An Author’s Day Off

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Lilac has beautiful grey and white markings

Lilac has beautiful grey and white markings

Ever wondered what authors do on their days off – mope around missing the work-in-progress, drown writing woes at the pub, play golf? Well, I can’t speak for other scribes but when I down tools, so to speak, I like to do something completely different to refresh the brain.

Yesterday must rank as one of my most enjoyable days off ever! (One of the pluses of having given up the day job is that Kathy and I can take a break mid-week if the spirit moves. Glorious sunny weather yesterday had a lot to do with it, too.)

So what did we decide to do? Go to The Cat Cafe in Totnes, of course…

Glee lives up to her name

Glee lives up to her name

Totnes, a market town at the head of the River Dart, Devon, is not far from where I live. It’s got a colourful history, said to be where Brutus of Troy, the mythical founder of Britain, first came ashore on the island. When he stepped from his ship he declaimed, ‘Here I stand and here I rest. And this town shall be called Totnes.’ (!!)
But I digress. The Cat Cafe in Totnes was opened earlier this year, the first of its kind in the UK. (Taiwan and Tokyo started the ball rolling a few years back.)

Kathy and I spent much of the morning there in the company of six delightful rescue felines – Rolo, Lilac, Glee, Jet, Felix and Mango. Each has a very different personality (as all cats do!). All the cats belong to cafe founder Liz Dyas and live in their own bespoke accommodation attached to her house, complete with outdoor aerial walkways.

Totnes Cats Cafe

Totnes Cats Cafe

As well as bringing joy into people’s lives cats are known to be therapeutic, and the cafe welcomes visitors from the Stroke Association, the Deaf Society and other groups. It can accommodate wheelchairs, and apparently the cats are particularly fascinated with them!

I’ve heard there’s been some criticism of the cat cafe from animal welfare groups but I have to say that all I saw yesterday was very contented and unstressed cats – and very smiley visitors.

Totnes Cats Cafe is open from 10am to 4pm, Tuesday to Saturday, 51C Fore Street, Totnes TQ9 5NJ. There is no entrance charge; sale of refreshments and souvenirs funds the non-profit operation. (There is a no children policy.)

From Two Advance Readers of CARIBBEE

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CARIBBEE, out in October!

CARIBBEE, out next month!

Earlier my publishers made available some advance review copies of CARIBBEE as contest prizes. I’ve had some wonderful feedback on this book from the winners – and I’d like to share two of their comments.

‘Thank you for your advance copy of this superb book, I enjoyed it immensely and it was the perfect companion during a recent mini cruise to Guernsey.

The book is, as always, written with an obvious empathy to the quirks of the Royal Navy, which I am proud to admit that I served for 24 years. The author clearly understands the traditional barriers that exist between the upper and lower decks, and the isolation of command and weaves them into the many threads and plots that carry the reader from flat calm to Force 9 action with seamless continuity that makes it very hard to put down.

David Stelmach, at Commando Training Centre Royal Marines receiving LS and GC medals

David Stelmach, at Commando Training Centre Royal Marines receiving LS and GC medals

In this episode of Kydd’s adventures, he sails from disaster in the South Atlantic to the Caribbean, where he experiences disaster and victory with his companion and soul brother Renzi. A side plot entails the rescue of his valet, Tysoe, from slavery, and such deviation from the main plot enriches the reader experience, rather than distracting them from the excitement of the chase.
It is Kydd’s task to save the Caribbean Sugar industry from destruction as reports are received of the French intercepting the valuable cargos en route to England in the Caribbean. The chase is on and Renzi’s intelligence role is called upon to determine the location of the French HQ.

This is not the only plot, and, at one point Kydd is, apparently, discredited by another captain and then accused of his murder. Will Renzi be able to save him from the noose?

Please write quicker!!! I’m already missing Kydd!!’
David Stelmach


John Evans in the cockpit of a Swordfish, Royal Navy Historic Flight Centre

John Evans in the cockpit of a Swordfish, Royal Navy Historic Flight Centre

I’ve now read my proof copy of CARIBBEE three times; excellent, it progresses Kydd’s career as I hoped it would.

Although not a professional sailor, this son of a Royal Navy chief engine room artificer grew up amidst the Royal Navy of the 1950s and 60s and has been steeped in the best of naval literature ever since he learnt to read. Julian Stockwin’s ‘Kydd’ novels stand at the highest level in the fiction category. His plots hold the reader’s attention admirably, particularly as they are based on well-researched historical facts and his personal knowledge and experience of naval life. Forester and O’Brian were great authors but Stockwin was a seaman and naval officer and it shows: his ships manoeuvre and fight with a realism that can’t be faulted no matter how hard one tries, and his descriptions of the geography in which his characters operate evoke a sense of place that is palpable.

Over 20 authors taking part

Over 20 authors taking part

Latest in the series is CARIBBEE. Kydd’s beloved frigate L’Aurore has escaped from the River Plate and hurried north under orders to seek assistance for his commanding officer Home Popham. The sunlit Caribbean could not be a greater contrast with the dismal mudflats and tortuous channels of the Plate, and Kydd and his great friend Renzi are happy to be returning to the scene of their adventures as seamen years before when they served in the cutter Seaflower – but dangers from nature and man very soon have both of them stretched to the limit of their abilities. Perhaps beyond . . .

Now for the all-too-long wait for the next ‘Kydd’, which will test the patience greatly.’
– John Evans

Watch out for some great contests and features in the lead-up to the publication of CARIBBEE next month.
And – coming soon – I’m participating in a Nautical Blog Hop!

‘Sink Me the Ship, Master Gunner!’

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Sir Richard Grenville

Sir Richard Grenville

This day 422 years ago Sir Richard Grenville in the galleon Revenge, and separated from the rest of the English fleet off the Azores, began one of the most epic ‘last stands’ in naval history.

For fifteen hours, from three o’clock in the afternoon of 31 August 1591 until dawn the following morning, Revenge stood against a fleet of 53 Spanish warships, sinking two of them outright.

Last hours of an heroic fight

Last hours of an heroic fight

At one stage Grenville ordered his own ship to be sunk rather than see her go to the enemy crying, ‘Sink me the ship, master gunner!’ However, implored by his officers not to do so, he relented, on condition that the Spaniards spare the lives of his crew.

Grenville, who had been gravely wounded in the fight, died aboard the Spanish flagship several days later.

This extraordinary action of courage and fighting spirit gripped the imagination of Elizabethan England and began the traditions that in the centuries to follow made these islands the greatest maritime power.

In 1878 Alfred Lord Tennyson immortalised the action in his poem, ‘The Revenge: a Ballad of the Fleet’

    And the pikes were all broken or bent, and the powder was all of it spent
    But Sir Richard cried in his English pride
    ‘We have fought such a fight for a day and a night
    As may never be fought again!
    We have won great glory my men!
    And a day less or more
    At sea or ashore
    We die – does it matter when?
    Sink me the ship, Master Gunner – sink her, split her in twain!
    Fall into the hands of God, not into the hands of Spain!’

You can read the full version here

World-War II battleship that proudly carried the famous name

World-War II battleship that proudly carried the famous name

In a twist of fate, less than a week after the battle, Revenge, with a 200-man Spanish prize crew aboard, was lost with all hands in a violent storm.

The name Revenge would become one of the most renowned in naval history, proudly carried by a number of Royal Navy ships. The most recent Revenge was a Polaris submarine launched in 1969 and decommissioned in 1992.

As an aside, Grenville’s father Roger was captain of the ill-fated Mary Rose and drowned, along with most of those aboard, on 19 July 1545.

Copyright notices
Grenville: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons; Revenge: Public Domain via Wikipedia; WWII battleship: By Royal Air Force official photographer : Devon S A (Mr) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Every effort is made to honour copyright but if we have inadvertently published an image with missing or incorrect attribution, on being informed of this, we undertake to delete the image or add a correct credit notice

Kydd’s Home Town

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The <i>Angel</i> Posting House, last of its kind

The Angel Posting House, last of its kind

One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing the Kydd series has to be going on location research! (I know how lucky I am to be able to earn my living this way…)

This has taken the Stockwins all over the world – America, Canada, Australia, South Africa, the Caribbean, Europe. But, of course, quite a lot of location research is in the UK – and for Guildford, Kydd’s home town, I already knew the locale well, having lived there for a number of years before we moved to Devon. In fact I wrote the first three books in the Kydd series there.

Guildford has a long and proud history. It was founded by Saxon settlers shortly after Roman authority had been removed from Britain. The site was chosen because the Harrow Way crosses the River Wey at this point, via a ford. This gave rise to the second half of Guildford’s name; the first half, I’ve been told, probably came from the golden coloured sand at the bank of the river.

In some research locations that we visit it’s quite hard to peel away the layers of modernity but much of Kydd’s Guildford remains to this day; great inspiration for a novelist – and a treat for anyone interested in history.

You just have to walk up the cobbled High Street and you come to Holy Trinity Church and churchyard, which dates to medieval times, although the present structure was completed in classical style in 1763, thirty years before Tom Kydd was spirited away by the Press Gang.  The graveyard was a useful source of Georgian names for me: a weathered and tilting marker with the name Tewsley carved into it gave me inspiration for ‘a lined, middle-aged lieutenant,’ aboard Duke William.

A magnificent black-faced clock, trimmed in gilt, projects out from the façade of the Guildhall, high above street level.  The building was refronted in 1683 and contains a sixteenth-century courtroom and a seventeenth-century council chamber. It was near here that I placed the Kydd wig shop.

Just down the hill from the Guildhall is the Angel Posting House.  The inn was a popular  place of lodging for naval officers en route by coach from London to Portsmouth.  Lord Nelson is said to have spent his last night in England in the Angel, writing a final letter to Emma Hamilton, before embarking aboard HMS Victory for Trafalgar and immortality. The Angel has a special connection for me for it was there that I first learned I was to be a published author! Kathy and I were having a drink in the bar when we got THE call from our agent Carole Blake… Cheers, Carole!

There are many other historical attractions in Guildford, including the ruins of a medieval castle. For centuries its stone walls and tower have kept a silent vigil not far from the River Wey. Kydd would have played there as a boy and Cecilia and Renzi inspected the Keep together.

Guildford has featured in a number of the Kydd books and will certainly do so in the future!

Copyright notices
Every effort is made to honour copyright but if we have inadvertently published an image with missing or incorrect attribution, on being informed of this, we undertake to delete the image or add a correct credit notice

For Rent, One Pineapple

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Fruit for a King!

Fruit for a King!

Christopher Columbus encountered the pineapple in 1493 on the island of Guadeloupe.

He called it piña de Indes, ‘pine of the Indians’ and brought it back with him to Europe.

No-one knows when the first pineapple first appeared in England but Elizabethan adventurers encountered it and some were probably brought back by them.

Around 1675 Charles II was painted receiving a pineapple from his gardener John Rose , supposedly the first such fruit cultivated on English soil.

The pineapple became a potent status symbol in Georgian England. It could only be cultivated at great cost in a special greenhouse called a pinery, which required a huge amount of fresh horse manure to maintain the temperature required to grow the sought-after item. With the capital outlay for the hothouse and at least three years of constant labour to get the plant to fruit, the tab for producing a single pineapple put the fruit way out of reach to all but the very wealthiest.

One writer describes the scene at a dinner in the eighteenth century hosted by Lord Petre at his Essex estate. After a sumptuous banquet the door of the dining room was majestically flung open and guests were treated to an astonishing sight: a liveried footman carrying a huge pile of pineapples direct from the estate’s hothouses atop an ornate silver tray.

Home-grown pineapples began to appear at all the best society dinners. Because of their great cost they were often not actually eaten, but used as ornamentation at the centrepiece of the table, and were passed on from party to party until the fruit began to rot. If you were not able to grow your own, you could rent a pineapple. The same pineapple would turn up in several houses until it was no longer fit to present.

As the century progressed it became more affordable to actually eat the fruit and while still very much luxury items, if you could not grow your own they became available to buy in exclusive fruit shops.

The pineapple entered the broader Georgian culture in a number of ways. The phrase ‘a pineapple of the finest flavour’ was a metaphor for the most splendid of things. In Sheridan’s popular play The Rivals, Mrs Malaprop exclaims: ‘He is the very pineapple of politeness.’

Pineapple motifs appeared on Georgian furniture and on Chinaware designs. A very striking form of representation of wealth and hospitality was a stone pineapple atop a gatepost, which is occasionally still to be seen.

Fruit for a Queen!

Fruit for a Queen!

And of course the Georgian satirists didn’t miss an opportunity. ‘The Cabinet Dinner or a Political Meeting’ by C. Williams depicts eight cabinet ministers asleep around the dinner table, surrounded by remnants of a lavish meal. Strewn about the room are two pineapples, one only half eaten – a telling symbol of the decadence of the ruling classes…

An original eighteenth-century pineapple pit was discovered at the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. In 1997, after much historical research and horticultural effort, the pinery saw its first twentieth century fruit – grown just as it would have been done in the past. In a nod to Charles II, the second pineapple produced there (the first was sampled by the staff …) was delivered to Queen Elizabeth on her 50th wedding anniversary.

Copyright notices
Queen Elizabeth: By NASA/Bill Ingalls [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Presentation of pineapple: Hendrick Danckerts (fl. 1645–1679) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Every effort is made to honour copyright but if we have inadvertently published an image with missing or incorrect attribution, on being informed of this, we undertake to delete the image or add a correct credit notice

BookPick: The British Navy, Economy and Society in the Seven Years War

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The global operation of feeding the Navy

The global operation of feeding the Navy

William Thompson, a former foreman cooper in the Victualling Board, wrote in a work published in 1761:

‘Seamen in the King’s Ships have made buttons for their Jacketts and Trowses [sic] with the cheese they have been served with, having preferred it, by reason of its tough and durable quality, to buttons made of common metal…

Their bread has been so full of large black-headed maggots that they have so nauseated the thoughts of it as to be obliged to shut their eyes to confine that sense…

Their beer has stunk as abominably as the foul stagnant water which is pumped out of many cellars in London at midnight hour.’

‘The British Navy, Economy and Society in the Seven Years War’ provides an important counter to this often-cited picture of the state of victualling Jack Tar encountered aboard ship.

Written in 1999 by Christian Buchet, a leading French maritime historian, the book has now been translated and published in English by The Boydell Press.

Professor Buchet sets out the compelling case that Britain’s success in the Seven Years War was made possible by the creation of a superb victualling system for the British Navy – and discusses how naval supply provided a huge stimulus for British finance, agriculture, trade and manufacturing, and argues that all this together was one of the principal causes of Britain’s later Industrial Revolution.

As well as discussing a wealth of qualitative and quantitative information, the book looks at some of the major players in the global operation of feeding the Royal Navy.

Fascinating reading for anyone interested in the impact of the Royal Navy above and beyond the defence of the realm.

Sermons, a thesis – and a hungry dog…

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Rod Redden & family

Rod Redden & family

I’m always delighted to hear from readers that they’ve enjoyed my books – but sometimes this takes on an extra dimension…

Ian Hewes, a Baptist minister in the UK, has used the Kydd tales as inspiration for a number of his sermons!

In Ian’s own words, here’s just one incident that he drew upon: ‘The scene that greeted Kydd and Renzi at dawn at the lifting of the siege of Acre [in TENACIOUS] showed that perseverance in the face of apparently overwhelming odds can bring victory.’

And in Japan, reader Rod Redden not only enjoyed dipping into the salty snippets in my little non-fiction volume STOCKWIN’S MARITIME MISCELLANY, he put the book to use as an academic aid. Rod was recently awarded an MA in TESOL/Applied Linguistics from the University of Leicester.

Stockwin's Maritime Miscellany

Stockwin’s Maritime Miscellany

One of his assignments was on a specific linguistic situation. He chose the prevalence of army and naval terms in the Atlantic region of Canada – and one of the works he found particularly useful was my miscellany.

Having said that, Tom Richardson, a captain in the Salvation Army, once told me that his dog Benbow (named after the admiral) had developed a taste for my books – literally – and devoured several chapters!

From a reader drawn to the Arctic

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Icefield, Arctic Ocean

Icefield, Arctic Ocean

One of the joys of being a writer is hearing from readers around the world – and learning a little about their lives.

William de Vaney, a marine historical artist, now living in the States, was raised as a bush Alaskan in the twilight of her days as a territory. He has an enduring connection with Neptune’s Realm and first put his hands on the wheel of a 32 foot wooden limit seiner when he was seven, and wore through his first storm with his father when he was eight.

William also has a special appreciation of ‘the wonderful, sacred expanse of wilderness’ that is the Arctic and spent three years living there, including a couple of seasons kayaqing the Passage.

William - with a good book!

William – with a good book!

The Arctic, William says, ‘cares not a whit for human concerns.’ Encountering an ice storm east of the Prudhoe Bay area a few years back he found himself battling a closing ice pack for over twelve hours. Desperate to find shelter he struggled through cul-de-sacs of shifting, grinding pan ice amidst misting ice-fog and wind before finally coming upon a floe with a small lagoon to shelter in. Later that same trip he had to weather 35 knots+ winds off his port quarter to get to the village of Kaktovik on Barter Island.

William has built a number of native frame kayaqs and is currently working on one now for himself so he and his wife Kim can explore some of the Maine coastal waters together.

Kim de Vaney’s whimsical puffin

Kim de Vaney’s whimsical puffin

William told me: ‘I’ve always been a fan of the very sea that I worked upon (and on occasion has tried to take me out), and I appreciate the hardships of the days of sail. Working a longliner with the decks awash over your knees is a real wake up call (as I’m sure with your time at sea, you understand) – though, I confess, working a small gaff rig sloop to weather in a gale is nothing compared to being aloft in the Age of Sail! I don’t mind heights, but that would be tough. I don’t think anything sailors endure today can compare to it, especially in their type of warfare. What a brutal business.’

I was especially tickled with one photograph William sent me – it was taken at West Quoddy Head Light, which holds the distinction of being the easternmost lighthouse in the US. Look what books he’s holding!

The de Vaneys are not just a couple with a deep appreciation of the natural world. Kim is a talented artist in her own right and William has recently had a novel, ‘Lightship’, published.
He also has his own blog.

Spending a penny at sea

Early warships featured a beakhead on the bow which was used to ram enemy galleys.

Around the 900s platforms for archers were built on either side of this beakhead. Known as ‘heads’, these platforms were slotted to allow drainage from breaking waves and became a convenient way to answer the call of nature. Since then lavatories at sea have been called ‘the heads’ in the British Navy; ‘the head’ in the USN.

The heads in Vasa

The heads in Vasa

It was good manners to use the lee (down weather) side so that waste fell clear into the sea and the waves sluiced the area.

In Nelson’s day toilet accommodation for commissioned officers in a ship-of-the-line was in the quarter galleries adjoining the cabins in the stern. Some admirals had a personal portable commode, and there were some early adopters who even had primitive flush loos.

Forward there were two small ‘round houses’, cubicles which gave some privacy, on the foremost bulkhead of the upper deck, which were used by petty officers. From 1801 one of these was reserved for the men in the sick berth.

The crew’s facilities were very sparse but it must be pointed out that ashore sanitary conditions were often far from what would be acceptable today; human waste was often just dumped on the streets. At least in a ship it was disposed of into the sea!

In a ship-of-the-line like HMS Victory, 800 or so men had to make do with just a half dozen or so ‘seats of easement’; adjacent seats with holes over a clear drop to the sea. The area was completely exposed to the weather.

Toilet paper was not invented in Britain until the late nineteenth century but officers used old newspaper or discarded paper. The seamen had to make do with scrap fibrous material such as oakum.

Some Georgian navy ships had ‘piss dales’ at the side of the ship. These were a bit like modern urinals, with a pipe leading out into the sea and allowed men on watch to ease themselves without leaving post.

Most captains were fastidious about sanitary arrangements and punished offenders sternly who relieved themselves in inappropriate places.

Now, of course, modern ships and submarines have lavatories very similar to those on land. You just have to be careful not to leave the sea-water valves open…

Copyright notices
Vasa photo: By Peter Isotalo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Every effort is made to honour copyright but if we have inadvertently published an image with missing or incorrect attribution, on being informed of this, we undertake to delete the image or add a correct credit notice

BookPick: Anatomy of the Ship

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The Mighty Hood

The Mighty Hood

The ‘Anatomy of the Ship’ series was first published by Conway (an imprint of Anova Books) in hardback a few years back and I snatched up (and still regularly consult) all of the excellent Age of Sail titles, particularly the HMS Victory ‘Anatomy’ but also ‘Diana’ the frigate, ‘Alert’ the cutter and many others. These are really first class productions and in my opinion are the last word on layout and rigging of these fine ships.

The series also encompasses some of the iconic vessels of the Age of Steam, providing a fascinating insight into ship development in the twentieth century.
What makes this whole series special is the unparalleled attention to detail in the superb line drawings and ship plans.

Conway is re-releasing the Anatomy of the Ship titles in paperback editions, with text revisions along with large scale plans on the reverse cover.

The first ‘all-big-gun’ battleship

The first ‘all-big-gun’ battleship

The first two out are ‘The Battleship Dreadnought’ and ‘The Battlecruiser Hood’. Dreadnought was built at Portsmouth in 14 months, a record that has never been equalled! She gave her name to a class of ship that dominated the seas for more than a generation. Hood became one of the most recognisable symbols of the Royal Navy; her destruction in 1941 shocked a nation.

The author of these two volumes, John Roberts, is widely recognized for his contributions to warship literature. He was editor of ‘Warship’ for six years and is the co-author of the standard works on British battleships and cruisers of the Second World War period.

Further Anatomy of the Ship titles will be released later in the year

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