The north-east of England combines the ancient history of Viking raids and English castles, with the stark beauty of Lindisfarne island cut off by the tides, and the vibrant city of Newcastle linked by its seven bridges.
In today’s episode, mystery author, LJ Ross talks about love of home, why she sets her books in the area, and tips for visiting.
LJ Ross is the internationally bestselling author of the DCI Ryan mystery series set in the north east of England including UK number one bestseller, Holy Island.
- Why Louise feels that Northumberland will always be home, even as she and her family travel away and back again. The emotional resonance of where we have memory and family.
- Are there geographic personalities? On the possible differences between the north and south of England
- Lindisfarne, the Holy Island, and tips for visiting so you don’t get stranded by the tide as well as nearby Bamburgh Castle
- Cragside and Victorian history
- The city of Newcastle, seven bridges and the Victorian tunnels
- How Louise is entwining her international travels into the upcoming Dr Alexander Gregory series, whose work as a psychological profiler takes him around the world
- Recommended books set in Northumberland
Lindisfarne, Holy Island features in my travel memoir/solo walking book, Pilgrimage: Lessons Learned from Solo Walking Three Ancient Ways.
Transcription of interview with LJ Ross
LJ Ross is the internationally bestselling author of the DCI Ryan mystery series set in the north east of England including UK number one bestseller Holy Island. Hello Louise. It’s so good to have you on the show.
First of all, tell us a bit more about you and your exciting geographic history because you’ve tried a lot of places, haven’t you?
[LJ Ross] I haven’t done too badly! I was born and grew up in Northumberland so I was there until I was 18 and then I went off to university in London and I was down in London on and off for about 12 years. I also did just under a year in Paris and then I did a few months in Florence as well so I hopped, skipped and jumped a little bit and throughout that time my family had actually relocated to Cornwall for about eight years as well so while I was in London I then got to vicariously explore Cornwall. I have a younger sister who’s twelve years younger as well so I would get back quite frequently and see them. So that was quite nice as well to get out of the city during that period. And we travel quite a lot.
My then partner, now husband, James and I, we traveled quite a bit during that time before we had a son. And then after London, after Ethan was born, I think both of us having been brought up in the country, we’d enjoyed our time in London, but we were coming to a point where we needed to smell the fresh air again.
So we moved outside and took a tentative step outside of London to Hertfordshire because at that time James still needed to get back into London for work. We were there for about a year and then we moved over to Bath, which is where we met actually. We loved our time in Bath, it’s a very beautiful city. We were there just under two years. Then we came back around full circle and we wound our way back up to Northumberland now which is where I’m speaking to you from.
[Jo Frances] I wanted to talk to you partly because of this idea of traveling out from home, and you’ve basically returned home after so long.
Do you now see Northumberland as home? The South is quite different. What does it feel like to be home?
[LJ Ross] Well I think I say this with the benefit of hindsight. I would generally say you know home is wherever you and your loved ones put your heart, as it were.
I think that is genuinely true, if you are happy within your own skin, you could probably make a home anywhere. I think that there’s a good level of truth to that but in terms of Northumberland, I think it’s also safe to say that I think Northumberland is always going to be home to me. Even when I wasn’t living there, I set my books there and I would get back as often as I could. I would just for my own pleasure be seeking out new places in Northumberland or rediscovering places that I knew as a child.
So my heart was definitely leaning in that direction. It has been for years. I think my head and my heart were always grounded in this part of the world. That imprint was there from childhood and where we are now, we’ve moved back up here and we’re very happy here.
What I would say about our family is that we love to travel and we love to spread our wings wherever possible. I think it’s the case that in the future as we move into different stages of our lives and, as opportunity arises, we probably would hop, skip and jump away and then probably return again. It’s somewhere that I’ll always have an emotional and probably also a physical base and somewhere that I’d always be drawn back to periodically over my lifetime.
[Jo Frances] You’re right that the places that are emotionally resonant often end up in our books. It’s the same for me.
We’ll come back to your books in a minute, but people might hear the difference in our accents. Neither of us have particularly broad accents but there is a difference.
Do you think there are real differences between northerners and southerners. Are there really different geographical personalities in the UK?
[LJ Ross] I just think this is kind of anecdotal, isn’t it? I mean people in the UK do speak about there being regional differences between people, and as you say, you can hear the differences sometimes. For example, Northerners, depending on who you speak to, can either be recognized as really down to earth, unpretentious, and probably easy to speak to — all of those things.
I think they did a call center poll a while back and apparently, a lot of Geordie call center operators are hired specifically because they’re trustworthy on the phone. I don’t know whether that’s true at all, but it’s an interesting comment on those supposed differences.
But I actually don’t think that any of the real substance will be different between people because wherever there’s a community, whether it be north or south, you’ll get those personalities wherever you go. You get people who gel together and who are loyal and who will rally behind their own community.
You’ve probably found this with your books as well, that you know when you put something out there, if people recognize something in your local area, they will really get behind you and support you. That’s really just a human nature trait as opposed to being a regional one. But I think in general, yes, you’re right, the Northerners are known for being maybe quite hardy as well, I mean it is quite cold!
[Jo Frances] Fantastic. So your first novel, Holy Island, which is how I came to know your writing is set on Lindisfarne.
Tell us what is so special about Lindisfarne and any tips for people who want to visit.
[LJ Ross] Sure. So Lindisfarne is a tiny tidal causeway island off the northeastern coast. If you know anything about the geography of the United Kingdom, it’s somewhere between Newcastle on that eastern coastline and Edinburgh. So not as far north as Edinburgh but it’s halfway between getting up that way.
So if you take a train journey between Newcastle and Edinburgh any time you would look out across the sea. If you’re lucky, on a clear day, you’d see this lovely little island peeping up from the North Sea.
It’s quite a chameleon depending on the weather and often in the Northeast, you’re going to get thrashing waves and a lot of stormy weather which can change quite quickly to being beautiful blue skies.
The island can be quite isolating but in a really spiritual way. It’s first recorded history is way back in the sixth century and people clearly felt the same back then. When I say spiritual, I’m not religious myself, but I can understand why it drew people to that island because it has a peacefulness to it with the surrounding sea on every side and you are closeted on this beautiful little patch of earth and it seems to have just been dropped from the sky.
It has a lot to it that people can relate to and feel at home with. You can get back to basics. You can go there and really strip back your social media life and have a peaceful time there.
It has a really long recorded history. It’s also known for being the location of probably the first recorded Viking raid on the United Kingdom. [Note from Jo: I wrote about that Viking raid in Day of the Vikings, which is set in the modern day with glimpses into the past.]
You’ve got the ruined Priory there. You’ve got this beautiful little castle. It’s been the inspiration for several well-known writers, not least you and I drew on it, but also George R.R. Martin and Tolkien. Bamburgh Castle has a commanding position against the sea and you really do feel that geography when you’re there.
[Jo Frances] Bernard Cornwell writes about Bamburgh Castle in his Last Kingdom series as well, I think.
[LJ Ross] Yes. It wins quite a lot of tourism awards because you go there and it’s a very commanding spot. It’s built on this old volcanic rock which juts out into the sea and then you’ve got the castle on top which has been improved over the years. You can see for miles around. It’s what you might call a proper Castle.
[Jo Frances] Just back on Lindisfarne, you mentioned that it’s tidal. If people are visiting do they have to be careful when they cross over?
[LJ Ross] Oh yes, absolutely. On a monthly basis, you see local reports about stranded cars because it’s quite a long causeway. It looks deceptively short when you get to the crossing from the mainland but you do really need to check ahead and the tides change daily. I would advise people to have a look on the Northumberland County Council website because they publish all of the times well in advance so you can still plan your trip. They’re very accurate as well.
Every time someone’s car is stranded, the water level rises, not only is it quite a scary thing to happen, but they have to call up a helicopter all the way from Hull. There’s not one sitting right there.
[Jo Frances] I love that because so often now with visiting places, especially places that are well-known, it’s very safe. This slight danger and the water coming and you cannot stop the sea. It adds to the mystery, doesn’t it?
[LJ Ross] It definitely gives it something! Put the accelerator down.
[Jo Frances] The other books in the DCI Ryan series are also mainly set in Northumbria. We mentioned the castle.
What are some of the other places that have inspired your writing?
[LJ Ross] I guess I’m spoilt for choice, really.
Let’s start with Hadrian’s Wall. My second book in that series, Sycamore Gap, is named after that quite famous dip in the wall with the sycamore tree growing right in the center. People might recognize that more readily from Robin Hood, Prince Of Thieves. That’s where Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman walked. It’s a beautiful spot, it’s very remote, very scenic.
You’ve got quite a lot of Roman history around those parts. It’s not very far from either where I grew up or where I live now actually, it’s only about three miles away. I just remember thinking to myself they’re still uncovering quite a lot archaeologically in terms of old Roman relics and that sort of thing. So it’s an obvious thing for a crime writer to think, well, if they’re still uncovering things, I wonder whether they might uncover something a lot more modern …
You’ve got miles and miles of wall in which to potentially hide something because it’s quite thick and it’s quite old and has a lot of vegetation as well so. You know things can easily turn dark in the mind of a crime writer if you have that particular bent that it is also a beautiful spot.
So that’s very inspiring. In terms of looking around you and thinking, I wonder what happened here over the course of centuries where I’m walking now. Who else has walked the same path?
Then places like Cragside moving more towards Victorian history in the area because it’s got a very established Victorian history as well as the industrial town of Newcastle. That was really brought on through the industrial era through Baron Armstrong who built his main summer house in the middle of what you might have described as quite a barren landscape. But if you visit now, it’s one of the most verdant lush forests in the region. He and his wife planted all of they imported, all kinds of unique tree specimens and they built up this incredible new landscape. It has one of the biggest rock gardens I think in Europe.
And aside from that, he built the city of Newcastle as we would know it now. He built the train station, all of the Victorian streets, all of that sort of history, but the castle, well, I call it a castle because it looks a little bit like one of those German Bavarian style castles. It’s not quite in terms of its architecture but it certainly has shades of it, you know. And it’s again built into the rock. It’s on different levels and it’s really higgledy piggledy and it has this sort of slightly faux Tudor facade which sounds like a real mishmash but really somehow works against all of the forest behind it.
It was also the first place in the world to be lit by hydroelectric power. He was a real engineer and he had the means to explore all of his inventive ideas. He had Turkish baths there. He had this Archimedes screw that was powering the whole house with these old lightbulbs. It’s got a fantastic feel and it’s extremely Victorian when you go inside, by which I mean, it’s quite dark. There’s a lot of red but there are incredible museum collections that he acquired over the years. Just as a feat of engineering, it’s definitely worth seeing.
What are some of the interesting places to visit in the Newcastle, the city itself?
The city of Newcastle has quite a long shipping history but it also has a coal mining history that brought in quite a lot of wealth in days gone by. This wagonway beneath the city, it’s a very similar size to maybe one of the London tube tunnels, you know. It was built to transport coal from the north west of the city all the way down to the river on the other side without having to disturb the streets with this constant flow of traffic.
It’s built on a slight incline so they knew what they were doing. But there are these great stories. I mean you go inside, because you can take a tour now, and it is quite eerie. It’s very dark. It’s lit for the purposes of the tour and but only so far, so you really do get a feel of what it might have been like.
During both World Wars, it was also used as a bomb shelter. So they built these blast walls and I managed to incorporate that into the story because if you were just walking along and the light went out, it would be utter darkness, and you’re walking along and then suddenly a wall just appears in front of you. The gap around it is so slim and you wouldn’t immediately know how to get out of it. For a crime writer, there’s plenty to work with there. There’s a lot of claustrophobia in that.
It’s got quite a lot of history. There are stories from the coal mining days about accidents. It’s a bit like a roller coaster, I suppose, and if you’re on the wrong end of that at any point then disaster would strike.
Growing up, I had actually no idea that the Victoria tunnel even existed but I’m so pleased that they’ve invested in that now and people can take tours and understand a bit about the history of the city and other parts that I really enjoy seeing.
Obviously you’ve got the usual Theatre Royal and things like that but actually, for me, it’s down on the quayside on both sides that’s interesting.
The River Tyne separates Newcastle to the north and Gateshead to the south and on Gateshead side, you have this incredible music venue called The Sage which is just enormous. It was built a few years ago and they have some great names come there.
Looking across the other direction towards the mouth of the sea on a foggy day — yes, there is definitely fog on the Tyne! Don’t worry, I won’t sing it for you!
There are these seven bridges along there, and actually I named one of my books Seven Bridges, and it’s all about that locale and somebody who gets it into their head to hold the city to ransom, otherwise they start blowing up these bridges.
Some of them date back to Armstrong’s time, so you’re looking at Victorian bridges but there’s always been a bridge there right the way back to Roman times. There’s an aesthetic to it that works so well. If you stand at one side and look down the river they each just work very much like an abstract painting.
I enjoy going down that way and they have things like fairs on a Sunday and markets. It’s all nostalgic I would say, but without being old fashioned. It’s modern produce, it’s modern businesses, but there’s a sense on the air of the sea. Down there on the quayside, in particular, is one of my favorite places to go.
[Jo Frances] You’ve made Newcastle seem really romantic. I think of it because of its industrial history, but it sounds like there’s an amazing hidden world of nooks and crannies and a lot of great Victorian history there.
Fantastic. Now, I was looking at your website and I see you have another series coming about a psychological profiler which looks to be pretty international, more international than the DCI Ryan series.
How are you weaving your past travels or your future travels into these books? Tell us more about them.
[J Ross] Well, this is quite an exciting venture actually, because obviously, I decided I wasn’t busy enough!
When I was writing Holy Island, while I was pregnant to keep myself busy, I suppose, I did a postgraduate diploma in psychology and really enjoyed the elements of abnormal psychology and the clinical side. I thought seriously about retraining to be a forensic psychologist or something of that ilk.
But then I wrote Holy Island and the book took off and the rest is history. But I’ve always had an interest in psychology and I love all of the true drama that’s been out, you know, Mind Hunter and The Jigsaw Man, and a lot of these great books.
It’s an interesting history of criminal profiling in the United Kingdom because a while back in the 90s, they tried to set up this forensic profiling unit which was intended to be the UK equivalent of the Behavioral Sciences Unit at the FBI. It never quite got off the ground in the UK for various reasons and so I was always intrigued by this. I was thinking about how much of it is a science and how much of it is just hocus, you know.
I wanted to write my character as a skeptic, rather than being somebody who felt that he could go into any situation and wave a magic wand. I wanted him to to be skeptical of his own skills to a degree and to see himself as a clinician first and a profiler second. So that’s been fun to write.
From a travel perspective, it’s been a lot of fun because in the new stories I can weave in all of my time in Paris, for example, one of the stories is going to be set there. I spent a little bit of time in Ireland, which I love, and the islands in Scotland as well and also a little bit of upstate New York. I intend to visit that a little more, up into New York state several times over the years but not so much up towards the Catskills and that sort of side to it.
The beauty of this series, and that’s something that I’m looking forward to, is because my character will be a consultant and he will basically go depending on where the work is around the world. That means I can set it in small villages in the middle of nowhere vs. major cities, well-known ones, so it’s a nice balance between city storytelling and exploring tiny parts of the world which I’m looking forward to doing over the coming years.
[Jo Frances] I’m really excited about this because I also have a postgrad diploma in psychology. Those books are not out now as we talk, but how can people find these in the future?
[LJ Ross] The first three books will be called Imposter, Hysteria, and Bedlam. The first one should be out fingers crossed around the end of October 2019 so we’ll be sort of launching towards the late part of the year and into Christmas as well.
[Jo Frances] Fantastic. So I wanted to ask you a broader question, because this show is all about books and travel.
What does travel mean to you?
[LJ Ross] I think travel is a question of seeing the world as one world rather than being narrow-minded. If you stay in the same place your whole life, I think there’s a danger that you could become very insular and maybe only see an echo chamber of your own views because people, if they live in the same area, they tend to reflect a lot of shared opinions politically and otherwise.
Reading is great, but it’s also no substitute for going out there and seeing the world for yourself as much as possible. Of course, it’s all a question of what people are able to do. But with the kind of media access that we have now, there’s more and more opportunity to experience other parts of the world even by proxy.
But in my case, I’ve been fortunate and my family as well, to be able to travel where we can. We have a son who’s five, so it’s around the school schedule now. But we do like to plan ahead and to show him different parts of the world so that he develops more of a world view. I think you know, without getting too political about things, I think it just helps in the future to understand why people develop views that are different to your own and rather than you know seeing the world in black and white. It’s about understanding the shades of gray and also assisting in terms of understanding the history of the place and why people and even the geography of the place why it’s developed in the way that it has.
Bringing it back to Northumberland, even as I look at the landscape around here. There’s an enormous volcanic sill that runs all the way from the North Sea all the way underneath Hadrian’s wall and so that’s why you’ll see the landscape jutting up as it does in a really dramatic way.
Understanding that, you know in the centuries gone by how perhaps people settled here and saw how they could use that landscape defensively. Taking that approach and then exploring the world with the same eyes, understanding how people have traditionally moved and been quite nomadic in that sense and I suppose going all the way back, people have always had nomadic tendencies because they needed to go where the food was and where sustenance was.
People don’t necessarily travel in that way just for basic sustenance, but I think there’s something to be said for understanding that’s our shared history. And again, coming back to what I said at the start, looking at the world as one world as opposed to factions within a world.
[Jo Frances] Fantastic.
So apart from your own books, what are some other books you would recommend that people read that are set in the Northeast of England?
[LJ Ross] Sure. Well, we’re again spoilt for choice but I’ll whittle it down. If you’re looking for something non-fiction, I can highly recommend any of Max Adams’s books.
He wrote The King in the North, which is really well researched but an accessible historical book which breaks down the story of King Oswald who’s a really famous king and in the northeast back in the day, he served as inspiration for Tolkien’s Aragorn. It’s fantastic in terms of his storytelling but it’s breaking down the facts of history in a way that is almost like reading just a really great story, which I think is quite a skill for a historian. So I really enjoy his work.
Another one I would recommend is a writer called Nicky Black. It’s very different in terms of style, it’s very firmly fictional, I would say it’s almost like Pulp Fiction because her first book, The Prodigal, is broadly speaking a crime novel but I think it’s much more about relationships. It’s based in the 90s, as well, and it’s got an ashes to ashes feel to it.
She’s got a fantastic skill at really setting the scene so you feel that you’re stepping back into the 90s when you read the book. So it’s Newcastle back in the 90s, and her other book, The Rave, is going back slightly further again and it’s that rave culture in the 90s and it has fantastic dialogue, very cinematic dialogue, between the characters and really good storytelling there.
And then finally, I would probably recommend Howard Linskey who has written historical novels as well, but is probably best known for his crime fiction writing based in the northeast. He is originally from County Durham but I think he lives actually down in well in Hertfordshire now with his family but he writes still about the North and I know I know how it supports Newcastle United still for his sins. That’s really great storytelling but with a slightly different onus, because his characters in one of his series are news reporters and they work in tandem with the police, so it’s looking at a crime from a slightly different perspective as opposed to just you know the detectives or whoever. He’s got a really good gritty style as well. So if you enjoy things that are you know edging more towards Get Carter then that’s that’s a really good option.
[Jo Frances] Fantastic. So where can people find you and your books online?
[Jo Frances] Well, thanks so much for your time, Louise, that was great.
[LJ Ross] Lovely. Thanks for having me.