Wednesday, 21 December 2016


Durham was new to me. When I was little, we had a quilt that came from there, but I didn't associate it with a city, it was just the name of the quilt. I'm glad I added it to my list, though, because it is a very beautiful place. 

And boy is it easy to navigate! My first port of call was the cathedral, and as soon as I alighted from the train, I could see it, nestled in fog on the top of the hill over yonder. I had pulled out a map but there was, thankfully, no need, and I could focus on the more important task of looking around at the scenery. 

I'd reached out to people for some recommendations for Durham, and wasn't disappointed. I had a list just long enough to fill the five hours before my final trains to Carlisle. I had been given suggestions of tourist attractions (Cathedral, Castle), places to walk (bridges), a bookshop (The People's Bookshop) and a place for a good lunch (Vennels). So, I set off up the hill, taking several tiny side alleys and steps that reminded me of mountain villages in Italy, and of the back passage around some of the Oxford colleges. By the time I reached the square by the castle, I had decided that the walking boots were about to come into their own, and took a pew to change them. And to shed a few hundred layers. I was wrong about the coldness factor in the North. It was, in fact, warmer in Durham on the top of a hill, than it had been in Birmingham. Concerning, to say the least. 

On the front door of the cathedral, I found something extremely useful. The Sanctuary Knocker, once knocked, would allow a person 37 days of sanctuary in the cathedral under the guise of a monk-like robe. This was a wonderful find for someone writing a novel about a person trying to escape somewhere...I made copious notes. 

After taking in the cathedral (and, of course, the giftshop), I wandered into the Palace Green Library. There was a poster outside for an exhibition all about people who hear voices, which I decided was definitely worth investigating. 

The exhibition includes the various interpretations of 'hearing voices' from the divine, to the creative, to the benign, and the harmful. But the overarching theme was that hearing voices is not necessarily a sign of mental ill health, that it is a fundamental part of the human condition. For example, internal monologues are heard as voices, and some, me included, do voices in their head for various things when reading. There are other voices, perhaps more sinister ones, and the exhibition tackled those too. It was fascinating, and I came out of it realising that my internal workings are not so unusual. 

The sun was setting by this point, and I had 2 hours before my train. My stomach had some very specific ideas about what I should be doing next, so I headed down towards Vennels. And, as predicted by the person who recommended it, I missed it entirely. It, along with the People's Bookshop' is down a tiny little alleyway that looks like it might be someone's back garden or access for their house. 

I made a pitstop in the bookshop on my way, struggling up the stairs with my ever-increasingly-heavy bag (I should not have bought maple syrup in glass bottles in Manchester), and found myself in a small attic room filled with bookshelves and socialist memorabilia. And an old man, who was obviously a regular, taking the weight off his feet and telling the person behind the counter (who was trying very hard not to listen) that if things got much worse, he'd have to go back to eating squirrels. I purchased 'An oral history of the female working classes' and a conference proceedings paper from a conference on women in 1974. Both seemed like great things to use for future research of novels and stories, and I wanted to support the bookshop and its ethos. Afterwards I bought myself a doorstop sandwich and a piece of chocolate cake in Vennels, before wending my way back up the hills and stairs to the station. 


The main thing that I found out about Leeds whilst I was there, was that they REALLY like owls.

I spent the night with my lovely cousin Emma, having many wonderful conversations about feminism and literature and geek culture (and learning that she and I are definitely both still playing Pokemon Go). The next morning, she dropped me in the centre of Leeds where I set about on my wandering way.

I've been to Leeds before. A couple of times in the last few years for work, where I stayed in a Premier Inn which doesn't have a breakfast room, which requires you to eat breakfast in the adjoining TGI Fridays. Believe me, its confusing not being able to order a cocktail and a burger. On those trips, I mostly saw the inside of Northern Ballet, which, though lovely, is not very useful for my novel.

The other visits I've made are far back in the past. A family friends wedding when I was 10 and an interview at the Uni 10 years ago. I remembered my way around, though, and set about exploring the slightly hilly terrain.

My first discovery was a building that looked like it was borrowing something from Italian renaissance architecture. Inside, however, were some early-to-work office types who didn't really fit with the overall feeling of the place. Useful for dystopia future novels though...

And so I walked up towards the town hall, which I only discovered was the town hall when I looked it up on google. It seemed, from my vantage point at the front of the building, not to have a plaque or name plate on it, which seemed a little remiss. But then, the four lions guarding the entrance are in various states of decay due, I assume, to acid rain. Its an impressive building, nonetheless, including a sign talking about town ordinances, which I dutifully read assuming from it's font that it was old. Until, that is, I read the words 'skate boarding is prohibited' and decided it was just some clever typographical trickery.

'But what about the owls?', I hear you cry! I'm getting there, worry not. As I made my way up the hill, and caught sight of the inevitable Christmas Market (thankfully, it wasn't open yet, so I was not subjected to the scent of mulled wine and doughnuts at 8am), I noticed something strange about the town square.

On the top of two pillars, looking very regal, were a pair of golden owls. I decided to investigate further, and, upon walking around the building, I discovered yet more be-plinthed owls, including one with a QR code so you could hear it 'speak'. Whilst I backed off to take a picture, I glanced up at the top of the building and found, yes, you guessed it, more gold owls on the roof. I had to find out what this was about.

It turns out, that the Leeds coat of arms is flanked by two owls. Which led, logically enough, I suppose, to the creation of the Leeds Owl Trail. If you're up there, I suggest you give it a try.

There's not too much else to my tour of Leeds. Given the early hour not much was open but I got a good look around the architecture and got a general sense of the city, which was my aim.

At 11am, it was onwards, to Durham.

Thursday, 15 December 2016


I have to say, that I rather like Manchester. I’ve been here before but not for nearly 20 years, which seems like a strange thing to be able to type. I was already blessing it for the presence of a Left Luggage department, something which is sorely lacking these days. I was able to decant my laptop and glasses into a cloth bag brought for just that purpose, and drop my giant rucksack off for a few hours to play with the other luggage in daycare whilst I went to explore. 

I’d done some googling, and asked the lovely Worker Bees writing collective (Write Like a Girl grads from Manchester, who I met at GrrrlCon last year, check them out!) for their recommendations. My rumbling stomach had decided, however, that I should certainly stop for lunch first, and who am I to argue? I found a lovely cafe called ‘Moose Coffee’ which had a sign outside wishing me a Merry Christmoose, so obviously I had to go in. The food was excellent and plentiful, more than preparing me for my day of walking and note taking. 

I’d decided that the best place for me to visit in terms of my character was the People’s History Museum, and so, stopping only briefly at the now ubiquitous Christmas Market to buy a present for my writing Grrrls, I made my way unencumbered by luggage towards the riverside museum. And I have to say, I was not disappointed.

The slogan of the museum is ‘Join the Radicals’, which was immediately appealing, and entry is free, although I did leave a donation, because I fear for the future of such wonderful institutions, and a donation box with ‘Support Ideas Worth Fighting For’ was always going to get at least a few quid out of me. The two main floors of the museum take you through a history of the working people of Britain, from struggles from the vote, to the labour movement, trade unions, communism and, to my utter delight, feminist and queer history (special favourite: a badge that said ‘How dare you assume I’m heterosexual!”).

I passed a couple of hours taking notes and a few pictures, enjoying the emptiness of a museum on a Wednesday in term time, even taking a minute or two to create a stained glass window from magnetic pieces of coloured perspex; well, what’s a lighting designer to do? 
If you’re in the area, I would urge you to make a visit to the museum, it is excellently curated and very accessible, both in the sense that there is a lot for children and that it has ramps and lifts throughout, as well as a section on the history of disabled persons rights. There is also, again much to my delight, a section where they explain the conservation of textiles in the museum collection, which, conservation and lighting in museums being my master’s dissertation topic pleased me no end. 

I spent the rest of my afternoon failing to find bookshops, which was somewhat disappointing. I’d been recommended Aspidistra Books by the Worker Bees, as well as Chapter One books. I trekked over in the direction of Aspidistra first, having read their twitter bio and discovered that they specialised in LGBT books, and abhorred celeb biographies (yes, I know I’m being snobby, but I don’t care). At least I thought I was heading in their direction. It turned out that the address on their Facebook page was incorrect and they were, in fact, on the other side of Manchester, closer to where I had just been. 

Instead, I aimed myself towards Chapter One, which is a fairly new bookshop and seemed rather lovely from their twitter page. Unfortunately, they were closed due to unforeseen circumstances. I consoled myself by saying that it would be less to carry, and that, in any case, I’ll be back in Manchester in June for GrrrlCon (look that up too, if you’re a woman writer!). 

So I spent my last hour in Manchester sitting on a wooden bench waiting for my train to Leeds. After managing to get on the wrong one, and being reminded that it was in fact going somewhere else and that the Leeds train was in front of this one, I hurried into my assigned seat and settled for the third train of the day. 


Birmingham station has changed a bit since I was last here. I came here on tour in 2014, spending most of my time walking between the Broad Street Ibis and the Rep theatre, sweltering in the summer heat and waiting for the Library to close so the theatre could take over the air con. 

When I arrived in 2014, the station was covered in hoarding and adverts about the new exciting station that was being built. It wasn’t terribly exciting, hoarding is pretty much the same wherever you go. But now, in 2016, Grand Central, as it is now dubbed, is finished, and enormous. The outside is covered in mirrored panels, with a large eye-shaped advertising board on one side that watches you, and tries to get you to buy things. Very Orwellian, and very appropriate for my dystopian novel. I took a note of it whilst I ate some lunch in one of the many eateries, all of which were not allowed to provide bins, which in itself made the whole thing seem a little 1980s in a different way. 

I had great intentions for my time in Birmingham. I was going to wander the jewellery quarter and take notes on the warehouses and victorian buildings, find somewhere to sit and add to my word count. Those plans were slightly scuppered within 15 minutes of setting out. 

It was raining, which in itself is not a huge problem, I was prepared. I know British weather, and I’d brought a waterproof and changes of clothes. The rain itself didn’t bother me. Until. Until I was crossing a road to get to the jewellery quarter, where, somehow, I slipped over. I felt myself go and, in slow motion, it seemed, watched as my feet disappeared to one side, my backpack leant me sideways and there I was, like a turtle, on a road. It was a terrifying few seconds, until the cars started just going around me. Well, Merry Christmas to you all too. 

“Are you alright?” shouted a kind woman, who was also sporting a huge backpack, on the other side of the road. So I wasn’t still in London, and it was possible for people to give a shit about others. How nice. 

Limping slightly, and lamenting my formerly clean trousers which now had a long stripe of muddy rain water down one leg, I begrudgingy headed towards St Paul’s square. 
The church was rather lovely, at least from the outside. I have to admit to being a little grumpy from hurt pride, so I didn’t investigate inside, justifying it by saying that my character wasn’t likely to go inside a church either. 

It took another 20 minutes for me to get genuinely fed up of the rain, and to be somewhat desperate for the loo. As the heavens opened properly, I headed for the lovely Birmingham Central Library, who had a cafe, a workstation and, most importantly at that point, a toilet. 

I spent the rest of the afternoon typing, getting down nearly 2000 words of the novel, and the character’s journey. 

I spent the evening with my lovely friend Laura, who was kind enough to put me up for the night, and to invite me to join their writer’s group (PoW WoW) for and evening of ‘gluttony and ghost stories’. It gave me the idea that it might be nice to go to other cities and visit other writing groups, see how they work and hear work by people around the country. Perhaps next year, eh? 

It was wonderful in the back room of the Prince of Wales pub, warm and cosy with plentiful food. Most of the 20 or so writers there had a ghost story to tell, which gave the evening a wonderful Jackanory feeling. I have to admit, that I was close to dropping off a few times, due to the soothing nature of being read to, like 20 bedtime stories. I shook myself, obviously, because I wanted to hear the tales. And I’m glad i did, for they were of excellent quality. I hope to return some time to visit them again. 

In the morning, it was off to Manchester.

The Adventure begins...

At some point a month or so ago, it seemed like a great idea to start my research adventure on the 13th of December, even though I knew that my work Christmas party was on the Monday beforehand. I didn’t drink much, to be fair, just a single beaker of wine (they’d run out of wine glasses by the time we made it there after a show shift), but I had stayed much later than I planned putting the world to rights with a lovely colleague. So, dragging myself out of bed at 7am to pack, check my bag four times and leave early enough not to be affected by the ludicrous amount of problems on the underground, was challenging to say the least. 

But I made it to Euston on time, to discover that my train was terminating early in Northampton. Not such a good start. Trying not to worry, I lumped my enormous hikers rucksack onto a spare seat and plopped down next to it. Much of this first journey was spent staring at the scenery that moved past the window, and very enjoyable it was too; when one is used to London’s tightly packed buildings, even one open field among buildings becomes exciting. Many notes were taken in my novel notebook (yup, I have one, ask the creative collective, they’ve seen the rainbow highlighting) about scenery that could conceivably still exist in 18 years time, when the novel is primarily set. 

Having made my connection at Northampton, I managed a little snooze on the train, trying to ignore the persistent fear of missing my stop, even though the train terminated there. Hey, I can’t be held accountable for my sleep-deprived brain.

Here's my itinerary, for those who are interested: 

London - Birmingham (13th Dec)

Birmingham - Manchester (14th Dec)

Manchester-Leeds (14th Dec)

Leeds - Durham (15th Dec)

Durham - Carlisle (15th Dec)

Walking a section of Hadrian's wall (16th Dec)