A Bookish Adventure

I started this blog to document an extended trip to the US and UK in 2012, introducing children to my Alice-Miranda series. It's hard to believe that it's just on four years since we launched the first Alice-Miranda title - and now there are nine books out in Australia with another five still to come. When I first came up with the idea of this precocious seven and a quarter year old, I had no clue that she would take me on such an amazing journey, not only in Australia but also across the world. I visited 37 schools while we were away in 2012 and gave over 80 talks - it was fantastic. In 2013 I've been on lots of new adventures in the UK - visiting schools from London to Southampton, Lancashire, Scotland, Newcastle and back to London again. After that I headed off to meet readers in Singapore. In Australia I've been to Melbourne, Perth, Albany, Alice Springs and Brisbane. There's a new series too - about a gorgeous little girl called Clementine Rose. She and Alice-Miranda don't know each other yet, but they will soon.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Leaden Hall School for Girls and Salisbury

Sunday morning saw us drive south west to Salisbury.  Ian and I had visited the area on my first trip to England in 2006, but that was more a happy accident than good planning.  On that occasion we had come up against some serious motorway delays enroute to Bath, so had taken the off ramp and ended up in Salisbury on dusk.  It was glorious and I will never forget entering the cathedral just as evensong began.

This time we were heading there to visit Leaden Hall School for Girls which is located in the Cathedral Close.  We arrived in town around 2pm, having spent the morning wandering through Richmond.  We went straight to the cathedral close and spent a couple of hours there.  The cathedral itself is now 754 years old – it’s hard to fathom really.
There was a spirited game of cricket going on on the common and during our wander we bumped into a group of Leaden Hall boarders on their way back from a weekend outing.  Some of them were so little.

Our accommodation that evening was at a lovely B&B/hotel called Cricket Fields, aptly named as it sits on the edge of the local cricket pitch where a very lively game was in full flight.
We settled in then went for a drive to find something for dinner.  Our hosts recommended a pub called the Victoria and Albert in a nearby village.  We found our way to Netherhampton and the pub, but it was closed for another half hour so we drove into the town and had a walk around.  Salisbury has every convenience and is much bigger than I had remembered it.

The pub was great – low ceilings, an ancient bar and a great big yard out the back with tables dotted around.  We had bangers and mash (how can you go past it in an English pub?), which was delicious.
On Friday morning we were up early to head over to the school.  Idyllic, picture postcard, gorgeous – are all words that spring to mind about Leaden Hall.  It’s setting in the Cathedral Close must be about one of the most picturesque places you could imagine.  We later learned from one of the teachers that John Constable used to stay at Leaden Hall and paint scenes of the garden.  He also painted the Hall from across the river.

We were warmly greeted by the head, Julia Eager, with whom I had been corresponding about the visit.  The day started with assembly and I met all the girls.  Then we continued with five sessions covering all of the girls from Nursery to Year 6.  They were wonderful to work with and the little ones were absolutely precious.  Leaden Hall’s boarders are mostly children whose parents are in the military.  The youngest girls are eight years old – Alice-Miranda would definitely fit in well here!
In recent years the school has added a whole wing of new buildings and a large hall.  Apparently the planning permissions are very strict in Salisbury due to its heritage listings and there were numerous attempts before the designs were accepted.  They nestle into the block beautifully.  There is also a fast flowing river at the bottom of the garden and adjacent fields with horses and cattle – as I said, idyllic.

The school garden is very pretty, with a walled rose garden and an ancient sun dial.
We ate lunch with the girls and staff in the dining room, which is a huge conservatory off the main building.  The food was great – English boarding schools seem to set the standard for excellent meals.

After lunch we spent an hour with the nursery students.  I read some of my new series, Clementine Rose to them – it seemed to go over very well and they were all in love with Lavender, Clementine’s tea cup piggy.
My last session was with Year 3 and 4.  The girls were great as all of the groups were.

I was very glad to visit Leaden Hall as a number of years ago the previous Head, Diana Watkins had visited us at Abbotsleigh.   Our Head of Junior School, Sally Ruston had in turn gone to spend a day at Leaden Hall and raved about what a beautiful school it was.  I can only agree!
PS Had a lovely email from one of the girls and her mother after the visit – it seems Jess talked about nothing but Alice-Miranda from the minute she hopped into the car J

Richmond Upon Thames and Hampton Court

On the weekend Ian booked for us to return to Richmond Upon Thames where I had previously visited Old Vicarage School the week before.  A gorgeous part of London, it’s hard to imagine that the centre of the city is not far at all.  We navigated our way through the Friday afternoon traffic, not hitting too many snarls until about 20 miles out when the M25 came to a stand still.  But we were getting used to that by now.  I even managed to find an alternate route and we got to the hotel around 6pm – not too much later than we had anticipated.  The weather was sparkling – so warm and clear.  We stayed at the Richmond Hill Hotel, which is beautifully restored.  Our room was tiny, typical of London hotels but very comfortable – even if I did have to step over our luggage to be able to put the ironing board up. J

We headed out for a stroll – the view from the top of the hill overlooking The Thames is gorgeous.  I think everyone in town was out.  There is a pub across the street from the park at the top of the hill and we were amazed that they sold drinks and allowed people to spill out across the road.  In Australia we’d be too worried about someone having one too many and ending up under a car.  But this is England and they certainly seem a lot more relaxed about some things than we are.  And while it looks like a quiet road, the cars zoom along at pace.

We ended up having dinner back at the hotel and an early night.  I don’t know how many miles we covered this week but it was a lot.  When we told people where we’d been most of them couldn’t believe we’d driven ‘that far!’

Saturday morning we decided to take a boat from Richmond to Hampton Court Palace - a place I have wanted to visit since I was a child.  The weather was almost too good to be true.  We ate breakfast in a park on the river’s edge – the cafe also had excellent coffee – then went to the wharf.  I wore sunscreen and a hat all day but the sun here doesn’t seem to have the same intensity as at home.  With my pale skin I wouldn’t risk it and we did see plenty of lobsters by the end of the day but if I’d have sat outside for an hour and a half on a boat in Australia, I’d have had a headache for sure.  No such problems here.  The views down the river were incredible – as were many of the houses.  I don’t wonder why Brad and Angelina have apparently decided to buy a house here – if I had a spare million or ten, I wouldn’t mind living here too.
We had to navigate the Teddington Lock.  It was fascinating to see how it works.  Manned by volunteers it takes about ten minutes to get through. 

The town of Kingston is also very pretty and I imagine an expensive place to live too.  There were already hundreds of people out enjoying the weather, and many more hundreds on our return visit.
Hampton Court is spectacular.  Hard to believe that King Henry VIII once walked these halls.  Although at one point when we were in Henry’s chamber, an actor dressed as him barreled through shouting to the commoners and bidding us all good day.  It was a great touch, although a little disconcerting as I hadn't seen him coming! There are several actors dressed as various royal figures throughout the castle and grounds.

The kitchens were enormous – it must have been hectic down there preparing meals for hundreds of people each day.  The rotisseries on the open fireplace would heaved with meats of all variety.

The gardens and surrounding park are especially beautiful and I really enjoyed wandering around.  It was interesting to learn that the castle ceased to be used by the royal family sometime in the 1700s and was then given over to certain friends of the royals who lived there ‘by grace and favour’ of His or Her Majesty.  I’m glad that Queen Victoria saw the potential for a tourist attraction and set about opening the palace up for visitors so that we commoners could have a peek into the history that is steeped in its walls.
We took the boat back to Kingston and found a pub along the waterfront to have a drink.  All I can say is Pimms and a hot day are a dangerous combination – it went down like fizzy drink, hence a slightly foggy head for the remaining trip back to Richmond!

That evening we dined at an Indian restaurant which had been recommended in the Michelin Guide – it didn’t disappoint and was quite possibly the best Indian I’ve ever eaten.

Twilight in England at this time of year is wonderful – especially when the weather is good.  We wandered up the hill to the hotel and I really couldn’t have imagined a much more perfect day.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Bridgewater Primary School, Northampton

We left Bakewell early Friday morning heading for Northampton.  Fortunately we weren’t due there until 10.30am which was good seeing that we knew it would be at least a two hour or so drive and that was without any dramas on the motorway. 

For the first hour we drove through pretty villages including a gorgeous hamlet called Matlock.  I could have stayed and explored there all day.  Next time…

The drive was fortunately uneventful and we arrived at Bridgewater Primary School in Northampton about half an hour early.  We were greeted by one of the teachers, Jessica Wise, whose daughter Izzy was the reason behind the visit.  Izzy had received Alice-Miranda At School for her birthday read it and loved it,  andthen written to me.  I wrote back and so on and so forth and we realized that a visit could be possible.
The school is new and sits on a huge patch of ground.  The Head Teacher, Alison Harvey gave us a tour of the grounds and buildings – both of which were impressive.  It was such a vibrant and happy place.  The children stopped to say hello and there was a gorgeous group of little boys who ran up to us with a box of rocks, ‘these are dinosaur eggs,’ they gasped.  So proud of their findings – it was adorable.
The school is working hard on an environmental focus and has developed a wetland area encouraging all manner of birds.  They also have raised garden beds in which they are bringing along a fantastic vegetable patch too.  There is a lot of land still ripe for more projects.  I was intrigued that the education department doesn’t actually own the school.  Schools are built by private enterprise and then leased back to the school body who pays rent for the building use.  The school has to jump through lots of hoops when they want to make additions or changes as the owner has the final say on what is acceptable.  Hence the school was built without a kitchen which is somewhat problematic when there is a lunch program.  Instead there is a ‘pod’ just outside the main hall area which is a kitchen in a compact space, a little like a demountable.  I can imagine it’s a tricky business in the middle of winter or when its raining to get the meals across.  But the lunch ladies were doing a sterling job when we saw them.

Apart from the lack of kitchen the school seems really well designed and I adore that the library is open plan in the heart of the building, similar to some that we have seen in the US.
I spoke to the Year 3-6 students in two groups.  They were loads of fun and had some of the best quips I've heard in ages.
My favourite comment of the tour so far was this.
Me:  ‘So how would you feel if you went home tonight and your parents said that they were moving to Spain and you were staying in England and going to boarding school?’
Various replies: ‘Sad’, ‘Angry’, ‘I’d wonder if they didn’t love me anymore’ ,‘Abandoned’…
And then this.  ‘Are you leaving the laptop behind?’
I laughed until there were tears and so did everyone else.  The young lad was dead pan and priceless. 
The kids were excellent at drama too.
I loved signing their books and the postcards we had made for the tour.  There were three little girls with the most beautiful auburn hair - all of whom looked like perfect little 'Millie's', Alice-Miranda's best friend.

Jess had arranged for the local newspaper to come and take a photograph, so Izzy and I went for our picture in the library.  I am waiting for it to appear online and then I will put up a link.  It’s the Northampton Chronicle and Echo.
I had a great time at Bridgewater – Jess and I were already talking about next year and doing some writing workshops with the children.  I’ll certainly go back again in a heartbeat.

S.Anselm's in Bakewell

S.Anselm’s is a school Alice-Miranda could certainly attend.  With many young boarders, students range from Nursery through to Year 8 (which is the equivalent of Year 7 at home in Australia).  Co-ed, there is an easy rapport between the students and teachers and a real sense of happiness about the place.

I arrived early and met John Carr, the Head of English, who was directing my activities for the day.  We headed for the office and met Simon Northcott, the Headmaster who immediately invited Ian and me to dinner that evening.  Ian was having a rare day off to catch up on a whole lot of paperwork and make some more arrangements for the weekend and later in the tour.
The reason I wound up at S.Anselm’s was through a FB connection with Penny Price, who runs the Alphabet Street website in Sydney, promoting all sorts of events for children.  Penny had highlighted some of my Alice-Miranda tour events in Australia last year and I emailed to thank her.  She told me about her niece who loved Alice-Miranda but lived in England and went to boarding school – cue the link!

I was keen to meet Jess as she was the reason I was there.  I taught some writing workshops to the students to begin with.  The day was already hot and the classrooms (in fact most buildings in Britain) are ill equipped to cope with such warm temperatures.  They are so used to having the windows closed in an endeavour to trap as much hot air as possible, I think many of them just don't open at all! 
The children were engaged and produced some really good pieces of writing.  There were reluctant writers (self-acknowledged) giving the activities their best and I saw some secret smiles too, obviously pleased with their efforts.
One of the teachers, Richard asked me if I might know his father in law in Australia – a children’s writer too by the name of Colin Thompson.  I couldn’t believe it.  Colin and I sat together at Linsay Knight’s farewell from Random House in December, we had books on the same shortlist for the CBCA awards in 2006 and I had recently been talking to him about the Abbotsleigh literary festival in August.  His daughter Alice popped over later to say hello too.  The world is a small place indeed.  (When I arrived back to the hotel that night there was an email from Colin about the Abbotsleigh festival – too strange!)

In between workshops Jess and another girl Emily showed me around the school.  It’s very well resourced and sits in the prettiest of settings atop a hill in the village.  The boarding houses are spread along the road and in the bottom of the garden, with varying numbers of students in each.  I think the junior girls’ house had about 12 students at the moment. 
The gardens are gorgeous with the ‘Headmaster’s Lawn’ dominating the front of the main building.  Surrounded by flower beds it’s all very pretty.  I was surprised by how large the grounds were.  There were fields to play games on and an indoor heated pool as well as tennis courts and other more passive spaces.

Lunch was served in the dining room – and was very traditional with class teachers taking responsibility for the students and sitting at the end of each long table.  The teacher assists in serving and monitors the children for eating and behaviour and the like.  The students assume roles too, going to the servery for the food and helping clear away.  I sat with a group of Year 7 students – who chatted amiably and told me all about the activities they were involved in for the afternoon.  The food was good too.  Thursday afternoons see the students involved in anything from sailing to horse riding, drama, computer studies, cooking and games.  The students head out just after lunch (unless you are off site and then they go at the end of lessons and take a packed lunch with them) and return in time for the reading period at 3.50pm.  Yes you read that right.  The children from Years 4-8 stay at school until about 6.00pm and there are formal lessons in the late afternoons.  They also attend lessons until midday on Saturday with sport and games in the afternoon.  The teachers work through too, having a half day during the week to make up for the Saturday morning compulsory lessons.  No one seemed to mind – it’s just the way that it is.
I worked with the Year 2 students in the Lower School after lunch.  They are gearing up for the Jubilee and wanted to know about Australia and if we had a queen too.  I shared some things about Alice-Miranda and Clementine Rose with them as well and they asked some wonderful questions.

‘Do you write your books in Australian and then do they have to be made into English for over here?’  Love it!
I was then able to visit the cooking class – who were making chocolate cup cakes and take a wander around the school to snap some photographs.  My last session of the day was during the reading and assembly period and I have to say that I was a little apprehensive about the timing and the temperature.  It was at least 30 degrees celsius and the hall didn’t seem especially well ventilated.
Ian arrived and we watched a drama lesson before the children arrived back from their various activities.  A group of five students were improvising a piece about the Titanic and it was great to watch their ideas unfold.

The children arrived at the at the hall and allthough they were a little more subdued than I had expected ,they were great listeners and when we got to the drama activity, a young fellow called George blew us away with his incredible acting.  If the hall wasn’t too hot before he hit the stage it certainly was afterwards as the entire audience howled with laughter at his antics.

At the end of the session there was to be a signing.  I wasn’t sure how we would go but to my great delight the box of fifty books Random House had arranged were soon gone and there was a list of children placing orders for more.   It was great to have boys and girls buying the books – some for their little sisters but I suspect a few will read it themselves too.

It was a fabulous day and not over yet.  Ian and I returned to the hotel to freshen up then later walked up the road and met Simon Northcott, the Headmaster.  We were having a barbeque in his garden – an unexpected treat indeed.  It was lovely and warm and the garden was a picture.  Simon and his wife Michelle, who teaches PE in the school are leaving Anselm’s at the end of the term to move to Edinburgh.  They’ve obviously loved their time in Bakewell but are looking forward to the new adventure.
Dinner was delicious and we stayed far too late, not realizing the time because it’s light until 10pm.  We also discovered that Simon’s niece Rosie is at school in Salisbury where we are heading on Monday.
S.Anselm’s was absolutely lovely and a school that I hope to return to on the next tour. I think a visit to Edinburgh will also be part of the plan J

The Peak District; Chatsworth and Bakewell - a day to remember

Wednesday morning we allowed ourselves a bit of a sleep in.  Breakfast at Lion Quays included a show from the resident peacock, Eugene, who really paraded his stuff for us.  He's absolutely stunning.  He arrived one day about four years ago and decided to stay.  Then again, I can think of a lot worse places to live too.

Driving from Oswestry to the Peak District, we encountered tiny villages with churches hundreds of years old, miniscule laneways, where passing another vehicle meant holding your breath and more pubs than you can possibly count.  This trip mostly saw us avoiding the motorways – which I was pleased about as they can be quite dull and dangerous.  We ventured through some major towns as well as the villages, the last of which was Buxton.  This reminded both of us of Bath and we later learned that it was built as the ‘spa town of the North’.  I’m not sure that it ever lived up to its name but apparently there has been quite a considerable amount of money invested in the area recently, renovating old buildings and encouraging new development.  It’s really very beautiful.
When you head into the Peaks, the landscape changes dramatically, with windswept moors and craggy outcrops – on which several groups of abesillers were honing their skills.  Our drive was marked by bright sunshine and a cloudless sky.  Truly gorgeous.
As we headed toward Bakewell, the villages were like something from a fairytale.  Quaint cottages and narrow streets and again of course, at least a pub or two.  On this rare day off on the tour we decided to visit the Chatsworth estate, renowned as one of the most beautiful country piles in the UK.  It is home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.  There is a farm shop and a village with an ancient church and then as we rounded a bend in the road, careful not to upset the sheep and their lambs, my mouth literally fell open.  The scene in front of us was like something from a movie.  The most enormous mansion surrounded by formal gardens including a cascading water feature that must have been half a mile long.  And then there were the stables and rising from the trees atop the peak, the hunting lodge.  Of course there was also a river flowing through the bottom of the park and people – everywhere enjoying the glorious weather and the hospitality of the Duke and Duchess.

The whole countryside was a palette of blues and greens – we were definitely seeing the estate at its very best.  Nothing about our visit disappointed, except that I could have stayed there for much longer.  The estate is now part of a trust, created when the current Duke inherited it and had to pay 80% death duties.  It was quite likely the only way that they could ensure its future.  The Duke and Duchess pay rent to live in the house and that situation will continue down the line.  The money generated from activities including tours and the like goes back into conservation and maintenance.  There is a large staff to pay for too.
We paid 15 pounds each to enter the house and grounds and I have to say it was money well spent.  Inside there are priceless antiques, curiosities and artworks that the most prestigious museums and galleries would covet.  The trophy cabinets literally glittered with treasure and the collections of various things including Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire’s (featured in the movie, The Duchess) trove of minerals and crystals.  The library with its hidden staircase to the upstairs gallery was intriguing and the guest rooms with some of the first ‘ensuite’ bathrooms (built into cupboards) featured extravagant furnishings and beds you really did need a step ladder to climb into.
I spent my time in the gardens imagining what it must have been like in the years before the house was opened to the public, being a child growing up in this wonderland.  With rocky outcrops and waterfalls, a maze to hide in and expanses of lawn, just begging for a game of chasings, it must have been a wonderful life for some.  Perhaps not for the servants who spent their time at the beck and call of the masters, some of whom have quite a chequered past.  The current Duke and Duchess would seem to be well loved by their staff, and well looked after too.  I’m sure that it wasn’t always that way.  Later we heard a story about one duke who was upset that the village obscured his view of the countryside – so he had it moved.  Block by block and piece by piece including the church.  Except for one house where the elderly resident was allowed to stay.  They intended to move the dwelling once he’d shuffled off this mortal coil.  However the wily old so and so outlived the Duke of the time and everyone forgot about it and so there is one cottage that stands alone.
The current Dowager Duchess lives in the village since her husband died and is apparently adored by all.  It sounds like the family has quite a public presence too, and I love the fact that the grounds ,as in the park, are always open.  As we drove out in the afternoon there were hundreds of people picnicking and swimming in the river too – it was hot.  It must have neared thirty degrees.

Bakewell is famous for Bakewell tarts, which I’m afraid I didn’t sample although they looked delicious.  We found our accommodation at the Bagley Hall Sleep Lodge.  A slightly curious place, there is a telephone number to call for check in.  We wandered around and saw the main Hall as well as the Sleep Lodge and stumbled upon the son in law of the owners who was very helpful and offered to take our luggage to the room.  It was called the Ranulf Fienes Suite and the room was huge with a king sized bed.  The bathroom was upstairs and was large too.  I think the owners had spent a considerable amount of money converting what was previously backpacker accommodation; however, the cleaning and maintenance wasn’t the best and the place had aged quickly.  Nonetheless it was very comfortable and the bed was heavenly.
We stumbled on the school we are visiting tomorrow on our way to the hotel – S. Anselm’s was literally at the top of the hill around the corner and was gorgeous. 

John Carr, the Head of English had left a message for us to call him when we arrived.  We did and arranged to meet up just after 6pm when he would take us a for a tour of the area and to dinner in one of the local pubs.  We weren’t expecting a convertible but when John arrived we had the pleasure of driving through the countryside in his beetle with the roof down – certainly not something I expected to be doing in England.  Convertibles are very popular here and Ian and I had commented on the drive over that day, that a bit of sunshine removes the tops on lots of cars. 
We stopped in a pretty village called Ashford on the Water for dinner at the local pub.  The whole experience was quintessentially English.  John’s a great guy and we really enjoyed having the opportunity to meet him after many emails to arrange the visit.  It’s his first year at the school and it’s clear that he loves it.  I was looking forward to meeting the children in the morning and working with a range of classes.  We had been made so welcome – the Peaks had won us over already!