In the Steps of the Green Knight

Most years at this time, I dwell on the epic medieval poem of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It’s an appropriate one for journeyers through our countryside as Gawain makes a winter journey to keep a date with destiny with the green knight.

It’s very much a story of the Staffordshire moorlands, for the story comes to a climax in the great fallen cavern of Ludchurch. The poem is wonderfully descriptive of wild countryside and a terrific adventure. One for every walker who loves the challenge of the great outdoors.

I was born in Staffordshire, though the other end. But from childhood I knew those north Stafforshire moorlands very well. Re-reading the poem is a joy to me. If you love the writings of Alan Garner, Tolkien, Pratchett et al, it will resonate with you.

Many years ago I struggled through it in the original Middle English, which I think is hard work even if you can manage quite well with Chaucer and Langland – as I could at the time.

A good translation is by the poet and Oxford don Bernard O’Donoghue (Penguin 2006). This translation concentrates on the tale itself and the rhythm of the original, veering away from the alliteration and half lines of the original. I think O’Donoghue captures the spirit of the poem well. As a variant, you might like to try the version by the poet Simon Armitage, who brings the local links very much to life. Ideally, you should try both, but if your Middle English is holding up do try the original.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a beautiful tribute to the English countryside. As Sir Gawain rides on his quest to the castle of the Green Knight we get wonderful pictures of the landscape of England, and possibly Wales, grand vistas of nature and the seasons, with a bit of sexual seduction, courtly love and romance – in the historic sense of the word – thrown in.

The poet is unknown but his words live on.

And this is a very good time of the year to read his words.

Arnside 045


My New Country Book

My new Devon book  is now out in paperback and on Kindle…   
Here’s the blurb…
John Bainbridge has walked in the Devon countryside for over fifty years, and is well known as a writer and broadcaster on the county. In this miscellany of country essays, he explores many of the quiet corners of Devon, from the wild moorlands of Dartmoor and Exmoor to its spectacular coastline and peaceful pastoral landscapes. John Bainbridge is the author of the country books The Compleat Trespasser and Wayfarer’s Dole.

“As a rambler, I’ve spent much of the past half century roaming through the Devon countryside, exploring the county’s quiet villages, winding footpaths and bridleways, lonely moorland and dramatic coast. I’ve had the privilege of leading walking groups to share what I know of this land. For much of that time I’ve also written and broadcast about Devon – in a number of books and many newspaper and magazine articles and for a local radio station. In fact, my first published work was an article about Dartmoor, written and sold when I was sixteen.

Devon has changed a great deal since I began my walks there – not altogether for the better. Ill-thought out development has blighted some of the countryside I knew. I salute those campaigners who are fighting to protect what remains. I spent nine years as chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, so I appreciate the hard work involved in saving the beauties for future generations to enjoy.

But even with all these changes there are still the quiet secret places there to discover, and what better way to seek them out than on foot? I’ve enjoyed my Devon walks, both alone and in the company of other ramblers.

I’ve written about Devon in my two earlier walking books Wayfarer’s Dole and The Compleat Trespasser, which give accounts of some of my longer walks.  But there are some shorter pieces I’ve written, many previously published as magazine articles, which didn’t fit into the themes of those titles – fugitive pieces which I thought might make a collection on their own, hence this little volume.

This is no definitive account of Devon, nor yet a walks guide, though there are snippets of history, legend and topography in the pages which follow. Footloose in Devon is rather a bedside book, a volume to be dipped into when the reader has a quiet moment.  I hope the places mentioned might inspire some rambles and expeditions into the heart of this very lovely county.

John Bainbridge”

A Christmas Mystery On Sale

‘The Holly House Mystery’ is currently on sale for 99 pence/cents on Amazon Kindle in the UK and USA.

As snow falls on the last days of December, Inspector Chance investigates murder in a wintry downland village…

Set in 1931, our second Christmas crime novella is an affectionate homage to the country house-party whodunits of the Golden Age.

It’s also available in paperback.

Click on the link to order or to try a sample:

My Scottish Novel on Sale

BALMORAL KILL ON KINDLE – ONLY 99 PENCE/CENTS THIS WEEK – and you don’t need a Kindle. Just download the free app for your laptop, tablet or phone via the link at the foot of this blog.

Balmoral Kill is also out in paperback if you are looking for a Christmas stocking filler or just for a book to read over the Christmas holiday.

As a hillwalker who also writes novels, I always like to root my plots and characters in a real landscape whenever that is possible. I might alter it, fictionalise it, or just change the odd feature – but I like to start with a reality. And at some point in my fiction I like to use an actual place I know, walk around it and imagine my characters playing out their adventures upon it.


I always knew, right from the beginning, that my Victorian thriller The Shadow of William Quest would come to a dramatic conclusion on Holkham Beach in Norfolk. And I knew that the final duel between my hero and villain in Balmoral Kill would have to be in some remote spot in the Cairngorms, though within easy reach of the royal residence of Balmoral Castle.

But I wasn’t sure where.

In all my Scottish stravaiging I had never been to Loch Muick (pronounced without the u), though I had read about it in my numerous Scottish books and looked at it on the map. It seemed an ideal location for the conclusion of a thriller.Balmoral Castle (c) 2015 John Bainbridge

So the summer when I was writing the book, when we were staying in Ballater, we walked up to take a look, circling the loch and examining the wild mountains and tumbling rivers round about. Plotting a gunfight (even a fictional one) takes some care. I wanted it to be as probable and realistic as possible. This is, after all, a book about experienced assassins. I wanted the line of sight of every rifle to be exact.

We also had to check out the hills around. Both my hero and villain are great walkers and “walk-in” to places where they expect to see some action

And a beautiful wild place Loch Muick is. It was a favourite picnicking place of Queen Victoria, who used to linger for days on end at the lonely house of Glas-Allt-Shiel, in mourning for her beloved Prince Albert. Today’s royal family picnic there even now. The house is as I describe it in the book, as is the surrounding scenery. Believe me, I checked out those sightlines. Every shot described in the book could be taken in reality. Even now when I think of that loch and the Corrie Chash above it, I think of my characters being there. Sometimes they are all very real to me.Glas-Allt-Shiel House (c) John Bainbridge 2015

We also revisited Balmoral Castle (actually they only let you into the ballroom!), strolled through its grounds and examined the countryside round about. I was able to work out the exact routes taken by all of the characters who found themselves on the shores of Loch Muick on a late summer day in 1937.

Other areas of Scotland feature in the book too. I partly fictionalised the places I used in the Scottish Borders, though those scenes are based on the many walks I’ve done around Peebles, the Broughton Heights and Manorwater. In one flashback scene in the Highlands I have a character journey from Taynuilt and out on to the mighty twin peaks of Ben Cruachan, and then into the glens beyond, to kill a man in Glen Noe. Some years ago I did a lot of walking in that area and had considerable pleasure in reliving my journeys as I penned those scenes.Loch Muick looking up towards where Balmoral Kill comes to its conclusion. (c) John Bainbridge 2015

The book begins in London and journeys into the East End. I’ve walked the streets and alleys of Whitechapel, Stepney and Limehouse by day and night over the years. Balmoral Kill is set in 1937, so there has been a great deal of change in nearly eighty years. The East End was very badly bombed in the War and thoughtless planners have destroyed a lot more. But enough remains to give you the picture. Once more, I could take you in the steps of my characters through every inch of the places mentioned.

Very often going to these locations inspires changes to the writing. Balmoral Kill was half-written by the time we explored Loch Muick. The real-life topography of the place inspired me to make several changes to the novel’s conclusion.

And now I’m writing an historical novel set in the 1190s. The landscape where it is set has changed very considerably in the centuries since. So more imagination is needed, though I still try to root my scenes in reality.

As a walker as well as a writer I find going on research trips is the best way to conjure up locations with the written word.

 Click on the link below to read Balmoral Kill.

Bernard Cornwell’s “Fools and Mortals”

Bernard Cornwell’s novel Fools and Mortals is a triumph of historical writing, proving that you don’t need battles and epic events to produce a fine historical novel. Bernard Cornwell’s take on late Elizabethan London and the world of the Shakespearean playhouse is superbly realised. He portrays so vividly the violent and stinking society whose predilection for entertainment in the form of plays led to the greatest of our literature.Fools and Mortals by [Cornwell, Bernard]

I’ve been a fan of Bernard Cornwell for many years, right from the first Sharpe novels. I think the stories of the Alfredian warrior Uhtred give us much of the best historical writing I’ve seen in recent years. So I was intrigued at this new departure into the world of Shakespeare and his plays.

There are no battles in this one, though there are one or two fights. But there is a great feeling of menace as the hero, William Shakespeare’s brother Richard, falls foul of various elements of the Elizabethan Establishment in his desire to abandon playing women’s parts and seeking out male leads.

Much of the novel is set against the first staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Bernard Cornwell does a masterly job of interpreting just how plays would have been staged in the 1590s. He has a great gift for transporting you right into period, you feel you are there. This is a writer at the height of his powers. Re-creating the past fictionally isn’t easy, as I know from my own experience. Bernard Cornwell makes it seems effortless, a sure sign that he’s taken a great many pains to get it just right.

His actors are wonderfully portrayed, as bitchy and self-seeking as any acting company down the years. I particularly loved his portrayal of the great extrovert clown and jig-master Will Kemp. I’ve always had an interest in Kemp myself and he comes alive again in the pages of Fools and Mortals. I also liked the tension between Richard Shakespeare and his famous brother. I suspect Will Shakespeare was rather like this portrayal, ambitious, impatient, not tolerating fools easily.

I’ve always been an ardent Shakesperean. I became aware of my father’s copy of the collected plays as soon as I could read – my father took Shakespeare with him when he took part in the Normandy Invasion in 1944. I read the plays first when I was quite a small child. I went to a sensible state school in the Midlands where we were taken to see the plays performed at Stratford and at the Birmingham Rep. Reading and watching Shakespeare has remained a delight to me ever since.

I remember being taken to Stratford in 1964 to see the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, when a representation of the poet’s London and his stage were recreated – this in the days before we had the Globe Theatre.

But even if you are not a fan of Shakespeare this is a novel to seek out. Mr Cornwell has created a world to lose yourself in.