Thursday 30 September 2021

How to grow a time-tunneller - by Ally Sherrick

Physics and I have never got on. It’s a lot to do with the maths. But also because the laws of physics say time-travel isn’t possible – at least not in the way I’ve always wanted it to be. But I decided early on that it wouldn’t stop me from trying. If you’ve got a few spare minutes, why not hop on board my trusty time-machine and let me take you back to where my adventures in time-travel first began ...

The Tardis

First up there were all those brilliant time-travelling TV programmes I used to watch. Doctor Who was the first, though I probably saw more of the back of our sofa than what was happening on the small screen, especially when the dreaded daleks arrived on the scene. Of course, The Doctor is the ultimate time-traveller – a Time Lord who uses an amazing police-box tardis to travel through space and time. 

But other intrepid explorers who also flirted with a spot of time-travel were Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. In the original series, they did a lot of travelling back to the 1960s – no prizes for guessing why! But the episode called ‘The City On The Edge Of Forever', where a temporarily insane Dr. McCoy beams down to a planet and accidentally changes history by travelling back in time through a mysterious archway called The Guardian of Forever, is a bit of a classic. It even has its own Wiki page!


Star Trek

And then there were was The Time Tunnel, the story of the top secret Project Tic-Toc, a time-travelling experiment gone disastrously wrong. I thrilled as brave scientists Doctors Tony Newman and Doug Phillips were pitched into a new time, place and set of perils each episode, while the team back at base battled to snatch them back from the spiralling vortex that was the Time Tunnel of the title.

The Time Tunnel

Their itinerary was a history-fest of seminal moments in the past – the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the eruption of the Indonesian island of Krakatoa in 1883 and a fictitious Viking-infested Cornwall of 544 where they meet a young man called Arthur Pendragon and a magician by the name of Merlin. Sometimes characters from history got caught up in the Time-Tunnel too – the Renaissance writer and scholar Machiavelli joined Tony and Doug at the American Civil War’s Battle of Gettysburg. And there were cliff-hanger endings aplenty. For a young Time-Tunneller in the making, what was not to love?

And of course, as an author, how can I not talk about the books? A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley about a young girl called Penelope Taberner who travels back to Tudor England and gets caught up in the infamous Babington Plot to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots from imprisonment by her great rival and cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively (who also wrote the classic A Stitch in Time). Not a time-travel story in the traditional sense – but it features a 17th century apothecary poltergeist, the Thomas Kempe of the title, who haunts a young boy, James in a bid to make him his apprentice.  And The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by the superlative Joan Aiken, which transports the reader to an ‘alternate history’ and the time of King James III of England, when courageous young cousins Bonnie and Sylvie must do battle with their wicked new governess, Miss Slighcarp in a country prowled by packs of ravenous, wild wolves.

The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
and A Traveller in Time

With all those brilliant time-travelling tales to feed my imagination, it was only a matter of time before I took the plunge and began digging back into the past to create my own stories. So far I’ve travelled to London in 1605 and the events surrounding the infamous Gunpowder Plot in Black Powder; wartime Suffolk in 1940, a year after the discovery of the famous Sutton Hoo Ship Burial in The Buried Crown, and 1520 and the court of King Henry VIII and his first queen, Katherine of Aragon, in The Queen’s Fool. As for my next stop? Well, I can’t say too much about that right now! But if you’re planning to join me, you might need to bring one of these with you to help light the way ...

A lamp to cast light on the past!


Build your own time-machine

Calling all Time-Tunnellers big and small! You’ve been invited by a top secret research project to design and build a time-machine for the 21st century. What materials will you use? Maybe you’ll decide to repurpose it from an existing object like Dr Who’s police-box tardis? Or will you assemble it from recycled or ‘found’ bits and pieces? Or you could build it using revolutionary new materials that have yet to be invented. When you’re ready, put your design down on paper, using labels and a description to explain how it all works. Then give it a name and let your time-travelling adventures begin!

Ally Sherrick is the author of books full of history, mystery and adventure including Black Powder, winner of the Historical Association’s Young Quills Award 2017. She is published by Chicken House Books


You can find out more about Ally and her books at and follow her on Twitter: @ally_sherrick


Monday 20 September 2021

Finding stories in old places - tips from author Jeannie Waudby

For as long as I can remember, old buildings have filled me with a longing to know who lived there before. Very often, there is no way of knowing, and for me this meant trying to think up their story for myself.

I grew up on a little island in Hong Kong. It had been taken to be a leprosy treatment centre and most of the buildings were built in the 1950s. But the old ones, from hundreds of years ago, always fascinated me. As a child, I thought that the people had left long ago – whereas in fact they had to leave not long before the hospital was built.

Jetty valley

One of the oldest buildings was a little temple. It’s the tiniest building at the bottom of this picture in the middle, near the steps.

Then there were the graves. These were beautiful white tombs, shaped like the moon, always on a hillside. I wondered whose graves they were, and what their lives had been like on this island that was home to us now. The tombs made a deep impression on me so that years later, when I was studying art, they slipped into my pictures.

Moon grave

This woodcut shows a tomb with some burial pots. Most of the tombs were in the emptier part of the island where it was wild and grassy.

And in this watercolour the tomb is on the left, looking over the sea towards a neighbouring island.

Hillside tomb

Although we lived in Hong Kong, every few years we visited the UK, which to me was a huge exciting foreign land. On my first visit we travelled by ocean liner because planes were still very expensive. I remember the journey well even though I was little. It took one month, and one of the places we visited was Pompei. I recall arches, painted walls and the fact that life had stopped suddenly and tragically here because of a volcano.

When we went to the Highlands, where my mother came from, I felt at home straight away. To me, the mountains and sea felt just like the ones back home in Hong Kong. Even the rocks on the shore had the same yellow lichen and green seaweed, like hair. But I did get to see something I had never seen before: castles.

Eilean Donan

This aquatint shows Eilean Donan Castle and the Five Sisters of Kintail, with my impression of the light beaming onto the loch. A house where we often stayed had a cannon ball in the fireplace, from a battle long ago that left the castle in ruins.

Later, when I was older, my dad, who was English, would take us to visit famous historical places in England: the Tower of London, a Roman villa, the Victory warship and the wonderful Roman baths which you could still have a warm dip in if it was allowed. Inside the Victory, I smelt for the first time the sharp tang of centuries-old wood. To me it felt as if stories were humming just below the surface of the walls.


I started writing novels when I was a child, although I didn’t ever finish them. This is the first page of one I started when I was 11. It was set in England in the nineteenth century because we had just come back from the UK and while we were there, we stayed in a flat in a Victorian house.

For me, old places have always been doorways to stories.


Writing Prompt

When I am somewhere old, I can never shake off the possibility that it might turn out to be a time machine… and where would it take me? Think of an old building or place that you know. If it was a time machine, where would it take you? Who would you be? What would you be doing there? Would there be a hidden danger? 


One Of Us by Jeannie Waudby is a YA thriller/love story, published by Chicken House. It was shortlisted for the Bolton Children's Fiction Award and the Lancashire Book of the Year 2016 and has been adapted by Mike Kenny as a play in the Oxford Playscripts series.
One Of Us is published by Chicken House
The Oxford Playscripts play is published by Oxford University Press


For more information about Jeannie and her books visit her website.


Thursday 16 September 2021

The Chessmen Thief: Action scenes and how to write them - by Barbara Henderson

Viking stories are exciting, aren’t they? All that fighting and pillaging and exploring. And who doesn’t love a Viking ship? Sleek and iconic, we tend to think of them as pulling into some bay or harbour and wreaking havoc in nearby villages and settlements. We sometimes forget that they were also often attacked by others at sea – they definitely lived a dangerous life! One of the great things about historical fiction is that the stakes are often so high – with no rescue service, or hospitals, or mobile phones. Basically, life was a lot more dangerous in the centuries gone by.

A viking ship (Illustration by Annie Glennie)

When my Viking book The Chessmen Thief was sent off to the printers, I asked my editor: ‘Now that we’re done, can you tell me – which part of the book do you actually like best?’

She thought for a moment. ‘The action scenes,’ she answered simply.

‘Me too.’

It’s true: a memorable action scene works like a quick turbocharge of energy, giving your story new momentum.

I am not suggesting that I am an expert at all – there are far more talented and experienced authors for children around. But I am more than happy to share what I have learned so far. Ladies and gentlemen, for what it’s worth, here is how an action scene should work. I am drawing on chapters 13 and 14 of The Chessmen Thief to show what I mean. 😊

To give you some context, Kylan (my slave boy and protagonist) is on a Viking longship sailing from Norway to Scotland with his boss, Jarl Magnus.

Step 1: You need one or two sentences of calm atmosphere. Then introduce the threat.

When the wind picks up and carries us in the exact direction we want to go, we step away from the oars and relax. I climb the first level of the mast where I like it the best. No one judges me there or asks me questions.

Until I see it in the distance. Unmistakeable: another vessel, making straight for us.


 The Chessmen pieces at the British Museum that inspired my book

Step 2: Take a moment to describe your character’s reaction. It works best if the other characters do not recognise the danger. This technique is called dramatic irony – the reader understands more than most of the characters do, which makes for great tension.

My stomach tumbles and my lungs do something they have never done before: refuse to inhale and exhale. Instead, a strange kind of panting is all I am capable of, with the weight of all the oceans in the world on my heart.

‘Raiders!’ I shout, but all that emerges from my throat is a croak. The men below are singing and sharing a quick horn of ale before their muscle power is required again. ‘Raiders!’ I yell, a little louder, but still no one pays me any heed.

Step 3: Crank up the jeopardy. The reader needs to understand what is at stake.

As the ship approaches, I can see the straggly beards of men who have lived long apart from any kind of company. Their swords are rusty but sharp. There are spears, axes and halberds, and all manner of weapons.

At the front, almost leaning over the hull of their galley, are three raiders with coils of rope around their bodies, ready to throw weighted hooks across—and only now do I see what the front of their ship is made of! It’s not water glistening on the wood—it is reinforced with iron spikes, and they mean to ram us! ‘TURN THE SHIP!’ I yell down with all my might.

Step 4: Give your protagonist something to do.

Suddenly, I am pulled off my feet backwards, the huge hand of the Jarl on my shoulder. ‘Here, boy!’ He thrusts something into my hand, slicing into my palm a little as he does: a dagger, and oh Lord, it is sharp!

The beautiful Isle of Lewis where the chessmen were found

Step 5: The best action scenes have a brave protagonist.

With a terrible clang, a huge metal hook lands over the side of our ship, a rope attached. It tautens almost immediately: the raiders are pulling our ship towards theirs, weapons in hand.

Our men scatter and take refuge, but something possesses me to do exactly the opposite. Darting to avoid the missiles and arrows, I run towards the hooks and slash at the rope attaching the ships to one another.

Number 6: You can’t beat a cliffhanger.

With a final gasping effort, this rope, too, snaps. The enemy ship is only two horse-lengths away. Soon a warrior of strength and stature will be able to jump. Oh no: they are readying themselves!

But then something happens that I have not foreseen. Behind me, there is a commotion; a box is knocked over, heavy footfalls thud on the deck. And then, right past me, Jarl Magnus raises his shield as he runs, mounts the gunwale and, literally, leaps into the air over the whirling waves.

Number 7: Know when to stop.

Relentless action scenes can be exhausting to read. Follow any action scene with a chapter or so of calm – your readers need a break. Let them have it! Once everyone is safe, my protagonist Kylan is going to spend the next chapter learning to play chess!

Writing Task:

Now have a go at writing your own action scene set on a Viking ship. It doesn’t have to be an attack – how about a storm, or a whirlpool, or a shipwreck? Plenty more dangers to invent. I’d love to see what you come up with!

The Chessmen Thief is a Viking adventure inspired by the iconic Lewis Chessmen which you can see at the British Museum, The National Museum of Scotland and The Museum nan Eilean on the Isle of Lewis. The famous hoard of walrus-ivory-carved chess pieces was found in the Outer Hebrides in 1831, but the figures were likely carved in Trondheim in Norway during the second half of the 12th Century. If they came to Scotland soon after, they are likely to have travelled by sea in a Viking/Norse ship. Some Viking ships actually survive to this day and can be viewed in a museum in Oslo.

Barbara's books are published by Cranachan. They are available from bookshops and online retailers.

Barbara Henderson

For more information about Barbara's books visit
Follow Barbara @scattyscribbler 






Thursday 9 September 2021

How the Blackpool Illuminations proved a lightbulb moment for author Susan Brownrigg


Last Friday was the annual Blackpool Illuminations Switch-On. This year they event took place in the Blackpool Tower Ballroom, with Strictly Come Dancing judge, Shirley Ballas turning on the ‘Lights.’

As a proud Lancastrian, I have happy memories of visiting the world-famous Illuminations. But I didn’t realise what a long and fascinating history they had!

When I discovered that in 1935, a fifteen-year-old girl had been invited to switch on the lights, I knew I had the spark for my debut children’s book, Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest. 

Postcard (1930) showing Blackpool Illuminations and the Tower with light beam.

Nowadays, the Illuminations are spread over six miles of lights and stay on for four months rather than the traditional six weeks.

But they had a more humble beginning. Back in 1879 the corporation (council) paid the equivalent of £5000 for eight arc lamps along the seafront. These electric lights were so astounding that people christened the effect ‘artificial sunshine.’ Imagine how striking the lights must have been compared to the candlelight and oil lamps in people’s homes!

Electric light was then used to mark two special royal events in Blackpool - in 1897 they were added to five tram cars to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Then, in 1912, 10,000 lights were strung around the promenade to celebrate the town’s first ever royal visit when Queen Victoria's daughter, Princess Louise, opened Princess Parade – a new section of the promenade. The attraction was so popular it was repeated the following September and would likely have been repeated annually but for the outbreak of World War 1.

The Illuminations returned in 1925, bigger and better than ever. As well as the traditional festoon, there were now ‘animated tableaux’ – pictures created out of lightbulbs (known as lamps) that when turned on and off in sequence gave the illusion of movement.

Blackpool Illuminations postcard, showing North Shore Gardens
 with festoon and fluted pylons.

The idea of a special guest turning on the Lights, didn’t happen until 1934. Lord Derby performed the honour in that year. But then, looking down the list of later hosts, which included many famous names, I saw a name I did not recognise: Audrey Mosson.

My research revealed that Audrey, was a 15-year-old girl from Blackpool. How had she come to turn on the lights, I wondered?

Blackpool's History Centre, in Central Library, provided the answer. They have back copies of the Lancashire Gazette on microfiche and I was able to use these old fashioned machines to turn back time to 1935!

Microfiche reader at The History Centre, Blackpool (author's photo)

The Gazette explained that the Mayor of Blackpool – Alderman George Whittaker – had been all set to perform the honour that year. But an appointment in his diary changed history.

Just days before the Switch-on he met the newly crowned Railway Queen - Miss Elsie 'Audrey' Mosson.

Alderman Whittaker told the Gazette: "Miss Mosson is a charming girl, with a frank and vivacious disposition - and I thought it would be very appropriate for this to be her first official duty as Queen."

Further research revealed that Audrey had recently been crowned Railway Queen in front of a crowd of thousands at Belle Vue, Manchester. She was a ‘Queen of Industry’ attending functions across the country (and even Russia!)

Inspired by May Queens, the first Railway Queen was chosen in 1925. Other industries followed suit – among them Cotton, Coal, Wool and Silk Queens being crowned.

I was curious as to what Audrey had looked like. But the Gazette only featured this cartoon image.

Audrey Mosson cartoon (Blackpool Gazette)

Fortunately I was able to track down a photograph of Audrey at the Switch-on online. When I saw her wonderful tiara - I knew my mystery plot would include a plan to try and steal this beautiful piece of jewellery. My main character - Gracie Fairshaw - would thave to foil the plot - and would call upon Audrey to help!

And I was even more thrilled when I learned that a Yorkshire museum was holding an exhibition about Queens of Industry. Imagine my delight when I was able to see Audrey's beautiful blue velvet gown with trail and gold tassels along with her chain of office and tiara in person!

 Audrey Mosson's gown and tiara at the Queens of Industry 
exhibition (author's photo.)

There is one extra nice fact I found out about Audrey and the Illuminations - she has actually been a Switch-on host twice! The only person to have that honour.
She was invited back in 1985, 50 years after her original duty, with actress Joanna Lumley.
Audrey Mosson (right) with Joanna Lumley at the Illuminations 
Switch-on in 1985. Her second time turning on the 
world-famous lights. (Blackpool Gazette)

Discussion points for teachers/parents :
Blackpool became especially popular with the creation of Wakes Weeks - unpaid holiday given to workers in industrial towns, especially in the north. Each town would have a different week, with the mills and factories in the town all closing at the same time. Many families chose to visit the seaside, and Blackpool was incredibly popular. 
Why do you think families wanted to get away to the coast, and what attractions could they look forward to? 
Do any of the attractions from the 1930s still exist in Blackpool today? Why are they still popular?
There have been 74 Switch-on hosts (there was no Switch-on during WW2) including politicians, ambassadors, royals, sporting stars, TV presenters, TV and film stars, comedians, disc jockeys, singers and bands.

Those invited to perform the Switch-on duty often reflects the times, for example in 1976 Miss United Kingdom, 1982 the Royal Navy Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward who played a leading role in the Falklands War and in 2020 a group of NHS heroes performed the duty.

Among the more unusual hosts were puppets - Kermit the Frog and the Muppets in 1979 and a horse – the triple Grand National Winning Red Rum in 1977.

Who would you choose to switch on the Illuminations in 2022? Why? What might go wrong and how could they save the day?

Gracie Fairshaw and the Mysterious Guest by Susan Brownrigg is an historical novel for 9-12 year olds set in Blackpool, 1935. A sequel, Gracie Fairshaw and the Trouble at the Tower (also featuring Audrey Mosson) is published October, 2021.

Susan's books are published by Uclan Publishing. They are available from bookshops and online retailers.
Susan Brownrigg (author's photo)

For more information about Susan's books visit
Follow Susan at @suebmuseum

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