Final Day (8): Hide and Seek with Bears and Boys

Writing Residency Day 9 (last day *sobs*) – June 2017

I understand now why mountainy people get up early:

1st photo: from my room at 7:30 am.

2nd photo: from the office window 7:35 am.

3rd photo: from my room again at 7:45 am.

So what does a writer do on the last day of a writing residency at Arras-en-Lavedan?

Easy: instead of doing one research trek, the keen writer does two. Especially when it’s so misty that there is zero visibility at the top of the mountain.

The first trek took me to the Col d’Arras, where I was sure I’d be able to find a path onto what looked like summer pastures under the Pic d’Arragnat. I wanted to know whether Eole, my protagonist, was hanging around up there.

Perhaps he was. But with heavy bracken vegetation and little grass, I didn’t think it was likely. OK, I admit I wasn’t very persistent. Nor would you be if you heard a kind of growly-barky roar in the bushes and you were very much alone on the mountain.

I hot-footed it back down the non-path, got lost, panicked, struggled over a barbed wire fence and landed on my butt in the mud. I felt much better on the other side of the fence, despite the ripped trousers, and even a bit silly. After all, I could easily have defended myself with my swiss army knife. Couldn’t I? That’s what the bloke in the shop said, anyway.

(Don’t tell my sisters about this: they already split their sides laughing the time, aged 10, I was chased by a herd of cows and ended up clinging to a pole in the middle of a field).

As I write this, I’m listening to brown bear noises on Youtube, and I must admit that the noise is exactly what I heard. Though I guess that’s like looking up illnesses on the Internet to check your symptoms.

On the subject of bears in the Pyrenees, the original race of Pyrenean brown bear died out and Slovenian brown bears were introduced in the 1990s. In 2016 there were 39 bears, of which 2 in – omigod – this area… perhaps its just as well I’m leaving tomorrow! And, reading on through my informative source, if you come face-to-face with a bear you should retreat progressively. Not panic and run. Oh dear.

My Col d’Arras mission had aborted but, happily unaware of the real possibility of meeting a bear, I decided to attack the mountain from further along. There was definitely a path from Arcizans-Dessus up to the Col de Liar, and it passed straight through the said pastures.

Arcizans-Dessus is a tiny village that hugs the flank of a mountain – and boasts 22 watermills. Here are a few of them, lining the Anisaous stream and looking like a Pyrenean version of a housing estate. Some of the cute mills have been restored as cottages, while one serves as a demonstration mill.

The photo below resumes my morning’s research.

It took me an hour and a half of walking up steep z-bends to reach the silent, deserted Col de Liar. I did hear the eerie ring of bells through the mist on my way up, and there was a cold bonfire spot in the flat land at the top – but there was no sign of Eole and his sheep.

At least I determined that what looked like lush green pastureland from a distance was actually bracken (animals don’t eat bracken), so I guess that’s why this land isn’t grazed.

Coming back down, I was struck by a change in the mist. High up, its cold fingers creep down your back, soak your hair and drip dewdrops onto your eyelashes. But lower down it feels warm and steamy, like a Turkish bath, and the sappy, green tang of bracken gives way to the sweet aroma of elderflower. I’ve never experienced this with mist before – so my morning wasn’t a total waste of time, after all.

Back in the village I visited the church (Eole’s mum is dead religious) and found this guy sitting outside looking at MY mountain. He was made by Pedro Frémy, who also made the village carousel I mentioned in Day 6’s post as well as the other metal beasties around the Maison des Arts. Cute, eh?

Finally, I went to Le Kairn for my 5pm talk about my novel Tree Magic. Once again, I had to struggle through the crowd to get inside (actually, there was a crowd, but they weren’t interested in me).

It was lovely to catch up with my Lumineuse writing group friend Min, and I was delighted to see Bob from Laguépie, who I met at the Parisot Festilitt last year, and who had driven for 5 hours to see me.

Maybe they’d heard I’d be serving Pineau after the talk?

Pineau is the traditional aperitif in the Cognac area, and I’d brought a bottle for a farewell drink with all the lovely people who have hosted and befriended me this week: Françoise Gourvès, stained-glass artist extraordinaire and also my host at the Maison des Arts; multi-talented Karine from Le Kairn; Dominique Gainza with the strong, cheese-stirring arm muscles from the Val d’Azun sheep&goat farm; and Véronique the costume queen.

Many thanks to you all, and also to those who couldn’t make it: Alex from the mairie & Maison des Arts, Pascal Gainza, Valentine from Le Kairn, Caroline the costume-maker, Charles the Mayor and all the individuals who answered my (sometimes strange) questions.

And thanks to you who have followed these writing residency blog posts and those of you who came to my talks.

I’ll calm down now, and go back to my monthly posting habit.

Bye-bye, Arras-en-Lavedan. I’ll be back to say hello (with more bottles of Pineau) before too long.

Day 7: Twilight in the Pyrenees

Writing Residency Day 7 – June 2017

What have Transylvania and the Pyrenees got in common?

It’s easy to find an answer, but can you find my answer? Admit it, you’re struggling, aren’t you?

The answer is Dracula: vampires (hence this post title), although unfortunately not of the Robert Pattinson variety.

Of course, Dracula is no more indigenous to the Pyrenees than marmots and granite, but this summer, from 25th July to 6th August 2017, you will find the Prince of Shadows at Gavarnie.

The theatre company Fébus have been producing outdoor plays with the Gavarnie cirque as a backdrop for 10 years, including Le Cid and Beauty & the Beast.

This year, they’re preparing their own version of Bram Stoker’s novel with their 12 actors, and I was lucky enough to be party to one of their preparation meetings. This involved the costumes, which Véronique Strub has been in charge of for the last 5 years.

If you’ve followed my writing residency posts, you’ll know that Véronique and her assistant Caroline are on a residency here at the Maison des Arts with me. This means that instead of writing in my room in the company of my mountain, I can be distracted and learn all about costume making instead. For a future story, of course. Everything counts as work when you’re a writer.

I was astonished by the rail of clothes already installed, particularly by the flowery frock. I expressed my surprise to Caroline.

“That’s Dracula’s summer dress,” she said.

And I knew we would get on well together. (I was later told that the dresses had just been stocked there in transit for some sale).

Today’s meeting was with Fébus production & admin boss, Anne-Lise. On the table were the sketches Véronique and Caroline had produced so far, and they proceeded to explain their ideas to Anne-Lise.

Caroline has costume-making qualifications, and told me, as she modified her sketches in line with the discussion, that drawing was an important part of her course.

Véronique has done a huge amount of research, including collecting Balkan costumes on Pinterest and visiting the scene of the play so she knows how close the audience will be. This is vital for dimension decisions.

She has, of course, read Bram Stoker’s novel, concentrating on descriptions of the characters and their clothing. She even pulled out a Dracula picture book at one point during the meeting.

I was surprised to see to what extent the costumes were designed according to the physical build and the personalities of the actors. One character is new, added by scriptwriter and director Bruno Spiesser, and it was obvious that this made it more difficult to create a costume for her.

Bruno’s script was to hand, as was a summary of each act, showing who was on stage for each scene. As I listened, I realised that not only the physique but also the physical actions of each actor must be taken into consideration for the design.

For example, the vampires, who have to crawl on the ground at one point, have knee protections incorporated in their leggings. And the material covering their arms must be solid enough to take the weight of the wing supports.

Even the colour of Dracula’s climbing rope posed a problem, as its fluorescent colours didn’t match the décor.

Other parameters to be taken into account include the lighting, since a spotlight on a distinctive part of a costume can help the audience understand what’s happening.

Most surprising of all – yet completely logical, having heard the discussion – was how the style of costume has to correspond to the style of any music the actors play.

All in all, I realised how important it is for the costume makers to be involved with all parts of a play, from music to décor to the stage movements. With a fabric budget of 3000€ and three experienced costume makers working from now until 25th July, the visual side of the show, at least, looks promising.

If you fancy seeing the show, contact There’s even a shuttle bus from Pau laid on for those who reserve in advance.






It was all very well sitting indoors with sewing machines and mannequins, but outside it was 30°C and the air smelt of newly-cut hay. I left the seamstresses and went to walk and think of writerly things in the shade of the forest above the little village of Sireix.

Since Eole and his sheep weren’t around, I took the opportunity to admire some beautiful trees, some curious insects, an interesting man-made feature – and some rare flowers, thanks to a botanical group I bumped into.


See you tomorrow for the final day of my writing residency.



Day 6: Stories of Art and Legend

Writing Residency Day 6 – June 2017

This was my view when I opened my shutters today. I almost jumped out of the window, I was so desperate to get outside and melt into the mountains.

But first I’d been invited on a guided visit of the contemporary art circuit in Arras with Alex, the cultural specialist at the mairie.

He was doing a special tour for Manoell Bouillet, who is going to use the circuit as a basis for a children’s writing workshop. This is an activity I’d love to offer, one day, so I was intrigued to see how Manoell built her project.

I’m a fan of guided visits, as I explained in my blog post Can I Waste Your Time?. At first sight, the exhibits in the village are pleasant to spot, but it’s not until you listen to a tour guide that you really look at and appreciate them. Unfortunately for non-French speakers, Alex doesn’t do the visits in English.

The theme of the circuit is the village’s heritage, and it is designed to make us think about what we have inherited – and what heritage we’re leaving future generations.

The visit began at the garden beside Le Kairn, which is NOT a private garden belonging to the bistro-bookshop. There are two exhibits here, and you can enter freely.

The first is a favourite with children. This pedal-powered ‘Carousel of Legends’ was created from scrap metal by local artist Pedro Frémy in collaboration with Richard Rewers. Richard is one of the members of La Machine, which is famous for its huge metallic animals that tour festivals in France and is based in Nantes.

Alex brought the legends to life with his storytelling. The Lake Isaby snake and Le Bécut (Cyclops) come from traditional Pyrenean legends, while the Ferme Andriu goat comes from a village legend. All of them feature local geography and monsters, and can be traced back to glaciation and the dangers of the mountains.

It’s interesting to see how legends change over time, each storyteller interpreting and modernising the story so that it appeals to new audiences. This is a form of living heritage, and Manoell had ideas of using Chinese Whispers in her workshop to demonstrate this point.

The next landmark is one you can’t miss: a marmot pushing (or retaining?) a rounded granite rock on top of a hillock, surrounded by circular beds of fruit bushes. You definitely need a guide to understand that this exhibit is all about what belongs in the valley and how long we should live in a place before we can consider we belong.

Let me explain. The hillock is a drop of water falling into a lake and the circular gardens and ramps are the ripples that emanate from it.

The marmot is a popular symbol of the Pyrenees – yet it isn’t indigenous; it was brought in from The Alps. Likewise, the Val d’Azun is largely limestone. The lumps of granite we can find – such as the Pierre du Balandrau in Argelès-Gazost – are erratics, dropped by the glacier when it retreated.

The Val d’Azun is a hanging valley, and was once under 600m of ice. And did you know that the Lac de Lourdes is the furthest glacial lake from this glacier?

Both the marmot and granite are ‘foreigners’ in the valley, yet they are so integrated that they’re often chosen to represent it. There’s a lesson there!

The visit continued along the route of the black signs. These 26 signs, in black and pink (pink is the extension in the lower part of the village) draw your attention, via a quiz, to diverse landmarks in the village.

If you are disappointed because some don’t highlight the most aesthetic features, this is a normal reaction. It’s deliberate. We’re being encouraged to look at objects we don’t normally notice, such as fences and old TV aerials. These pollutants are part of the heritage we’re leaving future generations.

I won’t describe all the exhibits, but I liked ‘Birth of the Globes’. These three works were created by three different artists on the theme of how man continues Nature’s work. We’re talking about buildings, here, which is why the materials used are wood, stone and clay. If you do the guided visit, ask Alex how the tree and the granite stone arrived here.

The visit finished at the labyrinth outside the church, where I learnt about some original uses of labyrinths in France.

One use was for people to take a meditative walk to the centre (there were no dead ends) and prepare themselves spiritually to meet God before entering church.

Another type of labyrinth was used by the Compagnons du Devoir (an organisation for developing manual skills, dating from the Middle Ages), who used a labyrinth to check the people entering a site. The bona fide workers would pass through in minutes, while imposters would be lost in the dead ends.

Many labyrinths have been destroyed – and the purpose of this one is to make us think about the heritage we don’t pass onto future generations.

It was great fun to work with Alex and Manoell. As we walked, we brainstormed ideas for exploiting the exhibits to create fun and meaningful writing exercises for kids. I’d love to participate in one of her workshops.

After such a thought-provoking morning I headed up to the Col des Bordères – the site of Pascal Gainza’s summer pastures – and took a delightful stroll with my protagonist Eole.


We went up to the Pic de Predoucet, where I spent the afternoon writing, mountain-spotting and watching clouds sneak in from backstage and dress the peaks…

…Which reminded me of costume designers Véronique Strub and Caroline back at the Maison des Arts. Now they’ve got rid of the two dead birds they found in the storeroom they’re busy with their pencils and mannequins.

But more about that tomorrow.

Day 5: In Pastures High

Writing Residency Day 5 – June 2017

Today I risked my life for my protagonist.

I would have been perfectly happy to sit and write at my desk all day, looking at the shy mountain from my window.

That’s what I did do until lunchtime. Then my protagonist – let’s call him, say, Eole – woke up. He’s a teenager, which explains the late rising.

“Let’s go climb,” he said. “Got to check on the sheep.” (EDIT for reblog Sept 2020: No. No, no no. Eole wouldn’t say that at all. Never mind.)

It was nice to have some active company rather than the usual passive paper characters. My boots had dried out, the sun was kind of shining in parts of the valley and I had promised him we’d go out together today.

So off we went in the car to Aucun, then up the hairpin bends to the Col du Couraduque (1367m).

Eole’s weekend task is to check on the family’s flock of ewes, which graze up on the mountain pastures above the treeline from June to September. He has to check their feet, spray antiseptic on any cuts etc., and if any are hobbling too much he brings them back down to the valley.

I was relieved to discover that mountain roads are far less scary when you’re driving than when you’re a passenger. (I was in tears last year when my partner drove us between the Col du Soulor and the Col d’Aubisque in a thick mist. As passenger, I was on the steep slope side of the road, which fell into swirling white nothingness. And he was going far too fast at 30kmh).

I parked at the Col, and Eole and I walked towards the rocky ridge.

“Just forget I’m here,” I said as I followed him up the path.

I think that was my error. Because – unusually for a teenager – he did exactly what I suggested.

Why is it that teenagers walk at the same speed as grandparents when they’re in town, but as soon as they’re on a mountain they race up it?

I was trying to take photos – so that we would remember the scenery when we’re back in Cognac and Eole returns to his passive state on paper – which meant I was much slower than him.

On and on Eole walked, higher and higher into the pastures until we found his sheep, grazing in a loose group and clanging their bells as they walked (yes, I know those are cows in the photo…).

To begin with, all was well. Eole threw himself down in the springy, heathy grass and gazed upwards, while I admired the flowers, insects, hoofprints – anything that was firmly on the ground. Above us, clouds skimmed the rocky heights, and he seemed fascinated by them.

But the sheep kept wandering off and climbing higher. Eole followed. I followed Eole, taking pictures and jotting down notes as I went.

At one point I saw the following sign: ‘Passages Délicats’, which translates as ‘dangerous paths’.

Last time I saw this sign, I nearly lost my daughter (flesh and blood, not a story character) down the side of a mountain, so you can imagine I was a little nervous. I mean, Eole wasn’t exactly going to throw me a rope or call the emergency services if I had an accident, was he? And there was nobody else about.

I suggested we could perhaps take the forest variant, but he just shrugged and jerked his head to the unperturbed sheep. “No grass in the woods.”

So on we went, me looking nervously down at the steep drop to one side and Eole looking up at the sky.

I was just getting used to it when we arrived at a ridge, a rocky crête, and there were suddenly two steep drops.

By now we were pretty high, and I noticed some birds of prey circling. A helpful information sign lower down had mentioned that Griffon vultures fed on dead animals up here, so this wasn’t reassuring either. All it would take was a slipping foot as I crouched to photograph a butterfly.

At which point I slipped

And rolled

A little.

Grabbed grass

And very quickly came to a standstill.


Strangely, I felt better after this. I threw myself down (well, lowered myself gently) into a safe-ish position and followed Eole’s example of looking up and around instead of down.

The view was stunning. I tried to remember the names the old man (see my previous post Spying and Lying) had given me and pin them on the peaks. There’s a quality to the silence – when combined with the cold, thin air and the view – that tastes of freedom.

I started to understand why Eole likes it up here; why he’s the one in his family who deals with the sheep all summer.

But I think there’s an additional reason why Eole comes up here. I think he has a secret.

Anyway, I let Eole do his stuff with the sheep, and, as I watched him, I realised that he needs a sheepdog.

The clouds were blackening, so I left Eole up there with his sheep and made my way down, having agreed to meet him tomorrow afternoon in a different pasture with a different flock of sheep.

Back at the Maison des Arts a plastic bag was waiting on the doormat outside the door. A present? For me? I picked it up.

Inside were two freshly dead birds.

I flicked through my knowledge of French superstitions and witchcraft, to no avail. Puzzled, I left them there and opened the door.

A lady was waiting on the stairs.

“Hello,” I said.

But she didn’t reply.

Well, she wouldn’t, would she? Not without a head.

Upstairs, three of her comrades were huddled together by my door: naked, beautiful – and also headless.

There’ll be no sleepwalking for me tonight.


Thank you for reading right down to here. I’d just like to remind you that I write fiction, so there’s no need to take everything in this post as being 100% true…

Day 4: Spying and Lying

Writing Residency Day 4 – June 2017

I wonder if people in the village noticed the way I hung around today, scribbling in my notebook and taking photos of strange things like the grill on the road?

Perhaps the old man I said hello to was suspicious. Perhaps that’s why he came out and pretended to be weeding while I was taking a panoramic photo from his front gate – though it’s hardly my fault that my protagonist is going to live in his house (not the one in the picture, I hasten to add).

Luckily I had my map. Maps are useful for times when people are unlikely to understand the link between research and peering in through windows to take photographs. I think I convinced him I was lost… And actually I learnt he was born in the valley and knew the names of all the mountains. And he also told me loads of useful stuff about sheep.

Yes, today was calm, which meant that after a morning of writing I let myself slip into my protagonist costume and go for a walk around the village of Arras.

There’s an art circuit where you have to find what features in the landscape the silhouettes on the signs depict, and my protagonist thought he’d take a photo of one for you.

Outside, I discovered the mist had lifted from the valley and the sun was coming out. I had water in my bag, boots on my feet, a map in my hand and a swiss army knife in my pocket. (The swiss army knife was in case I saw the bear).

So it was no surprise that my protagonist found himself walking up to the top of the nearest mountain instead of around the village. The tops of mountains are much more his type of thing.

I say mountain but, at just 1097m, the Mont de Gez is really a hill. It was playing at being a mountain while all the real, rocky mountains were being snooty with their heads in the clouds. There’s a gorgeous view from the top: you can see valleys heading off in all directions. A group of dancers in a previous residency created a stunning video set there.

On my way home, I popped into Le Kairn, where I managed to get a photo of Karine. For once she was actually sitting down, relaxing – well, testing new recipes (read ‘eating lunch’ there). So here is the lovely lady! You may recognise her from one of the many mountain refuges she’s worked in.

Back at the Maison des Arts, I was surprised to find the doors wide open and the exhibition rooms empty.

Had thieves broken in? I hoped the man weeding hadn’t given the police a description of me.

Then I remembered: it was the final day for Raphaël’s photos and Roxane’s ceramics displays: tomorrow, Véronique Strub is moving in with her Dracula costumes.

Which means, I suppose, that I may bump into headless, half dressed vampires in my museum if I happen to go sleepwalking.

Never mind. It will be worth it if I can see how costume-makers work, in which case I’ll talk more about Véronique and her project later this week.

In the evening I watched the clouds lift as I wrote, and it wasn’t until night had fallen that I remembered my walk around the village.

Hoping the man wasn’t still out weeding, I picked up my camera and went out on a night expedition (with my swiss army knife).

I may not be courageous enough to spend a night alone at the Col des Bordères, with Pascal’s sheep and cows, but the village was another matter.

And this is what I saw: cool, huh? An owl and THE EYE!!!

Now it’s time for bed. Tomorrow I’m going to brave those hairpin bends and crazy French drivers and hit the heights (which is what my protagonist does the minute he can).

Goodnight, sleep well.

Day 3: That’s SO Cheesy!

Writing Residency Day 3 – June 2017

Did you think that life in the mountains was tranquil?

I did. But that was before I met Françoise and Karine; before they introduced me to the friendly valley folk; before I got talking to the artists and culture-lovers who drop into Le Kairn bistro-bookshop.

It’s non-stop activities and invitations here, I’m telling you. If you want to meet like-minded people, Arras-en-Lavedan is the place to be. Even some famous bloke from French television will be here on Thursday, so I hear.

Anyway, after the exertion of yesterday’s transhumance, today was a little less physical but just as wet and busy.

It was also far less spooky (although the exhibiting photographer here at the Maison des Arts, Raphäel Paya, did have a go at making me scream).


First of all, I drove back to Pascal and Dominique Gainza’s farm in Marsous to learn all about a special technique. So here’s today’s challenge: look at these photos and guess what Dominique is up to:

Yes, she’s making cheese – today’s batch was Tome Des Pyrénées made from ewes’ milk. She also makes goat cheese and mixed-goat-and-ewe cheese, all of which you can taste and buy at their farm.

I’m not going to try to teach you all about cheese in a 500-word blog post, but if you read the novel I’m researching (and writing in the small hours here), you’ll pick up some tips (EDIT during reblog Sept 2020: er, actually, you won’t learn much about cheese at all in Tree Slayer. Sorry).

Here’s a brief explanation to go with the photos, though, because if I keep meeting interesting people it will be ages before my notes become a story.

Before we entered the room, which was lightly perfumed with ‘suckling baby’, Dominique had already begun her daily task of heating a vat of the day’s milk to 55°C. While we watched, she made the milk curdle by stirring it with that strange guitar-like instrument. Then she de-curdled it, this time stirring it with her arm for 30 minutes until the curds and whey separated. Next, she gathered the curds, threw away the whey (ooh, those words sound nice together), gathered up the curds into a doughy ball, which she cut into chunks and kneaded into the moulds.

I had lots of ideas while watching and listening: muscular right arms; music and goats; listeria and salmonella… And I liked the mix of traditional and modern when Dominique stirred with her right arm and answered her mobile phone with her left hand.

But time was pressing, and I had to go to Le Kairn to prepare my Tree Magic talk. In reality, this meant eating lunch with Karine and meeting French writer Manoell Bouillet, who had dropped by and introduced herself to Karine.

Manoell writes plays and creates soundscapes, and may help Karine create a poetical circuit around the village. I told you Le Kairn was a networking hotspot. Karine went back to work behind the bar, Manoell and I had writerly discussions – and then I introduced her to Alex (who I met on Saturday, and who works on the art circuit in the village) before welcoming my first talk guest.

Here’s a photo of me during the talk. There are actually at least 500 fans sitting just out of sight and lots of security guards to keep back the screaming crowds who forgot to book and couldn’t squeeze in.

Seriously, it was great to meet some readers and discuss writing experiences. The lovely Scottish playwright Gloria Carreno was a real inspiration to me because she writes plays in English and French.

She has produced them in Edinburgh and London – in fact one is currently under consideration with La Comédie Française – and it was fascinating to listen to her experiences of how a script becomes a play. She’s also keen to meet other playwrights – and theatres which would like to produce her work.

With the day’s activities over, I was able to return to my little room, where I typed long into the night.

Tomorrow is going to be a calm, writing day.

In theory.

Day 2: Wet Sheepy Stuff

Writing Residency Day 2 – June 2017

Following yesterday’s apprehensions, something did go bump in the night. Several times. It was rather like a severed head bumping–… actually, let’s not go there. I kept my eyes squeezed tight shut so as not to discover a ghostly lady in long skirts standing over me, and soon fell asleep again in my museum.

As predicted, today was very sheepy and very wet. I’m proud to announce that I did the transhumance (accompanying the sheep from the valley to the mountain pastures), and I did it no less than twice in one day.

The first was the traditional ceremony, in which flocks of sheep left from their individual farms and joined at Estaing, where they took the road up to the Lac d’Estaing lake.

There were three types of flock:

In other words: flocks of sheep; flocks of tourists walking behind each flock of sheep; and flocks of cars driving behind each flock of tourists, which walked behind each flock of sheep. (I could go on with this game, but I’ll stop there).

It was a fascinating sight, and I particularly liked the way the sheep would snatch mouthfuls of grass from the verges at any opportunity. One flock of 5 sheep was led by a pony and children from the local villages, who sang their hearts out during the whole length of the 12km (4-hour) hike.

At the lake, the sheepdogs rounded the sheep into pens, the tourists bought local products and then everyone went off for a good, French midday meal to the music of clanking sheep-bells.

The sheep contented themselves with chewing the cud, sleeping, er…praying? singing? (look hard at that last photo, behind the black sheep).

Three hours later – I’d had lots of time to study the sheep, take photos and scribble notes by then – the flocks were blessed by a priest.

This particular priest was a visitor from Madagascar, and I loved his big smile.

He flicked holy water from a red bucket (that made me smile) over the flocks –  and then over the crowd (though I’m not sure if this was protocol or him having a laugh).

I caught the shuttle bus back ‘home’ and just had time to dry out my coat and trousers before I met up at my next appointment.

This was at Pascal and Dominique Gainza’s farm, where I’d been invited for a proper, real-life transhumance. An evening transhumance. And I had to be there at 6:30pm on the dot.

Someone, however, was missing.

“Where’s the dog?” asked Pascal.

I don’t know if this is tradition or real life, but the next 15 minutes were spent driving around the village looking for Dora the border-collie-cross. Without Dora, we could forget taking the sheep anywhere.

We eventually found her hiding in her kennel, and proceedings were able to begin at 7:15pm. 

What came next was the most magical of mountainous experiences, and I felt very privileged to be included.

With Dora nipping at the sheep’s heels and Pascal and Jerôme telling sheepy anecdotes, we threaded through magnificent, ancient woodland to the Col des Bordères at 1500 metres high.

From there, we continued upwards, arriving at a tranquil pasture as dusk fell, three hours after we left the valley.

The sheep amazed me because once we were past Aucun, they knew exactly where to go – even turning left at a road junction. They did ignore the No Entry sign, though.

I swear the horned cows we met in the open pastures recognised the sheep. They joined the woolly party and continued heading upwards all together after we left them, no doubt gossiping about the shameful behaviour of that good-for-nothing Sally Sheep from the neighbouring flock.

Or perhaps they were heading to a cow-bell rave party on the heights above the Col du Soulor.

In any case, we headed back down the track in the dark, admiring the lights of Arrens and Marsous from our lofty lodge. And I resolved that one day I would spend a night up on those restful pastures.

Many thanks to Pascal and Dominque for their generous invitation.

(The late hour and misty weather explain the poor quality of photos – nothing to do with me being exhausted).

And, by the way, I may not have done any proper writing, but I had some fantastic experiences and took lots of notes. Does that count?

Pyrenees Writing Residency – Day 1

In June 2017 I was invited to be a writer-in-residence. The venue was the Maison des Arts arts centre in Arras-en-Lavedan, a small village in the beautiful Val d’Azun valley in the Pyrenees mountains, France.

The aim of my visit was to research my second novel, Tree Slayer, which is partly set in the village. I hasten to add that I’ve created imaginary settings and characters in the book. But I thought that if you read Tree Slayer, you might like to see some of the photos I took.

I met so many great people in Arras-en-Lavedan and discovered so much that I decided to blog about each day’s activities. My readers seemed to enjoy my ramblings about mountain life. I was even contacted by an editor of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, who liked what she read and invited me to contribute to the famous guide. (You can find my offering, ‘Going Public’, here.)

To celebrate the publication of Tree Slayer on 6th October I’m going to re-blog these posts over the next week. So here we go, starting with the first day.

Behind the Scenes at the Maison des Arts


Have you ever been locked up in a museum overnight?

No, me neither, but that’s exactly what has happened to me tonight in the empty, locked-up arts centre. And there’s an eye looking at me through the window. I know it’s just part of an exhibition – at least, I presume it is – but it’s kind of spooky.

Outside, thunder swallows the sound of cowbells and the wash of invisible rain. And every so often, the church bell chimes. I could be feeling lonely and scared – but luckily I have company. I have the company of a mountain. Let me explain.

This morning I left Pau, where I stayed last night (see yesterday’s blog post): I could say ‘with a heavy heart’, but, actually, if there’s one thing I love more than the town of Pau, it’s what lies south of Pau…

The weather wasn’t promising and there were no mountains in sight – until I reached Lourdes, when I was able to make out some dark outlines on the horizon.

My excitement doubled, tripled, quadrupled as I turned each bend and saw the sketches of mountain gradually become rocky reality, patched with snow. By the time I reached Argelès-Gazost, the peaks began to look familiar from last year’s camping holiday.

Arras-en-Lavedan is 2km up the Val d’Azun valley from Argelès, and I overtook several brave (crazy?) cyclists on their way to the Cols d’Aubisque and Soulor before I turned off the main road and into the heart of the village.

Most of the village is below the road, its narrow streets winding in a seemingly haphazard way around the small barn-houses and colourful gardens.

The Maison des Arts, with its stone tower and metal sculptures in the grounds, brought back memories of the day I spent here last summer, discovering this exhibition centre and chatting to Françoise Gourvès, one of the Abbadiale association members responsible for the exhibitions.

Françoise showed me to the living quarters: a bare, roomy bedroom with creaky floorboards and a desk.

But I hardly noticed the bedroom. My attention was immediately drawn to the window, and what lay outside. At least, what I thought lay outside.

It was a steep, wooded valley with a cute, pointy mountain at the top, poking the tip of its nose into the clouds. The trees waved the tips of their green fingers at me in the breeze, and when I opened the window I was charmed by the riot of exotic birdsong. The whole scene was enchanting.

And then the sun broke through the clouds.

What I’d been admiring was simply the foreground of my view. Before my eyes, the clouds lifted and out of the mist loomed another triangular peak, but higher. And then a third. The effect of the misty apparitions was like the double and triple of a rainbow, and I had to watch them for a few minutes before I was convinced all the peaks were real.

Luckily for Françoise, the mist drifted back across the peaks and I was able to leave the window and concentrate on what she was telling me – which was that some costume-making artists were meeting for lunch at Le Kairn bistro-bookshop, and that I could join them if I liked.

Le Kairn has only been open for 3 weeks, and Arras is a tiny – albeit dense with artists – village. So I was in no way prepared to see it installed in a huge building in the most prominent position next to the mairie.

The next surprise was the range of books: there’s an eclectic mix of unusual works, organised by theme in such an unconventional way that you spend hours browsing because you keep coming across something unexpected. This bookshop is going to become a reference in the whole region, I believe – and people will come to the village just to linger and buy. There are even books in English.

The bistro side is light and airy, perfect for writing while drinking a coffee. My attention was caught by the artistic tabletops, covered by pages from books, handwritten manuscripts and pictures from graphic novels.

And it was here that Karine, the owner, served us a Ploughman’s style lunch followed by the most delicious strawberry tiramisu. I was welcomed into the group of costume-makers, who were preparing for the Dracula open-air theatre play to be held this summer near Gavarnie. I’ll tell you more about them in a future blog post, as they will be in residence with me later this week.

While Valentine was taking my payment, Karine mentioned a local shepherd who told her I’d be welcome to visit. So that’s what I did. I met Pascal Gainza, from Marsous, who turned out to be the husband of Dominique, the friendly goat farmer I visited last summer. Pascal invited me to take part in his private transhumance – the moving of the ewes (a ewe is a female sheep, in case you’re a townie) from the valley to the mountain pastures for the summer.

‘Be here at 6:30 tomorrow evening, and we’ll show you the best viewpoint up there,’ he told me, adding that the Estaing transhumance is good for folklore traditions, but it’s better to see a real one.

So that’s what I’ll be doing tomorrow: firstly a touristy transhumance festival in the morning, then a real one in the evening.

At least, that’s what I’ll be doing if I survive my first night locked up in the museum. Actually, I have to go now, as I’ve got a burning desire to see where that staircase leads. And what’s behind the door at the top.

See you tomorrow for the next writerly instalment – a wet, sheepy one, judging by that thunder and the new whiteout view from my window.

And, yes, by the way, I did get some writing done between today’s social encounters.

Three on the Go

It’s been a hectic month of September at my writing desk – and that’s before counting the time I spent procrastinating and sharpening pencils.

Being a writer isn’t just about writing (and sharpening pencils). It isn’t simply a case of diligently writing one story from beginning to end – even though that’s pretty much what happened for my first novel, Tree Magic. Having several publishing contracts changes the rhythm of your writing days. Let me explain.

As I’ve already detailed in a previous post, a second edition of Tree Magic was released in the summer with a new cover and blurb. My lovely publisher, Impress Books, organised a book tour with 34 hosts over 10 days in early September. During this time I visited each book tour host, read reviews (with bated breath), put up posts on Facebook, retweeted quotes and thanked the book bloggers – who aren’t paid for their reviewing work. They generally receive a free book in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, you generous bookworms!

I can’t believe how lucky Tree Magic was with the reviews. It received plenty of 5* appreciations and apparently gave enjoyment to lots of readers. Here are a selection of my favourite quotes:

“Remember the feeling you had when you discovered the Harry Potter books for the very first time? I experienced a similar magical feeling when I entered Rainbow’s world.” Booky Charm

“Move over The Time Traveler’s Wife because Kim has a new favourite book of all time! Oh my god I am OBSESSED with this book and actually cannot wait to read the sequel, which never happens to me, as usually I like to have a good gap between books in a series.” Kim Howell

“Wow this story is magical! Even though it’s a good 400 pages you definitely don’t feel like it’s a chore. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next – it’s the definition of a page turner!” Abbi Reads xx

“They are strong, compelling characters and I loved how they engendered so much emotional response from me.” Living in my Own Private Library

“Springbett’s writing definitely pulls the reader in and I thought this was a lovely and very original story.” Books, Beans and Botany

“On a side note, as an Indian, I also loved the Indian ‘fictional’ folklore references to Amrita Devi and the Bishnoi People.” Rajiv’s Reviews

“Springbett has done such a beautiful job of pulling us into the scenes and helping the reader bring the story to life from the page; so much so that at times I wanted to run outside and hug my own tree!” Curled up with a Good Book

The whole point of re-launching Tree Magic was because the sequel, Tree Slayer, is due to be published on 6th October.

Omigod, that’s in just over a week!

My publisher felt that, given the delays to its publication – which were due to Impress Books joining the Untold Publishing group – it would be beneficial for readers to have Tree Magic fresh in their minds before embarking on Tree Slayer.

Although Tree Slayer was ready for publication in November 2019, it had a cover that matched the previous edition of Tree Magic. Impress scrapped that and asked designer Molly Phipps to create the current cover.

The changes in management also led to problems with recuperating the source files, which meant that I had to go through the book at least 4 times to check and correct the files. (And tinker a bit, I must admit).

So while I was dealing with marketing Tree Magic, I was still proof-reading both the Tree Slayer ebook and the pdf file for the paperback, though of course they went through professional proofreaders too.

In between marketing Tree Magic and proof-reading Tree Slayer, I’ve also been rewriting parts of the third book in the series, whose working title is Tree Sacrifice. I sent my ‘finished’ manuscript for Tree Sacrifice to my publisher back in January. My brilliant editor, Julian Webb, then read it and suggested structural edits.

What I love about Julian’s input is that he shows me how the story can go further, how it can be improved. He pushes me to find ways to fully develop the characters and the plots.

What I hate about Julian’s input is that this always means more work! Actually, that’s a joke. I don’t hate it at all. I love working on structural edits, bringing certain themes to the foreground, changing the way plots and storylines bounce off each other, trying to push my poor characters to their limits. I might even say this is my favourite part of writing a book. I suspect Rainbow disagrees. I think she’d just like to live in peace and not have to go through any edits at all.

I began work on the edits in June. Due to an unexpectedly busy summer, I wasn’t able to work for 2 months, so in September I picked up Tree Sacrifice again. Structural editing calls for intense concentration to follow through storylines and themes, so having to work on both Tree Magic and Tree Slayer at the same time as Tree Sacrifice made this quite a challenge.

Still, such is the life of a writer, and I’m certainly not complaining (my partner might, however, be complaining about a lack of proper food / company / help about the house). I’m lucky that the books are all part of the same series. Just imagine how hard it must be when you’re writing standalone books and have to deal with three sets of characters and settings. I’d be interested to know how other writers cope with having several books on the go.

Things will be unsettled for a while yet, because there is still a lot happening on the publicity side for Tree Slayer‘s release into the wild.

  • Over the next week I’ll be reblogging my posts from the writing residency I did in the Pyrenees mountains while researching for Tree Slayer.
  • Before publication day, the first review and an interview with Jacqui from French Village Diaries will be published on 28th Sept and 2nd Oct.
  • Publication Day – Tuesday 6th October  – will demand time on Social Media.
  • I’m the guest author on Twitter’s #ukteenchat on Tuesday 27th October.
  • Tree Slayer‘s blog tour takes place with Love Books Group from 26th October to 1st November.
  • Helen Millar from the AngloFile show on the local RCF Radio station has invited me for a reading / interview on 16th October (to be broadcast the following week). I also did this in 2016 as you can see in my blog post here .
  • Finally, I’ll be leading a writing workshop in English at my local French bookshop, Le Texte Libre, at 3pm on Sat 28th November, which will be followed by an interview and Q&A session with the public at 5:15pm.

Between these events, I’ll continue working hard on the edits to Tree Sacrifice. Hopefully it’ll be with you at some point in 2021. More on that next year, by which time I’ll be working on my fourth (and fifth?) novels too. Or I’ll be having a rest.

Tree Magic book tour dates

Today sees the start of Tree Magic‘s ten-day book tour – Woohoo!

Due to popular request (well, one person asked…) here is the list of dates and the website hosts for the tour. You’ll find the original list on the Love Books Group website – scroll to the bottom of their page to find this list.

Date Blog Name Handle Blog
7th Sept Chells and Books @chellsandbooks
7th Sept Madwoman in the Attic @LisaReadsBooks
7th Sept The Magic Of Wor(l)ds @MagicOfWorldsBE
7th Sept Curled Up With a Good Book @curlupwithbooks
8th Sept Between The Pages Book Club BTPBookclub
8th Sept B for Book Review @BookreviewB
8th Sept Manic Mumdays @manicmumdayscas/
9th Sept Kim Howell Instagram @duckfacekim09
9th Sept Rajiv’s Reviews @rajivsreviews
9th Sept The Book Reader @the_b00kreader
9th Sept Varietats @Sweeet83
10th Sept Wonders of Books @wonders_of_books/
10th Sept Jane Hunt Writer @jolliffe03
10th Sept Caffeine Addled Ramblings @GKSihat
11th Sept mandy_w87
11th Sept Books Beans & Botany
11th Sept Daisy Says @daisyjhollands
11th Sept Chicks Rogues and Scandals @ChicksandRogues
12th Sept Bookread2day @bookpage5
12th Sept Karen and her Books @karenandherbooks
12th Sept Living in my Own Private Library @livinginmyownprivatelibrary
13th Sept Vicky Book and Family @Vickybooksandfamily
13th Sept @sewshereads @sewshereads
13th Sept Bookmarks and Stages @Lou_Bookmarks
14th Sept Readerofrivendell @readerofrivendell
14th Sept Jorie Loves A Story @joriestory
14th Sept Tangents and Tissues @tangentsbb
15th Sept Hannah May Book Reviews @hannahmaybookreviews
15th Sept Fany Reads English @fanyf4335
15th Sept Bookshortie
15th Sept Books Let Us Escape @booksletusescape_
16th Sept Abbi Reads xx @abbi_reads_xx
16th Sept Booky Charm @jrw1904
16th Sept Book Loving Science Teacher @booklovingscienceteacher
16th Sept thr4sam @thr4sam