Background to a Tale

The casual visitor to this site doesn’t need to be particularly perceptive to realise that a certain medieval abbey has been a significant influence in my writing.

First of all there’s the real-life medieval mystery, ‘The Silent Stones of Thornton Abbey’. And, of course, there’s my children’s fantasy ‘The Door to Caellfyon’, the serialisation of which begins on this site today.

To accompany the publication of Chapter One, it is only fitting that I provide a brief history of those things that prompted me to set the opening of my tale in the narrow dimly-lit corridors of a crumbling twelfth-century ruin.

To do that I need to take you back to when I was a young teen, a period when I would often cycle with a group of friends to the abbey, where we would proceed to spend hours ‘larking about’.

It was the early 1970s, a time when, in the absence of computers, console games and the like, we needed to make our own entertainment.

This included playing hide and seek in the abbey gatehouse’s maze of corridors, dropping stones down its ancient stone toilets and counting the time they took to hit the dried up moat far below, and even photographing one another as we lay in open stone graves with pennies on our eyes!

However, that which captured my imagination and led me to write ‘Caellfyon’ was not simply the old abbey itself but a mysterious doorway high up on the ruin’s front wall. For, despite spending hours searching for the door inside the building, we never found it.

Where would a door that’s only visible on an outside wall actually lead to?

I decided to write a children’s novel to find out.

In the first chapter, Seymour – the uncle of my main character, Levi – asks the same question as the pair walk toward the abbey:

‘… high up on the outer wall there’s this door. Old, dark and mysterious. And we lads soon realised we hadn’t seen it on the inside. I mean, we knew the place like the backs of our hands by then, and we’d never seen that door from within. And that was it … so began a quest to find the hidden door.’

The first decision I made before considering any other element of my story was that the door had to be a portal. There was no other option in my mind. That posed another question. A portal to where?

It was to be another abbey – one with red walls – that provided the answer.

When my son was a young lad I would often read to him. Among those stories he enjoyed were the ‘Redwall’ series of books by Brian Jacques. These were fantasies in a medieval setting in which all of the characters were animals. The author’s inspiration for the title was an abbey located close his Merseyside home.

I recollected those Redwall stories and their colourful animal characters as I began to mull over the theme for my own book. As I reflected on these, I asked myself this question:

If the main characters of such fantasies were children, how much more so would that capture young readers’ imaginations?

This then was the seed that was to become a story in which insecure teen Levi and his sister Poppy step through a strange door in an abbey and into an adventure way beyond their wildest imaginings.

As I wrote the first chapter, my characters retraced my own steps into the abbey and beyond as they, too, sought out the enigmatic door. Despite being many years since I’d walked through the dark and dusty ruin, the scenes remained vivid in my mind and I was able to visualise each scene as it unfolded.

After publishing my novel I decided to return to the abbey to follow their steps. I was curious to see how accurately I’d managed to capture the surroundings in my writing. Needless to say, I took my camera along.

Beyond this stood a line of trees, oak and beech mostly, their ancient limbs twisted like the gnarled fingers of old men. Behind them loomed a tall and imposing limestone building.’

Sure enough, high in the wall and right of centre was the timber door. Even at this distance Levi could clearly see a large stone lintel above the door, engraved with ornate carvings. A thrill of excitement ran through him and he gave a slight, involuntary gasp.’

Here, a large, ornately carved arch loomed above him. The remains of two colossal gates hung on massive hinges, their timbers held open by thick, rusting chains bolted to the walls..

Once Levi reached the door he saw that the ancient steps, cold and narrow, coiled upwards out of sight.

Levi did not need to look down to see how steeply the curving staircase dropped away behind him – did not have to see the hard, unforgiving edges of the stone steps to realise a fall from here would be appalling.

Levi followed his uncle upwards and, several steps later, was relieved to see a side stair branch off from the main spiral, leading to a small landing.’

To Levi’s left was a huge, leaded glass window. Muted daylight filtered through its grimy pains casting pale bands of light into the room, painting the floor with a dull mosaic.’

To the right, several yards away at the other end of the hall, was the largest fireplace he’d ever seen.

The air here was close and musty, reminding Levi of the small under-stairs cupboard back home. He hurried to keep close to his uncle, who was stooping along the low passage, his shoulders brushing both walls.’

In one of its three walls was a large, black door studded with formidable square-headed bolts. Half way up the door, on one side, was a thick, iron hasp. Sure enough, the brass padlock hanging from it was open.’

I hope you enjoyed this pictorial preview, showing Levi’s first steps toward ‘The Door to Caellfyon‘. To read chapter one in its entirety, use the menu above or click here. I will be posting a further chapter each week, complete with its respective downloadable pdf file.

Downloadable pdf files may be found on the ‘Door to Caellfyon‘ page.

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