Saturday, 16 February 2019

La Cantéra

The Outcasts is set in the French Pyrenees at a time when life followed an age-old pattern, dictated by the changing seasons. Livestock was taken up into the high valleys from the end of May to the beginning of October. Shepherds and their dogs were vital for keeping the flocks safe during this time. Bears, wolves, eagles were all a threat, in addition to wild weather.   

Before leaving the shepherd to his lonely life in the mountains, groups of local people accompanied him for a part of the journey while taking large flocks of sheep, goats, cows and horses up to their usual pastures. In the villages en route, there would be a gathering of the people, consumption of food and alcohol, and music. This was generally called a cantéra - a spontaneous concert of traditional ballads, some of them dating from ancient times. Everybody joined in, no matter how well or badly they could sing.
 The Pipe Player is still a popular song, performed at many cantéras across the Pyrenees. You can see a version in this video, uploaded by Ellen Chapoulié

'Il habite la-haut, perdu dans la montagne,
Le soir quand il fait beau un grand chien l’accompagne...’

The pipe player lives up in the mountain,
On fine evenings a large dog accompanies him.

The song goes on to tell how the piper lives so high up he can touch the stars. On his pipe he plays the song of the wind and the music of the birds.

The Pyreneen sheepdog, large, strong and intelligent, is a working dog. Used to the harsh climate of the high mountains, he spends his life protecting his flock from predators.

Not all the animals in the high Pyrenees are dangerous 

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The Pyrenean chamoix [called  an "isard"] lives above 2,000 metres. It's shy but curious.

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The marmot also lives at high altitudes. They live in large groups in burrows.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Can you help my hero?

Joachim is the youngest in the family, the only one still at home -a chateau. 
He is in charge of maintaining his father's estates, both the land and the livestock. Hardworking, athletic and earnest, he hasn't had much time for dalliance or developing a relationship with a girl... until now. 

At last he seems to have found someone who has similar ideals and who is athletic enough to keep pace with all his outdoor tasks and the riding involved. So far, so good. But falling in love with him is not enough, unless he can get her to love the wild and remote region in which he lives. So what beauty spots will win her heart?

The mountains 

or the lakes

or perhaps the little towns close to his home


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Which scenes would you advise him to show her ?


Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Read an extract from my Work in Progress: "The Outcasts"

Joachim is escorting his mother's guests from Toulouse to the family home, the chateau de Fontanes, in the French Pyrenees. Of the two young ladies, one is sulking and one is permanently fuming. Major Hugo Dawlish is unwell after being attacked by unknown villains the previous evening

Joachim could scarcely believe his good luck the following morning. Nobody had been attacked overnight.  Everyone appeared for breakfast at the time he had stated. Everyone was ready to leave at the agreed time and the journey went smoothly through the first few stages. There were no sounds of quarrelling coming from the young ladies. They made no grumbles about the winding roads, and on the steep hills where the horses pulled the coach at a snail’s pace, they got out to walk. Joachim heard their admiring comments about the picturesque scenery and felt pleased. This was better. And soon they would be home. His mother would know how to calm Sophie and more importantly, how to brighten up Miss Dismal, both in her spirits and her attire.
            This was his second day in her company and so far she had not smiled once. Even when he pointed out another breath-taking view as they walked up one of the steep inclines, her pinched expression never relaxed. He wanted to shout at her to show some enthusiasm. And her clothes only added to the general impression of gloom. He cast an eye over her light grey gown and the darker grey pelisse she wore. Her bonnet was a simple straw one, with no ribbons or flowers to brighten it up. Joachim gave a wry smile as he imagined his sister Margot’s reaction to this dreary outfit. She was always so fashionable. It was a good thing she lived too far away to see these visitors during their stay at Fontanes.
There was not much traffic on the road and no sign of any evil-doers. Joachim’s chief concern was whether Hugo would manage to ride for the remaining part of the journey. He was evidently in pain, his head down with his chin tucked against his throat and taking no notice of the scenery. Since their last change of horses, Bertrand was riding next to him, while Joachim went ahead of the coach. But now, as they entered the town of Tarascon, Joachim let the coach overtake him. He exclaimed in dismay when he saw Hugo swaying in the saddle, and hurriedly came close alongside, ready to catch him if need be.
‘The coaching inn is just the other side of the river, Hugo,’ he said. ‘You’ll be glad of a rest, I think.’
There was no reply. Hugo seemed scarcely to hear him. They slowed their horses to a walk and crossed the bridge. The familiar sight of the round castella on the hill above the Ariege River was a welcome reminder that they were now only an hour from home. They rode into the yard of the Castella Inn and dismounted. Bertrand cleared his throat, and when Joachim looked, jerked his head towards Hugo, who was leaning against his horse, face as white as paper and eyes screwed up. They took him firmly by the arms.
‘Just a few steps,’ said Bertrand, ‘nearly there.’
‘Sorry,’ mumbled Hugo, dragging his feet and flopping against them with each step. They guided him into a private parlour and deposited him in an armchair.    
‘Whatever is wrong?’ cried Sophie, rushing over to stare. She pressed both hands over her mouth in alarm. Nell followed her and Joachim was surprised at how her face softened as she bent over the sick man and examined the wound. She touched the broken skin very gently.  Hugo’s mouth tightened and Joachim winced for him.

(c) Beth Elliott 2018



                                           Looking upstream from the bridge-
            The Tour du Castella, built in 1775, on the site of the medieval castle 
            [which was pulled down by order of Cardinal Richelieu]


                The Ariège river, looking downstream from the bridge

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Third time lucky

The Chateau de Gudanes

'I need a chateau as a home for my hero,' I emailed my French friend. 'Can you help me? It must be in a fairly remote location, but very grand, fit for a Turkish princess and her aristocratic French husband.'

After frowning over a map of south west France in vain, Hélène called the Tourist Office in Foix, Ariège. A cheerful sounding girl picked up the phone.

'Er...I need a chateau, what can you suggest?'

'But...there's a medieval castle here in town,' was the reply.
'No, it has to be in a remote area.'
'Oh... well then, what about all those Cathar castles?'
'No, no, they're ruins. It has to be a grand chateau, where an aristocratic family would live in the 18th century.'
Long pause...'Could I ask what you want it for?' The tone was getting impatient now.
'It's for my friend, who's writing a novel set in 1811. She wants to situate the family in a splendid chateau but not near a town.'
Another pause. 'All I can think of is a tumbledown chateau in a small village near Ax-les-Thermes in the Pyrenees. It's in a shocking state but it was once a magnificent place. '
'Mademoiselle, I just know you've found the very thing. A thousand thanks.'
'Yes, but you can't visit. It's unsafe. It's called Gudanes, by the way.'

Soon afterwards, Hélène and I made a trip to Ax-les-Thermes and drove out to take a look at the Chateau de Gudanes. It was absolutely right as a setting for my fictional family. A medieval fortress, much enlarged and updated in the charming style of the eighteenth century, it was indeed splendid. Even with its empty windows, patches of crumbling stonework and shutters hanging loose, an overgrown avenue and a sad air of neglect, it was perfect. And a personal thrill was that Voltaire stayed there, [he's my literary hero].


                       Seen from outside the padlocked gate with warning signs of the danger.

The chateau is set in an extensive park surrounded by high walls

It was two years before we made a second trip into the Pyrenees and stopped to look at the Chateau de Gudanes again. By this time, there was good news in the nearby village. An Australian family had bought the chateau and repairs and renovation had already started. It would take much determination and effort to repair the long years of neglect, especially the water damage from holes in the roof, but our spirits lifted at the idea of this glorious place being lived in and loved once more. [And it had already given me lots of inspiration for my story; so much in fact that I was writing a second tale set in that region.]

And recently we made a third visit, when by good luck and good timing, we were actually able to go through the open gates, along that driveway and up the stairs leading to the wide terrace to the open front door. Now the chateau has all its windows fixed, the shutters have been repaired and the roof is sound. No wonder it looks brighter and seems to be beaming a welcome.


Thanks to the kindness of the new owners' daughter, we had a tour round all the habitable parts. The amount of restoration already done is amazing, and shows the family's love for this chateau,  which has an atmosphere of warmth and serenity. 
As Hélène said when we posed for a photo on the terrace, this chateau has a soul.  

                                                                                                                                                                          The open door, where Alfie the dog waits to accompany us on our tour.                                                                

Karina Waters, the owner and prime mover in the massive programme of works at the chateau, has recently written and published this book recording the story so far.

Chateau de Gudanes - A true love story never ends


Thursday, 27 September 2018

Ferries from the Mersey to the Dardanelles

Image result for Mersey ferryboats

All my life I've loved going on ferries. As a child, crossing the Mersey from Pierhead in Liverpool to Wallasey or New Brighton was a weekend treat. My father used to make up tales about some of the more colourful passengers, so it seemed like a trip into another world, as we chugged across that estuary.

Later on I made Channel crossings on ferries that were often old tubs, just about seaworthy. However, it was always an adventure to step on board, leave one country and disembark in another.

The next step up was travelling to Turkey, and taking the ferry in Istanbul to travel between Europe and Asia. What a thrill to travel from one continent to another, enjoying spectacular views of famous buildings all the way. At the same time, the small, bustling two-deck ferry boats reminded me of the Mersey ferries, with the same vwoop-vwoop of their horns as they cast off, the swirl as they spun round to dock or set sail. On the Turkish ferries it's an additional pleasure to buy a tulip glass of tea from the nimble seller holding his round tray by its long handle as he threads his way through the passengers.

Image result for Turkish tea seller on Istanbul ferry

This summer my ferry travels were even more exciting. Arriving from the Asian side, we crossed the Dardanelles to reach our holiday villa near Gelibolu. During the next few weeks, we crossed and recrossed the Dardanelles to visit Troy, Canakkale and so on. There are ferries at many points along the coast. Some take forty minutes to do the crossing, like the Lapseki-Gelibolu ferry. Further down at a narrower point, the ferry crosses from Kilitbahir to the centre of Canakkale in fifteen minutes. Only just enough time for that glass of tea. Sitting on the upper deck, in the sunshine but always with a cooling breeze, the journey was so pleasant I felt tempted each time to stay on board and repeat the crossing until the end of the day.

                                            Lapseki Ferry, from Lapseki to Gelibolu

 Approaching Canakkale

Koz Kahve
In Canakkale, Turkish coffee prepared in the traditional way - by heating the coffee in a brazier of hot charcoal and ash. It takes twenty minutes to heat the coffee to boiling point but worth the wait for the rich flavour.

Friday, 24 August 2018

A Mission to Troy

The wooden horse stands in front of the city of Troy, in a vast square near the shop and cafe. Fortunately it was a very quiet Monday morning when we arrived and only a couple of children were running about inside the horse. 'Hector', in his leather breastplate, little red skirt and red cloak, tried to entice us to dress as Helens, so we could be photographed with him in the red war chariot. The jewellery was tempting - diadems, bangles and earrings, and the gauzy robes were pretty but it was rather too hot and anyway, I couldn't wait to carry on to the actual site.

So after this quick snap, off I went, through a shady grove of cypress then out into the heat of a July day. All worth it, to walk past these towering walls and into the actual city of Troy.


Inside the walls I followed the well-marked route ..... past temple after palace after theatre, until the sheer size of the place became amazing. The restoration work continues, and there are many panels with information and pictures of what the various buildings looked like originally.

Walking around a place of such antiquity and legend is extremely moving. Scraps of the story, thoughts of Hector, Priam, Helen and Paris occur, as well as pictures of the Greek army surrounding these mighty walls. The only way they could get into the city was by their ruse with the horse, and only after ten years of war.

However, I was also on a personal mission. In Scandalous Lady, Olivia also visits Troy. I wanted to check on whether I had described what she saw accurately. It was a thrill to find the scene was indeed more or less exact.

 She smiled in delight and sprang up to get a closer look at the boy and his goats, streaming along the lower part of the slope. Further away, she could make out a cluster of tents. Two horsemen were speeding across the rough plain below. Olivia drank in the scene. It was all so different from Gloucestershire. These open spaces and the sunshine seemed to fill her with energy. 
There was silence for a while.  Olivia carefully drew each of the tumbled columns and lumps of marble on the hillside facing her.  Then she moved to another vantage point and set to work again. The goatherd’s voice faded as he led his flock further away. Olivia smiled. Had Helen sat here, enjoying this splendid view and listening to people singing as they went about their business? But Helen had run away with her lover and Olivia had sworn never to trust a man again. Of course, she did not include Richard in that; he was the kindest of brothers. But even so, it was going to be difficult to persuade him to allow her to stay in Constantinople.
            Her sketches finished to her satisfaction, Olivia idly watched a lizard dart across a bit of wall. The sun beat down, sharpening the already vivid greens and reds of the landscape. The pieces of marble had a pearly sheen in the brilliant light. Perhaps she should join Nessie in the shade while they waited for the rest of their group to return.

            She stretched out a hand for her bag. And froze as a man's voice behind her rapped out, 'Stay absolutely still.' His sharp tone said danger. Olivia could hear his breath coming in gasps, as if he had been running uphill. Her own heartbeat quickened and a tingle ran down her spine. The next instant the stranger spoke again. 'Whatever happens, do not move.' From right behind her came a scrape, a swoosh and a thump, followed by a spitting noise. 'Now you can move,' he said more loudly. 


Tuesday, 22 May 2018

A new, fresh website

It took a while to make myself a new website. Goodbye to my olde booke format, which served me well, but had done its time.

Over to 

for a fresh new look at my writing life, from Books to Byron to Brighton and Bath;
from Lady Hester Stanhope to Lisbon or London and more, in an exploration of life [as my characters live it] in the wider Regency world.