A Winter Walk

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We actually had some snow on Boxing Day. The first flakes began to fall in the early evening – very large ones – and within a short while the ground was white. I don’t know at what time it stopped but it had eased off by the time we went to bed and we’ve had no falls since.

I know that what we’ve had here this year is nothing compared to what you people in the U.S.A. and Canada have had for weeks. Most likely other parts of Northern Europe have been the same. In England, the particular fall we had around Lincoln seems to have been limited to more southerly regions, further north having escaped it this time round. The lanes around our house have been really icy, even those which carry traffic, because the gritting lorries don’t come out to most villages. And ours is a very small village, consisting of only eighty houses, a church and an old hall – although it’s no longer owned by local ‘gentry’.

Now we have ‘the freeze’. The two days since the snowfall have been very cold, with night-time temperatures dropping well below freezing. Of course it’s been nothing like the temperatures of 2010, which really was ‘The Big Freeze’. Then, -17°C was the norm for weeks. But when I went out for my walk at nine this morning it was still only -3°, which seemed pretty cold to me.

I was attempting to take a few photos along my route, but my hands were so cold I knew before I even looked at them, they’d be abysmal. I’m no photographer, even when my hands are warm! I leave all that to one of my daughters, who is excellent and well experienced at it. I usually stand out of the way and let her get on with it. But I was on my own today. Anyway, here are a few of them:

The ‘header’ picture is of our little village church, St. Helena’s, which is a Grade 1 listed building, dating back to the eleventh century. It is a little more than a hundred yards from our house. I must add that this is a very limited view of it, taken from the lane as I passed this morning.

I took lots more photos, of course, but many are very similar in outlook and I don’t want to bore anyone to death. So I’ll leave it at that. No doubt I’ll get the big critique from my daughter, Louise, when she sees them. But I just wanted to show the frozen landscape and how pretty it looked. The sky was so blue and the snow and ice glistened in the sun. It was very slippery underfoot in places, but then, I rarely keep to ‘the beaten track’. Even though the sun was out, it had done little to raise the temperature and melt the pockets of ice along the lanes.

It will soon be 2015 and I’m not sure whether I’ll post again this year. So I’ll just wish everyone a very Happy New Year now. May the year be a good one for you all.

What Shall We Do On Boxing Day?

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So, today is Boxing Day here in the U.K. – the day after Christmas Day that serves to stretch the holiday out just that little bit longer. The day is a national holiday, which most people traditionally spent with family and friends, extending the party mood with further feasting and drinking. But nowadays hundreds – or more probably, thousands – of people head off to the big stores to grab the bargains in the Boxing Day sales. When I was younger, the sales didn’t happen until after New Year’s Eve, and were aptly called the January Sales.

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I can’t say I like this new meaning of Boxing Day. I have lovely memories of the entire Christmas period being so much more peaceful. On Boxing Day years ago my parents would herd we three children into the car to visit relatives who lived some distance away – or we would be visited instead. I still can’t see the attraction of being trampled to death amidst crowds of people fighting to get at sale items. I suppose I’m just old fashioned (or just old!). But the ‘Sales Bug’ seems to feature in many countries on Boxing Day.

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Boxing Day at Eaton Center, Toronto, Canada, December 26 2007. Uploaded by Skeezix1000. Creative Commons

What I really want to think about today is the origin of the term ‘Boxing Day’. In Britain, a ‘Christmas Box’ is the name given to a Christmas present. The tradition of giving money and other gifts to the needy could well date back to the Middle Ages. It is thought that the ‘box’ could refer to the Alms Box that was placed inside churches to collect money for the poor. Still other sources tell us that the ‘box’ could refer to the custom in late Roman times whereby metal boxes were left outside of  churches to collect offerings connected to the Feast of St. Stephen – which fell on the same day as Boxing Day.

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Another tradition revolves around December 26th being ‘a day off” for servants in more affluent homes, when they would receive a Christmas box from their master. The servants would, in turn, go home and give Christmas boxes to their families. As always, there are several possible origins for the term, Boxing Day. The tradition regarding the custom of gift-giving to servants, however, is the more widely known.

Boxing Day has also become associated with a number of social activities (other than shopping!). In Britain in recent times, the day has become widely associated with sport. There are many horse racing meetings all over the country, as well as football (soccer) matches.

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Soccer match in the U.K

Fox hunting is still carried out in various places, although, since the ban on actually hunting foxes with dogs (2004) the dogs follow artificially laid trails. Some British people also show their daring by taking part in the activity of swimming in the freezing cold seas around our coasts.

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Fox Hunting: Boxing Day Meet. From geog.org.uk Author: Dave Ward
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A group of lads from Sleaford taking a dip on Boxing Day. The bright conditions disguise the easterly wind and the bitterly cold temperature. Geograph.org.uk Author: Ian Paterson Creative Commons

There are also various activities for charities, including fun-runs. Perhaps many of these sports originated from the need/desire to wear off some of the excess calories devoured on Christmas Day!

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Exmouth Boxing Day Fun Run geograph.org.uk Author: Sarah Charlesworth. Creative Commons

In some of the countries with British roots, such as Australia, Boxing Day sports also take place. But, in Australia, Christmas falls in the middle of summer, so the sports differ accordingly. Cricket is commonly played on Boxing Day . . .

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Pollock to Hussey . . . Australia v South Africa, Test Match, in Melbourne, Dec. 26 2005

. . . as well as swimming in the (warm!) seas. Picnics are enjoyed on the beach instead of the piping-hot roast dinners served in Britain, and outdoor dancing is enjoyed (at least it was – back in the1930s):

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Outdoor dancing at Shorncliffe, Australia: Boxing Day 1939 Wikimedia Commons

Well, tomorrow is an ‘ordinary’ day – although many people will still be off work and schools are closed until a few days into the new year. Perhaps we now have time to regain some sense of normality before the parties of New Year’s Eve loom!

The Yule Log

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Yule is the name of the old Winter Solstice festivals in Scandinavia and parts of Northern Europe and dates back to pre-medieval times. Originally, an entire tree would be brought into the house with great ceremony. The log was believed to have magic properties which ensured good luck during the coming year to those who helped to pull it over the rough ground.

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Illustration of people collecting a Yule Log from the Chambers Book of Days. 1832. Wikimedia Commons

In earliest times the log would be burned on a fire pit in the centre of the room. Later on, once chimneys became common and the hearth stood against a wall, the largest end of the log would be placed in the hearth whilst the rest stuck out into the room. It would be lit with the remains from the previous year’s log and would continue to burn throughout the twelve days of Christmas.

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The custom of the Yule Log spread all over Europe, and in each country different woods would be burned. In England, oak was common; in Scotland, it was birch. In France they chose cherry and often sprinkled the wood with wine to give a pleasant smell as it burned.

Today the custom is generally only remembered as a log-shaped chocolate cake (usually a Swiss roll) which is eaten around Christmas.

shutterstock_228205918In Viking times the celebrations were accompanied by various rites to the different gods as well as the usual feasting and drinking. Here is one very short section from my first book, Shadow of the Raven, which briefly describes some of the activities the people enjoyed. Ulf is the main character and Jorund is a young boy who has recently undergone a great trauma.


shutterstock_123315433December came and with it the celebrations of the Yule. Ulf helped Rico to loop thick ropes round a huge oak log and drag it across the frozen earth into the hall, where the women and children decorated it with sprigs of fir and holly. Throughout the festivities it smouldered in the hearth, helping to bring light and cheer to the darkest time of year. A wild boar was sacrificed to Frey, the god of fertility, to ensure a good growing season in the coming year, with warm days and gentle rain. A goat was slaughtered, and people dressed in goatskins and sang in honour of Thor, who rode the skies in his chariot pulled by two goats. The roasted meats were eaten during the celebratory feasts, and unlimited supplies of ale and mead kept everyone in festive mood.

And Jorund smiled for the first time since October.

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Thor in his chariot pulled by two goats

It sounds as though a fun time was had by all . . .

Merry Christmas to everyone!

Christmas Tree

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Long before the advent of Christianity, people celebrated the winter solstice (December 21-22 in the northern hemisphere) with festivals. These were intended to brighten up the darkest time of year and prevent people from sinking into deep depression. They would bring lots of greenery indoors – branches of evergreens in particular, including spruce, fir and pine and, of course, holly and ivy. The evergreen tree was seen as a symbol of life in the midst of winter, many people believing that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness.

In some ancient civilisations, the sun was revered as a god. To the ancient Egyptians, for example, Ra was the Sun God. In the cold winter months the god would become weak and sick, and the solstice, the shortest day of the year, represented the turning point.  After that time the days would gradually lengthen and the god would start to grow well again.

Many traditions we have today came from ancient civilisations which were later converted to Christianity. Such traditions include gift-giving from the Roman Saturnalia, and burning the Yule log and enjoying a variety of foods from Norse and Germanic feasts.  Scandinavians today still call Christmas, Jul.

To many people, Christmas would not be the same without the resinous smell of pine or fir trees inside their homes.  Although lots of people opt for artificial trees nowadays -whether for environmental reasons, the mess of dropped needles, or the cost of buying anther tree every year – the sale of ‘real’ trees is still booming. But where did this tradition come from?

There are several stories about the earliest use of whole fir trees at Christmas. One story tells us that, in the early 8th Century, Saint Boniface travelled from Britain across Germany to convert the pagans to Christianity. Coming across a group of pagans about to sacrifice a young man beneath Odin’s sacred oak, he valiantly rescued the young man and cut down the tree.  Some legends have it that in place of the oak, a single fir tree grew. Other legends tell us that Boniface himself planted the fir. Whichever version is true, it seems that that the following year the converted Germans decorated the young fir (irrespective of the miniscule size that a year-old fir would be!)

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Boniface cutting down the oak – Wikimedia Commons

One of the earliest references to whole trees actually being brought indoors comes from  Germany in the 16th Century. One story holds that the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, was the first to add lighted candles in an attempt to replicate the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst the evergreens.

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Queen Charlotte Wikimedia Commons

Although Prince Albert , the German husband of Queen Victoria, is generally given credit for introducing the Christmas tree into English homes, it was actually Queen Charlotte,  the German wife of George III, who set up the first Christmas tree at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in 840.

In Victorian times, trees were decorated with sweets and cakes hung with ribbon, and candles as a reminder of the stars in the sky on the night of Christ’s birth. Today, candles have been replaced by coloured lights, and cakes by a variety of ornaments and baubles.

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Giant Norway Spruce in Trafalgar Square

The most famous tree in Britain stands in Trafalgar Square – a giant Norway Spruce , which is a yearly gift from Norway. It is sent to the British people in thanks for the help given to King Haakon VII, who was exiled to Britain after the German occupation of Norway during WW2.

In the US, trees were not accepted until a little later, despite the many German settlers in Pennsylvania.  As late as 1840, Christmas trees were still seen as a pagan symbol by most Americans, and many  of the New England Puritans tried to stamp out what they called the ‘pagan mockery of the observance’.  It was not until the influx of German and Irish immigrants that this puritan legacy was abandoned. In the US today, perhaps the most famous tree stand in the Rockefeller Center in New York.

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The first tree being erected in the Rockefeller Center in 1931. Wikimedia Commons

This custom dates back to the Depression Era days, and the tallest tree was in 1948, a Norway Spruce standing 100 foot tall. It came from Killingworth in Conneticut.

In our house we always have a real tree – and always a Norway Spruce. The smell is just amazing. We always buy from a regular ‘Christmas Tree Farm’, so I don’t feel at all guilty about damaging the environment. There is an ongoing system whereby all cut trees are replaced by newly planted ones. We go to the large estate at Doddington Hall, about five miles away. Doddington is a small, stately hall with an enormous estate on which the trees are grown (as well as wonderful fields of strawberries for ‘pick your own’ in June and July). They have different species on offer, including Norway Spruce and Nordman Fir – which has stiffer needles than the spruce, so it doesn’t drop as readily, but which doesn’t have the right smell for me.

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Doddington Hall, Lincolnshire, UK
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Sign at Doddington Hall with the old church behind

Our tree goes in the conservatory which is off our lounge so we just have the connecting doors open over Christmas. The floor in there is wooden, so the needles are easier to sweep up, and the outside door means it goes out that way when it’s dropping needles like crazy after Christmas. We have a seven-footer this year. On the top is a fairy (or it could be an angel – it’s hard to tell!). It was made years ago at school by our youngest son when he was six, and the tree wouldn’t be the same without it.

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Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award

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Sisterhood of the World Bloggers Award is an award that recognises the unique voices of women across the world and I feel quite overwhelmed at having been nominated for it. My blog is relatively ‘young’, and I don’t publish as many posts as I would like to due to my writing commitments. So, I feel doubly honoured by this. The lovely lady who nominated me is Hardi Goradia. Her blog, Fifty Shades of Reality is excellent, every post extremely informative, thought provoking and deserving of every praise.

These are the five rules to follow:

1. Thank the blogger who nominated you, linking back to their site.

2. Put the Award logo on your blog.

3. Answer the ten questions sent to you.

4. Make up ten new questions for your nominees to answer.

5. Nominate seven blogs.

These are my answers to Hardi’s questions:

1.  What keeps you going?

Life keeps me going; the sheer joy of just being able to enjoy the wonderful things that life can offer in the company of my family. I’ve spent many years of my life bringing up our six wonderful children and teaching until a few years ago. Now I’m writing the books I’ve had on hold for so long, and am enjoying every minute of it. I’m just about to start my third!

2.  What is more important to you, money or happiness?

I don’t need to think too hard about the answer to this one – happiness is more important to me than money. I know that’s easy to say when I’m not one of the millions of people worldwide who live in poverty and don’t even know where their next meal is coming from. But, without getting deeply into that issue, all I can say is that I’m thankful to be able to have a healthy and happy life, and know I am privileged in that.  And I don’t need lots of money to stay happy.

3.  Who is the one person to whom you can open your heart, share your           deepest sorrows as well as your greatest moments?

I have been married for 44 years and throughout that time my husband has been my soul mate. We are fortunate to have a marriage that has lasted through the years – which I think is partly because we are not afraid of talking about things, whether they be worries or delights. Sharing thoughts and feelings is part and parcel of mutual trust and friendship which, to me, are integral parts of a strong marriage.

4.  If you could go back in time, which age would you prefer, and why?

The two books I’ve written are set in the Anglo Saxon /Viking lands in the 9th century,  so naturally, I love that period. But I adore history in general and wouldn’t object to going back to a number of periods. Yet, that is all I would want to do – just have a ‘look’.  I know, without doubt, that I’d not want to actually stay in any period prior to the one I live in now! I’m afraid I’m rather partial to all the technological and medical advances we now enjoy. Yes, I know that the environment was better before industrialisation and the population explosion and so on. But life was extremely hard and life expectancy very short, so the past will never tempt me to return to it permanently. If I could borrow Dr. Who’s Tardis I would be supremely happy.

5.  What are the qualities you look for in a life partner?

I can only answer this question with hindsight as I’ve had a life partner for 44 years. (see Q.3 above!). I admit, when we married, I didn’t think too deeply about such qualities. I suppose we just ‘got on’ and understood each other so well that the qualities I wanted were just there. In the 44 years since that time, Nick has proved to be excellent at many of the things I’m useless at, and vice versa. He is superb at DIY, mending all things mechanical, electrical or otherwise. In other words, all the things I’m good at breaking! Whereas, I’m a mum. I miss our children around the place, even now. I love to cook and bake, and do all the other mumsy things. Nick does all the gardening. . . I won’t go on. I’ll just sum up by saying that we complement each other.

6.  What makes you think you are different to most others? 

I don’t believe myself to be intrisically different to anyone else. The  entire human race shares the same physical needs for survival, health and so on. But every person is also an individual. Unique. So I suppose I’ll have to think of something that makes me unique. Oh dear . . . I believe that a person’s ‘uniqueness’ is due to their particular combination of characteristics. So what are some of the ‘characteristics’ that constitute me? Firstly, I’m a strange mix of Arts and Sciences. My degree and main teaching subjects are sciences – which I do love. Geology/Earth Sciences fascinate me. But, on the other hand, I also veer towards the Arts. I sudied English Literature to a high level and have attended Creative Writing classes. Other than this, I can’t really think of a great deal. I know some people think I’m crazy to have had six children, and some people (i.e. my two daughters!) think I’m a complete ‘Ditz’ at times. I do seem to break everything I touch and fall over my own feet – but surely, that doesn’t make me a Ditz  . . . does it?

7. Which one electronic device could you not do without?

This is an easy one for me to answer. As a writer, I couldn’t cope without my laptop. But come to think of it, I’d die without my egg timer . . .!

8. What are you expecting out of this blog?

I started a blog because everyone advised me that, as a writer, I really should have one. So, I started in July, not really knowing how things on WordPress worked – and just kept going. I’ve come to absolutely love talking to people all over the world. Everyone is so friendly, it seems just like talking to old friends. As for my writing, I don’t ‘push’ information about my books – rightly or wrongly, I don’t know. I’m just enjoying connecting with people at the moment.

9. What do you miss most about your childhood?

This is another quick one for me to answer. I miss my mum and dad. I had a really happy childhood, with wonderful, caring parents and, although they both passed away many years ago, I still think of them often. I also loved living in Southport. I do miss the sea. Perhaps that’s why I write Viking books!

10.  Who is the one person with whom you’ve had most memories? Also mention those memories.

Having been married for so long (two-thirds of my life, in fact) the only answer to this can be my husband. We share so many memories – of the children growing up and the amazing Christmases we had when he and I would be up all night on Chritsmas Eve playing at being Father Christmas. I remember one such night in particular, when our eldest daughter, then six, wanted a desk. My husband – thinking he could make her a better one than any one we could buy – was still making the thing within an hour of the four children we had at that time coming downstairs. How we survived the sleepless nights, I don’t know.

So, here are my nominees:

1.  Tribalmystic

2.  Elsa Holland

3.  Heena Rathore P

4.  ChristineR

5.  Glaiza Binayas

6.  RobinLK

7. Julia Manuel

Here are my questions for the nominees:

1. What do you like best about blogging?

2. If you could visit any place in the world, where would that place be and why?

3. If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?

4. List 3 things that you are proud of doing / having done.

5. What was your favourite subject at school, and why did it appeal so much?

6. Is there any particular environmental issue that causes you concern?

7. What is your favourite childhood memory?

8. Who is your favourite character in a novel or film and why do you like them so much?

9. What is your greatest ambition in life?

10. What is the biggest compliment you have ever had?

I have chosen these blogs because I really enjoy reading them, and connecting with the lovely people who write them.

Readers Matter

I stumbled across this great post on Tricia Drammeh’s blog today. It was not a blog I had formerly followed, and I was impressed by the way Tricia had put across this important point: that of the importance of reviews to writers. Positive reviews are revered as gold dust by writers, as they can really help to get the book noticed and convince other readers that it is worth reading. Tricia Drummeh is an experienced author, with several Young Adult and Contemporary novels to her name – so she knows what she is talking about!  

Creative State of Mind

We’re all busy, especially this time of the year. It seems we barely have enough time to pick up a book for a few minutes before we go to sleep each night, much less time to write a review once we’ve finished reading. Unless you’re an avid reader who is dedicated to keeping track of every book you’ve ever read, you probably don’t bother with reviews. Books gets hundreds of reviews, so yours doesn’t really matter, right?

Wrong!

Your review is essential. Unless an author is a famous best-seller, chances are their books could use a little love. A little attention. And YOUR review.

There are so many reasons why reviews are important. Reviews help other readers decide whether or not to purchase a book. They let an author know if they are resonating with readers, and what they’re doing right – or wrong. Reviews help a book get noticed…

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To Market, To Market . . .

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The beginning of December means one thing to the people in the area in which I live – and I’m not talking about children starting to open their Advent Calendars!  For the past thirty-two years, the first weekend of December brings the Lincoln Christmas Market.

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This is a wonderful event, which draws more and more visitors each year, with an estimated 250,000 for 2014. Yet Lincoln is a relative newcomer to the world of Christmas markets, and that figure hardly comes close to those of many such markets across continental Europe.

In Germany, the number of visitors per year is staggeringly high, with Cologne reaching an awesome 4 million! Stuttgart and Frankfurt both receive 3 million, and Nuremburg and Dresden welcome 2 million.  However, many Christmas markets are held for a whole month – even some of those in England, including York – and not for just a long weekend, as is Lincoln’s. So I suppose that puts things a little more into perspective.

I know that Christmas markets are now held in many U.S. cities too, but like most British ones, they’re undoubtedly a little more recent than those on continental Europe, which have their origins back in the Middle Ages. Christmas markets were also common in England up to the 17th century -when Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas! The Victorians reintroduced them, after a fashion. Then, markets were held during the weeks leading up to Christmas but, although Christmas goods were offered, the markets never became known as ‘Christmas’ markets.

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The Lincoln market is one of the oldest in England and the first one to be ‘German-styled’. It started in 1982 following the ‘twinning of the city with Neustadt in Germany, with an initial eleven stalls standing between the cathedral and castle. The Lincoln market has only been cancelled once, in 2010, when we were ‘snowed out’. Health and Safety aspects could not be ignored.

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This year was the first time my husband and I, along with one of our two daughters, had visited during daylight hours. I have to say, it’s so much more atmospheric at night, with all the lovely lights and the wonderful backdrop of the medieval Cathedral and Norman castle all lit up.But even in the daytime, the whole area has a quaint medieval feel, with the cobbled streets and age-old shops and houses. It’s also absolutely packed at night.

But even in the daytime, the whole area has a quaint medieval feel, with the cobbled streets and age-old shops and houses. It’s also absolutely packed at night.

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There are 250 stalls at the Lincoln market, many in the traditional, wooden, chalet design, others in tents or marquees. Many are inside the castle walls or outside the cathedral; others take over car parks or are spread along the streets.

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This means that parking in the area is a definite no-no. But Lincoln City Council obligingly lay on a ‘park and ride’ system, whereby visitors can drive out to the huge Lincoln Showground where they leave their cars and hop on a bus. These run every 7 minutes. Most people agree that the convenience and ease well compensate for the cost, as the buses take us very close to the market.

People also come to the Christmas Market on charter trains – lovely old steam engines which add to the Victorian theme of the market. Our fifteen-year old grandson has always had a ‘thing’ about steam engines, and photographs and films them all over the country. Today (Saturday) two great huffing steam trains brought people to the market, and Kieran kindly emailed these photos for me to use.

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The stalls come from both local people and places much further afield; some from other areas of the U.K., others from places in Europe. These are from Germany – sausages, biscuits, salami, wines . . .

Produce can be anything from cooked or uncooked foods, chocolates and fudge, deliciously scented mulled wines and hot roasted chestnuts to ales and wines to handcrafted good of all kind of materials – leather and suede, wood, wrought iron, brass, slate and so on. Then, there are areas of entertainment for children , including fun-fair rides and a big Ferris wheel.

Music is everywhere, from pre-recorded Christmas carols to buskers producing music both old and new. One young lady was making huge bubbles using two fishing-line-type devices for the children to chase.

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All good fun. And best of all were the many Dickensian characters behind the wonderful stalls or merely wandering about . . .

The highlight of my visit was to find a stall from Sweden. I really enjoyed chatting to the two ‘Vikings’ there who were selling typical Swedish and ‘Viking’ goods, including wooden tankards, and face masks or helmets like the ‘Sutton Hoo’ replica. There were also Thor’s Hammer amulets. I just had to have one of those! It’s only small (the larger ones were a bit pricey!) but it’s great.

Well, that’s it for the Lincoln Christmas Market for another year. Next Saturday we’re off to York. The Christmas market there lasts from November 27 to December 21, but it will probably be just as packed. But then, isn’t everywhere in the month before Christmas?

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