Winchester Cathedral

Evening all! Welcome to part two of my Winchester trip. This was the Sunday when we went to the cathedral. (And a great little bookshop where I got four books for a fiver)

Here you can see the lines laid out in the grass which show where the original Anglo-Saxon cathedral stood. The signs you can just about see (I was standing on my tiptoes but I’m very short so a few snuck in) said that the original building, now referred to as the Old Minister, was the most important royal church in Anglo-Saxon England. Many kings were buried in it. It was demolished in 1093.


This, I was informed, is the oldest part of the current cathedral. Can I remember the date? No, I cannot, and Google is most unhelpful. Help?

This excellent webpage gives you much more information than I even understand about the architecture. I think I have finally grasped what a nave is, mind you.


This at first just looks like a huge stained glass window. Many colours, beautiful. However, I discovered there was more to it than that! The window was smashed by Oliver Cromwell’s forces, and the pieces were reassembled in a pretty hazard manner. There are areas where it looks like they’ve gone “I found some pieces that go together!”, but on the whole the placement appears random. Still doesn’t stop it from being beautiful.

Text reads: The font is used in Baptism, by which sacrament a person becomes a member of the Church. This mid-century font of black Tournai marble is decorated with carvings showing the miracles of St Nicholas, patron saint of children.

I’m a great sucker for anything earlier than 13th century, you might know that by now. I’m also a sucker for historical international trade, and a few seconds googling explains that this font is made from a type of black limestone found in the Belgian town of Tournai. There are a large number of these fonts in mainland Europe, and seven of them in England. According to Wikipedia, the fonts were brought by escorted caravan either across the land to the Channel, or on the exceedingly long river Scheldt, which passes through France, Belgium and a corner of the Netherlands.

So this font is actually Belgian! I just find that interesting, don’t mind me.

Ooooh these were my FAVOURITE things in the whole cathedral. THE GRAFFITI.


These were all over every single pillar we walked past. These were some of the earliest, but also some of the more interesting. Mainly because they seemed to demonstrate a distinct decline in the ability to carve over the years. I’m not even just talking about the frankly stunning bit of writing in the top right, but just the difference in depth and clarity between Thomas in 1629 and H. M. in 1931. Most of the graffiti was from the 17th century, and I wondered why that was. Thomas’ graffiti was in the year that Charles dissolved Parliament and told them to bugger off for eleven years. Still, could the large amount of 17th century carving here be at all related to Cromwell’s soldiers’ presence there? Just curious. Too many questions.

I did laugh, though. The latest we were finding graffiti was from roughly 1930 – one or two in 1960s. We hypothesised that perhaps people had stopped carrying pen knives around, or other potential carving implements. Then we saw one from 2013.

For some unknown reason, some lapse into irrationality,  I did not take a picture of it.

All of these previous bits of graffiti had solidity. Even the ones which were rubbed illegible you could tell had been deeply cut originally.

This one? Well, imagine any of the thousands of times in your life you will probably have seen words scratched into a table, desk, or bench. Chicken scratch. I  giggled at the inadequacy, I really did. Hint, if you want to make a lasting mark, you’ve got to put effort into it.

Seriously, though. I could have spent all day just looking at all the graffiti. From a names perspective as well. Maybe I’ll go back and do that some day.


Apparently I didn’t take a photo of the plaque describing this. I remember that it is a rare type of painting (fresco?), and that it is really really old (12th century?). Excuse me while I fill this alarming gap.

Google is slightly failing me on the method. Anyway, so these are in what looks to the uneducated like me to be a little side room but is called the Holy Sepulchre Chapel. It was decorated with 13th century paintings, but in 1963 it was discovered that underneath these paintings were even older paintings. You can see Jesus up the top, and the picture on the wall underneath apparently depicts him being taken off the cross and put in his tomb. According to this walking tour of Jews in Winchester, there are several Jews visible in these paintings, identifiable by the hats and badges they were forced to wear.


This was the crypt! It seemed like you could only get in on a Crypt Tour, but, it was open … so we just … went downstairs. This is one of the oldest parts of the building (apart from that sculpture), dating from Norman times, and it gets flooded. Seems an issue to have built a cathedral on a floodplain but hey, no-one ever said humanity makes good decisions.

These were creepy! Really, really cool, but somehow creepy in a way that gravestones and plaques in the floors aren’t. In the same kind of way that I find cremation urns creepy. It’s an object full of a dead person. Eeurgh.

But they were really old so my love of old things won out.

Text says: These mainly 13th century tiles are the largest and oldest area of tiling to survive in England. The tiles are very fragile and visitors are asked to walk on them with care.

WHY ARE WE STILL ALOWED TO WALK ON THEM??? Even with the best will in the world people’s feet will be wearing them down, and you just know some awful people will read that sign and immediately jump as hard as they can. Do not trust the public with old stuff! We break it!

That aside, they looked fantastic and it was a spine-tingling moment to realise that I’m walking on handiwork which is over 700 years old.

And just to finish off, officially my favourite accommodation I’ve ever seen. The text reads:

“Tactile model of Winchester Cathedral is for the use of visitors with impaired vision which enables them to feel the profile of the building. Further information on this or any of facilities for people with disabilities are available from a Guide, a (can’t tell, looks like Vitger?) or at the Entrance Desk.”

I just thought that was an excellent idea. Here’s the shape of the building you’re walking through. Not being visually impaired myself (well, it’s corrected with glasses) I don’t know how effective it is, though. I wonder how I could find out.

Well, thanks for reading about my Winchester trip! Hope you enjoyed yourself – I certainly did! See you soon.

Winchester Cathedral

I MADE IT! (kind of)

So here we are the end of my blogging challenge. On the downside I have only written 25 blogs, not 30, but on the plus side I WROTE 25 BLOGS IN A MONTH 😀

I have created a tags page, so that you can browse my posts that way. Check it out!

I’ve learnt a lot! I can now put anchor text in posts (I feel like Wikipedia), and can use pretty much all of WordPress’ basic features (apart apparently from new pages… ). Oh, and I’m never uploading 47 photos in one go again. It didn’t go well, which was why this post was a day late. I’m still figuring out exactly where I want this blog to go and who I really want my audience to be, but I do have a much better idea of that than I did at the start.

I have lots of future plans but I won’t put concrete dates on anything yet, because as you’ve no doubt learnt if you’ve read along with me this whole way, I have a bad habit of saying I’ll do one thing and then doing something else instead. I don’t think it’s too much to ask myself for two posts a month, though.

Book reviews, the Vikings in Turkey, a visit to Winchester and possibly even some historical fiction writing of my own. This month threw up a whole lot of research questions too. Watch this space!

Thank you very, very much to everyone who has read my posts during this challenge. Special thanks to the people who have shared posts and those who have commented (you know who you are) and to people who have told me they have been reading along. I appreciate you all so, so much.

To finish off, I’ll throw some stats at you. (So you can stop reading now if that bores you).

172 visitors and 289 views

Over 20,000 words written!

Almost all of you came from Facebook, but some arrived here from Twitter, Linkedin, WordPress Reader and through Google.

Most of the views were from the UK, but the other countries were: USA, France, Germany, India, Italy, Ireland, Romania, New Zealand and Hungary. I know who a few of you are, and to the rest of you, hope you liked what you saw!

The two most popular posts were Too busy to read? and my introduction Daily Blogging! The two least popular (give them more love!) were An exceedingly natural burial and Redcar and the royal burial.


I MADE IT! (kind of)

Daily Blogging – The Halfway Summary

Hi all! Since this is the 15th day I’ve written in this blog for this month, I thought it was the perfect point to do a summary post of everything that’s happened so far, so that anyone who comes in from now on won’t have to be bewildered when  I yell “GENITIVE!” or complain about my lack of church architecture knowledge.

(The astute amongst you will have noticed that in fact today is the 18th and if I have only posted for 15 days then I am several days behind. This is true. Easter was supposed to cure that, and it didn’t. Oops.)

So without further ado:

Day One – Failure Day 1. I literally forgot it was the 1st)

Day Two – I announced my intentions to blog every single day in the spirit of the Nanowrimo challenge. I then posted about my too brief trip to the Saxon Tower in Oxford. I do definitely intend to go back there one day, I was far too rushed.

Day Three – I dug into a story which was floating round my corner of the internet about whether these remains found in a tiny village had been burnt and hacked after death because the villagers were afraid they would rise again, or because the villagers were really, really hungry. Meaty stuff.

Day Four – I start recapping the place-names conference that I went to at the end of March. A lot of this first entry is me complaining how difficult the drive down was, and making the first of many mentions to my academic inferiority complex.

Day Five – Failure Day 2

Day Six- Conference continues. I manage to make a reasonably sized post despite the quality of my notes having flagged, and share that frankly terrifying but cute photo of my cat with you all.

Day Seven – By this point I’ve reached lunchtime at the conference. On a personal note I talk a bit more about that inferiority complex (which by the way I just spelt infeririotity) and how certain people helped it, and on a slightly more academic note I introduce you to the difference between a surname and a byname. (There will be a test at the end…) There’s also a photograph of me and my favourite professor at graduation.

Day Eight – And I finally finished recapping that conference! I’d like to point out that I originally only thought it would take me two posts. Ha. Coolest thing I learnt during this bit: Boudicca might have been able to speak a Germanic language.

Day Nine – This is the first of two posts about my trip into Cambridge. Turns out there’s a lot of old stuff in Cambridge – more than I actually got to see as it happens. This was about St Benet’s Church, with its stunning Anglo-Saxon arch and tower. Standing under that tower was quite the experience, let me tell you. For some reason it hit me in a way that climbing the one in Oxford didn’t.

Day Ten – Second post about Cambridge. This time the photo spam is of The Round Church, which you’ve all probably seen if you’ve been in Cambridge city centre at all, but I bet you didn’t know that it’s been there for over 900 years! The round bit of it is Norman in origin, and so much smaller than I had expected!

Day Eleven – A quick and easy post linking you to some relevant events/books etc which have happened in the last six months.

Day Twelve – Failure Day 3

Day Thirteen – In which I start my little series on the place-names on Huntingdonshire. The first one shows you some Huntingdonshire inhabitants whom you never knew about – and about which all we know is their name.

Day Fourteen – Huntingdonshire series powers up with a display of the languages which were spoken by varying inhabitants at varying times, as shown in the settlements they named.

Day Fifteen – I continued to get very excited about the genitive case when discussing places in Huntingdonshire named after animals. My favourite is still Yaxley, for how it looks so un-English in its spelling but is actually one of the less changed names I found. Maybe you like Woolley for its animal? I won’t spoil the surprise for any first-time readers there.

Day Sixteen – It was Easter Sunday, and my 2 – year anniversary of starting this blog. I celebrated by talking a lot about garlic and getting excited about a thorn bush: plant names in Huntingdonshire.

Day Seventeen – The final piece on Huntingdonshire place-names (for this month, anyway) was on place-names within the Fens. I got very confused by the meaning of the word “fen”.

Day Eighteen – Well, here we are. It’s been brilliant fun so far, and I really can’t thank everyone enough for reading along with me. Let me know if there’s anything you want more of less of for the rest of the month and I’ll see what I can do!

Daily Blogging – The Halfway Summary

Daily Blogging!

I’m baaaaaaack, with the intention to write a blog post every day this month in the spirit of NanoWriMo. For those who can’t click links well on their phones etc, National Novel Writing Month is a attempt made several times a year by writers across the world to write 50k words in a month. I’m being a “Rebel” and not doing a novel, or that word count, but I think that blogging every single day for the whole month will be just as challenging.

And yes, I’m already a day behind. Two blog posts today! It will happen! I’ve planned out twelve blogs and after that we’re flying blind into the sun.

(It would be great to know if people are following along as the month progresses, so feel free to like my social media posts or however else you got here.)

Wish me luck!


Daily Blogging!

Viking World 2016 – Public Lectures

So, this blogging thing’s not going well for me, but I do finally have something relevant to talk about!

A few weeks ago, on Monday 27th June, I travelled back to Nottingham, my postgraduate alma mater, in order to attend two very interesting public events about writing historical fiction. These events were held as part of the international conference called The Viking World: Diversity and Change. Sadly I wasn’t able to attend the whole thing, or even any of the academic parts at all, but if you’re interested like I was feel free to browse #vikingworld16 on Twitter for some very exciting live tweets, photos and summaries of papers. I think next year I’ll be putting some holiday and money aside just in case another Anglo-Saxon/Viking era conference comes along. I do miss academia a lot.

So, I did at least get to go to these talks! I’m going to talk about the second one first, since I got so engrossed in what Dr Victoria Whitworth was saying that I forgot to take any notes, oops…

As a result, I have less concrete things to say about this one. Everything will be paraphrased and unreliably pulled from my memory. Broadly, it was a fascinating talk about how she started writing historical fiction. Unlike the other writers invited to speak in the roundtable (more on them in a bit) her first novel, The Bone Thief, came about by accident. She was struggling to figure out a certain area of research in her academic writing, and gradually realised that, well, if there weren’t enough facts and too much speculation for academia, there were certainly enough facts and speculation for a historical novel.

She calls The Bone Thief and its sequel the Traitor’s Pit (check them out more here) archaeological fiction. Her PHD thesis was focused on burials and the journey of death: to quote her university page,”the development of the concept of Christian burial and associated beliefs and practices in Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian England” as demonstrated by her academic publication Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England. The excerpt she read from to us from her novel involved the characters trying to dig up a saint’s bones. The books seemed much more based around the real life detritus of graves, bones and material remains than the “typical” research areas of documentation. More on that topic in the roundtable. Victoria also said some interesting stuff about how writing historical novels had influenced her academic writing and made it more creative. I’m vey annoyed that I can’t properly talk about this lecture and make it sound as a cool as it was. That’ll teach me not to make notes.

To the first event, the writers’ roundtable!

The Writers

(all descriptions are taken from this page of the Nottingham university website, where you can also find links to the authors’ individual websites)

Justin Hill: “[his] fiction spans eras as distant from one another as Anglo Saxon England to Tang Dynasty, China. His work has won numerous awards, including the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, a Betty Trask Award, as well as being both the Sunday Times and the Washington Post Books of the Year. In 2014 he was selected to write the sequel to the Oscar winning film, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, due for release in 2016. An engaging and inspiring teacher, Justin now teaches Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. “

Victoria Whitwood: “After going to school in Nairobi, New York, London and Letchworth, Victoria read English at St Anne’s College, Oxford, did an M.A in Icelandic Literature at the Centre for Medieval Studies in York followed by a D. Phil in the English Department. She has published a wide range of academic articles and a book (Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England). Her current research is on the Viking Age sculpture of Britain and Ireland. Victoria is also the author of The Bone Thief and its sequel, The Traitors’ Pit. Set in 900AD after the death of King Alfred the Great they tell the story of a young cleric Wulfgar, his adventures and conflicted loyalties.

James Aitchison: “… born in Wiltshire in 1985 and studied History at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he developed a special interest in the Middle Ages and the Norman Conquest in particular. Sworn Sword is his first novel, featuring the knight Tancred and set in England during the turbulent years following 1066. Tancred’s adventures continue with The Splintered Kingdom and Knights of the Hawk. The Harrowing, James’s fourth novel, will be published in 2016”

Helen Hollick: “… lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon. Born in London, Helen wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era, she became a ‘USA Today’ bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (titled A Hollow Crown in the UK) She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based adventures with a touch of fantasy. As a supporter of Indie Authors she is Managing Editor for the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews, and inaugurated the HNS Indie Award.”

The roundtable was led by Professor Matthew Welton.

Here I took lots of notes. So many notes. I scribbled away like I haven’t done since I was a baby first year who thought that was what you did in lectures.

Five pages of this!

For this one, then, I am pretty confident that I have the broad brushstrokes of a lot of what  the writers said (with the weird exception of question two …)


Q: To what extent do facts get in the way of the story?

Helen: I wrote my book Harald the King because I wanted to know how the people felt, such as Emma, which then led to discovering facts. You can always make up the unknown!

James: Yes, in the medieval period there are lots of gaps. I try not to alter facts, but history isn’t tidy and sometimes you have to massage dates. For example in my book, The Harrowing, I used the maximum damage projection for the desired post-apocalyptic feel, but scholars will give you lots of different estimates.

Victoria: A historical fact is a rather slippery thing. I would never let facts get in the way.

Justin: What’s the deal you’re making? How important are the facts? They are very important to me, because I believe that historical fiction is good at educating people in areas that they wouldn’t open a textbook for. [In order to avoid getting facts wrong] In my book I used a framing narrative, so that Harold only tells the reader what he considers important.

Q: Have you ever been called out [for getting facts wrong]?

Helen: Yes, many people emailed me about my use of “cornfed horses” which is actually an English phrase!

[Other writers had all been called out by readers. Justin is one of the people likely to email!]

Q: What sorts of research did you do?

James: A week in Cambridge University Library, updating my knowledge. You can’t fully specialise in one area, in order to write convincingly your have to know a little bit about everything. I read everything I can, and absorb as I go.

Victoria: I’m the opposite; I bash out the story first, find out what I don’t know and then research that. Facebook is useful for me, since up in the Orkneys I don’t have as many available resources.

Justin: I found that I kept stopping my writing because I didn’t know enough to properly flesh out characters’ lives, for example what objects are in this room that they have entered? The only object I can think of is a comb! That’s the hard stuff, the immersive detail  of world creation. However since you need to avoid sounding like an encyclopaedia, most of your painstaking research disappears when it hits the pages.

Helen: I’m not from an academic background, so what I love is the story. I come up with ideas and characters first, read the history, and then flesh it out from there. I agree with Justin that it’s the little details which matter. How did they deal with being cold and wet, for example?

Q: Do you use medieval texts in your research/Do you show that Old/Middle English was spoken at that time?

Victoria: To address the second point; I found this so interesting that my writing stalled! I had a West Saxon and a Mercian character, and I wanted to show them encountering these different dialects, different languages, without alienating the reader. I used unusual, old-fashioned words to get this feel across.

Justin: In my book Shieldwall I avoided Norman French and archaic language, and wrote in simple English, using etymological dictionaries to check words. For example, native speakers have an inbuilt sense of the difference between “kingly” and “majestic”. There will always be words you’ve missed, always be mistakes, and the whole process is an artifice anyway.

Helen: It’s a fiction story. It should entertain, not be hard to read and understand. [Like Victoria] I slip older words in for believability, and personally I don’t use contractions, or words like “OK.”

James: For the first point [using medieval documents] I ended up getting into Beowulf and other Old English poetry. I’d studied them at university but not understood what was great about them as an art form before now. As one of my characters is a poet, I enjoyed coming u with poetry for them; giving an idea and a flavour without being a stickler to OE poetical form. My characters also discuss Beowulf and other poems which I like to think would have been in circulation at the time.

Justin: I find medieval documents useful for contemporary description, for example of the seasons. I found Maxims I and II to be good for that.


Q: Is academic writing compatible with creative writing?

Justin: I came at it the other way around! My PhD supervisor is very frustrated.

Victoria: Yes, it’s important to avoid your inner PhD supervisor when writing creatively; you are allowed to break all the rules! There are two big barriers which academic writing puts in your head when you start being creative: 1) that your fiction needs to be worthy and educational and 2) that writing must be in a particular rigid structure.

Q: Are mythological/supernatural elements important in your writing?

Helen: I’ve collaborated in a fantasy version of history, called “1066 Turned Upside-Down” based on what-ifs. Yes, fantasy is important but it is still important to get your facts right.

James: I have to understand contemporary characters’ attitudes towards religion and superstition, etc, in order to flesh characters out. This is more important to me than getting exactly the right sword, for example.

Q: Did anyone learn a skill in order to write it?

Victoria: been learning the drop spindle technique for about 10 years! I’ve also sheared sheep and cleaned the fleece, etc.

Helen: Oh, it’s very clear when authors have never been on a horse before!

Q: How do you decide on the portrayal of actual historical figures?

Helen: I loathe Duke William, so I found his scenes very, very difficult to try and remain unbiased in.

Justin: As long as you’re not in the heads of those characters you can describe them however you like, really, you’ve got a lot of license.

Q: How to show research without info-dumping?

Justin: Relate the information directly to your characters’ experiences.

Victoria: Forget most of your extensive research! Put yourself in the character’s shoes and know enough to put in that one telling detail which shows you understand your topic.

Q: How can we get youngsters reading more historical fiction?

Helen: Well, how to get all kids reading anything?? Fantasy can be a useful starting point to build on, as can taking them to see actual historical sites with books based on them.

James: There’s lots of good historical YA out there! Kevin Crossley-Holland, for example!

Q: Most readers are clueless about history, so how much do you feel the need to educate them?

Helen: If the story is good then it might persuade them to find out the facts! School history was very boring for me, it was novels that drew me in.

Victoria: Yes, it’s about world building. Is it good to read?

Q: [Christina Lee]: What more can academia do to encourage this sort of to and fro between historical fiction and historical study?

Justin: Well, I’d say it’s doing pretty well. Look at us, here! More of the same, please.

James: Remember you can contact authors easily online now using social media

Victoria: Make more publications open access!


My thoughts on the roundtable:

It was encouraging to hear them almost universally say that a good story should come before the facts, and amusing to hear about how all the detailed research and all that effort often disappears into the story unnoticed. The question about medieval language was very cool, since my interest in my MA was always in the interplay between Old Norse, Old English and Middle English, and Justin made a surprising point about using the Maxims and the like for contemporary descriptions. And of course, I wholeheartedly  agree with Victoria that it would be wonderful if more research tools were out in the open rather than hidden behind paywalls.

All in all I was inspired by all of these authors, and maybe I’ll start posting some 12th century-based fiction here soon.




Viking World 2016 – Public Lectures