“Inspircation” Day 7: A dream realized in Devonport


We found it! The street where my grandfather was born.

I’ve been calling this trip an “inspircation”’—and it is, combining some rest and respite with some research. However, the initiating factor for coming on this trip in the first place was to help my mom achieve her dream of visiting the street where her father was born.

Marcie and I finally helped her realize that dream. Today, we hunted down Barrack Street, in the borough of Devonport, in the city of Plymouth, on the southern coast of England. The street is not much longer than my arm, but finding it filled my mom with utter joy.

Here are a couple pictures of us on the cobblestones.



Afterwards, we explored the neighbourhood. Like so many places in England, there are buildings here that are really old. We discovered that the church right next to Barrack Street has been converted into a library. I would have loved to go in, but it was closed due to it being a bank holiday. But I imagine this is the local church for my grandfather, and that is a neat thought.

Since the church/library was closed, we ventured through the borough, to the shore, and walked the walls along the sea.


devonport_wall&momdevonport_lee&marcie devonport_port

After this pilgrimage was accomplished, we headed back to Exeter and did a bit more exploring there. Much to my delight, we discovered some underground passages and went down for a tour. These tunnels were originally built almost a thousand years ago as way to run pipes to St. Peter’s Cathedral. Later on, they were expanded so that the town could also access a supply of fresh water. The tunnels were eventually decommissioned, but then rediscovered in the 20th century and used as a haven during the bombing that occurred in 1942.


exeter_ug_lee exeter_ug_marcie&lee exeter_ug_marcie&mum exeter_ug_mom&marcie

We also explored some of the other old sections of wall and battlements in the city and discovered the site where the last execution for the “crime” of witchcraft took place in England.


exeter_park_marcie  exeter_ruins_mom

In this park, I also found a very interesting tree. My mom thought the bark looks like a face but to me it looks like the long bony fingers of a skeleton.


Finally, no post would be complete without some doors. Here are some favorites of the day, including a door to nowhere . . .

exeter_doorkeyhole exeter_doortonowhere exeter_ruins_door

exeter_woodendoor_01 exeter_woodendoor_02 exeter_woodendoor_03 exeter_woodendoor_03a exeter_woodendoor_04 exeter_woodendoor_05


“Inspircation” Day 6: Exit to Exeter

St. Peter's Cathedral

Today, we made the next leg of the journey in southern England on our quest to find the street where my grandfather was born. Today’s plan was to drive from the Cotswolds and go as far as Exeter.

We knew this was going to be a long drive—but only if we had known how long! Actually, the first two hours went very smoothly. It was when we took the exit to Exeter from the M5 that we really got into trouble, as we immediately made a wrong turn and drove 20 miles out of our way before figuring out a way to turn around. Eventually, we sorted out the direction, then just ended up getting very lost in the city of Exeter itself—to the point that I finally just parked the car in frustration and we went on foot to find our pre-booked hotel.

Find it we did, but by the time we returned to fetch our car, it was to discover we had been given a ticket (we just hadn’t seen the meter).

So, it began as a frustrating day, but once we dropped off our luggage, we set off into the city and had a wonderful time exploring it. There is an old wall that weaves through Exeter and we could see bits and pieces of it as we trekked.



Before long, we found St. Peter’s Cathedral, the construction of which began way back in 1114. So it is well old and showcases both Romanesque and Gothic architecture. It was absolutely stunning and, as we entered, a service was in progress and we could hear a beautiful choir. Marcie and I were so overwhelmed that we just sat there in meditative trance for a few moments.



There were many effigies, tombs, and monuments inside the cathedral. I was most fascinated by the monument shown below, which is for John Graves Simcoe. As you can see, his monument features a First Nations warrior on the right. That’s because Simcoe was the first governor of Upper Canada (now Ontario) and founded the city of Toronto. So, here was a surprising connection to home.


There was also a very interesting astronomical clock in one alcove:


In case you are wondering, it told the correct date and time!

After our exploration of the cathedral, we ventured back into the city and made our way to the quay, which was swarming with pigeons, ducks, swans, and geese (of the domestic kind), then back up again towards our hotel.



On this part of the journey we found a peculiar building marked “the house that moved.” Turns out that this house was moved some 70 meters back in the 1960s when its original street was slated for demolition. It would have been demolished, too, except for some last-minute heroics to move it to its present location, and preserve it. My imagination is percolating—there’s definitely an element or two of this story that can make it into one of my books.




Finally, here are a few doors that I discovered throughout the day. My favorite is the one with the elephant door knocker!


stpeterscathedral-gothicdoordetail stpeterscathedral-gothicdoor

exeter-elephantdoorside exeter-elephantdoorfront exeter-elephantdoor


“Inspircation” Day 5: Doors, doors, and more doors


The main goal for the “inspircation” today was to have a bit of a family reunion, as my mom wanted to meet up with her second-cousin. They have been corresponding for years, but this was the first time they had ever met in person.

We decided to meet up in the Cotswold town of Chipping Campden, near the old market hall on the high street. There we were, searching for a parking spot, when my mom suddenly screamed from the seat behind me, so loudly that I thought we were about to have a crash. Turns out, it was just that she had spotted her cousin standing on the sidewalk and it was a scream of delight.

In any case, a parking stall was quickly found and we clambered out of the car for much hugging! As for the town itself, it was very old and quaint, and swelling with history (I guess that’s not very unusual here). The old market hall dates back to 1627.


What I really loved about this town was the fact that it offered a plethora of doors. (I’m not sure if there is a collective noun for doors. But if not, I need to come up with one.)

Here are a few of the many doors (and/or their details) that I discovered and recorded . . .

chippingcampden_lowdoor chippingcampden_bowtiedoor chippingcampden_dragondoorknocker chippingcampden_handdoorknocker chippingcampden_letterboxchippingcampden_handle chippingcampden_orangedoor_lionknocker chippingcampden_oldschoolhousedoor

After lunch at a local cafe, we decided to drive up to Snowshill Manor and Garden. We followed my mom’s cousin in their car and, yes, we did get lost! But, for once, it wasn’t my fault . . . it was just that my mom’s cousin got turned around. I can’t begin to tell you how much better this made me feel about our own motor-related misadventures these past few days.

Snowshill Manor is a very peculiar place. It is now in the hands of the National Trust, but was previously owned by an eccentric named Charles Wade who had a penchant for collecting . . . well, EVERYTHING. I couldn’t sort out a rhyme or reason for anything in his collection. In one room there would be suits of samurai armour and weaponry and, in the next, spinning wheels, only to be followed by a chamber of old carriages. In fact, Mr. Wade never lived in the manor; he restored it for the purpose for housing his massive collection (some 25,000 items). Mr. Wade himself lived in the adjacent priest’s house (it is also crammed with all manner of curios).

Of course, you’re not allowed to touch anything, but at one point, Marcie started fiddling with something (I can’t every remember what it was or if I knew what it was to begin with) and the attendant nearly had a heart attack!

One thing you could touch was a replica knight’s helmet, so I tried it on for kicks. It weighed over six pounds! (Though apparently, the real helmet that it is based on would have be even heavier).

snowshill_helmet02 snowshill_helmet01

Afterwards, we headed out to the garden and orchards for a quick peek, then headed back to our B&B in Ilmington, to eat in the village pub’s garden and listen to the nearby cows moo. Tomorrow, we’re off to Exeter, in our quest to find the street in nearby Devonport where my grandfather was born.


“Inspircation” Day 4: Visiting Shakespeare’s town


Today was without doubt our best day so far on our “inspircation.” I’ll admit that this is partly because we didn’t get lost (not once!). But, mostly, it’s because we spent the entire day in Stratford-upon-Avon and, in a word, it was sublime.

I’m an English Literature major and my wife Marcie is an actress, so this was rather like a pilgrimage for us. We were worried that my mom would be a little less enthralled with the plan for the day, but, thankfully, she is a history enthusiast—so there was something for each of us.


Stratford is full of Shakespeare-related attractions that are well-presevered, managed, and marked by the Shakespeare Birthplace trust. Unfortunately, two of the sites—Nash’s House and New Place—are currently closed for renovations, but there is so much to see in Stratford, that our day was a full one.

We parked the car right in the centre of town, fetched a map from the tourist centre, and mapped out a plan. We began at Anne Hathaway’s cottage—the childhood home of Shakespeare’s wife, and also the place where he most likely “wooed” her. This was about a half hour walk from the two centre, but we chose to do this rather than drive or hop on the bus, and this was the right decision, since we got to amble along pleasant walk ways and see many local thatched-roof homes and gardens.


annehathawayhouse-arch annehathawayhouse-lavendermaze annehathawayhouse-moon annehathawayhouse-orchard annehathawayhouse-rosebush

As for Anne Hathaway’s cottage itself, it was beautiful! The house is surrounded by gardens and an orchard and the weather held, allowing us to explore them at our leisure. The home includes many authentic pieces that actually belonged to the original Hathaway household. (It is the only one of the birthplace trust sites to boast original belongings—items at the other sites are from the time of Shakespeare, but did not belong to him or his family members.)

annehathawayhouse-fireplace annehathawayhouse-ov

Afterwards, we walked back into town and ducked into a local tea shop just as it began to pour. We each opted for the grilled goat cheese sandwich, thinking it would be light—only to discover that it was an entire loaf of brie cheese on toast. So, not light at all!

The rain ended and we headed on to Hall’s Croft, the site where Shakespeare’s daughter lived with her physician husband. The house was very old, with many parts sagging or leaning, so you certainly can feel the history and age of the place.


We weren’t above dorking it up during our exploration. Here’s Marcie and I dressed in some Shakespearian garb:


It also had a wonderful garden, including a very old mulberry tree (150 years old). According to one of the site volunteers, mulberry trees were imported by King James to help spawn the silk industry (silkworms eat mulberry leaves). Unfortunately, King James imported the wrong sort of mulberry tree. He ended up giving away all of his seeds and saplings, and the Shakespeare family ended up with them. We were told that each birthplace trust site has a mulberry tree, each a descendent from the original trees given to Shakespeare.


After this, we headed towards the River Avon and visited Holy Trinity Church, which is the site of Shakespeare’s grave. In fact, his wife, daughter, and son-in-law are all buried there. This is possibly the site where Shakespeare was married, though there is no official record. However, you can see the font where he was baptized and there is also a monument on the wall, near his grave, which was erected by his wife after his death.


shakespeare-burialsite-baptismalfont shakespeare-burialsite-closeupofgrave  shakespeare-burialsite-plaque

This was a very spiritual experience for us, especially Marcie.

Next, we took the walkway along the River Avon, watching the punts and the swans, and made our way to Shakespeare’s birthplace. (Yes, we did things rather out of order, but did it more for the convenience of route.)

riveravon_punt riveravon-l&m

Shakespeare’s birthplace really showed its age, propped here and there with steel braces and the like. What is fascinating about the house is that it also was the place where Shakespeare’s father operated his glove-making shop. The house was also an inn and tavern (The Swan and Maiden) for a while, too. The place oozes with history.



shakespeare-birthplace-windowshakespeare-birthplace-marcieatdoor shakespeare-birthplace-mom shakespeare-birthplace-paththroughgarden

One thing that I didn’t know was that the house has been a place of pilgrimage for many actors and writers for a long time. A display in one of the upper rooms shows the old windows that used to be in the house, where famous people etched their names in the glass.

We capped the night, of course, by going to see a Shakespeare play. Othello was playing at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s theatre. Our seats were high up and steep, so that I felt as if I might almost tip into the stage. But this was a wonderful vantage point, as the production was designed to play to all viewpoints. I know we saw things that audience members in other sections could not, such as the floor sinking to allow the water to bubble up from centre panels, symbolizing the canals of Venice.

theatre_stage theatre-program

Since I am a huge Star Wars fan, I was delighted to discover that the play featured two actors in prominent roles. Hugh Quarshie (from The Phantom Menace) played Othello and Ayesha Dharker (from Attack of the Clones) played Emilia. The production was amazing. This was my mom’s very first Shakespeare play, so she was surprised by the modern rendition of the play—I suppose she was expecting something very traditional. As for me, I loved this interpretation.

Finally, I’ll end off with some of the many doors that grabbed my attention throughout the day.

Shakespeare-burialsite-door-knocker shakespeare-burialsite-exitdoor shakespeare-burialsite-sidedoor stratford-doorwithlionornamentation stratford-olddoor stratford-olddoorwithkeyhole  stratford-small&bigdoor

“Inspircation” Day 3: Minor misadventures in the Cotswolds


Our “inspircation” continues! So far, it has been really successful. In some cases too well—last night, I woke up in the wee hours and spent a half hour or so jotting down scenes in my writing journal. So, not a great sleep, but I roughed out some interesting concepts for the book I’m developing.

Yesterday, we made the trek from Stone Henge to the small town of Ilmington, where my wife Marcie had booked us a B&B. As usual, the driving was tasked to me, but after being failed by our sat nav, our GPS directions, and every other electronic tool we’ve tried, we finally pulled over at a petrol station and bought an A-Z.

Armed with this took, we had much better success! Though, at one point, my mom did completely lose her place on the map and, unable to find where we were, just shouted out, “There are too many roads in this country!”

Then, today, I pulled out of the car park of our B&B, only to have my copilot (Marcie) immediately announced, “I have no idea where we are.” (I swear, our back tires were still crunching on the gravel drive of the B&B).

But that’s getting ahead of myself. We actually began our day by taking one of the suggested walking routes through the town and into the surrounding sheep fields. Full disclosure: We also got lost on the walk, but not too terribly. Here’s Marcie and I, trying to look like we’re enjoying a pastoral experience. (Apparently, my attempt to do so makes me look like a prat.)


My mom was thrilled to see all the sheep. On the flight over, she kept telling me that she was dreaming of green fields of sheep. I promised her she would get them—and get them she has, in spades.

ilmington_goats&sheep ilmington_sheep ilmington_barbwirefence momwithsheep

I finally asked Mom why we never had sheep on our family farm, at which point she revealed to me that we did indeed have a sheep when I was just a toddler (I guess I was too young to remember). According to the story, my dad tried to sheer the wooly fellow one day, only to accidentally nip him. He was so grieved by the incident that he passed the sheep onto my grandparents. Who ate him. (By the way, in case you didn’t know, most farm stories end with “then we ate him.”)

As for me, I particularly enjoyed all the old doorways in the village. Yes, I am a great collector of doors, and I found many today. Here are just a few of my favourites . . .



ilmington_doorwithplantstairs ilmington_gardendoor ilmington_gardendoor_gate ilmington_gardendoor_hingedetail ilmington_gardendoor_hinge ilmington_gardendoor_top

After the walk, we decided to go explore Warwick Castle. The only other castle my mom had ever been to was Highclere (two days ago), so we thought this would be a fun outing. After getting lost (see the “gravel drive incident”, above), we got lost some more, back tracked to our B&B, started over, then most expediently arrived at Warwick.


I’ve been to a lot of castles, and this one wasn’t for me. It was more a playground for families, so a lot less about history. Still, there are many fun things there, especially if you are a wee one. You can try your hand at archery, watch jousting, and see the giant (and I mean GIANT) trebuchet fire a flaming payload (we, unfortunately—or fortunately?—missed that show).


We did enjoy walking the ramparts and seeing a view of the city. It was quite the hike up and down the spiral staircases, especially for my mom, who had never taken such a dizzying climb before. But, as I say, the views were worth it.


Eventually, after navigating our way through the swarms of weaponized children (it seemed every one under the age of ten had bought a wooden sword from the gift shop) and made our way to the haunted dungeons exhibit. I thought this would end up being one long fright-fest, but this was actually the highlight of our Warwick experience. It had some history mixed with humour, featuring great performances by the actors who picked on various members of the audience throughout the tour.

My mom was the first to be hauled out of the audience and made to be “operated” on by a cook-turned-surgeon. Marcie was then cast into a dungeon cell for torturing purposes, while later on in the tour I was put on trial for “widdling” in the town’s water supply. Actually, Marcie was then picked on again, this to read out the judgment of another audience member who was about to be beheaded. (Don’t worry, he was spared—as the executioner’s axe came down, the lights went out, we were all sprayed with “blood”, our benches tipped backwards, and then the lights returned to reveal that the axe had missed and only cut off one ear. It was a surprising moment—a bit of what the kids these days call 4D.)

The interaction is what really made the experience worthwhile and gave us all a chuckle.


Finally, we ended the day in the local pub, which has a large alcove in the fireplace for a table.


So, all in all, a fun day, though I didn’t exactly accomplish much in terms of gathering inspiration. Tomorrow, however, is a big day; we’re headed to Stratford-on-Avon to do all things Shakespeare! I can’t wait . . . I teach a lot of middle-grade books about Shakespeare, so this is going to be collecting a lot of “connections” for my students.

“Inspircation” Day 2: Marcie finds magic at Stone Henge


On Day 2 of our inspircation (vacation + inspiration), Marcie and I took my mom to Stone Henge.

It was quite the drive from our B&B in St. Mary Bourne—at one point, the rain pounded down so fiercely on the windshield that I could barely see. My mom implored me to pull over, but I figured it was actually safer to just keep going. Luckily, a few moments later, the rain turned to a trickle and, by the time we reached Stone Henge, had given way to clear skies.

I’d been to the site before, but several years ago, so was surprised to see that it had been completely redeveloped. Now you actually park, buy your tickets, then take a short shuttle bus up to the stones. We opted to get off part way and walk across a pasture towards the site, which I’m glad we did. To our left were burial mounds and slowly coming into view were the stones.

Stone Henge

There are many people who have told us in the past that Stone Henge “isn’t that great” or a “disappointment.” Since I had been to the site before, I knew what to expect—and that I certainly would not be disappointed. I love ancient sites, having visited many in different parts of the world. I found a strange and quiet calm at Stone Henge and this visit was different than the last. I’m glad I had this opportunity to visit these stones again, especially as I’m currently in the “gathering fuel” process for a new book idea and studying ancient spiritual rituals is integral part of this aim.

Stone Henge

After a lengthy stay at the stones, we returned to the visitor centre and toured the museum. There was a shaman (she was a she, but I don’t think the feminine form of “shaman” is “shawoman” so I’ll stick with shaman ) sitting in one corner with a wooden staff and  speaking to a family about energy. She certainly had an interesting look, wearing an elaborate head piece with antlers. Marcie was immediately drawn to this shaman, and asked if she could hold her staff. What took place afterwards was a lengthy . . . well, I would say exercise, in which Marcie and the shaman interacted, using the staff as a focal point to explore energy, resonance, and the relationship between the rational mind and the imagination.


Some feel a strong connection to this sort of spirituality, while some do not. I’m not always sure where I stand in these matters, but I do know that Marcie had a very authentic experience. She is an open and intuitive person and watching her interaction with the shaman was fascinating. One thing is for sure: By the end of it all, I ended up with exactly what I was looking for—inspirational fuel.

“Inspircation” Day 1: How my mom nearly got us kicked out from Downton Abbey


Today was the first full and proper day of my “inspircation” to the UK and Ireland, which is just a fun way to describe the types of trips my wife Marcie and I like to take: a little bit of vacation combined with a whole lot of inspirational fuel for our art.

This trip was originally spawned because my mom had the dream of travelling to England to visit the street in Devonport where her father was born. My mom has never been to England, and since it didn’t look like it was going to happen on her own volition, Marcie and I decided we better plan the trip and take her. Dreams should be realized, after all!

During the planning stage, we realized that our trip would grow in length and ambition, and it’s turned into a bit of a literary tour.

We arrived yesterday, picked up our rental car and headed south from Heathrow. It’s not my first time driving in England, but it was a pretty stressful start to our trip. This was mostly because we couldn’t find our B&B nestled away in the countryside and I had both my mom and Marcie giving me contradictory directions. Add to this driving on the opposite side of the road (I only bollocksed this up once, and thank goodness it was on a country lane), and using a manual gear shift, and not having a sat-nav . . . well, let’s just say that at once point I thought we would end up sleeping in the car.

Eventually, we arrived and, today,  work up much refreshed. We set out to visit Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey), with a plan to go to the real-life Watership Down, the location of one of my all-time favourite books.

But first, Highclere. As we made our way up the winding road, the site came into sudden view and my mom cried out, “Look, the castle!” in the same enthusiastic voice as my niece. Which pleased me greatly—because it meant my mom had discovered her child-like wonder.

We had arranged to meet some of my mom’s cousins in the castle’s car park, and as luck would have it, they pulled up right behind us. We had never met before, but my mom recognized them from photos. And off we went, all together to the castle.

This was a dream come true for Marcie, as she is a big fan of Downton Abbey.


We explored a bit of the grounds before going into the castle itself. I loved the giant tree on the path leading up to the house. Its roots reminded me of dragon toes.

highclere_tree highclere_tree_dragontoes

As most of my friends know, I am a collector of doors and all things door-related. So I loved the door ornament that greeted us as we entered the castle . . .


I will say, it was quite surreal to trek through all these rooms that seemed so familiar.

We couldn’t take photos inside the castle, though I managed to sneak one . . .


In any case, it doesn’t really matter. If you’ve seen the show, you know what all these spaces look like. We particularly enjoyed all the details—especially my mom. She’s a hands-on type of gal, and at one point decided to see how the shutters worked in the library. Her cousin looked at in her horror as she opened and closed them. The security guard came to tell her off. I couldn’t help to imagine the reaction old Carson would have had if he had caught her at it! I think we would have all been surely tossed out, in that case.

I will say that I found the Egyptian exhibit in the cellars of the castle to be quite exciting. Highclere Castle is home to Lord Carnarvon, and it was his great-grandfather who famously sponsored Howard Carter’s expedition and dig in the Valley of the Kings. So, naturally, there is a strong connection between Highclere and Tutankhamun. There are many original artifacts on display at the house, and also many faithful reproductions (the mummy looked hauntingly real).

I visited Egypt myself in 1997, including the Valley of the Kings, so this experience made me feel like I had come full-circle.


Unfortunately, by the time we exited the castle, the weather had turned quite inclement. It was no time to be visiting the site of Watership Down; instead, we holed up in the local pub with our relatives. To be honest, I’m not sure as we’ll even get to Watership Down tomorrow, as we’re off on the next leg of our visit, with a booking at Stonehenge in the morning. So, I may just have to content myself with knowing that I was in the general region of the rabbits’ famous journey.

So, tomorrow is a new day, and hopefully one that is more dry.

In the meantime, here are some photos from our inn at St. Mary Bourne, including, amongst other things, an old and mysterious door. (It kind of reminds me of the door in The Secret Garden.)

stmarybourne_inn stmarybourne_wellies stmarybourne_door stmarybourne_doordetail St. Mary Bourne


Looking “Under the Egg” ~ a book review

Under the EggUnder the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m always on the lookout for middle-grade books that relate to the arts, partly because I just love stories about this subject, but also because I teach a creative writing class in which the students take inspiration from art history. This book is a perfect fit. It is compared to E.L. Konisburg’s The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Blue Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer, and those comparisons are apt, though this book also reminded me of a wonderful book by Matt Chaming called The Medici Curse, since they both involve a painting beneath a painting.

I loved the setting in this book and the unlikely friendship that develops between Theo and Bodhi. In particular, I liked Theo’s character growth as she moves from being isolated and introverted to more open and worldly.

I did find the plot wraps up a bit too neatly by the end—but that is a minor complaint. There is much to recommend this book otherwise.

View all my reviews

Introducing my students’ books

Introducing my students’ books


One of the great things about the creative writing program I teach is that we careful mentor our students in the creation of an actual book. Sure, we bombard them with inspiration and give them plenty of insights into how we mentors, published authors ourselves, create. But the greatest joy I find in this program is not in talking about how my own stories, but in seeing how their own ideas blossom into books that are printed with color covers, perfect bound spines, and professionally designed interiors.

Below are some of the book covers from my Vancouver class that took place in the Spring of 2015.

LEF_VAN_YolandaXu_Cover.indd LEF_VAN_SoohaKim_Cover.indd untitled LEF_VAN_JulieCheon_Cover.indd LEF_VAN_JennyPan_Cover.indd LEF_VAN_JenniferKim_Cover.indd LEF_VAN_JeffreyGuo_Cover.indd LEF_VAN_EmilyKim_Cover.indd untitled untitled untitled