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Friday, 20 June 2014

Our Flanders Adventure II

Ieper Cloth Hall today.
Our first stop on our visit to Belgium was an afternoon in Ypres. It's hard to believe that this bustling city was left a smoking ruin by repeated enemy shelling in the battles for the Ypres Salient.

The town's beautiful medieval Cloth Hall and St Martin's Cathedral were both reduced to a pile of rubble, but the city was rebuilt after the war.

The Cloth Hall is now home to the In Flanders Museum, and this is an amazing site to visit, whatever your nationality.
Photo postcard of the Cloth Hall before and during a fire in November 1914.

A display inside the In Flanders Field Museum.
When you enter the museum you are given a 'magic bracelet', which you use to log in to the museum computer, and you type in your surname and place of origin.

Then as you explore the museum, you use your bracelet at various points to access information, images and displays (in your own language) of stories and people caught up in the 'war to end all wars'.

Photo postcard of the ruins of the Cloth Hall in 1919. 

At the end of your visit, the museum computer tells you how many people with that surname died in the war (very interesting), and you can choose to have your museum 'experience' printed off or emailed to you. Then you can have a coffee in the cafe or rummage in the museum bookshop.
All modern photos © Sue Wilkes. All postcards from the author's collection.

Photo postcard of the ruined south portal of the Cathedral, postmarked 1918.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Writers’ Blog Tour

I was thrilled to be asked to take part in the Writers’ Blog Tour by my author friend Michelle Higgs – you can visit her blog here.

Michelle also invited Angela Buckley to take part, and you can find out more about Angela at  Michelle was originally invited to join the tour by Gillian Mawson - do check out her work at

As you can see, the idea is that the international community of writers and authors all help each other so that their blogs reach a larger audience!

Now, like previous hosts of the Writers’ Blog Tour, I’m going to answer four questions about my work and writing.  

What am I working on?

I’m currently seeing my forthcoming book A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England through the final production process. If all goes well it will be published by Pen and Sword in late October 2014.  In the Visitor’s Guide readers can immerse themselves in the vanished world inhabited by Austen’s contemporaries. It’s an intimate exploration of how the middle and upper classes lived from 1775, the year of Jane Austen’s birth, to her death in 1817. I’ve also started working on a new book, Regency Spies, for Pen & Sword’s History imprint. In Regency Spies, I’ll be revealing the shadowy world of Britain’s spies, rebels and secret societies from the late 1780s until 1820.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This question is almost impossible to answer when so many great books have already been published by many talented history writers, but I’ll do my best. I’m fascinated by real people’s stories: how our ancestors lived and died. History isn’t just a series of dates, or the names of kings and queens. History was made by ordinary men, women and children: the navvies who built the canals, roads and railways, the labourers who worked in the fields, and the weavers who toiled in their garrets or in the mills. I’m especially interested in the great social divide between rich and poor. 

 Why do I write what I do?

As I said earlier, I love exploring people’s real past lives. I have a real passion for history – whenever I visit a museum or heritage site, I wish I could soak up its history like a sponge. It’s fascinating seeing old factories and buildings, machinery, ‘recreations’ of people’s homes and lifestyles, and the artefacts and tools which people used. I love visiting archives, and reading people’s letters and diaries. There’s always more to learn, and I’m never happier than when I’ve learnt something new, or have uncovered an amazing true story – and can share it with my readers. 

How does my writing process work?

I don’t begin writing until I’ve done lots of reading and research! Then (still reading/researching) I begin building up a mental picture of what I want to say and make some tentative notes on the computer – noting references as I go along. I’m usually working to a tight deadline, so I start roughing out each chapter as early as possible, but each chapter is very much subject to revision. The ‘proper’ writing begins when I have finished the main research in archives and primary sources. But in practice I am still reading while writing because often another author may help shed fresh light on a subject. Each article or book undergoes several rewrites and checks before the final edit, although I don’t think a piece of work is ever truly ‘finished’! This is probably not a very organised way of working, and I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone!

I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit to my blog. Now I’d like to introduce you to two more wonderful writers:

Jane Odiwe

Jane Odiwe is the author of five Austen-inspired novels, Project Darcy, Searching for Captain Wentworth, (White Soup Press) Mr Darcy's Secret, Willoughby's Return, and Lydia Bennet's Story, (Sourcebooks) and the short story, Waiting, commissioned for Jane Austen Made Me Do It, (Random House).

Jane also loves painting scenes from Austen’s world - her illustrations feature in a biographical film for Sony of Jane Austen's life and in the book, Effusions of Fancy.

Emma Jolly

Emma Jolly is a writer, genealogist and historian. A regular contributor to family history publications, Emma is the author of four books, My Ancestor was a Woman at War (2014), Tracing Your Ancestors Using the Census (2013), Tracing Your British Indian Ancestors (2012) and Family History for Kids (2007). As a genealogist, she specializes in problem-solving and British India. Having recently completed an MA in Imperialism and Culture, Emma is now focused on women’s history projects.

Image: Pit brow lasses in Staffordshire.  Reports of the Inspectors of Factories, 31 October 1875.Author's collection.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Our Flanders Adventure I

Recently I was very privileged to take a trip to see some of the WW1 battlefield sites in Flanders (Belgium). This was a very personal journey for me as I planned to visit the Loos Memorial in France, too, where my two great-uncles are commemorated. Also, according to family tradition, my Pickvance ancestors, who were cotton workers from the Bolton area, originally came from Flanders, which was famous for its textiles. Flemish weavers came to settle in Britain early in the 14th century, but I have not been able to go back that far in the family tree yet!
My great-uncle Harry sailed for France in November 1915 with the 16th Battalion, 2nd Salford Pals in November 2015; they landed at Boulogne. His brother Herbert Dickman, who served with the 8th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, landed in France a few weeks later. You can imagine how anxious my great-grandparents would have been.
Our trip began at Hull, and we sailed on the overnight ferry to Zeebrugge. I'll be sharing some highlights from our Flanders trip with you, so watch this space!

Images: The author on the ferry.© Nigel Wilkes.

A WW1 family, photo postcard. Inscription on reverse reads 'L Stokoe'. Author's collection.