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, June 27, 2012

Guest Blog for Random Acts of Reading In the USA

I was thrilled that during our time in the US I was asked to write a summary of our US experience for the Random Acts of Reading Blog, which is run by 9 of the sales reps for Random House in the US.  The post appeared a couple of days ago and I've linked it here.  http://randomactsofreading.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/an-author-joins-us-meet-jacqueline-harvey-and-alice-miranda/

Friday, June 22, 2012

The best (and not so much) of the US and UK

It’s been great to have some time to reflect on the trip lately.  While we  were staying in Oswestry, near the Welsh borders and I was working away on Alice-Miranda’s 7th adventure, Alice-Miranda In Paris, Ian and I had some wonderful discussions about the best and not so best bits of the US and UK.  Things that make us want to be there forever and things that make us miss Australia.
So we decided to compile some lists.  Of course it’s just our experience but if you’re planning a visit to the US or UK anytime soon, some of our tips for young players might come in handy.
Best of the US
·         The people.  Once you get through immigration, where I advise you keep a straight face and do your best not to make any jokes, the people are fantastic.  Although, this time, after I had berated Ian and told him to be sensible and not make any wise cracks, the San Francisco immigration official turned out to be lovely.  And funny too.  Most unexpected after my first visit to the US where I felt like a criminal.  The UK immigration official was horrible, but I’ll get to him later.

·         Cost of living.  While the Australian dollar is around parity with the US dollar, make the most of it fellow Aussies.  Generally the US is affordable.  Clothes are cheap, food is cheap and in many places (New York excluded) the cost of hotels is not too bad either.

·         Food.  There is an extraordinary range of food in the US and it’s affordable.  Portion sizes are ridiculously huge so you can go out for lunch and get a doggy bag which will also do you for dinner too.  Steak in the US is great and the steakhouses in New York (although not so much in the affordable range) are brilliant.

·         iPad menus in restaurants – fantastic!

·         Drivers in the US are generally very considerate, which is excellent particularly if you are from Australia or the UK where the steering wheel is on the right hand side and we drive on the left hand side of the road.

·         New York – there is no place like it on earth.

·         The ‘open all hours’ mentality in New York city (but in other places too like San Francisco and Chicago)

·         Central Park – the lungs of the city and my favourite place in New York.

·         Frozen Hot Chocolate from Serendipity 3 – every bit as good as it sounds (and no wonder Alice-Miranda loved it). Sorry about picture on the side - for whatever reason I can't get it to rotate!

·         Extraordinary range of things you can buy in the shops – who knew that you could buy beer on tap in the pharmacy but Duane Read is in a league all of its own when it comes to chemist products!

·         Subways – highly efficient, and long distance trains that are clean and run on time.

·         Taxis in New York City – easy to get (except in the no man’s land changeover period around 3-5pm when getting a taxi is impossible).

·         Southern American accents – I could listen to them all day.

·         Salt water taffy – it’s delicious.

·         Friends – new and old – we met so many fabulous people in the US, who I have no doubt will remain friends for a long time to come.

Best restaurants

o   Boulevard in San Francisco – stunning food, beautiful décor and an all-round excellent experience.

o   My friend Diane’s house in South Carolina – her pulled pork was fabulous and while I’m still not convinced about grits, hers were delicious.

o   Cracker-barrel– now I know it’s a chain restaurant but for Aussies wanting a Southern experience, it was lots of fun and I loved my chicken fried chicken!

o   Viand – another chain in New York but the BEST GRILLED CHEESE sandwich I have ever eaten (so we went there at least five times while we were staying on the Upper West Side).

o   Philippe Chow – stunning Chinese in mid-town New York City.

o   DB Bistro Moderne – fantastic fusion food in mid-town New York City (the best burger I have ever eaten!).

o   Gallery Café at Pebble Beach – the best breakfast I had in the US.

Best hotels
o   Omni San Francisco – great room, best bed in the US, fantastic service and the friendliest hotel staff ever (and the most sensational chocolate brownie dessert which made me fall off the 'no sugar' wagon completely!)
o   The Lodge at Pebble Beach – stunning!

o   Hyatt Hotel Morristown New Jersey – a really lovely room and a pretty town too.

Ok, so I’ve detailed the best, now for some of the things we didn’t love quite so much
·         Coffee – it was horrible.  Percolated sludge with milk froth is not a cappuccino!  There were two places we found good coffee, Urban Table in Morristown (I could have hugged the girl who made it!) and Joe’s on the Upper West side in Manhattan.

·         Intersections with 4 stop signs – a little hard to get used to.

·         The sheer number of fast food outlets.  I don’t know how they survive but I do know why there are obesity issues in the US.

·         Bureaucracy at Yankee Stadium – ‘yes ma’am you can take your iPhone in but not your iPad’.  When I pointed out that they did the same thing, I was told to check my bag at the sports bar a mile down the road.

·         The exorbitant cost of hotels in New York City.

·         Added taxes – just when you thought you knew the cost of something there are a whole bunch of extra taxes laid on.

Best of the UK
·         The people – we met so many wonderful people – some of whom I had ‘met’ on the Internet and others we met while there; great teachers, children, booksellers and people we ran into in various locations – and it was lovely to meet Anna and Philip who came up from Littlehampton to the Queen’s Park Book Festival to say hello.  Anna has been an Alice-Miranda fan since her grandmother in Australia started sending the books to her – the fact that they made the effort to come up was just wonderful and I adored meeting them both.  It was great to catch with old friends too!
·          The countryside – rolling hills, stone walls, picture postcard villages – simply gorgeous.

·         Playing golf in the countryside and being able to look for a lost ball without fear of running into a snake; also watching rabbits frolicking, pheasants stalking about and squirrels darting this way and that.   It felt like being in a Beatrix Potter story.  I had hoped to see a badger but alas the only one we spotted was in not such good condition on the edge of the road.  Apparently moles are quite prolific too – although I would have been expecting them to wear glasses and a waistcoat so potentially disappointing!  Friends told us they were like giant rats so perhaps I’m glad we didn’t meet one.

·         The Tube system in London – once you get used to changing trains it’s a very efficient way to get around – the Oyster card system works well too.

·         The history is wonderful – there is so much to see.

·         Castles and historic homes – beautiful and completely fascinating.

·         Finding Caledonia Manor (real name Brogyntyn) – what were the odds? (see earlier posts for details).

·         Patriotism and love of the Queen – we were there during the Diamond Jubilee and the English do love a good street party and a reason to celebrate.

·         Stoic English spirit – we were invited to a Jubilee party in a field.  It was freezing and wet and yet the hundred or so people in attendance seemed to have a great time without a bother about the weather.

·         The Children’s Book Team at Random House UK – what a fantastic group – felt part of the family and the ‘Random Moment’ is a wonderful way to make authors feel welcome.

·         The wide variation in accents – so much to practice!

·         Sunny days are like gold dust – to be treasured.

·         Closeness of cities – and convenience of larger stores etc even when you are on the other side of the country miles from London.

·         M&S Simply Food – why can’t we have something like this at home – stunning range of food and well-priced too.

·         Real custard tarts – delicious (although my waistline will be glad that I left the UK).

·         Narrow boats and canals – what a great way to get around.

·         Better newspapers with a wide variety of stories (not just tabloid rubbish) – sounds hard to believe given the press we get about the UK papers.

·         Spitalfields Markets in the East End.

·         London cabbies who know exactly where they’re going and if faced with a detour, know exactly how to get around it.

·         The Eurostar to Paris – easy and comfortable too.

Best restaurants (from the limited number that we tried

·         The Wollesley in London – a bit of an icon and great for breakfast

·         Sebastians in Oswestry

·         The Boat Pub in Erbistock

·         The Corn Mill in Llangollen

Favourite towns

·         Richmond Upon Thames (I could live there in a heartbeat but the bank manager might have something to say about that)
·         Salisbury – beautiful and historic

·         Chester – gorgeous

·         Bakewell and the Peak District

·         Shropshire – Oswestry and surrounding villages

·         Llangollen in Wales

Best accommodation

·         Lion Quays in Oswestry – fantastic staff, service, rooms, great bed, canal view and plenty to keep you occupied – also great value for money.

·         Andaz Hyatt Liverpool Street London – fantastic modern hotel with interesting quirks and touches including iPad check in and personalized greeting and room tour – also a good location – and free mini bar.
Now for some of the things we didn’t love quite so much 
·         The weather – it will come as no surprise to most people but out of 6 weeks we saw about 9 days  of sushine and 6 days that resembled summer temperatures.
·         Freeway traffic – insane and crazy parking the wrong way on the street - can be a little offputting!
·         Proliferation of powerlines over the countryside
·         Some crazy drivers (and sorry folks, not nearly as considerate as the US nor as they used to be)
·         Rubbish television coverage, particularly the news
·         Warm beer
·         Cost of living in cities particularly
·         Coffee – not as awful as the US but still not consistently good.  Had great coffee at lovely bookshop called Booka in Oswestry but not many other memorable cups
·         English immigration official – rude, rude, rude!  With an attitude like that, it makes visitors wonder why they came (fortunately the people from thereon in were wonderful)
Overall, the best hotel we stayed in on the trip was the first one; The Omni San Francisco for being the complete package including the best bed (and we have slept in 26 different beds so far with one still to go in Hong Kong!)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Shropshire, Brogyntyn and Caledonia Manor revisited

For the past 16 days we have been holed up at a wonderful place just out of Oswestry called The Lion Quays.  It’s a fantastic hotel right on the Llangollen canal, with two restaurants and a function centre (there have been about 10 weddings since we arrived and one non-wedding – yes that really does happen), an amazing health spa including the most beautiful pool and gym facilities (completely underutilised by me) and lovely gardens resplendent with their own peacock called Eugene. 

It has been a great place to settle in and work on Alice-Miranda’s 7th adventure, Alice-Miranda In Paris.  I’ve made good progress – hopefully by this afternoon it will be almost halfway there. 

There has been some self-discipline required on my part as although this is a quieter part of England, there are still many attractions close by and I could spend days just driving along country lanes and visiting villages.  So I’ve used a bit of a reward program – certain number of words attained in the morning, go somewhere in the afternoon.  We’ve visited Wrexham, Chester, Llangollen, Oswestry and Welshpool. 

We had a fleeting visit to Powis Castle and a much longer day out looking at the Pontcysylite Aqueduct, and Chirk Castle then a lovely long lunch at The Boat pub in a pretty village called Erbistock.  So while we haven’t done nearly as many things as perhaps I would have liked, I knew that this part of the trip would require a considerable amount of work, to be able to go back to Australia anywhere near ready for work, work (and still I’ll need to write every day from now until we go home and for the week we are home before I head back to the ‘real job’).  But I’m determined and 5 days in Paris next week should be great in terms of research and getting the facts right for the story.  Then it’s on to Hong Kong.

By far and away one of the highlights of being here has been stumbling on the house that inspired Caledonia Manor in the Alice-Miranda series - the derelict mansion, which up until a few weeks ago, I knew only to be somewhere in Shropshire.  Now we’ve not only toured the outside with a lovely bloke called Pete, we’ve had a grand tour of the inside too, from the bombproof cellars to the spectacular roof with Will, the young chap who looks after the estate.  Then yesterday afternoon we met Caroline, her husband Nigel and stepdaughter Jazzy, who live in the Victorian gardener’s cottage at the back of the stables.  On hearing from Will that there were some Australians sniffing about, Caroline emailed me and asked if we’d like to see the rest of the estate including the medieval castle mound, the Home Farm and Swiss Cottage as well as the walled garden and loads of other bits and pieces.  We were so thrilled to be able to head out there again – this place has cast a spell over us for sure.

Caroline is Australian, and within a minute or so of meeting we established that her sister had gone to Abbotsleigh  (where I work) and she knew one of my dear friends, Donna Moffatt, or Mrs Moffatt as Caroline still referred to her.  Caroline not only attended the school where Donna had taught, but her father had been the Headmaster too.  The world truly is a small place!  There were other people we knew in common too.
There are not many times that I wish I was obscenely rich.  Really, I'm not kidding.  I might write about a character whose family has it all and it’s nice to imagine that life, but really, I don’t want for much.  The days of thinking it was important to have a big house and designer lifestyle were thankfully left behind at the end of my 20s when I realized that happiness is not necessarily a natural consequence of being wealthy. In fact, often, quite the opposite.  However, since finding Brogyntyn (my Caledonia Manor) I have found myself wishing I had the sort of money that would be required to save this amazing place.  To love it and bring it back to its former glory.  There are so many derelict properties in the UK, once grand homes that have gone into spectacular decline, mostly due to the absence of wills I gather and the high percentage of death duties.  Brogyntyn is a victim of time and circumstance, a grand old lady crying out for love.  A lot like my character Hephzibah, who I imagine living there.

We just don’t build places like these today and to see gorgeous architecture literally falling down around you is rather sad and wasteful.  A development company currently owns Brogyntyn and they have had numerous plans for restoration.  We’ve heard differing stories from apartments, to a family home (that would have to be one big family) to an aged care facility and a hotel.  I can’t imagine the cost of bringing the house back to its former glory.  There is wet rot and dry rot and any other rot you can think of, leaks in places that are obvious and some untraceable, the plaster is falling off the walls and ceilings and the cellars are full of antique telephone equipment left over from the days when British Telecom used the house as a nerve centre during the war.  We were stunned to see plant rooms (with plant equipment still in situ), a whole room with what looks like an ancient computer, switchboards and typewriters and all manner of bits and pieces.  There are massive boilers and RSJs that have come out of the ceiling but are too big to take out of the house without chopping them up.  Apparently the legend is that when BT upped and left, they were meant to restore the house to its original state which would have been a vast expensive; however, the then owner, one of the Lords Harlech was a little stretched and took a (relatively) paltry cash sum instead.  Hence the house continued its decline and hasn’t been lived in for over 50 years.

Upstairs on the main floors, it was fantastic to see that the staircases are still original – and the main one is unbelievably impressive with its carved timberwork.  There are two libraries still with original shelving and the marble fireplaces are all still there too.  The secret library door is less impressive in terms of where it leads to in reality than in my imagination, but it’s gorgeous just the same.  Upstairs the bedrooms go on for miles.  The attics are fascinating with their myriad rooms where the servants who ran the house once lived.  Some of the attic rooms are huge and there was one that leads to the roof which you could just imagine being the most gorgeous playroom.

The views from the top are stunning.  The day was hazy and you could still see for miles.

My favourite room was off the second library and apparently was the reading room.  With a domed roof and light streaming in, it is breathtaking even in its current state of dereliction.

Our tour of the grounds yesterday afternoon gave us more insights into this amazing property.  The gardener’s cottage behind the stable and the walled garden is Victorian and in very good condition.  Along the back of the walled garden there were once many more cottages, where no doubt the huge team of gardeners resided.  What remains now are some crumbling walls and evidence of fireplaces and cellars.  There were greenhouses aplenty too, with only one remaining now and an ice room built in under the earth and still chilly.  We walked around to the walled garden which is sadly completely abandoned.  The walls have suffered years of trees taking root, pressing their limbs through the brickwork and one section had been taken down to enable a tractor access to keep the long grass down.

We walked up to a larger paddock and then over to an area that up until a few weeks ago had been heavily wooded.  However, the trees have all been cut back to reveal an ancient medieval castle mound, with some evidence of what might lay underneath.  There was a moat around the circular structure and now there is a tunnel running through the middle, apparently a Victorian addition, from the years when the top of the mound was used as a bowling green.  British heritage are going to excavate the site.  It’s thought to be over 1000 years old.

Across an idyllic man-made pond is the Swiss Cottage.  A beautiful place built in a traditional Swiss chalet style with quartz crystal walls and intricate timber work, created by weaving tree branches together.  It too has a secret door made to look like a library bookcase.  The cottage is much bigger than it first appears and is currently rented out, as are all the habitable cottages on the estate.  It is grade 1 listed, which is an even higher grading than the hall which is grade 2.

We walked along the roadway to Home Farm, a huge complex of buildings, most in severe disrepair but with one home that is still livable.  We heard that this is where the developers were planning to create a range of residences.  The setting, with rolling hills in front and behind is very pretty and I can imagine why people would want to live there.  I would happily live there!

Walking back across to the hall we wandered (stalked though long grass actually) through what would have once been the main gardens.  Huge trees and stunning rhododendrons are dotted all over the place. It is a child’s paradise with so many trees climb and to make cubbies in, hides and the like.  I felt like I was eight years old again – imagining how many dragons there would be to slay, how many princesses (and princes) to rescue, camp outs and tea parties.  It was simply gorgeous.

We walked back around the outside of the hall, marveling at its sheer proportions, its dominance in the landscape, yet the deliberate tree planting in the fields, which, apart from where the stone wall has fallen down , ensure that the building cannot be seen from the road, making our discovery all the more amazing.
We heard some fabulous stories too of days when Eric Clapton lived at the gardener’s cottage and visits from Mick Jagger (who apparently rode a motorbike into the lake near Swiss Cottage and for all intents and purposes it’s still there), and George Harrison sitting in the garden where he may have even penned Here Comes the Sun. 

The story of Brogyntyn is a tragic one, with many family members over hundreds of years meeting untimely ends, often in horrible circumstances.  But it is a place with a fascinating history and surely deserves a second chance.  Having the financial resources to shower on a restoration project on a house that should be loved and cherished and shared with the rest of the world would be quite something.  And if I can’t do it, where is Sarah Beeny when you need her!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Caledonia Manor - real name Brogyntyn, Oswestry, Shropshire

This afternoon we decided to take a drive into Oswestry, but instead of taking the main road I found an alternate route through some of the back roads and villages.  The countryside is typically pretty, rolling English hills and villages dotted with pubs and tiny cottages.  We reached a section of road with ancient stone walls running along each side – usually an indication of something grand hidden behind.  The wall to the right was in disrepair with several sections dipping down revealing green pastures and lots of sheep and lambs. 

I glimpsed a house – a huge place in the distance and immediately knew that was it.  I couldn’t believe it.  Had we really stumbled on the house that inspired Caledonia Manor, home to Miss Hephzibah Fayle in the Alice-Miranda books?  We drove along further, found a safe spot to turn around and headed back to the gatehouse in the hope of a better look. 
I was almost sure of it – but the house was impossible to see and we were not in the habit of trespassing – although the gate was wide open.

We wondered how we could find out more.  In Oswestry I asked a couple of people in the shops if they knew the name of the place to no avail and then we ran into Sean and Caroline who we had met at Moreton Hall last week.  They suggested the local estate agents or the library.
We decided to visit the library in the morning and so drove back out along the road to see if we could at least snap some photos in the distance – which we did.  But then we found someone outside at the gate house and asked her who owned the place and if we might be able to have a look.  She said that there was a public right of way access through the property but seeing that the gate was open, she thought we could probably drive up and take some photos.  There was another car at the top of the driveway so I hopped out and asked the lady if she lived there and as luck would have it – her partner resides in the stables.  So we wandered about for a while then met Pete, the resident.  I explained why we were so interested – that this was the inspiration for a place in the Alice-Miranda books called Caledonia Manor.  He said that it was most unusual for the gate to be left open and that we shouldn’t really have driven up but after I told him the whole story he was keen to show us around.  He also knows an incredible amount of the history of the Hall, the tragic demise of the family and plans for the future. Settled in the 1600s the house and its estate once presided over the land as far as the eye can see.  The family was one of the great English dynasties and owners of Harlech Castle in North Wales as well.

Unfortunately a string of tragedies including two Lords Harlech dying without wills, leaving massive death duties to be paid, saw the decline of the family fortunes and subsequent sale of the Hall.  Interestingly it was also used during the war by British Telecom as headquarters for communications for the spy network operating in Europe.  Apparently the cellars are bomb proof.  During the time that the Hall was used by BT it fell into serious disrepair and has continued in that vein ever since.  The family eventually sold it about 11 years ago to a development firm who are currently looking at what they could do to save it.  Perhaps a hotel or apartments.  Although Pete said that it is absolutely haunted!
The grounds are utterly gorgeous with towering trees and the remnants of a once much loved garden where in its heyday, 24 gardeners were employed.

The stables are magnificent too and so close to what I had imagined.  I could almost hear naughty Bonaparte whinnying hello. 
It was such a thrill to find this place.  I never imagined that we would – given that when I saw it on the Internet it was an unnamed derelict mansion in Shropshire, which is quite a large county.  I had searched and searched for further clues about this place that I came to call Caledonia Manor but nothing.  There are apparently many derelict mansions in Shropshire and without an exact location or a name the search seemed fruitless.  But today we found it – on a road that we travelled by accident.  Tomorrow there is a chance that we might be able to look inside.  I’m very excited by the prospect.