Wednesday, 27 October 2021

Crumbling castles and spooky atmospheres - by Barbara Henderson

It’s Halloween week!

As I happen to live in the eeriest, spookiest, foggiest and darkest part of the country - the Scottish Highlands - I wanted to do something on crumbling castles and spooky atmospheres for this week’s blog post. Luckily, I visited just such a spooky castle last weekend, and took the opportunity to film some footage for our Time Tunnellers YouTube channel and our writing challenge for schools. 


Caerlaverock Castle 

Actually, I was there to do some research for a new book. But this is not the first time that I have set a story in a castle. The glorious Caerlaverock Castle, Britain’s only triangular medieval fortress, is the setting for my Young-Quills-shortlisted book The Siege of Caerlaverock. The opening of my middle grade novel describes Ada, a laundress at Caerlaverock, as she sneaks out at night to secretly feed a prisoner in the tower prison.

Even though my feet are bare, I feel the echo of every step along the corridor.

Don’t drop the candle.

Don’t drop the bread.

Don’t stumble.

Don’t cough.

The wind sings through the arrow slits and I hug my left hand around the tiny flame, pressing the hunk of bread against my body with my elbow. Back by the Gatehouse, the guards’ silhouettes stand outlined in the courtyard. I can’t tell which direction they are facing. No matter, I have to risk it. My conscience commands it.

My skirts flutter around my feet as I duck around the wash-house. Stooping behind barrels, stairs, sleeping horses and ladders, I run the last few steps and my candle blows out. I ease myself through the narrow gap and into the damp blackness of the tower. 

Let’s be clear: I absolutely love old castles and the atmosphere they evoke. Visiting Caerlaverock, I was able to research Ada’s route. I imagined the cold stone floor underfoot, the clammy dampness of the narrow stairs and corridors, and the smells and sounds of a castle courtyard.

I love reading this section aloud on school visits, often in no more than a whisper. Wonderfully, the book is based on a real and well-documented event in history, the real Siege of Caerlaverock in the year 1300. It happened during the Wars of Scottish Independence when the King of England, Edward Longshanks who loved to call himself The Hammer of the Scots, arrived at Caerlaverock with 3000 soldiers. Inside the castle were less than seventy, with the lady of the castle having to negotiate this tricky situation alone while her Lord was away. I thoroughly enjoyed imagining what these days would have been like for a girl and a young page boy, and I relied heavily on the contemporary poem which describes the siege for the plot of the book.

But walking around a castle after dark, on your own, as a girl? That would have been dangerous, verging on foolhardy. There surely cannot be a scarier, eerier or spookier atmosphere than a castle after dark, can there? How would you feel in Ada’s place?

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, there is little doubt that most people in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period did. The castle I visited last week, Huntly Castle in Aberdeenshire, belonged to a notoriously fickle and disloyal lord called the Fourth Earl of Huntly. He plotted against the newly arrived Mary Queen of Scots during the 1500s, but when the Queen confronted him, he raised an army – while his wife turned to witchcraft. He will make a wonderfully vile villain for my next story, and I cannot wait to get started.

As I tiptoed along the corridors of Huntly Castle last weekend and peered down its old spiral staircases, I couldn’t help it: a shiver ran down my spine and I could feel my heart thump in my chest. It’s the castle effect.

So why not give yourself over to the castle experience? Visit a castle near you if you can, or support a heritage organisation which looks after such places. Explore the wealth of information about such sites that is now at our fingertips at the mere click of a mouse. And while you’re at it, whether you are young or old, why not try your hand at a story opening set in a night-time castle? I for one would be first in the queue to read it!

Think of echoing footsteps, the scraping of a sword out of a scabbard. The flickering light, the scent of rushes on the floor, the many tapestries behind which so much can be concealed. Think of the moonlight shining through arrow slits, an owl’s hooting, the rustling of rats and mice, the clanging of pots in the kitchen range, the rattling of an iron bucket in the depths of a well. Feel the rough stone underfoot, an iron chain cutting into your wrist, hear the chanting from the chapel at evensong.

Our heritage is rich, but it isn’t remote. All it asks of us is a little imagination.


Enemies within.

Enemies without.

Nowhere to hide.


12-year-old Ada is a laundress of little consequence, but the new castle commander Brian de Berclay has his evil eye on her. Perhaps she shouldn’t have secretly fed the young prisoner in the tower.

But when the King of England crosses the border with an army over 3000 strong, Ada, her friend Godfrey and all at Caerlaverock suddenly find themselves under attack, with only 60 men for protection.

Soon, rocks and flaming arrows rain from the sky over Castle Caerlaverock—and Ada has a dangerous choice to make.


Barbara Henderson in front of Huntly Castle 

Barbara's books are published by Cranachan. They are available from bookshops and online retailers.
For more information about Barbara's books visit
Follow Barbara @scattyscribbler 





Thursday, 21 October 2021

Our book recommendations for Black History Month

This week on our blog, the Time Tunnellers are celebrating Black History Month by sharing some of our favourite historical reads by Black authors and/or featuring Black protagonists.

Jeannie Waudby

DIVER’S DAUGHTER by Patrice Lawrence
12 year old Eve and her mother scrape by in dangerous 16th century Southwark. Eve’s mother Joan learnt to dive as a child in Mozambique, before she was kidnapped and taken to Portugal. Although she escaped, she and Eve are not safe from the greedy eyes of those who wish them harm.
When they travel to Southampton to dive for gold from a wreck, they find friends both false and true and dodge multiple dangers in their cruel and unstable country. The terror of the slave trade runs through this story like the dark London river, but Eve is brave and resourceful – a true adventurer.
I stayed up late to finish this gripping book.

100 GREAT BLACK BRITONS by Patrick Vernon and Angelina Osborne

This is an update of the 2003 campaign to find the most admired Black Britons: people who have overcome racial barriers to make an exceptional contribution. Although not specifically for children, I think many young people will enjoy this book. Each biography is 2 or 3 pages long and the style is vivid and engaging.
Entries from previous centuries include actor Ira Aldridge, nurse and war heroine Mary Seacole, anti-slavery campaigner and author Mary Prince, leader of the London Chartist movement William Cuffay and George III’s wife and consort Queen Charlotte – her cottage is featured in an earlier Timetunnellers video. It is a fascinating read.

Ally Sherrick

My first pick is a non-fiction book – Black Tudors – the Untold Story by the historian and academic, Miranda Kaufmann. It’s written for an adult audience, but many of the stories could also be used as prompts for discussions in the classroom too.
It shines a light on the lives of ten men and women of African descent who lived and worked in England during the reigns of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs. From Jacques Francis, salvage diver (see Jeannie’s picks for a fantastic fictional story inspired by him) at the wreck of the Mary Rose and Diego the circumnavigator, manservant to Sir Francis Drake to Cattelena of Almondsbury, a woman of independent means who sold milk and cheese from the cow she owned to her neighbours in her village in rural Gloucestershire. Each portrait combines to provide a vivid picture of Black lives lived free in Renaissance England, and the attitudes to race and slavery of the wider society in which they moved, before the English became heavily involved in the slave trade. My own personal favourite, is John Blanke, royal trumpeter, who played at King Henry VIII’s coronation and who received a wedding gift from the king when he married. 
For a brilliant article including a summary of each of the individuals featured visit:        

The second book I’ve chosen is Empire’s End – A Roman Story by Leila Rasheed in the excellent ‘Voices’ series published by Scholastic. This is the story of Camilla who travels with her family to Britannica from her home on the coast of North Africa as part of the Emperor’s entourage. But when the journey goes terribly wrong, Camilla is forced to fall back on her own resources to survive in a world very different from the privileged one she was brought up in. A tense and thrilling read packed full of fascinating details about life in the Roman provinces when the Empire was still at its height.

Catherine Randall

Son of the Circus: A Victorian Story by E. L. Norry

Based on the life of Britain’s first Black circus owner, Pablo Fanque, Son of the Circus tells the story of Fanque’s son Ted as he struggles to adapt to circus life when he joins his father at the age of 12. Full of vivid, authentic details about the Victorian circus, the story highlights the bravery needed to survive and flourish in a society both fascinated by and scared of difference. Inspiring and empathetic. E. L. Norry has done a great job of resurrecting a Black hero of the Victorian age.

Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, written and illustrated by Vashti Harrison

In Little Leaders, Vashti Harrison has brought together forty beautiful, stylised portraits of outstanding Black women in history, accompanied by text explaining why each woman is important. Starting with Mary Prince, born into slavery over 200 years ago and ending with Lorna Simpson, a ground-breaking photographer working today, Harrison explains each woman’s impact on the world, introducing us to many fascinating, lesser-known characters along the way. Because the book combines appealing illustrations with informative text, this is an excellent book for all ages.

Susan Brownrigg

A Nest of Vipers by Catherine Johnson

This is a thrilling adventure set in London during the Stuart era, for children aged 8+. The story bookends with a gripping first person narrative from Cato Hopkins a boy criminal.
Cato is locked up in Newgate Prison, a notoriously vile institution, awaiting his execution.
The story then rewinds a year and switches to third person. Where we learn that Cato is part of a team of con artists and pickpockets under the tuition of ‘Mother Hopkins.’
This time their target is a cruel slave owner.
The story has lots of twists and turns, and I was on the edge of my seat as I turned the pages to find out if Cato would escape prison.
Johnson brings the period vividly to life. I especially enjoyed the mention of the Frost Fair and the Russian with a bear and squirmed at the depictions of squalor. The book shows the contrast between those who have money and those who do not. I also really liked the characters, especially Cato and Prince Quarmy.

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis.

I absolutely adored this wonderful award-winning book set in Gary, Indiana, in the U.S during the Great Depression.
The story is told by Deza Malone – a fabulously chatty, ambitious 12-year-old whose family is uprooted and torn apart after a terrible accident. The Malones face a run of bad luck and one character’s down spiral really brings home the mental health impact on families in the 30s. There are several very moving scenes, and the ending had me in tears.
I am in awe at Curtis's skill in creating voice, and Deza is a character you won't forget.

Barbara Henderson

The first book I would like to recommend is Windrush Child by Benjamin Zephaniah, a writer I have long admired for his poetry and his contemporary books for young people. The novel is about Leonard, a boy from Jamaica whose father sailed to Britain on the famous ship Empire Windrush after the end of the Second World War. Leonard and his mother reluctantly follow, leaving the boy’s beloved Grandma behind. Leonard is unprepared for the cold, both in the British weather and the hostile attitudes he encounters in so many aspects of everyday life. Leonard’s character gives us a real glimpse into the injustices faced by the Windrush generation and, unforgivably, their children, and I so admired their resilience. Historical fiction at its best, making us think about the country we were, the country we are, and the country we hope to be.

My second recommendation is Oliver Twisted by Jasmine Richards, written under her pen-name JD Sharpe. This one is a teen horror-mash-up of the classic Victorian novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, which is both a lovely original idea, and perfect for Halloween – and it is October after all! Vampyres, ghastly orphans, a shadowy Dodger and a soul-eating Fagin – perfect if you like your fun a little scary.

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  Meccano, Hornby Trains, Dinky Toys – these beloved classic toys were all the creation of one man – Frank Hornby! Frank Hornby There is a...