Great days out in ‘Roman Britain’: Part 1 – London and the South East

The Romans: the reason I love history

I’m not going to lie. I love history. Absolutely adore the stuff. This will be no surprise to friends and family whom I've regularly bored over the years. It all started among the Roman ruins of Chester as a child. I just found it all fascinated me (much to the annoyance of my brothers who wanted to go home and play football or Nintendo) and I was hooked from that point on.
Though my love of history has led me to explore many different periods, thanks to those early days in Chester, the Romans still hold a special place for me. So, it’s probably no surprise that my next book (a kids' time-travel adventure) is set in Roman Britain. To celebrate this, I thought I’d share with you my suggestions for the top days out in ‘Roman Britain’ to inspire you and any little budding historians you may know.
I was going to write one blog post about this, but realised I just wouldn’t do it justice. I’m going to start this week in the South East of England (as the Romans themselves did) and then cover the other parts of Roman Britain (i.e. broadly speaking modern England and, although often tenuously held, Wales) in subsequent posts.

All roads lead to the British Museum 

What have the Romans ever done for us? A visit to the British Museum will more than answer that question for you (hint: it wasn't just the aqueducts and sanitation). This is THE place to start your exploration of Roman Britain. There is so much else to see here, of course, such as the Elgin Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, the astonishing Assyrian gallery (I love the colossal winged lion statues with human heads) and Anglo-Saxon treasure like the Sutton Hoo hoard. Oh, did I mention it's free too?
The Ribchester helmet - Image credit: British Museum
But we are talking about Roman Britain, so, to start your tour, go to the Weston Gallery. You'll find artefacts from all over Roman Britain like mosaics from Kent, silver treasure hoards from East Anglia and Roman armour and helmets from Lancashire. I particularly love the incredibly ornate cavalry helmet (pictured) which was found by a clogmaker's son in the eighteenth-century in Ribchester, Lancashire. It's hard to think of anything like this surviving, let alone in the North West of England. I find it so captivating as it makes you think of the wearer, who must have been an elite soldier. Was he an Italian who had been sent to the cold, barbarian lands of Northern Britain? What did he think of it all? Probably not much going by the complaints of soldiers found in the Vindolanda tablets found at Hadrian's Wall.

Hidden Londinium

It may surprise you, but there is still plenty of other Roman stuff to see in what was once Londinium. The Museum of London (which is great for kids by the way) has to be the next stop. Their Roman London gallery is chock-full of brilliant stuff which surprised even me, a battle-hardened veteran of Roman sites across Italy, France, Germany and Spain. There are statues, mosaics, reconstructions and you can even see a stretch of Londinium’s Roman wall! The star attraction, though, is probably the recently found Roman eagle sculpture - an extremely rare find. The museum also has a great app for kids called ‘Streetmuseum Londinium’ which is free to download (particularly great if you’re not based in the South East). It includes a virtual archaeological dig game where you can (re)unearth Roman artefacts found around London. If you have kids and a tablet or smartphone, I’d recommend you download it - it’s really good.
Roman Wall, London - Image credit: PastLondon
Like the Roman wall at the Museum of London, Roman sites pop up where you least expect them. Perhaps the weirdest of these is the temple of Mithras. It is located in amongst modern office blocks in the middle of the City and is incredibly easy to miss (took me a while to find it myself). Unfortunately, you can’t see it today as it is currently in storage due to building works in the area, but you’ll soon be able to see it again just a stone’s throw from Cannon Street station. For now, you can still see finds from the excavation of the temple at the Museum of London. Another odd little bit of Roman Britain hiding in the middle of the City is the remains of the amphitheatre which lie beneath the medieval Guildhall. It’s an odd experience to descend beneath the city to these eery ruins. I will just mention one more of the odd, little Roman sites that just pop up around London (though it is by no means the last): a Roman villa in the leafy South London suburbs. Crofton Roman Villa in Orpington (which would, of course, have been in the middle of countryside in Roman times) is a great, kid-friendly culmination to a tour of Roman Londinium. Not as extensive as the villas I mention below, but still worth a visit, especially for its proximity to central London.

Beyond Londinium 

The Romans are known for their villas and the South East has some notable ones. Favourites of mine are Lullingstone in Kent, which even has a Christian chapel, Fishbourne Palace near Chichester, with its outstanding mosaics and Bignor Roman Villa in West Sussex. I love Bignor in particular due to its stunning location in the middle of the South Downs. Standing amongst the ruins and looking up at the multi-coloured slopes around you on a summer’s day is a real privilege.
Dolphin Mosaic, Fishbourne Roman Palace
 It wasn’t all luxury in Roman Britain, though. In fact, it mostly wasn’t luxury, and for a reminder of the terrifying brute force which built the Roman Empire, you only need to go to Richborough, near Sandwich in Kent. Though obviously now a collection of ruins, it isn’t hard to imagine how impressive Richborough Fort would have been to the local Celtic tribes. You could even say this is where Roman Britain began and ended as it started life as a bridgehead for the Roman invasion of Britain and finished as a heavily fortified defence against the Saxons who would soon replace the Romans as the occupying force. Standing in amongst the ruins beside the Kentish marshes seems a good place to leave our exploration of Roman Britain for this week. Next week I will head west to the West Country, South Wales and West Midlands.
Richborough Roman Fort - Image credit: English Heritage
So, what do you think? Have I missed any of your favourite Roman sites in London and the South East? Let me know in the comments below.
My new children's time-travelling adventure set in Roman Britain, 'Rule Britannia’, book one of the ‘Pete’s time-travelling underpants’ series, will be out in mid-June.



Why everyone should have a regular writing habit

I recently wrote my first book. It was by turns an uplifting and a disheartening process. On some days my writing seemed to flow like a mountain torrent, on others I simply wanted to jump off a mountain. Going through all of this, the good, the bad and the ugly, taught me one thing: everyone should write. Really? Do I mean everyone? Yes, I do. Not necessarily a book, but everyone should write something meaningful to them on a regular basis.

Photo credit: Aaron Burden
Like most people, I’ve been writing since my early school days and I take it for granted. Until a few years ago, it was rare that I wrote for any reason except to achieve a task (send an email at work, text a friend to arrange to meet, fill in a mortgage application). Writing for any reason but to get things done would probably have seemed a luxury, something bohemian and, perhaps, a little elitist. But writing a book encouraged me to do even more ‘non-essential’ (which is to say ‘more meaningful') writing and even take up a journal. The benefits I’ve gained from this have convinced me that everyone should write. Here’s why.

Writing helps you work out what you believe

Surely we know what we believe? Why do we need to write it down? Just the act of sitting down to write what you believe will answer this question for you. You will probably write a couple of bold statements (as I did) and then re-read them and think of something else which contradicts or substantially changes what you’ve already written down. In a short time you will have written down, crossed out, added and removed dozens of beliefs. They probably all existed inside of you, but just hadn’t been questioned. Writing them down on paper is the only way I’ve found to marshall these thoughts effectively. You may ask why it’s important to know clearly what you believe. How else will you navigate the difficult decisions of life with any kind of clarity if you don’t?
This isn’t simply a once and done activity. You will need to revisit it, because, if you are writing regularly, you will find that your beliefs are being shaped and modified daily.

Writing clarifies complex situations

Evernote Snapshot 20160518 164951
Just as writing helps us to work out what we believe, it helps us to simplify the complexity of what is going on in our lives and in our heads. Whenever I feel overwhelmed or down I sit down and write. I write down the things swirling around my brain and the feelings they engender.  The simple act of writing gives me a sense of regaining control over these thoughts and feelings. Once they are on a page in front of me, I can identify the important and the unimportant, dismiss the unimportant and start to address the important. Trying to address these thoughts and feelings in my brain just causes clutter and stress. Writing them down gives me the space to work out what to do about them.

Writing regularly fixes memories in your mind

This is perhaps the best reason to write regularly. My memory of recent events has improved dramatically. Writing down the events and feelings of a day force you to re-live them and in so doing this fixes them into your brain much more securely than relying on simple memory. The most effective revision technique I found at school and university was to re-write my notes. It’s taken me many more years to realise the value of this in life more widely.

Writing regularly improves confidence

Photo credit: Green Chameleon
Photo credit: Green Chameleon
This is not a product of writing alone, but of writing and sharing. Writing something and showing it to other people is scary, no matter how many times you do it. You feel you’re putting yourself on the page to be critiqued. However, the more I do this, the more my confidence generally (and not just with writing) grows. If you are taking up a writing habit, I would recommend you keep your writing to yourself as you start out, but at some point you should start to share it with close family and friends who you know will be supportive. Even showing to these people to begin with will be daunting, but the more you do it, the more your confidence will grow. Another wonderful by-product of sharing my writing has been realising the widespread and genuine support I have among the people I know (even with those people I might not have expected it from).
So, what’s holding you back? Or, if you do write regularly, what are your reasons for doing so? Please do leave a comment below to let me know.

Top children’s books with a female lead

What makes a book memorable for you? For me, it is usually an engaging lead character. This is definitely the case for most of the books I remember fondly from my childhood. So, to celebrate the release of my new book, 'Holly Watson and the furry thieves' (which stars a ten-year-old girl), I decided to look at other children’s books with a highly engaging female lead. My choices cover a range of reading abilities from picture books to full-length novels, but they have a couple of things in common: they all have a great female star and are brilliant for boys as well as girls. Read on to find what made my list.

Six of the best children's books with an engaging female lead

1. The Paper Bag Princess - by Robert Munsch

Copyright: Annick Press
Copyright: Annick Press
This is a great picture book for young girls AND boys. It is a fun inversion of the usual fairytale of the princess imprisoned by the dragon. When a dragon destroy's Princess Elizabeth’s castle and kidnaps her fiancé, Prince Ronald, she sets out to rescue him in the only clothing she has left - a paper bag. Our courageous and highly intelligent heroine's adventure teaches her some important lessons about herself and some unpleasant truths about her husband-to-be.

2. Pippi Longstocking - by Astrid Lindgren

Pippi Longstocking is the quirky and mysterious girl who moves in next door to Tommy and Annika. She has a monkey and a horse, but, it would seem, no parents. Having been brought up at sea on her now-missing father’s ship, Pippi lacks an understanding of the conventions of urban life, a trait which makes her all the more endearing. Her wild imagination and complete lack of understanding of 'how she should behave' lead Pippi and her new neighbours into a series of outrageous and comical escapades.

3. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - by C.S. Lewis

Copyright: Geoffrey Bles
Copyright: Geoffrey Bles
Though she is one of four siblings, Lucy Pevensie is the obvious star of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, the first book in the classic 'Narnia' fantasy series. It is Lucy that first enters the world of Narnia through the wardrobe and it is Lucy who then leads her three siblings into this fantastical world.  Finally, it is Lucy’s faith that wins through. For me, she is by far the most likeable of the Pevensie children as she lacks the cynicism of her brothers and demonstrates a huge generosity of spirit and a very strong will.

4. Matilda - by Roald Dahl

'Matilda' is one of the best of Roald Dahl’s books (which is saying something) and a character still loved almost thirty years after her creation. She is a prodigiously intelligent girl who, incredibly, is also very popular with her classmates due to her patient and kind character. However, her obnoxious parents and her terrifying headmistress, Miss Trunchball, fail to see Matilda’s gifts and treat her with the utmost disdain. When her teacher, Miss Honey, attempts and fails to get Matilda’s parents and Miss Trunchball to see our heroine’s gifts, Matilda discovers another gift - an aptitude for revenge.

5. Anne of Green Gables - by L.M. Montgomery

Orphan Anne Shirley is intelligent, imaginative and eager to please. Due to a misunderstanding at her orphanage, she is sent to work on a farm in the wilds of Nova Scotia. The farm’s owners, brother and sister Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, are expecting a boy to be sent to them, but Anne’s good nature and willingness to help soon dispel their disappointment. Her chattiness and imagination, though, bring her into conflict with Marilla and she also finds her red hair makes her the object of teasing from some of her new classmates. The beauty of this book is that we get to watch Anne grow and we see her flaws as well as her many qualities.

6. Holly Watson and the furry thieves - by Barford Fitzgerald

Copyright: Barford Fitzgerald I cannot finish my list of top children’s books with a female lead without a mention of the heroine of my new book, ten-year-old schoolgirl Holly Watson. Holly is highly intelligent, loyal and perhaps a little too sure of herself.  When her best friend Charlie is accused of stealing a mobile phone in the local park, Holly decides she is the only person who can solve the mystery. Very soon, though, she finds herself in over her head and realises that she cannot do it all alone.

Over to you

So, what are your favourite children's books with an engaging female lead and why? Please let me know by leaving a comment below. My latest book, 'Holly Watson and the furry thieves', is available now on Amazon.

Do we need to gender-label children’s books?

Is your book for boys or girls?

girl-1176165_1920I am currently preparing two children's books for publication and one of the questions I am often asked is "Who are they for?" My answer is that they are for children (aged 7 plus if we have to be more specific, but I'd rather let the reader decide if I'm honest). I am then pressed on this. "Yes, but are they for boys or girls?"
This question perplexed me the first time I was asked it. I had never thought in these terms (perhaps very naively as most other things for children - clothes, toys, TV shows - are marketed very clearly for one gender or the other). I wanted to say, "Let the child decide", but of course it's not as simple as that. One of my books stars a ten-year-old girl and the other a thirteen-year-old boy. I imagine, therefore, that the assumption will be made that one is for girls and the other for boys. But is it necessary to label books in this way?

A boy who read books about girls and liked 'My Little Pony'

I certainly did not think in this way about books as a child and I read books with both girls and boys as the lead characters (as well as books with giants, jungle animals and talking mice as lead characters!). I enjoyed 'When Hitler stole pink rabbit' (which even had a pink cover) as much as I did 'Charlie and the chocolate factory' - both very different books anyway even if you ignore the gender of the lead character. My reading experience was much richer for that. I believe it also helped my development of empathy and understanding of other people.
my-little-pony-468916_960_720At an even younger age, I didn't even think in terms of gender regarding toys and I owned two 'My Little Pony' figures as a toddler. They were given to me by my late grandmother for Christmas when I was about 18 months old. I am told I had mithered (to use the northern English dialect term which Grandma would no doubt have used) for these bright pink and purple equines and that my mother had suggested to my grandmother (who had no idea what 1980's children might be into) that she might get them for me.
They remained a staple in my toy box until about the age of four when I gave them to a girl who lived up the road. I don't know whether I did so because I was being made aware at primary school and by other children that these weren't for me or whether I grew tired of them. But, it is clear that gender labels meant nothing to me at a young age.

'Let Books be Books'

child-316510_960_720I was pleased, therefore to be directed recently by a friend to 'Let Books be Books', a campaign led by the organisation 'Let Toys be Toys'. They believe that marketing books as being for girls or boys is limiting and restrictive. They even state on their website that such "artificial boundaries turn children away from their true preferences, and provide a fertile ground for bullying". They are currently running a petition asking publishers of children's books to stop marketing books in this way and have already had agreement from a few big names, such as Usborne, Scholastic and Ladybird.
Yet many people would argue that it is simply a case of helping parents, carers, relatives, etc. find appropriate books for children. Some may even argue that in helping adults and children to find new books it encourages reading. While I do sympathise with that argument, I do agree with the 'Let Books be Books' campaign that such labels can narrow children's horizons. This in turn could discourage children's imaginations and restrict their learning. Instead, we should think about what books to give to children based on their interests and reading level.

Over to you

So what do you think about the marketing of children's books by gender? Is it harmful and restrictive or is it a helpful way to help adults and children find new books and encourage reading? Do let me know in the comments section below.
My first book for children, 'Holly Watson and the furry thieves' (which stars a girl in case you were wondering), will be available to buy from Wednesday 11th May. Sign up to my mailing list to be among the first to hear about its release.

Introducing Holly Watson (and friends)

Holly-Watson-and-the-furry-thieves-3D-BookCover-transparent_backgroundWith the upcoming release of my new book ‘Holly Watson and the furry thieves’, I thought I’d better introduce you to some of the characters you’ll shortly meet. It seems like I’ve known them for a long time, but you will, of course, have no idea who they are. I’m very excited to be sharing them with you.

The premise

As you may have guessed, the star of the show is a 10-year-old girl called Holly Watson. The book centres around her attempts to prove her best friend’s innocence when he is accused of stealing a mobile phone in the local park and her investigation to find the real culprit. She cannot do it all alone and is surrounded by a supporting cast of friends and family. But not everyone wishes to see Holly succeed.

The origin of the story

Kelsey Park in the snow
Kelsey Park in the snow
I was inspired to write this book while watching the outrageous behaviour of the incredibly bold squirrels in my own local park, Kelsey Park in Beckenham, South London. If you do plan to go down to Kelsey Park, do just watch out for the squirrels. They have no fear of human beings and think nothing of intimidating grown men and women (or at least the more timid grown-ups like me) into handing over whatever edible items they might have on them.
Anyway, Kelsey Park, in fictionalised form, is the setting for this first book in the appropriately named ‘Kelsey Park Detective Agency’ series. So, who are the main characters?

The main characters

Holly Watson

imageedit_3_7509140796Holly is a highly confident, curious and intelligent girl who likes to play the detective. She is sometimes a bit too gung-ho in her enthusiasm to help others and this often gets her into scrapes. Holly is fiercely loyal and is a very good friend. She is the goalkeeper of her school’s football team, a dab hand at puzzles and she hates bullies.

Charlie Dunn

thumb_imageedit_4_6876444064_1024Charlie Dunn is the polar opposite of Holly. He is a rather plump, shy and unpopular ten-year-old boy who doesn’t have a sporting bone in his body. In spite of this , or perhaps because of it, he is Holly’s best friend. Like Holly, he is a faithful friend and kind, but in the first book he finds himself the number one suspect in a local crime.

Raluca Ionesco

thumb_imageedit_5_5322092078_1024Raluca is the calm, contemplative balance to Holly’s gung-ho attitude. She joins Holly’s school mid-way through the first term of year 6, having moved to South London with her family from Birmingham. She is very proud of her Romanian heritage, but very quickly adapts to South London life.

The Watson family

Holly is the eldest of the Watson family’s three daughters. Her two sisters are Sarah, a rather surly seven-year-old who is far too ‘cool for school’, and three-year-old Daisy, who is as mad as a hatter. Sarah is jealous of her big sister (though she wouldn’t admit it) and the relationship she has with their dad. Daisy is too busy in her own little world to notice either of her sisters. Holly’s parents, Debbie and Paul, adore their three daughters, but even they will not believe Holly when she protests poor Charlie’s innocence. We cannot forget the Watson’s very fat and very lazy cat, Duchess, who, despite the unpromising outward appearance, has a surprise or two up her sleeve.

Over to you

Which of these characters do you like the sound of most? Let me know in the comments below. You will be able to meet them all very shortly in ‘Holly Watson and the furry thieves’, out soon. To be the first to find out about the book’s release, sign up to my mailing list. You can also find me on Facebook.