Ruined Stones by Eric Reed
Our new historical novel is set in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, during the Second World War. Naturally, it involved a fair bit of research on, among other topics, rationing, the dates of bombing raids on the city, regulations relating to foreign refugees, the banning of trouser turn-ups, and laws concerning food wastage and prostitution.
Our protagonist Grace Baxter is now a member of the Women's Auxiliary Police Corps. As Ruined Stones opens she has just arrived in the city from Shropshire to take up lodgings in a terraced street around the corner from the scant ruins of a Roman temple. The novel is set in the area where I grew up -- in fact, I would sometimes take a slight detour when walking to school to go past the ruins, which play a major role in the novel.
No research was needed in order to describe the maisonette in which Grace and her landlady Mavis Arkwright live. Its layout was repeated in thousands of Victorian era Tyneside streets and is identical the one in which a sister began her married life. Also known as a Tyneside flat, the maisonette's front door opens directly from the street into a short passage. To the left, the party wall with the next maisonette, on the right the door to a small bedroom, and at the end of the passage a kitchen and beyond that a minute scullery with a cooker, cold tap sink, and a door leading to a narrow yard with an outside WC, coal shed, and the door to the back lane. There is no connection between floors, each maisonette being self-contained, with the front doors to upper and lower flats arranged in pairs along the street.
Some traces of the 19th century builders' fingerprints remained in a long-gone upstairs maisonette the Reed family inhabited in the Elswick area of west Newcastle, an area close to Benwell where most of Ruined Stones is set. As was customary, our front room was kept mainly for special occasions. It was graced with a ceiling with raised moulding and dark wood picture rails as well as several layers of ancient wallpaper, as we discovered when scraping down the walls to prepare them for redecoration.
The kitchen was used for day-to-day living and featured a magnificent cast iron fireplace fitted with an oven in which we warmed our jammies on cold winter nights, while the scullery still possessed its wash copper set in a brick cube with a small grate at the base to accommodate the fire that heated laundry water. There was even a working gas light in the attic, which my younger sister and I shared for our bedroom.
Many of these maisonettes are gone but a high number of those remaining have been rehabbed and updated with central heating, double glazing, and indoor plumbing or else a bathroom extension built out into the back yard. I confess to a wry smile when seeing these updated maisonettes advertised as Victorian artisans' dwellings and offered for sale at high prices.
As for Benwell's Roman Temple, it's still as I remember it. The Historic England website hosts a poignant long-shadowed photo of its scanty remains at:
Amazon Link for Ruined Stones: