Sarah Mussi here ... I’m super excited to introduce my new book to you, Here be Witches, it’s about strange adventures in wild and wonderful Snowdonia. Anyone who has ever stood on a high peak or summit knows the magic of mountains. In Here be Witches I take you deep into the mythical world of the Welsh hills of North Wales to understand exactly why their magic is so powerful.
As we follow the adventures of Ellie Morgan, a teenager raised on the slopes of Mount Snowdon, we encounter the Brenin Llwyd, the breath of the Dark Lord, that deceptive ragged mountain mist that lures unwary travellers over treacherous cliffs. We meet figures draped in mystery from ancient times, Gwyn ap Nudd with his white hell hounds, and of course the dragons of Dinas Emrys. Ellie must face a coven witches and break the spell they have laid over her beloved mountains, in order to save her one true love, Henry, and stop the enchantment that will destroy Snowdonia. But the witches’ spell has awoken deep evil. Monstrous mythical creatures are rising from their graves to stop her. With only three friends brave enough to follow her, Ellie must set out to find a way to survive and complete her quest ...
Here be Witches will be published on 1 March. Find out more HERE.
Find out how Matt Dickinson's latest teen thriller originally ended ...
I wake up in Feltham for the very last time. There’s a nice day out there by the looks of it. Blue sky through the bars.
Becca never replied to my letter. I have no idea if I will ever see her again. I take a good look around while I’m waiting for midday. Just for the memories. Because I tell you one thing. I’m not coming back to Feltham Young Offenders Institution. No sir. Once I walk out that door that’s it for me. Goodbye to the jangling bells. Goodbye to the shiny tiles and the flickering fluorescent lights. Goodbye to the sarky guards. Goodbye to the treacle sponge that sticks to your teeth; the stink of 750 smelly lads who aren’t allowed aerosol deodorant because they’ll end up sniffing it.
Goodbye to the gangs that will pounce if they see the slightest weakness. Goodbye to some mates as well. See ya! I’m out of here.
I kick my heels in the library while I’m waiting for them to chuck me out. Say thanks to Andrea, the lady that runs it. She’s been good to me. Got me all the books I asked for. Made me secret cups of tea when she wasn’t really supposed to.
Then it’s time to pack my little bag. Pass through the clanking doors. A nod from the guards.
Pauline is waiting in the office. It’s nice to see her.
‘How are you, Joe?’ She holds me so tight I can hardly breathe.
I’ll be living with her now while we wait for my dad to be released. It’ll be all right, I reckon.
There’re some papers to sign. Release forms and stuff. Then we’re out of the front gates and I’m back in the real world. And it feels so good. To get that clean air inside me. And look out further than the wall in front of your nose. And feel you can go in any direction, not just the one the guards tell you to go in.
And to see Becca standing on the other side of the road.
I swear my heart stops beating for a bit. Then it starts racing out of control.
She’s wearing this white kind of gypsy dress. With her wavy reddish hair flowing down. And she’s looking well brown. And well hot. And those curves in all the right places I kind of got interested in all those months ago? Well, they’re still there but, like, even more so if you get my meaning. And there’s this nervous kind of cute smile on her face.
‘That’s my friend,’ I tell Pauline. There’s a huge lump in my throat.
‘We’d better go and say hello then.’
We cross the road and the closer I get to her the more I can’t think what to say. Or do.
‘Hello Joe,’ she says. We don’t touch or anything. We just stand there like we’re two total strangers.
‘I came up by train,’ she says. She blushes bright red.
There’s a horrible pause. Then Pauline steps in.
‘Tell you what,’ she goes. ‘I know this park where there’s a cafe. Why don’t we all go and have a cup of tea?’
So we do. And suddenly talking’s not difficult at all. And laughing doesn’t seem to be in short supply either. And Pauline gets on with her really well and I eat a piece of chocolate cake and it tastes so damn good after discount baked beans and chewy bacon and crappy margarine for ten months that it makes me want to cry.
‘I need to do a bit of shopping,’ Pauline says later. ‘You two can take a walk if you like and I’ll pick you up in a bit.’
We head into the park. And Becca can’t stop talking and smiling and telling me about her horse and asking if I’ve ever been on one. Then she explains about her university place, how she’s delayed going there to have a bit of freedom so she can recover from the bullet wound and spend a bit of time with her mum and dad.
And the sun is warm. And there are kids playing football with jumpers on the ground for goalposts. And ladies with pushchairs chatting cheerfully on the benches. And we’re getting closer to the corner of the park, closer to the place that’s a little bit hidden by the trees, the place where my mum’s butterfly is painted on the wall.
And somehow that’s where we end up. And the conversation seems to get a bit … sticky. And I can feel my heart thumping in my chest because Becca is looking right at my mum’s graffiti.
‘That’s beautiful,’ she says. ‘Is it one of yours?’
I tell her the story. And it all comes out in a rush. The story of how my mum did the butterfly and what she told me that day.
Becca leans back against the wall, right in the middle of the butterfly. It’s like the wings are her wings. Like she could take right off and fly away.
I’m looking right at her and thinking I never saw a more beautiful thing in my whole life.
And she says, ‘I think our stories just came together.’
And suddenly I feel this powerful thing, like my mum is actually there beside me, or in my head, telling me to be happy, to be free of everything and get some more love in my life.
Becca pulls me towards her. I melt into her body. And she gives this sort of sigh. She wraps her arms right round me and holds me really tight. I can feel her breath warm and fast against my ear. She smells so good; it’s like the nicest bunch of flowers ever. I fold my arms around her. And the fabric of her dress feels so soft at the bottom of her back it’s like it’s hardly there and really I’m touching her skin.
It’s the first time I’ve held a girl. But I’m not worried about doing it right. I know I’m doing it right. And they talk about this stuff, and how it’s the best thing in the universe. And they’re not wrong about that. But it’s not just the doing of it, is it? It’s the knowing that the other person wants it as well. That they need it as much as you do.
My lips brush against hers. For a few moments they just stay there, kind of slightly glued together, and the sweetness of her breath is awesome and then we push a little harder against each other and we kiss in this gentle kind of way.
Then we’re not playing at kissing any more. We’re doing it for real and there’s this incredible kind of hot vibe to it that just makes me want to scream or something it is so good. And she’s kind of giving as good as she’s getting if you see what I mean and I think, well, this posh girl is pretty grounded after all and the heat of her is making my whole body go to jelly.
Then I hear Pauline, calling from over near the playground.
‘I’ve been looking for you two!’ she calls. ‘Come on!’
We pull apart, laughing. We go to join her. And it feels right to hold hands even in front of her. And Becca’s squeezing my fingers in this way that’s like a conversation.
Then we take her to a tube station and its time for her to go home. She holds me close but we don’t kiss again. We don’t need to. We know we’ll be back together again soon so it’s cool to wait.
Pauline and I stay in the car, watching her walking towards the station entrance.
And Pauline says, ‘She’s a lovely girl, Joe. Hang on to her won’t you?’
Becca pauses just before she goes in. She gives this smiley wave and locks eyes with me.
And I think, yeah, I will hang on to her. I definitely will.
In a land of myth, and a time of the magic… brilliant opening words from BBC’s immortal series:MERLIN.Once upon a time… classic line from every fairy story going…What better way to start your story than with a time and a place?
Once upon a time, in a land of myth, I set out to find the most inspirational time and place where I could tell a story that would touch every storytelling nerve I’d ever had. I didn’t have to go far. For me, born on the Cotswold hills, the mountains of North Wales are just a Golden Valley away.If any of you have ever been to Snowdonia, or have the good fortune to live there, you will know, only too well, that the Mountains of the West - as well as being the most beautiful things on earth - are the birth place of bards and the home of some of the oldest stories ever told.HERE BE DRAGONS, my story about Snowdonia, starts on the slopes of Mount Snowdon itself. One cold winter’s morning, when a serious weather alert has snow locked everybody into their cottages…And as I spun the story out from that beginning - like the metaphorical little Welsh lady in her tall black hat at her spinning wheel – spinning out the stuff of fairy story and myth – I thought of other metaphors for the magical, for the mysterious and for the myths of the mountains.I imagined the snow perhaps as a symbol for something else - bigger and much more dangerous, but just as intangible. I imagined the mountains as a symbol too, as the manifestation of the tangible – huge and perilous.And I searched wider and deeper to find out just what that something might be… and I found the Dragons.In Welsh mythology underneath the rocks of Mount Snowdon lie two fighting dragons, interred, entombed and locked away from mankind, because they are so dangerous. These dragons are – perhaps themselves - a huge metaphor in their turn for that deep, dark, dangerous, locked-away subconscious – often at war with itself - that lies in everyone of us.The Welsh word for ‘Snowdon’ is ‘Yr Wyddfa’ – which some translate as Snowhill - but others, those who know the older, deeper Welsh translate it as The Burial, or the Snow Den.When I discovered this a tingle went down my spine, and I knew I had found the heart of my story.Through peeling back these layers of metaphor, I got to what I wanted to write about. I began to understand the pull and call of mountains: why people put on their hiking boots, go out, climb, buy expensive mountaineering equipment, set out to conquer cliffs, beat mountains, bankrupt themselves, risk death to stand on summits – to be on the roof of the world… and why I tried at age 9 to climb my very own Devil’s Chimney.I understood why somebody decided to build a tower of stones right on the very summit of Snowdon, a marker that it would stand forever, a symbol that mankind had conquered the mountain.The more I thought about this idea, though, the more I realised how hopeless it was to think that mankind can ever conquer nature, can ever chart it by erecting some kind of flag or marker. And conversely how futile it is for mankind too, to ever hope to map the depths of the human mind.The human psyche is much higher than any mountain summit, and much deeper than its valleys - and I believe quite unconquerable, quite un-map-able –wise men and women have showed us with their storytelling to work with the mind rather than to attempt to fathom it - have devised myths to describe its heights and depths and dangers.And mountains are, perhaps, the best symbol of those two extremes. Great writers, poets have always understood that.No worst, There is NoneO the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fallFrightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheapMay who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our smallDurance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: allLife death does end and each day dies with sleep.Gerard Manley HopkinsSo it was under Snowdon that I looked for my story not on top of it.And under Snowdon are the dragons.When you walk through the mountains of Snowdonia you can almost feel the presence of these huge subterranean, mighty, majestic creatures and it was about them that I wanted to write.The retelling of myths surrounding the Dragons of Wales and the exploits of King Arthur and the magic of Martin and the battles of the giants in and around Snowdonia, have, of course, been retold many times, over the ages, right from the 12th to 13th century Mabinogion, down to the current, popular TV success: MERLIN, and the soon to be released epic fim : KNIGHTS OF THE ROUNDTABLE: KING ARTHUR (2016). I was writing a great tradition then, with fabulous company!Yet, I wanted to bring something new and different to the stories. It seemed to me that nobody yet had quite written a modern love affair based on the mythologies of the mountains of North Wales. In Cornwall, we have the mythologized love affairs of Tristram and Iseult; in Arthurian legend we have many a gallant knight’s quest, to bring back trophies to his lady love. We have the doomed love affair of Guinevere and Arthur – of Guinevere and Lancelot… but specifically in North Wales there are very few love stories set in Snowdonia.So I set out to create a love story that was going to be accessible to a teenager living in today's world. Teenagers today love legendary romance, but expect a little bit more than a rusty sword and a metal overcoat- or for their boyfriend to go gallivanting off on a big swim, across rivers, or trek, across deserts, to prove his love. So I created Ellie, the mountain girl, who has already climbed many of the peaks, and in her own right was victorious over the landscape, but had not, as yet, really plumbed the depths of the human psyche – that deep well of emotion that first love taps straight into.So she encounters the dragons, mythical monsters that dwell under the landscape and so begins a heartbreaking romance with the things that live beneath the hills, the buried selves - symbols perhaps of the unconscious desire to become one with the self, the unknown, the other and the magical – things that nevertheless are monsters in their own right. Symbols too of a very human desire not to just conquer the elements and the geography of a place, but to fall deeply in love with it as well.
My own love affair with North Wales began a very long time ago when I was a small child and went on family holidays to a caravan near Barmouth, for one glorious week every summer. During that week everything was totally magical. We did many things from hill walking to building castles on Barmouth sands - to visiting old mysterious and damp churchyards, poking around little villages with their huge, grey, thick-walled cottages, but the best bits of all were telling tales in the caravan, on windy evenings about the Breath of the Grey King, about the Dragons, about the giants, about all the mysteries of North Wales.It is hardly surprisingly then, as an adult, when I was looking for a story about the depths beneath and a first powerful love affair - that I should return once again to Snowdonia in North Wales and once again climb Snowdon and sit in the café on its summit and write the opening lines of HERE BE DRAGONS.IT WAS CHRISTMAS. Although, you’d hardly have known it. I was at home pinging my friends in front of the telly. The telly wasn’t going, of course. Nothing was going, unless you counted the snow. Since 5.00 a.m., my mobile had indicated a serious weather alert.You need to know what a serious weather alert means when you’re me, Arabella (Ellie) Morgan, living in a remote farmhouse on the slopes of Mount Snowdon with only your mum. It means life comes to a standstill…What better way to start a story than with a time and a place…
The human body has incredible capabilities. It can adapt to deep sea pressure, it can survive extremes of heat and cold. It can rebuild after disease and famine.
It also has systems to cope with extreme altitude, but, as climbers know, you have to approach things in the right way or things can quickly go wrong.
Everest is the ultimate test. To take the body to 8,848 metres pushes the human body to the absolute limit. On the summit there is just 30% of the oxygen we normally breathe. This puts the whole body under pressure:
- Cells cannot rebuild and repair themselves.
- Mental ability and decision making is severely impaired.
- The lungs and brain may suffer catastrophic effects ... namely water build up and subsequent failure.
- The blood may become so thick it causes strokes or even a heart attack.
So, what is the secret? How do Everest climbers manage to adapt?
The answer is to go as slowly as possible, gaining height in a series of gradual stages (with rest days built in) so that the body can produce more red blood cells to cope with the gradually thinning air. The climber's motto is ‘climb high, sleep low,’ pushing the body as hard as possible during the day by gaining perhaps 500 metres or even 1,000 metres of height then dropping back down and sleeping at a lower altitude.
Using this system, it takes about two weeks to be able to live at base camp level, at 5,400 metres.
Even so, sleeplessness, headache, loss of appetite and nausea may still occur. Even the most experienced climbers get these symptoms from time to time.
If you rush to high altitude and get sick there is only one solution: go down as fast as possible. The thicker air will quickly restore normal bodily functions.
On Everest most climbers resort to using supplementary oxygen above 8,000 metres. Fed from a tank, a trickle of air helps the climber to gain height while still remaining warm and strong.
Travelling to Everest is giving me the perfect opportunity to observe climate change in action. The region is filled with many glaciers and climbers frequently have to travel across them to gain access to the high peaks. Climate scientists have published many papers recording the rapid pace at which these high-altitude glaciers are melting. Controversy has flared up about the likely date at which Himalayan glaciers may disappear but it seems one thing is sure: the majority of Himalayan glaciers are shrinking fast.
Earth Observatory provides graphic proof. The organisation takes historic photographs of glaciers from early expeditions and compares them to modern photographs taken from the same position. It is fascinating to see how things have changed.
So, what will happen if the glaciers of the Himalaya do melt away? Will the mountain range become a desert? How will the people who live in this region be affected?
One massive impact would be the gradual drying up of the many important rivers that spring to life in the high Himalaya. Many millions of people in Asia depend on these rivers for their livelihood. If the glaciers disappear so will some very important rivers.
Meanwhile, for our expedition, the Khumbu Glacier is our home. We are camped right on it and the creaks and cracks and groans are a reminder that this vast body of ice is moving, like a great icy snake, heading ever downwards, shaping the mountains in amazing ways.
EVEREST PORTER! THE WORST JOB IN THE WORLD?
The trail to Everest Base Camp is a long and hard trek. Even experienced mountaineers find it a challenge to carry an average rucksack (weighing perhaps 20kg) up and down the valley walls that separate each day’s destination.
A daily trek can easily be six to eight hours and the air gets thinner and thinner the higher you go.
Think that’s tough? Think again! It’s nothing compared to the loads that Everest porters carry.
These are the hard men of the Himalaya. They are mostly young (from eighteen to twenty-five), from poor villages all over Nepal. They often carry in excess of 100 kg on their backs! And some of them only weigh fifty or sixty kg themselves so they are carrying twice their own bodyweight. Imagine carrying two of your friends on your back for hour after hour after hour ... up a huge hill!
For each kilogram they are paid just twenty Nepali rupees for a two day trek between villages. That makes a reward of just fifteen to twenty UK pounds for two days of arduous work, often in cold and wet conditions with inadequate clothing as protection. Often they sleep on the floor in teahouses to save money. They have little access to medical care.
It’s back breaking work. Literally. Many of these porters end up with spinal problems and crippling joint conditions which can last a lifetime.
Reputable western tour operators are doing their bit to try to make things better. They subscribe to the work of organisations such as Porters Progress, The International Porter Protection Group and the Himalayan Rescue Association.
The problem is a deep one. Nepal is a poor country. Many uneducated young men have hardly any opportunities to earn money. Many of them reject attempts to restrict the size of their loads because it reduces their earning power. So long as wealthy trekkers and climbers come to the Everest region it seems porters will always be attracted by the work on offer.