Wednesday, 11 July 2018


from fact to fiction

Wherewithal Quay - John Bruce

A bit of a cliché, I know, but I'll explain the relevance of the title. In BLOOD ON THE TIDE I wanted to describe an interesting building on the quay at Nottery Quay. I remembered that my friend, John Bruce had built one on his exquisite little railway layout, Wherewithal Quay. In just 21" x 18" he has created a delightful slice of Cornwall. As I understand it the prototypes for the wonderful 4mm scale buildings have been drawn from various sites across the county. But they have been put together so skilfully that they create a slice of Cornwall, perfectly. I was rather taken with the hexagonal harbourmaster's office and asked where that had come from.

 Harbour master's office, Charlestown, Cornwall

Apparently, it's based on the eight-sided building on the quay at Charlestown in Cornwall. This is thought to have been constructed at the end of the 18th century at the same time as the harbour which was developed by local landowner, Charles Rashleigh, to ship china clay from his nearby mines and was designed by engineer John Smeaton. This brings us neatly full circle, as Smeaton built an ill-fated harbour at Winchelsea Beach, which is where my hero, Detective Inspector Sonny Russell has his railway carriage home. 
Here is an extract from BLOOD ON THE TIDE, describing the building. If you enjoy it and would like to read more, the book is available in paperback or Kindle from Amazon.

On the quayside, near where the car was stopped, stood a curious, hexagonal stone building. This small structure was the harbourmaster’s office. With windows on five sides it commanded views, not only of the waterside, and out towards the harbour entrance but nearly the whole of the quay. ‘If we make a dash for it while it’s still raining, we should be able to get in without being noticed.’
          ‘Good idea, Sir.’ The two men left the shelter of the car and, keeping close to the timber walls of the warehouses, made their way to the quayside. They waited briefly as the downpour eased. Then, as it stepped up a gear, Russel nodded, rain flipping off the brim of his trilby, and they ran across the narrow gap towards the office. Luck was with them as he turned the handle. The door was unlocked and it opened easily. They bustled inside and stood panting. The whole exercise had taken only a matter of seconds so it was unlikely that they had been seen.
          The interior was barely ten feet across and contained very little, just a couple of stools and a small table with a map of the harbour and a book of tide tables lying on the surface. On the one wall without a window was an old faded photograph of the quay, with a number of sailing boats tied up alongside and next to it, a pair of binoculars, hanging by a leather strap from a hook.

           ‘Ah, good,’ the DI said, lifting them down and placing them on the small table. The two men perched on the stools, water dripping off their sodden clothes. After a while, steam starting to rise in the confined space.
          The rain was easing, reducing to a mist, with an occasional quick, heavy squall blowing in off the sea and battering the glass. The thunder had reduced to a distant rumble, as the storm moved along the coast. The two men sat for perhaps half an hour, saying little, intent on keeping watch. 
‘You look for the boat, constable, and I’ll keep an eye out back.’ The pair sat, watching intently. The windows were still smeared with condensation but were clear enough to see anything going on outside. Russell thought he caught a movement in the shadows between two buildings. Weeks spoke, almost in a whisper. ‘There it is!’ His boss risked a quick glance seaward and could see the dark shape of a vessel heading towards them. He swivelled his head back again, just in time to see the shadow grow into the form of a large man, bent over, making his way across the front of the warehouses. As the engine note grew louder, the man left the shelter of the buildings and, crouching low, jogged in the direction of the edge of the quay.

Thursday, 28 June 2018



Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety nine percent perspiration. Thomas Edison

I have no illusions about my status - I am definitely not a genius! But I think Thomas Edison was not far wrong with his observation of the ratio between sudden sparks of inspiration and the amount of dogged hard graft needed to produce any work of significance.

As a writer I can usually get the words to flow but only occasionally do I put something down that really pleases me. And the inspiration usually comes from the landscape that surrounds me.

I fee l myself privileged to live in such a wonderful place. It's not everyone's cup of tea - the beaches are mainly shingle, and when the tide goes out, there's often sticky mud that takes you unawares; the landscape is mainly flat and as for Dungeness... it's a Marmite sort of place. I know many people find it weird and alien - but that's why I love it. 

So, when I get stuck, with a plot-line, or need to get a character, or his motives, clear in my my mind, I go to the beach: Pett Level, Dog's Hill, Rye Harbour, Dungeness. They all calm and clear my mind and, most often, provide me with the inspiration to perspire over the next piece of writing. 

Monday, 11 June 2018


Something a little different this time. I'm promoting my ebook, BLOOD ON THE TIDE, by offering it FREE as a kindle for a limited period. So here is an extract from the book.

(Sapper Rankin is part of a bomb disposal team. He's been accused of involvement in a serious incident and is being questioned by DI 'Bonnie' Parker.)

‘So he won’t talk either?’ Superintendent Stout was beginning to wonder if he had made a mistake after all. Bringing in the two detectives sitting across the desk in his office was starting to look like an error of judgment.
          Parker looked even more crumpled and crestfallen than usual. ‘Afraid not, Sir. Either he refuses to answer my questions or says he doesn’t know anything.’
          ‘What about the squaddie, Rankin?’
          ‘He’s still in the cells, Sir.’
          ‘Well get him out and have another go at him. Really lean on him this time.’

‘I told that other detective… Russell… I know nothing about them two Germans. How long are you going to keep me here?’
          Parker got up and walked slowly round to the other side of the battered table, leant down close to the soldier and whispered directly into his ear. ‘We’ll keep you as long as we need to.’  Then he stood up and shouted: ‘SO START BLOODY TALKING!’ walked back to his chair and sat down. He pulled a cigarette from the packet on the table, put it between his lips and lit it. Rankin was visibly shaken by the outburst but kept his mouth tight shut. Parker blew out a plume of smoke then spoke, more quietly this time.
          ‘Let’s try again. We know you drove the lorry that Wolfgang and Ludwig used to dump the body in the water at Compass Point. We also know you drove it to Shell Bay to meet them on the Moonshine, and I dare say you were at the building site as well as at the brickworks.’ He raised his eyebrows and cocked his head to one side but Rankin remained silent, his arms folded protectively across his chest. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be able to prove this before too long.
          ‘The fact that you were seen on Moonshine with the brothers at Shell Bay is pretty damning but when you fell overboard at Nottery Quay and we fished you out of the drink it is fairly conclusive that you are tied up with them, don’t you think?’ Rankin sat silently, looking down at his hands. Parker banged his fist so hard on the table, the empty tea mugs leapt in the air and a pen clattered to the floor. ‘WELL?’

Thursday, 17 May 2018

CHARCOAL - not just for barbecues

not just for barbecues

In my second DI Sonny Russell mystery, BLOOD ON THE SHRINE, I describe how a detective constable discovers a charcoal burner's hut in the woods near Uckfield, where two men on the run have been hiding:

"The newly emerging leaf canopy gave little shelter and Barrow was glad to get into the charcoal burner’s hut, out of the rain. The interior was gloomy and it took a few moments for his eyes to adjust. The hut was a crude affair. It was roughly circular, shaped like a bell tent, with chestnut poles leaning in to meet at the apex, but instead of canvas, the outside was cloaked in sacking and grassy turfs. The hut, though dark, was surprisingly weatherproof. He looked around. There was nothing of note, just a few pieces of whittled wood, a small bench and some old sacks. He poked at the pile with his shoe and kicked something hard. Reaching down he uncovered a smooth length of wood. He almost dismissed it, thinking at first that it was of no consequence, but when he examined it more closely, he realised it was a walking stick, with a distinctive V at the top. He ran back to the car and tapped on the passenger window.
The window opened a crack. ‘Found anything?’ Parker asked, boredom in his voice. Barrow triumphantly held up the stick. ‘Is that all?’
‘But Sir. It’s a thumb stick! That’s what Wolfgang had, according to one of the local coppers who talked to him.’
‘I see.’ Parker huffed. ‘I suppose you want me to help you look for any more clues.’"

Although I knew a little about these unique structures I did some research which turned up many fascinating facts.

Apparently they are known from the stone age in south-west Germany and Finland. It's agreed that the huts of forest charcoal-burners provide a direct link to those made in prehistoric times. 

Since the iron age charcoal has been used for glass-making, smelting of iron, working precious metals and in the manufacture of gunpowder. However increased use of coal from 18th century started the decline in the need for charcoal although it is still used in the manufacture of incense and, of course for supplying the means for men to cremate meat on warm sunny weekends. 

Traditionally it takes six to eight days to turn wood into charcoal so it was quite a solitary life for the mend who tended the kilns where the process took place.

A reconstructed charcoal burner's hut at the Weald and Downland museum

Tuesday, 1 May 2018



Monkey's fist

During my research for BLOOD ON THE TIDE I delved into the esoteric world of knots. I already knew quite a bit about the different methods of joining, splicing and shortening ropes, through my time in the scouts and from messing about in boats. However, I wanted to find out more about the more obscure knots and came across the double constrictor knot, which features in the book.

Double constrictor knot

It's a knot that is almost impossible to untie and has to be cut, so quite distinctive.

Stages in forming a monkey's fist

Another interesting use of rope is to make a monkey's fist this takes the form of a six sided ball in the end of a rope. It is used to add weight to a heaving line - the rope that is thrown from ship to shore, or vice versa. Usually tied in a light line, this is attached to a heavier warp that is hauled across to secure the vessel.

Other uses included forming it round an object, i.e. a precious stone, to protect it. Or to form rather natty cufflinks.

And a Marlin Spike? This is a simple tool used when working rope. You may even have one on your multi-blade knife!

Marlin spike

Tuesday, 24 April 2018


The Devil's Cut

I have an interest in barrels - not just the contents but how they are made. I knew I came from a practical family on the distaff side - my maternal grandfather was an accomplished watercolourist, my mother had nimble fingers - sewing, knitting and even decorating and hanging wallpaper. My older brother started out as fine artist, became a successful potter then turned to boat-building. But it wasn't until much later in my life that I discovered that there was practicality on my father's side. I don't believe he was especially practical but his father, my paternal grandfather, was a cooper in Cork City, Eire.

This title meant that he made barrels, a very skilled occupation. Not for those two wonderful brewers of Irish stout, Murphys or Beamish (which I think equal, or even better, the taste of Dublin brewed Guinness) but for a whiskey* distillery. (* note the different spelling from Scotch whisky).

The names of some of the sizes of barrels are familiar - others, not so.
Beer barrels are called: gallon, firkin, kilderkin, barrel and hogshead, containing from one to 54 imperial gallons.
Wine casks are called: gallon, rundlet, barrel, tierce, hogshead, puncheon/tertian and pipe/butt. These hold from one to 210 imperial gallons.

As well as containing the more usual wine, beer, whisky/whiskey and sherry, barrels are also used for tequila, balsamic vinegar and Tabasco sauce.

An interesting term I came across while doing research was The Devil's Cut. This refers to the portion, or 'cut' of the product that is absorbed into the wood of the barrel. If the barrel is then used to store another product, the devil's cut may in turn leach into the liquid producing interesting new characteristics. 

Friday, 6 April 2018



While sitting on the beach at Dungeness today I counted a dozen or more Cormorants, flying low above the sea, travelling both east and west. This happened over a short time - maybe only ten minutes and it made me wonder about these reptilian looking birds.

The family name is Phalacrocoracidae and, there is little distinction between Cormorants and Shags. The only subtle difference is that the Shag's bill is more delicate and the forehead is steeper.

They are excellent divers and have been recorded as deep as 45 metres. The have webs between all four toes and use their feet to swim, with some help from their short wings.

They are coastal rather than oceanic birds and all are fish-eaters. They dive from the surface, making a half-jump to give themselves a more streamlined entry into the water. After fishing they go ashore and are often seen holding their wings out to dry.

As a postscript, I couldn't resist adding a photo of the estuary on my 009 layout, Compass Point, where I have a Cormorant, perched on the port marker, drying its wings. (Or is it a Shag?)