Like all things it began with a good idea. I realised some time ago that books don’t sell themselves. You have to get out there and sell them. With five books out this year I began to talk with independent booksellers about working with them, in their shops, in different ways, to try and reach out to people. And so I packed many things into my van and set off with hopeful heart on the first leg of my journey.
16 miles away in Fishguard I signed books for Seaways and took away some of their surplus hare stock, well aware that I was headed to Ennerdale to a school where there were no hares. The sun was shining. I signed books and headed on my way, up the coast towards Aberystwyth, to the Welsh Books Council, to sign stock for them. I felt a little like Rapunzel, with an endless task and long road ahead, but am so glad to be receiving the support of the Welsh Books Council who distribute my books into many new places. Great that they now have signed stock.
But the tour wasn’t only about signing stock. My first stop was a school in Flint. They had asked if I could find time to visit their school as one of their children had died, so young, so very young, and they wanted to have a day to celebrate him and his life with the children. And Gethin loved dragons. There can only be one answer to such a request. So we spent the day talking about dragons, and the teachers had put a giant dragon egg in the grounds, and we played with paperboats and I sat in the beautiful story chair and read and then painted a small blue guardian dragon to leave behind in the school. At the end of the day I signed books for children who wanted them ( thanks to the school library service there for making this possible) and I also signed a book for Gethin, at the request of his parents and although it shouldn’t have been it was one of the hardest books I have ever had to sign and I hope I did my best for them, but my heart goes out to them, for what can you say? How does anyone find the courage to go through such a thing. And the day was filled with life and light and magic. A good day. A beautiful chair. Wonderful memories.
I drove away to smiles and waves from children, to stay with my sister before heading south to Sherborne in Dorset, where life became wonderful strange.
I was working in Winstone’s in Sherborne and staying with Paul and Helen Stickland. Helen and I bonded over a stuffed otter. Their dog was a tiger hound, elegant, beautiful. And Helen also had a badly stuffed Jackalope that travelled on with me on my strange journey. Hoping to get his antlers restored, if possible.
And working in the bookshop the next day was a pleasure. I was there all day so in the morning did a small painting of the tigerdog and in the afternoon a hare for the bookshop and in between laying on colours I talked with people and signed books and soon there were no more copies of hare or dragon and people bought armfulls of hardback books. And the people were really interesting and interested.
This is where the trouble started. I now had added one stuffed otter, a jackalope, and several books to my van. That is the trouble with working in independent bookshops. They are filled with beautiful books chosen by passionate booksellers and Winstone’s must be one of the best.
Tired after painting in public I said goodbye to Paul, Helen and Wayne and headed off towards Lyme, with the otter navigating. Needless to say we became hopelessly lost as he wanted to travel by ditch and by stream and I wanted to stay on the road. But the views were wonderful, especially when I found myself at the top of Pilsden Penn.
At last we came to the place where we were to rest for the night, the home of Bee and Chris, owners of the wonderful Serendip, a beautiful converted barn with space all around and fox barks at night and green everywhere. This was why I had wanted to tour. Not just to sell books, but to get out and see something of Wales, something of England.
Lyme was great, and Serendip lovely, with books in the window. I painted and talked, had the strange experience of meeting Jackie Morris. Quite odd. And also met friends I hadn’t seen for years. I painted a jackalope. It seemed right, and left her behind in the bookshop with Chris and Bee, who were amazed by the sale of so many hard back picture books. And we took time to stroll and to sit and to watch people pass by too. The evening before Bee had asked if I liked folk music. Seemed that someone called Maddy Prior was singing, and they wanted to take me. I was so excited and took a signed hare book to her, but courage failed so I gave it to stage manager who delivered it to her. And she was wonderful as were her fellow performers. Just lovely.
From here I went north, to Frome and back to Hunting Raven who had decked out the shop with Golden Hare books, but people kept coming and buying them. An evening reading hare and Evie with a wonderful audience who knew the magic of hares, then a school visit and a wander around Frome where I stumbled upon the wonderful work of Gladys Paulus that I had only seen on facebook. Needlefelting Like you have never seen it before. Her work is just marvellous. We are hoping she will loan a hare to the bookshop for their window. Maybe also a raven?
There was also a wonderful pram in Frome, which needs an elephant’s child in it.
After Frome a day off. My mum’s 80th birthday. Then travelling to Tamsin Abbott’s beautiful house with a garden like an orchard hanging with fruit. But I went via Tetbury and the Yellow Lighted Bookshop, where the church bells were ringing as I arrived and Hereward had copies of the books in the window, on the table ( still waiting for publishers to deliver hare, but he has them now I am told). In Tetbury I also found beautiful blue stones.
We travelled on, stitching the map of the country together as we drove along roads where trees made tunnels and over stone bridges and high hills. At Tamsin’s we slept in a barn room in the garden and ate our way down the path picking raspberries and damsons, apples and pears. Hannah Willow met us in Ledbury where we visited Tinsmiths and were blown away by the building and the fabrics and beautiful things, and the wickedness of the naughty cat who lures you into a false sense of security before pouncing!
In the afternoon Tamsin and Hannah and I painted and drew at Blue Ginger, then in the evening we had a supper of words and food, a feast for eye, mind and soul. I want to do more events like this. Something different, not just a reading, more than a supper. It was lovely to see how people mingled, great that people came from far and wide. And Blue Ginger and Sue Lim just have the most beautiful way about them. Sue’s cooking is a dream.
After Blue Ginger we were back on the road heading North to Oldham via Much Wenlock and Formby. In Much Wenlock a duck joined our happy curious cavalcade, and upstaged me with her quiet beauty at every turn. I read Evie to a woman who had travelled all the way from Derby, and though she was the only one in the shop while I read it there was something wonderful about just reading quietly to one other person. People came and went and the bookshop itself was like something out of a bookshop and Anna was lovely and I painted and talked and read again and left behind another bookshop hare like a watercolour footprint, and a pile of signed books. It was the day after the How to Draw a Hare article came out in the Guardian online so I painted something very similar. I took away a story about a Polish grandfather and a race through the twilight forest on skis with wolves close behind, and a tower in the forest with high windows where as it snowed the banks of snow around the tower grew higher and higher until wolves circled and peered down at cold hungry people trapped inside. Gems of stories, threads to be woven into other tapestries. Memories.
Onwards, to Formby where Tony Higginson is passionate about books, reading, the local community. The window was filled with my books and we scooped them up and took them away to a place where I read in a church hall and people came to listen and question and bought books and even the journey to Formby was exciting as the blue of the sky and the Humber Bridge were so beautiful. And I met Cathy Cassidy who struggled away with arms filled with signed books, and then on to Oldham we went, to stay in the White Hart on the edge of the spectacular Saddleworth Moor.
At Oldham I was staying for two nights and working with Amelia from Madelaine Lindleys, who I love to work with. Again, passionate about books, literature, reading, she took me into a school in the morning, St Hilda’s and the children were so wonderful and enquiring and greedy for stories and images and full of life and wit and wonder. In the afternoon I painted at their teacher’s centre and talked to about 200 children and showed powerpoints and read stories and left behind a small bookshop dragon, another stepping stone as I stitched a map of the country in my mind. For now the longest part of the journey began as we headed North to the borders where the rievers live and the land is wild.
On the way to Ennerdale Bridge ( well, kind of on the way) we called in at Audrey’s for lunch and met Tom and Brian and some of Tom’s hoovers and Audrey’s beautiful dogs and pigs and Audrey made us the most beautiful lunch and it was good to stop for a moment and just rest, before heading off again to Ennerdale, where the warmest welcome awaited. Tom loved my van, and Robin.
So, what can I say about the Lake District as this turns into the longest blog post? I had been invited up by June Pearson and Wild Ennerdale, my second visit, to a school with 60 or so children. The idea was that we would, over two days, take the children out of school, a walk of about a mile, to the scout hut where we would read to them and spend time walking and listening and watching in the woods. The third day Rachael from Wild Ennerdale would take me for a walk to talk about their work in the valley, about squirrels and other things. I thought I was prepared. Nothing can really prepare you for such beauty. The light over the land alone was wonderful.
The air was so clear the lichens grew thick on the trees.
June read from Tell Me a Dragon while I got ready to paint. It was lovely to hear someone else reading it and to see the reaction of the children to each page.
They children jumped ditches in the forest that had a carpet of moss and autumn.
Sunshine, shadow and green and sweet water streams flowing clear to a lake where Arctic Char lived, marooned since the last Iceage, rare, beautiful. They spawn in a two week period, laying their eggs at night in the gravel beds where streams meet the lake. Red gold underbellies, shaped like salmon. I never realised that the life of fish could hold such romance.
June and I walked with the children, while Robin drove my van to the hut so that all my paints and books would be there and I loved the silver birch saplings that reminded me of pages from East of the Sun and were gold against pure blue cloudless skies.
On the first day I painted a wolf for the children. A wolf in the woods.
On the second day we had a larger group so I painted a squirrel in the morning. It was my wish and desire that I might see a red squirrel while I was there and on the walk up we saw the most beautiful creature. Delicate, deep red, high in the tree, like something from a fairy tale he leapt across the divide from one side to the other, sure foot flying squirrel. Pure beauty. I tried to capture what I had seen but it was a pale shadow of the real thing.
One evening I talked about books and read and people bought signed copies and the sense of community was wonderful. So much so that they were able to raise the money to buy the pub, The Fox and Hounds, when it was threatened with closure and it is now run by the community and as there was wifi, well, it would have been rude not to go. And here I discovered that I do like blondes after all. Especially when they come in a glass. The Ennerdale Micro Brewery with travel miles of 2 1/2 miles from brewery to the door. Just lovely.
Meanwhile, back in the woods, we met a juniper bush that was 1000 years old at least, and wandered beside Sithy’s Beck where the footprint of ancient longhouses could still be seen, the dwellings of people who had mined iron ore that was smelted at the beck’s entry into the lake and forged into metals and tools and weapons.
We saw a great heron fly over the tree, grey wings against blue sky.
And I met a man who, every year would trap red squirrels for two weeks of the year in an attempt to discover how the population was faring, whether the greys had entered the valley, or squirrelpox. He told us much about these small beauties. He also talked about the day the people came to his farm to destroy his flock of sheep that he had bred over years of work. You could hear the pain in his voice, see it in the way that he stood as he spoke of these dark days of foot and mouth. Some of us forget. Others carry the memory in their souls. He has no sheep now, rents out his land. A different kind of heartbreak. But he said for years after the ministry would phone up and ask to inspect his flock. Eventually he let them come and when they turned up gave them a shovel and said he hoped they could dig deep. Just so sad. Wonderful man. Loved the land.
Around us the broad leaved forest hardly showed a hint of autumn. I could hear siskin in the trees. There were wood peckers and tree creepers and all manner of small birds. And peace, space and beauty.
On the last evening I went to The Hedgehog Bookshop where I read and talked about books in the hotel next to the bookshop. Liz is a rare thing too, a bookshop expanding to 3 times the capacity of the store they have now. And independent bookshop that is thriving. She had copies of Song of the Golden Hare that had arrived that morning, only one rare copy of Evie as all others had sold and that went so fast. And other books too. And again the evening flew by with stories and questions and sketchbooks and answers. And I connected with Liz because someone bought a copy of East of the Sun online and she tweeted about it, and so I saw that there was a shop in Penrith who stocked my books and asked if she would like me to call in and sign for her. And I loved Penrith because nearby was where ‘Withnail and I’ was filmed.
3 days in the Lakes wasn’t enough. I want to go back and have plans. But we had to leave to drive the 257 miles to Cheltenham. And so we did. But I think I may have left a piece of my heart with the Arctic Char and want to go back to see them spawn in the cold lakes in the moonlight. There are freshwater mussels too. Rare, so rare.
On the road to Cheltenham we saw an old vw. And in Cheltenham it rained. Not just a bit, but the way you expect it to rain in the Lake District.
And in Cheltenham I talked about hare, and I painted in the book tent while queues of people stood in line to get books signed by Mary Berry and I talked with some people who loved what I was doing, which was quietly getting on with a painting and feeling at ease in my space. I painted until all the books were sold. But it didn’t take long as there were too few there and no copies of hare so I gave people the address for Solva Woollen Mill where they can order signed copies of all of my books that are still in print. And they seemed happy with that. I met wonderful people again including a French family who knew my work from The Snow Leopard, and Jo from Waterstones in Cirencester who I am looking forward to working with.
That night I stayed with the wonderful Nicola Davies in Abergavenny. She, like me, had had a problematic time at Cheltenham. There was only one copy of her new book, The Promise, for sale, which put her one up on me. There were no copies of hare and few copies of anything else of mine. Staying with Nic is always a joy and we all headed off in different directions. I took the slow road home and thought about the past few weeks. Because I had visited independent bookshops the roads I had travelled had all been beautiful, no cities, just small towns. And because I had visited independent bookshops I had met with amazing people for whom book selling was as much a passion as a job. And because I had visited independent bookshops my van was full with beautiful books. Each shop held something of the character of the person who ran it and something of the character of the town it was in.
The roads were wonderful. I headed back through Crickhowell, stopping at Bookish where I met two Emmas and a lady who over wintered her tortoise in the salad tray in her fridge. We talked about me showing my paintings with them during art week in May and maybe having a supper event there. Overhead on the way home red kites dotted and swirled. The trees are still green heavy with summer.
One thousand, three hundred and sixty five miles after setting off I arrived home.