The paperback of Her Heart for a Compass, the first book I co-authored with Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, was released in May this year. To celebrate, Mills&Boon hosted a live Historical Book Club event at the News Building, so for the second time in the space of a few weeks I paid a visit to my sister Catriona, who very kindly offers me bed and board when I’m in London.
Though I’m even now still careful to wear a mask on busy public transport, I’m amazed at how quickly I’ve started to relax when I’m out and about, and how much I’m enjoying seeing the world again. I’ve really missed travelling, and though I’d hesitate to go abroad right at the moment, it’s because of the chaos at airports, and no longer the pandemic that’s holding me back. I’ve missed seeing new places, enjoying the buzz of a city and the people watching – oh, how I’ve missed the people watching. An added bonus when heading south at this time of year is the weather. Five hundred miles(ish) separate Argyll from my sister’s home in Surrey, but there’s usually at least 10C degrees of a difference in the temperature. This time, as on my visit the previous month, I left the rain behind and the sun shone with some genuine warmth for most of my stay.
My friend Mairibeth Macmillan lives on the Cowal peninsula too, and when we meet for coffee we usually each take a local ferry to the ‘other side’ of the Clyde at Gourock. Serendipity meant that she was in London at the same time as me, so we met up in London, and as an added bonus I managed to catch up for a quick coffee with my friend Peter on the same day. Mairibeth, her lovely friend Sarah and I, visited the Sir John Soane’s Museum which is in Holborn. It’s one of those quirky places that was actually the architect’s house (or houses rather, I think it’s three knocked into one) but it’s also a museum, stuffed full of the artifacts, weird and wonderful, that he spent a lifetime collecting. There are two very, very famous Hogarth series, The Rake’s Progress and Election, though they only put them out on display at set times during the day. And all of it is free too! If you haven’t visited, check out the website, which includes a virtual tour of the house. Explore The Soane Museum
After lunch, we decided simply to wander in the sunshine and to follow our noses around Holborn soaking up the history, which proved to be plentiful. Mairibeth managed to find the Temple Church hidden away in Temple Bar, and the amazing Lincoln’s Inn Fields are a real hidden gem, especially if like me you’re a Rumpole of the Bailey fan.
I was thrilled to bits when my mum arranged to join Catriona and I a couple of days later, timed to arrive for the launch of Her Heart for a Compass. The sun continued to shine on us, and we made a Big Day Out of it, walking all the way along the South Bank from Waterloo to Borough Market. The views of London from here are spectacular, with endless people-watching opportunities. I love Borough Market, and usually would have joined the other two in sipping a glass of bubbly while I grazed my way around, but by this time I was far too nervous about the upcoming event. I did manage to eat most of my lunch at a fish restaurant right in the middle of the market, but I must confess that butterflies made it a challenge.
In the News Building foyer I met the lovely Adele Parks who was to be our host and interviewer, and chatting to her about books and writing made me forget the performance for a while. Though when we got out of the lift on the top floor to discover a HUGE electronic banner advertising the event and I saw myself displayed what felt like ten times my real size, I quailed for a moment. But between Adele, the fabulous team at Mills&Boon and of course my amazing and ever-charming co-author Sarah Ferguson, by the time we went on stage I just about had myself under control.
I’m told the event went really well. As ever, it passed in a blur and I remember almost nothing of it, but knowing there were some familiar faces in the audience helped – so thank you so much Mum, Catriona and author Fiona Lucas too. Afterwards for me is the fun part, a chance to talk to real readers, and what a lovely surprise to catch up with three of the four ladies who had afternoon tea with the Duchess and myself last year, Sarah, Laura and Angela. Sadly the other Sarah couldn’t make it, but hopefully next time.
The next day with the sun continuing to beam down on us (sorry to go on about it, but when you come from officially the second wettest town in the UK, the sun is a real treat), Catriona, Mum and I went to Cliveden with a picnic. I first visited the gardens last year with researcher Susan, when the Duchess and I were writing our second book together (A Most Intriguing Lady, which will be out in February 2022). We had decided to use Cliveden as one of our locations. In fact, it is the scene of a shocking theft which sets off a series of dramatic events. I can’t say any more but I hope it has whetted your appetite. Susan and I had visited late in the year with only an hour to spend, so I had been keen to go back and take a more leisurely look around.
Cliveden was mobbed, but fortunately the grounds are so extensive that you don’t notice once you’ve left the car park. We booked ourselves in for a tour of the house too, though I was a bit disappointed. It’s a working hotel so you get very limited access to the rooms and can’t take photos – understandably. It also played a key role in the Profumo Affair. We did see some of the sketches that Stephen Ward did, including the famous one of Christine Keiller, and a spectacular room which is now the French Dining Room which is decorated in a totally over the top Rococo style with painted paneling and a lot of gold leaf. It was purchased lock, stock and barrel from a French chateau by William Waldor Astor in the 1890s, so wasn’t there when our heroine visited in 1876. These days it’s used for weddings. Eye-wateringly expensive weddings, I suspect.
The Blenheim Pavilion in the gardens was most certainly there in 1876, and plays a pivotal role in A Most Intriguing Lady. I wanted to make a little video there, but to my annoyance there was a couple in situ having a loud and heated discussion who didn’t look like moving anytime soon. (Reality emulating art? I couldn’t possibly say!) So onwards we trailed, through the atmospheric cemetery created by Nancy Astor during WWI when the house was used as a hospital, and back to the Water Garden where we had an over-indulgent picnic quite befitting of the setting.
Another day, more sunshine, and another outing for the three amigos, starting with a walk up Primrose Hill to take in the spectacular panoramic vista of London it offers – and it’s also a great place for a picnic spot, incidentally.
A wander through nearby Camden Market then my sister had to go off to work – someone has to, I guess. My mum and me decided to head along the tow path at Regent’s Canal. It was utterly lovely, all calm and green, with some stunning houses on the opposite bank to look and invent stories about the inhabitants (my mum makes up great stories) and every now and then we passed little barge communities. It made me think about having a heroine who runs away from her suffocating life to live on a barge – and I’m still thinking about that one. Footsore and thirsty, we emerged at Maida Vale and just like magic or Brigadoon a lovely olde worlde pub with a quiet secluded beer garden appeared. I call that a magical day.
Mum and I headed home to Scotland the next morning. ‘Don’t take this the wrong way,’ Catriona said to me as she waved us off, ‘I love having you here but it was so much nicer having Mum too.’ I didn’t take it amiss at all. She was (unusually!) quite right.
So, all in all a perfect trip to the big smoke. A little (but very important) bit of work and a lot of pleasure. And as an added bonus, my train fair is tax-deductable!