Tag Archives: book

The Walkers Guide to the Heath

Neil Rhind (author of many books about Blackheath) writes:

I am hoping that the Blackheath Buglers can help the Blackheath Society on a small point of location. The Society is moving close (November) to the publication of a Walkers’ Guide to the Heath – three long walks, all plotted out drawing the ramblers attention to features, facts and history. There is also a timeline from the Romans to the present day. This is all being compiled by the undersigned and Dr Roger Marshall, a member of the Blackheath Society committee. as part of the Digital scheme to make the Society’s collection of about 15,000 images available on a web site with full public access.

One feature noted is a concrete “horse trough” at the south end of Montpelier Row. No animals drink there but it is used for floral displays. We believe that it was once elsewhere in the Village. Can anyone tell us where?

Free copy of the Blackheath walkers’ guide to the first person to get it right.

Their email address is:


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Alan Williams – Author of The Blackheath Seance Parlour

Following on from yesterday’s review of The Blackheath Seance Parlour, here is a Q&A session with Alan Williams, the author. Please note that the interview contains spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book yet (you should), please go to the review page instead.

Q: You obviously spent a great deal of time researching the local area, as mentioned in the appendix. Are there any historical leaps that you had to make for artistic purposes?

A: There are. One of the most iconic buildings in Blackheath is the Tea Hut and although it wasn’t standing there in the 1840s, I had to drag it back in time to be in the book. It’s too much a part of Blackheath to omit. I also had to play with the time frame of the Clarendon hotel. In the early 1900s it was three separate houses used by the ship builders of Deptford. One became a bed and breakfast but the rest of its history is at best vague. And then there is Montague John Druit.

Q: Why the decision to make Montague John Druitt the murderer? Did you spend much time reading about his association with the ripper murders, and his unfortunate demise? Do you have an opinion about what really happened at the school where he taught?

A: Initially, I wrote Druitt in because I wanted to give a nod to a different part of Blackheath’s history but the more I read into his background the more intriguing it became. His is a story in itself. He was a respected barrister who also took on a job in a school in Blackheath. There was an accusation that he had interfered with a boy there, though it was never proven, but the social shame of being homosexual during that age, the passing of his father, then his mother’s mental decline, incarceration and death six months earlier had to have played a huge part in his own mental state. And because there was a family history that increasingly revolved around mental illness, particularly in that unenlightened age, he would have been frightened for his own sanity or at least aware that it might also claim him and he hinted at this in the letter he left. So having been dismissed from the school and with the (supposed) severance cheques from the school still in his pockets, he wrote a note reading “Since Friday I felt I was going to be like mother, and the best thing for me was to die.” Then he filled his pockets with stones and threw himself to his death in the Thames.

On top of this came the accusations that he was, in fact, Jack The Ripper. There is much that isn’t known about Druitt, so drawing him back and placing him in The Blackheath Séance Parlour allowed me to use the switch of personality that was, I think, placed on a frightened and lonely man during a witch hunt. The more I think about Druitt, the more I want to write his novel.

Q: Were there any other local characters/places that you wanted to include but couldn’t?

A: The church was the biggest shock. The novel is set just before the building of it had begun and although this played out somewhat as a strength, my first reaction was ‘How can I write a novel set in Blackheath with the church missing?’ When people think of Blackheath they think of the church. If you Google it, you get the church. The church is the celebrated icon of Blackheath. In the novel, Blackheath was the only parish not to have a church of its own so I brought in the architect who originally built it and had a horrifyingly drunk Maggie attempt to seduce him in the Gypsy Moth.

I brought in a lot of the actual people who did run each shop in 1840s Blackheath. (Thank you Neil Rhind for your book Blackheath and Environs – in my eyes, the Blackheath Bible.) And there were many, many more people with staggering and globally important histories right down to the women on the convict ship, that I would like to have included but Blackheath, once you start digging, offers up such a history that you could write a dozen books about it so I had to put the brakes on fast or mention briefly them in passing.

Q: How long did it take to write? Your bio says that you work within the film and television industry. Did script editing bring out the frustrated novelist? How do the two processes differ?

A: It took a year to write, then six months to rewrite. The scenes with Maggie in them wrote themselves. She’d walk onto a page and I could almost just sit back and watch what happened. I spent many an enjoyable afternoon in the Hare and Billet writing her.

As for the difference between script editing and writing, they are intertwined to a degree but also poles apart. It’s much easier to go in and sharpen other people’s work but with your own, sometimes you can’t see the wood for the trees. I let Séance Parlour sit for six months to gain some distance from it before I went back in with the red pen.

Q: If the reader accepts that Klaus Van Dyne is an evil genius, and can graft bodies together to form human wings (which is a fantastically creepy reveal incidentally), why would this gruesome but scientific process cause the children to become flesh eaters? I enjoyed them simply as flying demons – did they need to become vampires too? Do you think of them as vampires?

A: Thank you. I see them as people with an altered physiology and with that comes a whole new set of base instincts. Their nurse tries to stop their cat and mouse games with animals when they are children but it becomes clear to her that it’s a part of their primal instinct she can barely suppress. If anything, for them, it’s more about the thrill of hunting or a way of dealing with problems. They are set aside as a species with no peers or role models and they do still depend on injections of various solutions found only in birds and other animals to remain healthy and because of these factors they become a rule to themselves. I didn’t want to create a vampire that skulks about and has an evil plot, I wanted them to be more raw.

Q: Whilst reading the book, I had the strange sensation that the people who could contact the afterlife were the rationalists, and the men of the establishment (priests, scientists) were the mystics. Do you believe in contact with the afterlife? The book feels quite critical of organised religion at times – are you speaking through Maggie?

A: It was an age when science was beginning to challenge religion and women were beginning to take a stand. The women in Séance Parlour are very strong-minded, Maggie in particular and her dislike of Father Legge turned her against religion. I think it became a battle of wills between the two characters and in turn a battle over the church’s monopoly on faith. Like science, the séance parlour becomes a threat, chipping away the church’s power and influence.

Q: Where’s the spookiest place in Blackheath?

A: You have to go a long way to beat a good thick fog on the heath itself.

The Blackheath Seance Parlour is on sale now £10 from Amazon.


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The Blackheath Seance Parlour

The Blackheath Seance Parlour novel by Alan Williams
The Blackheath Seance Parlour is a new novel by Alan Williams, published tomorrow. I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy, which I’ve just finished reading. Below are some thoughts on it.

We are placed in the 1840s and into the lives of two sisters who are running a chocolate shop in Blackheath. The business is going very badly, and so they decide to open a seance parlour instead.

To say that the novel is set in Blackheath is an understatement. Almost every important scene takes place in the village. All the pubs, churches, and other key buildings in Greenwich, Lewisham and Lee appear throughout the novel. But what really makes it interesting is the way in which the author has woven the fictional characters around real historical figures from the area. I found myself rushing over to Wikipedia several times, to try and decide whether the new guest at a dinner party really was the “father of meteorology” or not (he was), or whether the architect really did build All Saints church (he did).

Although set in the 1840s, the dialogue between the characters feels fresh and alive. It’s a funny blend of genres – at times it felt as though I was reading Cranford, at other times gothic novels such as Vathek sprang to mind. The level of consternation within the village at changes to the high street felt as though they had stepped from the comments pages of this blog at times!

Page 63:

“A new shop in the village was big news. A suitable addition could uplift everyone and give their lives renewed inspiration and purpose, whereas the wrong shop could lead to depression and a sense that the village was sliding into ruin. On the rare occasions that this occurred, the owners were ostracised, there was an unspoken boycott and soon, through ruin or social pressure, the shop was gone and everyone was happy again. Blackheath was a very fussy village.”

I particularly enjoyed the proprietress of the Blackheath Tea Hut. Whether it really existed before the 1920s isn’t clear but it’s great fun either way. As she explains:

‘They are trying to close us down again. It’s always the same people. They said because we are a wooden building and every so many decades we need to rebuild, that each time we should apply as if we are a brand new business. It is so they can say no to us. This is, and always has been, our part of the heath. But every time they refuse to acknowledge the previous hut so they shorten our history. Well we’ve built it strong this time. This hut will be here well into the 1920s. Let them stick that in their pipes.They say that we attract the wrong sort but everyone knows it is because we draw the crowds that refuse to pay the scandalous prices of the tea room in the park.’

It doesn’t matter that there is some artistic license. I don’t mind whether Princess Sophia really used to look up into the sky from the Ranger’s House with her telescope – it’s still a lovely image.

We’re in a world where spiritualism is real. Although there are many charlatans, some people really can contact the afterlife, and this is key to the plot. The church takes a dim view of this, and many of the arguments in the book (mostly after several glasses of strong port or oily gin at the Hare and Billet) are between the main characters and the local vicar. Even if you find fortune-tellers and mysticism irritating in the real world, you are gradually sucked into the excitement and mystery of the story, and probably end up siding with them before the book has finished with you.

This is a book containing a novel within a novel, and the internal novel is a little tiresome for the first few pages, perhaps because it is written in such a hyper-gothic penny-dreadful style (even though this is historically accurate). But I soon found myself caught up in the adventures of the mysterious count, with glimmers of The Count of Monte Cristo.

One of the most discouraging things I read about the book before actually attempting it was that this was a vampire novel. It isn’t. If you are sick of the sight of True Blood, if Twilight has you reaching for the sick bag, do not be dissuaded from reading this book! It doesn’t have any of the vampires-as-metaphors-for-chastity and it’s much more like “Cranford with teeth”. Indeed the sections dealing with these matters are some of the most enjoyable by the end.

For anyone living in Blackheath, it’s a great read – funny, thought provoking, and lively. Not to mention a great way to be taken back in time as you walk across the heath. Just take a lantern with you…

The Blackheath Seance Parlour is published by Cutting Edge Press, and is released tomorrow (Thursday) 1st August. It’s available to pre-order now on Amazon, and from Waterstones.


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Blackheath mentioned in Dan Brown’s latest novel

Inferno novel by Dan Brown
As spotted by Neil Short on Twitter, Blackheath is mentioned in Dan Brown’s new novel Inferno (he who wrote The Da Vinci Code, and other cheesy thrillers)


Here’s the passage:

“The bio was a gushing account of a child theater prodigy—Sienna Brooks—with an off- the-chart IQ, who had, in a single night, memorized every character’s lines and, during initial rehearsals, often cued her fellow cast members. Among this five-year-old’s hobbies were viol- in, chess, biology, and chemistry. The child of a wealthy couple in the London suburb of Blackheath, the girl was already a celebrity in scientific circles; at the age of four, she had beat a chess grand master at his own game and was reading in three languages.
My God, Langdon thought. Sienna. That explains a few things.”

Gripping eh? Who would have thought such an accomplished author would resort to using Blackheath as shorthand for wealth and privilege…


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James Abbott’s book

Image from Narrative of a journey from Heraut to Khiva, Moscow, and St. Petersburgh, Volume 1. by Sir James Abbott
From Google Books, the complete volume 1 of James Abbott’s book (he of the previous post): Narrative of a journey from Heraut to Khiva, Moscow, and St. Petersburgh, Volume 1.

PDF PDF Version here. Image above from the book scan (book is from 1843, so is out of copyright).

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The Reluctant Library

Lucy Mangan of the Grauniad TV reviews will be reading from her book The Reluctant Bride in a shameless bid to save Blackheath Library at 2pm on Saturday. What’s that you say? Maybe it is her favourite book! Why shouldn’t her favourite book be one that she wrote herself, for goodness sake? The trouble with you people is that you are far too cynical.

On another note, Sir Ian Mills of Age Exchange wrote me a very valid email, pointing out that whilst my post “Pay a tenner to find out what will happen to your library” was factually correct, it was also extremely bad tempered. He has a point. I had a hangover. On a school night. Sorry. If you want to look at Age Exchange’s plans for the library, they are on display inside their shop. You should go regardless, it’s a great place.

Nonetheless, some of the comments below the post raise some interesting questions:

  • This seems to me to be the most significant issue: If Age Exchange hadn’t stepped in to offer the council this alternative, wouldn’t there have been more pressure on Lewisham council not to close the library? Isn’t this just giving them an easy get-out?
  • Is this a way for Age Exchange to expand its profile, maintain its funding, and by merging itself with the library, ensure that it cannot be easily removed from the high street? The first role of any organisation is to maintain its own existence, even if it is a charity.
  • Why should local library-goers be encouraged to donate £30 per year to maintain a library service that up until this year was provided by the local council?
  • Darryl claims that Greenwich Council has decided to cease funding for Age Exchange. Does Greenwich Council contribute funds to Age Exchange? (I couldn’t see any mention of them on their funding page).
  • The current library is funded by Lewisham council, but Age Exchange is in the Greenwich Council part of Blackheath. How will this issue be resolved?

I’ve written before about how much I like the Age Exchange Centre.  It’s great.  But by offering Mayor Bullock a Big-Society-friendly way to downgrade the status of the current library, it may have done more harm than good.  Maybe lobbying the current owners of the existing library building to reduce or forgo the rent could have been a better strategy, which is now unavailable to the BVLUG, as the anti-closure lobby is effectively split between two positions.


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Thomas Noble’s Blackheath poetry book

A wonderful find on eBay (starting bids at £200), this 1808 poetry book about Blackheath.

Thanks to the wonder of the internet, you can look through its dusty pages for nothing, by going to this Internet Archive page. They have a great PDF version – complete with pen and ink illustrations, or the text only version (with dubious character recognition) is here.

Blackheath illustration from Thomas Noble's "Blackheath"poem

The illustrations are brilliant, as are the footnotes – little pieces of local history, like this one (page 40):
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Book clubs in Blackheath

Book Club at Blackheath Village Library
Clare emailed a while back, asking if there were any reading groups in Blackheath. I knew that there was one based at the library, but couldn’t remember the details. As I went to renew a book a few days ago, sure enough on the counter was all the information that you would need –

First edition of Brideshead Revisited, from wikipediaThere’s a book club held at the library on the first Thursday of each month, between 6.30pm-7.30pm. Last month they were reading Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.

This contradicts what is written on Greenwich council’s page about reading groups – they claim that it is held at 7pm on the occasional Monday. Lewisham’s effort mentions a reading group, but doesn’t say when it is… At least it doesn’t send you there on the wrong day!

So, if you do go along, please let me know how it is, how many people are there, and whether the first Thursday of the month is the right date!


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