Some Personal Stuff: An Interview

Last Friday I had to summon my courage and my speaking skills when the CEO of Untold Publishing, Jeff Collyer, asked if he could interview me about my writing via Zoom.

This is because the second edition of Tree Magic has been released by Impress Books this week and the sequel, Tree Slayer, will be out in September 2020.

Of course I had to say yes. Nowadays, writers are expected to have a level of visibility that many of us would prefer to avoid. But Jeff promised to be kind and I had the support of fellow Impress Books writer Tracey Warr during the interview. Tracey’s final book in the Conquest series has also been published this week, and I’m looking forward to reading the end of her medieval trilogy about the daughter of the last king of Wales.

So here is the interview on Youtube. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact me via this blog or on Facebook / Twitter.

Are you sitting comfortably? It’ll take half an hour.

 

 

 

Tree Magic Monday #3

For the third #TreeMagicMonday, Impress Books had this to say:

It’s our final #TreeMagicMonday before release day tomorrow! Below are some glowing reviews for Tree Magic to get you in the mood! Here they are:

1) A  review from book blogger Kelly @kellysrambles

Kelly said: “Harriet truly knows her craft and I enjoyed her writing style very much. This is an intricate exploration of Rainbow’s character which spans her early life and teenage years.”

 

2) A review from book blogger Bex @MyShelfMyself

Bex said: “The setting of the book was beautifully written, and I especially the parts of the novel set in France. With a slow paced, in depth story with a plot twist I was not expecting at the end, Tree Magic was truly an uplifting read.”

 

3) A review and my guest blog post at the Melbourne-based ‘YA Room’ about magical realism, metaphors and ideas.

The YA Room said: “We utterly adored reading this magical and intriguing novel. Set in England and France, this alluring tale follows Rainbow, a girl who can shape trees at her will. As well as being a novel about overcoming fears and fighting her way through parallel worlds, it’s also a touching coming-of-age story about finding yourself.”

***

 

Tree Magic is re-released today in ebook form – the paperback should be available in a month.

If you have any questions once you’ve read it, feel free to comment or ask me via my blog contact page, on Twitter or on Facebook.

Happy reading!

Tree Magic Monday #2

Here’s Impress Books‘ second post regarding the release of Tree Magic on 2nd June 2020. This one has a quote from the book and was posted on 25th May.

***

Did you know that: “Tree Magic is structured like a tree: for example, the chapters in The Trunk support the two main branches of the story, and the chapters in Twigs are much shorter.” How fascinating!! 🌿

Pre-order for June 2nd here – https://geni.us/QEBEJwE

#TreeMagicMonday

L’image contient peut-être : texte

Tree Magic Monday #1

In the run-up to the release of the second edition of Tree Magic, my publisher, Impress Books, is posting a series of ‘fun facts’ about the stories behind the book.

I’m not sure they’re that fun, but never mind!

You can find them every Monday on social media – but I’ll copy them here too, just for you! Here’s the first, which dates from Monday 18th May:

***

This #TreeMagicMonday we have a super interesting fun fact to share with you from author @harri_springbett 🌿

“Several years ago, a storm damaged a tree in my garden. Wishing I could heal and re-balance it, I began to wonder what it would be like to have such a skill… hence Tree Magic was born.”

Don’t forget #TreeMagic is available to pre-order across multiple platforms in paperback and eBook formats. Link to purchase – https://geni.us/QEBEJwE

Aucune description de photo disponible.

 

 

 

Sherry for Segora

This year’s Segora writing competition deadline is looming (15 June 2020), so today I’d like you to meet the short story judge, Sherry Morris.

Here she is!

If her name sounds familiar, it’s because she won the 2018 Segora short story competition with An Ode to those who believe in Luck (And All that Lovey-Dovey Stuff).

Sherry is special to me because I judged the 2018 competition and was bowled over by her story.

When Gordon & Jocelyn Simms, the organisers, gave me the names of the winning authors, hers sounded familiar. I checked and discovered that she’d won another French competition: the Book-a-Break story competition held by Curtis Bausse. Her story is published in the competition anthology With Our Eyes Open, a sister anthology to Cat Tales (in which I have a story).

We’ll hopefully meet her at the Segora Presentation Weekend on 5th & 6th September – assuming that Monster Covid allows the event to take place – so this is our opportunity to get to know her better beforehand.

Without further ado, let’s have a round of applause for Sherry Morris, Segora short story judge 2020.

The Interview

Q1: Sherry: you’re American, you live in Scotland and served for two years in the Peace Corps in Ukraine. Then you spent a year in Poland, followed by a spell in London. How has this travelling influenced your work (and have you found what you were looking for)?

 Hmm! Good question. I never really thought about how my different locations might affect my writing. I tend to have a character in mind and try to capture her journey and voice.

I guess a lot of my characters have an American voice, but I don’t set out trying to write ‘American’ characters. I just try to make sure the voice is consistent and authentic. Sometimes I have to message my family back in the States asking ‘How does an American say this: …’ as I don’t always remember. 

Q2: Yes, I’m sure a lot of us expatriated writers can relate to that. I see from your website that you’re a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society. Where does this interest in clouds come from?

Hah! Love this question! When I first came to London, I struggled with the lack of blue skies and sunny days. Then I stumbled upon the Cloud Appreciation Society and thought that might be a way to cope. Cloudy days became days to appreciate clouds, not mourn the lack of sun. I’ve been a member since 2006 and I’m still cloud crazy. I have a cloud badge, a cloud bag, cloud t-shirt, lots of cloud earrings. The clouds here in the Highlands are a-m-a-z-i-n-g. I’ve taken hundreds of photos of the clouds here.

 

Q3: You have an impressive list of published short fiction – I counted over 50 stories on your website. Can you tell us about your journey to success?

I doubt my journey is any different from anyone else’s really. I write and write and write, then edit and send my stuff out. I’ve changed this a bit, I suppose. As the rejections poured in, I spent more time editing and thinking about the story I wanted to tell. I also got supportive feedback friends.

My ‘success’ is full of rejection! I aim for 100 a year. It’s a bit like the clouds. I see rejections positively now. They don’t bother me so much any more. I know they lead to acceptances. Recently I heard a woman say, ‘No just means New Opportunity’. I don’t take it personally. It usually just means I’ve tried to rush the story or haven’t done my research to find the right fit. Smarter subbing is what I aim for now.  

Q4: Do you have some favourite stories to share with us?

Yes. Of course I’m thrilled with my short story that Segora selected in 2018 and I quite like my short story ‘Miracles, Mercies and Mary… on Toast’. Funnily enough, my favourite pieces tend to come 2nd in competitions! Here are some links.

The Night Before Driving Back from a Camping Holiday, Mid-August 1977 2nd place, Retreat West 100-word competition (Aug 19)

The Trouble with Talking’; 2nd place, Barren Flash Fiction Prize 2019 (Feb 20)

‘The Squirrel House is Not Full of Nuts’; 2nd place, Grindstone International Flash Fiction Prize (Sep 19)

I realise these are flash or micros rather than short stories. I like stories with a strong clear voice (Trouble with Talking), interesting characters (Squirrel House), and that pack an emotional punch (Night Before Driving Back).

Q5: I was delighted to see the BBC recently selected you to join the 2020 Scottish Voices writer development programme. Can you tell us what’s involved?

Thanks! I have my partner to thank for that. He’s a talented writer who organises rehearsed readings, workshops and events for playwrights in our local area and always lets me tag along. He encouraged me to submit to the opportunity. I was completely gobsmacked when I heard I’d been selected, as I don’t consider myself a scriptwriter.

The BBC Writersroom Scotland chose 31 writers across Scotland to take part in their annual year-long development programme. The programme consists of masterclasses, script editing support, bespoke writing opportunities and networking. With the help of a mentor, I’ll write a bespoke piece for a BBC platform (radio or TV). The overall goal of the programme is to develop new writing talent for the BBC or any other production company.

Q6: You write both flash fiction and short stories. When you begin a new piece, do you already know which category it will fit into?

I might start by thinking I know, but it’s the story that dictates. I like to set out writing something for a competition or call, to give me parameters and a focus. But then the piece takes over and does its own thing. I used to try and dictate its length, but I’ve learned to get out of the way of the story. My writing’s getting longer. A lot of pieces that were initially micro flash do better at 1000 words and 1000 words do better as longer short stories. My short stories are getting longer too, which reassures me because, for my scriptwriting, I’ll need to write at least 30 pages.

Q7: Talking of longer work, do you think the skills for writing novels and short fiction are the same?

I’ve not yet been tempted to write a novel. They’re far too many words! But the principles strike me as the same. Who is your character? What do they want? What are they prepared to do to get it? I’ve been reading How To books on scriptwriting and the formula is the same. It’s only the format that differs. 

Q8: I could ask you questions all day, but I’d better finish with one to reward people who have read this far down the blog post: in your opinion, what makes a story win a competition?

Killer question… the one that matters most to the readers, I suppose. It’s got to be memorable and connect with the reader in some way. For me, that means an authentic voice that’s character driven with some laughs and interesting use of language. A satisfying journey is also important. My own roaming days are over. I’ve found the place I want to be, but I still love hitching a ride with a strong story.

I’d like to thank Segora for giving me this opportunity and I look forward to reading loads of great stories! 

And I’d like to thank you, Sherry, for your fascinating answers. Let’s hope that the Segora Presentation Day takes place so that we can meet you face to face.

Reminder: the Segora short story competition – for a short story of 1500-3000 words – closes on 15 June 2020. You can find full details on https://www.poetryproseandplays.com

 

Sherry Morris’s biography

Originally from America’s heartland, Missouri, Sherry Morris writes prize-winning flash fiction and short stories. She lives on a farm in the Scottish Highlands where she watches clouds, pets cows, goes for long walks and scribbles stories.

Selected by the BBC to join the 2020 Scottish Voices writer development programme, this will take her writing in new directions. She sits on the Board of Directors of the Highland literary magazine Northwords Now and reads for the wonderfully wacky Taco Bell Quarterly. Her first published short story was about her Peace Corps experience in Ukraine. Find her published work on www.uksherka.com and follow her on @Uksherka

(All the photos on this post belong to Sherry Morris, apart from the anthology book cover)

Second Edition of Tree Magic

Exciting news! 

My second novel – the sequel to Tree Magic – will be published in September. Because of this, my publisher, Impress Books, has decided to re-launch Tree Magic with a brand new cover.

Isn’t it pretty? Many thanks to designer Molly Phipps and to Jeffrey Collyer, CEO of Untold Publishing, the group to which Impress Books now belongs.

The ebook is available to pre-order NOW from online bookshops, and will be released on 2nd June 2020.

The paperback version will be ready once the Covid restrictions are lifted – but the original paperback is still available.

Here’s the blurb:

A life fractured into parallel worlds. A quiet magic to accept or ignore. A decision to make.

Escape from difficult family dynamics is teenager Rainbow’s desire. When she discovers a strange gift for communicating with trees, she thinks she’s found her salvation. Even better, a mysterious but gentle man living in her Dorset village helps develop her powers.

But when tragedy strikes, Rainbow’s life is torn apart, creating parallel worlds in the process. In one life, the vulnerable Rainbow strives to salvage her family. In the other, her alter-ego, Mary, flees her past. Over the next few years the two versions of Rainbow follow very different lives. The source of their grief, however, is the same – a confession buried deep within their memories.

Could France offer more than a mere escape? As the two worlds draw closer and memories resurface, Rainbow and Mary’s futures must be determined. Can they receive the healing they need? Or will the renewed pain be too much to bear? Only by risking their lives will they know.

***

And here are the book details:

Ebook ISBN-13 number: 978-1-911293-64-4

Link Amazon.co.uk:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B087MCBT53

Link Amazon.com      https://www.amazon.com/dp/B087MCBT53

Link Amazon.fr:         https://www.amazon.fr/dp/B087MCBT53

 

January Blossom

It’s January and I’m running in T-shirt and shorts.

The sky is blue. There’s no wind. And look, I’ve just seen my first almond blossom of the year. Wild buttercups carpet the tilled land in the olive groves. Citrus trees drip oranges and lemons like Christmas tree decorations. And was that a whiff of orange blossom on the breeze?

“Where on Earth is she?” I hear you ask.

I’m in the eastern Algarve, Portugal, not far from the fishing town of Tavira. This isn’t the tourist end of the coastline, with its sculptured cliffs and blue seas. This is the land of salt marshes and fishing boats.

It’s still (just about) authentic – accent and all. It’s where my dad lives. I’m spending a few weeks writing to a deadline and looking after him.

I first came to Portugal in 1996, when my parents drove through France to take their caravan to the rocky wasteland field they’d bought on an impulse. The hair-raising journey included highlights such as towing the caravan up the steep side of a Pyrenean mountain. In the dark. In the fog. In first gear (Dad’s an adventurer).

A few days later we arrived in a land of red-soiled humps and low, dark-green vegetation. Many of the sinuous roads were tracks or, at best, cobbled. Makeshift stands sold oranges on the roadsides and most of the local traffic was donkeys and carts. Tavira was a run-down fishing village without the slightest hint of tourism.

I never fell in love with Portugal. I’m more a mountains & gorges person (as long as there’s no caravan) than a Mediterranean landscape person. The Algarve is quaint but, because I don’t speak Portuguese, the interesting part – the culture – remains inaccessible to me. The culture is the personality of a country. And everyone knows that personality is more important than appearance, don’t they?

The eastern Algarve has changed in the 24 years since I first visited it. Under the European Union, the Portuguese have discovered tarmac, cars and concrete. They are losing their ‘fix-it’ attitude. Tourists flock in the face-lifted Tavira streets.

Yet, though I preferred the old-fashioned Portugal, this country has grown on me.

Am I getting old?

It has grown on me because it’s become a sanctuary. I like to come here to write. There are fewer distractions than at home: for starters, Dad doesn’t have an Internet connection – and I’m still resisting smartphone technology. I get up at 6am to write, which I do until mid-afternoon. Then I go running.

This is the moment where I breathe in the authentic Algarve village life. I run past dry stone walls, admire umbrella-shaped olive trees, startle white egrets feeding in the groves. I bid the smiling, wrinkled old ladies, who lean on their gates and gossip, a cheerful “Hola. Boa tarde!”

The men hanging around the 5 bars in Dad’s village of 400 people don’t get the same favour from me. They’re a bit scary. Nor do the packs of wild dogs that stake out the tracks. They’re very scary. I run straight past them, my eye fixed on the horizons of blue sea or red hills, one hand holding tight to my pepper spray. In the other I have the bag of wild spinach I’ve collected from the verges.

(Typically, the day I took my camera was the day the clouds arrived).

In the late afternoon I do tasks for Dad, most of which include cooking, cleaning, gardening (being careful not to disturb any venomous millipedes), moving heavy things and dealing with the swimming pool.

Actually, I’m not sure he’ll ever let me deal with the swimming pool again.

Last year I spent lots of time investigating the pool and writing procedures so my sisters and other visitors could manage it. The pool isn’t complicated. I’m an engineer. I understand how the filtration & pump system works. So, yesterday, while Dad was having his siesta, I took out last year’s notes. I backwashed the filter, hoovered up the dead algae, cleaned the pump filter. Dad was happy he wouldn’t have to touch it for another month.

This morning, when I saw the pool, I screamed.

It was half empty (it’s a big pool, 2m deep at one end).

What did I do wrong?

“Sand in the transfer valve,” Dad says. It’s not my fault. Not a single swear word passes his lips. My dad is ace.

My dad is ace and it’ll soon be time to leave him again. The house & garden are more or less shipshape. The pool is clean, even if it’s now a paddling pool rather than a swimming pool.

And I’ve finished the edits suggested by my lovely beta reader for my third novel. Next week I’ll send it to my publisher and then the nail-biting period of waiting for his feedback will begin.

For that, it’s better that I have some distractions. Lots of distractions – which is lucky, since there will be plenty of them at home, in France, with my family and friends. And the Internet.

 

Infidelity

(Summer Blog Sprint: post 7 of 7)

King François 1st said that the River Charente was the ‘plus belle rivière du royaume’ (the most beautiful river in the kingdom). Even before spending five days following it and exploring its banks, I agreed with him.

I see our river every day, in its good and bad moods. I swim in its deep waters and watch it change over the seasons. Its reflections and gentle meanders mean ‘home’ to me. I love the River Charente.

But the moment I see the source of the River Touvre, a flash of intense delight overwhelms me. This river has hardly left the earth, yet its colours, the limpidity of the water and its wide expanse seduce the viewer and invite wonder. I desire nothing more than to explore its intimate depths.

To do that, I’d need diving equipment, because the Touvre is actually the second biggest source (resurgence) in France. The water flooding out of the deep holes – which are popular with professional divers – fills the wide valley with pools of intense blue.

 

Refreshed by the sparkling water, we cycle back along the Touvre to Angoulême, taking our time to turn down side streets and enjoy the sensual pleasures of this wide, shallow river.

 

We arrive at Montignac campsite at 7:30pm, having completed 63km and completely forgotten about the campsite aperitif. At least, I forgot. Now I think of it, my partner did launch into some desperate pedalling over the last few kilometres.

The party is in full swing. We join the group of 15 people, including the village mayor, and collapse into the comfort of plastic chairs. A Mojito and a Ricard are placed in our hands, and our fellow campers’ discussions gradually revive us.

One man is walking from Norway to southern Spain, pulling an adapted sack barrow; another has come from Normandy. They ask about our origins – no doubt thinking we’ve cycled from England, given my accent – and are amused to think we‘ve come on holiday to a village that’s only a 40-minute drive from home.

Many of the campers return to Montignac every year, and I’m not surprised.

 

Montignac has stolen my heart (and that of our bike trailer, I’d say). Not only is the campsite peaceful, the village has all you need for a countryside holiday – including a restaurant.

If we want to be ready for tomorrow’s 85km journey home, we must eat properly.

We excuse ourselves from the party and, after a shower, head to Le Taillefer. Imagine our pleasure as, for 14€50, we’re served a freshly cooked, delicious 4-course meal. We chat to the owners and take a card: we’ll be coming back.

When we return to the campsite after a night walk around the village, the aperitif gathering has become a digestif party. We’re invited for a glass or two of gnôle (also spelt gnole, gniole or gnaule, and meaning ‘hooch’).

But we’re exhausted – and experienced, where gnôle is concerned. We know it won’t help us cycle 85km tomorrow. We decline and say goodnight.

The next morning is our final one. It’s Day 5 and we once again plan to leave early. In reality, we only finish tending our sores, packing, saying goodbye and hitching up the trailer at eleven o’clock. It doesn’t matter: we have bike lights. We can cycle the last part in the dark.

We take the same route back, adding a couple of kilometres to see Balzac chateau. We also include a detour to discover the village of Marsac, which is worth the extra time it takes.

 

Have you ever noticed how things look different when you see them on a return journey? Here are some of the sights I missed on the way to Montignac.

It’s really hot today. We pause regularly for refreshments and to rest our backsides. At Thouérat lock, we stop for an ice-cream and test the inflatable chairs, wishing that bike saddles were as comfortable.

At Fleurac lock, where we buy a coffee, I’m chuffed because I finally meet Belle. The roaming goat comes to greet us and takes an interest in our trailer.

Could we hitch her to it? She could be part of our quest to see whether the source of the River Charente is comparable to that of the Touvre.

My partner doesn’t comment on my idea. I’m not sure he’ll be up for another cycling tour, unless he invents a bike with inflatable-cushion seats.

We’re still a fair way from Saint-Simeux, but the pub Gabariers seems to call us from afar.

Our daughters would surely love the pub as much as we do. We should thank them for looking after the house while we’ve been away. Why don’t we invite them to meet us there for a drink and a meal? It could be fun.

Fun? It’s a brainwave.

What’s more, when we arrive at Les Gabariers, we learn there’s going to be live music tonight.

We phone our daughters, and suggest they might like to bring the big car. Oh, and the bike carrier. It would silly not to benefit from the main advantage of doorstep holidays.

They seem delighted, which makes sense: they’ve been diligently house-sitting for five days. They need a break too.

All that remains is to take a dip and wash away the day’s sweat and dust. The pontoon is right on the river, so in we jump. The cool water is a balm and, as ever, I remind myself how lucky I am to be able to swim in my local river.

Getting out is another matter. Have you ever tried to climb onto a pontoon with no steps? Luckily, my partner is here to haul me out. Luckily, my partner is here to order the beers, book a table for dinner and sit with me on the luxuriously deep cushions.

And, luckily, my children are here to pick us up and take us home – which amuses me, considering the number of times we’ve picked them up.

They look tired, as if they’ve hardly slept. Was it the worry about being responsible for the house?

But they also look happy. Already, they’re urging us to do the same thing next year – though preferably with a bit more notice, please.

I can’t think why. I look at my partner to see his reaction.

To my surprise, he’s bubbling with ideas for next time. His favourite is a Craft Beer tour, which he thinks would be even more inspiring that following a river. Of course, we’d need a trailer to carry the beer. And wouldn’t it be good if we could persuade a beer-loving, cycling friend to accompany us: one who’s training for an Iron Man and could tow a trailer full of bottles?

At home, there’s a mountain of washing, including a pile of bed laundry. Although everything is tidy, the furniture isn’t in exactly the same place. It’s no doubt a sign of thorough cleaning.

It’s also the proof we can leave the kids in charge next year. Next year, we’ll definitely train beforehand. We’ll both wear cycling shorts and invest in new gel seat covers, which we’ll keep exclusively for Day 4. If we win the lottery, we may even invest in an electric bike. Or two.

It doesn’t matter that we didn’t achieve our objective. I’ve learnt that it’s fun to let yourself get sidetracked. An objective should only ever serve to get you started.

Having said that, combining the continued exploration of the River Charente with discovering craft beer may take some organisation.

I’d better start planning right now. Once I’ve finished my celebration beer.

Cheers!

***

Congratulations if you’ve read all 7 posts of my summer blog sprint. You’re probably as exhausted as me!

The Hard Truth

(Summer Blog Sprint: post 6 of 7)

We like rest days – by which I mean our trailer rests, not us. I think it has put down roots, actually, so it might prove difficult to move. And today is our last day of discovery. It’ll be easier to find the source of the River Charente if we don’t have to drag a reluctant trailer behind us. It’s bad enough with reluctant kids – though our kids are perfect, of course. I don’t know many children who’d turn down an exciting holiday and offer to house-sit instead.

We must be home by tomorrow evening. But I’m sure we can do the return journey of 85km in one day: because today, Day 4, our saddlesores will have disappeared, and by tomorrow we’ll be super-fit. On our first day we did 30km, the second day 55 and the third day 60. If we get up early, 85km is perfectly reasonable. We’re only slow because we keep stopping to check the map. This won’t be necessary on our return journey.

Breakfast time is map-consultation moment, so we eat strawberries and pastries while we unfold it.

The source of the River Charente is east of Montignac. I trace the distance and, because I’m wiser now about my capacity to ride long distances, I realise we’ll never make it to the source in Chéronnac.

We’re not going to discover the birthplace of our river. We won’t see the newly born water surge out of the ground in virgin purity, ready for its journey along the Charente riverbed to the Atlantic Ocean.

In any case, the source is probably just a hole with water dribbling out. River sources are never as exciting as they sound. And finding the source was just an idea, not a ‘do or die’ objective.

We decide to head eastwards anyway, because my partner says East Charente is beautiful, and he wants to see the Braconne forest. I agree. It’s going to be 34°C today, so a forest sounds cool and peaceful.

On the map, Braconne forest has ‘FIRING RANGE’ marked in red across it. But it’s August. The French are all on holiday. We won’t get shot or anything dramatic like that.

“Don’t be late for the campsite aperitif tonight,” says the jolly camper as we mount our bikes.

My partner replies with a joke about the extra incentive to get back early. At least, I think he’s joking. I hope cycling isn’t turning him into an alcoholic. I’d rather he was a bee-o-holic than a beeroholic.

As soon as my bum touches my saddle, I realise the ‘Day 3 is the worst’ business is complete rubbish. I’m still saddlesore. My partner is also standing on his pedals as we cross the campsite. Unfortunately he loses his balance and sprawls onto the gritty entrance. He picks himself up and we adjust the panniers so they don’t get caught in his wheel spokes again. I think I can hear the trailer tittering in its corner.

We suspect that it’s my en-route map reading that slows us down: so today is going to be an experiment in following the sun. With no particular objective – other than the Braconne forest and a village called Mornac, which my partner says is pretty – it doesn’t matter where we go.

He’s no longer talking about electric bikes, though he has taken an interest in proper cycling shorts. We discuss these and, obviously, we’re soon lost.

“It doesn’t matter. Just head east,” he says, checking the sun. “we can’t miss Braconne forest.”

Nitrat, Anais, La Motte …  We see start to see signs to Grande Fosse (Big Hole) and wonder what it could mean. A particularly nasty track terminates on a lane called ‘Rue de la Grande Fosse’, and our excitement mounts as we enter Braconne forest.

Whatever this hole is, it’s important enough to have a road named after it. I settle for a hole made by a bomb, since it’s near a firing range. My partner mutters “‘Padirac” and “gouffre” (abyss), and I worry that he’s got sunstroke.

The track through the forest, with its gentle ups and downs, is straight. I’m not nearly as charmed as with Boixe forest. We stop for lunch and a hammock-siesta, and then spot a clearing ahead.

We go to investigate and find a well-trodden path. At the end is a wooden fence, and beyond it, a hole. A big hole. Opposite us, about 200 metres across the hole, is a cliff face. This is the Grande Fosse: an abyss of 55 metres deep and 800 metres in circumference.

A notice board tells us the story of how the local villagers were sick of their animals falling into the abyss, and signed a contract with the devil to fill it with stones overnight in exchange for their souls.

Luckily, the abyss was too deep (or the devil too slow or stupid?) and he only had the time to leave one rock there before the cock crowed, “Morning, mate!” and the devil lost his deal.

While I delight in this folk tale, my partner reads all about geology, underwater rivers and the earth caving in. Apparently, there are two more gouffres in the vicinity. We cycle on, planning to return on a day trip (in the car) and walk around them all.

A little further on, we see notices warning us we’re inside the firing range. And it’s active during the week. Which means today. Now.

My partner points out that the track barriers were open and that we can’t hear shots. Even so, I speed up: maybe they’re at lunch, or are about to launch an offensive.

We arrive at a junction of roads and tracks, and see a sign to a monument for the French Resistance members shot here during WWII. I remember the research I did for my short story ‘Ami Entends-tu’, and we take a detour towards the memorial. The firing range warning signs come thick and fast, but my fear of being shot seems ridiculous now.

In the clearing, I learn the names of the partisans who lost their lives. Hairs rise all over my body at one spot, and I send silent thanks to the courageous fighters for their sacrifices.

 

We continue southwards. After the abyss and the ghostly war memorial, it’s hardly a surprise when we discover that the sun has led us into what seems to be a French version of Area 51. It’s a huge, deserted industrial estate in the middle of the wood, ideal for hiding aliens away from the public’s eye. We cycle up and down roads, searching for an exit, before escaping through a security gate. Obviously I don’t take any photos. I don’t think we saw any aliens either, though perhaps the Men In Black zapped our memories away.

At Mornac, which is also a disappointment after the picturesque villages of stony ruins further north, it feels like time to follow the sun westwards, back to the aperitif the campsite. But my partner has a surprise for me.

“We’re near the source of the River Touvre. Let’s have a look,” he says.

The Touvre flows into the Charente. We may not have achieved what we set out to see during our bike trip, but a visit to this source could be a good replacement.

I look more closely at the map. The source is more-or-less on the way back to Montignac.

“OK,” I say. After all, one dribbling source is much like another. I can take a photo and no one will ever know it was the Touvre and not the Charente.

We get back on our bikes for the final sightseeing part of our trip.

***

(Do you know the River Charente? Have you got a favourite spot there? If so, leave a comment and tell me about it)

Followed by Signs

(Summer Blog Sprint: post 5 of 7)

Over breakfast this morning, I look at the map. I look at the distance we’ve covered (85km) and the distance left along the 381km river to its source in Chéronnac.

By Mbursar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39123234

The advantage of being an itinerant cyclist is that you can stop before you reach your day’s objective, camp, and then carry on the next day.

The disadvantage is that every kilometre is hard work. You may choose not to explore something that catches your attention because it’s up a hill.

If we’re ever going to get to the source of our river, we need to move faster.

Today is our third day and, as we know from our hiking holidays in the Pyrenees mountains, the third day is the worst. After today, we’ll be less saddlesore. Meanwhile, we must survive the day’s cycling. We stretch our stiff muscles and look at the bike trailer sitting snug under its tree.

It would be cruel to move it too soon.

We decide to have a rest day: to leave everything at the campsite and explore further upstream on cargo-free bikes. Without the weight of the trailer, we’ll easily cover 100km. Or perhaps 80.

I’d like to visit Verteuil-sur-Charente, which is south of Ruffec and supposedly beautiful. My partner is happy to cycle anywhere, as long as it’s without the trailer. On the campsite are a couple of campers with an electric bike and trailer. He dawdles past them, and I think I know what’s going through his head.

Verteuil doesn’t look far on our 1:150 000-scale map. We lower ourselves painfully onto our saddles and cycle to Saint-Amant-de-Boixe.

The huge abbey here is totally out of proportion with the small village, thus hinting at an important past. We leave the D15 and take the nice little white roads on our map. We’ll catch up with the River Charente further north.

We soon discover that the little white roads aren’t quite as nice as they look. Unlike the flat tracks beside the river, they take us up the steep hills onto the Charente heights. On the positivee side, it’s exhilarating to see broad horizons after river valleys.

My partner wants to take a random track that seems to head the right way and perhaps cuts off a corner. It’s not on the map.

“Don’t worry. We just need to look at the sun and cycle northwards,” he says.

While he considers the position of the sun, I check my compass and then follow him onto the stony track.

He’s spritely without the trailer. How come he’s fitter than me, despite him only doing a single, weekly basketball training compared to my four or five sports slots a week?

We’re not sure exactly where we are, but we keep seeing the same green cyclist signs as yesterday. At last, I see a place name on one of them: Ruffec.

Ruffec is north of us, so if we follow the signs, we’ll be going more or less the right way. In any case, ever since Balzac, yesterday, it seems that the signs are following us.

Another regular sign is the one in this photo: it means ‘Let’s share the road’. My partner and I have a long discussion about it.

Do you notice anything? Go on, have a good look.

Yes, it’s a sign aimed at motorists, encouraging them to give cyclists more space on the road. But look! It’s the cyclist that’s leaning over and making room for the car. And there’s not much space between them. All it would take is a little wobble, and the sign would look very different.

(You notice this kind of thing when you’re in the saddle: or, rather, doing anything to avoid putting your sore backside on the saddle).

As usual, the car is king of civilization, and everything else has to fit around it. We decide to launch a politico-environmental movement to reduce the car to last place, behind bicycles, pedestrians, roller-bladers, scooter-riders and dogs. (You make lots of decisions like this when you’re on a bike all day).

The morning whizzes past in a collection of sights, sounds, smells and experiences: from the wash-house in La Fichère to the dolmen and tumulus in the beautiful Boixe forest.

I’m amazed to read on an information sign that Boixe is part of a forest that used to cover 200km, from La Rochelle to the Périgord.of

This ancient forest (la Sylve d’Argenson) included those of Chizé, Aulnay, Boixe, Braconne, Horte and La Rochebeaucourt in a continuous stretch.

In 1974 the local villages and forestry organisiations teamed up to save this 130-hectare part of the forest from being bought by farmers and converted into more agricultural land. Thank goodness for team efforts to save woodland.

At Saint-Groux we read riverside signs and discover how one 12-km-long branch of the River Charente (called l’Etouyer) was used to irrigate the riverside pastures. Information signs are a great diversion from setting bum to saddle – and now we’ve stopped, we decide to picnic here.

Our shady picnic spot is ideal for hammocks, so we siesta beside the water and wave at the occasional canoe that passes by.

It’s more difficult to get going in the afternoon. The temperature has risen to above 30°C, and the headwind is strong on the open plains of sad sunflowers and shorn cornfields.

After an excellent coffee at Le Penalty bar in Mansle (which serves fish & chips on Friday evenings), we return to the riverside, following a track (and the sun) that appears to follow the water.

Unfortunately, the track ends at a tributary river. Dare we ford it on our bikes? Look, it’s quite wide, and despite throwing a few stones, we don’t know how deep it is. We hesitate. Last time I forded a river on a bike, I fell in (remember, Rity?).

We backtrack and skirt the river on the safety of a road. After all, there might be a field of angry bulls on the other side (my argument), or we might damage the bike wheels on the stones (his argument).

By the time we arrive at Saint-Denis, it’s already late. With all our meandering and our stops to read signs (and our siesta) we’re still miles from Verteuil. If we’d come with our trailer, we could have camped and continued. But our trailer is resting under its oak tree, probably drinking aperitifs with the campers.

Aperitifs?

We decide to head back southwards on the left bank of the river, through Mouton (meaning Sheep), which is a lovely name for a village. Then we cut through Puyceliers and Puyréaux and enter the shade of Boixe forest. Between Maine-de-Boixe and Vervant, a deer ambles across the road in front of us – we haven’t seen much wildlife so far.

We stop and buy a couple of cool beers (and dinner) in the Saint-Amant-de-Boixe mini-supermarket – it’s beer that counts, this week, not bees – and eventually return to Montignac.

We have added 60km to our trip counter, but we’re not much closer to the source. Is it time for a re-think?

***

(Do you know the River Charente? Have you got a favourite spot there? If so, leave a comment and tell me about it)