I was born in Yorkshire in 1953, the eldest of five children. My father was an evangelical Baptist minister, and I grew up with his hell-fire sermons ringing in my ears. As soon as I could I escaped to a life of sex, drugs and rock n roll, acquiring a southern accent and a degree in English and Philosophy at Bristol University along the way. Unwilling to face the prospect of a proper job, I escaped again to live on a farm commune in Somerset, trying to be self-sufficient, growing vegetables, looking after chickens and geese, and making bread. After a year or so this proved unrealistic so I moved to London to work for the Daily Telegraph Information service, followed by a job on an engineering magazine, which combined journalistic training with visits to steel mills and iron foundries. After several years and no marked improvement in my grasp of economics or ability to work for a boss, I went freelance, writing features on travel and articles for women’s pages and magazines like Elle and Cosmopolitan. I met Barry Miles, biographer, and we both escaped to New York for several years, living in a Greenwich Village apartment, with a view of the Empire State Building if you leaned far enough out of the window. There Miles wrote his biography of Allen Ginsberg and I freelanced for British and American publications.
After returning to the UK, I spent several years editing and writing travel guides. These included New York and Tuscany but I concentrated mainly on France. I wrote the National Geographic Traveller Guide to France, became a regular contributor and consultant to Insight Guides, and editor of the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness guide to France. Travel always continued to be important, and has included several trips to Africa and the Far East, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Indonesia. As well as writing conventional travel articles I always had a desire to understand the realities of local life, writing about rice growing, tea plantations, transport systems, and perfume production.
France remained the dream, however, after an early trip to Provence staying on a rose farm, and wandering through lavender fields. We bought Corbiac, a monastery in the French Pyrenees in 1988. Real life intervened for almost ten years before we could finally escape to live there. Theo was born in 1990 and I discovered it was hard to work as I had hoped, with a baby basket beside my desk, à la Harriet Beecher Stowe. Then in 1992 my brother, Simon, a Yorkshire vicar, told the family he was HIV Positive and for several years the knowledge cast a deep shadow over our lives. But as Simon approached death and decided to make a television programme and come out about his illness, I too became engaged, writing a book about him and the way he was cared for by his Yorkshire parish. This was Scarlet Ribbons, A priest with AIDS published in 1997, a book that was painful to write but helped me find my voice as a writer.
In 1997 we escaped to live in the Pyrenees, and my book about our experiences, Life in a Postcard, Escape to the French Pyrenees, (published by Bantam in 2002), describes our life in a mountain village, our attempts to restore a Romanesque monastery, interwoven with the poignant history of the monks and villagers who once lived there, adding a vein of history to a personal story. This was followed in 2005 by The Man who Married a Mountain, A journey through the Pyrenees, which combines travel, history and personal memoir, in the search for the 19 th century mountaineer, Count Henry Russell, visiting all the romantic sites of the Pyrenees and meeting many other mountain-lovers on the way.
Just published is Love and War in the Pyrenees, about the region during the Second World War, in which I explore the emotional landscape of that terrible time.