Charles Waterton 1782-1865

Charles Waterton, naturalist, explorer, environmentalist and true English eccentric. I mean how else would you describe a man who, expecting dinner guests, hid under the table, growled like a dog and bit his guests’ legs?

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Charles_Waterton_by_Charles_Wilson_Peale,_1824,_National_Gallery,_London

Born in 1782, into a devout Catholic family. He lived at Walton Hall in West Yorkshire, England – the house built by his father on the remains of an earlier one. He attended Stonyhurst College before completing his education abroad.  As a non-Conformist Waterton did not have the usual opportunities open to him that a man of his class would normally enjoy. He was unable to hold any public office, army commission or attend an English university.

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Walton Hall, Home of Charles Waterton

So, in 1804 he travelled to British Guiana to manage his uncle’s estates near Georgetown. In 1812 he began a series of what he called “Wanderings” in South America where he recorded the local flora and fauna and hunted animals to take back to Walton.  Over time, he amassed a large collection for which he developed new a method of taxidermy and some of this collection, remarkably lifelike, survives today. He also used his skills to poke fun at the Church of England and the State.

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One of Waterton’s taxidermy creations – John Bull carrying the national debt and surrounded by devils

In 1813, returning from his travels, Waterton appears to have experienced an epiphany in his relationship with wildlife.  He began to turn the park around Walton Hall into a wildlife reserve, permitting no hunting and excluding no animal except the fox and badger.  He nursed the old trees on his estate, keeping them standing when most would have felled them and planted holly hedges and ivy for nesting sites.  Wildfowl were enticed back to the lake surrounding the Hall.  He railed at his neighbours for killing dwindling species of birds.

In the 1820’s he started his most ambitious project – building a nine-foot high wall around three miles of his park to create a sanctuary not only for wildlife but also for himself.  He states in one of his essays:

“having suffered myself and learned mercy, I broke in pieces the penal laws which the knavery of the gamekeeper and the lamentable ignorance of other servants had hitherto put in force”.

In 1829 Waterton married 17-year-old Anne Edmonstone who was a granddaughter of an Arawak Indian. She died shortly after giving birth to their son Edmund when she was only 18. After her death he slept on the floor with a block of wood for a pillow,

“as self-inflicted penance for her soul!”

His two sisters-in-law came to live at Walton to look after the young Edmund. As the child grew up Waterton found it increasingly difficult to develop a father-son relationship. As a young man Edmund was lavish with money that he did not have, he had little or no interest in his father’s activities. It is quite possible that he was embarrassed by his father’s eccentricities – an embarrassment that developed perhaps into contempt as indicated by Edmund’s later actions.

Apart from family difficulties there was also the problem of the impact of growing industrialisation in the country but events brought it right to his doorstep.  Adjoining his estate was Walton Soap Works, owned by William Hodgson and Edward Simpson.  Soap manufacture, one of Victorian England’s growth industries, used particularly noxious chemicals that generated harmful pollutants and by-products.  Waterton had co-existed peacefully with his neighbours – a peace based on a gentleman’s agreement to refrain from manufacturing the actual chemicals required to make soap – a practice that made production cheaper.  However, growing consumer demand proved hard to resist.  Hodgson and Simpson reneged on the agreement.

When Hodgson died in 1840, Simpson took over entirely and the soap works flourished. He built a new chimney that belched out sulphuric acid fumes. This acid rain killed trees and hedgerows. Stinking toxic effluents accumulated in drains and oozed into nearby watercourses. Crops failed and livestock sickened.  Even the men at the works were affected.  Waterton writes in a local newspaper:

“Simpson’s operatives are the very personification of death alive.  There is not a single cherry-cheeked fresh or healthy looking man among them”.   

In 1847, Waterton declared war, starting the first of three legal campaigns against “soapy” Simpson.  This was to be no gentlemanly conflict.  Simpson was a formidable enemy.  The soap works made him a wealthy man.  He had gained respectability, becoming a local councillor, a partner in a bank and a property owner.

Simpson did not attempt to defend himself.  He was astute enough to know it was fruitless to deny, directly, the claims made against him. Instead, he used personal attacks and ridicule to undermine Waterton’s credibility. When the case came to court, it was referred to arbitration.  In the time leading up to the hearing Waterton suffered volleys of personal abuse together with random acts of violence to property and livestock.

At the eventual hearing in 1848, the verdict was double-edged.  Simpson was found guilty of negligence and given a warning.  Waterton received £1100 compensation but had to bear part of the legal costs.  Simpson carried on his business and the pollution continued unabated.

A few months later Waterton launched his second attack.  He presented a vast quantity of evidence and Simpson brought in a great squad of witnesses (who received suspiciously high expenses for their trouble) to deny the works were harmful or polluting.  This time, the arbitrator merely warned Simpson to maintain high safety standards.

In the final battle of 1850, Waterton took a more subtle approach.  Perhaps he learned a few tricks from his adversary. He discovered that Simpson wanted to expand his works and Waterton’s sister-in-law, “by chance” owned a house with land away from Walton.  How she came to do this is unclear.  Possibly Waterton bought it secretly, with a view to inducing Simpson to leave.  Waterton offered terms – the land and house in exchange for the complete closure of the Walton Soap Works.  Simpson accepted the terms and paid all legal costs.

It was a Pyrrhic victory for Waterton.  He lost trees, hedges, birds and other wildlife. Pollution fouled his lake and watercourses. He spent considerable time and money on the lawsuits. His health suffered.  Yet Simpson prospered, merely taking his work and pollution elsewhere.

Charles Waterton died in 1865 after a heavy fall. His coffin was taken across the lake to his chosen burial place. In a final ironic twist his estranged son, Edmund sold off all the valuable timber, mercilessly slaughtered the birds and game and did his best to obliterate all traces of his father’s conservation legacy.  Ultimately, he sold the estate to none other than the son of Waterton’s bitter enemy, “soapy” Simpson.

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Charles Waterton’s cortege

Today, Waterton’s home is a hotel and part of Waterton’s park is once more a wildlife sanctuary.  The nearby Walton Park Wildlife Discovery Centre promotes the values of the man who advises us:

“Look close with a quiet mind.  Learn from all that you see and so try not to assert your power…”

 

 

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#The Weave and #Poisonous Spiders

Time for a peek at the little beasties that have a part to play in my debut fantasy novel The Weave.  I did a bit of research about poisonous spiders around the world and this is the one –the Red-back Spider-that caught my eye and provided the inspiration for the Amarello spiders in the book.

The Red-back spider is a member of the Widow spider family. The female is more dangerous than the male who often, after serving her needs, gets guzzled. The lady of the species has a red stripe on the upper body and a red or orange streak underneath. Its two fangs bite into the victim then she wraps them up in silk and sucks out the liquefied insides. Lovely.

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The Redback Spider

I invented most of the “facts” about the Amarellos to ensure that they would do exactly what I wanted them to do. I don’t think anything approaching the Amarellos really exists. But you never know!

Here is an extract from the book.  Ombrine the witch is explaining to Oskar, the Comte de Tréville about her Amarellos.

 

 

‘Come and look at my Amarellos. Let me explain to you. Look closely and you will see there is organisation there – you with your tidy mind should appreciate that. These that lie around the outside of the basket, the larger ones, they are the sentinels. Their role is that of guardians of the nest and they line it with venom sacs to keep away predators. The inner layer comprises the nurslings, smaller than the sentinels – they take care of the eggs. Then we have the weavers, those small lively ones who make the rustling noise. They are the only ones to leave the nest and create the webs – and now there, right in the centre, there –’ she pointed to what to Oskar resembled a black velvet pincushion, ‘– there we have the queen, who lays the eggs.’

Oskar peered more closely into the basket. Unaccountably his eyes were prickling and teary. He opened his mouth to speak but found that his jaw was stiff, his tongue hard like a slab of wood. A shiver ran through him and gradually cold numbness crept up his body.

 

What happens next?  Sorry – you will have to read the book, out in mid-November.

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#Ochre – The Colour Red

This is the last of my blogs from Provence where the orange and yellow cliffs around the pretty town of Roussillon captured my attention and induced me to go underground into the ochre mines – something of a feat since I am distinctly uncomfortable at having a zillion tons of earth and rock over my head. However the now defunct ochre mine at Bruoux, has a cathedral-like atmosphere with the vaulted chambers inside soaring up to fifteen metres. The visions I had of crawling on hands and knees were soon put to flight.

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Inside the gallery at Bruoux

Inside the gallery at Bruoux

The chambers and galeries stretch for about twenty five miles. At first farmers worked the mines but eventually experienced miners were required and it was they who carved out the vaulted chambers. They went through maybe half a dozen pickaxes every day doing so but they melted down the heads and recycled them. The heyday of the mine lasted almost a century from the mid nineteenth century. Eventually wars in Europe and the invention of synthetic pigments took over and the mine closed in the mid twentieth century.

So what is Ochre? Why was it mined? The simple answer is that it is a group of earth pigments – yellow, red, purple, sienna and umber – derived from iron oxide found in the sandy earth.

A French scientist Jean Etienne Astier developed a process for making the ochre pigment on a large scale in the late eighteenth century. The clay was taken from open pits or from mines and contained about 10-20 percent ochre. The rest was sand. The clay was washed to separate sand and ochre and the ochre dried, crushed and classified according to colour and quality. The very best was used for artists’ paints.

Ochre paintings have been around a very long time. At Pech Merle, a cave in the Lot department of France contains 29,000 year old cave paintings made using ochre as does the cave of Lascaux with its famous horse image coloured with yellow ochre.

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The Ochre Horse at Lascaux

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The Hand at Pech Merle

In more modern times its main use apart from artists’ paints, was, and still is, interior and exterior house paints and for colouring latex.

In the UK Ochre was mined at Brixham and was an important component of the fishing industry. The ochre was combined with tar, tallow and oak bark and painted on the sails of the fishing boats giving them a red-brown colour. This protected the sails from salt-water.

From underground to overground and the Ochre Trail around Roussillon where painting the town red takes on a whole new meaning. Just about every building is coloured one shade of red or another. However, take the Ochre Trail and you can see why. The trail winds through an old ochre quarry and the surrounding woods of pine, poplar and oak. The colours are breath-taking as are the steep bits of the trail but well worth the lack of puff to sit and watch the sun play hide and seek between the trees and the cliffs.ocre cliffs 2ocre cliffs 3ocre cliffs 4ocre cliffs1

 

The Village of Bories, Gordes, France

One of the most fascinating sights on my recent jaunt to Provence was les bories –  settlements built entirely of limestone and without using an iota of cement.

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In the 17th and 18th centuries Provence, like many French regions faced a huge population increase and the King decreed that more land should be taken into cultivation to avoid a dearth of corn and subsequent famine. The poorest people took on uncultivated land, often very difficult to work and developed it into small fields. Often this land was far away from any village so they built les bories using the stone they unearthed or found lying around as they started to work the land.

One such settlement ‘Les Cabanes’ is to be found about 4km from the lovely town of Gordes at an altitude of around 270 metres on an arrid limestone escarpment.

At ‘Les Cabanes’ the buildings themselves are a work of art. Built by a dry-stone method, layer after layer of limestone was tightly fitted together with a slight ‘batter’ to shed the rain. The settlement comprised houses, stables, pig sties, barns, bread ovens, a press and cellar for wine. The tracks around the settlement were enclosed by more stone walls to guard against brigands but, more importantly to protect against the wolves which ran wild in the Vaucluse Mountains at that time.

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Doorway into a house

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Inside a house

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Huge manger carved from one  piece of olive wood in the bergerie – sheep shed

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Bread Oven

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Inside the Bread Oven

The paysans grew mulberry and almond trees, cereals, hay for their sheep and goats and, above all, olive trees which are well suited to the dry stony ground. All around the Gordes area, olive presses could be found until le grand gel – the great freeze – of 1956 put an end to the harvest.

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In addition to their main crops the paysans also kept bees, had small potagers, collected the wild herbs, hunted for truffles and raised silkworms – all of which added to their back-breaking labours. Nevertheless the revenues obtained from all this activity gave them the means to avoid starvation.

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The Silkworm Shed

The site at ‘Les Cabanes’ was eventually abandoned and during more than a century it fell into ruin. In 1969 a restoration project started which lasted eight years and in 1977 the site was classified as an historic monument.

Gainsthorpe – A Village Lost in Time

You may wonder why I’m posting pictures of fields full of lumps and bumps but be patient …

 

Do you know what it is yet? Does this help?

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(Photo: English Heritage Library©)

These are photos of Gainsthorpe deserted village in Lincolnshire – one of the best preserved in the realm of deserted mediaeval villages in England.

The village is noted in the Domesday Book; later, in 1208 a windmill and a chapel were recorded but the last mention of its name was 1383. 17th century records refer to well- preserved earthworks with a couple of hundred houses and up to half a dozen streets.

It was an irregularly planned village, much of which has now been lost to farming and quarrying, but once was a thriving medieval settlement of small houses  – one or two-roomed – built of stone.  Each house was separated from its neighbour by a low bank with plots at the front – ‘tofts’ – which would have had buildings or workshops. At the back of each house was a ‘croft’ – a garden for growing vegetables and fodder. Streets ran between the houses and field strips for growing crops surrounded the whole village.

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Sunken roadway

Over time the village changed as villages do and there are indications of the merger of some of the houses into larger ones which surround a courtyard. The experts believe this to indicate a shift in farming practices and the development of a manorial complex with a home farm complete with fishpond and dovecotes.

Today the streets look like deep tracks behind which are the remains of the houses, indicated by their low turf foundations. The field strips have been lost to later ploughing.

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SO WHAT HAPPENED?

The simple answer is we don’t really know. We do know from an early 17th century source that the village was already deserted by 1616:

 ‘there is nowe neyther tofte, tenemente or cottage standinge… it keepes neer 1500 sheepe.’

Other villages nearby suffered from the outbreak of the Black Death – the plague that ran amok in England in the 1340’s. Perhaps that contributed to the village’s demise. Deliberate depopulation is also a possibility when landowners forced out their tenants and used the land for the more lucrative sheep farming.

One theory offered by antiquarian Abraham de la Pryne in the late 17th century was:

Tradition says that the town was, in days of yore, exceeding famous for robberys, and that nobody inhabited there but thieves: and that the countrey, having for a long while endur’d all their villanys, they at last, when they could suffer them no longer, riss [rose] with one consent, and pulled down the same about their ears.”

He then concludes with a more prosaic explanation:

“But I fancy the town was eaten up with time, poverty and pasturage.”

I fancy he is correct.

 

Isabella de Forz – The Lady of the Isle (1237-1293)

Born into a wealthy Devon family; married at twelve years old; widowed at twenty three having borne six children, Isabella de Forz outwitted both the king and Simon de Montfort to remain resolutely a widow and manage her own affairs. She became one of the great medieval landowners and one of the richest noblewomen in England.

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Isabella’s Corbel – thought to be the lady herself

Isabella was the daughter of Baldwin de Redvers, 6th earl of Devon and Exeter and Lord of the Isle of Wight. As such she was accustomed to life in a wealthy noble family and understood the expectations held of her particularly in relation to her marriage- an alliance aimed at increasing wealth, power and influence.

At twelve, she was married to William de Forz, the Count of Aumale who was twenty years her senior. He was a loyal supporter of the king, Henry III and was often away on the king’s business. As a result, Isabella, despite her youth, became deeply involved in supervising the management of her husband’s considerable estates in France and the north of England.

In 1260, William died whilst abroad leaving Isabella a young and rich widow when her dower lands reverted to her. Two years later Isabella’s brother died and she became, in her own right, the heiress to the family estates and all at a time when the politics of the country were in turmoil.

In brief the nobles of England, rich and influential, were dissatisfied with the king, Henry III. They wanted more say in the governing of the country and were not at all happy with the favours bestowed on his wife’s (Eleanor of Provence) relatives. After several failed attempts to resolve the barons’ grievances, matters came to a head with Simon de Monfort leading the Baron’s War against the King. (1264-7). Isabella’s husband William de Forz remained a staunch royalist and close adviser to Henry. Whilst her husband lived Isabella followed his royalist lead. After his death however, she trod circumspectly between the two warring factions in an attempt to protect what was rightly hers. Throughout her life she maintained strong personal links between Henry and Eleanor and their son Prince Edward, later Edward I. Equally she remained in contact with Simon de Montfort’s wife, another Eleanor.

Isabella developed a taste and an aptitude for managing her own life as an independent woman rather than as the wife of a nobleman. She put in place a competent team – her affinity – to see to the day to day management of the estates and to advise her. She ran her fiefdom mainly from Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight –Isabella’s family home where she extensively remodelled the Castle turning it into a sumptuous private residence and styled herself as the Lady of the Isle.

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Carisbrooke Castle Today

However as a wealthy an influential widow she was a fine catch for any noble. Simon de Montfort, after seizing control of the country saw this very clearly and sold the rights to Isabella’s remarriage to his eponymous son. Isabella was having none of this. During the year 1264/5, She was chased the length and breadth of the country by Simon the younger in an attempt to abduct her and force her into marriage. She hid in Brearmore Abbey in Hampshire but the Abbot revealed her whereabouts to the would-be husband. Later, apparently after suitable gifts, the Abbot helped her escape and she took herself off to Wales to lie low. After the battle of Evesham in 1265, described as ‘murder of Evesham for battle it was none’ both de Montfort elder and junior were killed and Henry held the reins of the country again. The question of Isabella’s marriage raised its head once more. This time Henry sold the rights to her marriage to his second son, Edmond, Duke of Lancaster. In that way the wealth and influence she had amassed would eventually accrue to the crown. However, instead of taking flight, this time Isabella negotiated with the king to arrange the marriage of her daughter and heir Aveline to Edmond and thus eventually the crown would inherit. The plan was thwarted by the death of Aveline and the estates reverted to Isabella.

Although Isabella’s vast estates were enticement enough – she held land and property in more than half the counties of England – it was her possession of the Isle of Wight that worried Henry and Prince Edward.  The island held the status of a semi-independent feudal fiefdom with Isabella’s family, the de Redvers, ruling from Carisbrooke Castle.  The Isle was considered to be of great strategic importance particularly in times of war with France. When Isabella inherited her family estates she took up residence in Carisbrooke and ruled there almost as a queen in her own right, outside of royal jurisdiction.

However, Isabella managed her relationships with Henry and Edward with intelligence and acumen. She was not cowed by either of them, standing up for what she saw as her rights. She is said to have possessed a copy of the laws of England which she used in her many legal spats with the king, other nobles and tenants. Even family members were not exempt from her insistence on her rights. There was a long-running dispute with her mother concerning the income of Isabella’s northern lands. The monks at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight were said to have “an unwholesome fear” of her because of her claims to rights and lands previously held by the Abbey.  She stoutly defended her rights to the wrecks of the seas around the Isle which often had high value. Attempts by Henry and Edward to claim these rights were given short shrift by Isabella.

Her relationship with Henry seems to have been one based on mutual mistrust. Perhaps Henry believed her sympathies to lie with the Barons. When she inherited her estates from her brother she was slow to come to court and swear homage to him, ignoring one summons and responding to the second summons only after Henry appointed the sheriff of Hampshire to take charge of her English lands. For Isabella’s part she appeared to mistrust Henry’s promises and at periods when the threat of war with France loomed she formally negotiated detailed terms with him by which he could garrison the Isle of Wight, such garrison to be withdrawn when the crisis was over. This was also probably part of her strategy to demonstrate her loyalty to him.

Her relationship with Edward, once he became king, was quite different. Edward, always careful of royal rights appeared to be equally solicitous of Isabella’s. Whilst carrying out his own review of the appropriation of royal property and rights, he discovered a number of cases where manors had been illegally taken from her. These he restored to her. However Edward was not averse to putting pressure on Isabella and constantly sought to persuade her to sell the Isle and her other estates. When she was at her most vulnerable after the death of her daughter, Aveline, he was quick to draw up deeds of sale of her lands. However grief stricken she was, she held firm and the sale came to nothing.

In 1293, when she was fifty six years old and after thirty three years of widowhood and independence Isabella was taken ill on her way to Canterbury.  She had outlived all her children and so, on her deathbed, she finally agreed the sale of the Isle of Wight to Edward for about six thousand marks (c. four thousand pounds).

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Isabella’s Seal reads “Personal seal of Isabella de Forz, Countess of Devon and the Isle”

Edward later claimed that Isabella had made him her heir and so he immediately inherited the money he had just paid out. The transaction later had to be defended by Edward’s son since it was regarded as highly dubious. Isabella was buried in Breamore Abbey in Hampshire.

In many ways Isabella acted as a conventional noblewoman. Managing her estates, interceding for her tenants and employees, giving grants and gifts of land to those of her affinity, religious patronage – these were normal areas of activity for noblewomen. However she went beyond these local responsibilities and acted on equal terms with the other barons. As one of the wealthiest noblewomen in England (at her death her fortune was around two million pounds in current value) she had influence and authority. The extent of her estates and particularly the Isle of Wight and her need to defend them against the encroachment of others brought her into the highest level of society where she gained the respect and confidence of the other nobles. She had a clear sense of self and what she was owed, a strong will and the intelligence to pick her way through the politics and allegiances of these troubled times to guard ‘her own’.

Long Time No Blog!

I thought that you might like to see the cover for my book The Weave – yes I know my Facebook followers have already seen it but it doesn’t hurt to remind you! Hope you like it. Should be out in November.

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However, I could really do with some feedback about the proposed ‘blurb’ to go on the back cover. Bit of a cheek I know considering I’ve had six months away from the blog but sometimes life just gets in the way. Anyhow, this is the proposed wording. It was harder to write than the book itself and this is the fourth version.

1598: When Oskar, Comte de Tréville asks the witch Ombrine to save the life of his son, she demands a high price. Oskar must leave his family and his lands and travel with her, as a servant, to Barbaria in search of the deadly Amerello spiders.

On his return to France five years later Oskar finds he is wanted for the murder of his wife. Unable to prove his innocence he allies himself with Ombrine who persuades him to take the Jouance – a life-prolonging drug made from the venom of the Amerellos.

He and Ombrine embark on a career of crime using Ombrine’s witchcraft and her Szellem – creatures called up from the dead.

Three centuries later, Oskar, now wealthy and leisured uncovers the truth about the fate of his family and has only one remaining ambition – to exact a long slow revenge.

2013: Debut author Richard Pease suffers from writer’s block. He is also broke and bedevilled by fears of his own inadequacy. He has just six weeks to complete his second book or lose his publishing contract.

A chance encounter with Oskar takes Richard to the Nonesuch Club, a writer’s retreat in France run by Oskar and Ombrine. There he finds the block to finishing his book lifts.

The mysterious disappearance of a fellow club member and the discovery of a drug laboratory in the Club plunge Richard into a centuries-old tangled web of deceit leaving him not only fighting for his career but also for his life.

So what do you think? If you saw the cover and read the blurb in a bookshop or on-line would you rush to buy or give a great big yawn and move on?

All ideas, suggestions, yah-boo-it-sucks welcome. Leave a comment below and thank you.