The one where I turned fifty

It was my birthday yesterday (1st May) and I hit the half-century which doesn’t feel real because I still don’t feel any older than I did at thirty, although my body would beg to differ. I try to avoid sitting on the floor these days as it’s touch and go as to whether I can get up again!

I don’t normally go big for birthdays and I’m not one for big nights out drinking but specifically wanted to celebrate turning fifty, especially when so many people I know (my husband and older brother included) were unable to celebrate big occasions during lockdown.

With going away to the Lake District for a fortnight over Easter, we didn’t want to venture very far. We have two Forest Holidays sites near us called Cropton and Keldy – both just 45 minutes drive away – and we’ve been to them both in the past when our daughter was young and we could stay out of season (cheaper!) Even though a bank holiday weekend was going to be pricey, we decided to go for it with it being a special occasion.

Look what I found in the gift shop in the reception! I had to have him! His name’s Bramble and he is soooo adorable.

The great thing about going on holiday somewhere so local is getting there quickly and being able to enjoy your evening rather than spending it travelling. We were there as soon as check-in started and we had a little wander round the site before having a relaxing evening in our log cabin with food delivered from the on-site restaurant.

Saturday morning – the day before my birthday – dawned with beautiful blue skies and sunshine. We decided to go for a walk round nearby village Thornton-le-Dale then visit Pickering, get some lunch, and take it up to the castle.

I’ll admit it does feel a little weird being on ‘holiday’ and visiting places that we regularly visit anyway but the point was to get away and have a relaxing time. If we’d stayed at home, I might have taken my birthday off but I’d have worked for the rest of the weekend.

Thornton-le-Dale is such a picturesque village and it was gorgeous to see ducklings on the river and the pond. So cute. There are some stunning houses and I always joke they’d be where an author would live as the views are inspiring. I doubt they come on the market very often and, if they did, they’d be way out of our price bracket but it’s nice to have dreams.

We’ve not visited Pickering Castle as a family before so it was great to explore the ruins and the grounds and generally enjoy the sunshine. Pickering Castle is an English Heritage site and you can find out more about it here. It’s a lovely place to visit and the views are fabulous.

We returned to the cabin with time for a Cornish cream tea which my fabulous friend and super talented author, Sharon Booth, sent me, followed by a sneaky glass of wine in the hot tub before getting ready to go out for a birthday tea.

On the evening, we met my parents at a nearby pub. They’d brought their caravan to a site in the area so they could see me for my birthday. The person who’d taken the booking over Facebook Messenger hadn’t written it down which was a bit fraught as they were full but they made space for us, thank goodness.

I won’t name the pub as these things happen and so much of the hospitality industry is struggling with lack of staff but it was a lesson learned for me never to make a booking for any pub via Messenger in future. I only did it that way because it was out of hours but I’ll wait and do it via the phone when the pub is open going forwards!

The following day – my actual birthday – it was pouring when we woke up and it put a real dampener on things (literally). It had been such a gorgeous day before and the thought of traipsing through the forest in the rain didn’t appeal.

We decided to take a trip to the market town of Malton but hadn’t paused to think about whether the shops would be open on a Sunday. Most weren’t. So we had a walk round (mainly closed) Malton although the good news was it had stopped raining and I gazed longingly in the gift shop windows.

I wanted some cakey loveliness and had been hoping to find some in a nice independent bakery but there were none open. We nipped into a farm shop and a garden centre on the way back to the cabin but it was mission unsuccessful. Hubby, bless him, did a detour via the high street in Pickering so we could nip into the cafe/bakery where we’d bought lunch the day before – Russell’s Cafe & Traditional Bakery. They had a window full of the most delicious-looking slices of cake. They were on a deal where it was cheaper to buy three but the munchkin wanted something not in the offer so, after asking for hubby’s, I had to pick two for me. It would have been very wrong not to! And, oh my goodness, they were delicious. If you go to Pickering, definitely visit Russell’s. The sandwiches for lunchtime the day before were delicious too.

We returned to the cabin and decided that, as it was dull, we’d relax and watch a film but we couldn’t find anything we particularly fancied. We went for the recent re-make of The Secret Garden starring Colin Firth and Julie Walters but it’s a slow story and I was getting fidgety. I will watch the end but we put it off and went for a walk along one of the forest trails instead although I was a bit full after my double-cake indulgence and could probably have been rolled round the trail.

The munchkin and I had time for another dip in the hot tub, this time with some champagne (for me) before Mum and Dad came over to the cabin on the evening to look around and join us for a birthday tea. They brought a balloon and cake with them which was lovely.

We had planned to do something today (bank holiday Monday) but it was another dull day and we decided that, as we still hadn’t settled back in after our Easter trip, it would make more sense to get back home and get organised. I only have a couple of weeks left to write my final Hedgehog Hollow book and I’m only a fifth of the way through it so I have a lot to do. Catching up today (or trying to) means I can be head down from tomorrow. Or at least that’s the plan!

I couldn’t really think of anything I wanted for my birthday but my Kindle is on the way out so I got a new Paperwhite and hubby and daughter surprised me with a lovely new watch. From my parents and brothers, I got some money to buy a teddy bear but instead treated myself to a limited edition Herdy while I was in the Lakes. It’s made by Merrythought who are a longstanding UK-based teddy bear manufacturer (so nearly a bear!) and I’m completely in love with him.

A huge thank you to everyone who sent cards, gifts, flowers and best wishes, helping to make my fiftieth a special day.

Hope you’ve had a lovely bank holiday weekend and, if you’ve worked it, hope you get a break soon.

On a final note, even though it’s my birthday, I’m giving away some gifts. The wonderful The Friendly Book Community over on Facebook have been celebrating their first birthday with some amazing giveaways across the week donated by the lovely Admin team and some of the authors. If you haven’t already joined this group and you love books, you might want to do so, as it’s a warm and friendly space to be. And then you can be in with a chance to win one of my bundles. There are 4 for UK-based readers and 1 for overseas readers. You can find the group here and you have until Friday to be in for a chance of winning on my giveaways.

Big birthday hugs
Jessica xx

The one where I visited Helmsley Castle

I had a lovely trip out on Friday. I’d arranged to meet my author friend Eliza J Scott but I’d just bought a new (to me) car after being a one-car-family for about seventeen years.

I picked her up on Thursday so this was her first proper run-out and what perfect whether I had for our outing. Music up, sunglasses on, absolutely fabulous. Officially, it wasn’t spring when I visited, but it certainly felt like it.

Eliza and I met in Helmsley and our first stop was for a drink and scone at a cafe Eliza recommended called Mannion & Co. I didn’t even bother to peruse the menu, going straight for the scones. However, after we’d been there a while, brunches and lunches began appearing for other customers and they looked divine. Must go back and sample something different.

Eliza went for a fruit scone with jam and cream and I chose a cheese scone with chutney and herb mascarpone cheese as that sounded a little unusual. It was delicious but those scones were enormous! Eliza’s was like a scone on top of a scone!

The cafe was very close to Helmsley Castle so we decided to go inside. As you can see from the pics, the sky was blue and the sun was bright and we ended up plonking ourselves on a bench and chatting.

It’s always good to catch up with author friends as there’s so much to talk about and the hours tend to whizz by. We had a quick shoot round the castle at the end to grab some pics before heading home.

Helmsley Castle is owned by English Heritage. I’ve only been once before and we’re talking many years ago when I was in my late teens. My best friend from school had a summer job cleaning in a hotel in Rosedale and she was staying in a static caravan on site. I borrowed my mum’s car one day to visit her and we had a little tour around including Helmsley Castle.

Hope you’ve enjoyed my sunny tour round Helmsley Castle. Wishing you a fabulous week.

Big hugs
Jessica xx

A visit from North Yorkshire to North Yorkshire

The hubby and I have just returned from a lovely few days away and we never even left our home county of North Yorkshire. It’s such a huge area that, if you live at the edges, you can travel over two hours and still be in the same county! The reason for a few days away was that our daughter is having a summer break staying with my parents and hubby suggested that, instead of dropping her off and driving back home, we could make a mini-break of it. We even arranged for Ella, our sprocker spaniel, to go to hubby’s parents’ for a couple of days so we’d have no restrictions on where we could go.

We were hoping to stay in Richmond which is where I had my teddy bear shop many years ago and hubby searched for a nice hotel or B&B figuring we could have a couple of drinks and a meal in the town on the evening. No chance. Even though we decided on this about six or maybe even eight weeks ago, we’d left it far too late and the only rooms available were extortionate prices like £500 for two nights. Eek! So we ended up at the Premier Inn in nearby Catterick Garrison which is on a retail park close to the army barracks. Yep. Not exactly a romantic location but at least it was a chance to get away and you can always rely on a Premier Inn.

We dropped the munchkin off at lunchtime on Wednesday and headed to the market town of Leyburn. It was heaving and it took a few circuits before we finally found somewhere to park but we had a delicious meal in the beer garden of The Bolton Arms at the top of town, watching the world go by, followed by a wander around the gift shops. It was a shame to see one of my favourite shops had closed down. I wondered if that was as a result of lockdown or from before. I do remember my mum mentioning it to me but can’t for the life of me remember how recently we had that conversation. The concept of time seems very fluid at the moment! A couple of other shops were closed. A notice on one said this was due to a funeral and we didn’t wander down to the other as we could clearly see it was in darkness. Maybe for the same reason? I do like to treat myself to a little something while away and I found this gorgeous Steiff hoglet called Joggi in another gift shop, although hubby bought me a Steiff hedgehog for Christmas who is also called Joggi. I wondered if that meant anything in German but Google translate says not. I have, however, discovered that a hedgehog in German is called an ‘igel’ and a hoglet (baby hedgehog) is a ‘babyigel’. Awww!

We moved onto Masham from there but caught it just as the final market stalls were packing away. I remembered there being several nice gift shops last time we visited and could only see one this time. There were still Covid restrictions on social distancing and a queue to get in so we wandered round intending to return … and forgot!

Checking in at the Premier Inn a little later, we were advised that there was no TV reception in the room thanks to the recent fire at the Bilsdale mast TV transmitter affecting TVs in the Yorkshire Dales, northern parts of North Yorkshire and Teesside. Hubby had intentionally left all tech behind and kicked himself for this as it meant we couldn’t relax in front of the TV but we weren’t in a location with lovely pubs to walk to and we didn’t really fancy driving anywhere after so much driving already that day. So we sat in the hotel room watching old episodes of Gogglebox on his phone. We so know how to party!

On Thursday, we went into Richmond. It wasn’t forecast to rain but it rained while we visited Richmond Castle, although not too heavily or for too long and we were prepared with waterproofs. Please therefore forgive the very dull-looking photos!

As I said earlier, I used to have a teddy bear shop in Richmond on the top corner of Finkle Street. This has been the Lucy Pittaway Gallery for several years now and I absolutely adore Lucy’s artwork. If you haven’t discovered it before, do check out her website here. I already have more of her amazing prints than we have space for but there’s always room for another notebook in the collection! I had to pose outside – just like I’d done when it was my shop – and also take a photo of one of her gorgeous hedgehog prints in the window. Lucy’s prints are the inspiration behind one of the storylines in Starry Skies Over The Chocolate Pot Cafe.

We had a wander round some more of the shops and I loved spotting this sign on the back of a car down a side street and this wall art on the side of a building.

There’s a fabulous circular walk from The Station – the former train station which is converted into a cinema, cafe, arts/gifts centre – via Easby Abbey so we set off on that walk on the afternoon. We hadn’t gone very far when I recognised a group of people heading towards us. My cousin, her husband, younger son and their dog were coming to the end of the circular walk, having completed the loop the other way to us. How spooky is that? They don’t live in Richmond. It’s about 40 mins away for them so what an amazing coincidence and lovely to catch up with them.

We continued on our walk and I put my new FitBit to the test, racking up nearly 22k steps across the day which isn’t too shabby as a starting point. It’s not going to be happy with me today as, back home, I’m lucky if I’ll manage 500! Ssh, don’t tell it! And as it’s on my desk and not my wrist, it won’t even register any of them!

The walk was lovely, through trees, alongside the river and past Easby Abbey which is an English Heritage site with free access. We did the walk once before several years ago when we were camping in the area with hubby’s sisters but I don’t think we must have explored much of the abbey as I definitely didn’t remember it being quite so big.

Back to my 22k steps, I haven’t walked anything resembling that far since pre-lockdown and had actually only left the house on a dozen or so occasions since March 2020 so being out and about for me was a pretty big thing and it completely wiped me out being in the fresh air for a full day. It was so good to be out, though.

Even though we’d have loved a relax in front of the TV that evening, resting our feet after the walk, the mast problem prevented that. We returned to the retail park, grabbed a quick drink in one of the chain pubs there, then I had a relaxing bath before going out to the cinema 2 minutes’ walk from the hotel to see The Last Letter From Your Lover. Hubby hadn’t been too keen as it looked more like my sort of film from the trailer but he enjoyed it and I loved it. I’ve read a few of JoJo Moyes’s books but not that particular one. An added bonus was that we had the cinema – Empire Cinemas – completely to ourselves and could upgrade to recliner chairs which were amazing. I say upgrade but it was only £3.99 each in the first place so £5.99 each seemed a very reasonable price.

On Sunday morning, I met a friend for a hot chocolate in The Station while hubby went for a walk with his camera and then we headed to Fountain’s Abbey. We knew it would be busy but we must have timed it horrendously wrong by arriving around lunchtime. The queue for the cafe stretched across the courtyard in one direction and the queue for tickets to get in stretched the entire width in the other direction. So we left. I know, I know, that’s super impatient but we just couldn’t face standing for maybe an hour queuing after a long walk the day before.

Newby Hall isn’t too far away so we drove there instead and the thankfully wasn’t a queue to get in although it was pretty expensive to get in. It’s a lovely place, the gardens are gorgeous, and there’s loads for kids to do but be warned that the child entry fee is not a lot less than the adult fee (the family of 4 in front of us paid a whopping £62 to get in) and there are additional fees required for the train and boat trips once inside. And you’re going to buy food, drinks, ice creams too. Definitely somewhere you need to spend a full day to get your money’s worth.

I had the most delicious warm scones with jam clotted cream for my lunch although we had to move tables twice, eventually retreating indoors, as the wasps were out and after the jam! Ooh, I hate them so much.

I’d been hoping that The Bear House might have had some new displays – perhaps a project someone might have undertaken during lockdown – but they were the same as when we visited a couple of years ago. Disappointingly, quite a few bears had fallen over at some point, especially in the picnic scene. There’s meant to be a bear on a wooden swing but the wooden plank had slipped out and the bear had tumbled into the others so it looked a little unloved in there, poor bears.

I had to take a picture of Barbara Cartland’s bear. The plaque accompanying him states: “This very special German bear was given to Barbara Cartland, the romance novelist, in 1904 when she was three years old. When Dame Barbara gave him to Gyles Brandreth [whose enormous collection of bears is partly housed in The Bear House] she explained that she had adorned him with the fabulous jewels, and named him The Prince of Love’ because she had discovered that he believed himself to be an Indian Prince”. How fabulous is that?

The traffic was grim all the way home – one of the challenges of heading to the coast (albeit back home for us) among holiday-makers coming for the weekend or the week – and it took us about 2.5 hours to get back from Newby Hall. For context, this is a 60 mile journey! Eek! So we were pretty shattered by the time we got back.

Despite quite a few hitches to our plans, it was lovely to be away, especially when I finished writing A Wedding at Hedgehog Hollow the day before I left so it came after a big milestone. My mind definitely needed the rest! It was good for me to be out and about and doing some exercise after pretty much hibernating for the past 18 months. Already looking forward to my next trip.

Big hugs
Jessica xx

Exploring Wharram Percy – a deserted Medieval village

Yesterday, it didn’t look like the forecasted rain was going to make an appearance so we piled into the car to drive around part of the Yorkshire Wolds – Hedgehog Hollow country – to get some more photos.

It was a lovely drive out, stopping to take the occasional photo of stunning rolling countryside, and it was a bit of a mystery tour, arriving at each junction and hubby asking ‘right or left?’ We picked up signs to the English Heritage site of Wharram Percy which is somewhere we’ve wanted to visit for ages so we ended up there. You can find details about it on English Heritage’s website here.

Bit of history for you here: There are roughly 3,000 known deserted Medieval villages around Britain but this is one of the most famous because it’s one of the largest and best preserved. For the past 60 years, archeologists have worked on this site, keen to understand more about this era and why the village was deserted.

Wharram Percy can be found in a valley, surrounded by stunning Yorkshire Wolds countryside. It’s quite a remote site but was occupied for six centuries before being abandoned in the early sixteenth century (around 1520 they reckon).

You can read the full history on English Heritage’s website here and it seems a combination of various tragic and unfortunate circumstances around lack of heirs in the Percy family, forced eviction, famine and the plague resulted in the downfall of a once-thriving village. There’s also an interesting blog post about the ‘ghost village’ here from fantasy author Angus Watson.

I’d heard tales of Wharram Percy being haunted and about dogs in particular, who tend to be more attuned to these things, having strong reactions when visiting the area. So I did some research on this.

There’s a short but interesting clip from presenter Clive Anderson on YouTube about a grisly discovery archaeologists made when excavating the site in 2017 which you can watch here – a pit containing 137 human bones from 10 different people. A little strange when there’s a church with a graveyard and the villagers would all be christians and therefore buried there.

Frustratingly this clip didn’t explain why the archaeologists thought the pit was there so I did some further digging. There still isn’t a definitive answer for this discovery. There is evidence of decapitation and dismemberment with many bones being broken and/or burned after death. The only plausible explanation for the moment is that this may have happened because of Medieval folklore. Back then, it was believed that the dead could rise and spread disease or violently attack the living so this gruesome way of disposing of the bodies (presumably of those who’d died from the plague?) may have been a way of preventing that. Eek!

The Clive Anderson video shows amazing arial footage where the full extent of the remains of the village can be seen; something you don’t appreciate when on foot. Definitely worth watching to see that.

I wanted to find some ‘evidence’ of ghost encounters but all the posts I found seemed to focus on the village being abandoned and the bones rather than anything specific from visitors. I’m sure if I’d spent longer looking, I’d have eventually come across something but I have a huge to-do list today so I’ve abandoned that search!

Did we feel anything spooky? No. Just hunger pangs because we hadn’t expected to visit Wharram Percy and should have been hunting out lunch when we got distracted by a visit there! Ella (our sprocker spaniel) showed no reactions either. When I was at 19, I went to the Isle of Wight on holiday and visited Golden Hill Fort, a former army barracks near Freshwater. It’s now apartments but it was open to visitors back then and was reputed to be haunted. I felt something very strongly there which spooked me big time so I had wondered if I was susceptible to things like this… but Wharram Percy didn’t affect me at all.

My 14-year-old daughter claims to like horror films and spooky books so we got her to stand by the farmhouse which is still standing but boarded up. We couldn’t resist winding her up as she posed in the blocked-up doorway. ‘Just stand by the woman and little girl,’ hubby instructed. ‘You don’t have to hold the little girl’s hand,’ I added. Hubby then couldn’t resist photoshopping the image when we got home! (Look closely at the doorway). Mwah ha ha ha!

I’d definitely recommend a visit to Wharram Percy. It’s £2 for parking unless you’re an English Heritage member (which we are). It’s a 3/4 mile walk there which is mainly downhill although that means uphill on the way back. It’s mainly a gentle slope, though, with just one slightly steeper part.

You’ll then cover a bit more ground wandering round the site itself which is a bit hilly, as you can see on one of the photos below. It’s a lovely walk with lots of wildflowers and pretty countryside to look at as well as the remains of the site, although I realised after I got home that I’d only taken photos of the intact buildings and not the ‘footprints’.

My daughter now has an idea for a story inspired by Wharram Percy. It’s actually quite a brilliant idea and made me excited for her when she mentioned it. I just wish she’d get beyond chapter 1! She has started writing so many stories then abandoned them because it takes too much effort. Probably not going to follow in my footsteps!

Big hugs
Jessica xx