Tuesday 27 October 2020

Extract from 'Charlotte - The Lady in White' in tribute to Auntie Hazel.

Today, we said goodbye to Auntie Hazel. She was my great aunt - my dad’s auntie and the widow of my wonderful Uncle Ivan, to whom you can read a tribute here. She was a very kind person, with whom I absolutely loved to spend time. 

Being in Ireland and with Covid restrictions limiting numbers in attendance, I attended her funeral service remotely. To find myself in the Colchester chapel I remember so well from so many past funerals, while at the same time sitting in a kitchen 500 miles away was a very strange experience but I was grateful to be able to attend at all, given the circumstances. 

In the absence of the ability to share my memories with my family today, I thought it might be nice to pay tribute to her here.

I have many, many fond memories of spending time with Auntie Hazel, chatting, drinking tea and eating biscuits, surrounded by the warmth of the home she and Uncle Ivan had created and moulded over decades. I remember her fussing about the mess in his art room and the innumerable teddy bears and salt and pepper pot sets that adorned the home that could only have been theirs. 

One of my favourite memories of time spent with Auntie Hazel and Uncle Ivan was of an afternoon that took place in the summer of 2012. I was carrying out research for my novel ‘Charlotte - The Lady in White’ - a historical fiction novel set in Berechurch Hall in Colchester. When Uncle Ivan and Auntie Hazel found out about this, they told my parents that they had both spent time working on the estate of Berechurch Hall, because Auntie Hazel’s dad had worked there - I believe it was in the gardens. At the time, I was trying (and failing) to locate the remains of Charlotte’s Pool, which is one of the key scenes from my novel. Auntie Hazel recalled seeing it as a child and said that she’d try to help me find it. The extract below is an account of that afternoon, as it might have been seen by the ghost of Charlotte White - the protagonist in my novel. That afternoon spent with my great auntie and uncle in Berechurch demonstrates very well how much fun they both were, how fiercely independent they were and, I hope, how much I loved them both. 

Photo by Tom Archer Photography

Rest in peace together, dear Auntie Hazel and Uncle Ivan. I love you both and miss you terribly. 

Extract from ‘Charlotte - The Lady in White’ by Annie Bell.

For days, I thought of nothing but Jo and Lesley, trying to imagine how I might find a way to reach them again.

Strangely, I did not have to wait as long as I had feared. Four days had passed, when I heard voices on the far side of the army prison. The mention of my name drew my attention and I allowed myself to drift in that direction. The woods that bordered the army prison were dense and full of tangled brambles. It did not take long for me to recognise Jo attempting to trample her way through the undergrowth. She was looking around with a real sense of purpose. It was as if she was searching for something. I was about to move closer to her, when Jo shouted across the woods.

“Auntie Hazel?”

I stopped and looked around. To my great surprise, I soon learned that Jo was accompanied on her walk through the woods, by a petite lady in her late seventies or early eighties. She wore glasses and had short straight hair, which was dark and streaked with grey. She had a very kind countenance. As always, Jo's blue trousers repulsed me but I found it stranger to note that the older lady – Hazel – also wore trousers, like a man. I doubted I would ever grow accustomed to the way it was now considered normal for ladies to dress in this manner.

“I'm here, Jo,” Hazel responded. I'm sorry, I just can't find it now. These woods have changed in the last forty years.” I wondered what they were looking for. Jo sighed rather heavily as though she was anxious about something.

“Well, it's not a problem,” Jo said, craning her neck to look around the woods. Can you see Uncle Ivan?”

“He's buggered off somewhere,” Hazel replied with a big smile. I have to confess that I was shocked to hear such language being spoken by a lady – especially a lady of her age. I'm having so much fun!”

“Yeah,” said Jo. He grabbed that stick and he's been beating back the brambles like a twenty year old. Where's he got to?”

Just then, rain began to plummet from the sky and Jo and Hazel flinched as huge drops of rain landed on them. A panic stricken expression flashed across Jo's face. I imagined she must be concerned about her elderly relatives catching cold.

“Uncle Ivan!” Jo yelled. Auntie Hazel, please stay with me. If we get separated from one another, I'm worried we'll all get lost. Auntie Hazel!” She shouted as Hazel wandered off again and disappeared into the thicket. Fortunately, Hazel returned to Jo straight away. I had the impression Jo was relieved, judging by the deep sigh of relief that exploded from her lungs. Uncle Ivan!” So far, Jo's uncle remained elusive.

From somewhere deep in the woods, a delightful locally accented voice finally called back. Coming!”

A moment or two later, a cheerful, older gentleman emerged from the woods. He wore a bright red jacket and brown slacks, and his strength and upright posture belied his eighty plus years. Tufts of white hair stuck out from beneath his flat cap. What struck me more than anything else was his radiant countenance. I had never beheld such a joyful person in all my years. I was instantly energised by his presence. I watched as he beat down the brambles with a stick to clear a path for himself. I wondered how he could be so fit and well.

“I can't remember how to get back to the car,” Jo explained. I think we're lost.”

“Let's go this way,” said Ivan, walking off without once looking back, thrashing the undergrowth aside with his stick as he went.

For several minutes, I watched Jo and her elderly relatives as they wandered about, trying to find the way out of the woods. Ivan kept becoming separated from the group as he marched off seeking the path. Jo would call him back and his muffled voice would call out from somewhere in the trees. By the time she located him each time, Hazel would then wander off as well. Jo's face glowed red as frustration painted her cheeks.

“It's like herding sodding cats,” Jo muttered under her breath. Although her language displeased me, the image was amusing and to my mind, apt for her situation.

Eventually, it was Ivan who found a fence which bordered a meadow and he followed that back to the main path, where the wretched horseless carriage awaited them.

“That pool is so hard to find,” said Jo.

“I do remember seeing it,” said Hazel.

“Me too,” Ivan concurred. I remember the dome and the bricks, and especially the seashells.” Had they been searching for my grotto? They were a long way off from it, searching where they were. I was pleased that, no matter what happened, my grotto remained as well concealed as it always had been.

“I just can't find it,” Jo said. I really want to see it as well.”

After they scrambled back into the horseless carriage, they didn't head for home. Instead, the horseless carriage veered off along the Berechurch Hall Road and then turned into the entrance for St Michael's. I watched, quite astounded as Jo, and her aunt and uncle visited the Audley Chapel. They examined my memorial and darted about the churchyard.

“I just can't think where they buried the dogs,” said Ivan. Eventually, standing by the fence that divided St Michael's from the apartments that had once been Berechurch Hall, he beckoned and called Jo to join him. Jo and Hazel hurried to his side. 

“Are you alright, Uncle Ivan?” Jo asked. Ivan pointed over the fence at the ground beneath the trees. 

“Oh yes,” smiled Hazel. That's it.” Just beyond the boundary were many little gravestones, bearing the names of dogs that had resided at Berechurch over the years. I had quite forgotten about it. 

Next they drove into Berechurch Hall but they did not remain there for long – there was so little to see. 

“D'you know, Jo,” Ivan beamed, I always liked the stable block the best. The kitchen garden was behind it – all walled off. We used to work there, didn't we, Hazel?”

“Oh yes,” she smiled, nudging him with her elbow. 

“Well, I did see a little road that said 'Stable House',” Jo observed. Just down the road. It's a private road though, so I don't think we can go down there.”

“Whyever not?” Ivan beamed, with a mischievous glint in his eye. If they get cross, we can always tell them we got lost.” Hazel giggled in the back of the horseless carriage and I could not help but laugh. And we can tell them we worked here, back in the day, and we just wanted to look around. We're old. They'll believe us!”

“D'you know, this is the best day out I've had in ages,” Hazel beamed. I had to agree with her.

Jo turned the horseless carriage into what had once been the main driveway to the house. It was narrow, gravelled and surrounded by mature trees. It did not take long, before a high wall and wrought iron gates came into view. 

“That's it!” cried Ivan, as he beheld the beautiful stables. Within a few seconds, a well-groomed and slim lady in the usual modern attire of chemise and trousers appeared at the gate. Her auburn hair was tied neatly back, in what they called a pony tail.

“Are you lost?” She asked. 

“No,” said Ivan, his cheeky smile lighting up his countenance. We used to work here, my wife and I, during the war and we wondered whether we mightn't have a look.”

“Of course!” smiled the lady. I could scarcely believe it. I chuckled to myself when Ivan nudged Jo and giggled like a naughty little boy.

The kind lady soon showed our party the delightful house that had been made from the stables. To the rear, the garden had been landscaped to hold many beds filled with glorious flowers. It was a far cry from the more clinical garden I had known, which had grown food and flowers for the table. Most spectacular of all were the high brick walls, which surrounded the garden. They remained in excellent condition and were covered with beautiful climbing roses and clematis, which were at the peak of their blooming season.

“Thank you so much,” Ivan smiled at the lady, who had been joined by her smartly dressed husband and their little boy and girl. By the way,” he added, my niece here – Jo – is writing a story about Berechurch Hall and one of the families that lived here – the Smyths. Go on, Jo.” He nudged her. Tell them all about it.”

Jo regaled them with the entire tale, leaving out the ghost story aspect. I could understand this, with young children present. She asked if they had any idea where my grotto might be.

“Well I'm sorry,” said the husband. I don't really know much about it. Your best bet, really, is to go next door to the Dovecote House. Mrs Bowen-Colthurst, who lives there, is about ninety and she's lived here her entire life. If anyone can help you, it's her.”

“Thank you so much,” said Jo and her sentiments were quickly echoed by Ivan and Hazel. After a few more minutes of chatting, my party took our leave of the kind couple and returned to the horseless carriage for the short journey. 

“Wasn't that good!” Ivan smiled, his excitement increasing with every minute that passed. 

I was rather impressed to discover that the Dovecote House was somewhat larger than the original building had been. An entire house had been built, incorporating the dovecote into its architecture. I found it strangely beautiful – an L-shaped design with a gravel entrance and a small turning circle. To the right lay a lawn with many pots containing pink geraniums.

Jo held back a little, when Ivan knocked at the door in the crease of the L. I perceived that she was rather grateful for Ivan and Hazel's boldness. 

The door creaked open and a rather stern, elderly lady peered at Jo, Ivan and Hazel. She was tall and thin, with very short white hair. 

“Yes?” Her well spoken voice pealed out.

“Hello,” said Ivan. He introduced everyone and told Mrs Bowen-Colthurst the same story he had told the people in the Stable House, about his and Hazel's shared history at Berechurch Hall. Did you know Mrs Candice?” he asked. 

“Well yes, I remember a Mrs Candice,” nodded Mrs Bowen-Colthurst, Rather vaguely I remember her. Anyway, what can I do for you?”

“Well, Jo here is writing a story about Charlotte's Pool. We've been trying to find it. I don't s'pose you know where it is, do you?” Ivan asked.

“Charlotte's Pool? Well yes,” she confessed, I've been there several times, so I know exactly where it is. I even have a book about it. You'd better come in, I suppose.”

Ivan turned and nudged Jo again, grinning with excitement. A book!” he whispered. Jo, too, was smiling. 

Mrs Bowen-Colthurst stepped back from the front door and led the group into her kitchen, where they all sat around a small oak dining table. She left the room for a moment and returned with a slender brown volume. She took a seat next to Ivan and thumbed through the book, mumbling as she did so.

“There you are,” she said, thrusting the book under Jo's nose. It was open on a page that showed two pictures: one in black and white, which revealed my grotto as it was, albeit in need of some maintenance. The other picture was more colourful but what it revealed was a muddy hollow, similar to the one Mr Stimson had shown Jo all those years earlier. 

I must confess I was confused. I had seen my grotto that very day and neither picture seemed to represent what I saw. I assumed the pictures were of another grotto and that Mrs Bowen-Colthurst had made a mistake. 

“Would you like to borrow the book?” Mrs Bowen-Colthurst asked. Just while you're writing your story?”

“Thanks, that'd be amazing,” Jo smiled. 

“I will give you Reg's number,” she added. He might be able to help you as well.”

“Reg?” Jo muttered. 

“He wrote the book,” our host explained, scribbling on a scrap of paper. He's done a lot of research into all this.” She tucked the sheet of paper into the book and handed it over to Jo. I was most impressed. It was the first time I had seen a finished copy of Reg's book.

“Thank you so much,” Jo said.

“As for the pool,” Mrs Bowen-Colthurst added, I'll s
how you exactly where it is.” With that, she retrieved from the dresser a flat, glowing box, rather like the one Hollie and Jo had used in the woods but much larger. She tapped it a few times and as if by magic, it revealed a map, upon which she pointed to the exact location of my grotto.
This iPad was a ninetieth birthday present to myself,” she announced. Jo's countenance revealed impressed surprise. 

Shortly after that, Jo, Ivan and Hazel excused themselves and left their companion in peace. Jo clutched the book Reg had written, as if it were the greatest prize. 

“Well that was good, wasn't it, Jo!” Ivan chuckled. 

“Wasn't she nice,” added Hazel.

“Thank you so much,” Jo grinned. 

“It's been the most fun we've had in ages,” smiled Hazel. Thank you.” 

They climbed into the horseless carriage and I left them to make their journey. There was much for me to ponder. 

Copyright: Annie Bell 2014

Monday 24 June 2019

Lismore Immrama Festival of Travel Writing - Creative Writing with Robyn Rowland

Beautiful landscape, an inspiring facilitator, a wonderful building. Everything was in place for this being an excellent morning of writing.

Lismore Immrama Festival of Travel Writing is a festival, which has been held annually, in the beautiful and historical town of Lismore in County Waterford, Ireland, since 2003.

Last Saturday, I was really pleased to be attending a creative writing workshop, led by Robyn Rowland - an Australian Irish poet.

The session itself was enormously enjoyable. Robyn introduced herself and then spent time getting to know each one of us, as individuals, before speaking about her fascinating interest in archaeology and writing as archaeology of our own life experiences. It was genuinely fascinating and a concept I had not previously thought about. 

We looked at images of artefacts, buildings and bodies from Pompeii, The Irish Bogs, Troy and various other sites from ancient Greece and Turkey and many other places. After that, Robyn led us on a guided meditation, and then we were free to write anything which we felt compelled to write. 

My own inspiration came from the bodies and it occurred to me that our own bodies can be archaeologically explored to tell the story of our lives, through the scars and lines and other features that are added to our bodies as we age and experience life,  illness and injury.

At the time, my sister was going through her recovery from a hysterectomy. She has been unlucky with her health, has been through multiple surgeries and suffers from a range of incurable, invisible illnesses, which impinge on her daily life constantly. You can read more about her journey and her use of art to tell her story and reach and support other sufferers of invisible illnesses on her blog: blog.endowarrior.co.uk

Prior to her hysterectomy, my sister experimented with the concept of Kintsugi - an ancient Japanese method for repairing broken ceramics with gold. The idea is that in being broken, the ceramics actually become more beautiful than they were, before.

In one of her endlessly creative attempts to take back control from the effects of her illnesses, she took a jar of gold paint and painted her scars gold, posting the resulting images online, to encourage others to feel more positive about their own journeys through illness.

Images © courtesy of: @endo.adeno_warrior on Instagram

Images © courtesy of: @endo.adeno_warrior on Instagram
 Robyn's workshop and my sister's bravery led me to write this poem about how I see her - a courageous young woman who refuses to give up, no matter what is thrown at her.

by Annie Bell

Kintsugi: a Japanese method for repairing broken ceramics with a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. The philosophy behind this ancient art is the idea that nothing is ever truly broken.

A small, plastic pot, A paintbrush in hand.
Her broken body, No-one understands.

A dig site, soon to be excavated:
Awaiting, her womb to be evacuated.

She looks at her landscape - her peaks and her troughs.
She curses the way it just hurts when she coughs
or walks
or laughs
or cleans
or sits
or rests
or sleeps
or dreams.

She hardly even goes out any more. 
When she does, it all just gets too bloody sore. 

So she looks at her landscape and scans the white lines
That mark the passing of treatments gone by.

The patterns of stretched skin, from forming her kin:
Two children: two miracles, created within.

She's broken, for sure, but not done by a mile.
She fights back. She's brave, so she musters a smile.

She lifts up her brush and she fills in each scar
With gold paint to show that she's come so far:

A beautiful, human Kintsugi jar. 

Images © courtesy of: @endo.adeno_warrior on Instagram

After we had written our pieces, we were all given the opportunity to read out our work and Robyn provided us with very useful feedback. I really enjoyed her workshop. It was fascinating, educational and very, very inspiring. If you have the chance to attend Lismore Immrama or one of Robyn's workshops, I would thoroughly recommend both.

You can follow my sister on Facebook or on Instagram: @endo.adeno_warrior

© Annie Bell 2019

Sunday 23 June 2019

Travel Writing - A WriteNight Story

Last month, on 27th May 2019, at the monthly WriteNight meeting in MakerSpace, Colchester, I had a delightful experience, which took me completely out of my comfort zone - in a good way. 

Melissa Shales - award winning travel writer and Essex University PHD student led the session. She gave a fascinating talk on travel writing and on her life experiences connected with it. After that, she led us through an interesting exercise, which involved selecting a souvenir, which another member of the group had provided. 

  • First of all, we wrote down an imagined travel story, inspired by our own perception of the object.
  • Second, we wrote down what our own souvenirs meant to us and what the story behind the object was.
  • Third, we shared the real story of our item with the person that had chosen it.
  • Finally, we combined our imagined story with the true story behind the object, to create a new piece. 

Travel writing is not something I have tried before but I wanted to give it a go, as I find it very interesting to see what I can write, given a prompt that I might not otherwise have thought of. 

The object I selected was a beautiful oval shaped pebble. It was white with grey and black marks on it and it was remarkably smooth, without being shiny.

Here is the piece I wrote:


I reached into my pocket and held my favourite pebble; felt the smooth surface caressing my fingers. It comforted me: bringing me back to the moment when I first laid eyes on it. 

It was an unusual pebble - at least it was, if you looked closely at it. At a glance, it was a generic grey rock but much more attentive viewing revealed a micro-landscape of white, dappled with grey and interspersed with almost universally sized hair-like, black rock fibres.  The surface had been worn flat by years of bumping and grinding between the waves and the ocean floor. 

Every time I see or pick up the stone, it takes me back - right back to that day on the beach.

Charmouth - Summer of 2006. Hideous heatwave: totally unexpected for a UK Summer. When we booked the beautiful caravan with sea views for a holiday with our three children, we pictured lazy days on the beach and in the caravan park, splashing in the sea, kicking a football about, building sandcastles and searching through the tidal debris to see what treasure we might find. 

That summer was too hot for such energetic pursuits. Picture us - sweating and lobster-tinted, attempting to keep the kids cool in the water of the outer reaches of the English Channel. 

Dave spent most of the holiday, struggling to battle heat and hayfever in equal measure. Little Harry refused to take off his jumper, despite the fact that he has baking hot - Little Jacket Potato Man we called him. Lucy complained that the pebbles hurt her feet and the seaweed was trying to trip her up all the time.

All the while, we tried to escape the scalding furnace above us, until the cool night would ease our pain and suffering and our oven of a caravan would return to temperatures a human could tolerate.

In the midst of all this heat and chaos, I picked up a stone: a little pebble, just large enough to fit in the palm of my hand and just heavy enough to be pleasing to hold. It gleamed at me through the surf and the seaweed and I plucked it from its resting place, not realising, then, the significance it would hold.

Now, I hold it in my hand and I examine it: a dappled grey reminder of the fleeting moments of my children's youth, before adulthood swept them away, to create their own adventures. 
WriteNight meet on the 4th Monday of every month, 7:30 - 9:30pm at Colchester MakerSpace. The next meeting is tomorrow, led by the very talented Doug Smith. Please click the link below for more details. 


© Annie Bell 2019

Thursday 16 May 2019

Bread Tags - a Poetry and WriteNight Story

A few months back, I attended Colchester WriteNight for their session on performance poetry.

Led by Mark Brayley, this was a truly fascinating session. Mark spoke about how it is possible to convey very powerful emotions through the description of objects. He provided us with a selection of objects, including an hourglass, a clockwork robot, a cocktail shaker and others. He then instructed us to select one and write down any ideas, which came into our heads.

Next, we were asked to construct a poem, using some of those ideas.  

Strangely enough, I found myself obsessing on the subject of bread tags - the square plastic things that we used to close bread packets with, back in the 1980s, before we had to put up with the stupid sticky ones, which always seal themselves shut, and how I could use those to write about a memory that was painful for me.

This is what I came up with.

Bread Tags
by Annie Bell

She picks at the glued up tie on the bread,
stubbornly sticking. Her toast dreams are dead.
The past creeps forwards; memory awakes.
An abandoned solution - such a mistake.
An ancient invention of plastic perfection:
Flat, square, with a hole and the corners lopped off.

Every piece of plastic that ever existed, still exists.
David Attenborough drones from the TV.

Her bread liberated;
Her toast duly plated;
Her hunger soon sated.
The flavour of Marmite and toast soothes her soul.
She thinks about bread tags:
His wonderful bread tags: 
The collection of thousands he kept in a drawer.
Each one representing Marmite toast
From that comfortable host,
Who hosts with toast no more.

Every piece of plastic that ever existed, still exists.
David Attenborough drones from the TV.

But he does not
Will not.
Not ever again,
Except in her memory.


The event I was writing about was the death of my Grandad, when I was sixteen. He always used to make us - his large collection of grandchildren - round after round of Marmite toast, until the bread ran out.

After his death, we found that he had a box filled with old bread tags in his kitchen drawer, which he had collected over the decades. I've always wondered what he was collecting them for.

It was wonderful to be able to convey my own sadness in a way that is so much more universal than what I might ordinarily have written. The session really opened my eyes to different ways of expressing emotions and I would like to explore this concept much more.

WriteNight meets on the fourth Monday of every month, 7:30pm - 9:30pm at the Maker Space, Trinity Street, Colchester.

For more information, please follow them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/writenight/ or Twitter: @ColWriteNight 

© Annie Bell, 2019

Tuesday 7 May 2019

Berechurch Mysteries - a 'Jane's Walk'

Why do you call me 'The Lady in White'?
Why do you act like I give you a fright?
Why do you see only this satin dress?
Can you not see that I look like a mess?


October 1845. Charlotte White wakes to find that all is not well and life, or death, will never be the same again.

Haunted by a devastating secret and compelled by powers beyond her comprehension, Charlotte must find a way to escape from the ghosts of her past, present and future, together with a torn white dress that holds brutal significance.

Life and death are, indeed, strange masters. 

'Charlotte - The Lady in White' is my novel, based on the true story of Charlotte White, nee Smyth, late of Berechurch Hall, Colchester, Essex: a lady, who is said to haunt the former grounds of Berechurch Hall, to this day.

On Sunday last, as part of the annual 'Jane's Walks', my friend Wayne Baker organised a walk around the Berechurch area of Colchester, taking in various aspects of local history and local issues.

As part of this event, I was asked  to reprise my role as Charlotte. I was able to surprise the crowd off 33 walkers, by making a few appearances along the way. The first was at 'Charlotte's Pool' - a very beautiful location in Friday Woods. The second was at outside the Audley Chapel of St Michael's Church, off Berechurch Hall Road, where Charlotte was buried and her burial monument still remains. 

There, outside the Audley Chapel, I surprised the walkers, by appearing again and performing 'My Past Existence': the poem, which opens my novel.

After this, inside the Audley Chapel, I read an extract from 'Charlotte - The Lady in White', set in the Audley Chapel itself.

The walk appeared to be well received by the walkers, the weather behaved itself and Charlotte's story was shared, once more, with the people of Colchester.

Photo courtesy of Belinda Baker

For more information on Charlotte White and my adventures in researching her life, please read the following past posts from this blog.

Jane's Walk - Monkwick Memories - A Charlotte White Story
Charlottes Pool - History and Legend
More on Charlotte White nee Smyth
My Past Existence - Charlotte White nee Smyth
Charlotte's Pool
Charlotte Exhibition Preparation Part 2
Charlotte Exhibition Preparation Part 1
Charlotte's Pool Colchester

© Annie Bell 2019