Author of the Sturmtaucher Trilogy

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My Holocaust Memorial Day

I’m not a Jew. None of my family, or anyone I know, has ever been the victim of genocide, but the Holocaust Memorial Day has become of great significance to me over the years.

From the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) website, the Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘The international day on 27th January to remember the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust, alongside the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution of other groups and during more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.’

27th January was chosen because it is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.

The Holocaust Memorial Day was created on that day in January 2000, when representatives from 46 governments around the world met in Sweden to discuss Holocaust education, remembrance and research.

At the end of this meeting, all attendees signed The Stockholm Declaration, a document committing their countries to preserving the memory of those who have been murdered in the Holocaust. It was updated in 2020.

So what does it mean for me? As I said, I’m not a Jew, but from an early age, about ten or eleven, when I read Diary of a young Girl by Anne Frank, the Holocaust, and its victims, have never been far away from my thoughts.

An avid reader for most of my life, reading a book a day as a child and as a teenager, I found myself regularly picking up a book about the Holocaust; both novels and non-fiction books and, throughout my life I have been drawn to films like Schindler’s list, and Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s incredible 12 hour documentary of interviews with survivors, witnesses and perpetrators during visits to German Holocaust sites in Poland.

I thought I had a reasonable understanding of the Holocaust, but when I decided to write a novel about the Holocaust, set in Kiel in Northern Germany, I immersed myself in research and, the deeper I delved into the archives, the more I realised how little I knew. Even now, six years of research on, with a million word trilogy under my belt, I feel as if I have only just scratched the surface.

Since I started writing the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, a day, sometimes even an hour, doesn’t pass without a thought about the Holocaust seeping into my mind and, as the number of survivors still with us dwindles every coming year, we must come to a stark realisation that the only witnesses to the horrors of the Nazi years will be on the written page, or in film archives.

It is imperative that we remember every victim: Jew, Roma, Sinti, Communist, Jehovah’s Witness or homosexual. And that we do not allow Holocaust deniers to go unchallenged.

I’m not a person of faith, but the characters in my trilogy were deeply religious. I do not own a menorah, but I will light a candle on Holocaust Memorial day and stand quietly, reflecting on those who perished, those who survived, those who perpetrated, and those who stood by and let it happen.

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The Lie of the Land – Part 3

My visit to Denmark

**Spoiler Alert**

This post contains spoilers – please don’t continue reading if you have not previously read The Flight of the Shearwater, the second book in the Sturmtaucher trilogy. You have been warned!

1 Hamburg Airport 2 Brunsbüttel 3 Esbjerg 4 Kærgård beacon 5 Ringebjerg beacon 6 Blavlandshuk Lighthouse 7 Skallingen Lighthouse (site) 8 Skallingen Marshland 9 Hobo Dyb 10 Location of Lund Farmhouse 11 Middlefart Bridge 12 Flensburg 13 Schleswig 14 Rendsburg 15 Kiel

When I’d flown into Hamburg on my 2017 research trip, and picked up my little hired Fiat 500, I hadn’t headed straight for Kiel. I knew that part of my story would take place in Denmark, and I was on the hunt for a very specific location where a yacht could find shelter from a savage North Sea storm, out of sight of the German authorities occupying Denmark.

After a painstaking search, I thought I’d found the ideal place on Google Earth, but I wanted to make sure so, after a short detour to view the western sea locks of the Kiel Canal at Brunsbuttel, where it meets the River Elbe, and its access to the North Sea, I drove through the incredibly flat terrain of northern Germany and southern Denmark in the dying light, finally arriving at the port of Esbjerg on Denmark’s west coast, where I’d booked a room.

Brunsbüttel in the 1930s – the ferry Kranich would make an appearance in The Turn of the Tide
Brunsbüttel sea locks
3 Esbjerg 4 Kærgård beacon 5 Ringebjerg beacon 6 Blavlandshuk Lighthouse 7 Skallingen Lighthouse (site) 8 Skallingen Marshland 9 Hobo Dyb 10 Location of Lund Farmhouse

Fortunately, the rain had cleared by the morning, and it was a pleasant autumn day. I had a quick look around Esbjerg harbour – I knew the lightship that marked the end of Horns Rev, a long reef that extends over 20 miles from Blavlands Huk, or point, out in to the North Sea, had been preserved, and lay in the Harbour for tourists to explore.

Horns Rev lightship, Esbjerg

The treacherous sandy reef was to play a significant part in the book.

To my disappointment, the floating lightship museum wasn’t open, so I jumped back in my little Fiat, and headed northwards, following the road out of Esbjerg, through Oksbøl and Børsmose, the roads getting narrower as they approached the dunes beyond Kærgård. A rutted lane ending in sandy open circle brought me to my next destination. I could hear the sea, but I couldn’t see it, although I couldn’t miss the large tripod Kærgård sea mark, looking for all the world like an alien machine from War of the Worlds, high on the dunes above me.

Kærgård beacon
My little Fiat 500 behind the dunes at Kærgård

I climbed the sandy path through the scrub and tall Marram Grass, cresting the forty foot dune to find the North Sea surf crashing on the beach below, at the point where Der Sturmtaucher, with Franz, Johann, Ruth and Manny aboard, would make landfall in their search for Blavland lighthouse. The innermost marker of Horns Rev, it’s light would guide them through the storm to the entrance of Graa Dyb channel, and the sheltered waters of Ho Bught, Esbjerg and, more importantly, Ho Dyb, and its narrow tidal cuts among the marshlands behind the dunes of Skallingen.

Getting back in the car, I followed the narrow roads through the sandy, forested heathlands behind the dunes, looking for the next seamark and, as I passed through the campsite that now shelters behind the dunes, I could see the Ringebjerg Beacon clearly in the distance. Like Kærgård, it stood on three legs, a tripod with a diamond shape. Both structures are part of a chain of navigational mark that stretch all the way up the Jutland coast, and were erected in the late 1800s. They are all now protected monuments.

Ringebjerg Beacon

I could have easily walked from Ringebjerg to Blavlands Huk, or point, but time was short so I drove an inland loop round to the car park next to the lighthouse. It was this light, and the one that once mark the tip of Skallingen, that Franz and Johann would use to navigate their way to safety at the height of the storm that almost drowned them.

Blavlandshuk Lighthouse

From Blavlands point, I could see the troubled waters of Horns Rev stretching out far into the North Sea, the swirling currents a combination of tidal flow through the narrow channels of the reef, and the current flowing northwards from the Wadden sea, the coastal strip of water and islands that are the south-eastern limits of the North Sea, part salt, part fresh, from the large rivers, including the Elbe, which pour into it.

Horns Rev

I imagined the two terrified Nussbaums watching Franz and Johann wrestle their small craft through the crashing waves of the reef, threading their way through Søren Bovbjergs Dyb, the narrow break in the sandbanks that cut twenty horrendous sea miles from their passage to shelter.

Storm Waves

Once through it, they had searched for the lighthouse at the tip of Skallingen, the four mile long spit of sand dunes that protected Ho bucht and Ho Dyb from the ravages of the North Sea.

As I drove through the village of Ho, and out the single track road that took me to the car park half way along Skallingen, I knew I wouldn’t see the lighthouse – it had been removed in 1966 after subsiding foundations had caused it to collapse. The lightweight Iron Structure had replaced a substantial brick tower which had also collapsed, the perils of building on foundations of sand.

Skallingen lighthouse being demolished after subsiding
Skallingen lighthouse 1911 – 1966

I had to walk the last mile or so as the track wasn’t suitable for road vehicles (though I would have given it a go if it hadn’t been a hire car).

The walk along Skallingen

At the tip of Skallingen the dunes gave way to a half mile long low spit of sand and, standing at the water’s edge near to low tide, I could just make out the island of Fanø with it’s off-lying sandbanks on the other side of Graa Dyb. A ship passed by, heading out from Esbjerg, heading south and west, and I waved at its bridge. I couldn’t say for sure, but I thought my salute was returned.

The tip of Skallingen
Graa Dyb, Langli and Hobo Dyb

Turning landward, I could make out the narrow Ho Dyb channel that curled around the back of Skallingen, between it’s dunes and marshes and the low lying Island of Langli opposite, with its tail of sandbanks that guarded its entrance.

I imagined the calm that would welcome any boat brave enough to tuck itself into Hobo Dyb during the worst of storms. The only question I had was whether the boat would be hidden well enough to escape notice from the German authorities, so I retraced my steps along the track to the car, and drove the short distance to a bend in the road close to where I imagined Der Sturmtaucher would come to a rest if she’d made it to safety. I looked towards Ho Bught, but I couldn’t see Langli, far less Hobo Dyb.

I climbed the fence and made my way cautiously across the rough grassy hillocks, careful to avoid the odd mud filled hole that, as I ventured further towards the channel, began to coalesce into trenches, then water filled creeks. I looked around anxiously: I was on my own, with few people about, and it would be extremely perilous to get bogged down in one of these foul-smelling pits.

Even as the cut I was following opened out into a small, muddy, tidal creek, I still couldn’t see anything beyond the tall marsh grasses and I stopped, knowing that such a creek was an almost perfect hiding place for a wooden yacht, invisible from the road and the main channel.

The Marshlands and creeks behind Skallingen

Reaching the road again, I breathed a sigh of relief at having avoided being trapped in the mud. I drove back along Skallingen towards Ho, stopping when I reached the forest. Parking the car once more, I followed the edge of the forest around the top end of Hobo Dyb on foot. It was rough going, but dryer, and I could now see Langli, with Ho Bught beyond, and Hobo Dyb itself. I reached the small road which led around the shoreward side of the wood towards Ho. I looked out – the start of the rough causeway which could be supposedly traversed at low tide to get to Langli disappeared into the water and I didn’t fancy the walk or drive across it to get to the island, even if I had been there at low tide.

Ho Dyb. The start of the causeway to Langli is on the left.

I followed the road around towards Ho but before I got to the village itself, I reached the road to Skallingen again. I looked around. I’d passed a golf course on my walk, and there were a modest number of what looked like holiday homes scattered within the forest, and at its edge. Most were modern but, as I approached Ho, there were some older looking houses among them. Back in 1941, they were probably all small farmhouses, surrounded by fields. In my imagination, the Danish farmers who provided help and shelter to Johann and Manny lived in one of these houses, working the land and fishing in the waters of Ho Bught and Hobo Dyb.

A typical Danish house near Ho, much like the Lund Farmhouse in my mind.

Walking back along the road to Skallingen to my Fiat 500, through the beautiful pine forest, a car slowed down and a Danish couple, with excellent English and a dog in the back, stopped and offered me a lift. They were locals, and were intrigued when I told them I was researching for a wartime book. They were intensely proud that almost all of Denmark’s Jews had survived the Holocaust.

Wishing me good luck with my writing, they drove off – I presumed for a walk along the dunes. I took one last look out at the North Sea and closed my eyes, imagining Der Sturmtaucher sailing out of Graa Dyb with the fog to hide them, heading westward for the east coast of England, and safety for Ruth and Manny, imprisonment for Franz and Johann.

The North Sea

I told myself that one day, I would follow their route, sailing from Kiel to Hobo Dyb, and onwards across the North Sea, but for now, I turned away and walked back down the dunes.

I got back into the car. I had a long way to go, and a few more stops to make.

I wanted to see the Little Belt, or Lillebælt, the westernmost of the three straits that connects the Baltic sea with the Kattegat and Skagerrak, and through them, the North Sea.

It was just over an hour’s drive across to Denmark’s other coast, to Middlefart and the old Bridge which crosses the Little Belt at its narrowest point. I’d studied the three routes Der Sturmtaucher might take from Kiel to Northern Denmark, and I’d decided the tighter, most difficult one close to the mainland would be their passage of choice, with less marine traffic, and a number of quiet harbours and anchorages where Ruth and Manny Nussbaum could remain undiscovered. I didn’t have time to visit the other stops on their journey; Hirtshalls, Laeso, Hjelm, Bogense and Bodjen, but when I looked out across the Middlefart Narrows, I felt that it was the right choice to have them follow the quieter channel. I looked over to the small town of Middlefart on Fyn, one of the large islands that make up almost a third of Denmark’s land area.

Middlefart Bridge and Narrows

I saw the narrow stretch of water, with the bridge and the small harbour opposite as somewhere Der Sturmtaucher might be stopped and searched on its way north with its illegal passengers on board, hiding in the bilges.

I didn’t stay long. The light would fade soon and I had a few more stops on the way to Kiel. I didn’t have to detour much from my route – Flensburg, Schleswig and Rendsburg were all on the road to my final destination.

Flensburg and Schleswig were much as I’d pictured them, both beautiful small waterside cities, their architecture largely unaffected by war, unlike Kiel. I had planned small cameo appearances for both places in the book, but neither would feature significantly.


It was the same with Rendsburg. Situated beside the Kiel Canal, with an offshoot, the Ober Eider, swinging right into the centre of town, the canal that made the inland city a port would play a bigger part in the book, and having seen the western sea locks at Brunsbüttel, and hoping to see the sea locks at Kiel, I wanted to see an inland section of this remarkable waterway, with no other locks along its 61-mile length.

Rendsburg and the Kiel Canal

The light was failing but, from Rendsburg, it was only a forty-minute drive to Kiel. Even so, I wanted to get there as sharply as possible to get something to eat and a few drinks down by the water front, to get an idea of night-time Kiel, and to get an early bed; the next few days would be full-on if I was going to see everything I wanted to in and around the city where the bulk of the Sturmtaucher Trilogy was set.

Kiel Waterfront at night

THE LIE OF THE LAND, Part 1 – My visit to Kiel, 2017

THE LIE OF THE LAND, Part 2 – My visit to Kiel the suburbs and surrounding areas

More detailed maps, and the routes the characters travelled can be found on the website, and you can download my route through Denmark on Google Maps

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My visit to Kiel – The suburbs and surrounding areas

After walking around Kiel for a day, and treating myself to a ‘Hearty Tavern Pan’, as Google translated it, a tasty meal of meat loaf, two types of Würstchen in a beer sauce, and fried potatoes, washed down with a couple of beers, I slept well, rising early to catch one of the first ferries that set sail from Bahnhofsbrücke, the pier near the station.

Deftige Wirtshauspfanne (Hearty Tavern Pan)

The Laboe Ferry called in at various points on both sides of Kiel Hafen on the way to its final destination, almost at the mouth of Kieler Förde where it opens out into the Ostsee, or Baltic Sea.

Ferry Bahnhofsbrücke [1]  River Schwentine [2]  Site of naval dockyard[3]  Mönkeberg [4]  Heikendorf [5]  Freidrichsort Lighthouse [6]  Laboe [7]  U-boat memorial [8]  Freidrichsort [9]  Kiel Canal entrance Car [10]  Kleiner Kuhberg  [11]  Nussbaum apartment, Gaarden [12]  Ellerbeck [13]  Wellingdorf [14]  River Schwentine  [15]  Deitrichsdorf [16]  Hamburger Strasse [17]  Drachensee [18]  AEL Nordmark [19]  Holtenau locks, Kiel canal [20]

As we pulled away from the dock, the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the church towers on one side, and the shipyard cranes on the other. The city centre, around the Innerhafen, is low and flat and only the waterfront buildings were visible but, as we passed the Fischhalle on our port side, and the Arsenal Mole on the starboard, the land behind the west shore began to rise a little; the parks and suburban homes of Dusternbrooker were a backdrop to the former Kriegsmarine HQ and Imperial Yacht club on the foreshore.

Former Naval HQ

On the starboard side, the naval shipyard gave way to the entrance to the River Schwentine, the inlet lined with smaller boatyards on one side, and apartment blocks and parkland on the other, with a marina at its head, near to the Schwentine bridge.


North of the Schwentine, cruise ships and ferries lined the wharfs, instead of the naval ships that victualled there during WW2. The oiling jetties and the moles of 1939 would be a significant part of the trilogy.

Then, as Kieler Förde opened out, and the ferry hugged the east shore, Kiel’s heavy industry gave way to the trees and small sandy beaches of Hasselfelde and Mönkeberg.

Hasselfelde Strand

Rounding the point at Heikendorf, where Erich Kästner had watched Der Sturmtaucher sail towards the Marine Barrier in Flight of the Shearwater, I could see Friedrichsort lighthouse ahead, at the end of the spit of land jutting out into the Förde, narrowing it to less than a kilometre again, protecting Kiel Hafen from the worst of the Baltic storms, making it one of the largest and safest harbours in the world.

Friedrichsort Lighthouse
Freidrichsort Lighthouse, 1887 – 1971

Passing the lighthouse, which Erich and his friends had sailed to blindly in The Gathering Storm, emerging from the fog just as the lighthouse came into view, I could see Laboe ahead, with it’s yacht marina, small harbour and strand, or beach, stretching out as the land curved round to become the Baltic shore. In the 1930s, the harbour brimmed with fishing boats and the ferry docked on the inner pier.

Laboe, with the U

In the distance, the Laboe U-boat memorial, dedicated to submariners killed in the First World War, rose 85 metres into the air, the highest point for miles around. At its base, a restored WW2 submarine, U-995, is open to the public. I’d like to have added it to my itinerary, but I knew that time was limited and there were more pressing places to visit.

Laboe U-boat memorial

This was as far north as the ferry took us, and I stayed on for the return journey.  As we left Laboe, across to the west, at Schilksee, I could just make out the Olympic Marina. The games came to kiel in 1936 and again in 1972. The medals for the larger boats were fought out on the course between Freidrichsort and the mouth of the Förde. The races for the smaller classes took place in the more sheltered waters closer to Kiel.

Poster for Olympic sailing competition, 1936, Kiel

The Ferry called in at Friedrichsort then, heading back to Kiel, it took us closer to the entrance to the Kiel Canal (The Kaiser-Wilhelm Canal prior to 1948), one of the busiest man made waterways in the world. It features in the book, most notably when the General’s yacht passes through it on the way to the North Sea, taking his youngest daughter Antje sailing there for the first time.

Entrance to Kiel Canal, from Kieler Förde

Approaching Die Hörn again, and the Keil waterfront, with ships and boats of all varieties, commercial, leisure and naval, I began to appreciate just how much Kiel was first and foremost a port, and how important sailing and seafaring was to the city’s lifesblood, and how well it suited my story.

But there was more I wanted to see.

I’d hired a car when I landed in Hamburg, visiting Denmark for a couple of days before arriving in Kiel. I retrieved the car from the car park I’d abandoned it in and followed the road around end of Kiel Hafen to the Gaarden district of Kiel, on the east side of the harbour.

Adjacent to the shipyards, the districts of Gaarden, Wellindorf and Dietrichdorf had been severely damaged in the allies attempts to shut down production of ships and submarines from the Keil yards, and to prevent repair of any damaged vessels. I wasn’t expecting to find much of the ‘old Kiel’, but the odd building, such as this one on the corner of Preetzer Chaussee and Ostring, had survived.

Preetzer Chaussee

I stopped at the side of the road and tried to imagine the thousands upon thousands of platers, drillers, riveters, boilermakers and fitters streaming throught the high gates of the shipyards building the battleships, destroyers and U-boats for the rapid expansion of the Third Reich’s navy, some of slave-labour from the work camps located close by, and of the death and devastation that decimated the shipyards and the surrounding districts, and the men women and children lost to the brutality of war.

Kiel naval dockyards, 1945

Deep in thought, I followed the map, turning right off the main road, almost forgetting to drive on the right. A few blocks on, rounding the corner, I was in Stoschstraße, where Samuel and Renate Nussbaum, Yosef’s parents, lived.

I had a scene in my mind, of a woman walking these streets with her children, looking over her shoulder in fear as the black cars and the brown uniforms of the SA scoured the streets for Jews.


A mixture of buildings had survived, facades had been saved and new apartment blocks built with a similar footprint, and it made the street remarkably familiar. A childhood memory of walking down a similar street to catch a glimpse of the QE2 being launched burst into my mind, and I realised that Stoschstraße could be any street in Govan, or Partick in Glasgow, close to where the Clyde shipyards once dominated the city, and I began to feel more of a sense of Kiel as a shipbuilding town.

By the time I’d reached the River Schwentine, crossing from Wellingdorf over to Deitrichsdorf, the sun was splitting the skies and I stopped at the Schwentinetalfahrt, where you could hire small punts to explore the Schwentine river, or take a trip in one of the small tourist boats.


I didn’t stop long – I wanted to see where the wartime naval victualling yard had been – it would become a key location in the trilogy, but none of it remained – instead of the oiling jetties and loading moles, there was a ferry berth and a cruise ship terminal, but Heikendorfer Weg still passed by where the dockyard entrance would have been.

I took the ring road back, for quickness, exiting it at Hamburger Chaussee, the main route to Hamburg before Autobahns were built in the 1930s. I’d found the ideal location for the Kästner home on Google Earth, on the shores of a small lake, Drachensee, on the outskirts of Kiel. A couple of larger lakeside houses sat at the side of Hamburger Chaussee, their wooded gardens running down to the water’s edge, with boathouses, and I could just imagine Admiral Kästner and his family, then his son, General Erich Kästner, living there, sailing small dinghies on the lake in summer; the Nussbaums, their domestic servants, living in a cottage in the grounds. I parked the car and walked along, catching only a glimpse of the lake through the trees, but it was perfect. The house I had in mind for the Kästner’s neighbours, Eberhard and Beate Böhm, and their daughter, Lise, was as it had been in 1933, at the start of the Trilogy.

Hamburger Chaussee, Drachensee & the Böhm house

Leaving Drachensee, I drove on out to Schulensee, the source of domestic water for the residents of Kiel, and turned right, heading for Hassee and Russee, on the main Rendsburg road. I parked in the supermarket car park and walked down by the sports ground to the side of another lake, Russee, slightly larger than Drachensee and on whose shores sat the Nazi ‘educational’ work camp, Arbeitserziehungslager Nordmark.

AEL Nordmark punishment bunker AEL Nordmark memorial

A concentration camp in all but name, and run by the Gestapo, there was little left, save for a small memorial erected in a clearing, for the German and foreign slave workers who had been sent there to punish them for slacking, or other misdemeanours, and to re-educate them to be ‘model workers’. They died in their thousands in AEL Nordmark, though few people know the history of these camps, which existed in every corner of Nazi Germany.

Russee, with AEL Nordmark Memorial marked

AEL Nordmark plan, superimposed

Although it was a warm day, I shivered as I returned to my car.

I had one last place I wanted to see, a drive northwards to Holtenau, and the locks at the entrance of the Kiel canal. The locks, and the canal, were massive, and I imagined the Kästner family on their sailing trip to the North Sea, and the islands of Wangerooge, Heligoland and Föhr.

Yacht dwarfed in Holtenau lock

I drove back through Wik and the northern suburbs of Kiel, returning to my room in Lange Reihe, to collect my bags, heading for Hamburg and my flight home.  I took one last look at Kieler Hafen as I drove along Kaistraße, and made for the Autobahn.

Route map in ‘old money’

More detailed maps can be found on the website and you can download my route on Google Maps. I’ll be posting about the other part of my trip, to Esbjerg in Denmark. I travelled there before I went to Kiel, but it does contain some spoilers, so I’ve left it until last, and the parts of the trilogy that take place there are much further on in the story.

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Workshop tales

Or, The Cabinetmaker

From an early age, I watched my dad tinker with woodworking, and would always visit my grandpa’s workshop in Rose Street Foundry when we were on holiday in Inverness, where he was a pattern-maker, crafting full size templates in wood that would be used to cast the iron for anything from large engines or pumps to the chairs that hold rails onto railway sleepers. It instilled a fascination for carpentry in my young mind that has never left me.

Rose Street Foundry, Inverness

On the other side of my family, my inspirational Granny Stephen was an unlikely collector of antiques, despite living in a high rise flat in the notorious Red Road estate in Glasgow. It gave me an appreciation for well made furniture.

Original GKN Nettlefold box of screws, c 1960, inherited from my dad

It wasn’t until I got married, and we moved into our first home, that I had the chance to start making and restoring our own furniture. I made a simple bed, and a coffee table, but they were cruder than I would have liked, with some questionable construction elements (the table had about a hundred screws holding it together, which could only be seen from underneath, fortunately.) On the positive side, I used reclaimed wood whenever I could, whether it was from a local skip, or donated as part of a piece of unwanted furniture.

We lived in a small village in south-west Wales and, once a month, there was a sale of furniture and bric-a-brac in the village hall, mostly from house-clearances of larger houses whose occupants had down sized, and I purchase a wardrobe and a dressing table for four pounds, only to discover that it had been sent to the sale by our next-door neighbour. All that lugging about hadn’t really been necessary, but it made a nice Welsh dresser once it had been converted.

Welsh dresser, 1985

Since then, I’ve gradually tackled more difficult projects, helped by the fact that in 1990, when I started up my veterinary practice, I had a spare shed next door to the surgery which I turned into a proper workshop, installing a second-hand crosscut saw, and making long benches which I still use today.

When I started writing, my love of woodworking and playing football became the backdrop to my first crime novel, The Cabinetmaker. I’d have loved to have been the master craftsman he was!

The Cabinetmaker
A little nod to our Street Cabinetmaking at Bloody Scotland!

I retired last year when I was 60, and in doing so, I lost my workshop beside the surgery. Since then, I’ve been searching for a building to use as a workroom but could find nothing close to suitable. A chance conversation with a friend of mine led to me renting a barn he had surplus to requirements and, after the final edits of The Turn of the Tide had been completed, and I waited for the proofs to come back from the printers, I threw myself into converting the empty shell into a suitable workshop. I was to have half the barn downstairs, but I could see that it was probably enough for my requirements and, anyway, I’d spotted a solution to the additional storage I’d need for all my reclaimed wood and salvaged pieces of furniture.

There was a large roof space, and it was ideal as a wood storage loft, but the rafters were unsupported, and would not have taken the weight. Steel beams and pillars were ordered to support a floor, and erected with some difficulty, with the help of a local agricultural contractor and his tele-handler.

In the year since I’d retired, I’d been spending 12-14 hours a day sitting at my desk, writing, editing, making video trailers and designing covers, and this sedentary lifestyle had led to me being the heaviest I’d ever been, so it was good to be doing some physical labour, lifting and laying forty plywood sheets for the loft floor, and dwanging all the beams (a Scottish term for infilling the beams to support the joints in the flooring). Climbing up and down ladders all day was a great workout, and I lost around a stone, and felt the better for it.

Beams, flooring and dwangs

There were no lights, and only two sockets at the supply board, so I rewired the whole barn, upstairs and down. An electrician checked the final connections, just to be safe, and we were up and running with light and power.

It was cold, working in the barn over the winter, but Lia, one of my beta-readers, took pity on me and crocheted a wonderful pair of fingerless gloves, with a hat to match. Despite protesting that they were far to good to use in the workshop, she insisted. They do make quite a difference!

Essential PPE

I installed the benches and the crosscut saw from my old workshop, and a swathe of racking I’d picked up at a reasonable price on Gumtree. I’d hoped to pick up a staircase somewhere as well, but with nothing coming up, I set about making one. Never having tackled it before, it took me a while to get my head around the angles but, with a home-made router jig, I cut out the rebates on the stringers and cut the steps to suit. With a bit of trepidation, I hoisted it up into position. Amazingly, with only a few minor tweaks, it fitted, with one small compromise.  Due to the size of the ‘hatch’ in the loft floor, you have to duck to get up the stairs. Still, it is far better than the ladder I was using before!

The Staircase. Remember to duck!

I salvaged some old steel beams and cut them to make a frame for a half ton hoist, my friend and fellow lifeboat crew-member, Luciana, a trainee welder in a shipyard, welded it for me. With its own hatch, it allows me to lift heavy items, including furniture, up to the loft.

With all the excellent storage facilities, I’ve been able, for the first time, to have my workshop organised the way I want it, with all the tools in racks for better access, and everything easy to find and get to, it will be much easier to work in.

A number of years ago, I’d rescued an old table saw from being thrown away – its motor didn’t work, but a few months ago, I managed to find a suitable replacement. With new electrics fitted, it is now up and running, as is the wonderfully named Dominion Elliot Minor, a vintage combination woodworking machine, with planer, thicknesser, morticer and tenoner that I found on Gumtree. I had one or two issues setting it up but it has now been restored to its former operational glory.

The ‘Dominion Elliot Minor’, with table saw behind

With the new machinery, it will be much easier to do the projects which have been on hold for the last five years. This includes a new kitchen for the house, which her indoors has been desperate for, and a conversion of my van into a modular camper van. She has been very patient, bless her. I now have no excuses. 😊

So that’s it. Here’s a gallery of some of my furniture I’ve made, restored and converted over the last forty years.

Bedside Cabinet, Spalted beech
Dining stool, whisky barrel oak & distressed steel
Bookcase (Sacred heart School) and shop drawer chest (old hardware store)

Snooker table, my first attempt at French polishing
Coffee table, reclaimed oak
Wardrobes, beech, with spalted handles

I like to think it is done to a reasonable standard, but when I was asked on my retirement if I was going to take up cabinetmaking as a new career, I had a quiet laugh to myself. I take far too long to make things – any realistic charging for my furniture would be impossible. I admire cabinetmakers who do it for a living – they must work significantly faster than I do!

I have too many interests, I know, and it’s sometimes hard to fit it all in, but each has its own wonderful qualities, and planning a piece of wood, watching the paper thin shavings curl from my grandfather’s old jack plane is still up there with the rest.

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The RNLI and me

I’ve been an RNLI member for a long time – as a yachtsman, I knew that I could always rely on the organisation if disaster struck, and my crew or myself were in danger at sea, but I’d never considered joining the crew of the local lifeboat – for almost half my working life, I was the sole vet in the practice and was on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so it wasn’t really an option. By the time the practice expanded, and I began to get some time off, I thought I was too old. I knew that 55 was the cut off, and I’d just passed that landmark.

Snowgoose, Sound of Jura

But out of the blue, not long after I’d started writing the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, the local lifeboat operations manager contacted me to see if I would be interested in being a Deputy Launch Authority for Girvan lifeboat, or DLA for short.

The job is not onerous – the on-duty DLA responds to a request from the coastguard for the launch of the lifeboat and passes the information on to the boat’s coxswain, and gives permission to launch the lifeboat on service.

Silvia Burrell, Mersey Class, Girvan lifeboat

I accepted, and started popping down to the station during Monday night practices, watching the crew head out on our ALB (All Weather Lifeboat) of the Mersey class, and learning all about the station and the lifeboat from the other DLA, Ian McClymont, an ex crew-member.

Girvan Lifeboat Station

When asked if I’d like a trip out on the boat, I jumped at it, and was suitably kitted out on one of the training nights. When they told me the maximum age for being on the lifeboat had been raised from 55 to 65, I didn’t look back.

My Yellows

Within a couple of weeks, I had converted from DLA to rookie crew member. Some of my experience on yachts was helpful – the navigation side of the training is very similar. Just getting used to navigating at 15 knots rather than the sedate 5 knots that I was more familiar was the only issue, and all the ropework was the same. And the support from everyone at the station was incredible.

It was a steep learning curve though, especially when the senior crew suggested that I should go on a navigator’s plan once I’d worked my way through my crew plan. In the meantime, I’d been on my first shout and the sense of satisfaction of being part of a team that had rescued someone at sea was intoxicating.

I attended a couple of courses at the RNLI training College in Poole, an amazing experience – the Crew Emergency Procedures course involved several scenarios where we were dumped in the pool, with waves, rain and darkness to make it more realistic, having to get into life rafts or right our inflatable boat while the ‘sea’ raged around us.

Fresh out of the pool at Poole

The long-range radio course gave me a commercially endorsed radio operator’s licence, should I ever consider a second career at sea, but it was vital for the effective communication that keeps lifeboat crews safe, and is critical in coordinating every rescue, often with two, three or more agencies involved. No sooner had I passed out as a navigator, the senior members of the crew persuaded me to start training as a coxswain, and put me nominally in charge during a routine exercise. By this time, we had a new boat, the Gertrude and Elizabeth Allan, a Shannon Class, which has a top speed closer to 25 knots, using water jets rather than propellers, and cutting-edge electronics that control everything on the boat, from the navigation and radar systems, to fire-control, bilge pumps and the engines. Each crew member has a job to do, but each seat can take function of any of the main screens, so the radar operator may also control the charts, if the navigator is busy doing something else, like caring for a casualty.

Elizabeth and Gertrude Allan, Shannon Class, Girvan Lifeboat [photo: Nigel Millard]

It has two computer servers on board, either of which can run the boat if one fails, and each crew member’s workstation is a computer in its own right, all connected by a ‘bus’ system which means that all the computers talk to each other. A route set by the navigator not only shows up on the helm screen, but is also superimposed on the radar screen, and ‘targets’ selected by the radar operator show up on the chart screen at the navigator’s seat.

Girvan lifeboat, glazing covered during a blind navigation exercise

The coxswain can rotate around everyone’s screens on his own workstation, making sure the crew are doing their jobs while also coordinating the rescue, and making decisions of a life-or-death nature, for the crew and the casualty. Getting to grips with this, as well as learning how to handle the boat for berthing, and for coming alongside other vessels, was a time-consuming but extremely rewarding task, though splitting my time between writing the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, working through my coxswain training, and carrying out my duties as a full time vet in my practice was tough, and a few compromises had to be made – I didn’t put my own boat in the water, and sailed only once or twice a year with friends during the five years I was writing the books. And furniture making, which I’d always done, also took a back seat during this time.

But it was worth it, and two years ago, I passed out as an RNLI Shannon coxswain. It was one of the proudest days of my life, and I was only sorry my dad wasn’t there to see it – he was a lifelong supporter of the RNLI. It also saddened me incredibly that Ian McClymont, so helpful to me at the station, and also a very enthusiastic beta reader of The Sturmtaucher Trilogy, passed away last year. He’d become a great friend.

The coxswain pass-out

I’ve now been the coxswain on over half a dozen shouts, and for a raft of training exercises. Despite the cold sweat and the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach that always accompanies the pager alert when I’m on-call coxswain, I genuinely enjoy every time I’m in charge of the boat. I know it’s an incredible responsibility, and honour, to be handed the keys for a two-million pound vessel that has to go out in the most horrific conditions, if needed, and that the the lives of the crew and those we are out there to rescue depend on the decisions I make, and I don’t treat it lightly. If I ever feel that I’m not up to the job, I’ll walk away, as I won’t put anyone at risk just because I don’t want to give it up.

I’m hoping, though, that I have a few years left at sea with the RNLI before I have to hang up my ‘yellows’ for the last time, and become a DLA again, perhaps, or help with the fundraising team, to help keep the RNLI’s lifeboats afloat.

On that final note, it would be great if you could find a way of contributing – The RNLI is the only emergency service that relies entirely on charitable donations, and its volunteers depend on the public’s generosity to keep them safe at sea. Check out Girvan lifeboat’s Facebook page for the countless ways you can help.

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