Hidden Gems of the City

on Tower Bridge

on Tower Bridge

Before I launch full-scale into major tourist attractions, I wanted to take you on a stroll down the River Thames towards the delightful village of Rotherhithe. We start off from Britain’s most recognisable attraction, Tower Bridge.

At either side of the River a fabulous promenade or river embankment allows people to admire the city from its best side, the Thames. When first entering Tower Bridge look out for staircases on either side, leading down to the river.

On Tower Bridge, looking towards The Tower and Tower Bridge Exhibition Building (to the right)

On Tower Bridge, looking towards The Tower and Tower Bridge Exhibition Building (to the right)

I walked down the steps that lead to the Tower, but before going there I turned left instead of righ, walking towards the restaurants and shops now occupying the former dockyards.

A new lease of life has been given to the erstwhile warehouses and docks that were once part of Port of London all along the Thames.

Now these lofts and condos exchange hands for well over a million pounds, but in earlier centuries they were nothing but industrial buildings and hovels for the desperately poor, those who worked in the docks and eeked out a living from scraps thrown away by others, by pick-pocketing and nefarious nocturnal activities.

Restaurants and cafes are clustered around Tower Bridge on this side of the Thames. I walked through an archway to investigate the possibility of a steaming cuppa on a windy day, when I came across these fantastic barges moored just outside Tower Bridge.

Thames "paddle steam" boat

Thames “paddle steam” boat

Copyright Maria ThermannThey are tourist cruise ships, obviously taking a Sunday afternoon rest here from ferrying chattering hordes of visitors.

Thames Houseboats St Saviours Dock

Thames Houseboats St Saviours Dock

Walking towards the even smarter housing development of St Saviour’s Dock one soon comes across a flotilla of house boats, some colourful and bohemian, others more like a floating suburban home that wouldn’t be out of place in Surbiton or Kingston.

Canada geese inspect house boat potential

Canada geese inspect house boot potential

Make no mistake, these are some of London’s most expensive dwellings, although the house boots moored at Chelsea are perhaps the better known floating homes, having in the past been sold to famous people like Damien Hirst (that awful man who thinks displaying dead calves is “art”).

Copyright Maria ThermannEven the small bridges and gangways that connect the various housing developments with the promenade sport an interesting architecture.

with every passing river cruiser these homes get buffeted by the waves, BOOM!

with every passing river cruiser these homes get buffeted by the waves, BOOM!

The Thames Path is well sign-posted and although it leaves the immediate proximity of the River at times to wind its way through charming mews housing developments, alongside parks and through former warehouse complexes now transformed into luxury apartments, the Thames Path never leaves the River for long and it’s not really possible to get lost.

St Saviour's Dock, Thames Embankment, London

St Saviour’s Dock, Thames Embankment, London

Copyright Maria ThermannEn route one comes across wonderful sculptures and statues such as this head at St Saviours Dock. At every turn there is something interesting to see. Plaques tell walkers where they are, what local communities are doing or who is being honoured with a plaque or statue and why. The whole thing has a real community feel about it and seems a great place to live. I can still feel the impact each wave made when hitting the moorings of the house boats, BOOM, the hiss of the spray of brown Thames water escaping over the sides of the embankment’s walls, sending careless walkers squealing and running for cover. I remember the scent of petrol from the passing cruise ships and the noise from the tour guides’s announcements over loudspeakers when recalling the history of the Thames. One day soon, all this will find its way into my writing…at another river setting, an imagined location but remembering one sweltering hot Sunday afternoon at the Thames. Perhaps the background for a murder mystery, a romantic interlude before the killer strikes!

Rotherhithe Church, Mayflower plaque

Rotherhithe Church, Mayflower plaque

Eventually one reaches a park, where the Thames Path suddenly seems to end in the church yard of Rotherhithe Village; it’s a delightful place and the appropriate spot for honouring the intrepid Rotherhithe citizens who sailed one fine day off into the unknown blue yonder on a wee ship called The Mayflower. Can’t remember what happened to her but yon American citizens might recall that part of the story….

Rotherhithe village

Rotherhithe village

Encircling the church and small churchyard are various 17th, 18th and 19th century houses – this one with the statues above the entrance caught my eye because it was adjacent to a cafe and small park. By now the weather was deteriorating and working itself up to a full-scale storm with thunder, lightning and torrential rain thrown in for good measure.

London's temperamental weather strikes again

London’s temperamental weather strikes again

Naturally, the village has all sorts of connections with the Thames’ staggering historical importance and various famous people stem from this part of London. A miniscule museum honours one of the world’s finest engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Voted as one of Britain’s 100 most important people ever, this extraordinary Victorian is responsible for the world’s first tunnel under a navigable river (the Thames Tunnel), the Great Western Railway, the first propeller-driven steamship that went across the Atlantic (1843), the Clifton Suspension Bridge and countless other famous structures, bridges and ships. Sadly, I didn’t have time to visit the Brunel Museum that day, but hope to do so in the next few weeks.

Mayflower Pub in Rotherhithe Village

Mayflower Pub in Rotherhithe Village

A typical English pub honours all those dockhands, tally-men and mariners who worked and drank (beer and gin mostly) at Rotherhithe Dock over the centuries. By an amazing co-incidence the pub is called The Mayflower – I wonder who thought of that one…

Pilgrims at Rotherhithe Village

Pilgrims at Rotherhithe Village

A look into the future

A look into the future

The Pilgrim's Pocket - plaque at the foot of the bronze sculpture

The Pilgrim’s Pocket – plaque at the foot of the bronze sculpture

Finally, before leaving the village of Rotherhithe one comes across this lovely threesome, a boy, his pilgrim father and their dog. Step onto the pedestal and take a peep into the pilgrim’s book, for the Mayflower pilgrims’ future is revealed in its pages, hence the pilgrim father’s bulging eyes!


Staying Cool in the City

Copyright Maria ThermannNow that the skies are grey and the rays of the sun are no longer tickling our red and blistering noses, it seems inconceivable that only a few weeks ago it was too hot to work in the office.

Taking a refreshing stroll along the Thames Embankment on a very hot day, I spotted how London’s citizens tried various ingenious ways to stay cool in the city.

Thus I’m sneakily introducing my first, and most favourite point of interest in the capital – sorry HRM Elizabeth II, but the River Thames beats the “lady of the stamp” any day as London’s best tourist attraction!

Even on the hottest day of the year there was a gentle breeze blowing that cooled the wrinkled writer’s brow – walk along the lovely Thames Embankment and sooner or later you’ll come across a fountain where you can cool off your steaming toes.


Blackfriars Bridge in the Background

Blackfriars Bridge in the Background

Tide's out, kids!

Tide’s out, kids!

When the tide’s out, people walk along the patches of “beach” that appear along the river bed.

Just cruisin’

For those with more money than sense there are the official river cruises, some via stately old river barges, cruisers or former steamboats, others via power boats that zoom past with an almighty roar and spew up brown waves in their wake. The much cheaper version is to take an ordinary river bus.

St Katherine's Dock by Tower Bridge

St Katherine’s Dock by Tower Bridge

Cruises start from various points along the river, my favourite spot is at St Katherine’s Dock, where this couple sat patiently in a little pavilion – like a bus stop for the Thames – and awaited the arrival of their cruiser, while enjoying the magnificent aspect of Tower Bridge.




Making a Splash

My favourite image of this summer are unquestionably the parents and children who stayed cool by diving into the fountains at the National Theatre, which overlooks the Thames Embankment by the London Eye, roughly opposite Westminster and Big Ben.

Fountain at National Theatre, Southbank

Fountain at National Theatre, Southbank

Kids keeping their cool in the city

Kids keeping their cool in the city

Pedestrians startled by Mayor Boris Johnson's latest efforts to clean up the city's mean streets

Pedestrians startled by Mayor Boris Johnson’s latest efforts to clean up the city’s mean streets

At certain intervals during the day the kind people of the South Bank-National Theatre complex press a button and within moments people are engulfed by refreshing spouts of water – only they don’t know where the jets of water will come from next, for the fountain’s sprays shoot out at random in different spots.

With a lot of squeals and laughter, the youngest of London’s citizens find relief from the searing heat, a perfect image of summer as it should be, don’t you think?








HMS Belfast near Tower Bridge

HMS Belfast near Tower Bridge

Family Fun by Hayes Gallery, Thames Embankment

Family Fun by Hayes Gallery, Thames Embankment

At the other end of the river, that bit where HMS Belfast, a cruiser from WWII, is moored, whole families gathered around fountains, had a picnic and enjoyed the spectacular London skyline from just outside Hayes Gallery.

Erasing horrid Memories

This summer I’ve seen a different side to London, one I liked very much. Many years ago, when I worked in the city for more than a decade as an office slave, London was a complete construction site, where it was virtually impossible to get anywhere near the River. My memories are of noisy construction crews whistling and jeering at anything looking even vaguely female, of cranes polluting the skyline, of mud and dust everywhere.

southbank street artist blowing soap bubbles

southbank street artist blowing soap bubbles

Over the intervening two decades the embankments on both sides have been transformed and turned into London’s best attraction – and I’m clearly not alone in this point of view, judging by the hordes of people who use the River Walks every day from dawn till dusk and beyond.

My next post will be about my splendid walk from Tower Bridge to Rotherhithe, which turned out to be a delightful village, not a boring suburb with uniform new apartment blocks, as I had suspected.

This is where my post took you today

This is where my post took you today

After more than three decades in the UK, this summer has been the first time that I’ve actually begun to understand why people rate London so highly – up to now, I’ve detested it. These past few weeks, hot and steamy as they have been, have done much to clear my mind of horrid work-related memories and regain my “cool” about the Big City.

The true aim of my snap-happy wanderings through London is, of course, to gather background material for a future murder mystery series. So alongside the pictures I’ve been taking notes on the smells, sounds, temperatures and light conditions I’ve encountered along the way. I can still hear the children’s giggles, when a flurry of soap bubbles headed our way…

A Change of Scenery can work Wonders for your Character

alien00092 roswell tshirt alienA change is as good as a holiday, or so the saying goes, and I admit leaving the torrential rain in Wales behind me and entering the sunny, albeit slightly grimy landscapes of the capital has done wonders for my mood and inspiration.

Although as a rule, I dislike London, on this occasion I’m having a pretty good time of it, as I’m staying in a part of town I hadn’t been to before, so there’s lots to discover. I’m exploring new smells and new sounds, eccentric new neighbours and unusual shops and advertising signs. There’s so much to make a note of: inspiring architecture, both old and new, and colourful traditional markets full of fragrant food stuffs I’ve yet to taste.

It made me think how a change of scenery can breathe new life into a serial – after a few instalments our readers might have fallen in love with the characters we have created but if we don’t keep our readers and fictional characters on their toes, the familiar surroundings our protagonists use to get from plot beginning to plot end will eventually appear stale and less challenging for both writer and reader.

parliament-london-1410502-mIf your hard-boiled, alcoholic detective inspector usually solves his gruesome crimes in New York, New Delhi or Hong Kong, why not take your hero and their team out of their comfort zone and send them off on a police seminar in rural surroundings or a holiday to another country or state? To add to the conflict, give your detective a rookie partner who drives your hero nuts or a temporary new boss who hates your hero’s guts.

Changing locations means doing more research, but this can also be fun, as both writer and reader face new challenges together. A new location forces a writer to come out of their comfort zone and really think about their characters and their inter-relationships. While their skills normally allow your team of sleuths to either clash or work well together in their familiar territory, new surroundings can expose different strengths and/or weaknesses.

stock-photo-4755397-big-benstock-photo-3849808-long-highwayBecause certain things aren’t possible logistically or the climate of the location enforces certain choices, the whole set up requires far more thought than familiar surroundings the writer – and reader – knows well. A writer may have to do far more characterisation than in previous books, thus really giving readers what they crave, namely a greater insight into hero, secondary characters and possibly even the villain, if it’s a recurring one.

If the plot centres on a murder committed in a ski chalet in the Swiss Alps, just popping down to the shops will involve snowshoes, skis, sleighs and putting on several layers of warm clothing. Few people manage to look alluring and sexy, once they are swathed in bobble hats and woolly scarves, thermal undies and three layers of socks. This is the moment when you can send up your hero, making them more “human” in the eyes of the reader by revealing flaws, phobias or a surprising lack of skill.

stock-photo-6469631-purple-freedomIf your hero doesn’t know how to ski and negotiate the steep slopes outside the chalet, the villain will get away clean and your hero must pick up the pieces by employing the famous “little grey cells”. However, you could also have a lot of fun with a chase down the mountain side, as your hero is forced to take a crash course in snowboarding or skiing, if the bad guy is to be caught.

In other words, use unusual locations to your advantage to reveal a new side to your hero/heroine.

stock-photo-16395736-gold-sand-and-blue-waterTake Venice for example, where there are more waterways than roads. The choice of vehicle means you can either show your hero’s tenacity and ability to think on their feet or you can reveal they are not very good with modern gadgets like GPS, they can’t swim or are hopeless at map reading and finding their way around Venice without a tourist guide.

Every time your hero takes a wrong turn and lands on their belly like a fish out of water, a writer can use that particular location to reveal something about the main character’s foibles, weaknesses or strengths. Your hero might crash-land in a Venetian glass factory and express real regret at having destroyed 500 years of exquisite artefacts, revealing your hero to be cultured despite their rough edges. Or your hero might pilot their speedboat into a pizzeria and deliver a sarcastic one-liner about fast food.

mice with baguetteIf you want to teach your arrogant protagonist a valuable lesson in team work and how to be a humbler person, or if your hero is out to impress a girl but you feel he doesn’t quite deserve her yet, make it a gondola chase – life in the slow rather than the fast lane. Not only will this insert some much needed humour into your detective story but it will also allow you to take down your hero’s ego a notch or two, sending them on a brief journey of self-discovery.

stock-photo-8810395-foggy-tokyoAs writers we are often told to “use what we know best” as the basis for our books, but I believe the opposite is also true…coming out of our comfort zone and entering new landscapes hand in hand with our hero can work wonders for our writing.

(source of all animation gifs: heathersanimations.com; all photographs royalty free stock photos)

A pocket-sized Castle just right for an Afternoon

Guildford Castle

I had planned to post this yesterday, but my dog-walking duties and client work got in the way. B’s getting restless again, so I’d better get on with this blog, before there’s a puddle on my carpet.

I have to confess that of all the places I have lived at in the UK, Guildford in Surrey is my favourite. Known as the “stockbroker belt”, Guildford and its neighbour Woking are within an easy commute of London and Portsmouth with trains running approximately every 10 minutes into either direction.

It takes just 45 minutes on a stopping service to get to London Waterloo and half an hour on the fast service. A 40 minute train journey takes travellers with a hankering for the sea to Portsmouth; add another 15 minute journey by boat and you’re on the lovely Isle of White.

മലയാളം: Guildford castle - UK

My blog series on castles should not miss out Guildford Castle, which will be used as one of the locations in my WIP “The Daddy Snatchers”, a novel for children aged 7 to 9.

Having lived in the town for such a long time, I feel confident of using it as my main location for a story about two small boys trying to come to terms with the loss of their dad and the possibility of their mother marrying again.

Guildford Castle grounds are a lovely place to spend a lazy afternoon in the sun. The gardens are exceptionally well maintained and the castle complex is just large enough (or small, depending on your point of view) to keep you  entertained for a couple of hours.

Buy your picnic lunch at the bakery in the High Street, spread out your travel rug on the lawns or kick a lazy student off a bench and enjoy the magnificient gardens and keep!

Construction started reputedly just after 1066 on the order of none other than William the Conqueror himself, who marched into Canterbury and then attacked towns situated along the Pilgrim’s Way, which included Guildford in Surrey.

The above may be a medieval urban myth, but it is fairly certain the castle’s oldest parts date back to the 11th century.  The building works aren’t mentioned in the Doomsday Book, which suggests the construction didn’t start until after 1086, when the great book was compiled. The remaining complex was developed up to the 13th century.

Initially Guildford Castle was little more than a motte or mound, consisting of a deep ditch and bailey, which would have been surrounded by a wooden palisade to keep marauders out – marauders in this case being the miffed inhabitants of the area, who were none too happy to see William the Norseman’s hordes occupying their lands.

English: Guildford Museum Quarry Street Entrance.

English: Guildford Museum Quarry Street Entrance. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The original bailey would have encompassed much of what is today the heart of Guildford, Castle Street for example and South Hill as well as Quarry Street, where the museum used to be when I lived there, and the Bowling Green, a wonderful place to sit in the summer and watch the players concentrate with furrowed brow on what must be one of the most satisfying games for the elderly.

At the time the castle was built, Guildford was – along with Southwark – the only sizeable town in Surrey and lay on the important route between London and the coastlines to the south and west of England. In other words, the main supply lines to the shores where William’s Norman troops would land with their ships.

Initially there would have been a wooden tower built on top of the motte, where a lookout would have been posted and the garrison would have found some shelter, too.

It wasn’t until the early 12th century that the wooden palisade was replaced by a chalk wall (shell-keep), large parts of which are still standing today.

English: Guildford Museum and Castle Arch. On ...

English: Guildford Museum and Castle Arch. On Quarry Street. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During the 1130’s the wooden tower was replaced with a more durable material, namely stone. The location of this first keep or great tower was probably part motte, part shell-keep, as the motte wouldn’t have been able to carry the great weight on its own.

The stone was transported from the Goadalming area, a charming little town with excellent pubs (brewing their own ale), if you happen to be in Surrey, take an afternoon to explore – you can take a local bus from Guildford. The stone is called Bargate stone and has far greater density and therefore durability than chalk.

The castle originally consisted of two floors, of which the first floor would have been reserved for the king’s private apartments. The surrounding walls once carried crenellations, where sentries could keep watch and alert the garrison, should the Guildford population revolt over their meagre supper and their king.

English: Guildford Castle Gardens. This is in ...

English: Guildford Castle Gardens. This is in the ditch surrounding the castle which is to the right, out of photograph. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it proved the king wasn’t all that interested in using the castle as his permanent private residence, the keep became the newly appointed Sheriff’s quarters in the late 12th century.

Eventually, Guildford Castle was used as the county goal for Sussex and Surrey, when the king moved to more comfortable apartments in the bailey, where a chapel and domestic buildings had been erected.

It is assumed the Great Hall was located on the site, where today two houses stand, at the very bottom of Castle Hill. The Hall was constructed from stone and had wooden aisle posts, which apparently had been painted to resemble marble, a savvy cost cutting device employed by a king who was always strapped for cash.

When Henry III made further additions and improvements to Guildford Castle, it suddenly gained the status of “palace”, although there’s little trace of that today – more about the palace in my next blog!

I’m using the town centre with Castle Street and Quarry Street, where my erstwhile solicitors used to have their offices, as settings for a big event in my novel that will be largely determined by the town’s unique location by the River Wey.

Guildford is a charming place to visit for a long weekend. The Wey River Navigation allows houseboats, canoes, kajaks and rowers to fully enjoy the “messing about in boats” a wise Ratty has been advocating for years (get your life-coaching from Kenneth Grahame‘s Wind in the Willows, I always do!).

English: The Keep of Guildford Castle as seen ...

English: The Keep of Guildford Castle as seen from Castle Hill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a lock, a rowing club and a pub overlooking the waterways, as well as a park with picnic areas. The path along either side of the river is perfect for a walk or a trip by bike, if you haven’t found your “sea-legs” or shy away from the rather expensive hire costs of a river barge.

It’s possible to hire these barges for a week or so and travel at the alarming speed of 4 miles per hour through the Surrey countryside. If I’m not mistaken, the Wey River links up with the Thames at some point, so one could make it a two week trip at that speed. The boats come in different sizes and can sleep up to 12 people, if memory serves me right.

English: View From Guildford Castle Photograph...

English: View From Guildford Castle Photograph taken from the viewpoint, in front of Guildford Castle Keep, in the direction of Guildford Cathedral. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For more information about Guildford Castle, please visit http://www.guildford.gove.uk/article/7576/History-of-Guildford-Castle

or contact Guildford Museum directly on heritageservices@guildford.gov.uk

(source of photographs: Wikipedia; source of animation: heathersanimation.com)

Life is a Journey: the Places we visit are not accidental

Whether you are Doctor Who and engaged in time travelling adventures or just a plain, earth bound foot soldier like me, the places we end up spending time at are not chosen at random or even by our own “free will”.

Life is a journey, somebody once said, and the places and people we come across along the way are not thrown into our path by accident. Our lives go through several stages and at each stage we find ourselves exactly where we are meant to be with the kind of people we are supposed to be with at that precise moment in time.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my brush with cancer, it is that all things happen for a reason. If I hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer, I wouldn’t have quit my boring job and become a full time writer. If I hadn’t moved to Wales, I would never have met the real Willow and her Mum, both of whom I regard as the granddaughter and daughter I’ve longed to have all my adult life. If I didn’t blog on WordPress, I’d never have “met” my virtual and very real friend Michelle Barber (author of Will Blyton and the Stinking Shadow; proud owner of Mildred the Cat, dominatrix at the LoonyLiterature Laboratory)

I’ve lived at many different places, which prior to cancer I regarded as insignificant stop overs. It wasn’t until I got to Cardiff – and later to Leipzig – that I felt a sense of home coming. Our homes are so important to us that they gives us roots to settle down and be content as well as wings to spread and fly off into the world, because the happiness we experienced in our homes gave us the confidence to brave the unknown.

Be there dragons, pirates, sea monsters or mischievous fairies, having our roots hooked firmly into a place that anchors us physically and emotionally gives us strength to cope with whatever might come along. When we lack happiness at home, we feel lost, emotionally and quite literally, unable to settle anywhere for long.

I have come to believe that we “choose” the places and people we come across our life journey not by accident, but by instinct. Somehow deep down inside of us we know that we are very much at the right place at the right time. Stevie Brown and Hamish Fensterlein might be hunting for run-away houses, but deep down they know where their true home lies. Giles Gimingham grew up on the streets but has found his home on the sea, as cabin boy on the ship The Good Intent. Willow the Vampire felt unhappy, alone and abandoned in London, but instinctively knew that Stinkforthshire’s countryside was going to be her real home. Inspector Beagle and his Sergeant Beanstalk would never consider a transfer away from Kentish Mumsgate – for a start, who’d look after Roddy Winters, their elephantine colleague?

As I’m working my way through the research for my various WIP projects, I am reminded of all the places that I have lived at, all of which are in one way or another contributing to my writing. If some people I’ve met along the way are occasionally recognising their own traits of characters in my protagonists, my apology, but I just can’t help it.

You are as integral to my writing as the places I’ve known so well: my home town Lübeck, the small Baltic seaside resort I grew up in, Guildford, where I was happy, London, where I was so miserable I wanted to die, Ramsgate where I discovered I wanted to live, Cardiff, where I found a home and Leipzig, where I intend to end my long journey for good. I needed you all, even if I didn’t love you all.

Lübeck in 1641

Lübeck in 1641 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(source of animation: heathersanimations.com)