Sea.

There were the saints of course. Mwnt beach was a lawn of yellow sand stretched under gnawed-out cliffs beneath the glacial cone of Y Foel. The priests made it a staging post of the bodies of the saints travelling east to their last home at Ynys Enlli, so far away that even on the clearest day a giant stood on top of the mount could not see it. Maybe they were not meant to: after all, they were giants, not worshippers.

Their numbers were dwindling. It was slow but perceptible. The people of Mwnt remained long-lived, often seeing half again of their three-score years and ten, but they were becoming like the rest. Smaller, devout and quarrelsome. At length, Olwen realised there were no others, that she was the only giant left in Mwnt. She asked the travellers who came through, bearing the holy remnants, and heard of no other in the wide kingdom of Dyfed.

Giants stay at home. They gather what they need, or it is brought to them by the wind and the sea and the people. Olwen stood on the top of Y Foel, her red checkered trousers caught by the wind which blew the turquoise cape back from her shoulders and knotted her hair into lumps. She looked down at the little white church and turned to gaze north across the sea towards Eire and Alba. Behind her stretched the fields and walls, the husbandry of the people and to each side of her lay cliffs and cwms.


Striding down the mount, she set off east, towards the dawn. She walked across the field by the graveyard, scattering the sheep until she stood at the edge of the cliff. It was sheer in places, the slate exposed, teeth reaching into the water. At the top, slate melted into tussock grass, gorse, nettles and brambles, vetch, plantain and carpets of bluebells. She laid her great left foot down and created a space, a flat place where the earth took her imprint and made a path for her. She put her right foot down and the same happened, the cliffs of Ceredigion welcoming her tread, opening the way.

She was careful. Those cliffs were steep, and it would be a long fall, even for a giant. She walked and walked. Down into tiny valleys the breeze leapt over but where the sun shone  the may was already in full bloom and streams rattled over the rocks. Up to the heights where the tiny leaves of bracken were still squeezed shut like a child’s eyes when the school bell rings, unwilling to waken to the spring. Sea pinks waved gay as the flags of the people and thorns caught in her trousers making her yet more tatterdemalion.

Once she looked back, just once, at the pile of her home and the island beyond it. The path stayed open, marking her passage along the coast, the ups and downs and steeps of it. More often, she looked to her left, out to sea where the gulls rested on the swell. She caught the flicker of dolphins, and people too, in their little boats, hunting the same flashing, silver prey.

Despite her size and the length of her stride this was unaccustomed work and she was slow. Some hours later, as the sun rode high, she reached a flat open headland, the grass cropped fine by the sheep. Overhead the clouds were ragged tails, rough as her hair, showing the wind still blew fast off the sea in the upper air.. Rain would come, but not yet awhile. She walked down and down and down, not just to a stream this time but right to the beach and the small town where people had gathered. Here was a home of the herring fleet where men made boats and women made nets, a humming centre of trade. The air stank of the fish. She saw they had a white church too, home of Cynwyl who they had made a saint. She snorted, shaking the houses lining the clifftops with her surprise. The man had been a cousin of her mother, no more a saint than she was.

Aberporth, they called the little town. Its two beaches became one at the low tide, exposing the small slate cliffs. She sat down on the flat, warm sand and rested for a while. Tomorrow, she would leave again, and continue making her path along the cliffs and beaches of her land.

(Yesterday, four of us did this walk from Mwnt to Aberporth. It’s only six miles but it was a lot of ups and downs. I am burnt down one side from the strong spring sun. This is less than 1% of the magnificent Welsh coastal path.)

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Busking for death money: @MRBrown_author

My pal Melissa Brown is doing a great job fundraising for her first novel, Becoming Death. I’ve read the first chapter and I want to see it all please. She’s using Kickstarter and I offered to host a blog for her. Here it is. Please give her a wee helping hand.

photo-1024x768Becoming Death is a tale of family secrets, falling in love and questioning your destiny, told from the perspective of a supernatural protagonist. When Madison Clark turns eighteen, she is ushered into the secretive family business. Little does she know, her family are Grim Reapers, custodians of souls on their journey to the beyond. Will she be able to carry out her new duties when she finds out that her next victim is her best friend?

I am a creative writing teacher seeking public support to crowd fund my YA novel, Becoming Death. Using Kickstarter (, I have until December 17th to convince friends, family and members of the public to raise £1,250 to fund production of my debut novel. The primary costs of the campaign are cover design, professional editing and printing. Earlier this year, I was longlisted for the Nottingham Writers’ Club’s 2014 national short story competition, shortlisted for the Ideatap Inspires competition and a featured poet at the Norwich City of Stories launch event, so funding my Kickstarter would be a great end to the year.

Originating from Bay City, Michigan, I made my home in Norwich, UK twelve years ago. In that time, I have contributed to education and the arts, working in the city’s nationally-renowned Millennium Library and teaching English and Creative Writing to both children and adults in the city. I have completed volunteer assignments for Writers’ Centre Norwich, and was a featured poet at this year’s Norwich: City of Stories launch event.

I have always been interested in the supernatural but I wanted a new take on it. I started researching different types of creatures and one that stood out to me was the Grim Reaper. After researching the Grim Reaper, I found this creature was very rarely portrayed as female, thus my main character was born. Madison is a typical teenage fangirl: she writes fanfiction about her OTP (one true pairing), is addicted to her favourite comic book series and doesn’t really know how to be an adult yet.

The book sets up a new back story of how Grim Reapers might function in the modern world, past traditions like wearing robes and carrying scythes are reserved for ceremonies. Instead they attend evening classes to learn how to use their powers, use an app to track their victims and scroll through social media to learn more about them

It was the challenge of completing a project within a tight timescale that helped me decide that crowdfunding was the right option for me, and I believe crowdfunding offers an exciting opportunity for up-and-coming novelists to break into the market. I welcome donations of any amount. Rewards for donating include advance copies of my book, bespoke jewellery, writing courses, writing advice sessions, and opportunities to have a character created in your appearance or with your name. For more information, I can be contacted at Twitter at @MRBrown_author.

You can find more information about my book here:

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Dykes, broads and carrs: the meaning of English

Wake. Wash. Broad, carr and navigation. My personal, ambiguous favourite, dyke.


Tan sails; 12th century priory; the River Bure at sea level

Words with multiple meanings, complex etymology, a storied history. Such words are intimately associated with the intermingling of land and water, with places of the borderline, places where identity is fluid.  The Norfolk Broads are such a world: manmade, diverse, habitat-rich, somewhere people are making all sorts of good livings, yet also isolated, bleak and possibly dangerous.

Like English, a language which is amended, adapted, evolved, flexible.  Currents come in and out of English.  We welcome words, use and love new idioms brought home from journeys or grown by teenagers. We celebrate hip-hop, rap and poetry, revel in changed language while we use Shakespeare everyday.

What it is to be English is not about, or not only about, heritage.  Which bit of ‘English’ is Iceni, Pict, Norman or Flemish? At what point can we put in a pin and say ‘this, this bit is English and everything since has been a mistake’?

And where does that put London?  London with its enormity, its diversity and welcomingness, its sheer scale – twice the size of Scotland. Is London, England?  And if not, what is the rest of England if it is not London?  The country is shaped, twisted, by the gravitational pull of the capital, the tug to the heart of capital.

We can define Englishness by looking back, by grabbing at moments of heritage, our extraordinary cathedral cities, our landscape of arable and stonewall and hedgerow, the glory of language and law. At a time when very word ‘English’ was defined by dominion. We can – we will – argue, endlessly, about taxation, immigration, devolution.  On top of all this, beside it and between the lines, we must also ask how we model our Englishness on the language – on the flexibility, wealth and, yes, the sheer reach of English. Poetry may be the one thing which gives us hope.

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Ghosts older than war: a walk in Norfolk woods

IMG_1266Any walk, well-taken, is full of hints and echoes, whispers if what was and what might be. The woods of Stow Bedon and Brecks of Thompson Common are hardly on the wild side, yet I walked for over two hours and saw just three human souls. Bracken, the British fern, stretched under oak and birch. Crows hunted and jays cracked while in occasional gardens smaller birds sang as if spring was still here. An enormous orange hornet on the path wrestled with a stick like a determined terrier. Angry dogs with grey round their muzzles guarded drowsy farms and the serried barns of pigs.  I found blackberries and Bishop-Barnabies, and lots of spiny cases but no conkers. (I am looking for conkers as I gIMG_1264ather spiders avoid them, a useful tip this year for arachnophobes, though the science is dodgy.)

It is softly haunted, this empty bit of Norfolk. The Stanford battle area is named after the village evacuated in the middle of the second war, with the promise of return in 1945. It’s still deserted, the by-law signs mouldering while the keep-out barriers are bright. As I walked, RAF Tornados were dropping bombs in Iraq. I wondered if soldiers would suddenly converge on the track, exploding out of the woodland huIMG_1269sh. Moments later, I saw movement among the trees; two camouflaged men were passing quietly, looking out towards the Common. They sketched a wave at me and disappeared.

Part of my walk was on Peddar’s Way, an ancient path to the coast which has inspired artists to make a series of Songline works, telling the story of the route. I drank tea sitting by the modern standing stone whose writing is already illegible. Empty though the route is, these woods are worked, with hazel coppiced neatly and wood piled into witches’ bonfires. I met a woman out with her friendly dog. We chatted about her photography for the British Trust for Ornithology and the evidence of nuthatches busy in the trees. When I looked back down the straight path behind me, she had vanished.

IMG_1277The ghosts are older than war. Pleistocene ponds litter the woodland, small pingos formed by melting ice when the glaciers retreated. Fairy lakes, glistening in sunlight filtered through leaves, harbouring forgotten monsters in the dark, shallow water left over from one hundred-thousand years of winter. My path meandered through the lakes, under woods and the occasional sheep-scattered field. I walked with the feeling that something might be watching.

The guidebook instructed me to cross a sluggish stream and from the bridge I realised the busy inhabitants of the woods were not interested in me at all. To them I was the raIMG_1288ttling shadow which would disappear, leaving no sign behind.

Death was not seeking me in the woods, but nonetheless reminded me of my place. I found a marker on the path, blood still red and seeping.





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Unassisted dying, Parkinsons and cruel myths: #yesuntiltheend

A curled and wasted fist.

A curled and wasted fist.

Myth number 1: you don’t die of Parkinson’s. Website after medical article after clinician will tell you it’s not terminal. And most people, it seems, don’t. They die of complications after a fall (all too common as the disease destroys balance), or infections, or some other illness. Dying with Parkinson’s, not of it.

Except that people do die of Parkinson’s disease. It takes a long time and it’s not pretty. But when the failure of your throat muscles makes swallowing a challenge and you can’t control any bodily functions and you experience regular, frightening hallucinations, you might well take to your bed and stop eating. That’s dying of Parkinson’s, whatever the doctor puts on the certificate.

Voluntarily stopping eating and drinking (VSED) is a thing. I only just discovered it and most people refer to it in the context of cancer. Sophie Mackenzie’s excellent article in the Guardian spells it out better than I can. I will simply say that my mother has not eaten for an astonishing 27 days and has now refused all water for five. She drifts in and out of unresponsive sleep, but only today has shown any sign of pain. Her great care team are looking after her, and the wonderful district nurse has given her a syringe pump to make sure she is comfortable.

My mother very much wanted to die at home; her own commitment and other people’s care are making it possible. She is dying, at home, of Parkinson’s disease.

Myth number 2: the Falconer Bill is about disability. (The bill aims to enable assisted dying in restricted circumstances in England and Wales.) I have news for Lady Tanni Grey-Thompson and others who made this passionate but erroneous claim in the Lords debate. The arguments for a dignified death within your own control apply to my mother, to my friend’s father, Pat, to Sivan Butler-Rotholz who wrote so movingly about her father. And, yes, to Robin Williams.


Setting out with Driving for the Disabled last summer. Her last drive was 21 July this year.

I don’t know if my mother, who has all her marbles, would have chosen to take the poison. We’ve discussed it occasionally over the 12 years she has fought the disease. She’s always had her pony-driving to look forward to, another birthday or a visit. She was still enjoying at least parts of her life before she became so ill a trip to Switzerland was out of the question. Maybe, given the option, four weeks ago, or even last week she might have said her choice was a swift and dignified exit.

I don’t know what she would have done. But, to those of you rooting to control other people’s lives, that is not my problem. I don’t have to decide that question. Instead, you need to explain why you refuse my mother, and many like her, basic choices about the way and time of the end of her life. I am not second-guessing other people, and neither should you.

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December: Dusk

Delighted to shout out about this on the lovely site
ink sweat & tears

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@BBCr4Today replies to my complaint about Lawson

Ceri Thomas is the august Head of Programmes at BBC News.  He has said, in reply to my letter:

_64087826_cerithomas1_bodybbcThe BBC is committed to impartial and balanced coverage of climate change. Furthermore we accept that there is broad scientific agreement on the issue and reflect this accordingly. Across our programmes the number of scientists and academics who support the mainstream view far outweighs those who disagree with it. We do however on occasion, offer space to dissenting voices where appropriate as part of the BBC’s overall commitment to impartiality. The BBC Trust, which oversees our work on behalf of licence fee payers, has explicitly urged programme makers not to exclude critical opinion from policy debates involving scientists.

As was clear from the discussion, there is no conclusive proof as yet of a direct link between the storms hitting the UK this year and climate change. It was therefore reasonable for Justin Webb to ask Sir Brian Hoskins about the limits of scientific knowledge, in particular how the lay person should judge the evidence. But he also rigorously challenged Lord Lawson – in particular on his assertion that focusing efforts on developing green energy sources was a waste of money and that resources would be better spent on improving our defences against bad weather. Both lines of questioning were designed to help listeners judge how to assess the recent bad weather in the context of climate change.

Scientists do have a crucial role to play in this debate. ‘Today’ has a track record of interviewing distinguished experts on climate change such as Lord Krebs, Sir John Beddington and Sir Mark Walport; all three have appeared on the programme in single interviews in recent months. But politicians and pressure groups also have their place and in six weeks of flooding, this was the first interview on ‘Today’ with a climate change ‘sceptic.’

Whilst there may be a scientific consensus about global warming – that it is happening and largely man-made – there is no similar agreement about what should be done to tackle it; whether money should be spent, for example, on cutting carbon emissions or would be better used adapting our defences to the changing climate. Lord Lawson is not a scientist, but as a former Chancellor of the Exchequer is well qualified to comment on the economic arguments, which are a legitimate area for debate.

We believe there has to be space in the BBC’s coverage where scientific consensus meets reasonable argument about the policy implications of that consensus view. That said we do accept that we could have offered a clearer description of the sceptical position taken by Lord Lawson and the Global Warming Policy Foundation in the introduction. That would have clarified in the audience’s minds the ideological background to the arguments.

I hope this helps explain our thinking.

Well, I’m not sure that Justin Webb rigorously challenged Nigel Lawson:  I think the ex-Chancellor rode over him trying to make his point with petulant name-calling. I accept his point that there has to be a debate about what we do about climate change and in this context we have to ask how much we have spent and are prepared to spend on both resilience and defence. I definitely agree that a clearer description of the GWF’s position would have been appropriate, including commenting on its funding.

I wonder how many complaints they got about this, because considerable thought has obviously gone into this letter.  All the same, two cheers for a prompt and full reply.Thank you Mr Thomas.

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“BBCr4Today: Lawson is from Lala Land.

ImageThis is an open letter to Jamie Angus, Editor of Radio 4’s Today programme.  I am grateful to Rob Hopkins at Transition Towns, who wrote a letter yesterday with many relevant points I have plagiarised. Basically: the BBC should not treat fantasists and apologists as if they had a respectable position on climate science.  I have also made a formal complaint on the BBC’s website.

Dear Mr Angus,

I am writing to complain in the strongest terms about your item on 13 Feb with Professor Sir Brian Hoskins (imperial College, Fellow of the Royal Society) and Lord Nigel Lawson (lived at 11 Downing Street for a while in the 1980’s). I could not believe the airtime you gave to Lord Lawson’s fantasy world.

Your piece presented the illusion of a debate about the science of climate change and the impact of human behaviour. Your presenter closed with “it’s a combination of the two, as is this whole discussion”. It isn’t. Does it make sense to ask an ESA scientist and a one-time economist for their advice as to whether an rocket can make it into orbit – and then give equal weight to their opinions? Which rocket will you be getting on?

 The BBC is giving anecdote and political stunts primacy over science or engineering. The anecdotes of poor people living with flooding or UKIP witterings are given greater airtime and credibility than the views of experts. Reality TV show contestants get more exposure on Question Time than scientists.

 The overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed science on climate accepts that human activity is resulting in the warming of the climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have reviewed all the published science on climate change, and concluded:

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased.  Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850.

Despite this authoritative view Lord Lawson has repeatedly stated his belief that climate change is “a belief without any serious scientific substance” and in your piece argued there is no link with the extreme weather and flooding of recent days.  Yet a 2012 report published by DEFRA identified flooding as the greatest threat to the UK posed by climate change, with up to 3.6 million people at risk by the middle of the century.  Every 1 degree of warming leads to the atmosphere being able to hold 7% more moisture than previously (as this paper from the journal Climate Research shows), and we have already increased 0.8°C on pre-industrial levels.  Dame Julia Slingo, presenting a Met Office report on the recent flooding, told Sunday’s World at One programme: 

All the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change. There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.

My specific objections are as follows:

Image1. That you had Lord Lawson on at all: Lawson is not a climate scientist, he is an ex-politician.  He has published no peer-reviewed science on climate change.  His Global Warming Policy Foundation actively lobby for pro-fossil fuel policies, for the eradication of policy and legislation on climate change. They refuse to reveal the sources of their funding, while somehow taking advantage of charitable status.  What are his evidence-based claims to be a credible commentator on this subject?

2. “Nobody knows”: on several occasions, Lord Lawson stated, in relation to the science on climate change, that “nobody knows”, referring to climate science as “this extremely speculative and uncertain area”.  This is grossly misleading; as the reports above show, there is a clear consensus that human activity is affecting the climate.  He stated on Today “I don’t blame the scientists for not knowing … I just blame them for saying they know when they don’t”.  Climate scientists always present their findings in degrees of certainty, degrees of likelihood, never in terms of certainty.  That’s because they are scientists, not idealogues. To present a proper assessment of evidence as “not knowing” does us all great disservice.

3. Cherry picking: Lord Lawson stated that there has been no increase in extreme weather events, taking as his example tropical storms, stating that “last year was unusually quiet” for tropical storms.  Yet no mention of 2013 being the hottest year in Australia since records began, or recent floods in Thailand or the US, melting permafrost in Siberia and Alaska, to mention just a few. To pick tropical storm activity in one year is cherrypicking.  Anyway, as seen with Typhoon Haiyan, the intensity of those storms is increasing.  

4. The ‘Pause’ myth: He stated that there has been “no recorded warming over the last 15-17 years”, a myth promoted by climate-change deniers.  He cited the latest IPCC report as agreeing with him, but the IPCC report was actually very clear on this: 90% of warmth is being absorbed by the world’s oceans, and Sir Brian Hoskins tried to spell this out. Lord Lawson would not listen to him and your interviewer let him get away with his dismissal.  In fact, the temperature of the world’s oceans is rising sharply as they absorb the equivalent of, according to Skeptical Science, 12 Hiroshima bombs per second, with impacts on sea level, marine life and the oceans’ acidity levels, which are at their highest for over 300 million years.  

5. Unrealistic impartiality: you do not give airtime to holocaust deniers. Your own website says that ‘Deniers dismiss all assertions that the Holocaust took place as conscious fabrications, or as psychotic delusions’ – about on a par with the dismissal of scientific method and a huge mass of evidence about climate change. You (rightly) actively promote mass vaccination rather than give a ‘balanced’ platform to those who jeopardise children’s health. Impartiality is not itself an unbiased position, as you well know. 

ImageI usually enjoy the Today Programme, but yesterday I could have hurled my radio from the window into the swollen river outside my door.  There is no need for “balance” in pieces about climate change. The BBC has a duty to reflect reality, rather than allowing dinosaurs like Lord Lawson to fill the airwaves with unscientific and deeply-irresponsible views. Instead, more of Sir Brian and those like him, who know what they are talking about and present their position with honour and evidence.






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Love [wherever]

My articleImage about travelling in India, entitled Homecoming is accompanied by this lovely artwork from Margeurite Dabaie.  

They are both in the very beautiful magazine [wherever], an American literary creation.  They newly launched last year in print, which is a very brave thing to do. Published out of New York and Dubai it covers a wide range of travel stories and experiences.  This month, apart from my own historical meanderings, you can read an Egyptian woman’s account of flying home to post-revolution Cairo and a harrowing description of life in Aleppo.  There are also wonderful photo-essays about historical pictures of Morocco and the impact of tourism in rural Africa. I am honoured to be in such company.

Of course you can’t buy it on newsstands here. That’s no excuse.  You can get it online from their site.  It’s worth following them on Facebook too, because they put all sorts of amazing photos and travel references up in between issues. 

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