10 Quite interesting facts about London

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Samuel Johnson, the 18th century English writer, once wrote “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life”.

He may have been onto something there. I always find London has an exciting vibe that just fills me with energy. Plus there’s so much to see and do, whether you’re into cultural pursuits or pleasurable.  Continue reading →

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Fun Facts about Wedding Cakes

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Wedding cake decorated with pink rosebuds

Wedding cake decorated with pink rosebuds

As I have a shockingly sweet tooth, cake comes very high up on my list of favourite foods. I particularly love a rich fruit cake with marzipan and royal icing. So to me, a cake makes the perfect celebration food but now cakes seem to becoming more like works of art than food items and none more than wedding cakes. Instead of the traditional white-tiered wedding cake some are opting for black, red and even multi-coloured cakes or individual cupcakes instead of one big cake.

Wedding cake made of individual cupcakes

Wedding cake made of individual cupcakes

But maybe this isn’t such a detour from tradition. In fact white wedding cakes have only been popular since the 19th century when Queen Victoria had a white wedding cake in keeping with her white wedding dress. Until then, silver had been the popular dress colour for royal brides.

Her cake consisted of a single tier approximately 9 feet (3 metres) around the base and stacked with figurines of up to a foot (30 cms) high approximately, of Britannia and the Royal couple dressed in the clothes of Ancient Greece.

Click here for a link to an illustration of Queen Victoria’s Wedding cake.

The trend of tiering wedding cakes, popular today, was reputedly inspired by Christopher Wren’s spire at St Bride’s Church in London. But looking further back it seems the tradition of the wedding cake dates back to Roman times.

Roman Wedding by sarahtarno on flickr

Back then wedding cakes were more like a type of bread made from wheat flour, salt and water (no sugar or other sweet ingredients). And, instead of the groom handing the bride a piece to eat, he would crumble it over her head. This was meant to ensure the couple would be blessed with lots of children.

Later on in history people would pile little cakes up high and the idea was the bride and groom would try and kiss over the cakes. If they succeeded it was a sign that the marriage would be prosperous. This is reputed to be the origins of the Croquembouche, a French cake often used at weddings.

Croquembouche with Pink and White Frosting Roses

Croquembouche with Pink and White Frosting Roses

So simple, elaborate, traditional or wacky…there are no limits when it comes to the choice of wedding cake.

Here are a few of the more unusual cakes around if you’re looking for inspiration.
Danielle and Jamie's wedding cake, Great Fosters Hotel

Funny wedding cake

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Vindolanda in the Rain

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I’ve never seen Hadrian’s Wall. So when I was given the opportunity to join a party planning a gentle stroll around a section of Hadrian’s Wall I eagerly accepted. The day dawned windy and wet and our party of thirteen dwindled down to five, the rest preferring to spend the morning with the Sunday papers and a warm fire.

Romans in Britain

To be honest, I’d expected there would be a car park somewhere close by so we could remain dry and warm and look at Hadrian’s Wall from the comfort of our seats in the bus. Alas, that wasn’t the case. To see Hadrian’s Wall, walking had to take place.

The rain and wind refused to lighten up so the five of us took a quick vote and decided to first visit the Roman remains at Vindolanda, one of the forts built to protect the wall. Hopefully the weather would improve as the day progressed.

“I’ll try and do most of the talking inside in the entry display area” our guide told us helpfully. I suppose she didn’t want to spend a moment longer out in the rain than she really had to. So much for lightening up, by this time the rain was falling sideways.

She told us the excavation work began forty years ago but there was another hundred years worth of excavation work left and many of the people involved gave their time freely, including our guide.

Another interesting fact is that there had been a number of forts built in the same spot over a period ranging from about 80 AD to the beginning of the 4th century with each previous fort being demolished and rebuilt as required.

Talk over, it was time to don macintoshes, seize umbrellas and head out to view the excavations close up. First stop was down the paths towards the remains of the village where the camp followers would have lived just outside the fort.

Remains of the village by Vindolanda Fort

Remains of the village by Vindolanda Fort

The camp followers comprised of the soldiers’ relatives, merchants, craftsmen, slaves and priests. The soldiers were generally well paid and in silver, so most armies would attract a number of civilians who, once the soldiers had set up a permanent base, would settle themselves close by.

The rainy walk continued to the bath house on one side of the excavations. These were quite social places and probably used by civilians too. Our guide told us that Roman soldiers didn’t use soap but oil and steam to sweat all the dirt out of their pores. Afterwards she showed us an instrument which looked like a wooden hook called a strigil  which the soldiers would use to scrape the oil, sweat and dirt off themselves into a special receptacle.

The remains of the military bath house

The remains of the military bath house

 

My £15 showerproof mac did a relatively good job of keeping my top half dry but my thin linen trousers were quite wet through by the time we returned to the entry display area but it was definitely a fascinating place to visit and worth the discomfort. Unfortunately time ran out and the weather didn’t improve so I didn’t get to see Hadrian’s Wall in the end.

For more information about Vindolanda visit the official website http://www.vindolanda.com/

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5 Great Writing Tips I Wish I’d Discovered Earlier

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One of the most valuable writing tips I think anyone ever passed onto me was “Don’t get it right, get it written”.

In other words kill that maddening editor who sits on your shoulder criticising every word you write and holding you back while it spends hours hunting for that perfect sentence, or just the right word. Just write. It doesn’t matter if you write garbage. You can always go back and fix it later.

Here are 4 more great writing tips.

1) Read your work out aloud. This is an incredibly valuable tip. Writers often get so close to their work they miss glaringly obvious errors. If you read your work aloud it helps to pick out the mistakes. Reading out aloud also helps you spot long-winded sentences, poorly constructed sentences and sentences that just don’t make sense!

Stack of Library Books

2) Join a critique group. Again very useful advice. It’s always good to get a second, or third or fourth opinion of your work as it progresses; to find out what works and what doesn’t; what is clear and what doesn’t make sense; where readers stumble over your words. As I have to submit fresh work to my critique group before every meeting, it also ensures I keep writing, which is no mean feat seeing as I have to fit writing in with a hectic day job.

3) Cut the clutter. Don’t litter your work with unneccessary words. Keep it lean. Most writers have their pet words they tend to use, or overuse. For me it’s starting sentences with “Well…” Here are some words which generally don’t add much value and can probably be cut out of your story:

just
well
quite
perhaps
that
about
actually
almost
already
appears
approximately
basically
close to
even
eventually
exactly
finally
here
just
just then
kind of
nearly
now
practically
obviously
really
seems
simply
somehow
somewhat
somewhat like
sort of
suddenly
that
then
there
truly
utterly

4) Use strong verbs. Rather than littering your work with adverbs and adjectives try and use a strong verb instead. It will give your work more power – don’t let your heroine walk hurriedly to the bus stop have her dash there or rush there both words that make it clear she’s in a hurry!

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A Kick In the Guts – or Emotional Punch?

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To give emotional punch, a writer has to make the reader feel something (other than irritation or annoyance at the crass plotting or stupid characters!). When I read a book I want to be made to laugh, cry or get so thrilled by what I’m reading I can hardly turn the pages fast enough. I want to be so immersed in the world of the story that I forget I’m reading.

Night dance

 One way a writer can do this is by letting their readers view the world from inside their character’s skin. This is known as “deep point of view”

There are many great articles on the web about deep point of view, but here are four tips of mine to help you stir your readers’ emotions.

1) Show don’t tell.
You will hear this a lot if you’re a new writer. For example: “He felt a blast of cold air as he walked through the door” is telling.  The words “he felt” distances the reader from the character. Rewritten in deep point of view would be something along the lines of: “He walked through the back door and gasped as the frosty air slapped him in the face like an outraged lover.”

The use of strong verbs such as “slapped” makes it more vivid for the reader. You could also substitute a stronger word for walked, such as burst or strode to evoke a different feel to the sentence. 

2) Empathise don’t sympathise with your character.
This is really a continuation of number 1). Sympathy is when you see someone fall over and you think “oh that must have hurt” Empathy is when you see someone fall over and you really feel their pain. I remember years ago we were at a family barbeque in a forest and my younger son slipped on loose gravel and fell flat on his front.  Being a tough teenager at the time, he leapt to his feet and brushed himself down hiding the fact that it must have hurt like hell, but I really felt his pain; it haunted me long after his grazes healed. 

3) Use your own experiences to write emotions authentically.
I recommend you get into the habit of carrying a journal around with you and whenever you feel an emotion whether it’s joy, sadness, fear, anger, try and train yourself to capture in words exactly how it feels. What’s going on in your head? In your body? Emotions generally have a physical presence. When I’m really disappointed about something I get an ache at the back of my throat. When I’m excited I get a lovely tingling sensation in the pit of my stomach. If the emotion is negative you may find writing it down helps ease the pain. 

4) Listen to stirring music
I find if I listen to something romantic I get warm gooey feelings inside which naturally flows through to the words I’m writing. Listening to Andrea Bocelli singing in Italian does that to me. I’ve also started listening to movie music because movie scores are often written to emphasise the particular mood of that part of the movie.

I’d love to hear of any other suggestions you can think of.

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