E is For...


I took part in the A-Z April Blog Challenge 

I don’t intend to write too much about my ‘other’ life as an author, but a couple of posts are warranted, I think. Ones that are relevant to the A-Z Challenge and to my home in Devon.

I write historical fiction (Late Saxon and post-Roman period) and pirate-based nautical fantasy – the Sea Witch Voyages. For Voyage Four, Ripples In The Sand, I brought my ex-pirate protagonist, Captain Jesamiah Acorne from the Colonies and the Caribbean to the North Devon Coast. To be precise, Appledore and Instow, two little harbour towns nestled beside the combined estuaries of the rivers Taw and Torridge, which lead  respectively to the bustling  towns of Barnstaple and Bideford.
It was a curious thing. I had decided on the location well before starting this adventure, or even doing any research. Once I did start I was in for a bit of a shock. I’d had no idea whatsoever that Bideford, back in the early 1700’s before the river silted up, was one of the major trade ports for Virginia tobacco. Yet here I was bringing Jesamiah to the river Torridge with a hold full of (legal) tobacco from his recently inherited tobacco plantation in Virginia (along with an additional illegal cargo of brandy and indigo). I enjoyed writing a scene where he had to take his ship, Sea Witch, upriver and I deliberately put in a comment from him about foreseeing problems if the river was not kept dredged.

One of the other scenes in the novel that I had planned very early on was for Jesamiah to assist his wife’s brother, Ben, in escaping from jail. 
(ah …. E for Escape!)
That led to some interesting research involving attempting to find where the jail was in Barnstaple in the year 1719, and working out exactly how Jesamiah was going to accomplish it. I knew it would involve a boat, the river, and a small amount of gunpowder...

Before I get back to E, here’s some history for the relevant period:

The town's wealth was originally  founded on exporting wool and by the early 14th century Barnstaple was the third richest town in Devon, behind Exeter and Plymouth. By the eighteenth century Barnstaple was the main port for landing  imported Irish wool and yarn which was then carried by land to the cloth making towns such as Tiverton and Honiton (famous for its lace). But even as early as 1630  the harbour silting up, so Bideford , more accessible to larger ships, gradually took over the foreign trade, but Barnstaple retained its economic significance.
Barnstaple was a huge centre for pottery and its exported wares have been found in excavations in Maryland, USA – undoubtedly carried there by ships returning after bringing in tobacco, sugar and rum from the Colonies. The Great and Little Quays were built to accommodate the increase of trade, with the surge of prosperity being interrupted in 1642 by the English Civil War. Barnstaple changed hands between Parliament and Cromwell’s New Model Army no less than four times -  bullet holes can still be seen in the wall of the Penrose Almshouses in Litchdon Street, as a vivid reminder of the various skirmishes.
Queen Anne’s Walk was created in 1708 and land was drained for a new square in 1710. 
Barnstaple Quay (1838)
and the same square today
Queen Anne's Walk

(photo geograph.org.)

Captain Jesamiah Acorne has taken a boat up the River Taw under the cover of darkness....

Barnstaple was sleeping quietly beneath the stealthy skies. The moon had sailed on her way, was setting now, low towards the horizon. There would not be light for the return voyage, but dawn would be stirring soon in the east, and the river itself was a pale ribbon in the night darkness.
   The boat swung to leeward, two of the men too busy looking over their shoulders at the nearing town.
  “Watch your stroke!” Jesamiah warned. “Go steady. Nothing to arouse suspicion or bring attention to us. No noise, no calls. Gently with them oars now.”
  The only activity along the river frontage as the men rowed steadily, was from the several limekilns belching fire and smoke as the indentured wretches kept the stinking things working. Not one of the poor souls would be bothered with a single boat and a few men lazily rowing up river towards the bridge.

Barnstaple Old Bridge
A shadow moved beneath the first spanned arch of the bridge, a low two-tone whistle, and then a lantern light suddenly swayed in the darkness. Jesamiah pointed and as gently as a mother puts her baby to bed, the men brought the boat in to the quayside steps. The oars rose dripping from the water and stayed motionless, pointing upwards like a rack of sun-bleached ribs, a soft bump, and Isiah grasped the mooring ring, threaded the painter through.
 “Ship your oars and stay as quiet as church mice,” Jesamiah ordered. “Be ready to shove off the moment we get back. And assume we will be in a hurry.”
 With Rue – a small keg balanced on his shoulder – Jasper, and Skylark, who carried a coil of rope, Jesamiah stepped ashore, walked towards a man emerging from beneath the bridge.
 “So you did not bring Carter Trevithick?” Winnard Doone stated. “You have ascertained that he can be a liability.”
 “Like you said, we want no obvious suspects do we?” Jesamiah answered. “Shall we get on with this?”
  Not missing the hostility, Winnard handed a sealed, folded letter to Jesamiah. “My father sends you this to take to Spain. It is clearly addressed.”
  Jesamiah put it straight into his coat pocket without glancing at it.
 The quay was filled with bales of Irish wool, barrels and crates, kegs and clutter, in the darkness, though, no one was about. Only a scruffy cat slunk silently away.
 “Bridewell Prison is just off the Square over there,” Doone said as they started walking away from the river. “The night watchman has already been dealt with; he made friends with a bottle of brandy about half of an hour ago. Have you got what we need?”

Queen Anne Square
“Rue has it,” Jesamiah answered, nodding towards the keg, and looking around the square for signs of movement. “I don’t like this, it’s a bit open here. We’ll have the militia on us the moment we get started.”
Winnard also looked around, the place appeared secure, but he agreed, it was too open. “I know the alleyways well enough to dodge most redcoats, I will get you back to your boat.”
 “Especially with the aid of a useful distraction.” Jesamiah grinned at Winnard who grinned back.
 They walked on in silence, heading away from the Square, Queen Anne’s Walk, and the prison, their shadows bobbing eerily in the dim light from Winnard Doone’s high-held lantern. The alleyways between the houses were narrow, dark, and stank of detritus, human and animal. Outside several houses were piles of furze brushwood – Barnstaple had a thriving pottery industry, each house with its own wheel and small kiln; the furze piles were strictly illegal because of the potential spread of fire, but who cared for petty laws? While tempted to make use of residential misdemeanours, the furze piles were not large enough for what Jesamiah wanted. Ah! A bank! That would do! Jesamiah had no conscience about possibly ruining a few rich men.
“Set it here, Rue, and wait my signal. Do your business then run as fast as your stumps can carry you back to the boat.” Jesamiah looked grim as he added, “It will be each man for himself. If you don’t make it, you’ll have to do the best you can. Is that understood?”
The men muttered agreement. Understood.
“Jasper, you stay with Rue. Make sure he is not disturbed.”
Jasper nodded, Jesamiah ruffled his hair. He was a good lad, trustworthy and reliable. “Good. Take us to this ‘ere prison, Master Doone. We’re right behind you.”
Leaving Rue and Jasper busy about their task, Jesamiah and Skylark followed Winnard Doone back to the Square and Diamond Lane. Bridewell Prison was in darkness, its two barred windows staring bleak and depressive out onto the empty street. The smell emanating from the rooms beyond, obnoxious. By day passers-by stared in to gawp at the miserable wretches within, taunting and throwing rotten food, which the starving prisoners devoured regardless of its mouldering state.
Checking no one was around, Winnard stepped up to the bars, peered in, resisting the urge to put his hand over his nose against the stench.
 “Ascham? Son?” he whispered.
“Father!” The shout was loud, accompanied by a sob of relief. A drawn, pale face appeared on the other side of the bars.
“You are a bloody fool. I told you not to join those smugglers. When are you going to learn to listen to me, not your grandfather?”
“Father, I…”
Jesamiah interrupted. “Sort your domestic issues later. All of you in there, get as far away from these bars as you can and protect yourselves. Be ready to run, stay with us, we’ve a boat waiting. If you don’t run, you hang. Hold that bloody lantern still Doone, I can’t see what I’m doing.” He was attaching two small leather pouches and the length of rope to the vertical bars. Skylark was keeping watch, pistol cocked and ready, but the town was asleep, most of the inhabitants in a drunken slumber; what else was there to do except work, sleep, fornicate and drink?
“Stand back,” Jesamiah advised as he finished. “Alright Skylark. Do it.”
Winnard Doone moved a few paces along the street, covered his face with his sleeve. Skylark raised the pistol above his head and fired, the shot loud in the still, night air as it echoed in the narrow street. One, two, three, four…. Five seconds later a louder, fiercer, more dreadful sound boomed through Barnstaple, setting roosting gulls and pigeons screaming in panic into the air, a blast of red and yellow light and black smoke belching after them. Jesamiah paid no attention, set his own pistol to the end of the fuse protruding from one of the pouches, blew in the priming pan fanning the sparks. The fuse lit, sputtered, hissed, and Jesamiah turned away, covering his head and ears with his hands as the gunpowder inside the pouches ignited and blew with a bang not quite as loud as Rue’s keg of gunpowder, but loud enough. Jesamiah yanked on the attached rope. The window bars together with part of the supporting wall tumbled to the ground.
“Out! Out!” he bellowed, gesturing simultaneously with his arm.
The lad, Ascham, scrambled through the hole first, followed by two who were clearly brothers. Then Ben – even in the poor lantern light Jesamiah recognised the likeness to Carter and Tiola.
Winnard Doone slapped his son, hard, across his cheek.
Ascham, in his late teens - at the awkward, lanky stage of a boy’s life, cowed away, raising his arm to ward off a second blow.
“By God, boy, I feel tempted to leave you in there to be hanged for the trouble you’ve caused me!”
Skylark thumped Doone's shoulder as he ran past. “Leave that for later, mate. Now ain’t the time.”
“Get going!” Jesamiah shouted, “we’re done here!”
Dragging his son by the arm, Doone started off in the opposite direction. “I have horses waiting, we’ll make for the moors.”
“Suit yourself, Doone.” Jesamiah had no inclination to argue, felt relieved to be rid of the bastard.
As he hared off in the wake of the others, Jesamiah called over his shoulder to the last man left inside the gaol. “Run, you idiot!”
The man growled, an animal sound in his throat as he stepped through the gaps in the partially destroyed wall and stood there, undecided. Tall, lean, thin; his skin pale, his eyes a deep sapphire blue. His black hair was soiled by grime and filth, but he had the air of one who possessed wealth and pride - and of someone who was, perhaps, not quite human. He growled again, showing bared, white teeth and then as silent as a wraith, disappeared in the opposite direction into the consuming cloak of darkness.
More intent on helping Ben Trevithick, who had barely strength to walk, let alone run, Jesamiah had forgotten all about the stranger. Ben was injured, his leg black with dried blood; giving up trying to drag him, Jesamiah bent and hoisted the lad over his shoulder, ran on.
(excerpt above is from an unedited version - may contain errors)
Quayside, river Taw looking towards the new Bridge -
 and seaward
signed copies of Ripples In The Sand  can be obtained direct from 
Helen - email me
on author@helenhollick.net

The blue-eyed stranger is to appear in Voyage Five, On the Account - which I am currently writing ... 

and as for Jesamiah, well, trouble follows him like a ship's wake!

You might have noticed the character called Winnard Doone? Yes, that's right I've borrowed the Doones of Exmoor for my stories and you might be interested to know that the original photo (taken by Simon Murgatroyd) is sunset on Instow Beach.

 You'll meet Instow again under guess what letter of the alphabet!

Website: www.helenhollick.net

If you have read a book and enjoyed it please leave a comment on Amazon (UK, US & Canada) Four or five star comments can help an author by boosting the Amazon Ranking List
I especially need more comments for my books please! Thank you

Blog: www.ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/HelenHollickAuthor
Twitter: @HelenHollick

Want to catch up on my other A-Z posts
that you might have missed...
Go to the top of the left-hand side bar for a full list

Thank you for following!


  1. I'm impressed by the amount of research you do, which shows in your excerpt; it's very atmospheric with lots of good detail. Great post!

    1. Thank you Nick, the research is part of the fun of writing - the only drawback is I occasionally find something that is fascinating then realise I've spent hours reading the facts and not getting on with the fiction!

  2. What a wonderful post, I'm glad I stumbled upon it. You make the setting come alive, and the history is captivating too. In the end, we authors are all escapists at heart, aren't we? And turning readers into escapists too...
    My link: http://www.devikafernando.com/blog/blogging-from-a-to-z-challenge-letter-e-embrace

    1. Thank you Devika, I think I started reading when I was a young child to escape, and then you discover those other fantastic worlds ... and you're hooked!

  3. Great post and excerpt, Helen.

  4. Wow, you clearly have a knack for research, and it REALLY shows in your writing. Wonderful!

    Good luck with the 2015 A to Z Challenge!
    A to Z Co-Host S. L. Hennessy

    1. Thank you - I'm enjoying the A-Z challenge, so far its been great fun!

  5. Great way to meet this challenge! New follower here. I'm stopping by from the "A to Z" challenge, and I look forward to visiting again!


    1. thanks for leaving a comment on my blog - apologies for any delay in replying, I'm trying to catch up with everything! :-)


Thank you for leaving a comment your interest is very much appreciated! It will be published as soon as possible - depending on whether I am at my computer or walking up the lane, or being chased by the goose or helping mend fences after the pony has broken through YET AGAIN.... :-)