Definition of a Witch

Pool at Manningtree from the Hopping Bridge, where, according to rumour, ‘witches’ were ducked.

Witch: some definitions and lists

= old woman, beauty (as in ‘bewitching’), hell-hag, fairy, crone, sorceress, sage, seer, healer, wise-woman, Jezebel.

= misogynistic insult directed at powerful women (often politicians/company directors). Designed to intimidate, undermine achievements and intimate success only due to magical help (dealings with devil). Increasingly used more recently following the success of the #metoo campaign, itself created to expose and highlight examples of everyday sexism and physical/verbal/sexual abuse of women.

= amusing children’s book character wearing stripy socks, flying on broomstick with black cat companion – possibly elderly, forgetful, but ultimately kind and helpful. OR a terrifying trope (usually ugly, often elderly) in a fairy tale with strange and evil powers who needs defeating.

= someone (usually female) on the margins of society: poor, elderly, disabled, vulnerable, ill; someone who speaks out of line, someone well-read and intelligent.



= campaign against people suspected of having unorthodox/unpopular views and opinions. 

= sadly, still happens in some African countries, some Indian states and elsewhere. Also (see You-Tube) in some American ultra-evangelistic congregations.

= historical religious mania and hysteria throughout Europe, combined with ignorance, superstition and misogyny leading to the persecution and murder of thousands of innocent people, largely during a period of political unrest and change after The Reformation. 

On International Women’s Day, Nicola Sturgeon, first Minister for Scotland, issued a “long-overdue” apology from the state to those in Scotland who, over a long historical period, had been arrested, imprisoned, starved, tortured and put to death on the basis of vague ‘evidence’ from jealous neighbours, ignorance, malicious gossip, a need for control, scapegoating and for simply being the wrong sex in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t the only huge miscarriage of justice perpetrated on innocent women in those times throughout Europe. Hear more here: The Witches’ Pardon, BBC Radio 4, 16 March 2022.

Much closer to home, 36 women in the Tendring area were accused of witchcraft in the 1640s, and most were put to death. If you were: a little different, lived alone, widowed and owned property, if you kept to yourself, kept pets, grew herbs for healing or if anyone was jealous of you, you probably lived life in fear.

I recently took part in a Snapping the Stiletto project: Revisiting the Tendring Witch Trials. Follow the walking tour around Manningtree, or read the stories and poems on the website. They are about women and what happens when superstition, scapegoating, fear and intolerance spin out of control.

After learning fascinating background information from brilliant academic Alison Rowlands, and following creative writing input from wonderful novelist Syd Moore, I researched the individual lives of Mary Johnson, widow of Wivenhoe, and Helen Bretton of Kirby-le-Soken. Did you know, for example, that Wivenhoe was considered a ‘godless and lawless’ place in the 1640s? Or that there was a causeway across the River Colne, between Wivenhoe and Fingringhoe? Me neither – but I wove some of this information into Mary’s story, and aimed for accuracy wherever possible. As for the rest, I used my imagination. 

In historical fiction, vast amounts of research is often condensed radically – but that’s material for another blog post. Bringing detail of atrocities from the past into a modern spotlight can – hopefully – prevent their repetition, and promote greater understanding and tolerance nowadays, still sorely needed.

Recommended fiction based on real-life ‘witch-hunting’ events:

The Mercies – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Manningtree Witches – AK Blakemore

Witch Hunt – Syd Moore

The Witchfinder’s Sister – Beth Underdown

Ekphrastic Writing

Les Raboteurs by Gustave Caillebotte, 1875

Ekphrasis: the use of detailed description of a work of visual art as a literary device.

Usually, ekphrastic poems or stories are written about a painting, but they can also be based on a sculpture, an object, or even architecture. One of the earliest examples is in the Iliad, when Homer describes Achilles’ shield. Another famous example is John Keats’ poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn.”

I’m not sure if I should admit to having favourites, but I do! I regard Against the Grain (click to read it) with great affection as it was one of my earliest stories and I spent a long time with it. Published by Ekphrastic Review in December 2019 (and again in July 2021), it was inspired by the painting Les RaboteursThe Floor Scrapers – by Gustave Caillebotte. The online journal Ekphrastic Review regularly provides picture prompts for poetry and prose submissions, and many other competitions make use of an unusual photograph or image as a starting point.

The first draft of Against the Grain was written in 2015 during my MA course on Radio Drama, at the University of Essex, taught by Professor Elizabeth Kuti, and written in the form of a monologue for radio. I chose one of the workmen as narrator, giving him an imagined name and home life, weaving a story around him and the artist Gustave Caillebotte. I used known facts where possible and invented what else I felt the story needed. In 2019, I revisited it, rewriting it in story form while keeping it as monologue, as I felt that first person narrator suited the intimacy I wanted to convey.

I was intrigued by Caillebotte’s wealthy background (unusual in an artist) and also admired the realism in his painting, one of the first artists to depict the urban working class – considered a ‘vulgar’ subject choice by the French Academy of the day, who turned it down. The rejection propelled Caillebotte to join the Impressionist group (and, being wealthy, he became their patron). Unsurprisingly, given his detailed and precise brushwork, he also had a deep interest in early photography, and his work became much admired in time.

In fact, it’s not necessary to have any knowledge of either artist or subject in order to use images as prompts. Knowledge can be a distraction from story-making. Using a historical picture as a starting point does not necessitate writing historical fiction. The image doesn’t need to be high art either – I’ve used personal photos, newspaper and magazine pictures, abstract art – anything which can prompt a memory or stimulate an idea is fair game. I very much enjoyed writing the microfiction Pushing the Boat Out (longlisted in the Blinkpot 2021 Award) set in modern times, but inspired by the 1912 painting A Woman’s Work, by John Sloan. It was the idea of sheets billowing on a washing line which gave me a starting point rather than the specific painting.

An image involving people gives us the opportunity to ask: Who are they? How are they connected? Do they know each other? What are they saying? Is one of them keeping a secret? How did they get here? Where would they rather be?

An image of a place can provide an unusual setting where something is about to happen, or has just happened…

But enough talk – browsing through my photos for this post has given me an idea to play around with…

Fairies at the Bottom of my Garden

During April and May this year, I directed a version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Lockdown for the Wivenhoe Open Air Shakespeare Company. As the title of the group suggests, we usually perform outdoors. As the (extended) title of the play also suggests, Covid prevented us from doing so in summer 2020. To ensure that a 2021 production went ahead, we had our performance filmed by one of our incredibly talented members. We rehearsed outdoors in small groups in private gardens, adhering to all social distancing and ‘rule of 6’ number restriction laws in place during that time. We met and rehearsed in snow, hail, the bitter cold and then a mini-heatwave – the cast were amazing and the support we gave each other at a difficult time made the whole thing very special and extremely memorable.

Read (or listen to) my piece written for Snapping the Stiletto‘s ‘Diary of a Pandemic’ here.

Visit the WOAS website for the link to the free film, to read blogs by the actors and to see photos of the cast and read the downloadable programme.

Read my piece How to Make a Film: An Idiot’s Guide (first published in the Autumn 2021 ‘Wivenhoe News’) here.

Pigeon Post

Me on the right, apparently enjoying the attention of the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. Sometime in the 1970s…

How Pigeon Post came about:

Next door, where I grew up, there was a pigeon loft. The owner (a frightening old man, at least, to eight-year old me) raced pigeons. He would exercise them twice a day in a series of loops and figures of eight in the skies above our house. I should clarify at this point that he is not Alfie from the story, nor is the garden my garden.

As an adult, I have since understood that our neighbour and his pigeons won medals for their war service, as did many in the area. Apparently, one road nearby even had a ‘joint’ loft running across the ends of two gardens, though I do wonder what the ‘respectable’ suburban neighbours made of it.

I became interested enough to read about pigeons in both Word Wars. Their intelligence is such that they can be trained, and, combined with their little-understood homing instinct, they became formidable message-carriers.

Watching the wood pigeons in my own garden recently, I’ve come to admire the way they power upwards in flight then glide down – they’re strong, impressive fliers. I love to hear the clap of their wingbeats, the scratch of their feet on our roof, and I enjoy their cooing and billing presence around the garden. It’s comical to watch them strutting around at the foot of the bird feeders, hoovering up the spillage from the messy eaters above.

In short, I’m fond of pigeons.

This story is an attempt to portray them in a positive light.

A Shed of my Own

Virginia Woolf famously wrote: A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.

Well, I’ve spent my money on a summerhouse: my shed – and I couldn’t agree more with the ‘room of my own’ sentiment. I’ve written in many borrowed rooms – my husband’s office, the children’s bedrooms, in libraries, in cafes, on trains, in the car and I’m very fond of writing at my kitchen table – that is, until someone comes in to chat…

So I’ve splurged and now wish I’d done it years ago. Just over one week in, and my shed doesn’t (and won’t) have heating, electricity or internet, but it does have natural light, a view over the garden into the sky, and it’s mine. So far, I have a rug on the floor made from recycled plastic bottles, a flat-pack desk, a ‘saddle stool’ which is good for my posture (and a borrowed wooden garden chair for when that’s all too much) a bookcase which I might paint next summer, and a pile of cushions and blankets. Oh, and a growing collection of pretty lights.

Even in this cold December weather, I’ve been out most days with a mug of tea to keep my hands warm and I’ve written, day-dreamed, listened to the birds, gazed into the sky. It’s brilliant! When I’m there, I forget about my ‘to-do’ list, I’m out of reach and I feel myself unwind.


I’m a sucker for a ‘Reading Makes you Happy’ headline (but yes, it really does) so when I chanced on the term bibliotherapy, I was hooked.

Bibliotherapy is therapy involving reading specific texts with the purpose of healing. That is, narrative fiction, or poems. My understanding, in the most simple terms, is that the reader identifies with a character, watches their struggles and difficulties from a safe distance, and of course, sees the resolution and can maybe apply some lessons learned, or at least feel the benefit of universalisation (others finding themselves in similar situations). As with music, places and smells, the memory of where and when I read certain books, and the impact they made at the time, has long outlived my memory of characters’ names and specific details, so I’m not at all surprised at the link between reading to improve mental health.

If you’re an avid reader, like me, and you’ve always been a reader, you may have been inadvertently practising Bibliotherapy all of your reading life. Which books do you return to for cheering-up, making you feel more grounded, distraction? I don’t necessarily mean self-help books (though I’m sure there’s a place for them too). I mean the classics and the not-so classics, and any books in fact, which you read for pleasure. When I began to investigate, I found numerous articles, podcasts, websites (here’s one I especially liked) practitioners, actual Bibliotherapists who will prescribe you a personal reading list. I accumulate reading lists all the time! How wonderful to have one prescribed!

Recently, I was introduced to The Poetry Pharmacy books (William Sieghart) – since 2014, this publisher and editor has been ‘prescribing’ poems to individuals, and now has two books divided into sections with headings like ‘Strength and Healing’ and ‘Conflict and Resolution.’ There’s even a shop – look online! All very lovely, but I prefer to lose myself in a novel.

I rarely re-read books. When I do, I find myself returning to The Enchanted April (Elizabeth Von Armin) although more recently I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) has become my feel-good ‘re-read’ book of choice. Or Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, of course, to make me laugh. These are definitely ‘comfort books’ – there is nothing too difficult in any of them. They are gentle and upbeat enough for when I don’t feel like managing huge emotions or issues. A Christmas Carol is the only Dickens I return to regularly, and I loved all of Thomas Hardy’s books, especially Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but have never dared return, in case I was disappointed, or I found all the emotion too much, too depressing.

I also re-read children’s books for my own pleasure (a result of twenty-five years in teaching, and maybe a different blogpost): Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, recently Eoin Colfer’s wonderful Artemis Fowl, and anything by David Almond or John Boyne.

Samantha Ellis, in her autobiographical and feminist book How to be a Heroine, revisits her favourites (mine too, plus new ones for my ‘to read’ list) with a focused and critical adult eye, and writes about the good and bad surprises. Her comment that Tess is, ‘not a victim, she’s tough and a realist,’ and that Hardy ‘tied himself in knots trying to show the plight of a poor Victorian woman while trying to make her feisty…’ has encouraged me to make a tentative return to my most favourite of his novels after almost forty years. Watch this space!

I’ve also been dipping into The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin – I’m currently busy looking up everything I’ve ever read and what it’s ‘good for.’ Tess for example, has two listings: one about resisting the temptation to ‘spill the beans’ (she trusts Angel and confesses about Alec, with appalling results) and one in the ‘top ten novels to make you weep.’ (Even Hardy cried when he killed Tess off, apparently!) There is enough new reading-list material in this book to last me indefinitely, so I may not have much re-reading time.

Which books do you return to, and why?

Thirty Days Wild


The Wildlife Trusts have run Thirty Days Wild every year since 2015, and I have followed it in a half-hearted manner ever since. They describe it as: ‘the UK’s one and only month-long nature challenge from The Wildlife Trusts. It invites everyone to do something wild every day in June, connecting us all with the beauty and wonder of our natural world.’

During its first year (me still brain-swamped in my teaching days) my main aim was simply to get myself outdoors each day in June. Since then, I’ve enjoyed looking at the photos and achievements of others, and tried to pass on my enthusiasm to the youngsters I tutor. This year, under coronavirus-19 lockdown conditions, and well aware of the benefits to my mental state of our Natural Health Service (thanks Chris Gibson for coining this term – do follow his blog) I’ve decided to sign up and record my efforts, with links to sites I find useful or interesting.

I’ve opened a new page on this website for my daily records.


The Cloud People

I’ve been lucky enough to have two ‘mountain-themed’ stories published recently, with Cloudburst finding a home at The Wild Word and Sacrificial Lamb making this April’s Retreat West micro-fiction shortlist. I’ve also been reading Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain as part of Robert Macfarlane’s Lockdown Reading Group on Twitter. Nan Shepherd knew and loved the Cairngorms, and wrote beautifully about her frequent walks in different weathers and seasons.

Being East Anglian born and bred, I can count my own ‘mountain’ experiences on the fingers of one hand. A college ‘Outdoor Pursuits’ overnight camping trip on the Cairngorms (bleak and hungover), a train trip up Snowdon with friends (me itching to be walking, not sitting down) and two summer holidays in Austria (fantastic walks, views and cable cars in beautiful weather) were pretty much the sum of it.

Most recently in 2018, I walked up Ben Lawers (the tenth highest Munro and the highest mountain in the Southern Highland) with my son during a Loch Tay-side holiday and this provided the motivation for both stories. When I say walked, we started from the car park next to the nature reserve which meant a lot of the climb had already been done (“undermining the height of the mountain” according to the guidebook). This aside, it was still an impressive expedition for us. I’m certainly not used to quite so much uphill…

We set full off in blustery sunshine, full of enthusiasm. We were going to ‘bag a Munro’, and by following a circular route, we could descend via the slightly lower Beinn Ghlas and bag two Munros in a sneaky bogof walk. The fenced-off National Nature Reserve we passed through en-route was undamaged by sheep or deer and the volume, variety and growth of flora – how the habitat really should be – surprised me and gave pause for thought. Soon above the tree line, the beauty and solitary nature of the mountains was impressive.

As we reached the summit, the clouds swept in. We experienced ‘a sea of cloud … lapping and rippling’ at our feet (Cloudburst) and exchanged exultant texts with my daughter who called us ‘The Cloud People’. We trudged down, through the cloud in drizzle, cold and wet, and that’s when I started to think more about the cloud people. We walked pretty much in silence, feeling alone and slightly anxious (me anyway) about hidden cliffs edges which I knew were just beyond our sight. As we finally returned below the cloud line, I took the photo of the bedraggled thistle as colour returned into our world. The sun shone again over Loch Tay and it was just the mountain top shrouded in cloud, but it had felt like an entire and secret world.

Photos: Mainly taken by Tom Chambers

A Brief History of Cycling


I’m not a ‘proper’ cyclist, but I’ve always enjoyed cycling locally wherever I’ve lived, and we’re lucky to have the beautiful cycle path along the river here in Wivenhoe. Last February I injured my back, and the sciatica resulting from the bulging disc pressing on the sciatic nerve proved painful and restrictive. Standing up and walking relieved the pain; sitting, lying down and anything else (trying to sleep, for example) exacerbated it. Cycling was out of the question. Continue reading