Our latest Time Travelling adventure features bestselling author Louise Berridge, whose new book In the Name of the King has recently hit bookstores. She tells us about her favourite historical places, her tips for travelling on a budget and her desire to sit down with King Richard III and just give him a big hug...
Q: What’s your favourite historic site in the world and why?
A: I have a specially soft spot for the tiny town of Rocroi in Northern France. It’s the site of (arguably) the single most important battle in the 17th century, but is almost totally off the tourist track and doesn’t even have its own railway station. You have to drive from Charleville-Mezieres to get there.
And when you do, you are in another world. The place has hardly changed. The fortifications are still there, merely grassed over, and you can wander as you please over the battlefield, right through the little tunnels in the walls of the star-fort. There are no barriers or gates, no pay-turnstyles; it’s history and open to all. There’s a good viewing point with a panoramic map of the battlefield, but if you want any more you need to visit the little museum, which is run and staffed as a cottage industry entirely by local people. There was a lovely lady on duty who nearly dropped her knitting when I first went in, but she brightened with enthusiasm at the sight of foreign interest, and switched on the delightful video-display with trembling fingers.
You can see and breathe history here. Rocroi was about a glorious France before the Revolution, so politically it is forgotten and given no credit. But the people whose ancestors were born here don’t forget, and some I spoke to secretly yearn for the Return of the Kings…
Photo: Fortifications at Rocroi in the Ardennes © Louise Berridge
Q: If you could go anywhere on the planet tomorrow where would it be?
A: Paris. Toujours Paris. There are official historic sites everywhere, of course, and I’d be happy to spend twenty years in Les Invalides, but in Paris even the pavements are history. Every church, every square, every place. Stand on the Place de l’Hotel de Ville (once the infamous Place de Grève) – stand there and just feel it.
Oh, and the food’s rather good too. If you think you’ve had a Béarnaise sauce outside Paris – you’re wrong.
Photo: Place de l’Hotel de Ville, Paris © Louise Berridge
Q: What’s the most interesting city break you’ve been on?
A: Krakow in Poland. I went there primarily to take a day-trip to Auschwitz (something I think everyone should do if they possibly can) but the city itself is so beautiful and redolent of history I had to go back to take in more of it. One of the oldest cities in the world (it started as a Stone Age settlement), St Mary’s Cathedral and Wawel Castle are worth the trip alone, and any taxi driver will take you to the ‘Schindler’ sites of the former factory and the Plaszów concentration camp. Then you can go further afield and visit the Chapel of Skulls…
Q: What’s the most eye-opening ‘hidden historic site’ you’ve visited?
A: Without doubt Sevastopol in the Crimea. The Ukraine has been so long behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ its many historic sites have been lost to the West for decades, and Sevastopol (as the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet) has stayed hidden longer than most. It’s been easier to visit since the 1990’s, but tourism has yet to take root here, and some of the battle sites of WWII and the Crimean War have only been open to the public since November 2010.
My Russian guide, who is the foremost local expert on the 1854-5 siege, told me I was the first British person to stand on the Sandbag Battery of the Battle of Inkerman since before 1917. The Crimea is a place where you can still find lost relics of the past in the grass under your feet, and I am by no means the first visitor to stoop and pick up a button dropped from its owner’s coat 157 years ago.
Photo: Crimea – the Malakoff bastion that defended Sevastopol 1854-5 © Louise Berridge
Q: If you could meet one person from history who would it be?
A: The Great Condé, France’s greatest general ever. Napoleon beats him on strategy, but Napoleon didn’t lead from the front, single-handedly cutting a swathe through vastly superior ranks of the enemy. Condé was an arrogant, highly objectionable human being, but he was also frighteningly intelligent and educated, careless of his own life and liberty when it came to a point of honour, and one of the greatest soldiers the world has ever seen.
*cough* In my opinion, of course.
Q: What tips would you give for someone seeking sites on a budget?
A: Get local help in advance. Guides can be expensive, especially if you go through a special tour operator, but local people will usually have knowledge that’s even more extensive and are often really delighted to share it.
One way to do this is by staying with a local family, which various firms can arrange, eg ‘En Famille Overseas’, a UK company which organizes trips within France. These are usually aimed at language studies, but if you already speak enough to get by you can get a lot more out of them than that.
Another way is to make contact with local re-enactors, of whom there tend to be many near any major historical site. They can show you round, often bring you into paying-sites as a guest, and always possess invaluable knowledge. Because the re-enactment community is international, you will also find most speak shamingly good English.
One way to find them is via a forum devoted to your interests. I met a Crimean War re-enactor on the Victorian Wars Forum and he was of enormous help when I visited Sevastopol. Another way is to search Google Images for Re-enactment – Waterloo (or whatever) and make contact through their websites.
Lastly there’s Living History Worldwide which represents the international re-enactment community and makes it easy to contact members all over the world. One caveat to all this: Re-enactors will do anything for people who genuinely share their passion, but if you’re only mildly curious they will spot you a mile off and be reluctant to waste their time.
Q: Beachside reading: historical fiction or historic fact?
A: If it’s a period I want to write about then I won’t risk being distracted by the filter of another (and possible better) novelist. I’d make an exception for ‘faction’, like Daniel Defoe’s ‘Journal of the Plague Year’, because it’s really no more than imaginative journalism, and highlights dramatic possibilities within seriously researched fact.
Otherwise I love fiction, and my current favourite is the dark medieval world of Karen Maitland.
Q: What’s your favourite period of history?
A: Whichever period I’m researching at the time, which at present is the 1850’s. That’s not because I’m fickle, but because all history is fascinating once you start to really find out about it. I went to Jersey to research the Nazi occupation, visited Elizabeth Castle and came away bubbling with excitement about the Siege of Jersey in the Civil War and the Battle of Jersey in 1781. This is another must-see historical site, complete with Living History re-enactment and the chance to fire a black powder cannon.
Q: Have you ever dressed up as a Roman?
A: Nothing so weird! As a 17th century mercenary, yes, as a 19th century infantryman, yes, but that’s perfectly normal, isn’t it?
Q: And finally…Constantine the Great / Cardinal Richelieu / Richard III: Kiss, Marry, Kill?
A: I wouldn’t want to kill Constantine because of what he did for religious tolerance, but if I married him I’d always be worried about having a hot bath. He was still a great soldier, so I guess I’d forget what he did to his wife and just kiss him.
It’s difficult to marry a Cardinal, but I’d certainly kiss Richelieu. If it hadn’t been for him, Catholic Spain would have remained the dominant power in Europe in the 17th century and would almost certainly have turned on England next. Besides, power is an aphrodisiac and I just love those scarlet robes.
Richard III I just want to cuddle. I go along with Josephine Tey in believing he had nothing to do with murdering the Princes in the Tower, and history has been absolutely foul to him. The man needs a good hug, that’s all.
Louise Berridge read English at Oxford, and taught for ten years before moving into television, where her production credits range from period drama and thrillers to long-running soaps. Having told stories for other people all her life, she now lives in St Albans and writes full-time, reflecting a lifelong passion for history, especially when it has swords in it. Honour and the Sword was an instant Sunday Times bestseller when it debuted in April 2010, and its stand-alone successor In the Name of the King has just been published by Penguin. She is currently working on a second series, the first of which appears in Spring 2012.
About In the Name of the King
It is 1640, and the pall of war hangs over France…
Across the ravaged countryside, soldiers are mustering in vast camps to resist the might of Spain at Arras. None realize the real threat of invasion comes from behind them, or that its roots reach as far as Paris itself.
The young Chevalier de Roland has scarcely set foot in the city before he crosses swords with a cruel nobleman to defend a young woman's honour. Too late he learns he has stumbled on a conspiracy within the King's own household to seize power by secret alliance with Spain. Accused of treason and forced to flee into hiding, André must fight on alone, staking both his life and his honour in the battle to save France.
In the Name of the King is an epic swashbuckling page turner that sweeps from the political intrigues of Cardinal Richelieu to the great battlefields of the Thirty Years War.
The views and opinions expressed in Time Travellers are those of the interviewee concerned and do not necessarily reflect those held by Historvius.