L’Eglise Rupestre – the Church in the Rock

The little village of Vals lies just off the D119 between Mirepoix and Pamiers.  There is just a huddle of houses and above the village what, at first sight looks like a fortified house or small chateau. Take a few steps further and you discover your mistake… it is, in fact, a church- the church of Note Dame de Vals. It is part-built into a large outcrop of rock – an eglise rupestre as they say in this part of the world.

The Church at Vals

Enter the church through a stout oak door and you are faced with a spiral stone staircase winding up through the rock.  Daylight from natural fractures and fissures in the rock lights the way.

The entry through the rock

 

The stairs through the rock

The stairs lead to the first of three levels.  The first level is the oldest dating from the tenth century  and lies in the heart of the rock. This part is the lower nave or sometimes called the crypt.

The lower nave or crypt

It feels a little spooky to be so entombed but the effect wears off especially when you look up to the ceiling where beautiful frescoes depict aspects of Christ’s life. The colours are gentle – chalk white, pale red, ochre and black -and dissipate the spooky effect.

Ceiling Frescoes

From this level a second staircase takes you to the upper nave, rebuilt  and extended upwards in the sixteenth century after a fire. Two colourful stained glass windows, installed in the nineteenth century filter soft light into the gloom.

the second level or upper nave

 

St George slaying the dragon

Go  further and you enter the little twelfth century chapel of St. Michael below the church tower itself. The tower was transformed into a defensive refuge during the fourteenth century and the whole site surrounded by a ditch. This was the time of the Hundred Year’s War and the tower protected the locals from incursions by bandits and ne’er-do-wells during these troubled times.

The fortified bell tower

On a bright and sunny November day where nothing is to be heard except for the occasional cow bell it is hard to imagine the villagers of the fourteenth century scurrying, at the tolling of the church bell, for sanctuary clutching their most prized possessions.

 

Altogether though, there is something mysterious and magical about the place.

 

 

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#Fantasy #The Weave – The Witch and the Count

Since it’s the season for witches and warlocks, mischief and spooks, I thought this would be a good time to introduce you to Ombrine the witch in this, the last of my excerpts from The Weave. In this extract Oskar, Comte de Treville has come to seek Ombrine’s help.

 

“He wound through trees of pine, oak and larch following an ancient path and as he penetrated deeper into the forest all was silent. His horse’s hooves trod soft on a thick bed of pine needles and leaf mould stirring up a cooling, earthy scent around him. The light grew dimmer as the path narrowed and the trees thickened. The air felt damp and chilly. He shivered. After a while he could hear the sound of rushing water and he knew he was near the waterfall and cave where the witch dwelt.

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…He urged his horse forward until he reached a small grassy clearing in the heart of the wood. To one side lay a pool of limpid water into which a cascade tumbled and splashed. At the side of the cascade he saw the cave, its entrance cushioned with bright emerald moss and overhung by a tangle of brambles and scrub.

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A figure appeared in the cave entrance – a woman, small in stature and thin. She wore her black hair loose and flowing down to the waist. Oskar noticed her unusually round head and a face tanned by the sun, yet smooth and unblemished. Her eyes, the colour of autumn chestnuts, glowed as he dismounted and walked forward…

…The witch laughed. ‘I know why you have come, my lord. You seek my help. Your son is sick and like to die. You want my help, as do so many.’

Oskar nodded. ‘I do. I have heard you have potions to clear away the sickness. I have come to ask you the truth of this, and if it be true, to beg you to save my son. I will pay what you demand.’

The witch studied his face. Her eyes shone bright with malice.

‘It is a wonder, is it not, how the high and mighty will turn to me, so despised and abused as I am, when they need something that all the physicking of wise men cannot provide. I have no truck with such folk. But you, my lord, you are somewhat different, a little better than most. You have never harassed me nor set your hounds on me and I remember once how you stopped one of your village mobs from stoning me. You did warn me away from your people, it is true, and now I live out here in my cave. All the same, perhaps I owe you something. Enter, my lord, come in to my castle.’ She stood to one side and mockingly bowed him to enter.”

 

And so it begins… The Weave is out on 16 November on Amazon.

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#The Weave -Finding the Nonesuch Club

In this extract from The Weave, Richard an English author finds The Nonesuch Club and meets the inscrutable Oskar…

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At night the maze of narrow streets and dark alleyways seemed forbidding. Tall houses on either side of the streets leaned drunkenly against each other, many with a first-floor storey overhanging the street below, looming, somehow threatening. He shambled around the deserted streets with no particular direction in mind and found himself approaching the church via the Rue de Penitents Blancs. ‘I’m white and I’m very penitent,’ he shouted wildly, ‘so what are you picking on me for?’

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In reply a jagged shot of lightning ripped across the sky followed by the rolling crash of thunder. It began to rain – at first huge spattering drops and then a skin-soaking, flesh-numbing torrent. Another shot of lightning and the street lights flickered and died. Richard was plunged into blackness. Not a shard of light was to be seen – no glimmer through the closed shutters or lead-latticed fanlights, just blackness. ‘Oh yes, oh yes, very funny,’ he cried. He had forgotten that the thrifty council and citizens of Montain turned off the street lights at midnight during the tourist off-season and went to bed early.

He swivelled this way and that like a pointer dog casting for a scent. In the end he turned blindly to his right and slowly crept along the cobbled street. He muttered to himself. ‘If that was the Penitents’ Rue then I’m near the church and…’ but he was too befuddled. He gave up trying to work it out. Instead, holding his hands out in front of him he shuffled forward. At one point he was convinced he heard footsteps behind him and a flicker of fear grew. He tripped and stumbled on the cobblestones. Under the shelter of an overhanging roof he stopped and peered into the darkness behind him. He saw nothing. The rain poured off the roof spattering the pavement and splashing up the hems of his jeans. He looked behind him again and, in the flash of another lightning shot, thought he could make out a dark figure. Nervously, he began to shuffle forward again. He took just a few steps when he felt a touch on his shoulder. Whipping round, a trailing tendril of wisteria hanging loose from a house wall brushed his face. Thoroughly unnerved he panicked and turned down a side alley. He had no idea where he was. Again he felt a touch on his shoulder and he broke into a blind run, stumbling and splashing through the stone gutter that ran down the centre of the alleyway.

Then he saw it… just a glimmer of greenish-blue light ahead. Gasping, he half-ran towards it. He stood in front of huge wooden gates.

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Above the gates an old-fashioned oil lantern glowed dimly. On one of the gates a large bronze knocker in the form of a grotesque spider glimmered in the light. He hesitated then reached out for the knocker. One gate opened. He blinked nervously as a man appeared holding a large black umbrella. All he could make out of him was that he was tall and wearing evening dress. Before he could speak a voice, smooth and respectful, addressed him.

‘Do come in, sir, and shelter. It’s not a night to be out.’

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And that’s all for now, folks. To find out what happens to Richard watch out for the book… out 16th November.

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#Fantasy #The Weave #Poisonous Plants

In The Weave, the witch Ombrine uses a number of poisonous plants to create her potions, curses and magical deaths. Here is a scene from the book where, in 1605, she is teaching Oskar some of her herbal lore. She was particularly fond of using Wolfbane and Belladonna

“Over the next few days she taught him how to make …
The Dream Maker, made from a blend of Wolfbane, belladonna and the tiniest pinch of Datura, which acted on body and mind to fire off images and illusions drawn from the darkest, deepest emotions within a man’s soul.
‘You have to be very careful with Datura,’ she warned him, ‘since it is several times more poisonous than the other two… unless of course you want your victim to die a terrible death.’ She paused, giving him a gleeful smile.
‘You remember that captain in Hamburg? I slipped him a little too much after we parted him from his cargo of silk. A mistake on my part, I admit, but I am not one to have regrets. He was a coarse, base creature. No loss to anyone. I confess, I laughed when he hauled himself to the top of his ship’s mast thinking is was a ladder to God and then threw himself off, believing he could fly with the angels. Yes, this is one to be careful with.’
Then there was the Standstill, made primarily from monkshood and used to excite the blood and brain. Paralysis of the body swiftly followed but consciousness remained…”

Wolfbane (aka Monkshood) with its striking blue cowl-like flowers is highly toxic and has been used in times past for both hunting and warfare. In ancient & Chinese medicine, Wolfbane was used to slow the pulse and act as a sedative. And should you have a sudden need to detect a werewolf it is said that if you hold the flower under the chin of the alleged werewolf and a yellow shadow appears you know you need to get that silver bullet ready. Alternatively it used to be the fashion that you wrapped up the seed of Wolfbane in a lizard’s skin and wore it around the neck, as protection.

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Wolfbane

Belladonna has many names including Witch’s berry, Banewort, Black Cherry, Deadly Nightshade, Death’s herb, Devil’s Cherries, and Fair Lady. You can guess what a poisonous plant it is just by reading these names, While Belladonna is beautiful plant it is also quite deadly. It induces among other things hallucinations, psychic dreams, delirium and a seriously painful death.
Its common name- Belladonna – comes from an ancient cosmetic practice. Apparently women used drops made from the plant to dilate the pupils – an effect considered to be sultry and sexy.

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Bella Donna

Datura, also known as Devil’s Trumpets is a beautiful plant. It is highly toxic, hallucinogenic and deliciously scented. Due to the combination of chemical substances it contains, Datura can induce, among other things, delirium which usually incorporates the inability to tell reality from fantasy, muscle stiffness and temporary paralysis and memory loss.

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Datura

So what does Oskar do with his new-found knowledge and skills? You’ll have to read the book to find out! Out in mid-November.

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A Romany witch, a French count and English author all entangled in a centuries-old web of lies and deceit

 

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…”

 

 

#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