Join the Journey

Category: Places

Reconquista at Crystal Palace Overground Festival

17th June is the date for south Londoners determined to have a good day out at the FREE Crystal Palace Overground Festival.

In Crystal Palace Park, the Festival gates open at eleven in the morning and the music goes on until nine o’clock at night. But Overground is about much, much more than music. There’s the Vintage Zone, stalls, music and dancing ( lindy hop or twist anyone ), the Family Zone with a Performance tent, Arts and Crafts and, for the first time this year, tents celebrating The Spoken Word and Storytelling ( and there’s a book tent with book signings by authors who speak at the Festival ).

Julie Anderson, author of Reconquista, is organising the Storytelling tent. This is very much performance based. So we have Twice Shy Theatre, winners of the Best Alternative Act, London Cabaret Awards 2015, who create impromptu stories using suggestions from and the experiences of members of the audience. Zoie weaves her wordy magic, while Des creates an underpinning sound scape.At midday Twice Shy take over the tent ( I’m hoping for a real Mongolian yurt, if it’s owner will lend it to us ) to develop some tales with the audience (they will be back to develop some more at 2.30).

Jo Clayton, the StoryCycler, formerly Practitioner in Residence at the Globe Theatre on London’s Bankside, begins in Storytelling at 1.15 in the afternoon, with her South London Fairy Tales, suitable for ages from 9 to 90.

Then we have Story Places, the stories devised by local story tellers specifically set in or about Crystal Palace Park ( working with folk from Southampton University ).  The Uni has developed a special app for mobile phones which allows users to be ‘in’ a story set in a specific place. A specially commissioned story from writer and actress Katie Lyons ( who, it is hoped, will perform it ) will start things off. Listeners can leave the tent and load the app on to their phones in order to ‘walk the stories’ in the park.

At some point in the afternoon we hope to be starting another walk from the tent, the Adventure Maze procession, for any younger folk who will enter the Maze with their story books in hand, to meet magical characters, the spirits of the trees and places in the Park, as well as people who have lived there or been associated with it. An analogue version of the Story Places app, but with ‘real’ characters within the maze.

Then, at five o’clock it’s Reconquista time. I am hopeful of acquiring a set and some props as well as a few helpers, rather better readers than yours truly, to re-create scenes from the story. I will, however, be signing copies of the book in the Book Tent earlier in the day.

Storytelling closes with the Beckenham Storytellers at 6.15 p.m. creating their Story Circle, telling tales about south London life.

So, if you enjoyed reading Reconquista and live in London come along to the Storytelling tent at the Crystal Palace Overground Festival on 17th June to meet the author and listen to some fabulous tales.  See you there!

If you enjoyed reading this article you might also enjoy  Ask the Author       Reconquista at the Clapham Book Festival 2017

Walking the Streets

jerezsept2016 I’ve just returned from Jerez, where it was thirty-two degrees and sunny – still Summer really.  So I didn’t get to go up to the mountains as I’d hoped, it was still just too hot, I’ll have to wait for cooler times.  I was, however, able to do some other research, mainly into specific places within the old town of Jerez and into timings – which will help with my writing of the sequel to ‘Reconquista‘.

The events of the next book take place over about a fortnight, but a lot happens in that time.  Just like the first book, the tale is told from the points of view of a number of characters so I jerezsept20163need to be specific about where each of them are and when (sometimes they miss each other, or avoid each other, by seconds). So I was striding around the narrow streets within the old town to work out approximately how long it would take to get from one point to another.  The street pattern may, in places, have changed since the 13th century, but the distances remain the same.

Anyone observing me would have wondered just what this middle-aged English woman was up to, consulting her watch and making notes before starting off again. Something nefarious perhaps, like planning a quick getaway after a robbery. Maybe it’s just as well that I didn’t attract the attention of the local Guardia Civil.

As usual I spent some time at the Alcazar, which is a lovely place to sit and write, although this time I did so outside in its orange grove or Patio de los Naranjas, overlooking the Cathedral of San Salvador.

jerezsept20162I drove out of town with a friend, which enabled me to look back towards the city and see what my characters would see as they approached it.  The topography is undulating and the old city was at a high point, but the gradient isn’t uniform, so parts of the walls are on a relatively flat surface, whereas elsewhere the land falls away sharply, especially from the Alcazar and nearby.

Anyone journeying from the coast to the west would see the towers of the Alcazar first, high up on its hill, whereas anyone approaching from the east would see the city walls rising out of a plain. Whether or not these vistas will feature in the final book I don’t know, but it was important to me that I knew about them.

The book is taking shape, though I’m only just half way through the first version.  Like its predecessor it will have three sections. I’m sticking with the classic ‘story of a journey‘ structure – characters set out, they journey, they come home.

Part One is ‘In the City‘ and Part Three ‘Returning‘, but I have not decided on the title for Part Two though I’m using ‘In the Mountains‘ for now. In this volume there will also be an Epilogue, showing what happens to the characters in the future. This should ensure that I won’t be tempted to write any more about them – the next book in the series will be set approximately two hundred and thirty years after the second.

Now, however, I must properly type up all those sections which I scribbled down on bits of paper when I was away – I didn’t, on this occasion, take my lap-top, something I’m beginning to regret.

If you enjoyed reading this post you might also enjoy           Characters             Plots       The Journey Continues….          Up in the High Sierras


The idea that every story has a beginning, a middle and an end goes back to ancient times and the writings of Aristotle, the Greek philosopherdfw-ja-r-cover-3d-nologo.  The story I am now writing does too, but mine is complicated by being spread over two books – ‘Reconquista‘ and its sequel – and each of these also has a beginning, a middle and an end.

So, although there was a suitable end to ‘Reconquista‘, there were also unresolved plot lines.  At one level, therefore, much of what must happen in the sequel has already been decided ( although how each element is resolved is another matter ). Warning! If you haven’t read ‘Reconquista‘ what follows gives away some of its plot.

warning-843608_1280An example is, what happens to Don Reza?  At the end of the first book we assume that he is still being held captive in the mountains. Atta is desperate to rescue him. So one part of the plot must address this.  We already know, from what the cavalry lieutenant says to Nathan and Senor Thomas after their meeting with the King, that he has been ordered to tackle the bandits.  Logically then, this is a major grazalema6driver of plot and any ‘rescue attempt’ is likely to involve a number of our main characters, and quite a lot of jeopardy.

Similarly, we left Nathan living with the galley slaves, we don’t know what he’ll decide to do next.  Will he return home?  If he does, what sort of reception will he receive from his father?  If he doesn’t, what will he do? This is the most open-ended of the unresolved issues at the end of book one.

The other cliff hanger is, of course, Rebecca’s answer to Ben’s proposal.  This is the element which I am asked about most often.  Does she accept him? I am not going to tell. Sorry, you’ll have to read the next book to find out.

In addition, however, to these existing plot drivers there is also the historical situation to take into account, because this is an historical novel and includes real events. This is likely to generate plot.

KingAlfonsoOnce King Alfonso X was re-established in Jerez we know that he expelled its Moorish inhabitants and granted much of their property to his own followers.  The ‘Repartamiento’, a document drawn up at the time at Alfonso’s behest, tells us how the property was distributed, to knights and to their followers in turn. So the city is very different in the sequel, both physically, given the reconstruction after the bombardment, and in terms of its inhabitants.

This would be evident to the characters and must be factored into the story. How is Atta going to feel now, as one of the few Moors in Jerez?  And how would he react?  The changing circumstances are also an opportunity to introduce some new and interesting characters to add to those we already know.

By early spring 1265 King Alfonso was in Seville, ( see Giralda, below right, which would have been there at that time, just without the bell tower on top ) where he set about raising troops and money for a full-seville-656699_1280scale assault on the Emirate of Granada. The Emir also began gathering forces, from the Arab countries across the sea to the south, so both were preparing for a possible war. Both rulers considered themselves to be men of honour, both, at this point, considered the other was planning to attack.   A dangerous situation for the emissary of the Emir and his nephew in Jerez then, but also a chance for them to take part in real and important events.

So, when I take all these factors into consideration, I find that the plot of the sequel pretty much writes itself ( although there are some surprises too, as you might expect, which are new plot strands ). I, however, have to write the actual words, so I’ll say Adios for now.


Tormenta – noun (f), Spanish, storm or tempest.

Researching a book is one of the most interesting aspects of being a writer.  This is especially the case regarding locations.  Of course, it’s easier these days, when so much of the globe is available at the tap of a keyboard.  Laura Barnett, writer of the best-selling ‘The Versions of Us‘ used Google Streetview for every joursierrasney made by her characters in London, Cambridge and the US ( she was born in London and went to Cambridge, but still needed to check the contemporary street scenes ).

Given the location of the sequel to ‘Reconquista’ I have been researching the mountains to the east of Jerez, as regular readers of this blog will knoMountaineeringw.I have been using ‘Sierras Andaluzas‘ by Manuel Gil Monreal and Enrique A Marin Fernandez, two Andalucian mountaineers, which was a mine of information about the Sierras, Now I know about climate, geology and how to climb some of the peaks ( some not to be attempted unless by experienced mountaineers ).

The Sierras around Grazalema are the first mountains of any size which one comes across when crossing Andalucia from Atlantic to Mediterranean.  The weather systems come from the Atlantic for most of the year and roll across the Bahia, the plains and the foothills, only to come slap bang up against the Sierras, this makes for an eventful climate.  Very high winds sweep the peaks and valleys alike and for parts lightning-583713_1280of the year it is very wet, this is where those Atlantic clouds dump their contents. Grazalema has the highest precipitation rate in southern Spain and floods are common and dangerous. Yet in the shadow of some of the peaks the terrain is perpetually dry, creating micro-climates like the Garganta Seca, or Dry Ravine.

In Winter there is snow ( as we know from ‘Reconquista‘ ) and, in all but high summer, clouds and mists often shroud the valleys and high plains. Tempest and violent storms – tormenta – are common, with thunder and lightning ringing between the peaks. It’s going to make for a dramatic backdrop to my characters’ next set of adventures.

Yet these apparently inhospitable mountains have always been settled, first in Neanderthal times, then by the Romans, then lake-and-white-village-of-Zahara-150x150the Arabs. Many of the place names there are Arabic in origin, Benamahoma, Benaocaz, Benaojan and Zahara ( right).  Though there is also Prado del Rey, or ‘Meadow of the King’, the most westerly village in the comarca.  They were also the haunt of bandits, in real life as in fiction, up until as late as the 1930s and the time of the Spanish Civil War. And they have inspired artists and writers before me. And poets.

Los Senderos del San Cristobal‘ or ‘The Paths of Saint Christopher’

by Carlos Sanjuan Gonzales.

Si subes al San Cristobal, desde su cumbre veras, el Castillo de Zahara y el Penon de Gibralta,

Should you climb to Saint Christopher, to the true summit, twixt the Castillo of Zahara and the Rock of Gibraltar,

Las aguilos y los bitres, se han dormido en tus laderas, sierras de Benamahoma, que llenas mi vide entera.

The eagles and the vultures slumber on your slopes, mountains of Benamahoma, which have filled my life entire.

Up in the High Sierras

I am busy writing the sequel to ‘Reconquista‘ at the moment – I have mapped out 20160618_124245_resizedthe plot and already begun writing ‘In the City‘, the provisional title of Part One of the sequel.  I also plan to start the research for Part Two, provisionally entitled ‘In the Mountains‘.  These titles will not be a surprise to those who have read my earlier book. ‘In the City‘ is also the title of Part One of that book, so there is some symmetry.

Bonellis-Eagle-stephenIt is much too hot to go into the mountains to the east of Jerez right now, the terrain there is very exposed (and, in summer, riddled with snakes) and there is the risk of fire.  But I can, on a clear day, see the very distinctive outline of Torreon, the highest mountain, together with the peak of San Cristobal next to it, from Jerez town.  These two form the Sierra del Pinar (often shown on maps as a single mountain named Pinar) and they are the favoured haunt of walkers and climbers in cooler months.

Mountaineers seeking more challenging climbs may prefer the Penon Grande and its sheer wall of limestone cliffs at the top of a ridge GargantaVerdewhich reaches over 1300 metres high.  I don’t plan to do any climbing myself, but I need to know about climbing in these mountains ( plot hint ).

I have been reading a book called ‘Sierras Andaluzas‘ by Manuel Gil Monreal and Enrique A Marin Fernandez, both mountaineers, which has lotsof information about the Sierras, climactic, geological and practical – it contains detailed instructions about various routes up the peaks ( some not to be attempted unless bysierras experienced climbers ).

Garganta_verde4The mountains are part of a geological system called the Subbaetic, which runs roughly south-east to north-west across southern Spain.  Being carstic, that is to say, made of limestone,  they have plenty of caves and potholes, like the Hundidero cave ( left, yes, those are trees ) which is so large that a visitor can venture about two hundred metres inside without the need for artificial light. Most of these systems are sink holes for rivers or the water from the surrounding mountains and their courses, sometimes over two hundred metres deep, have been plotted by pot-holers, though it is still a mystery where the waters in El Republicano emerge.

A limestone landscape is mainly white or light grey in colour, from the limestone rock, which would merge into the snow when Winter comes.  It is a jagged landscape, with high shard-like rock structures, especially on El Endrinal another group of high peaks which are particularly exposed.   Travellers could easily lose their way, especially as, in all but high Summer, mist and cloud are common.  The perfect place for a bandit fortress, perhaps.Bahiasunset

I will read about this wild landscape while I wait until it is cool enough to go and see it up close.  And in the meanwhile I shall walk along the beach at El Puerto and watch the sunset over the lagoon, towards Cadiz.


20160618_124245_resizedI have just returned from the blue skies of Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, the city where ‘Reconquista’ is set, to grey old London town. I came back to vote in the EU Referendum, but I’m missing Jerez already.

There’s a lot of music in Jerez right now.  The city has a Conservatory of Music, there are lots of flamenco schools and there are concerts in many of the city’s old monuments, like the 13th century Alcazar and the monastery cloisters, as part of JerezView9the ‘Noches en Verano’ programme of summertime events ( the photo, right, was taken at a concert in the Alcazar ).  One of the town’s largest squares, Plaza Arenal, where the tournament takes place in ‘Reconquista‘, has a 20160618_122717_resizedbeautiful, old carousel in place, which plays music as it turns every day.

There was probably music in Jerez in the distant past too.  King Alfonso X ( The Wise King ) wrote songs himself, the music and the lyrics.  I heard some of these performed in the Alcazar last year.

The songs, or Cantigas, are about the miraculous interventions of the Virgin Mary Cantigas1in the lives of ordinary citizens, usually when they are in trouble or need her help, but sometimes to chastise them when they have been boastful or vain.  The King also wrote satirical songs which poked fun at people and love songs.  The Cantigas were written in Galician-Portuguese a ‘lyric’ language of the court, not Castilian, the everyday language used by ordinary people, but not Latin either. Most of the King’s writings were in Castilian, so that ordinary people could understand them.  This was quite unusual at that time ( though not in Spain ). Chaucer was one of the first English people to write books in English and his Canterbury Tales were very unusual when they were published in the 1380s, over a hundred years later.

The music is interesting, as are some of the instruments used to play it, in part because the lute or guitar-like instrument ( see illustration above ) has something in music-800582_1280common with today’s flamenco guitar.  Medieval Moorish influences are clear in the flamenco rhythms and music which you can hear in Jerez today. Have a listen to the video clip attached to this article – Lamento – about a flamenco performance earlier this year in Jerez, the influence is obvious.

drums-58550_1280However, the Cantigas were set to types of tunes well-known in the Middle Ages, such as the rondeau and the virelai.  They were played on a variety of instruments, like guitars, lutes, drums and other percussion, flutes and pan-pipes.  Sometimes the songs were unaccompanied. This type of singing, like the chants by monks in a church, is called a cappella, literally ‘of the chapel’.

20160619_183606_resizedBut when I was in Jerez last Saturday I saw a completely different sort of musical performance, this was a charity gala performance of Mary Poppins, entitled ‘El Viento del Este‘, in the Teatro Villamarta.  Everyone clapped and sang along to the songs and afterwards people ( of all sizes ) had their photos taken with the cast. Supercalifragilisticexpialidoso!

You can read more about King Alfonso’s songs and listen to one of them, called Strela do Dia, or Star of the Day here.

The Journey Continues

Since ‘Reconquista‘ was published I have received lots of kind comments from questions-1328466_1280readers. Thank you for all your encouragement, I am pleased like readers like the book and I will put all the questions and answers into an ‘Ask the Author’ page, but the question I am asked the most is ‘When will the next book be out?’

Of course, people want to know what happens to their favourite characters and ‘Reconquista‘ ends with lots of things unresolved.  What will Nathan decide to do?  Will he leave Jerez with the former galley slaves? What happens to Don Reza, will Atta and Uncle Taf rescue Grazalema2him from the bandits’ stronghold in the mountains? How does Rebecca respond to Ben’s proposal of marriage? Will Simon be left all alone?

I can’t answer most of these questions ( and I won’t answer others ). This is, in part because I don’t yet know how everything will play out.  I do know some of the answers, but don’t know how they are arrived at. My characters may surprise me. This is all part and parcel of writing a sequel.

Right now I am writing an out-line, chapter by chapter, of the plot. Once I have this skeleton I will begin to put flesh upon it, showing how my characters develop and JerezJulyPlaterosreact to events and to each other. They have all changed since they were last all together in their home town, after all, and need to get to know one another again. And there are the reactions of the towns-people to cope with.  The ‘snippet’ at the end of ‘Reconquista‘ show readers some of what Rebecca meets when she settles down to life in the Plaza Plateros house with Simon.

corsica-224716_1280I also need to do a lot more research, especially about the mountains to the east of Jerez de la Frontera. The peaks around Ubrique and Grazalema are part of a protected nature reserve, so will not have changed that much for many years.  The pine forests there are very old. It is to the fastnesses of the Sierra Pinar and El Endrinal we go, to the acrstic landscape of Evergreen Gorge and Ever Dry Valley, the disinctive peak of San Cristobal and Torreon, the highest point in Cadiz province. There are deep caves and sharp limestone ridges.

Of course there were no tarmac roads in the thirteenth century, the roads were summit-1331728_1280either old Roman paved thoroughfares or dirt tracks and travel was much, much slower.  In ‘Reconquista‘ Atta had maps to help him cross these mountains, but still it took him two months. The maps weren’t  detailed either, indeed, this area wasn’t mapped properly until much later.  Only locals would know the hidden valleys and deep gorges.

ImperialIberianEagleThe mountains are, of course, also the natural frontier between the west of Al Andalus, now ruled over by King Alfonso and the east of Al Andalus, ruled over by Emir Muhammed of Granada.  So expect some confrontation!

I will be returning to Jerez in ten days time, with a view to finding out even more about this landscape  I’ll write about it when I return.

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Searching for a Past                        Why is she called Rebecca?

Why is she called Rebecca?

Just one of the questions I have been asked. There were plenty asked during the launch event for ‘Reconquista‘ on Saturday.  Some of them are below, with answers.

Rebecca is a really feisty character.  Would she really have got away with what she did in the book in the real 13th century?

galleonRebecca is something of an anachronism, she is a bit ‘out of time’.  In the 13th century, women and girls didn’t have the opportunities which they have in 21st century Britain, to travel and have adventures. So I had to make her pretend to be a boy in order to allow her to do so.  She wouldn’t have been aboard ship otherwise.

Most girls from the town or city would be swot-up-1261538_1280mothers and housekeepers for their men-folk, rarely venturing out of their town.  If they were born in the countryside they would work the land.  But they didn’t have very much power, unless they were aristocrats, wealthy in their own right or widowed and rich. That’s not to say they couldn’t think for themselves.

Did the besieging army have all the weapons which are described in the book?

catapult-30061_1280 I am not sure exactly what weapons were used during the siege, though it’s safe to assume that a besieging army would have catapults or throwing machines of various types ( trebuchets and mangonels ).  Most soldiers wore leather armour reinforced with metal and chain-mail.  Full ‘suits of armour’ weren’t widely used until centuries later, even for the knights.

Foot soldiers often had little armour at all, just what they could scavenge from the trebuchet-890637_1280battle field.  They carried long knives and tall, pike-like weapons.  Cavalry was widely used, but not the ‘knight in shining armour’ variety; rather lightly armoured riders on fast, easily maneuverable horses carrying swords or scimitars or bows.

The English long bow which Thomas carries was in use then, but archer-299498_1280by individuals, not in the way it was used en masse as a battle weapon centuries later, like at Crecy or Agincourt.

Are you still writing for our nephew and god-son?

Not directly, although the book is dedicated to him ( and others ).

Did he like the original story?

He said he did at the time and, when he saw the final book, he remembered the characters from the earlier version, so something must have impressed him.

Is there any other character based upon someone real, who you know or know of?

Yes, my other god-son features in the book as Thomas of Whelmstone. He was actually training to be a surgeon at Guys Hospital at the time and it seemed right to include him in the book too, if my nephew god-son was one of the main characters. He’s a practising surgeon now.

Where do the characters’ names come  from? Why is Rebecca called Rebecca?

Some of the surnames, like Calamiel, Barruch and de Lisi are from Jewish records in Jerez of the time.  Al Mansuri and Delgado were both quite common names, then as now.  Nathan, Attalah and Juan, the first names of the three friends at the very start of the book all mean the same thing – ‘son of light’.  Others are typical names, though Rebecca is the name of my god-son’s sister and Ben is the name of my other god-son’s brother ( just so that I don’t leave anyone out )!

How do you know what characters look like, especially the ‘real’ ones?

King Alfonso X is shown in portraits of the time, but portraiture was often formal, LibroDesJuegasAlfonXAndCourtwith the Kings shown how the artist thought a King ought to look, rather than what they actually looked like.  Later statues show him with wavy hair, large eyes and clean shaven ( though he has a beard in the book, because his statue in Jerez has a beard ).

I have’t been able to find a portrait of Muhammed I.  Muslim leaders didn’t have their portraits painted in the same way as Christian Kings.  Nor can I find a portrait of the Governor of Cadiz, who was a real person.  So I’ve described how I think they might have looked.

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