Piper’s Hole

Piper’s Hole

If there’s anything more beautiful than a cave carved from a cliff by the sea, I’m not sure I’ve seen it. There’s just something breathtaking about that visual reminder of the power of the waves, isn’t there? Words like erosion and corrosion just don’t capture the majesty and beauty of it.

When my family visited Cornwall in 2016, we saw many places along the coast at Land’s End with gorgeous columns of rock and crevasses cut by the water and time.

And the same sort of beautiful sea-made wonders can be found dotting the coasts of the Isles of Scilly—the largest and most famous of which is Piper’s Hole.

About Piper’s Hole

The sea cave is actually subterranean. The entrance is a rocky opening at the beach at the base of a cliff, and for the first bit of it visitors actually have to crawl over the huge boulders guarding the entrance. Back in the days when the historical guidebook Guide to the Isles of Scilly was written (1880s), lanterns or torches would have been the order of the day in order to see. By the time The Nature of a Lady takes place in 1906, electric torches (aka flashlights to those of us not from the UK) would have been a far more convenient way to light our path.

Once one has scrambled over the rocks, there’s a ledge you can drop over, beyond which is the true attraction: a pool. In days gone by, a small boat was actually kept there so that visitors could paddle around the small lake and explore, perhaps pull up at the sandy beach on the opposite side. Locals would sometimes place candles throughout the cave for tourists as well, which is said to have turned it into a romantic grotto.

The entrance to Piper’s Hole looks similar to the coastal rocks at Land’s End, seen here.

How Piper’s Hole Got Its Name and Other Legends

Where, you may ask, did this sea cave get its name? There are various theories. One more modern one says it’s named after clay smokers’ pipes (because there are seams of clay in the cave), but the more appealing theory is that back in the misty past, it was believed to be a fairy cave and it was said that one could hear the fairy’s playing their pipes from its depths.

I personally find that theory much more in line with many other whimsical names abounding in the islands.

Visitors to the isles may also notice there is a second Piper’s Hole. This one—smaller and not as impressive—is located on St. Mary’s island. Why, you may ask, does it bear the same name as the other cave on Tresco? Well, legend has it that the two are connected by an underground passageway. Men, it’s been said, have vanished into these caves never to be seen again…but there’s an old story about a dog going into the cave on one island and, a week later, emerging from the cave on the other, nearly starved and missing much of its fur from the tight passages it had to squeeze through.

Truth or tall tale? We’ll never know. But it’s a story that has persisted for hundreds of years, even appearing in the works of historian Samuel Drew, who is known for sharing only the facts—he presents this tale as being unbelievable, but he still includes it, which is unlike him. What made him write about this tale, even to scoff at it, as opposed to others he simply refused to include in his work? Perhaps there’s something about the idea of labyrinthian passages under the waters that struck a chord of truth in his mind. (You can find Drew’s book, The History of Cornwall, in Google Books. The story in question is on page 265.)

The History of Piper’s Hole ~
Yesterday and Today

In the 1600s, Piper’s Hole was actually a mine. There’s a vein of tin in there that was discovered and exploited. But that’s not actually where the cave’s history begins. It was already a cave at that point in time, not one created for the sole purpose of mining or anything. Historians agree that the cave has been around far longer than the seventeenth century…but what purpose it may served in the days of the Druids is still a mystery.

By the nineteenth century, tourism had become a major draw of the islands, and Piper’s Hole was one of the primary attractions. To that end, it was outfitted with the boat and lights mentioned above.

Today, the sea cave is a “visit at your own risk” location. If you want to tour it by boat you’d have to make special arrangements with a local to provide a dingy, and one scientist who toured it recently in search of evidence of the mine that once existed there, declared the water cold and appealing and littered with evidence of people—bits of wood and Styrofoam floating on the surface. Visitors are encouraged to check the tide charts and go only at low tide, and make sure someone knows where you are and what you’re doing so help can be sent if you don’t reappear in good time. After all, no one wants any modern tourists going the way of those dogs from the legends. 😉

A Tour of the Abbey Gardens

A Tour of the Abbey Gardens

The Abbey Gardens

In “Welcome to the Isles of Scilly,” I gave you an overview of this beautiful island chain and introduced you to some of the main places my heroine, Libby, visits in The Nature of a Lady, including a quick peek of the Abbey Gardens, with a promise of more to come. So today we’re going to focus solely on that tour of the Gardens!

Libby convinced her maid, Mabena, to take her to Tresco one Tuesday. It’s a twenty or thirty minute sail between the two biggest islands, and if visitors want to head straight to the Gardens, they’ll usually choose to dock at Carn Near. From there it’s an easy walk to the island’s main tourist attraction.

In the time of my story, 1906, visitors would have still rung for entrance and signed in by placing their names in a visitor’s book. I can only imagine the names that would be written in that over the decades! According to Guide to the Isles of Scilly by Tonkin and Tonkin, written in 1882, the book contained the signatures of many royals and nobility.

The Isles of Scilly have long been a place of many shipwrecks, and that storied history is on display in the Garden Lodge, where figureheads of wrecked ships are arranged, along with old anchors and other nautical memorabilia. One of the former lord proprietors is responsible for what was, by all accounts, an artistic and evocative display.

The Paths through the Abbey Gardens

The Lodge puts you out on what is called the Avenue, and various paths diverge from it into other areas like “Wilderness” and the “Long Walk,” which is the main road through the Gardens. The Gardens are arranged by region, with plants from those regions transporting visitors all around the world. The Wilderness is awash with ferns from all over the empire. 

Immediately upon exiting the Lodge, the Avenue will lead you to one of the many sculptures to found in the Gardens, of Neptune.

From there you’d enter Lower Australia, filled with exotic ferns, aloes, and bamboo. Then comes Higher Australia, with plants from New Holland, Tasmania, and more. You’ll find a cinnamon tree, Winter’s pepper, and the white-blossoming Hakea trees. The most popular tree in the gardens, however, is the Australian iron bark, known as the “blazing bush.”

The Long Walk

This section puts you out at the Long Walk, a path about eight hundred feet long. Strolling along this walkway will show you palms, dracaenas, gum trees, aloes, cacti, azaleas, fuchsias, and more. Smaller paths diverge on both sides, showcasing plants that truly vie for the eye with all their beauty. Together they create a picture to take your breath away—but you’ll want to draw it in again quickly, just to smell the beautiful fragrances always on the air.

With plants from India, China, Japan, and many more countries all nestled amidst the Abbey Gardens, visitors truly get the sensation of traveling the world over.

Counting the Blooms

Each New Year’s Day, the gardener and his team count the blooms and record them. Newspapers all over England have articles sharing the flower count; while it’s still mid-winter everywhere else, the Mediterranean and subtropical species in the Gardens are bursting with life and reminding the rest of Europe that spring is on its way.

I don’t know what the flower count was in 1906, but I daresay it was similar to what it was in 2021—there were an amazing 225 plants in bloom on January 1. You can read the article all about it here.

Ruins of the Old Abbey

In the Gardens you can also find the ruins of the old Abbey, which are now integrated into the garden display itself. You’ll walk through its arches, pass its well, and peer through its crumbling ruins into more flower beds.

In addition to things like an Italian pebble garden where a variety of bulbs flourish, there’s also a vineyard, fig trees, and aloe plants that take up to twenty years to fully mature and bloom. The gardener has also long tended fruit trees like plum, apple, and pear, and vegetables and berries are also grown here.

Libby quickly decided that she could spend a whole lifetime exploring the Abbey Gardens and studying each of the hundreds of species that grow here but can be found nowhere else in England.

Wouldn’t you love to stroll down the Long Walk with Libby and Oliver? I know I would!

Welcome to the Isles of Scilly

Welcome to the Isles of Scilly

It should come as no surprise that I’m excited about The Nature of a Lady, the first book in the Secrets of the Isles series. But I have to say, one of the things I love most about this series is the setting: the Isles of Scilly (pronounced “Silly”). And so, I absolutely MUST take some time to introduce it to you. Which requires some visualization, for sure! So settle in, and get ready for a little visual tour of one of England’s most remarkable island chains.

The entire series is set in the isles, during the summer and autumn of 1906. The series begins with my first heroine, Lady Elizabeth “Libby” Sinclair, striking off from Land’s End, near Penzance, in Cornwall.

Land’s End, Cornwall

My family and I had the privilege of visiting Cornwall in 2016; we stayed in Penzance, and hiked across Land’s End, which was one of the most stunning vistas we’ve ever seen.

From there one would board a ferry and prepare for a two-hour trip across the 28 miles between the English mainland and its southernmost islands, the Isles of Scilly. These beautiful islands have a bit of a tropical look about them…and they’re in fact in a whole different climate zone from the rest of Europe! Spring arrives in the Scillies two months before it reaches anywhere else, which means that the flower industry has become one of their major sources of income.

The ferry (the last several have been called the Scillonian, though it would have been dubbed something different in 1906) takes its passengers to the main quay in Hugh Town, on the largest island in the chain, St. Mary’s.

St. Mary’s Island

This is the island on which my heroine, Libby has rented a holiday cottage for the summer. And there’s much to see on St. Mary’s!

From the quay, Libby and her maid, Mabena (a native of the Scillies), take a stroll through Hugh town. The islands are made of granite, and most of the construction is of stone. Back in the day, these cottages would have had thatched roofs, and many gardens still have upright granite slabs with holes in them that would have had a rope tied through it, and stretching to the roof. These “thatch anchors” bear a resemblence to some Druid-era standing stones but, alas, had a simply practical use.

Libby and Mabena rented a cottage along the Garrison wall. From their holiday home, they’d have been able to follow a path through the sea grass directly down to the shore. Libby is an avid nature-lover and spends many a morning on the beach, studying the birds, the flora, and pretty much anything else she can find.

But over the course of the book, Libby and Mabena explore most of St. Mary’s and many of the other islands in the chain too. No matter where you go on the isles, you’re met with stunning views.

And Libby was extremely fascinated by the unique plantlife to be found in the islands, to be sure. In the image above, on the right side, you’ll note what looks like a palm tree. These are commonly known as Cornish Palms and can be found all throughout the Cornish coast. They aren’t a true palm but are actually a cabbage tree. Still, they add to the tropical flair of the islands and Cornwall in general.

Throughout all the isles, there can be found flora that exists nowhere else in England. Because of its warmer climate, the Scillies can support varieties of plants that can’t live elsewhere, and so specimens from all over the world were transported to the Abbey Gardens on Tresco, where they thrive. Over the centuries, the seeds from these imported plants have been carried by the wind and birds to other islands in the chain. In addition to these “wild” transplants, the islands have many cultivated flower fields, where European favorites are grown and harvested and shipped to the mainland.

But interesting plants aren’t the only things littering the isles. The Scillies have been inhabited for thousands of years, long before there was an England to claim them. All over the islands you can find Druid burial chambers, liths, and cairn fields, with new examples being discovered into the 20th century.

Of course, no one in the Scillies stays on just one island. Visitors today will find that there are boat captains aplenty happy to take holiday-goers island hopping for a modest fee, and it was no different in the Edwardian era. In The Nature of a Lady, the other island Libby goes to the most is Tresco.

Tresco Island

Tresco is the second largest island in the chain and where one can find the only manor house in the islands, Tresco Abbey. This is the home of the Lord Proprietor–the person put in charge of running the isles by the legal owner of the island, the Duke of Cornwall (aka the Prince of Wales). No one in the islands actually owns any property–it all belongs to the duke. But there are very longterm and “permanent” leases in such cases, which can be passed along in a family. My hero’s fictional family, the Tremaynes, had a permanent lease on a house I completely fictionalized; bigger than its neighbors, but smaller than the Abbey. They also own a modest estate on the Cornish mainland, making the Tremaynes landed gentry. Their hearts are in the Scillies, though, so that’s where they live.

Adjacent to the Abbey, you’ll find one of the main tourist draws of the islands–the famous Abbey Gardens. These will have a post all their own coming next week, but for now a really quick overview. The Gardens are filled with plants from all over the British Empire, many of which won’t grow in the climate of the English mainland. Libby, being a naturalist, was very eager to visit the Gardens. I imagine her spending many an hour on a bench like the one below, studying and sketching the plants…when she hasn’t forgotten herself and sprawled on the ground for a closer look.

In my story, I came up with a fictional gardener, Mr. Menna; and my hero Oliver has always been an avid student of botany and is an unofficial apprentice.

A longstanding tradition in the isles is gig racing–gigs are 5- or 7-man rowed boats, and every Wednesday morning, local teams pit themselves against each other to see who can race between islands the fastest. It seems that these races actually began when locals raced to return sailors to their ships, which were anchored in open waters. It’s a fun way the community comes together every week, and I couldn’t pass up including it in my story, even though from what I could find, the Wednesday races hadn’t begun quite yet. We actually meet Oliver Tremayne during an early morning gig race, where we see him pitted against his longtime rival, Casek Wearne, as their teams slice through the water.

In my version of the gig races, there are two steady teams who participate, with the islanders placing just-for-fun wagers on who will win each week–losers get to buy the drinks in the pub that night, or perhaps fetch some treats from a bakery.

After the races, you can well imagine all the islanders laughing their way back to their homes. The main settlement on Tresco is called Grimsby. There are both Old and New parts of the town.

But even Old Grimsby has nothing in age on some of the ruins to be found scattered throughout the islands! The Scillies have countless examples of old churches, priories, monks’ hermitages, and cottages that are now tumbling reminders of the ages gone by.

Included in the ruins are two castles, which feature a bit in The Nature of a Lady too! Cromwell’s Castle reigns over the coastline on the northern tip of Tresco, and you can see in this photo how close it is to Bryher, another of the inhabited islands.

I hope you enjoyed this little visual tour through the two largest islands in the Scillies, which feature most prominently in my book! Next week I’ll take you on an exploration of the Abbey Gardens, and after that, get ready for a pirate tale, because I’m going to introduce you to one of the isles’ most notorious past residents: John Mucknell, vice admiral of a pirate fleet.

(All images of the Isles of Scilly are licensed from Shutterstock)

Remember When . . . Watches Appeared on the Wrist – Part II

Remember When . . . Watches Appeared on the Wrist – Part II

Last week I started telling you about Hans Wilsdorf and the founding of Rolex. It was getting a bit long, so I figured I’d better break it up into two posts. 😉 As a quick reminder, I’d told you a bit about Hans’s early days and his determination to create a great wrist watch (called “wristlets” at the time) and then make his company name, Rolex, be the one people came to associate with the quality watches he produced.
But if you were paying attention to the years I mentioned, you’ll have known that things were about to change for Hans. The Great War was coming. And though he’d become an English citizen when he married his wife, Florence, no one really cared about that.
He was German. He spoke with an accent. He had a clearly German last name.
Life became not so easy for the Wilsdorfs in London. He and Florence were both harassed whenever they went out in public. And to make matters worse, a new customs duty was put into place–33.5%. And for a business that was almost exclusively exported, this could easily spell The End.
The Wilsdorfs didn’t have much choice. They packed up and moved to Bienne, Switzerland, for the duration of the war. Rolex already had a branch there, so they moved all operations out of England and continued to produce the watches quickly gaining a reputation for excellence.
But though the war forced them from their home, it also helped create a market for the wristlet. Timing was crucial in military operations, and having a reliable timepiece was essential. The few soldiers who went to war with wristlets soon proved how practical they were. Pocket watches were generally worn in a jacket pocket, which was then under an overcoat in the winter months. To check the time, soldiers would have to take off their gloves, open their overcoat, and dig it out of their undercoat. Compare that to just raising your wrist, and you can see why the men who had wristlets found them so much better an option. After the war ended, the popularity of the wrist watch surged.
And at the front of the wave was Rolex.
But Wilsdorf wasn’t about riding a wave. He was about innovation–and marketing savvy. His next goal was to create a waterproof watch, which he achieved in 1926. The Oyster. But water had long been known as the enemy of a watch, so he had his work cut out for him, convincing the public that his Oyster really could keep running, even when wet. One boon came when a swimmer swam the English Channel, wearing one. They were already getting publicity for their feat, and Rolex got a bit too.
But that wasn’t quite enough. So Wilsdorf came up with an ongoing publicity stunt. Shops that sold Rolexes were outfitted with aquariums, in which hung an Oyster, keeping perfect time despite being continually submerged.
It worked. By the time World War II rolled around, Rolex was well known around the world as being the best watch to be had. The most reliable. A byword for quality and luxury.
Now, though he was German by birth, Hans was firmly on the Allied side of both World Wars. And when he heard that Allied soldiers in the Second World War were stripped of their Rolexes when they were taken prisoner, he publicly swore that Rolex would replace any Allied soldier’s watch that was stolen. And he kept his word. This story exemplifies just one of the many ways that Hans made Rolex a company with heart, not just monetary success.
So how does all this work its way into my book? Well, all of it obviously doesn’t. But I’d looked up the history of Rolex out of curiosity when I realized I would have a clockmaker for a central character in An Hour Unspent, figuring the company was forming around the same time as my story. When I realized how well it actually lined up with my timeline, I decided to give Hans Wilsdorf a cameo appearance. He actually ended up presenting a plot point that was rather crucial…but of course, I’m not going to tell you what that was. 😉 Just that I had oh so much fun writing it!
And I also just want to say that the more I learned about Wilsdorf and the company he built, the more I admired him and Rolex. They aren’t just glitzy watches for the rich, status symbols. They’re undeniable quality built on innovation and popularity gained through determination and marketing brilliance. You just have to admire that.
Remember When . . . Watches Appeared on the Wrist – Part I

Remember When . . . Watches Appeared on the Wrist – Part I

I’m posting my “Remember When” a day early this week, in deference to Independence Day tomorrow. Just pretend it’s Wednesday. 😉
These days, when someone asks you what time it is, you might just pull out your cell phone. But until recently, that certainly wasn’t the norm, right? You would have looked at your wrist–and many of us today still do. (I say “us,” but the sad truth is that I rarely wear a watch–it hits against my laptop keyboard and is uncomfortable, and since I’m home most of the time, I can just look at a clock, so…)
But wristwatches–arguably the norm for timekeeping for the last century–were once the new kid on the block. And we owe their popularity primarily to one man.
Hans Wilsdorf.
Born in Germany in 1881, Hans and his brother and sister were orphaned when he was 12. His uncles decided that in order to see to the childrens’ futures, they would liquidate the prosperous family business and equip the children with the means to be self-reliant. They were sent to boarding school, where Hans showed great promise in languages and mathematics. His fluency in multiple tongues led him to an apprenticeship at a pearl exporter with a worldwide sales organization–something that taught him much about business.
From there he was hired in the year 1900 by a French watchmaking firm. Again, it was his linguistics skills that got him the job, but he quickly came to love and appreciate the world of watches.
In 1903, Hans moved to London to work for another watchmaking firm. He ended up marrying an English woman, applying for and receiving English citizenship, and eventually began his own watch company with his wife’s brother–Wilsdorf & Davis.
But Hans wasn’t satisfied to just make traditional pocket watches in the traditional way. Hans had a vision of a “wristlet.” A watch worn on the wrist. And he had a dream of being a watchmaker so respected that it would be his name that sold a watch, not the trader who sold it (as had always been the case).
So Hans set out on a journey. First, he utilized the Swiss watch movements he’d learned so much about in his previous jobs to acquire the best, most accurate workings possible. Then he soldered a strap onto a small pocket watch and strapped it around his wrist. But there were issues that needed to be overcome–the arm moves a whole lot more than a person’s body, with more violent motions. This was terrible for watches. Such jostling usually damaged the works and make them, well, not work. Plus, there was the matter of dirt and other particles getting into a watch case. In a pocket, the watch was protected from such undesirables. But on the wrist? They’d get grimy, fast. And that would gum up the works. So that, again, they wouldn’t work.
Through a series of different prototypes, Hans Wilsdorf worked out these issues. He created a case with a gasket to seal it from dirt, and utilized works so precise and robust that not only did the jostling not destroy them, but the watch still remained accurate.
In fact, his wristlet was honored with the Certificate of Chronometric Precision–an award that had until then only ever been issued to marine clocks.

During this time, Hans was trying to come up with a name for his company that wasn’t just his name. He wanted something that would be pronounced the same in German, French, and English. Something that was easy to say, concise, and had that certain something when one heard it. It took him quite a long time to hit upon the name he felt embodied all those things.


In the 1910s, he began to do the unthinkable. He put Rolex on the face of a few watches. Now, this was unheard of. The face of a watch usually had the trader’s name, because that was who people trusted. The manufacturer’s name only went on the back of the case. Hans knew he was treading on dangerous ground…but at that point, most of his wristlets were being shipped out of England, to Europe. So what were they really going to do if his company name appeared on, say, 1 of every 6 watches? Nothing. So that’s how it began. First on one, then on two, then on half, and eventually all of his watches bore the name Rolex on the face. And the traders accepted them because they were the best watches to be found.

Today, of course, we know the name Rolex. But it was still quite a journey from those early days to the company that is now a byword for luxury. Come back next Wednesday for the rest of the story, and to discover how this fun history worked its way into An Hour Unspent!
Remember When . . . Big Ben Joined the Skyline

Remember When . . . Big Ben Joined the Skyline

When the design for A Name Unknown, book 1 in the Shadows Over England Series, was shone to me and I saw the spine for the first time, I was so excited to see the series logo they’d come up with. Big Ben’s clock tower.

Big Ben says London. Which is what the designers were no doubt trying to invoke, as my family of thieves are firmly Londoners. But for me, it was more than that. Because in the third book of the series, An Hour Unspent, that iconic clock actually plays a role in the story.
For starters, a bit of naming. Most of us think of “Big Ben” as the clock, but it’s technically not. Big Ben is actually the bell. The clock is the Great Westminster Clock, though over the years the name Big Ben has come to be associated with the entire structure. So now that we’ve got that straight… 😉
The clock tower was designed by Augustus Pugin and completed in 1859. Pugin was an architect, one who is most remembered for redesigning the interior of Westminster Palace and the tower in question, which has become one of the most iconic symbols of England. Though he also designed the face of the clock, the mechanics of the thing he wisely handed over to someone else.
But interestingly, the movement–the gears and weights that make a clock work, and in this case, work with amazing reliability–was actually designed by two amateurs to the field. Edmund Denison, a lawyer, and mathematician George Airy. The construction was the only part undertaken by an actual clockmaker, Edward Dent.
The Great Clock’s inner workings are so precise that a penny sitting on the pendulum is all it takes to make slight alterations to the time. That one little coin will make an adjustment of nearly half a second a day. That doesn’t sound like much, but it allows for small incremental adjustments to keep the clock accurate year after year. The pendulum still has a stack of old coins on it, and the clock is still hand-wound three times a week.

In my story, I gave the job of upkeep of the Great Clock to my heroine’s father, a clock maker. This part is purely fictional, of course, but it would have been considered a great honor to be tasked with such a responsibility, and in my story that’s the proof of Cecil Manning’s proficiency in his trade, even though he’s by no means made himself rich.

That honor goes to another historical figure that my fictional Manning claims as a friend, who revolutionized the timekeeping world. But you’ll have to come by next Wednesday to learn about that…