Ms. Boo, aka Queen Boudicca, in the heart of Pendle Witch Country.
Though I was born and raised in Minnesota, I have wandered the world as an expat writer nearly my entire adult life, living in Belgium, Austria, and Germany, before moving to Pendle Witch country in northern England in 2002. I fell in love with the beautiful, rugged moorland, haunted by its history of the Pendle Witches, who cast their everlasting spell on the land. This was the landscape that inspired my 2010 novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, which casts the Pendle Witches in their historical context as cunning women and healers. Indeed I was inspired enough to write seven out of my eight published novels in Lancashire. The mythic name for that part of Northern England is Brigantia–simultaneously the name of the Celtic Goddess of the land, the tribe of people who made their home there, and the land itself.
As a novelist, evocation of place is my passion. The question I ask myself is what makes this place I’m in now unique, unlike any other place I’ve ever been? What song does the land sing? What stories does it have to tell? What ancestors and elders cry out from the depths of the earth? I am obsessed with local history and regional folklore and myth, and how these stories merge with the landscape itself. History is a fluid thing that, together with folklore and myth, continually shapes the present. As contemporary storyteller Hugh Lupton has said, if you go deep enough into the old tales and can present them in an evocative and meaningful way to a modern audience, you become the living voice in an ancient tradition—every storyteller’s dream. This is what I aspire to do in my life’s work.
Northern England is also where, after a lifetime of loving horses, I found my equine soulmate, Ms. Boo, aka Queen Boudicca, a most spirited Welsh mare. I thought Britain was my forever home and even became a UK citizen.
And then Brexit happened, a seismic right-wing shift in the UK that was as devastating as the election of Trump was in the USA.
Hate crimes increased dramatically, along with social inequality and tension brought on by years of economic austerity. I lost track of how often I was asked, “Where are you from?”, not in a curious, open way, but an accusing way, along with, “Why are you here?” I experienced this as a privileged middle class white person. I can’t imagine how people of color or those who are socially or economically disadvantaged experience this confrontational British nationalism. My Jewish friends have encountered anti-Semitic harassment from people on the political right and the left. Both Brexit and Trump made it okay to hate again.
The final straw for me was being harassed and physically intimidated for taking part in an anti-Brexit march by the manager of the stable yard where I had boarded my horse for nearly ten years. I no longer felt physically safe there and made the decision to move my horse to another yard. This was a very bitter wake-up call. It was also a sign from the universe that the UK was no longer my home.
As I grow older, I tend to resist change and cling white-knuckled to the safe and familiar. Yet in a world that is changing so rapidly and unpredictably, it often seems like there’s nothing left to grasp on to. Life is flow. Everything is impermanent. A special grace comes from knowing when things have reached their end–some things must end so something new can be born.
My Belgian husband and I spent a long time thinking where we could move. As Euro-philes, we wanted to live in the European Union. After investigating Belgium and France, we settled on Portugal, having spent our 25th wedding anniversary there and falling in love with the country and the people. In December and January we looked for a property on the Silver Coast, about an hour north of Lisbon, and in May this year, we completed purchase on a beautiful house in a fruit growing area outside the medieval walled town of Obidos. Our property has a field out back where Boo can live with a companion horse. We were set to move in May, but everything was delayed due to Covid.
Finally in July, when the Portsmouth-Santander ferry was running again and the Spanish-Portuguese border re-opened, we were able to make our move, 24-year-old Welsh mare and all. These are early days, but I hope we can put down roots in this beautiful country, learn the language, and make a beautiful, lasting home. After all the turmoil we’ve endured, I want to embrace the bliss of a new beginning, this chance to slow down and re-invent the life I want to live. And I hope I find an abundance of new stories to tell.
In these troubling times, may we all be blessed with the gift of new beginnings.
Ms. Boo mows our Portuguese lawn.
The view from our Portuguese veranda–sunset over the Atlantic Ocean.
Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her most recent novel Ecstasy is about the composer Alma Schindler Mahler. Visit her website.