Sunday, July 30, 2006

Hester Davenport – Biographer

Connections with kings and courtesans, marine luminescence and the 'Mary Rose'.
The more I get to know Hester Davenport, more coincidences crop up in things we are both interested in.
We met initially over the internet when I was searching for information on Lady Florence Dixie. I found an article written by Hester in a journal published in Windsor and discovered she was quite an expert on this Lady.
From here I discovered that, like myself, she was a published writer - a biographer, though her first published book (Puffin) was a series of unsolved mysteries for 9-13 year olds.
Hester's first biography, Faithful Handmaid: Fanny Burney at the Court of King George 111, was published by Sutton, in 2000, and reprinted in paperback in 2003
Her second biographical work, The Prince’s Mistress: A life of Mary Robinson was released in 2004. This has also been published in paperback (2006), a testament to her remarkable research skills and fine writing. (Hester holds an MA in Victorian Poetry.)

While I was in Old Windsor, Hester took me to see Mary Robinson's grave. It is in the local churchyard - just a short walk from where she lives.
Perdita/Mary Robinson, born in 1758, was hotly pursued by George, the 17-year-old Prince of Wales, after a royal command performance, at the Garrick Theatre, in which Mary Robinson took the part of Perdita in, "The Winter's Tale" .
Recently Hester published, Writers in Windsor. In it she includes such notables as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy, Tennyson, and of course Fanny Burney and Mary Robinson.
Currently she is casting around for another subject.

During the short time we spent together, I told her I had visited the Mary Rose and was amazed to find that she had been a volunteer speaker for the Mary Rose Trust. She joined the organisation in 1982 about the time the Mary Rose was raised and lectured about the ship for the next 5 years.
The other strange mutual interest we discovered he had was in marine bioluminescence.
But I will blog about this later.
And only today, I learned Hester owned an antique doll with blue glass eyes. My forthcoming novel features an antique doll with blue glass eyes.
Unlikely, but pleasant coincidences.
Hester Davenport's books are available from
Photo: M. Muir July 2006 – Hester Davenport and Mary Robinson's grave at the church of St Peter and St Andrew in Old Windsor.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Royal Naval Dockyard, Portsmouth

If you love ships or history, promise yourself that one day you will visit the Royal Naval Dockyards At Portsmouth, England.
There you'll see Nelson's ship, HMS Victory, you'll walk the decks and find the spot where Nelson fell. You will see the Mary Rose and learn about her service at the time of Henry v111, and you will step onboard the mighty Warrior and feel as if you have stepped back to the 1800s.
In the following blogs, I have given a small insight into each of these vessels.
I was blown away with what I saw.
I hope you will enjoy reading just a tiny sampler about each.
Photo: HMS Warrior from the Hard at Portsmouth.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

HMS Mary Rose

There has long been a rumour that Henry V111’s ship, the Mary Rose sank on her maiden voyage.
This is not true.
Launched in Portsmouth in 1511, from 1512 to 1514 she faught the French in the English Channel off Brest and Cherbourg.
In 1513 she was engaged against the Scots off Newcastle
During the second French Wars, 1522 to 1525, she was again fighting at sea, and it was when she was about to sail against the French, in 1545, that she sank not more than two kilometres from Portsmouth harbour.
There she sat for well over 400 years, her keel and starboard side encased in a protective layer of Solent silt.
The Mary Rose was lifted to the surface in 1982 from which time restoration work has been ongoing.

To visit to the Royal Naval Dockyards at Portsmouth to take in the sheer magic and majesty of the three vessels housed there (The Victory, The Warrior and the Mary Rose), to ingest all the information available, is wishful thinking.
I left my viewing of the Mary Rose to last, I suppose because the shed she is housed in is not as inviting as a two tall ship sitting in a dock in front of you.
Now I wish I had had given myself more time.

Consider the Mary Rose, a purpose built warship, built almost entirely of oak.
Consider life on board in the early 1500s – as revealed by the thouseands of artefacts brought up with the ship.
Consider the men who sailed her – the mariners who earned 6s 8d a month (1545).
Consider the perilous tides and currents of the Solent which can toy with today’s vessels, vessels equipped with the latest in navigational equipment. For any ship to sail in and out of these waters was a feat all of its own.
When the Mary Rose went down, for as yet unknown causes (though several have been postulated), she took most of her crew of 385 (at least) with her.
The remains of 200 of these men were uncovered within the wreck, the majority being healthy young men in their late teens or early twenties.
Note on photo: Though I tried to photograph the ship though the Perspex walls and treatments mists of its sealed environment, my attempts were unsuccessful for reproduction here. I have therefore taken the liberty of photographing the ship from the Mary Rose, Museum and Ship Hall book, which I purchased during my visit.

HMS Warrior - Britain's finest warship

It’s quite possible that when HMS Warrior was launched at Blackwell in 1860, the event may have been witnessed by an old seadog who had served under Nelson on the Victory.
Imagine his amazement at the changes which had taken place in ship design and construction in only 50 years.
From wooden hulled fighting ships like HMS Victory to an iron framed, armour plated warship equipped with both sail and steam and driven by a propeller. The Warrior could sail before the wind under her 48,400 sq foot of sail or head into the wind, its 10 boilers and four furnaces operating at searing temperatures to power its huge engine.
Its two massive funnels were telescopic and could be cranked down when steam was not required.
Its four 5.6 ton anchors at both bow and stern, each needed 100 men on a capstan to raise them.
It’s 4 wheeled helm (as in the picture) which at times needed 16 men to hold the ship on course.
A speed of 13 knots under sail and 14.5 in steam.
A crew of 700 men now dressed in the uniform of the Royal Navy.
But perhaps most of all to its fighting power:
Twenty six 68 pounder muzzle loading guns
And ten breech loading 110 pounders.

Stepping on the Warrior’s deck, and wandering through the massive ship, is like taking a step back in time.
Having the opportunity to do that is thanks to the Warrior Preservations Trust and the men who rescued her from the scrap yard on more than one occasion in her life.

Sadly, HMS Warrior’s days of glory were few.
By 1870 masts and yards had become obsolescent.
She had served as Britain’s finest warship for only 10 years.
For the next 100 years she found service only at the bottom end of the maritime ladder.
But in 1979, with her hull still intact, she was taken to Hartlepool for restoration. Eight years later, surrounded by a flotilla of small ships, the newly restored warship was towed to the Royal Naval dockyards at Portsmouth, where she stands today – a tribute to the shipbuilders of the mid 1800s.
Photo: M. Muir – The Warrior’s mighty helm

The SS Great Britain - Magnificent cruise ship

On my recent cruise of the Mediterranean, I had a wonderful time and visited some wonderful places. The ship I travelled on was approximately 70,000 tonnes and was American owned.
The service was excellent.
The cuisine was excellent.
The staterooms (cabins) were excellent.
The only thing I could fault the ship on was its internal decour.
It was dull and at times rather jaded-looking.

Consider the dining room in the above photo.
This was taken inside the SS Great Britain - a cruising ship built in 1843.
I accept that she has been refurbished but the layout, with its marble pillars and sumptuous furnishing, reflect on the luxury of sailing first class in the mid nineteenth century.

More on the SS Great Britain on a later blog.
Photo: M.Muir - SS Great Britain - Bristol

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Sea dogs????

I've heard of old sea dogs!
But the sight of a dog kennel floating on a river in the Isle of Wight left me scratching my head!

Photo: M. Muir July 2006

Monday, July 24, 2006

Nelson’s ship ‘Victory’

A couple of weeks ago I stood on the deck of HMS Victory and gazed down at the plaque which marked the spot where Nelson fell.
So immense was the impact of the great ship, I had to wipe the tears from my eyes.
I can honestly say I have never been so awed by a tall ship in my life.
The sheer size of Victory is amazing. The length of its decks, the number and size of its guns.
And below decks the area where the everyday life of the ship was conducted: the quarters, the cabins, the sickbay, the huge staterooms – one Admiral Lord Nelson, another other for the Captain Hardy; the furnishings, including the original round table used by Nelson in his day cabin; and a replica of his hanging cot with its delicately hand-embroidered drapes.
Launched from the Chatham dockyard in Kent on 7th May 1765, it is said that Victory was then more ornate than she is today.
That is hard to believe!
She carried a crew of 850 and a complement of 104 guns including two 68 pounder carronades, and remained in service until 1812.
At 3500 tons, this formidable fighting machine could sail at a speed of 11 knots under a spread of 37 sails.
What a sight she would have been!
Victory was brought to her present berth at Portsmouth’s Royal Naval Dockyard in1922 where she stands proudly as the centre piece of a remarkable collection of true nautical heritage.
To one side she is flanked by the HMS Warrior – Britain’s first and last iron hulled warships (1860) – on the other, the remains of King Henry V111’s ship, the Mary Rose (1510).
I will write more on these in a later entry.
If I had seen nothing else on my visit to England, I would have been satisfied in having visited this magnificent ship.
Over 33 million visitors have trodden Victory’s decks before me and I am sure most will have left with feelings similar to my own.
If you love tall ships or history, a visit to the naval dockyards at Portsmouth is a must.

More info at
Photo by M Muir

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Visit to Hale Books, London

Situated in Clerkenwell, Robert Hale Limited is close to Fleet Street and is situated not far from the area of London which was once the hub of the British publishing industry. Today, I learn, much of the work is decentralized.
This is the case with Hale Books.
As one of their 'overseas' writers, I could not resist a visit to the publishing house which has accepted me into its stable of authors.
Hidden behind a row of tall trees, Clerkenwell House, a building which once accommodated much of the book production and distribution for the company, is now mainly sublet as offices. The bulk of the actual book production/printing is done outside The City.
Today, Hale's offices take up the fifth floor of the building offering striking views across the rooftops to the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral.
Meeting Mr Hale was a highlight of my visit to England. The fact he said that he wanted some more work from me inspired me to get back home to continue writing.
At Hale, I also met members of the editing and production staff who until now had only been names on the bottom of emails. It's so much nicer to be able to put face to a name.
Before I left, Mr Hale gave me a copy of the cover of my next novel, The Twisting Vine.
This, my second novel, is a fast-moving Yorkshire saga.
It is set in the period 1895 to 1920, where peace and war, joy and grief, are linked by the unobtrusive presence of a French Bru doll.
The Twisting Vine is due for release in hardback in England on 30 August.
Cover art - The Twisting Vine by Margaret Muir - Jacket illustration by Barbara Walton

Pompeii, Pontefract and back to Perth

What a whirlwind!
It's amazing what one can pack into five weeks.
I've seen unforgettable sights, been to amazing places, met wonderful people and gleaned some great background material for future books.
It's impossible to rate one visit over another but The Vatican City and its art treasures, Pompeii, and Nelson's ship, Victory, seem to vie for the most attention in my memory.
Over the next few weeks, I'll be blogging about some of the other ships I've seen including the SS Great Britain and King Henry V111's, Mary Rose.
I'll introduce two of the writers who I met while in the UK, historical novelist, Fenella Jane Miller, and biographer, Hester Davenport.
For those interested in holidays afloat, I'll take you back over the cruise I took which included stopovers in the major tourist ports in Italy, Greece, and the South of France.
Though my home is Australia, my roots are in England, so naturally I enjoyed visiting family and revisiting old haunts.
Whitby, where my previous novel, Sea Dust, was set, was high on the list.
So was Saltaire, the town where my work-in-progress is located. The locks and canals of the British waterways were of interest as they also play an significant role in the story.
Ilkley and the Yorkshire Moors were on my list as they feature in, The Twisting Vine, my next novel, due out next month.
That was the only day it rained during my holiday. The Yorkshire Moors looked bleak as usual.
I sailed to Cowes in the Isle of Wight, flew over Watership Down, and ambled around Flatford Mill near Dedham where John Constable captured the beauty of the English countryside.
Finally, a visit to meet my publisher, Robert Hale Ltd in London was a highlight.
It was an unforgettable holiday - but I am glad to be home.
Photo: The Thames, London, July 2006 - Robert Dunn