Under the clouds

It’s raining in California. Perhaps we need it, but if I had a say there would be a mix of warm sun and scattered layers of bright white clouds, with a cool breeze. My garden requires care, to check the rapid spring growth of weeds and new shoots on trees and shrubs. Even so, there is beauty in the wildness. Gradually, I will bring it to a more managed state.

The sun is shining in London. If I could, I would walk in Green Park. The old trees stand in silent witness to the generations that preceded us and endured. The daffodils display a legacy of renewal. Quiet and stillness belong here, under the sun, under the clouds, swept by the cool breeze.

AmazonUSA: A Moon Garden by Roxane Gilbert
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Those quiet spaces

As much as I love the energy and bustle of New York, at some point in my visits to that great city, I inevitably seek the quiet spaces. In this time of forced isolation due to the pandemic, many of us are looking for ways to safely connect with one another. Yet perhaps because so much of my lifetime has been spent in the mostly solitary pursuits of painting and writing, I still take comfort in solitude.

Central Park in Autumn

When walking in Central Park in autumn, it is easy to get away from crowds. It may not be the wisest thing to do, but I take the precaution of making sure there are a few other people about, enjoying the sights and sounds of nature in the urban oasis.

West 76th Street

Neither the photo of Central Park nor the one of West 76th Street was taken in the midst of a quarantine. The day was a cool, sunny, pleasant one in mid-October, when a late morning stroll on Columbus Avenue meant being swept along in a current of a moving throng. By just turning a corner, I was suddenly in a different world.

The world in which we now find ourselves is a tricky one. As I sit at home, doing research for my next book, organizing data, writing, editing, reading, I still think about those quiet spaces, and wish with all my heart that we may all soon safely travel to them.

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Hulks in Charlestown Harbor

Des Barres, Joseph F. W. (Joseph Frederick Wallet), 1722-1824; Published 1780 (London); LOC# gm71000644

After abandoning Philadelphia to the Americans in 1778, the British shifted their focus to the South. By the middle of May 1780, they had secured a decisive victory in Charlestown, South Carolina, with the surrender of the Continental Army and Patriot militias under the command of Major General Benjamin Lincoln. Hundreds of captured colonial soldiers were held in prison hulks in the harbor.

In my debut historical novel, A Moon Garden, Joseph Buckleigh is an officer with the 33rd Regiment of Foot. At the Royal Army field headquarters just north of Charlestown, he is unexpectedly reunited with his friend, Aaron Mendes, a colonial doctor who has recently arrived to treat the sick and wounded prisoners.

Aaron’s face lit up when he saw Joseph, and he suspected his expression mirrored his friend’s. The two men embraced.

“This is unexpected, Aaron,” said Joseph. “Colonel Eades only told me a few moments ago that you are working at Greenwood. When did you arrive?”

“Just over one week ago.”

“It is commendable of you to serve the Patriots at a British facility. We have too few doctors even to attend our own soldiers, so I am certain the care given to the captured wounded is far from adequate.”

“I will refrain from commenting, Joseph. Suffice it to say that I am kept busy.”

The men went outside. Colonel Eades had already requested Joseph’s horse be made ready, and it was tied to a post next to Aaron’s bay mare. It was a cool morning on a clear day, perfect for riding.

“Charlestown Harbor is not far,” said Joseph. “When we get to the ship, you cannot board without someone to provide protection. Perhaps we may prevail upon a prison guard to accompany you, for you must realize I cannot. If there were a way to persuade you to abandon this undertaking, I would try.”

“It is not for myself that I must do this.”

Joseph felt the wind go out of himself, as though he had taken a blow to the solar plexus. Grace was the unspoken, unseen presence. It was for Grace that Aaron would visit hell to look in on the man who had seduced his sister and then bound her to himself with an eternal vow. It was for Grace that Aaron and Joseph had to assess a value to the life of a man who had abused and encumbered a woman that they each loved in their own way. Joseph untangled the reins of the chestnut Marsh Tacky stallion, put his boot in the stirrup, and mounted. “Then ride,” he said, as he took off at a gallop, not glancing back to see if Aaron had followed.

From A Moon Garden ©2020 Roxane Gilbert

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Cream Tea, Just Because

Devon Cream Tea
Devon Cream Tea
©2020 Roxane Gilbert

What is Cream Tea? Cream tea refers to a tradition in Devon and Cornwall of serving afternoon tea with scones, clotted cream, and jam.

Although I would never refuse a freshly made scone served Cornish style, when it comes to cream tea, I am securely in the Devon camp: the cream goes on the scone with the jam on top. (In the Cornish tradition the jam is spread on the scone and a spoonful of cream is put on top of that.)

If you are in the United Kingdom, your local market may sell Devon or Cornish clotted cream. Those of us in the United States may be able to buy packaged clotted cream at the supermarket, from a gourmet grocer, or online. It’s a decent, pricey substitute for the fresh product.

Fortunately, clotted cream is very easy to make at home. The tricky part is tracking down a supply of heavy cream that is not ultra-pasteurized. If the cream is ultra-pasteurized, it is not going to separate. There is a dairy near me that sells it. If there are no such purveyors in your vicinity, you may do well to check for cream from an organic dairy.

Homemade Clotted Cream:
Preheat your oven to 170°F or 80°C.
Pour a pint of heavy cream into a tempered glass baking pan. Use a large enough pan so that the cream is no more than two-inches deep. Thinner is better. Bake it for 12 hours. A yellow or brownish crust will form at the top. This is okay.

Remove the baked cream from the oven and refrigerate it for at least eight hours or overnight. Pierce the crust and tip the pan to drain the liquid into a glass. Set this aside to use for making scones, or use it in your coffee or tea.

Stir the thickened cream together with the crusty top. It may be lumpy. Store it in a covered glass container in the refrigerator for up to one week. This makes enough clotted cream for about eight scones.

Easy, right?

The East Webburn River in Widecombe-in-the-Moor

The East Webburn River flows through the ancient, picturesque village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, past the Rugglestone Inn, and through the vast land holdings of the fictional family of Joseph Buckleigh, the hero of the historical novel A Moon Garden, by Roxane Gilbert. When his tour of duty in the American War for Independence comes to an end, Joseph returns to his ancestral home in Widecombe-in-the-Moor, to heal and resume his life.

Joseph’s eyes sparkled as he smiled. “I will tell you something right now that is as sincere as anything you will hear today. I am going to strip off all of my clothes and plunge my body into that very cold stream over there on the other side of the hedge. There is nothing I would like better than for my wife to get some clean clothes from my brother, and a sheet in which I may wrap myself when I come out of the water. Now, if you can present these to me in five minutes, I would be most appreciative.” With that, Joseph pulled off his shirt, dropped it on the ground, then ran in the direction of the creek.

It was not Grace who stood on the bank when Joseph finished bathing. He laughed when he saw Russell Jayne, now a captain with the Royal Army, sitting on a moss-covered rock. Russell threw him the sheet. “Good Lord, Buckleigh. What I must endure for King and country.”

From A Moon Garden ©2020 Roxane Gilbert

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St Patrick’s Day musings on the Tower of London

Church of St Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London
©Roxane Gilbert

Gerald Fitzgerald, 9th Earl of Kildare (1487-1534) has the dubious distinction of being the first prisoner to be buried in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula after being incarcerated and dying in the Tower of London.

Upon his father’s death in 1513, Kildare succeeded him as Lord Deputy of Ireland. A fierce warrior, he is said to have “reduced Ireland to a quiet condition” in 1517 after storming Ulster and taking the Castle of Dungannon.

In response to accusations of mismanagement, Kildare was removed from office in 1518. He was replaced by Thomas Howard, the Earl of Surrey, followed by his brother-in-law, Piers Butler, the 8th Earl of Ormond. He was eventually reappointed Lord Deputy, but turmoil prevailed as a blood feud raged between him and Ormond.

In 1534 he travelled to London, where he was arrested, arraigned, and imprisoned at the Tower of London. Later that year he died of his grief, and was buried in the church at the Tower.

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The stone walls of Dartmoor

Dartmoor Lane
©Roxane Gilbert

Widecombe-in-the-Moor in Devon, England, is a village of fewer than 200 households in the middle of Dartmoor, which has been protected by National Park status since 1951. Many of the hedgerows and stone walls that divide the landscape date back hundreds of years. The walls have become natural rock gardens, covered with stonecrop, navelwort, maiden-hair ferns, and lichens.

“The edge of the gentle downward slope was anchored at its base by a giant yew tree.  From there the lane gradually rose again for about 30 yards.  Another low, decaying stone wall adjoined a weathered wooden fence, blocking the entrance to the courtyard of a two-story stone cottage set back against rolling green hills.  A decrepit stone barn stood to the east, and an overgrown garden was to the west.  Aaron dismounted his horse and opened the wide, slatted gate.  Its large rusted hinges were generously greased.  Despite a high-pitched scraping sound, it swung open with ease.”

From A Moon Garden ©2020 Roxane Gilbert

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After the Battle of Camden 1780

Battle of Camden 1780
Battle of Camden, August 16th, 1780

Despite the superior numbers of the American Patriot forces, they were resoundingly defeated by the British in the Battle of Camden in South Carolina on August 16, 1780. It was a bloody battle, with both sides suffering many killed and wounded. The Royal Army’s 33rd Regiment of Foot, in the front lines of the fighting, was particularly devastated.

“Late that night, Joseph was sitting on a patchwork quilt blanket in the garden next to the meadow behind the great house that served as Army headquarters and the Camden residence of General Cornwallis and his officers. The moon was full, and he stared out at the silhouettes of the towering pine trees beyond the redoubt, listening to the serenade of bullfrogs, as he tipped a small silver flask to his lips and felt the smooth burn of the Scotch whiskey easing down his throat. He was barefoot, in his shirt sleeves. His unbound hair, hanging loose around his collar, was tousled by a soft summer breeze.

“There was a muted click as someone opened the gate. Joseph looked over his shoulder and was surprised to see two tall men walking towards him. At 20 yards, they were too far away in the darkness for him to determine who they were. He closed his eyes for a moment and sighed, then pushed the ground with his fist and stood up.

“‘As you were, Major Buckleigh,’ said a familiar voice. It was Colonel Eades. The larger man with him was General Cornwallis. ‘As you were.’”

from A Moon Garden ©2020 Roxane Gilbert

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The River Dart

It is July 4, 1778. The British Army’s 33rd Regiment of Foot has returned to the New York colony, after sustaining heavy losses in the horrific Battle of Monmouth.

“It was a warm day with a mild breeze in Manhattan. Joseph sat under a tree in the meadow at the end of Broadway, cleaning his musket. As Colonel Eades had foreseen, now that Joseph was back in New York, he was finding time to rest. He reflected on the tough battles he had been through with his regiment. When they left England and arrived in the colonies in 1776, they numbered nearly 500. In two years, the 33rd had lost close to a quarter of its men.

“… Joseph closed his eyes and envisioned the raven-haired beauty with the pale complexion, clear green eyes, and bright smile. The two of them were together, laughing, walking across the ancient rough-granite footbridge over the rushing River Dart, then running up a hill to stroll hand-in-hand on the vast, misty moor.”

from A Moon Garden ©2020 Roxane Gilbert

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Clapper bridge over the River Dart in Dartmeet, Devon, England
©Roxane Gilbert