Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Carneddau Ponies of Snowdonia.

If you're a regular reader of my blog, you will know that I love horses and I spend a lot of time in Wales. So when Jan Ruth, who writes rather lovely stories that can be both dark and humorous, sent me a piece about horses in Wales, I could hardly resist. Here it is.

The summit of Drum, a small peak nestled in the Carneddau range of Snowdonia, North Wales, can be an inhospitable, dangerous place. On day two of the annual pony-gathering a heavy shroud of fog obscured the dense landmass to within a few feet. Someone once said, ‘It’s the centuries of men’s hands on the stones that puts the heart into a place.’ The beating heart of the Carneddau for me, has to be the wild ponies, and they were the reason I found myself on top of a bleak mountain in the Welsh hills in November, 2014. The ponies of the Carneddau have access to some 27,000 acres, and there are less than 200 of them out there… somewhere. Ancestors would likely have used dogs and followed on horseback but sadly, modern times dictated the use of quad bikes and scramblers.

The rest of us walked, across a vast mattress of sodden heather. Within the hour though, the sun pierced through the fog and it dispersed like skeins of gossamer, revealing the full majesty of the Welsh hills and the Irish Sea. This dramatic landscape marches towards the foothills of Snowdon in one direction, and in the other falls in a crumpled stone-hewn scree to the west coast. It is both magical, and awe-inspiring. Add into this mix the sound of drumming hooves and you can feel the beating heart of this place match your own. Too whimsical? Probably, but the sight of these spirited ponies galloping across the heather, manes and tails flying; is a hugely emotional sight.

The romance and beauty of the Welsh hills is well documented, but some of the hill farmers are struggling to find definition in an increasingly faster, more cosmopolitan world. Despite this, there are 350 years of family history behind their passion for the hills, the ponies and their way of life. Scattered across these hillsides the remains of farming settlements, Roman forts and the slate industry epitomize the hardships, the triumphs and the disasters – but this history is part of our roots and part of what defines us. I love the honesty of this way of life, but like millions of other people feel powerless to nurture it when something fails to protect those issues which are out of our control. In the past – and we have to acknowledge our farmers have been through desperate times – the ponies have been collected off the mountain and herded into meat wagons.

Now though, I read somewhere that these ponies fetch less than a fiver at market. If something doesn’t bring financial reward, the worth of it is compromised – which is perhaps a sign of our times. And it’s disappointing that there’s a red tape fight over DNA proof to achieve rare-breed status – and therefore some protection – for this unique bloodline of Welsh Mountain ponies, a pure line which is specific to the Carneddau. I feel justified to feel both whimsical and passionate about the ponies' fate and concerned for the welfare of these animals, left to survive on their own wits through sometimes intolerable winter conditions. And although it is this very hardiness which makes them what they are, I do find it sad that the larger welfare and equine bodies don’t recognise a need to support and sustain this breed by at least maintaining and documenting the bloodlines.

For the uninformed, the native Welsh Mountain pony is a larger, more elegant version of the Shetland. The Shetland was epitomized by Thelwell – short legs, profuse mane and tail and as stubborn as they were fiery, depending on mood and opportunity. The seven Mountain and Moorland ponies of Great Britain were considered to be the hardy ground stock of children’s riding ponies the world over and crossed with larger, finer breeds to produce, well, anything you wished for. Emotional bonds have a value of their own which is difficult to define. I’ve been around horses for 50 years – although, coming from a working-class background where money was tight, I wasn’t born into a situation which easily accommodated them. Every Saturday, I would cycle fifteen miles with my father to have a riding lesson on a Welsh Mountain pony called Merrylegs. In the early sixties we were taught to stay on by clamping a threepenny-bit between our knees and the saddle. If it was still there after an hour, we got to keep it. Thankfully, gripping-on is no longer considered good practice! Ironic too, that the three-penny bit is extinct.

As a child around ponies, I learnt how everything was connected by a purpose and why even small things should be respected, because there’s a reason they are there. (Sharing this landscape with several thousand head of sheep impacts on the benefits of cross-grazing, the ponies eat the vegetation the sheep won’t and vice-versa, the parasites which develop in sheep are inhibited by the ponies and vice-versa.) I learnt how to give and take, I learnt that physical knocks or disabilities were not a barrier to success. My friend at the time – at age ten – had one-and-a-bit-arms. One side of the reins would be up round an amputated stump, but she was a more effective rider than I!

I learnt respect and humility, and all those invisible things we maybe cannot quantify or explain, but we know are there. But above all, I learnt to love the hills.

About Jan Ruth

The real story began at school, with prizes for short stories and poetry. She failed all things mathematical and scientific, and to this day struggles to make sense of anything numerical.

Her first novel - written in 1986 - attracted the attention of an agent who was trying to set up her own company, Love Stories Ltd. It was a project aiming to champion those books of substance which contained a romantic element but were perhaps directed towards the more mature reader and consistently fell through the net in traditional publishing. Sadly, the project failed to get the right financial backing.

Many years later Jan's second novel, Wild Water, was taken on by Jane Judd, literary agent. Judd was a huge inspiration, but the book failed to find the right niche with a publisher. It didn't fall into a specific category and, narrated mostly from the male viewpoint, it was considered out of genre for most publishers and too much of a risk.

Amazon changed the face of the industry with the advent of self-publishing; opening up the market for readers to decide the fate of those previously spurned novels. Jan went on to successfully publish several works of fiction and short story collections and after a brief partnership with Accent Press in 2015, has returned to the freedom of independent publishing.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Rebels and Redlegs

Marie Evelyn is a fellow Accent-author. Her book, 'The Turtle Run' is not a historical novel exactly, but it is a story rooted in history - and a part of English history that still has a surprising effect on the West Indies. She is my guest this week to write about the West Country in 1685 and the Barbados today. It's a fascinating story and I hope you enjoy it.

My mother (Margot Gameson née Evelyn) was born in the West Indies, one of many descendants of  a cousin of John Evelyn (the diarist), who went to Barbados in the C17th century.

The inspiration behind The Turtle Run, (and a scene in the book, described just as my mother witnessed it) came from an experience she had whilst driving in Barbados: she came across barefooted, blue-eyed, fair-haired children struggling to carry buckets of water from a standpipe to their chattel house whilst their mother hollered at them; it made an impression on my mother firstly because they looked so miserable, and secondly because it was the first time she had come across ‘poor whites’ – a phrase that carried much more shame in Barbados then than we can imagine from our current UK perspective. It was only later that my mother learnt that these were Redlegs – possibly descendants of the Monmouth rebels, who were exiled from England to Barbados in 1685.

Barbados: not just a holiday destination

My mother did a little research out there to try and discover more about the original exiled Monmouth Rebels but it was only many years later – after we had moved to the UK and my parents had retired to Dorset – that she was really able to research the beginning of the story, with its many connections to the West Country. 
When Charles II died there was such horror about the return of a Catholic regent (as his younger brother, James II, was), that many people preferred Charles’s illegitimate (but Protestant) son – the Duke of Monmouth – as king. This culminated in the Battle of Sedgemoor in Somerset in 1685 – the last pitched battle on English soil. The Monmouth rebels lost to the royal army, and great efforts were made to hunt down the men who had participated in the rebellion.

Of the judges appointed by King James II to dispense rapid  'justice', the most notorious was Judge Jeffreys. Much has been recorded about his bullying of defendants, (some of whom had not even participated in the rebellion), and his relish at announcing barbarous punishments. His cruelty is best demonstrated by his sentencing of one woman in her eighties, for giving a night's lodging to a man she hadn't even known was a Monmouth rebel: she was to be burnt alive. (Following protests, James II commuted this to 'beheading').

I have read that Jeffrey was quite dismayed that some of the convicted were to face the softer option of transportation to the colonies rather than execution, but this was down to expediency rather than royal mercy: James II rewarded some courtiers with rebels to work on their plantations as indentured labourers, whilst others were able to purchase rebel workers, to the financial benefit of the Crown. Ships left Weymouth and Bristol with the transportees below deck – so crammed that they could not lie down without lying on someone else. The diseases and infections (from wounds still unhealed following the Battle of Sedgemoor) which had characterised the stay of many in Somerset and Dorset jails, were carried forward into these holds, so that some died and had to be 'Buried At Sea' (tossed overboard).

Cane cutting 21st century style

The rebels who survived the sea journeys to the islands (such as Barbados, Jamaica, Nevis) were then worked into the ground: as their period of indenture was ten years, their masters had little incentive in ensuring their well-being beyond this term. The (now) politically incorrect name 'Redlegs' comes - predictably - from the observation that the white labourers could not adapt to working in the sun. In Barbados, the term ‘Redlegs’ includes the descendants of Scottish indentured labourers, the Irish exiled during the Cromwellian purges, as well as the English Monmouth rebels. In time, the plantation owners realised that black slaves were a better investment, and turned their attentions towards Africa. 

Following the Glorious Revolution (or the ‘Dutch Invasion’ if you prefer), when James II was deposed and replaced with his protestant daughter and son-in-law (Mary & William of Orange), a pardon was issued and in theory the exiles were free to come home. However, through a combination of the plantation owners' reluctance to release their workers, combined with the men simply having no money to pay the fare back, few if any rebels returned from Barbados to their homeland.

Although the 'Turtle Run' is contemporary, and has a strong romantic element, it has quite a historical feel as the protagonist (Becky) is tasked with researching the fate of the Monmouth Rebels in Barbados. A theme throughout the book is how people’s lives are influenced by the fate of their ancestors.

Who is Marie Evelyn?

Marie Evelyn are a mother and daughter team originally from the Caribbean but now based in the UK.

Mother Margot (Margot Gameson née Evelyn) has been published previously as Mary Evelyn and daughter Marie Gameson has a book  - The Giddy Career of Mr Gadd(deceased) - out in July.  The Turtle Run is their first novel together and is based on their first hand experiences of growing up in Barbados, showing a side of the island probably unknown to most visitors.

Marie Evelyn has a Facebook page at

Becky has lost her job and her direction in life so is thrilled when she gets the chance to go to Barbados and research the fate of the exiled Monmouth rebels. But the Caribbean paradise isn't all that it seems. The old plantation house is beautiful but lonely, and the locals are unhelpful. Becky senses that people know more than they are sharing. As her research becomes an obsession, one of the rebel descendants, who still works the same land as his ancestors, starts to relay messages from one of the original exiles. Is she living in a fantasy, or is this really an island of long memories? She soon finds that she is not the only one being led by the past.

You can buy 'The Turtle Run' on Amazon.

A word from our sponsor

I'm on holiday this week and very happy to have Marie Evelyn filling in for me. It's an interesting time to be away because while I'm not around to do anything about it, I've been confirmed as a speaker at the Thames Valley History Festival. I'll be at Waterstones in Windsor at 7.30 pm on Thursday 25 May when I will be talking about the real-life adventures of James Brooke, the hero of The White Rajah. I'll be mentioining this again over the coming month, but please put it in your diaries now. I do hope to see you there.

Friday, 14 April 2017

A free story for you

It's my birthday so I'm not writing a new blog today, but I am recycling one from back in the day when the blog reached fewer readers. Not many people saw this first time round and I think it deserves a better audience so here it is again: my birthday present to you.

Somebody set a challenge to tell a complete short story in 150 words. This was mine. Enjoy

I've always lived in the village, but my brother went for a soldier and fought in Boney's wars. He came back on leave and told me how he'd fought the French in India, where there were brown men who fought on elephants. And then he told me how he'd fought in Africa, where there were black men who fought with spears. Then he went to South America and fought the Spanish and stole their silver. But then he came back and fought the French up and down all the countries of Europe until they were caught at Waterloo, and then my brother came home.
"There's not a lot changed," he said.
"Not a lot," said I. "We drive the cattle for sale in Taunton now. We get a better price there."
"Taunton," he said. "I don't know I likes the sound of that. That's a terrible long way to travel."

If you want to give me a birthday present, I would really, really appreciate it if you bought one of my books. (Just click on the covers on the right to go to the Amazon page.)

Thank you.

Saturday, 8 April 2017