My fundraising challenge – The Ullswater Way ‘Hike for Hospices’.

ullswater-way-map2On the 22nd and 23rd of May 2017, I am undertaking what is a significant challenge – for me anyway. I will be attempting to walk the 20 mile ‘Ullswater Way‘ in the Lake District, over two consecutive days,  to raise money for St Margaret’s Somerset Hospice and Hospice at Home Carlisle and North Lakeland. Both are charities dear to my heart, as they provide much-needed support and treatment to those with the chronic, and disabling, condition known as lymphoedema. You can access my fundraising page HERE, but I would really appreciate it if you could read on. So many still don’t know about lymphoedema and we need to change that. As a writer, I am lucky to have a platform to tell you more, so thank you for taking the time to read on.

Lymphoedema can be ‘primary’ (caused by faulty genes that affect the development of the lymphatic system, developing at any age, but most often during adolescence, or early adulthood) or ‘secondary’ (caused by damage to the lymphatic system or problems with the movement and drainage of fluid in the lymphatic system, most often caused by cancer treatment or as a result of injury). Symptoms include an aching, heavy limbs causing mobility problems, repeated, and potentially very dangerous, skin infections (cellulitis), hard, tight skin which can develop in folds and start to leak fluid, and wart-like growths. There is no cure, only management  (including compression garments and massage to encourage drainage) and many are still not able to access regular treatment, despite greater awareness of the problem following treatment for breast and other cancers.

downloadI am one of those who has needed that treatment desperately. Diagnosed, after horrible tests at the Royal Free Hospital in London, with the primary form of lymphoedema aged just 19, I was faced with a lifetime of treatment for something most doctors then had little knowledge of. I was always ashamed of my legs, which I was bullied about as ‘fat’, and found it really hard to get clothes, especially trousers, to fit (thank goodness for lycra). It was only when I moved to Somerset in 2001 that I got proper care – at St Margaret’s Hospice in Somerset –  and, for the first time in my life, could manage the pain, swelling and frequent infections that had plagued me for so many years. I saw a genetic counsellor, who confirmed that I had inherited the condition  from my father’s side of the family, and that my poor dad, and my aunties, (whose feet we always gazed at, as they oozed swollen and painful from their shoes) had gone through life undiagnosed and in significant discomfort. I discovered that my children had a 50/50 chance of inheriting it, but mercifully neither shows symptoms yet.

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailMany people who know me have no idea that I have lymphoedema now, but over the years I have had to get used to talking about it, and being ‘out there’ with it, to raise awareness. I have had the massage and the daily bandaging, as well as the ‘pump’ treatments and we all have to wear the most hideous compression hosiery every day (stockings and crotchless tights of the type we must endure have never been sold in Ann Summers…). They are horrible when it is hot, and I also have to be constantly vigilant for bites and scratches that easily lead to potentially life-threatening infections (I have antibiotics for emergencies instead of an epipen, for example). However, hiding my legs when others are wearing shorts seems a small price to pay when the alternative is days unable to put a foot to the floor.

C6PHNjWWcAAnvnwIn 2008 I did my ‘Suzie walks North with Keats’ challenge and raised £4000 in funds for the hospice and for the wonderful charity that supports us, The Lymphoedema Support Network. I was also seeking to raise awareness of the condition by walking a total of 100 miles in the Lake District over the course of a year in the footsteps of my favourite poet. This was just after I had finished treatment for breast cancer, and was therefore at risk of developing secondary lymphoedema as well. Mercifully my brilliant specialist nurse team have made sure all eyes are out for any symptoms and after 10 years I am cancer free and have no signs of lymphoedema in my arm. However, many women still live with the consequences of having lymph nodes removed as part of their cancer diagnosis, and as happened to me, they can find the condition seriously affects their mental health.

Ullswater autumnNow in my 50s, I needed another challenge to keep the vital exercise programme going and ensure I give myself the best possible chance of staying healthy. I have been walking regularly (poor Barnaby dog is worn out) and have lost 3 stone in the past year and nothing inspires me more than the opportunity to take a good long walk in the Lake District. The Ullswater Way, at 20 miles, is just that. It is also in an area hard hit by the most recent flooding and has its own reasons to promote awareness of what is still very much a working community reliant on, but not wholly devoted to, tourism. I will be walking with two brothers in law and my lymphoedema nurse, Ali Batchelor, who has, quite literally, saved me from much greater disability over the years. The service she is part of, at St Margaret’s, is in dire need of additional funding, managed as it is by a charity, rather than by the NHS. The same applies to Hospice at Home Carlise and North Lakeland, who provide a similar service in the area where the walk takes place.

StmargI have set up a fundraising page at www.virginmoneygiving/suziegrogan and it would be fabulous if you could see your way to sponsoring me.  I am lucky to have access to such wonderful care. Others are not so lucky and I am hoping this walk will raise much-needed cash, and awareness of a condition still little understood and frequently poorly treated.

hospice-at-homeI know times are tough, financially and emotionally, and I do not underestimate the calls on our purses, and our hearts. But if you can help I would be SO grateful and even the smallest amount can make a real difference.

Thank you!!

Review: Top 10 Walks in the Lake District…

My regular readers (and even irregular ones…) will know that I am at my happiest when I am in the Lake District. As soon as I cross that border into Cumbria, and see the first fells in the distance, worries melt away and I feel as if I have come home.

OK, it must sound sentimental to many of those who live and work in the area, who undoubtedly have to deal with the same day to day pressures as I do back here in Somerset, and may not get the time to wander the fells full of fine feeling (I love a bit of alliteration) but I am not going to apologise for it. I am, after all, one of millions who visit the area, catch the lake district bug and return again and again. Just four weeks ago I had a blissful week of fine weather (too hot to walk one day!)  and good walking, supported by two fabulous little books in a series I have only just discovered.

The Lake District Top 10 Walks series is published by Northern Eye Books, and includes a wide range of pocket sized books perfect for the walker who enjoys a morning or afternoon walk of about five or six miles, with the sure and certain knowledge that they are on the right track to something extra special. From high fells to low fells; from waterfalls to lakesides; literary to historical; there is something for almost everyone.  This year we packed Walks to Viewpoints by Stewart Smith and Walks to Pubs (yes OK I know….) by Vivienne Crow.

ViewsAt £5.99 each they are great value. Smith’s Viewpoints includes walks to try wherever you might be based and it introduced me to areas I would not normally have considered – Great Mell Fell in the north, and Gummers How in the south. I wish I could have tried them all, but there is always the next time, and I have to mention one walk I was particularly impressed by – a low level walk around Wastwater which offered me an entirely new perspective on a lake that already enjoys the distinction of having at its shore ‘Britain’s Favourite View’. On a sunny day, near a pool created by the River Irt and on the southern shoreline after a walk through the bluebells of Low Wood, the stillness seemed profound, until I heard the gentle lapping of waves in a slight breeze. Looking up, to our right, at the terrifying screes, it was, genuinely a view to savour. On the return stretch via Greendale we met with an American couple, carrying the same book,  who had been misdirected and had started the walk the wrong way round. Apart from being a good sign that the book is selling well, I almost envied them, as the view back to the lake from this point onwards is fabulous.

The view back to Wasdale

Crow’s Pub Walks offered us the chance to follow a wonderful walk around Great Langdale and Mickleden, my own ‘favourite view’. It starts and ends at The Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel and takes you on tracks along the side of the fells and on valley paths.In the Mickleden Valley you genuinely feel tiny, as the peaks of Crinkle Crags, Bowfell and the Pikes loom over you. And, of course, the pub is great!

Walking in Great Langdale to Mickleden

Now, I have a few problems with my legs [let’s do a bit of awareness raising here – it’s called primary lymphoedema and I inherited it from my dad. It causes my legs to swell, become very heavy and at risk of serious infections and I have to wear sexy (if you are a bit weird) high compression stockings to manage it. It is a bl**dy nuisance but I have had it a long time and I don’t let it rule my life] which can make walking difficult. I can walk for miles, but ask me to climb a difficult stile, or slip down a steep gravel path and a normally word conscious woman will be cursing with the best of them. So I have to be cautious what I take on. This is perhaps the only caveat with some of the walks – Stewart is a fit landscape photographer, and Vivienne also has masses of experience so when they say a walk is steep, it most certainly is. The walks took me quite a bit longer than suggested in the book, and after consultation with my much more experienced brother in law I discounted a couple as a bit ambitious for me. This makes it doubly important to take the relevant OS map with you as the publisher recommends, and even though they might seem a relatively manageable length and  supported by well written and accurate directions, it is still possible to get lost. The photographs are beautiful (I have my very own Stewart Smith print on the wall at home), but taken in the best conditions, so make sure you still go properly prepared for all weathers.

I would heartily recommend both these books, and intend to buy others in the series. So many books of circular walks are too big to stuff in a pocket, and these are just the right size. After a week they are already well-thumbed, and I still go back to them to remind myself of the walks we did. Do give them a try – they are available from the publisher and all the usual outlets as well as nearly every outdoors shop in Cumbria.


Going ‘home’ -The Lake District as therapy

Lakes2012 016
View over Mickleden

Next week we have a week away. Well I do – I am not sure how much of a holiday my husband really thinks a week in the Lake District is, although we share a cottage with two of his numerous brothers and it is good chance for a catch up over a variety of wonderful Cumbrian beers. For me though, it feels like a visit home; the other 51 weeks (or 50 if I get to sneak in two trips up) being a kind of exile for me.

My first visit was with my family when I was in my mid-teens, and it was love at first sight. We stayed in Midtown House in High Lorton, travelling over the Whinlatter Pass into Keswick and rambling around Buttermere. My dad had early onset Parkinsons so we were never going to get to the top of a mountain, but that made no difference. We made more trips up, until I married and had my own family and started my own traditions. It has come to mean the world to me.

dow crag
Dow Crag (Photo –

The week after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, in my early forties with two young children, we went up for a week and stayed at Torver, near Coniston. We were all in shock, and I knew I was going home to an immediate mastectomy, but a week in the Lakes was just what I needed. I climbed to the top of Dow Crag, and felt that anything was possible. I stood in the Langdales, looking over the Mickleden valley, and felt like a tiny speck in the mists of time. I vowed then that nothing would stop me going back, and I have stood in the same place, many many times since. Depression, anxiety – everything seems to melt away at the first sight of the fells.

downloadI raised over £4,000 for charity walking in the footsteps of the poet John Keats through the Lakes, despite the fact that much of his route is under the A591 and Thirlmere (I found a few detours!), and a trip up is always the best motivation to get a bit fitter. As we get older we are finding things hurt a little more a little sooner, but this year we are planning a few walks from Stewart Smith’s Walks to Viewpoints (Lake District – Top 10 Walks) and Pub Walks: Walks to Cumbria’s Best Pubs by Vivienne Crow in the same series. We know our limitations, but the experience of reaching the end of a walk – whether it be round something or up something – is worth every ache and pain.

I am going to try and keep up a little journal of the trip next week. I don’t usually write much when I am up there. But this time I will try (no pressure).

I would love Cumbria to be my home, but whether that happens, or not, it feels like the place I want to spend all of my days.





The Writer’s Blog Tour – coming out of the attic to party….

blogI can be a real party pooper sometimes. I get asked to join in memes and round robin thingies and although I enjoy reading the blogs written by others I like to do it in my own time, and find out something I didn’t know already.  So although I was really pleased to be nominated for a large-scale writer’s blog tour by the inspirational Angela Buckley, (author of the fabulous ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes previously featured on my blog and master of Victorian detection over at I was also worried about taking it on. Time, ideas etc are all very precious at the moment so I nearly said ‘thanks, but no thanks.’

But then I saw that I would be part of a growing international community of writers, working to introduce our blogs to a wider audience. Christine Findlay, Chair of Bookmark Blair in Perthshire, Scotland invited us to take part (see The Writers’ Blog Tour is a great way to sample the work of new writers. It had already been round some writers I admire, and I was nominated alongside the lovely Rachel Hale over at The History Magpie and although I was tempted to stay in the kitchen with my head in a metaphorical box of cheap Chardonnay I decided to get out and mingle a bit.

So here I am – clutching a plate of nibbles somewhat nervously and clasping a tumbler in a shaky hand. Be nice to me and I promise I am not really a kill joy.

What am I working on?

Shell Shocked jacket high res jpegAt the moment I am in that nervous period just before publication of my book Shell Shocked Britain: The legacy of the First World War for Britain’s mental health‘, when proofs are read and indices compiled and the marketing really starts to build. As well as Shell Shocked I am also commissioned by Pen & Sword History to write two more social histories – Death, Disease & Dissection; The life of a surgeon apothecary in the early 19th century and another on the artists of the Great War. Both should be out in 2016/17.

At the same time I dabble in fiction – ghost stories and cosy crime..

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm, a tough one this. As someone who has experienced mental ill-health, I do try to look with a fresh perspective on periods of history that would, if they happened today, cause widespread and lasting trauma. In Shell Shocked, the Great War is seen as an extraordinary and terrible period that left emotional scars on Britain as a whole, as well as causing thousands of individual tragedies. In Death etc I will look at how the horrors of 19th century medicine co-existed alongside a great Romantic movement and great advances in science. In Artists etc I will examine the work of great painters, sculptors, musicians and writers to see how it has affected our memories of the conflict. We are all different, and we respond to events in various ways. I always try to tell a story that encourages us to look back into our histories with compassion and greater understanding.

I suspect many of us would say the same, however.

Why do I write what I do?

See above. Some people’s stories just need to be heard and I am passionate about being their voice. I do such a lot of research that suggests that despite a mass of evidence provided by historical events, society as a whole simply does not learn.

Mickleden Valley, my Lake District space...
Mickleden Valley, my Lake District space…

How does my writing process work?

It frequently doesn’t! I can research forever, in primary and secondary sources, and enjoy it but actually writing? The demon procrastination is my nemesis. Sudden urges to wash up/water the garden/exercise (OK, not the last one…) frequently overwhelm me. I need to be somewhere well away from home and all its distractions. Writing Shell Shocked I dumped myself on in-laws and friends and took myself away to Cumbria (my spiritual home, I like to think) where I can just write and write…

Finally, I want to thank you for stopping here on the tour and introduce you to two other writers who I admire and encourage you to seek out their blogs and websites and learn a little more about their work.

Michelle J Holman

Based in London, Michelle is a researcher and freelance writer specialising in 18th century entertainment. She is the author of the Abraham Adcock blog at, a short story, The Guinea Ghost, and a collection of poetry and prose focusing on living with mental illness entitled The Sea of Conscience. She is currently working on her first novel.

Beth Webb

Beth lives near Taunton in Somerset with two disreputable moggies who rule her life. She has published books for young children (Junkyard Dragon) and older children (The Dragons of Kilve and The Fleabag Stories), earning great reviews worldwide. She also teaches budding young writers and you can find out more about how she works on her website

Sorry Nigel Farage – Talking Books loved ‘Talking France’…

20130429_211424Well, my holidays are over for 2013. Unless we win the lottery in the next few weeks I will now spend the rest of the year wishing all my friends ‘Bon Voyage’ and envying them their breaks from the daily routine (or what passes for routine in this house.) We had three nights in Paris to celebrate our 25th Wedding Anniversary, followed after just five days by a week in the Lake District. Very different trips, but equally enjoyable. Paris is a wonderful city to stroll around and in three days I walked as far as I ultimately did in the Lakes – around eighteen miles. I enjoyed delicious food on both sides of the channel and now have to adopt a strict low-fat, caffeine free diet in order to unclog all my vital organs.

All this time off has meant that work has been, largely, left behind resulting in my need to quickly shake off post-holiday blues and get back to writing. I also have tons of admin to do, but that never ends and to get it done is just a matter of avoiding distractions. Ha!

One thing that I did have to miss was my radio show ‘Talking Books’. I should have been ‘on’ the day we set off for Cumbria but was given leave and others stepped in. I would like to think I was missed, but with just three programmes to my name I doubt it. Luckily, I have the fabulous Fire River Poets in the studio this week (Friday 24th) which will make sure we get people listening again quickly.

51rgSCBy0NL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_However – back to the 26th April and the ‘Talking Books Talks France’ show. I deliberately chose the subject matter to get me in the mood for Paris, and to pick up a few hints from my guest, Trevor Snow, who organises walking tours of France and has written a book – Best of France – detailing some of his favourites.

We talked of many things, Trevor and I, on the show. He was a wonderful and very knowledgeable guest; a true Francophile. He offered some of his favourite authors who write about France, or who use it as a backdrop for their writing (most notably the novels written by Peter Mayle). As usual we looked at those suggested by my social media pals, who enjoy classics by Camus or Dumas for example or contemporary fiction by Joanne Harris, or the detective novels written by Fred Vargas. We also talked about French literature and why so many of us read authors such as Balzac, Gide and Maupassant in our angst-ridden teens. My favourite is Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier and thanks to Trevor I can pronounce the title correctly for the first time. Of course, I know some who can read French literature in the original language. Sadly with Grade E O Level French I could barely read Spot Goes to France….

I also got a mention in for The Chase by Lorna Fergusson, which I started before my holidays and finished really quickly on the plane home, gripped as I was by the thrilling story, very different from the usual tale of ex-pats in the Dordogne. I heartily recommend it.

What preparing for this programme really brought into focus is how many people adore all things French. I know I do and Paris was very welcoming. Yet we came home to all the fuss and bother about Europe and the ghastly, greasy Nigel Farage suggesting that Europe is some kind of threat to the very soul of Britain and Britishness. Frankly, I don’t think those Mr Farage finds so threatening care about Britain as much as politicians, full of pomp and pompousness, would like to think. The French get on with their own lives, experience their own problems and enjoy all the lovely things French culture can offer. Standing around in tweeds without a chin rubbing people up the wrong way will get us nowhere Nige. Not an image of Britain I would want to promote.

As always I give you the chance to ‘catch up’ so here is the link to the show:

Do listen in to this edition of ‘Talking Books’ if you have a chance. It was great fun to do, although I still get a few nerves, especially when asked to read out a question for a French quiz. Thanks for stepping in Trevor!

My Most Beautiful Thing…

How to choose ‘My Most Beautiful Thing’? How do I meet a challenge set by writer Fiona Robyn for her Blogspash over at Writing Our Way Home today? Is it actually possible to have just one thing that you count beautiful above all others? I have two children – must I choose just one? My husband is wonderful – but beautiful? Hmmmm.

So my choice cannot be human; and in any event no other human is truly ‘mine’.

I am not a great one for buying beautiful ‘things’ either, although there are some wonderful books I would be lost without. My sister and daughter covet beautiful shoes and handbags, but they aren’t something I can get too enthusiastic about. It isn’t a money thing, although I can’t afford them, it is because I just can’t carry them off. I trip in high heels and I need a small sack to carry all my paraphernalia about. TKMaxx don’t seem to do pretty, small sacks as yet.

Continue reading “My Most Beautiful Thing…”

‘A Walk After John Keats’ by Nelson Bushnell 1936 – History, hindsight & a hike with Hitler Youth?

In 2008 I organised and undertook a charity walk in the Lake District (see my short trek blog here) to follow in the footsteps of the poet John Keats. He walked through the Lakes and Scotland in 1818 with his friend Charles Brown and although his tour was cut short by his own ill-health and that of his brother Tom at home in London, imagery in his subsequent work highlights how much the walk added to his experience.

Following my own period of ill-health as I recovered from breast cancer I wanted to get fit and raise some money for causes dear to me. Re-tracing Keats’ steps over 100 miles in my favourite part of the world seemed an obvious choice. So I researched his route (much of which is now buried beneath the busy A596) and discovered that a number of people had gone before me. Thus I was introduced to Mr Nelson Bushnell, an American who came to follow Charles Brown’s itinerary as closely as possible and who documented the many miles he covered in the book ‘A Walk After John Keats’ published in the US in 1936. The wonderful AbeBooks found me a copy and I have returned to it many times since using it as the basis of my own route, although my fitness prevented me from heading into Scotland.

Continue reading “‘A Walk After John Keats’ by Nelson Bushnell 1936 – History, hindsight & a hike with Hitler Youth?”

Four seasons in one week: on a love of the Lakes and sunburn in September

This morning I was sitting inside at the PC, by french windows opening on to our south-facing garden. After thirty minutes I looked down at my left arm to see a distinct patch of sunburn. As far as I can recall I have never been burned by the sun in my dining room before and as it is now very late September the world feels slightly odd. I have always found Emily Dickinson a kindred spirit in confusion, and the first four verses of this poem express perfectly how I feel at present:


Emily Dickinson [1830-1886]

These are the days when birds come back,
A very few, a bird or two,
To take a backward look.

These are the days when skies put on
The old, old sophistries of June, –
A blue and gold mistake.

Oh, fraud that cannot cheat the bee,
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief,

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear,
And softly through the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf!

Oh, sacrament of summer days,
Oh, last communion in the haze,
Permit a child to join,

Thy sacred emblems to partake,
Thy consecrated bread to break,
Taste thine immortal wine!

Irony is not lost on me. Last week I wrote of my love of the cool days of autumn and discovered that many other people feel as I do about the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. I complained that I would love it more should it stop raining and hey presto, it is now 27 degrees celsius in the shade. It is actually too hot to sit out.

Continue reading “Four seasons in one week: on a love of the Lakes and sunburn in September”

Forever autumn – fruitfulness, falling leaves and a poem by Philip Larkin

I love autumn, even in these earliest days of the season. It is not just now, as I (reluctantly) accept that I am middle-aged. I have always loved the colours, smells and celebrations in the months up to Christmas. The painting (left) by Millais – ‘Autumn Leaves’ – is said to represent the passing of youth and beauty, or perhaps the loss of innocence as the harsh realities of decay surround the young women as they light a bonfire in the twilight; but it is stunning.  Ever since my teens, hearing Justin Hayward sing ‘Forever Autumn’ I have delighted in the change of seasons from the seeming inevitability of a disappointing summer to the cosy glow of the latter part of the year.

I admit I would love it a little more if it would just stop raining, but it is a season of striking beauty and one in which you can imagine ‘four seasons in one day’. In the Lake District last week we experienced gale force winds, flinging leaves and branches in our faces as we walked; thick mist; freezing hail and a day of blissfully warm sunshine. It was a little early to witness the forests in shades of gold and red but the first hints were there. The bushes were thick with autumn berries and nestling beneath the canopy were huge red and brown fungi – agaric, bracket and tiny brown mushrooms like Maltesers on fragile stems. The bracken on the fellsides was turning and as the sun came out and warmed up the wet fronds the smell was intoxicating – evocative of all the wonderful walks we have had there over the years.

Readers of my blog know of my love of the poetry of John Keats. His ‘Ode to Autumn’ written in 1819 is a true classic of English literature and is so much more than the oft-quoted first line ‘Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness…’. For example:

Continue reading “Forever autumn – fruitfulness, falling leaves and a poem by Philip Larkin”

On my way to Ambleside: Stock Ghyll Force with John Keats

On the eve of my week long holiday in the Lake District, I thought I would post this excerpt from a journal letter John Keats wrote to his brother Tom, back in London, in the early stages of his walking tour in the Lake District and Scotland with Charles Brown in 1818.

I too will be staying in Ambleside, and will take the walk up to Stock Ghyll Force (‘the Ambleside waterfall’) as Keats does in this letter. His description is vivid and fresh as he describes the different shapes the water takes on as it thunders over the rocks and it easy to see how it inspired him to say ‘I shall learn poetry here and shall henceforth write, more than ever….’

Like Keats I disagree with William Hazlitt, who thought such scenery made men feel ‘little’. John Keats, who was only around 5ft 1inch tall, forgot his ‘stature’  ‘completely’ and I also lose myself in the sublime landscape, feeling with the poet that my mind is at last at rest.

Continue reading “On my way to Ambleside: Stock Ghyll Force with John Keats”