Wednesday 12 March 2014

The Bull At The Gate – Walking on History: Modern York as a Setting

Freebies! As part of the blog tour for the launch of The Bull At The Gate, comment on this post to be entered into a draw for a free e-copy of Books 1 & 2 of the Torc of Moonlight trilogy.

The Bull At The Gate: Book 2 launched a few days ago. Its blurb is pertinent to this post, so please bear with me:

Nick has moved to York, a walled mediaeval city of crooked half-timbered houses and tight cobbled streets where historical re-enactment groups of Vikings thrill the tourists. Yet deep in the crypt of York Minster sit the foundations of an earlier occupation, the Roman fortress of Eboracum that garrisoned both the infamous Ninth Legion and the Sixth Victrix, and the stains of sacrificial deaths lay buried deep in modern cellars. When a female student disappears the police start asking awkward questions about Alice, and Nick finds himself a suspect. Why has an artefact from the Temple of Mithras appeared on his desk? Could Alice and the girl be trapped together, and if he frees the girl can he return Alice to him?

Is all this in the book? Yes it is. And it’s available for readers to visit in York.

Early in the research for the trilogy I made the decision to set the books in university cities within easy travelling distance to the North York Moors, central to the premise. The first novel was set in Hull when I realised the university’s student accommodation had been named after Celtic settlements in the area. It made sense to move the historical context up a notch, so for Book 2 it became Roman and York; for book 3 it will be Durham and Mediaeval pilgrimage.

I knew the Roman Empire referred to its northern capital of Britannia as Eboracum and that there were exhibits in the Yorkshire Museum, but beyond the gothic Minster and the city being a shoppers' paradise, what was viewable in modern York seemed more mediaeval and Regency. On my first research visit I joined a York Walk guided tour focusing on Roman York. It proved eye-opening, and when I do the same in Durham I’ll take along a voice recorder to make notes as I go; it’s so much easier than frantically scribbling in a notebook. 
York's mediaeval walls on Roman foundations

York is known for its mediaeval city wall, its embankments covered in daffodils any time now. I had no idea that beneath those pristine blocks and grassy banks laid the foundations of the defensive wall to the Roman fortress. Mention 5,000 men in terms of today’s small towns and it won’t raise an eyebrow, but seeing it marked on the ground is to realise the fortress alone was huge. The walls south of the river which cuts through the city guarded the colonia where an unknown number of civilians lived among its tenements, temples, Forum and administrative buildings.

My biggest leap forward was acquiring a copy of the out-of-print Ordnance Survey map of Roman York (1988) showing a wider river and excavation sites up to that time. The Temple of Mithras lies buried beneath the path of a mediaeval church in Micklegate. Artefacts from leather workings were found in what is now known as Tanner Row (!) beside the site of the Roman bridge which crossed into the modern Riverside Gardens.

Few Saxon-built churches survive in northern England, but since research undertaken for Torc of Moonlight I’ve been fascinated by the positioning of All Saints churches. Nearly all are close to water, some known to be obliterating pagan religious sites (the feast days correspond with the turning of the old year, the Halloween period beloved by horror movies). Close to where the Roman bridge crossed the river in Eboracum now stands a mediaeval All Saints church. It’s a lovely place, light and airy, with a 20th century anchorage attached replacing the mediaeval annexe destroyed during the Reformation, and a row of 14th century chancery cottages beside it. Inside, the church roof is held aloft by several slender columns, two of which date back to the Roman period. Does All Saints sit on top of a Roman temple? I’ve ensured it does in The Bull At The Gate.

Statue of Roman goddess Minerva above a doorway
Weaving historical and contemporary data into a fast-paced novel helps to add depth, but I am very aware that I am writing a romantic thriller and not a ‘guide to York’. However, I do want readers to be able to visit the city and walk its streets with book in hand, just as Nick walks them, and if it’s too far to travel, via Google Maps Street View.

And the Viking re-enactment groups? The novel needed to be set in February for the contemporary and historical threads to mesh. What better time to choose than during the annual Jorvik Viking festival when reality slips into the surreal?

If you’ve enjoyed this post please give it a Tweet (below). If you leave a comment or ask a question you could win both ebooks. This post is part of a listed blog tour. Last: Does Romance Need A Happy Ever After Ending? On Friday 14th: Crime Elements in a Non-Crime Novel.

Torc of Moonlight Book 1 is discounted to 99c/99p for a limited period.
The Bull At The Gate Book 2 is available in ebook only, paperback to follow
All Formats now – filtering through to iBooks, Nook, Kobo in a few days

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