Great Reads In Great Places: Bamburgh and Alnwick, Northumberland

Northumberland is quickly becoming something of a UK literary powerhouse. No longer just home to Hogwarts stand in Alnwick Castle, it is producing some of the best historical and noir fiction I’ve read in a while. Newcastle has a thriving literary scene (if this is something you’d like to know more about, check out the fabulous blog Book and Brew) and despite being a small market town, Alnwick itself is home to the internationally renowned bookshop Barter Books. The rise of new publishing houses is fuelling this further and moving readers past the gritty, marvellous Northumberland set works of Ann Cleeves to new voices such as Matt Wesolowski, the author of one of my Great Read choices for this trip, “Six Stories”.

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Whilst I was home in the UK this summer, I wanted to make a road trip down the coast from Edinburgh to Alnwick. As a teenager I was obsessed with Bernard Cornwall’s “Sharpe” series – it was the first series I devoured with 12 hour reading sessions and coming late to it meant that I spent hours hunting for additional titles in WH Smith, there were so many to catch up on! Cornwell is still probably my favourite writer (I fangirled big time when we found ourselves in Chatham, Cape Cod as this is where he’s now based) and I’ve been religiously purchasing his latest series “The Saxon Chronicles,” which is set across Britain, including in Bamburgh, Northumberland, in the 9th Century. “The Last Kingdom” is my second Great Read choice, but really you should all just read the whole series. Right now.

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The drive between Edinburgh and Alnwick is absolutely beautiful. You take the A1 which hugs the coast for much of the trip and can watch the expanse of the North Sea unfold beneath the cliffs as you pass St. Abbs, Eyemouth (where the excellent “The Shadowy Horses” by Susanna Kearsley is set), Berwick-Upon-Tweed and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

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Bamburgh, or Bebbanburg as it is referred to as in Cornwell’s novels, is not much more than the castle that dominates the coastal headland. There are a selection of pretty stone cottaged streets and some places to grab a cup of tea and an ice cream but not much else. The castle itself is relatively large but suffers in comparison with its film star neighbour in Alnwick. There are tours available and the views from the battlements are wonderful. I actually prefer this castle to the more polished and glitzy Alnwick; it combines a formidable exterior with some impressive and sumptuous interiors. They also have lots of events that are focused on bringing the castle’s violent history to life so check out the website before you book your trip.

We stopped for a cheeky scone in the village, just across from the castle entrance, at a quirky cafe-cum-gift shop called Wyndenwell. The tea was lovely and there was a good selection of tasty homemade cakes and ice creams on offer – you could even pick up a bucket and spade on your way out. This makes sense when you see the wonderful St Aiden Beach. It is one of those stretches of sand that feels like it couldn’t ever be crowded, even in the height of summer. You can see how it would lend itself to some lonely, sparse fiction.

After being suitably refreshed we hopped back in the car to drive down the coast to Alnwick. For any Harry Potter fan the castle is an absolute must see. For those who don’t avidly follow the adventures of the boy wizard, it doubled as the set of Hogwarts for sections of the movie adaptations, and there are plenty of Potter related activities and events to keep magical fans of all ages entertained.

I primarily wanted to worship at the bookish equivalent of Mecca – Barter Books. This legendary secondhand bookshop is situated in an old railway station and it nods not infrequently to this history in its design and decor, right down to the toy train set that runs around suspended from the ceiling. Low lighting, plush cushions and endless stacks make this one of the most intriguing and comfortable places to book browse I’ve ever been to. It’s also home to the original (and much repeated) Keep Calm and Carry On posters. The bookshop has just about every topic conceivable rubbing up against each other. From antiquarian first editions to popular fiction to obscure books on engineering – this place has something for everyone. For those of you who are already thinking “BUT THE FOOD! WHERE IS THE FOOD?!” There is also a cafe attached which is a lovely place to curl up with your new purchase if you can’t be bothered to drag your by now heavily book laden carcass into town.

If you do fancy a walk into the centre of Alnwick, it’s a very pretty town. Lots of Britain In Bloom worthy trugs of flowers adorn the buildings and there is Embleton Bay nearby if you want to get plenty of value for money from your earlier purchased bucket and spade.

The Great Reads:

“Six Stories” by Matt Wesolowski

This clever, original, suspense filled mystery was a surprise in many ways. I first noticed it on Twitter – it was EVERYWHERE and people were obsessed. The narrative unfolds through a series of podcast transcripts that explore the disappearance of Tom Jefferies in 1997 and the events of the following 20 years. If you loved the podcast “Serial”, this is right up your street.

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It’s set in the fictional Northumberland moorland area of Scarclaw Fell, but its more than just the dark underbelly of the landscape that’s unearthed as the plot unfolds. The thing that’s so brilliant about this book is Wesolowski’s ability to have you second guessing throughout. The characters are brilliant and awful in equal measure as their weaknesses and relationships are unpicked by the ‘interviewing’ journalist Scott King and Wesolowski does a fantastic job of creating fully dimensional characters.

I really enjoyed the eerie atmosphere created and found that I whizzed through it in pretty much one sitting. This makes it both a very good book and me a very neglectful mother!

If you are a fan of crime fiction but want something that breaks the rather worn detective formula, then you’ll really like this.

@ConcreteKraken

http://orendabooks.co.uk/matt-wesolowski/

“The Last Kingdom” by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell is the absolute master of historical fiction. His novels are meticulously researched whether you are raiding with Vikings, marching through a Napoleonic battlefield or seeking the Holy Grail with King Arthur. I am baffled as to how a man can be a seeming expert in so many areas of history on so many continents. The other thing I adore about his work is how I never, ever pay attention to the fact that I am reading fiction. The writing flows in such a way that I never get jarred or thrown out of the world he is creating. The dialogue is consistently both historically nuanced and modern. The characters are fleshed out and completely believable and I am rambling again as my love for the Cornwell gets the better of me. Apologies.

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“The Last Kingdom” is the first in the ten book series dubbed “The Saxon Chronicles” and has recently been made into a passably entertaining BBC series. It follows the adventures of a young Anglo-Saxon turned Viking boy – Utred, as he seeks revenge for the seizing of his birthright by his uncle and finds his way in the warring kingdoms that make up what is yet to be called Britain.

Everything I said above about Cornwall’s writing holds here. You are rooting for Utred right from the start, even though he is arrogant, headstrong and blood thirsty. It’s all rather appealing actually! He is a proper hero, the sort that is true to himself and has the ability to back it up. Many swashes are buckled and maidens rescued (or ravaged, depending) as our intrepid warrior makes a name for himself. There are plenty of slimy, obsequious villains that you are clamouring for Utred to punish and none of the badly written sex that so often plagues the historical genre when there is any hint of male / female relations.

You should definitely read this novel if you want to escape and be immersed in another world or time and want plenty of adventure without the saccharine romance. In fact, while you’re at it you should just buy the whole set… And the Sharpe novels while you’re at it…

@BernardCornwell

http://www.bernardcornwell.net/books

 

Already read them?

Why not try these other titles set in Northumberland:

  • “Hidden Depths” – Ann Cleeves (or one of her many other titles!)
  • “The Shadowy Horses” – Susanna Kearsley
  • “The Confession of Stella Moon” – Shelley Day
  • “Holy Island” and “Cragside” – L.J. Ross

Great Reads In Great Places: Cape Cod

I don’t know about you, but three things spring to mind when I think of Cape Cod:

  1. Beaches. Some of the most gorgeous stretches of sand in New England can be found on this fish hook of land that curls out of Massachusetts into the Atlantic.
  2. Kennedys. Hyannis Port is synonymous with them. You can’t walk more than a block it seems without tripping over a house, memorial or postcard dedicated to America’s most golden of families.
  3. Lobsters. Now a pricey delicacy rather than food for prisoners, you can eat this delicious shellfish from morning ’til night. In fact if you leave without being covered in misfired lobster juice at some point, have you even been to Cape Cod?

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Old Harbour Life Saving Station

But it’s not really somewhere, for all its beauty, that I associate with literature. That gets left to its gritty neighbour – Boston, which is positively teeming with alcoholic, brooding detectives and abrasive former boxers either finding redemption or careering towards an ignominious end. My choice for this trip was a collection of short stories – “Cape Cod Noir” compiled and edited by David L. Ulin which promised to get beneath the tourist veneer of preppy, white, rolling in cash to something closer to the real Cape and the New Englanders that live there. Each story is linked to a different town which makes it perfect pick and choose travel literature.

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We decided to visit the Cape, as it is affectionately known, on Memorial Day weekend. Rookie error. Turns out, this is one of the busiest times of the year in Cape Cod and there is basically one road in and out. Route 6A is a gorgeous drive from the east of Boston down the length of the peninsula cutting through many of the small historic towns that make up the larger area which is Cape Cod (turns out that it’s not an actual place as such…) but it is also one MASSIVE bottle neck as all the local traffic feeds into it. You can safely double whatever drive time Google Maps gives you and add a bit for good measure.

Our bed and breakfast, The Belfry, was in Sandwich, on the north side of the Cape. The town itself is beautiful, a picture postcard New England town complete with white clapboard houses that look like they’ve stepped out of the pages of Martha Stewart’s Living and it’s quiet – something that I’ve come to really appreciate since moving to NYC. The B and B is actually made up of three separate buildings, not just the converted church that contains the main dining room and reception, all beautifully maintained and decorated in a typical colonial style. This meant that we were able to be in a room that was a little out of the way (baby in tow and super thin wooden walls do not friends make) and we were grateful for the privacy that came with having our own porch and entrance and somewhere to park the stroller. Breakfast here is limited in choice but awesome and the owner/manager is very knowledgeable and helpful, offering us itineraries and ideas as well as great restaurant recommendations.

We discovered pretty quickly that there is not a huge amount to do in Sandwich itself – especially on a slightly grey weekend in May. If you want a bit of action and walkable restaurants and shops then you’re better off in Chatham or Hyannis. This place is all about the beach and the boardwalk, which is beautiful and cuts across a large patch of marshland by the coast. There are lots of steps up and over the dunes though, so this place is not really stroller or wheelchair friendly. Sandy Neck Beach and Town Neck Beach are two of the most popular in the area and it is easy to see why. These are long stretches of sandy beach that go down to a nice open shoreline that’s perfect for swimming. There’s also plenty of parking if you don’t fancy a long wander through largely residential streets (although this is great for house perving if you like New England architecture).

Beyond the beach you can really take it all in in under a day – there’s Dexter’s Grist Mill, a mid 17th century mill restored in the 1960s which is worth a look and then it’s a short stroll to the Glass Museum which Sandwich is famous for. If you want to stray about 1/2 mile outside of town it’s worth going to see the Hoxie House which gives you a good understanding of how life was lived in the 1630s on the Cape. If you manage to pack that in and have a few hours to spare before dinner then there are some gorgeous antique shops tucked away to help you while away the time.

Foodwise, we wanted seafood, seafood and more seafood. It seemed a capital crime to come to Cape Cod and not indulge. A great lunch spot is The Pilot House, there is plenty of outdoor seating and a great view of the modern harbour. The menu is extensive and reasonably priced – even the lobster roll, which comes in a choice of sizes and breads. Not only was it delicious, it was enormous, which let’s face it is something you don’t often get too say about lobster sandwiches.

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On our second day we decided to drive further out along the peninsula to Chatham. There was some debate amongst the party about going south – there is a great cycle / walk route from Falmouth to Woods Hole, The Shining Sea Bikeway, but as it was pretty wet and miserable, those of us who wanted to duck from shop to pretty shop won out.

If I were to do this trip again I think I would actually have our base in Chatham. It really reminds me of Padstow in Cornwall, England mixed with East Hampton NY – smart shops and restaurants with a nautical leaning and pretty frontages. There is certainly more to do here, especially on a wet day. There was a mad dash through the downpour to Chatham Lighthouse, very New England, and an attempt to salvage something of the view from the cliff top. I imagine this is far more impressive when there isn’t low lying cloud… In better weather there is plenty of opportunities to investigate the wildlife that the area is famous for. Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge is nearby and you can take a variety of trips out to do dolphin, shark and whale watching, which is something I’d definitely do if I came again.

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We grabbed lunch at The Impudent Oyster before hitting our nightmare drive back to NYC. The inside of this Chatham institution is homely and no fuss but the food is excellent. Much delicious chowder was consumed, the seafood stew was declared marvellous and they even did a decent beer battered fish and chips, something that us Brits struggle to find in the US to be honest. There are no baby changing facilities here though – it’s the car (if you can get a parking spot anywhere near the restaurant) or the loo floor. Luckily there are plenty of lovely friendly locals who will jump at the chance to hold your baby whilst you pack up all your stuff!

Bookshops:

There are plenty of bookshops all over the Cape but three that I think are well worth a trip are Titcomb’s Bookshop in East Sandwich, The Brewster Book Store in Brewster and Where The Sidewalk Ends (what a great name!) in Chatham. All are independent, big tick, and can advise on locally set reads and authors.

The Great Read: “Cape Cod Noir” compiled by David L. Ulin

“Cape Cod Noir” is part of series of noir style compilations that centre on various towns and cities around the world (so if you like the concept you can pretty much pick up one for wherever you are headed on your holidays) and is published by Akashic Noir. I always like a short story selection to pick through. It’s digestible and if you don’t like an author’s style you aren’t married to it for a further 500 pages out of sheer stubbornness. I am a chronic book finisher, even if I hate it. As you might expect, the quality of the fiction is a little up and down – Cape Cod is a small area, I guess you’re fairly limited as an editor in what you can select from, but it certainly delivers on its promise to explore the dark and unseen underbelly of this glamorous part of the world.

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I particularly enjoyed “Variations on a Fifty Pound Bale” by Adam Mansbach – the structural concept of this story, exploring how urban legends can be built up, is fun and focuses on Martha’s Vineyard. “Bad Night in Hyannis Port” by Seth Greenland was a great example of the alienation of youth that is a running theme in this book. There’s a little of “Catcher In The Rye” in its disaffected frat boy narrator and ‘bad night’ doesn’t really tell the half of it! If death and narrators from beyond the grave a your thing, “When Death Shines Bright.” set in Sandwich, is a classic piece of dark noir.

Overall this is an enjoyable read, with a couple of real highlights. I love the concept of compiling short fiction set in a particular place and will definitely be revisiting the series for other cities.

Already read it? 

Why not try these other titles set in Cape Cod:

  • “Caleb’s Crossing” – Geraldine Brooks
  • “The Orphans of Race Point” – Party Francis
  • “The Sparrow Sister” – Ellen Herrick
  • “Love Antony” – Lisa Genova

 

Feel free to add any of your own Cape Cod recommendations in the comments below 🙂

Great Reads in Great Places: Providence, Rhode Island

I’m a sucker for wandering around old streets, visiting stately homes and sitting out with a good book and a great view to enjoy my coffee. But where to get this in a country that glorifies the new, the shiny, the current?

I fell in love with New England without ever actually visiting. Instagram is awash with gorgeous images of colonial clapboard houses, delicious seafood platters and LL Bean boots surrounded with enough snow and plaid to make a lumberjack blush. I was left with the impression that there is something rather magical and quaint about these northern states and as an émigré of Old England, I was curious to see how history was conserved and presented in the land of the free and home of the ‘what?! It’s 50 years old?! Tear it down and build something new!’ Part of me was secretly hoping that I would be able to find a little something of the wild and beautiful places described in Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ series and Sara Donati’s ‘Wilderness’ books on the way – obviously with 21st century luxuries like plumbing though!

Given that I can’t actually get on a plane without a doctor’s note now, being eight and a half months pregnant, one of our main criteria was that we should be able to road trip there in a decent amount of time from our Brooklyn apartment. Where was within a four hour drive of New York and could be ‘done’ in a weekend?

We plotted a route that would take us up the coast as far as Providence, Rhode Island, where we would spend the night, and would enable us to stop off and take in some typically New England sights.

The main book I’d be taking with me on this trip was Jodi Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper”. Set in fictional Upper Darby, Rhode Island, the book follows the story of 13 year old Anna who sues her parents for medical emancipation after she is expected to donate a kidney to her sister who is suffering from leukaemia.

Our first stop was in Connecticut. Mystic is famous for its pizza and its seaport and neither disappointed. The town itself is small and nestled on the coast, consisting of a busy (even in February) Main Street complete with cafés, artisan shops promoting local craftspeople and rather ingeniously, its very own Mystic Psychic!

Lunch was, obviously, at Mystic Pizza – the restaurant made famous by the eponymous 1988 Julia Roberts film. It proved to be a lovely slice of Americana; friendly staff and tasty deep pan pizza were the order of the day. They even have a decent range of gluten free options which was something we weren’t necessarily expecting outside of New York.

Our last stop in Mystic was the outdoor museum at Mystic Seaport. We arrived quite late in the afternoon and managed to get half price tickets as well – something to think about if you’re like us and tend to whizz around museums! In amongst the tall ships and whaling boats on display is also a fully restored whaling village. This was the best part of the museum for me. The attention to detail is second to none and the staff on hand to talk you through are extremely knowledgable. The actors in costume were a nice touch! I imagine that this gets very busy in the Summer months, but we really felt like we didn’t miss much coming in the off season.

Providence would be our main base for the weekend. We were staying at the Renaissance Downtown Providence – a lovely, if corporate feeling, hotel that overlooks the Rhode Island State House. Our concierge recommended Hemenway’s restaurant as a taste of New England for dinner. This raw bar and seafood specialty restaurant was extremely busy and definitely needs to be booked in advance. There’s a brilliant range of dishes on offer including classic chowder, oysters and lobster served in a myriad of imaginative and delicious ways.

The next morning we decided to walk around the Brown University campus and see Benefit Street, the main historic district. I was able to set up camp in these gorgeous surroundings and catch up on my Great Read.

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Jodi Picoult’s novel has a tendency to divide readers. Lauded by many, others find her style contrived and lightweight in nature. There is no doubt that this book is uneven in terms of how well each of the narrative voices are fleshed out, but in the main Picoult has done a good job of crafting separate rhythms and perspectives. The story is shamelessly emotional and uses a variety of metaphoric devices to ensure that you are in no doubt about the differing directions the characters are pulled in. It’s not a particularly subtle book, but it is eminently readable and, as a soon to be mother, certainly made me question what I might do if I found myself in Sara Fitzgerald’s awful situation. I enjoyed the pace of this novel and felt that it was easy to get swept along with the journeys these characters take.

On our way back to Brooklyn we decided to stop in Newport and see the harbour and mansions that snake around the lower coast. I loved the rows of immaculate clapboard houses that lead onto upmarket Thames Street. It was strange to see plaques on the houses detailing date of construction and the original owner; some of the buildings were only 30 years older than our cottage in London! There was much about this little coastal town that reminded me of Padstow and Rock in Cornwall – a plethora of restaurants serving the day’s fresh catch and plenty of places to indulge in some serious retail therapy, especially if you have a thing for nautical home decor.

Standing proud on the cliff edge at the eastern tip is The Breakers – the grandest of the mansions around Bellevue Avenue, and former home of the Vanderbilt railroad family. This glorious Gatsbyesque monument to wealth and luxury has fabulous views of the rugged New England coastline and is full of carefully restored and preserved furniture from the house’s golden age in the late 19th / early 20th century. The audio tour is comprehensive and gives you a couple of hours to explore the main rooms.

Overall this was a really good mini road trip and we definitely felt that we were able to fit enough into the two days to give us a flavour of New England. I can’t wait to come back!

Already read ‘My Sister’s Keeper’?

Why not try these other titles set in Connecticut and Rhode Island:

  • ‘The Witches of Eastwick’ – John Updike
  • ‘Summer by the Sea’ – Susan Wiggs
  • ‘Theophilius North’ – Thornton Wilder
  • ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • ‘The Stepford Wives’ – Ira Levin
  • ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ – Mark Twain
  • ‘Revolutionary Road’ – Richard Yates
  • ‘The Great Gatsby’ – F. Scott Fitzgerald (not set in New England but reading this whilst walking around The Breakers is a perfect combo!)

If you have Rhode Island or Connecticut based recommendations then add them to the comments below 🙂