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 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!

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