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Where are the books set? And why? – Part Six: The Welsh Valleys

In the south of the little nation of Wales, not that far from the English border, is a series of valleys stretching up into the mountainous areas of the Brecon Beacons from the flatter coast plain that is called the Vale of Glamorgan. These are the famous Welsh Valleys.

          For many years they were associated with the coal mines that dotted the entire area. Books and movies were made documenting thevalleys, most notably the book, later a film “How Green was my Valley.” The coalmines closed—the last one in the early 90’s. The area became woefully depressed and poverty and joblessness was too often the norm.

Its not just coal! The Valleys have also given the world magnificent music, wonderful hymns, great physical beauty, some of the best rugby players in the world and a lively, friendly culture that transcends the difficulties and exhibits life in the full.

The names evoke pictures of coal-smeared miners, metal helmets with minion-like lenses, emerging from metal-crate elevators arising from the bowels of the earth: names like Rhondda, Taff, Ebbw, Cynon, Llynfi and others.

It is an area of resourceful people. Tough people. Caring people. It is an area of great beauty. Steep valley sides are dotted with rows of stone miners’ cottages climbing up the valley as it gets narrower and narrower. Once huge piles of coal slag are now emerging as green landscapes because of regeneration projects. Rivers flow. Trees grow. People who once looked out on scarred, coal smoked visages now enjoy verdant green settings and new forests emerging.

It was this setting that propelled the stories along. The area is rich in history, dating back well before Roman times and stretching into the post-Conquest Norman period. Warfare and rebellion are embedded in the psyche of the Valleys. Stories abound of magnificent victories over the English invaders. And magnificent losses. But ultimately it is a story of reconciliation and living together, however reluctantly and that marks the Valleys.  It’s why the Valleys are so important in the stories. They are stories about centuries-old Christian monks and modern-day faith seekers; stories about diabolical supernatural evil and stories about individuals struggling, reluctantly and sometimes without hope, to save what was important and protect the heritage they were given.

My fictional 12th century abbey, Cymllyn was set here. The courageous monks Thomas and Owain struggled through this rugged landscape. A hilltop church, based on the one at Llangynydd, becomes a focal point in the battle for Excalibur.

Just south of the Valleys are the cities of Cardiff, capital of Wales, and Swansea, packed with historic sites, great restaurants, museums and cultural icons are certainly well worth the visit.

But don’t stay in the cities. Explore the Valleys themselves and reward yourself.

Mountain tops. Villages. Row houses. Vast moorlands. Picturesque churches and farms.

The Welsh Valleys.

Well worth crossing the Severn River for.

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Where are the books set? And why? – Part Five: London

Samuel Johnson famously once said that if a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.

     What applied in the 18th century also applies today in the 21st. London is a vibrant city that fires the imagination just by its very presence; you cannot get tired of London because you cannot explore all the city has to offer—history, architecture, art, culture, dining, diversity, markets, business, parks, pageantry—and a whole lot more.

          London is a major world city. Its influence and attraction extends beyond the white cliffs of Dover. It is a centre of intrigue, passion, excitement, busyness and colour. You find the world living and vibrating on its streets.  It is the heart of democracy—from Magna Carta to the current constitutional monarchy—and is an example to the world of how to “do” democracy—with all its flaws, corruption and failings. (Former Prime Minister Winston Churchill said that democracy was the worst form of government—except for all the others!)

          No wonder London is a prime setting in all three books. It is the heart of government—a government that is under attack from terrorists of all stripes, including my evil Druids. From the pomp and ceremony of the opening of Parliament (The Excalibur Parchment) to the machinations of an egotistical self-centred politician concerned with his own agenda instead of public service (The Prince Madoc Secret), the stories cannot be set in any city other than London. It brings together the “good guys” and the “bad guys” and gives them a stage to operate on.

          The Houses of Parliament rise majestically on the banks of the Thames River (if you go, the best view is from the London Eye across the river) and has been the target of numerous terrorist attacks from the days of Guy Fawkes who tried to blow up Parliament (1605) through to the attacks in 2017.

          Not far away is Buckingham Palace, a reminder of the stability of the British monarchy, but also the symbolic home of the Queen and the Royal Family, themselves often threatened by terrorist plots from foreign sources and homegrown alike.

          Beyond the historic sites like the Tower of London and magnificent churches such as Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, there are many more interesting corners, hidden treasures and fascinating places to grab the visitor’s attention.

          London is such a magnet that the “real London” often merges in the mind with the fictional London from the thousands of books set in the city or the thousands of movies and television programmes that have been shot on its streets. Baker Street is real—but also, at 221b, the home of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Notting Hill is a real village in the heart of the city, but also where Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant met in a bookstore. The list goes on.

Do you fancy shopping or street markets? By all means go to Regent St. and Oxford St.–the main shopping streets/ But don’t miss out on the smaller sites. Try Petticoat Lane or Portobello Road. Or go to the Borough Market, Spitalfields Market and Covent Garden. Are shows your thing? The West End theatres feature top hit shows and lesser-known—but equally enjoyable—productions. Don’t miss Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, for example, which opened in 1952 and has run continuously ever since to packed houses.

         Seeking peace and quiet? How about the many parks where you can rent a deck chair and relax surrounded by green and away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Hyde Park, Green Park, St. James Park, Regents Park, Hampstead Heath—all free and all inviting.

          There’s the popular sightseeing London—Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s, the Tower, Buckingham Palace and so on. But there’s also the literary London, the artistic London, the musical London, the shadowy London—whatever interests you have, London provides a bountiful plethora of places to go, things to see and things to do to meet your own particular areas of interest.

          In short, Johnson was right. There is so much to do and see in London, you can never get bored. Since Roman times it has been a hub drawing people from all over the world and all walks of life.  In other words, a perfect setting for a myriad of stories—mine included.



          You owe it to yourself to visit this great city.

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Where are the books set? And why?: Part Four: St. David’s Cathedral

Tucked away in the far south west corner of Wales is Britain and Europe’s smallest city, St. David’s.

          It has a population closing on 2,500 residents, a few shops, some restaurants and pubs and, hidden in a small valley below the city, the immense and impressive St. David’s Cathedral.  The village (because that’s what it really is) is called a city because of the Cathedral. Ecclesiastic law and history determined that no matter how big or small, any place that had a Cathedral was declared a city.

          St. David is known as the Patron Saint of Wales and has an incredible story—worthy of a book—of his service to Wales in preaching and teaching Christianity. Legends suggest that St. Patrick, of Ireland, was taught by David. His preaching was renowned. Thousands gathered to hear his sermons. Miracles were apparently done in his name.

          And so, the Cathedral was built to honour him and to hold his tomb.

          It’s nestled in a narrow, sheltered valley for a reason. In the so-called Dark Ages (mid 500’s and on), Viking marauders attacked and destroyedchurches along the coastline, killing all the monks and sacking nearby villages and enslaving its inhabitants.

          St. David’s hidden location saved it from such deprivations and allowed it to prosper. By the time of William the Conqueror (1066), such was the fame of the Cathedral that a Papal decree dictated that two pilgrimages to St. David’s was the equivalent of one pilgrimage to Rome. William himself made a pilgrimage to the Cathedral in 1081.

          Beside the Cathedral itself are the massive ruins of the Bishop’s Palace, indicative of the wealth of the Cathedral in medieval times. During Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries it suffered heavy damage but survived and serves today as an active church and diocesan centre for The Church in Wales (part of the Anglican Communion),

          The best view of the Cathedral is from the old stone gateway and bell tower atop the hill by the village. From there you can see the sweep of the valley and the church’s strategic placement.

          Stained glass windows and decorative features abound in the Cathedral. If you’re lucky and it is not church service time, you still might hear the organist or even catch the Cathedral choir practising.

          In The Prince Madoc Secret, the Cathedral plays a key role. But I postulate that, at the critical time in the novel, the Church and the cultural community have gathered to create a special memorial place for Welsh writers, artists and musicians might have their own ‘Poet’s Corner’ such as found at Westminster Abbey in London.

 

          That is one piece of fiction I’d love to see become reality.

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Where are the books set? And why?: Part Three: Istanbul

In The Lucifer Scrollan archaeological dig unearths a tantalizing document that hints at the existence of a revered icon, the Holy Lance also known as the Spear of Destiny. It was the spear that a Roman centurion thrust into the side of Jesus Christ at the crucifixion. But it became a spear immortalized by future generations as an icon that allowed its holder to rule the world.

Certainly, Charlemagne and Napoleon believed it and sought it. Adolf Hitler lusted after it. He sent his occult-loving SS chief, Heinrich Himmler, on a search for the spear. Hundreds of thousands of Deutsch Marks were spent on the search, even in the middle of World War II.

One of my protagonists, Professor Huw Griffiths, flies to Istanbul to help an old friend excavate and interpret and old church building they’d discovered in the midst of a huge industrial dig to create a new subway line in the city.

Istanbul is an incredible city, layered with history and tumultuous events, magnificent structures dating from Byzantine times as well as Ottoman. The city straddles the Bosporus, a sea channel connecting the Black Sea and the Aegean. The Bosporus also divides Europe from Asia.

Huw’s church dig symbolizes the city’s violent past, dating from its destruction during the Ottoman invasion of 1453. Hidden beneath the marble altar he finds the provocative document that sparks the new hunt for the spear.

 

Istanbul is a city of contrasts. Modern high rise office towers sit side by side with white marble mosques. Crowded city streets open into magnificent park-like squares. Modern shops on modern streets lead to the tumult and noise of the Grand Bazaar or the Spice Market. It’s noisy and bustling. And it is quiet and reflective.

High above the old city, on the south side of the famed Golden Horn lies three of the city’s most historic and amazing structures.

Hagia Sophia, an enormous Byzantine Cathedral draped in magnificent décor and once the largest building in the world. Still amazing to see and walk through some 1500 years later. It passed from the Byzantines to the conquering Ottomans who were so awed by the building they turned it into a mosque. It now exists as a museum, open to the public and delicately showing off both the incredible mosaic work of the Byzantines and the scrollwork art of the Muslim tradition.

Hagia Sophia sits between two superb Muslim creations: Topkapi Palace and the famed Blue Mosque which is sparkling white marble. (It’s called the Blue Mosque because of the predominant blue and turquoise décor inside the structure).

Topkapi was the palace of the Ottoman emperors until they moved in the late 1800’s to a newer, more modern structure further north along the Bosporus, called Dolmabahce Palace.

Linking Topkapi, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque is the park-like Sultanahmet Square which itself also takes in

 part of the old Byzantine Hippodrome.

History. Culture. Museums. Clashing faiths. Istanbul was an easy choice for a somewhat mysterious, challenging, evocative location to begin the hunt for the Lucifer Scroll.

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Where are the books set? And why? | Part two: Tintern Abbey

Set in a meandering section of the Wye River valley about ten miles north of the border town of Chepstow, the skeletal ruins of Tintern Abbey evoke a peacefulness and solitude that is at odds with its turbulent past.

Tintern was the model for the fictional Cymllyn Abbey in The Excalibur Parchment. My monks Thomas and Owain were at the abbey, as was the traitorous Gethin—a Druid leader infiltrating the Christian church.

Tintern itself was abolished by Henry VIII in his dissolution of the monasteries. The lead roof was removed for its value, but the stone skeleton was left. Over the years the magnificent old church deteriorated but still retained a stark beauty. In 1798, the poet William Wordsworth wrote his famous poem “Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey”. Interest in the old site picked up and it is now a well-restored ruin and a major tourist attraction.

In the abbey ruins you see the outlines of the various supporting outbuildings—the Abbot’s residence, the infirmary, the monks cells and others. It stands on the banks of the Wye River in a fairly flat area surrounded by hills. It is rich agricultural land and, as you walk around the site, you can easily imagine the hustle and bustle of the monks and lay workers as they tended the crops and animals. You can also understand how this became one of the wealthiest Cistercian monasteries of its age—a wealth Henry was determined to seize.

Standing inside the ruins of the magnificent church with its ornate stone decorations and window shells, you can also let your imagination run wild. I deliberately loaded some medieval chants onto my iPhone, plugged in my earpiece and let my imagination wander the monks deep melodious singing hymns accompanying me as I strolled down the nave.

But in my mind, I was not at Tintern. I was at Cymllyn Abbey with Thomas and Owain as they served and then found themselves challenged with the discovery that the Abbots of Cymllyn had hidden and protected a tremendous icon for more than 700 years—the mighty Excalibur, King Arthur’s sword.

From the ruins, I could see the river down which they escaped. And not too far away, the forested hills into which they fled and, beyond that, the open moorland they had to cross, pursued not only by vengeful Druids but by the soldiers of Lord de Tuberville.

All in all, and evocative, peaceful and contemplative spot.

 

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Where are the books set? And why? | Part One: The Old College, Aberystwyth

The Old College in Aberystwyth was the first university in Wales. Its first home was an old former hotel that had been built on the seafront and then extended, before passing into the hands of those who wanted Wales to have its own institute of higher learning. It became known as The Old College or, in Welsh Yr Hen Goleg.

It is a key location in The Prince Madoc Secret.

Interestingly, it was a forward-thinking university from its inception, offering women the same opportunities for higher education that were offered to men—a distinct change from the normal gender-based thinking of Victorian times. It was also developed partly thanks to the efforts of Non-Conformist ministers across Wales who collected “pennies of the people” to develop a starting fund of five thousand pounds—an enormous sum in those days.

As time passed, the university outgrew the existing building. A new, sprawling modern university was constructed in the hills east of the town and today is a renowned school of higher learning. The charming seaside town is also home to the National Library of Wales.

But the quirky old building on the seafront remains. At the invitation of some of the university’s leaders—who told me that ‘my professor’ (Huw Griffiths) had to do some of his research at the university. I agreed. And I went to the Old College to take a look when I was researching and writing The Prince Madoc Secret last year.

I found a delightful, quirky building that really is an amalgam of architectural styles and construction. A magnificent triangular limestone leads into the substantial wooden doors at the entrance to the College. Inside, a massive grand stone staircase leads up to narrow halls. Circular metal staircases clash with wooden staircases. Halls go nowhere except to another set of stairs (stone, wood or metal) which lead to other halls and other staircases (stone, wooden or metal) leading down half a flight to yet more halls. Rooms, professors offices and lecture theatres feed off the main halls.

Along the seafront side is a set of rooms occupied by Prince Charles when he was a student here learning Welsh and preparing for his investiture as Prince of Wales.

The Old College is mostly devoid of students now. They’ve moved up to the main campus east of the town. Instead, there are plans to revive the Old College as a place for special events and concerts among other things.

But it was just the right place for Stone Wallace and Mandy Griffiths to use as a base for their research into the legendary Prince Madoc. It’s a building steeped in history and yet timeless; a place imbued with a sense of learning and Welshness, set in a magnificent location beside the old castle which dates from 1277.

History, culture, legend, idiosyncratic styles are all gathered at The Old College. It is worth a visit and worth a prominent place in the book.

The Old College

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Counting Down to the Release of ‘The Prince Madoc Secret’

Don’t forget that The Prince Madoc Secret will be released in as few weeks. Check in on our website for information on various book events. If you have a bookstore near you that you think might like to host a book signing, please share this email with them and have them contact me direct. If you set up a confirmed book event, you’ll receive a free copy of the book.

Here’s what one early reviewer said:  I kept reading and telling myself, “okay, just half an hour more and then take a break”.  No breaks.  You’re a very good storyteller.  I really got pulled in.  I have found many authors have one or two good books in them, but they continue to write more. You, however have improved.  While I thoroughly enjoyed the first two, Madoc is clearly the best”.  

If you have the opportunity to visit your local bookstore, here’s what two bookstores think about the books!  Share it with your bookstore owner.

“The Oak Grove Conspiracies series by Barrie Doyle is an excellent foray into adventure and history. Beginning with The Excalibur Parchment the reader follows character Stone Wallace as he tries to save his mentor from Wales. The Lucifer Scroll follows suit with a second gripping adventure that traverses the globe. The release of the third in the series Prince Madoc has been hotly anticipated by fans worldwide.  In the two years that we’ve been running our bookstore, we have recommended Barrie’s novels highly to fans of Dan Brown, Bernard Cornwell and Wilbur Smith. When they return for the second in the series we know we’ve got them hooked!”
Georgian Bay Books, Midland, Ontario

And from The Reading Room in Penetanguishine, “At The Reading Room Bookstore in Penetanguishene, we look forward to the arrival of Barrie Doyle’s third book in his Oak Grove Conspiracies. We held events for his first two books in the series, The Excalibur Parchment and The Lucifer Scroll. Both signings were well attended, and sales were terrific.

Barrie, after a long career in journalism, corporate communications, and public relations does a great job of promoting his books and events on social media and through his vast professional networks. He also shows up with props (the Excalibur replica is a huge hit) as well as terrific printed material.

His books deal with the universal themes of good vs. evil, and religious beliefs used for control and power (sound familiar?). They will appeal to readers of historic fiction, fantasy and nail-biting thrillers. One customer compared Barrie’s books to those of Ken Follett. “

Those are just some of the comments we’ve been receiving. We have also found out that Waterstones (a major bookstore in the UK) now carries the books online. If any of you have friends or relatives in Wales or other parts of the UK who’d like to read these nail-biting thrillers, let them know about Waterstone’s. They can order online and pick it up at their closest store.

If, like the early reviewer, you enjoyed any of the books, please consider leaving a review and rating on Amazon or Goodreads and recommending them to family and friends (or, better yet, buying copies as gifts for special occasions!)

I can always be reached by email (excaliburparchment@gmail.com) or you can follow me on Facebook or Twitter to get the latest info, photos, reviews and news.

Looking forward to hearing from you and seeing you again at various events.

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Was King Arthur Real?

Here’s a story that shows archaeology identifying the probability of some of the Athurian stories. In this case the location of his birthplace. More and more, historians and archaeologists are making discoveries that are pointing towards Arthur having existed and led the Celtic post-Romano Britons against Saxon invaders.