Guest Post by Marie Powell
My first glimpse of Durham was the stark Norman cathedral, outlined against the horizon, on the drive from the airport at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It almost made the 12-hour flight (and lost luggage) worth the trip.
Durham’s cathedral and castle on the Palace Green also made it an ideal place to host the Historical Novel Society Conference in September 2022. This world heritage site preserves the medieval flavor of the area, with winding cobblestone streets, ancient buildings, and vennels or narrow lanes between buildings that provide hidden and unexpected shortcuts for walkers.
Durham University’s Hatfield Hall provided easy access through numerous streets and secret passageways, making it an excellent choice of conference accommodation for the 100 members who attended in person from the UK, Europe, the US, and Canada. Buses had been arranged to the university’s Calman Learning Centre, where the conference sessions took place, but the morning walk along the picturesque streets and across stone bridges dating back to the 12th Century, became an absolute delight for a crowd of us each day.
Lush walking paths line the River Wear from bridge to bridge, with numerous shops and a lively Market Square to tempt us away from the conference proceedings. And right across from Hatfield was the Lebaneat restaurant, which quickly became our home-away-from home for those late-night gatherings that often form the highlight of a conference.
Those of us attending in person began our weekend with a tour of the castle and cathedral. The castle was constructed in 1072, shortly after the Norman conquest, and the cathedral heralds from the 11th and 12th Centuries, on the site of the earlier diocese of Lindisfarne. Sections were rebuilt or added in the 13th Century, which is the time period of my Last of the Gifted novel series, so you can imagine my excitement. Standing in that huge, ornate cathedral, facing down the nave toward the beautiful rose window, it was easy to understand how intimidating and awe-inspiring the Normans must have been to peasants and nobles alike.
The opening banquet on Friday saw us seated in the great hall of the castle itself, with entertainment including folk singer Jed Grimes and Dr. Alice Robinson on the Northumbrian smallpipes (similar to bagpipes).
On Saturday and Sunday, conference organizers rose to the challenge of keeping our attention focused on the plenaries, keynotes, panels, interviews, speakers, and workshop sessions, interspersed with agent and publisher pitches. This conference had been cancelled previously due to COVID, and another 75-plus attended online for these sessions.
Among the many highlights: Giles Gasper and his team from Durham University’s Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies took the Saturday afternoon plenary by storm, with a lively presentation exploring the influence of medieval food on culture and agriculture across several continents and centuries. And the sweet-and-savory tasters passed around certainly added to the fun for those of us daring enough to sample.
Keynote speaker Julie Cohen (http://www.julie-cohen.com) won the most tweets of the conference with her talk on overcoming “the Fear” (of not being good enough) that most writers experience, and the art of reinventing ourselves as writers from one book to another or one genre to another.
Margaret Skea (https://margaretskea.com) deserves kudos for stepping up to the plate and delivering an excellent session on Creative Book Marketing when another speaker from the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) had to cancel.
And that’s just a smattering of examples. As well, conference attendees had a choice of two excursions on Saturday evening. Many chose the 13-course medieval feast hosted at Blackfriars Restaurant in nearby Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. I joined the bus to the Kynren Experience, a theatrical extravaganza that galloped through two thousand years of history and legends in 90 minutes.
Huddled under the freezing rain on open-air bleachers, we were mesmerized by the sound-and-light panorama. The cast of at least a hundred men, women, and children re-enacted epic battles with archers and knights on heavy horses, horse-drawn carriages, sheep that ran on cue (to my amazement, no dog in pursuit), and even a flock of honking geese.
Every conference is a bit of a whirlwind, and we’re left at the end of it organizing notes and trying to sort through memories. For me, this conference was also an opportunity to experience the medieval city and live a few days of the life I’ve been dreaming onto the pages of my medieval fantasy series for so long
The conference offered a weekend of soaking up history, from the glories of Norman architecture to the sounds of Northumberland’s smallpipes. Who better to appreciate that with than other historical novelists? It’s no wonder that, as we milled about Hatfield’s grounds the final day, our parting words most often were: “Next year in San Antonio!”
Marie Powell is an award-winning author, journalist, and researcher from Treaty 4 Territory in Saskatchewan, Canada. Her castle-hopping adventures across North Wales resulted in her medieval fantasy series Last of the Gifted, set in 13th C Wales. Marie is the author of more than 40 children’s books, along with short stories and poetry. Find more at mariepowell.ca (https://mariepowell.ca)