Tales within tales

A debut work; a new name.  Familiar themes, intertwined.  Katharine Norbury’s The Fish Ladder is a worthy addition to my current year list.  She promised much of what I like to read – a slice of travel; a dollop of nature; memoir and heart-break, with a touch of genealogy.  There is a mountain top, a name that has meant much to me for decades, engrained from favourite books.  She even manages to meld it all with Celtic myth, and to write of familiar places.

The title of the book is a weel kent attraction at Pitlochry; a break on the long road north.  Travel is not the major part of the journey here, though we manage to get from Barcelona to London, in pretty dire circumstances, and then to wilder parts of North Wales and the Highlands.

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The first little journey has me puzzled, for I’m sure I’ve read that section before and can’t place where.  We head for Spurn Point, where the Humber plunges into the North Sea, after a drive across the Penines through the night.  A walk across to the sands, and a burrow in the dunes for an hour’s sleep before dawn.  I’ve done this before.  And I’ve come across the deflated tyres on returning to the car.  But where and when?  I don’t know.

At risk of having these notes peppered with the *Spoiler Alert* klaxons I’m going to spare you much of the detail; to leave you teased perhaps.

There is a cottage on the Llyn Peninsula, an impulse buy years before.  From there our guide and her daughter follow the burn, aiming for the source.  Following rivers takes her further afield, up the A9, and a loch, eventually a well from a much-loved Neil Gunn tale.  These are day walks; occasional peat bog bivvys overnight with the midges; solitary times, then together with her daughter.

But to bring it all together there is an inner quest; burbling in the background all her life, and rumbling to the surface by chance; pushed to the fore by tragic need.

In her wanders with mother and daughter Katharine happens across a convent hospital.  She meets the nuns who know her story, visits the grave of the Sister whose name she was given.

From a comfortable life in the Spanish sun, Norbury’s writer husband falls victim to harsh times, his latest novel rejected by his publishers.  They pack for London squalor.  But that at least means more time on the Llyn, more time with family, more time to follow quests to river sources.

Then life takes another bleak turn, and the convent and the Sisters spark another quest, an urgent one.  And the book delves deeper, hauls you in.  The cottage makes sense now.  Families.  It could be you.

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