Sunday, 22nd August 2021

South Cadbury Castle – was that Camelot?

I first visited South Cadbury Castle as a child. I must have only been ten or eleven years old, with a head full of images of Camelot as seen in The Sword in the Stone and the musical Camelot, not to mention old Hollywood films, so I expected to see more than just an old earthwork and some muddy trenches. But I didn’t let that put me off. I adapted my view of all things Arthurian and began to realise that it wasn’t about stone built castles and knights in shining armour and page boys pulling swords out of an anvil – yes, an anvil. Why anyone would choose to make the stone the sword was stuck in look like an anvil, which is made of iron, I have no idea.

Since then I’ve been back there many times. You drive into South Cadbury village, past a farm on your left, until you come to a small carpark beside the road. It’s very peaceful. A short walk back in the direction of the village brings you to the lane on the left that will lead you up the hill and in through the lesser northern entrance to the hillfort. Easy to drive past and miss it completely.

The track is stony and uneven, and can also be very muddy. Cows clearly pass along the lane which serves the fields of the local farm. Wellies are a good idea, or at the least, good walking boots. After a bit, you come to a five bar gate with one of those kissing gates beside it – very difficult to get through. It actually can be lifted off its hinges to allow passage, and then popped back onto them afterwards. Far easier than squeezing through the very narrow gap, especially if like me you’re not so slender as you once were.

Nowadays the hillside and the four rows of banks and ditches are shrouded in mature trees. You’d expect to hear birds calling, but it’s very quiet – almost too quiet. The climb up the hill is steep and straight, with high banks to left and right. You can almost feel yourself walking back in time as you climb.

On one particular visit I only got as far as the gate. I was by myself and it was evening, and the trees were even quieter than normal. The atmosphere pressed in on me, and with my hand on the gate I made the decision to turn for home. The restless ghosts of the hillfort didn’t want me there that night.

There’s hardly ever anyone up there. I’ve been many times with my husband, and we’ve often been the only ones on the hilltop. Eighteen acres of grassland rising gently away from the topmost bank, where once a revetted palisade wall stood, with stone foundations and a solid wall-walk around the inside. If you look carefully bits of that stone wall still remain, half-hidden under the turf. Small hawthorn trees dot the perimeter, sculpted by the wind.

The view is magnificent. To the south more hills rise, but it’s the view to the north that fascinates me. The flat plain of the Somerset levels, where once marshland and open stretches of water lay – proven by the fact that it still floods in times of heavy winter rain. And in the far distance, ten miles or so away, the hump of Glastonbury Tor itself, the ruined tower on the summit just visible.

Since I was a child I’ve been convinced this was the orginal of Camelot. Of course, the name’s all wrong. That’s most likely taken from Camulodunum (Colchester on the East Coast) which would have been far too far to the east to have been the centre of any Romano-British warlord’s territory. Most likely it would have been in Saxon hands. Here at Cadbury we’re in the lands of the Dumnonians, a pre-Roman tribe that still existed after the departure of the legions.

Amongst their number was a king named Cadwy, or it might have been Cador, sometimes described as ‘of Cornwall’. Three closely situated hillforts seem to bear his name – this one, Cadbury-Congresbury, and Cadbury Camp near Tickenham. And there’s yet another Cadbury Castle in Devon. Whoever Cadwy/Cador was, he got about a bit.

The magic of this place lends credence to that theory of a sleeping king. When you stand up there, alone, with a wind soughing in the branches of the trees that crowd the slopes, and close your eyes, you could be forgiven for imagining a thriving fortress all around you. Warriors manning the walls, the great hall rising behind you on the summit, a blacksmith working in his forge, smoke rising from thatched roofs, and middens quietly steaming. The ghosts crowd in on you as the wind ruffles your hair and ripples the long grass.

No wonder John Leland, visiting here in 1542, decided the locals were right when they told him it was ‘Camalatte’ and King Arthur had resided there. A myriad of legends are associated with the hill, including one that says Arthur still lies sleeping beneath the surface in a hidden cave. Reminiscent of the Alderley Edge legends. Another says that between Cadbury and Glastonbury Tor runs an old road, the Hunters’ Causeway, and on every Christmas Eve Arthur and his warriors ride the old road. I couldn’t resist using that in my YA stories.

But the story that I like the best is not a legend, but rather a theory. The story behind it goes that after being mortally wounded in his final battle at Camlann, against his upstart nephew, Mordred, Arthur was borne away by three queens to Avalon, where he lies sleeping still, only to return in Britain’s hour of need. Other heroes have similar legends, but what’s most fascinating is the fact that nearly all of them are about real people. Ridiculous as the legends are, those concerned really existed. So, perhaps because Arthur, too, has such a legend, then he, too, was real. And South Cadbury Castle was indeed his ‘Camalatte’.

19th August, 2021

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They say you should never give up, and it’s so true. I’m living proof of that.

I’ve been writing since I was five years old, and have always cherished the dream that one day I’d be properly published. As a child I read and wrote endless pony stories – handwritten and self-illustrated on stapled together sheets of paper that I still have stored in boxes. Horses were my first love, and as a ponymad but ponyless child, I fulfilled my dreams in a world of my own creating.

Alongside the horses, King Arthur has been a lifelong obsession for me. It probably began when my parents took me to see Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. I loved Wart and all his adventures. They took me, their eldest child, to see all sorts of films in the cinema. This was the days before video or dvd. I remember vividly seeing Dr Zhivago, The Taming of the Shrew and Henry V as quite a small child, but the one that also served to fire my imagination was Camelot.

Aged about twenty, I penned a massive tome on the life of King Arthur from birth to death, but it was naïve and full of embarrassingly bad writing. I shelved it when I married a farmer and we started a family, while I fulfilled my other dream of running my own riding school. However, my interest in Arthur and all things pertaining to the Dark Ages continued unabated. And horses, of course. I found time to write a short story which I sent off to PONY magazine and was overjoyed to have published in their summer special. My story was sandwiched between those by the famous authors I’d read as a child.

I returned to writing when we moved to France, and it was hard to find English books for my youngest son to read, especially ones that would hold his attention. I decided to write one for him. I like thrillers that have good hook endings to their chapters, so this was what I set out to write for him. I wrote a couple of chapters and read him one. He wanted the second one. Then he wanted the third. I had to write this book at top speed for a chapter a night as his bedtime story, so at 17 chapters and 65,000 words, it took just over two weeks to write. He then wanted book two. Books three and four followed much more slowly.

Back living in the UK on our canal boat, I no longer had the distraction of my horses. I missed them at first, but if I still had them, I wouldn’t have found the time to do anywhere near as much writing as I have. I’m also somewhat hampered by having an inner ear problem called Menière’s Disease which has left me nearly deaf in my left ear. It gives me sudden, random attacks of vertigo, and sometimes I can’t use the computer at all as it can make me worse. I’ve grown to know the signs of an oncoming attack and when to quit using the computer. Annoying, but essential.

I returned to historical fiction and Guinevere because I wasn’t getting anywhere with my children’s books. I’d wanted to write a historical novel about the women in Arthur’s life for a long time, and a visit to Glastonbury Tor finally triggered me to put thought into deed.

On a grey, wintry day, my husband and I parked our Land Rover round the back (where Gwen’s parents park in the book) and walked across the field towards the Tor. My husband set up his tripod and camera, loaded with infrared film. He took four very rapid photos. When he developed the film that evening he was shocked. Photo 1 – you can see the tower on top of the Tor clearly. Photo 2 – the tower is fading. Photo 3 – the tower has completely vanished. Photo 4 – the tower is back. Although the day was grey, visibility was fine. Infrared film is super sensitive and he had NOT messed with it. This set me wondering if we’d had a glimpse back in time to when the tower wasn’t on the hilltop, and what would have happened if we’d been up there, in it, when it vanished. I mulled it around for a long while in my head, combined it with the story I’d always wanted to write about Arthur from Guinevere’s POV, and then one day just sat down and wrote it. Guinevere was born.

Having left it with a rather up in the air ending, I had to write book two, The Bear Cub, which was just as much fun, and took about a month to write. Then I set about editing it, and sending the first book off to mostly agents and the few publishers who allow you to query without an agent. But I got nowhere. I persevered, and still got nowhere. I bet I’ve queried a lot more agents and publishers than JK Rowling ever did.

I entered countless competitions, with Guinevere as well as with the books I’d written for Jake. I had some ‘highly commended’ and even got to be in the top six with the Sharpe Books/Historical Writers’ Association First Novel, equal 4th, so I knew my writing wasn’t the problem.

Then in September 2020 I spotted the Dragonblade Publishing competition.

It was free, so I thought, why not? I sent off the first 50 pages, then competely forgot about it. In April no one could have been more surprised than me when I received an email saying I’d made it to the semi-finals. I thought I’d better have a look at their website. Just historical romance, but predominantly Regency and Georgian – so I thought my chances with an Arthurian Dark Age novel were pretty slim.

However, the nearer we got to July 1st and results day, the more I dared to hope. All day long I kept checking my emails, but nothing. Of course, being 6 hours behind the UK, their 9am was our 3pm. By just before 10 in the evening I was at the point where I needed to ask them if the results really were coming out. To my surprise, I got an email straight back saying they wouldn’t tell me the good news yet, but to go and look at the Facebook announcement.

So I did. It was quite long and luckily recorded from about an hour earlier. I flicked through it to the announcement of the winners. Six runners up and a grand prize winner. I crossed my fingers and hoped for a place, but as Kathryn Le Veque, the owner of Dragonblade Publishing, read out name after name, my heart sank further down into my fluffy slippers. At last, she came to the grand prize winner. And it was me. I screamed. A proper scream. All I could do was squeal, “It’s me! It’s me!” at my somewhat startled but over-the-moon husband.

That was it, a chance entry to a competition I nearly bypassed, and my dream had come true. The thing I’d been waiting for all my life was finally going to happen.

So the moral of this is to never give up. If you’re a good writer with a good story, all you need is someone in the right sort of mood to read it for you and recognise it for what it is. I got that. I think success in finding a publisher is a lot down to luck – the time you send it off, who you send it to, who reads it, the mood they’re in. Obviously the book needs to be good, but that’s a foregone conclusion. I know there must be lots of really good books out there just looking for the right person to read them and see their potential. Thank goodness someone did that for me.

And now not only do I have a publisher,  but also an agent, the lovely Susan Yearwood.