Saturday, June 29, 2013

Pianist, horsewoman, poet and historical novelist

Spotlight on: M M Bennetts

Pianist, horsewoman, poet and historical novelist

I'm delighted to introduce M M Bennetts, whose wonderful blog is always well worth reading.

You have had an interesting career prior to setting fingers to keyboard to produce your historical novels Of Honest Fame and May 1812 . Would you like to share some of it with us?

Interesting, ha ha ha.

I think my life possibly follows the course set out by poet Theodore Roethke when he wrote, "I learn by going where I have to go..." I had always assumed I would be a concert pianist--it's what I'd been training for since childhood, when I wasn't reading. And possibly that last bit is the important bit, because when I went on to the University of St Andrews to pursue my masters work, I decided not to live in town or in the halls of residence, but found myself a tied workers' cottage on a nearby estate to renovate and live in.

And I think it may have been the combination of living in this ancient place--the big house had been the Archibishop of St. Andrews' residence before the Covenanters ended that (about 500 feet from my front door--and no, I never saw the ghost carriage) and it subsequently was remodeled by Robert Adam--and studying there, spending my spare time reading on the little stool at the local bookstore where I discovered Dorothy Dunnett's work, that I strayed from my musical intentions into an immersion in the past that just grows ever deeper.

So then, a few years later, there I was not knowing what to do with myself, and a chap I knew encouraged me to go in and talk to the book editor of this major newspaper because as he put it I'd read everything, I read faster than anyone could contemplate and the money was okay. So I did.

And he was rude to me. So I was rude back. Which showed him, I guess, that I was no one's patsy and so he took me on. And to my shock, he published my work all the time, preferring me it would seem to many others who might have had seniority, but in my favour I always wrote exactly to the wordcount he required, I didn't fuss over what he gave me to review, and I never missed a deadline. Plus, I saved his bacon on a number of occasions when someone else had let him down and he'd ring and say could I file by the next morning and I always said, "Yes."

Later I was a French translator for a bit, specialising in Francophone West Africa...

But all the time, I was always reading about some facet of the early 19th century, so eventually all the ideas and research melded together, the stories unfolded and the end result was the books.

What triggered you to begin writing?

Well, to be quite honest, it was a writing assignment when I was about 13. I didn't do work voluntarily, you understand. Not ever.

Later, at St Andrews, that's when I started thinking out my own stories as I sat by the fire in my little stone cottage...It was perishing cold, I was on my own and procrastinating, of course, and NOT reading my tomes on Quattrocento art and architecture...I lived in this rural heaven and I loved everything about fact, I wrote about the place when I described the front drive of the house I called "Britwell Park" in the novel, May 1812.

What fascinates you about economic and military history of this period?

I've always been drawn to periods of upheaval and change and progress. It's why I was specialising in the Italian Renaissance to begin with. Because there's this electrifying vibrancy, this excitement, this willingness to experiment, this challenge to the old ways of thinking and doing.

And the early 19th century is another of these eras of change and challenge.

In literature, you've got all of these different forms of the novel taking shape. There's Austen pioneering the domestic novel, while in Scotland you've to Scott writing historical fiction, and the poetry is just tremendous too; you've got Beethoven changing the face of the orchestra as well as stretching the limits of sound and expression for the fortepiano of the time. You've got this collection of amateurs running Great Britain as she stands alone against the greatest and most successful military empire the world had ever seen, standing alone against France's might, and here's the shocker--they win! They've all had to learn to think in a new way, they've thrown the might and ingenuity of the industrial revolution into their weapons and their technological advances, they're all flying by the seat of their pants, and they win! And I just admire them all so very, very much. I admire their daring, their courage, their intelligence, their drive, their tenacity...

How much of your previous career training do you find carrying over into your writing? I’m thinking of techniques, approaches, discipline.

Well, for a start, I'm very susceptible to music. You have only to play a bit of Beethoven or Schubert and I'm in a 19th century place in my head. Which is a help, I fancy.

The self-disciplined hard work though, that's what is the most important. As a pianist and particularly as an accompanist, one practices a great deal every day. And one learns very early on to practice the same bit of music over and over again so that it's not just perfect but so that there's this rising standard of perfection, so that no matter how difficult it may be, eventually it's executed with ease and even brilliance. Those long runny bits that Chopin was so fond of writing, one practices those until they roll off the fingers, until they sound like running water--easy, effervescent, delicious. It doesn't matter how long it takes as long as it's right in the performance. And that's how I write too.

But also, there's the rhythm of music which finds its way into my prose--and I'm very aware as I write of the rhythm and cadences of the language, the metre (I'm quite fond of iambics), language isn't just a means of transmitting an idea on the page, it has a sound, a sensation in the mouth even, and it evokes visceral reactions, and I like to use to the music of language as much as I can.

What advice would you give to an aspiring historical novelist?

I don't know that I have any. I think for historical fiction to be successful it's important to listen to "their" voices, no matter what era one is writing about, not to carry forward one's own prejudices and/or views, but to reflect their concept of their world and themselves as much as possible, rather using the history as a vehicle for one's own views...
And the old chestnut: What are you working on now?

Well, surprisingly two things. One, a collection of sonnets.

Two, I'd love to say it's the next book, but it's probably the next two books. If I may explain?

Of Honest Fame didn't end the way I imagined it was going to, instead, it was left hanging. So I had thought that the next book was one thing, but have felt my way to understanding that the next book must be more of a follow-on.

The only problem with that was I didn't know nearly enough about the 1813-14 phase of the Napoleonic conflict in Germany to write with any credibility whatsoever. I'm a bit picky--I like to know things like what the weather was doing every day, and what the interiors of the peasants' houses were like, and all sorts of bizarre details like that, so it's taken longer than I would have liked to get all this under my belt...So now I'm writing the next book, which is called Or Fear of Peace.

Though in my head, I'm also working out the details of the plot for the next book, since I don't reckon I can squeeze in all the war and the Congress of Vienna too, not if I wish to write a book that people can actually lift...

And may I just say, thank you so much for this interview and asking me such thoughtful questions. It's been such a pleasure...

M.M. Bennetts

Thursday, June 27, 2013

On the verge

When I went shopping in the middle of the week,  instead of flitting up the M6 I took the scenic route from Greenholme to Shap. And, luckily, I had the little Fuji camera in my handbag, because the grass verges beside the motorway bridges were a gleaming tapestry of purple and gold. Positively Assyrian.

If you've ever thought that "anything that isn't growing in a tub or a garden bed, and anything other than clipped grass in the lawn, is a weed" then you should have another look at the wonders of Britain's grassland.

I parked the car and I swear I didn't walk more than 100 yards from it but I found over 3 dozen flowering plants:

Yellow ones

A little bushy clump of tormentil
Yellow pea
Bird's foot trefoil
Yellow rattle
Cat's ear
Meadow buttercup
Creeping buttercup
John Go-To-Bed-At-Noon   (and he had)

Green to yellow

Lady's mantle

Water avens occasionally throws double
flowers but those rarely
have any reproductive parts

Yellow to pink

Water avens - several showing a little aberration that it throws occasionally, double flowers



Ragged robin
Red clover

Eyebright is said to get its name
from its medicinal properties


White clover
Cow parsley
Ox-eye daisy
Mouse-ear chickweed (the smaller one)
Not to mention the rowan and the hawthorn bushes.

Northern Marsh Orchids


Marsh orchid (magnificent big fat spikes of them)
Wood cranesbill
Bush vetch


Germander speedwell

Brownish and rusty

Ribwort plantain
Sorrel dock

And that's just the things that were flowering. July will bring us the lavender and white heath orchids and the foamy cream of meadowsweet; thistles of the creeping, musk, marsh, spear and melancholy species; and the bristly brown-and-purple shaving brushes of knapweed.

Green is also a colour

Don't forget the flowering grasses - they are nearly up into your face!


Sweet vernal
Crested dogstail
Yorkshire fog
False brome
Red fescue

A little way along the verge from my house I also found the small Quaking grass, with pendulous flowers on stems like thin wire.

Even a thistle or a nettle has a use: sheep, cattle and horses eat the flowers of thistles (sometimes more), and the nettle has a history varying from cloth and rope to soup and beer, as well as being an ingredient in "dock pudding" and, of course, a feasting place for butterfly caterpillars.
One of the few benefits of Council budget cuts is that they don't send men round quite so often with mowing machines. Look at the glory they have left for us.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Grandma's Chip

Not all that long ago - but long enough for many people not to remember some of these things. Growing up in the 1950s.

I remember the face my mother pulled when she told one of her friends about the pan in Grandma’s cupboard. Chin lifted, a line of distaste from mouth to jawline, she exclaimed, “Two pounds of solid lard. With a chip sticking out of it like a sinking ship. Ugh!”

Grandma and Grandad, my father’s parents, lived next door. Once a week when my mother made the 90-minute trip to visit our Nanna my brother and I were shunted through the gate in the fence, from the garden of number 20 to number 22.

Grandma suffered from severe arthritis and really preferred us to stay outdoors, so on fine days we romped on rough grass under Grandad’s relaxed eye while he earthed up potatoes, rubbed blackfly off the broad bean shoots, or used a brass push-action spray gun to treat the Dorothy Perkins rose for mildew.

We played Cowboys and Indians with “cap guns.” Wikipedia tells me I lived through “the Golden Age of the cap gun” and whatever the mixture inside the caps was, it made a realistic crack and flash and a sharp smell. Sold as singles like miniature paper ravioli, or as rolls of individual charges, they came in a round penny-sized pressed-cardboard case. In contrast with the singles that had to be placed one by one between shots, rolls were satisfying because you could fire a fast sequence and get a really rich sniff of the smoke. Single caps very much curtailed both our gunsmoke and the amount of noise we made. I can guess, these days, which variety my mother preferred.

In between forays into the Indian country of the black-currant bushes, my brother and I practised the art of starting fires. We had read about the bow-drill method, but invariably the string broke before we had done more than wear the skin off our fingers. We discarded that technique for a magnifying glass and paper. Behold – a blinding point of light that scorched a trail and eventually produced a flame. Sometimes, if we’d gathered enough dry grass and prickly rose prunings, we managed to feed that flame and create a blaze. The smell of a garden bonfire still reminds me of those crouched and intensely focused afternoons. We fastened string round the neck of a jam jar and held it over the hot embers in the hope of stewing rose hips and water into something like jam. Inevitably the bottom cracked and we lost the lot.

On wet days, however, we had to play indoors. We were limited to the dining room, where a coal fire was rigidly confined by a wooden fender, a smoke-shield, and a dense black wire fire-guard. Out of our reach on the mantelpiece my Grandad kept his tobacco and a couple of straight, dark wooden pipes. "Foursquare" tobacco came as flat slices in round tins and had to be rubbed to be ready for the pipe. "St Bruno" came in oblong tins that my Dad used to store nails in his shed. 

The tin and the pipes kept company with a box of Swan Vestas, a jar of white woolly, wire-cored worms for cleaning inside the stem of his pipe, a metal reamer to scrape out the ashes from its bowl, and a patterned, cylindrical “spill box”. Spills were thin slips of wood, about six inches long, and they had two uses. In a morning Grandad arranged knotted paper, wood and coal in the fireplace and lit a spill from a match to kindle the fire. He would then blow out the spill to re-use in the afternoon, when he lit his pipe. Both fire-lighting and pipe-lighting could be lengthy operations , so the spill gave him a greater window of opportunity than a match. The mantel piece also sported a Bakelite spill holder, bright red and smoothly volcano shaped, that housed a coiled length of twisted paper which poked out of the top like a thread of smoke. Of the two, Grandad seemed to prefer the wooden variety, perhaps because the paper refills were no longer available.

Grandma’s idea of giving us children something to play with was limited to bringing out a gloss-white, slightly battered cardboard box of sewing threads and beads. The threads were remnants of real silk in Victorian dark green, rusty black, purple and maroon. Some were wound on cardboard, others around wooden reels that varied from tall and imposing to short and dumpy as Victoria herself. Most of the threads were so old that they snapped if you put tension on them, but one or two held enough sound length to thread beads - round, square, oval, diamond-cut, blue and green and black glass bugle beads. Necklace beads, dress beads, sequins. We spiked the bigger ones on spent match-sticks and if we forced them they broke. The tiniest green glass tubes were hardly bigger than the sugar crystals in Grandma’s bowl and when we tipped the box they made the same sort of crunchy noise. They had a bore so fine that none of her needles would pass through. Black glossy chips of jet must have been stitched onto the corsage of a dress. Sequins, small flat shiny discs with a hole in the middle, shimmered purple and green like dragon scales and slithered over each other with a faintly sinister hiss.

Sometimes Grandma would send us into the chilly front room to bang on the upright piano, supervised by an aspidistra that sulked on a home-made table. The piano was a walnut-cased overstrung, much better quality than my Dad’s, but in Grandma’s front room it suffered from the cold. Its keys were sticky to the touch and it was never quite in tune. However, a friend of mine bought it when Grandma died, and despite its 80-plus years it now lives a very happy life in Shap in a former coaching inn, where it’s used every day to teach music.

After half an hour at the piano, butchering “Chop-Sticks” and “Oh Will You Wash Your Father’s Shirt”, we would be summoned into the kitchen to wash our hands, and then told to sit up to the table in the dining room. Grandma spread a hand-crocheted tablecloth over the green plush bobble-edged cover. She would brush it afterwards with a semicircular "crumb brush" and tray.

At tea time we had bread with butter, Grandma's home made and semi-crystallised jam, and “shop cake” bought off the travelling Co-op van. It was either a fine textured sponge with a skinny layer of white mock cream and a trace of something that could have been raspberry jam, or pink-and-yellow chequered Battenberg wrapped in yellow, granular marzipan. In summer, we sometimes got broad beans with white pepper and butter. More usually it was eggs, fresh peas, and Grandad’s home-grown potatoes cut into big chunky chips and fried in that brown-spattered pan of boiling fat.

Nowadays I suppose most people would share my mother’s horror of their cholesterol load, but I just remember the taste. They were delicious.


Another Grumpy Granny appears in The Forthright Saga -

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Historical Equine Data - some misconceptions corrected

I've just been referred to this page as a useful resource for historical novelists.

I'm pleased to see that someone realised it was necessary back in 1997, but the more I read of it, the more I feel that a lot of its information is inaccurate. Not all of it. Quite a lot is sound. But its frequent inaccuracies and its American bias show the rest of the page in a less trustworthy light and it might be helpful to correct some (ie, those I've taken most exception to!)



"you won't find the word pony in use because they were all horses." That is true as far as terminology goes, because the word "pony" isn't recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary until the mid-17th C (1659, powny, from Scottish, apparently from Fr. poulenet “little foal”). Nathan Bailey's Dictionarium Brittanicum: or A More Compleat Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1730s) defines the word pony as “a little Scotch horse”.

However, the HN page continues, "The generic pony is 9 to 14 hands at the withers (a hand is four inches)..."

Now that's arguable. Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 9th Edition 1881, said a pony “must be less than 52"” (13hh) from the ground to the top of the withers; else he is a Galloway.” (The withers is the bony prominence of the spine above the horse's shoulders, the highest part of its anatomy when it is grazing.) Enc. Brit. also says that a cob “should not exceed 14.1hh”. So from the 17th C to the late Victorian era, a pony is small. Then from about 1890 to modern times the definition of a pony changes to one standing 14 hands 2 inches, or less, and the term "Galloway" retreats into the local dialect of Cumberland, Westmorland, Northumberland and parts of Yorkshire. It also travels to Australia as a definition of a riding horse.

You can find more detail on ponies and Galloways on the Fell pony Museum web site.


The HN page says that ponies weigh "250 to 850 pounds."  Well, chums, you must have some pretty skinny animals over there. My fit and decently covered Fell mare who stands 13.3 in her unshod hooves weighs over 500 kg and my old 13.1 gelding weighs 475 kg. Multiply that up by 2.2 and you get 1100 and 1047 pounds respectively. Workmanlike British ponies like Highlands and Dales will tip the scales at similar weights. So those top weights for the 14 hand working animals in England would need revising.

The weights given for the larger horses are equally unlikely. Snow & Vogel (1987)  remark that Thoroughbred racehorses weigh 400kg/880 pounds, but point out that eventer types weigh 600kg/1320 pounds, which makes nonsense of the HN page's assertion that "Draft horses are over 17 hands and 1400 pounds, and again are stronger than standard horses. ... " Also, depending on the era, those enormously tall horses might actually not have been available - and if they'd been that tall they would certainly have weighed more than 1400 pounds.

Eating habits

"Horses eat only grass, no weeds." Well, there you're wrong again, chums. Hugely wrong. Shall I list some of the things that I've observed a British native pony will eat? No wonder they are such survivors!

Grasses of all kinds (not cocksfoot except when very young or wilted, because of the sharp edges of the leaves) - leaf and seed. Yes, they prefer grass, but they will also eat:

Sedges and rushes
Plantain (ribwort and mousear)
Bramble - leaves, flowers and fruit
Raspberry - ditto
Early-flowering crucifers like lady's smock, hedge garlic and shepherd's purse
Thistle - both the spring rosettes and the summer flowers
Daisies, dandelions and other compositae
Leaves, twigs and bark of shrubs - willow, rose, thorn (hawthorn or may)
Leaves, twigs and bark of trees - apple, ash and beech especially
Gorse - both prickles and flowers

My ponies certainly won't eat poisonous plants like foxgloves, but smell itself doesn't put them off "weeds" since they will also snack on:

Umbellifers like cow parsley 
Allium (wild garlic)
Mint (yum, yum!)

See? Don't generalise.

Pack horses and ponies

"before the later 1700's, pack trains are the normal means of moving goods overland" - yes, and the HN's emphasis on there being only poor roads, narrow tracks (and narrow bridges, where there was any bridge at all) is worth repeating, as is the fact that pack animals work at a walk. Pack saddles were of various designs from the cross-trees (sawbuck) type to the fixed-arch wooden "saddle" over which panniers could be slung.

Inexperienced handlers and packers can need to stop as frequently as every ten minutes or so to adjust slipping loads! So they won't make the upper limits of distances per day that the expert pack trains used to, in England, where ponies walked with their loads over 200 miles from Kendal to London and brought goods back within a month.

Saddle vs harness work

"An animal that has been taught to draw can be broken to saddle, but it is more challenging to teach a saddle-broken animal to draw, as they read the resistance of the load as a command to stop." This is nonsense, as my own mare would tell you. Many trainers begin work under saddle before harness work, reasoning that teaching a horse to respect its handler's wishes WITHOUT a carriage fastened to it is safer than WITH. Disregard this assertion as a generalisation from someone who hasn't done it either way.

"Plowing is draft work on very soft ground" and "Because of their weight, [draught horses] would sink to the fetlocks in plowed fields." More generalisation: ploughing (pardon my English spelling) can be done to break virgin land or tear up pasture in a farm's rotation (that's from the early 18th C onward; look up Jethro Tull and Turnip Townshend). Ploughing is therefore not exclusively "on soft ground" so your draught animals of whatever size won't be sinking into it. You can see photos of horses ploughing on the Fell Pony and Countryside Museum web site (Countryside section, Seed time) along with observations from men who have done it. The horse "up to the fetlocks" is walking in the furrow that was turned previously. He is not wading through mud. You don't plough when it's that wet, anyway.

"Even animals too young or weak to ride can draw a load." Yes, unfortunately it is true that young and weak animals can be used in draught, although they might be unfit for ridden work. And they probably would be so used, if conditions forced it.

General Caveat

There's a distinct American bias in most of the information on the HN page, so if you are a writer and your characters are "on stage" in Europe or Britain, don't for heaven's sake mention "hard-rocking mangalargas" OR "gliding paso finos"! Do your own research!

Some References

Fell Pony and Countryside Museum web site. This chronicles the everyday working ponies of Northern England from prehistory to the present day.  The Countryside part of the side has a great deal of agricultural information, though of a limited period from the 1850s to the 1950s.

Snow & Vogel, 1987, Equine Fitness, David & Charles, Newton Abbot & London; discusses the fittening of horses for various disciplines and is very informative about how and why horses can perform as they do.

David Murray, 2003-2004, The Fell Pony: grazing characteristics and breed profile. A study of the grazing preferences of semi feral ponies.

Sue Millard, 2005, Hoofprints in Eden, Hayloft Publishing, Kirkby Stephen. An examination of the modern Fell pony, and its history as told by its breeders. Now available only from the author's Jackdawebooks site (paperback) or on Amazon Kindle (4 e-books).

Monday, June 17, 2013

Equestrian Resources for Historians

I hadn't realised until this last year that many historical novelists don't have even a nodding acquaintance with the world of horses. While to me it's very easy to visualise how the world looked and behaved when only horses were the fastest means of transport, clearly this aspect of life is - ehem - a closed book for many writers.

I had also forgotten that I have been collecting equine trivia from across history since I first created the Fell Pony Museum web site back in 2000. It's been up there on t'interweb for 13 years, waving gently at passers-by, but not making a nuisance of itself. You can Google "Fell pony history" and the Museum site will appear in the first half-dozen entries on page 1 (and: I manage two of the other sites that are up in that bracket!).

Since the concept of pedigree farm animal breeds didn't emerge in England till the 19th century, much of what I've recorded in the Museum site is generic British pony (horse) information. By definition, "Fell pony history" is not really available before then, but a good deal of information can be found about the animals who were of similar size, use and geographical distribution. So, when questions of colour, type, size, use and behaviour arise among my fellow authors, this site is a useful resource. There is a also long list of links to further reading.

This blog, Jackdaw E Books, also has several posts about horse use, and coaches and carriages, which could save much writerly embarrassment at the book reviewing stage!

Search for posts labelled:


"carriage driving"

"coaching era"

"bluffer's guide"

MM Bennetts' Literary Historical Fiction blog and Jonathan Hopkins' Cavalry Tales blog frequently offer terrific insights into the world of horse usage. Both are riders and Jonathan is a professional saddle fitter.


Sue Millard is the author of several equestrian books including Hoofprints in Eden, Coachman and One Fell Swoop, and two children's educational activity books, Fell Facts and Fell Fun.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Coming Soon

SONS OF THE WOLF blog tour: Paula Lofting

On Tuesday 18th I shall be introducing historical re-enactor, Paula Lofting, and her debut novel "Sons of the Wolf".


As part of the indieBRAG Tour, Paula is giving away 9 e-book copies and one paperback of "Sons of the Wolf". To enter the giveaway, send your contact information to her at

The giveaway draw will be on June 25.

Publish Date: July 23, 2012
Publisher: SilverWood Books
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
Language: English


Sue Millard is the author of "Hoofprints in Eden" (2005), an exploration of the Fell pony breed supported by interviews with breeders of the ponies on the fell. Her equestrian writing is featured at Jackdaw E Books while "Hoofprints" can be purchased from Hayloft publishing or from Sue directly. Please see

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Small World

Appleby Horse Fair is upon us once again. Gipsy, potter, tinker, Irish or New Age traveller, we see little of them over here at Greenholme, but there are always scrap dealers of more or less probity, and earlier this week two gipsy women and a child were surprised by one of our neighbours inside her house. With that sort of thing in mind, I take the precaution of padlocking the carriages to something solid, and cover the ponies with fly rugs to look as though they suffer from “sweet-itch”., However, since we adopted Sammy the sheepdog the less desirable elements of the Fair have not troubled us.

A couple of years ago I needed a few last photographs to complete my current book, and in particular I wanted a photo of a gipsy camp and a living van, so on my way home on the Wednesday of Fair week I wandered through some out-of-the-way villages, looking for people who were camped awaiting the opening of The Hill on Thursday morning. I saw a lot of police fluorescent jackets and traffic advisory notices (excellent!) warning motorised traffic to be careful of horsedrawn vehicles, but I saw no travellers until I reached Appleby itself. There I found huge numbers of No Parking cones, and posts and wire along most of the verges, so I drove through the town and past the still-closed Hill without achieving my goal.

On the way out I took the turning towards a friend’s farm and was amused to see that his fields were full of cobs and trotters, obviously earning him a little money for their grazing. However, it wasn’t until I had passed his farm and taken the turning for home that I finally saw a small camp on the roadside, and the highly distinctive pale green-canvassed roof and cream-painted shafts of a genuine living van. There was enough space for me to park my car out of the way, so I grabbed my camera and climbed out.

I had already passed several groups of men with horses that morning. Although I had waved at them in a friendly fashion I hadn’t felt brave enough to stop and accost them for photographs. But here I could see women and children in the party, probably two families or groups of friends, sitting in semicircles on folding chairs while enjoying tea and sunshine on the grass. Apart from the fact that the motorised vehicles were all three-ton pickups or seven-ton drop-side wagons,  and the trailer caravans were bigger and newer than those on the carriage-driving circuit, it didn’t look any different from a weekend gathering of competitors at a driving trial. I strolled back along the verge to scrape acquaintance.

“Morning, nice day, isn’t it? Nice living van there … would you mind if I took some photographs?”

No, they didn’t mind, because the van wasn’t theirs! I laughed and asked who did own it, and they directed me to the next trailer caravan. I met a young woman with her daughter, who told me it was fine for me to take photographs. So I took a couple of photos of the living van, clean and trim in its burgundy paint, its etched interior mirrors cheerfully reflecting the light. There was a four wheeled flat dray alongside so I photographed that too.  Passing the trailer caravan and the wood fire with its black iron pots,  tripods and hooks, I walked up the verge to the shade of the trees where the horses were standing in deep grass, quietly watching the day go by. The black and white gelding considered me carefully, then moved up to sniff my knuckles. He was a strong little cob, standing about 14 hands with a lot of bone and a decent amount of feather. He took several deep breaths, then  pulled up his top lip to hold and analyse my scent. I must have smelt satisfactory, because he then let me stroke his muzzle. I didn’t disturb him further though, as tethered animals can’t get away, and the half-circle of their tether has to be their rest space as well as their feeding area. I walked back to the brown and white mare, who was a fine strong sort of about 15 hands, in really hard, fit condition. Like the gelding, she was tethered to a tree by a neck-strap and chain, which was sensibly covered for the first ten feet by plastic hose so it could neither rub nor kink around an unwary hoof. Both horses looked like good kind animals who knew tethering as part of their job. I spoke to the mare, who flicked an ear at me in acknowledgement, but her attention seemed to be on something several fields away so I admired and moved on.

A rough coated terrier tethered to a wooden kennel yapped at me briefly as I passed by the trailer caravan, where the older lady of the family was tending the fire. I smiled and she called a cheerful greeting. I replied with a complimentary remark about the two cobs, and we were off! Within five minutes we were sitting in folding chairs by the fire and talking “horses and driving” nineteen-to-the-dozen. She told me about their trip over the Pennines from the North-East along the Middleton-in-Teesdale road, and we discussed its quietness in terms of traffic and the steepness of its banks and drags. She described how the horses had tackled them with the living van and the dray, and how long her husband had given them to rest at the tops of some of the steeper hills. “He got a bit wild, said he wouldn’t come by that road again, it was cruel on the horses.”

Would I like a cup of tea? I accepted, though I’m normally a coffee drinker. She hung the black kettle over the mended fire and very soon it was steaming merrily.

“I don’t like cooking in the trailer,” she said. “I like my open fire, and to be outside in the sunshine.” They didn’t normally camp out here, she said, but it was good to be away from the main bustle of the Fair, where some of the menfolk were too prone to drink themselves silly and then “make a noise late at night and disturb everybody” or go driving their horses, “which isn’t fair on them.” However, her husband didn’t drink, so although she didn’t know quite where he was right now, she wasn’t worried about him.  It was easier to tether the horses here, too, with the trees for shade.

“There’s a lot of lads come over for the Fair and they think because they have a coloured horse and they drive it here they know it all, but they don’t. They know nothing. They don’t know how to treat them, not like us, we've been born and bred to it."

Two PG Tips teabags went into the Harrods china mugs, and we sat and sipped and chatted some more.

The disadvantage of the quiet roadside was that there wasn’t a handy water supply and they’d had to go to the village pub to fill up. She said, “I like to stop where there are lavatories really, but it’s all right in the trailer.” Their refuse was in two plastic sacks which they would take to the skip on Fair Hill once the main site was open.

I mentioned that I had been taking photographs for a book and she at once went into the caravan to bring out a big shiny hardback in which she showed me photographs of her family. If I’d had a tape recorder running I could have catalogued all her brothers and sisters and their spouses and offspring right then and there, but as it was I nodded and smiled and made the wordless noises of agreement that keep conversations going. 

We discovered an acquaintance in common, Walter Lloyd, a very well spoken and well educated man now in his eighties. “When we met him he was cooking a hedgehog and he asked if I would like a bit. I said, No, I would NOT!” Later that weekend, she had had “a bit of an upset stomach, oh I was badly” and Walter had taken a pan and gone picking leaves out of the hedgerows for her. “Grass and weeds and all sorts, and he brewed it up and poured it into a pot, as black as that kettle, I wouldn’t have drunk out of it. He said, ‘Drink that and by the time it’s all gone you’ll be better.’ Well I didn’t like to offend him so I took it, but I poured it all away. I went to the doctor instead. I wasn’t going to drink that, I didn’t know what was in it. Would you have drunk it?”

I have a garden full of medicinal plants and a head full of botanical trivia, and I admitted that if the brew had been made by Walter, I probably would have drunk it. We both laughed, but she shook her head: “Well I wasn’t going to risk it!”

As I stood up to take leave, I mentioned that a family from her area were coming to stay with us for Fair Week, but that the husband would be going home each night to tend his stock. He wouldn’t bring a horse to the Fair for fear someone let it loose for a lark, or even stole it.

“Oh yes? Who’s that then?” I gave the surname and she said at once, “Oh, that’ll be Joe and Violet. They live a couple of miles from us. When you see them, tell them you’ve met Michelle.”


Sue Millard is the author of "Hoofprints in Eden" (2005), an exploration of the Fell pony breed supported by interviews with breeders of the ponies on the fell. Her equestrian writing is featured at Jackdaw E Books while "Hoofprints" can be purchased from Hayloft publishing or from Sue directly. Please see

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Roast Beef of Old England...

Summer Banquet Blog Hop

Summer banquet hop copy

  1. Each author in the Hop is hosting a giveaway on their site.
  2. Readers may enter for my giveaway by leaving a comment HERE on the hop post/page (comments on Facebook don't qualify).
  3. I'm offering a copy of "The Forthright Saga", "Dragon Bait" or "Coachman" in Kindle format to the most interesting comment left on this blog. Please make sure I can contact you to send your choice of book if you win!

August 1983

On that late summer day 30 years ago, we moved from Shap in Cumbria to our present small farm in Greenholme. We had stretched ourselves a long way financially to buy it. However it was only 8 miles from one house to the other so as husband was a self-employed haulage contractor we used our own wagon to complete the move, instead of paying a removals firm.

Having spent the previous six weeks shifting small items by car and caravanette into one of the farm buildings, we were now dealing with serious things like beds and wardrobes and curtains, oh yes and children. A Shap neighbour, Ivan Day from Wreay Farm, volunteered to give us a hand with the lifting. I'd kept a borrowed Fell pony on his two acre field (she had the magnificent name of Heltondale Matty Benn of Biglands). Our kids played together, and we knew Ivan mostly as a plant collector and gardener.

Today Ivan is an independent social historian of food culture and also a professional chef and confectioner, lecturing abroad, teaching cookery and all aspects of British and Italian food history at his home in the English Lake District. He is also the author of a number of books and many papers on the history of food and has curated many major exhibitions on food history in the UK, US and Europe. His blog is Food History Jottings. Here's a nod of thanks to him for his friendship.

Summer Banquet: cold roast beef

My favourite summer sandwich is underdone roast beef in salty-buttered brown bread, with horseradish sauce. Accompanied by a shady tree and busy birds and a nice view...

Here I look at one of Ivan's collected recipes for that roast beef, as defined by Robert May in "The Accomplisht Cook" published in London in 1660, the year of Charles II's restoration to the throne. I've put this recipe side by side with Mrs Isabella Beeton's French version 200 years later, in 1861. I've pulled out and listed the ingredients so that the 1660 presentation of the recipe is similar to that of the later one.

Robert May's version, 1660

To Roast a fillet of beef

A Fillet of beef
a few sweet herbs chopp'd smal,
the yolks of three or four eggs,
gross pepper minced amongst them
the peel of an orange
a little onion
a little butter,
a spoonful of strong broth

Take a fillet which is the tenderest part of the beef, and lieth in the inner part of the surloyn, cut it as big as you can, broach it on a broach not too big, and be careful not to broach it through the best of the meat, roast it leisurely, & baste it with sweet butter, set a dish to save the gravy while it roasts, then prepare sauce for it of good store of parsley, with a few sweet herbs chopp'd smal, the yolks of three or four eggs, sometimes gross pepper minced amongst them with the peel of an orange, and a little onion; boil these together, and put in a little butter, vinegar, gravy, a spoonful of strong broth, and put it to the beef.

Mrs Beeton’s version, 1861

Fillet of Beef (Filet de boeuf roti)

4lb of fillet of beef, 
1/3 of a pint of beef gravy,
demi-glace sauce, 

horseradish sauce. 

For the marinade,
2 tablespoons of salad-oil, 
1 tablespoon of lemon juice, 
1 teaspoon chopped onion, 
1 teaspoon chopped parsley, 
½ teaspoon powdered mixed herbs, 
¼ teaspoon pepper, 
pinch of ground cloves.

Tie the meat in a good shape, place it on a dish, pour over the marinade and let it remain in it for 3 hours, turning and basting frequently. Have ready a sheet of stout, well-greased paper, drain away ½ the liquid part of the marinade, fold the remainder and the meat in the paper, and fasten the ends securely. Roast or bake for 1 ½ hours, basting frequently with butter or dripping; ½ an hour before serving removed the paper and when the meat is nicely browned brush it over with meat-glaze and place it on a hot dish. The demi-glace sauce may be poured round the dish or served separately, the horseradish sauce being served in a sauce-boat.

The main differences in the cooking methods are that the 1660 version expects the meat to be spit-roasted in front of an open fire with the juices collected in a dripping-pan, while the 1861 version expects it to be wrapped and baked in a dish in the oven. May uses butter where the later recipe uses oil. Although the 1861 recipe doesn't say what temperature the oven should be, Beeton's massive work says, "Meat is done when it has been heated throughout only to the temperature of coagulating albumin, provided the heat is continued long enough; it is thoroughly done when it has been heated through its whole mass to the temperature at which the colouring matter of the blood coagulates; it is overdone when the heat has been continued long enough to harden the fibres." May's "roast it leisurely" is a delightfully confident alternative.

I'm glad I don't have to work in a hot kitchen in summer - though if 2013 is a summer like 2012 I might want to!


  1. Readers may enter for my giveaway by leaving a comment HERE on the hop post/page (comments on Facebook don't qualify).
  2. I'm offering a copy of "The Forthright Saga", "Dragon Bait" or "Coachman" in digital format to the most interesting comment left on this blog. Please make sure I can contact you to send your choice of book if you win!
Make up your mind: the three books on offer can be seen on my web site at

    Blog Hop Participants

    Each author in the Hop is hosting a giveaway on their site. Do visit and see what's on offer alongside the interesting and informative blogging!

    1. Random Bits of Fascination (Maria Grace)
    2. Pillings Writing Corner (David Pilling)
    3. Anna Belfrage
    4. Debra Brown
    5.  Lauren Gilbert
    6. Gillian Bagwell
    7. Julie K. Rose
    8. Donna Russo Morin
    9. Regina Jeffers
    10. Shauna Roberts
    11. Tinney S. Heath
    12. Grace Elliot
    13. Diane Scott Lewis
    14. Ginger Myrick
    15. Helen Hollick
    16. Heather Domin
    17. Margaret Skea
    18. Yves Fey
    19. JL Oakley
    20. Shannon Winslow
    21. Evangeline Holland
    22. Cora Lee
    23. Laura Purcell
    24. P. O. Dixon
    25. E.M. Powell
    26. Sharon Lathan
    27. Sally Smith O’Rourke
    28. Allison Bruning
    29. Violet Bedford
    30. Sue Millard
    31. Kim Rendfeld