I recently sat down to chat with Sara Martin, the author of the wonderful read, “Conversations with Nell”, and her best friend Nell, a wise and witty Black Labrador. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
Amy with Rescue Tins: Sara, since you hail from Devon, you have said that moving back there was like coming home. From what I can see, it is a beautiful place and I can understand why you would love it there. I would imagine this idyllic environment would boost any writer’s creativity. It adds much joy to the book to read about this special place, and the delightful map Kev has drawn is such fun! If you could not live in Devon, where would you choose to live, and why? Nell, where would you live and why?
Sara: That’s a very difficult question to answer, Amy, because to be honest I wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else. I moved to West Berlin from Devon in 1978 to study at the Free University and only returned to the UK in 2006. I also spent six years in Lesotho in Southern Africa during that time. Both Berlin and Lesotho were wonderful places to live but there really is nowhere like home and that’s what Devon is to me. We love it here, don’t we, Nell?
Nell: I am from Oxfordshire so I have very fond memories of living there. In fact Sara has written a book about my time in Oxfordshire. It’s called “The Laburnum House Gang” .
Me: That was supposed to be a secret.
Nell: Amy won’t tell anyone. Where was I? Oh yes. I always say ‘Home is not a place it’s a feeling.’ So Home for me is with my family. My ever growing family should I add, as we seem to acquire new family members all the time. So wherever they are, then so am I.
Amy with Rescue Tins: I could not agree more, Nell! And not to stir the pot, because I certainly won’t divulge the secret, but I would love to read the book you mentioned, and I’m sure your other fans would as well. Is there any hope of seeing this in print? I promise to edit this portion of our interview out in the interest of secrecy.
Sara: ‘The Laburnum House Gang’ is hopefully going to be published soon as a book and an audio book.
Nell: Yes. It is a selection of stories from the time before we moved down to Devon when Poppy was very young and lived in Oxfordshire with me, Mutley and an elderly Yorkshire terrier called Monty.
Sara: It is a family book and one I think can be particularly shared with children. There is always a moral and it is very gentle.
Nell: Kev is recording the audio version. He has such a wonderfully comforting voice.
Sara: Yes and the lovely Ali is illustrating it for us. Poppy is just a little puppy but you will be glad to hear Nell is as opinionated as ever.
Nell: I beg your pardon?
Amy with Rescue Tins: I will admit to being very excited about this book, it sounds wonderful! But I won’t mention a word about it. Nell and Sara, your home and lives are filled with humor, and your anecdotes certainly have me in stitches on a regular basis. The sweet and sassy humor that spans across every page in this book is part of what makes it such a wonderful read. Could each of you describe an event in the Martin household you found entirely humorous and still chuckle over when it comes to mind?
Sara: I know exactly what I still laugh at and that is you misbehaving at the posh hotel.
Nell: I beg your pardon?
Sara: We were all having a family lunch in a private room and suddenly I noticed that you had disappeared.
Nell: I needed some quiet time.
Sara: I finally found you on a comfortable sofa in the lounge with a rather agitated hotel manager pleading with you to get off.
Nell: I wasn’t going anywhere. I had just ordered a pot of Earl Grey and some finger sandwiches.
Sara: You only got off the sofa after they promised you a scone
.Nell: It was the least they could do.
Nell: Maybe I should mention you and the wellington boot throwing incident?
Sara: Oh dear.
Nell: I think wellington boots are known as gumboots in the United States. Anyway, Sara and Kev were organising a contest at the Family Show to see how far people could throw a wellington boot. Sara decided to demonstrate what they meant and hit herself on the head with the boot.
Sara: It swung backwards.
Nell: Yes. Quite. No paw-eye coordination at all.
Amy with Rescue Tins: (laughing) Well, I doubt I would have fared any better with the boot, but that is quite a funny mental image! And one could not be expected to leave without their order of Earl Grey and finger sandwiches! Speaking of good food, Poppy’s scones and her culinary prowess in general are legendary. It is most wonderful that her world-famous scone recipe is included in “Conversations with Nell” (along with several other recipes I absolutely loved). Can you tell us how Poppy acquired her exceptional skills? Is she self-taught, did she have a mentor, or is she classically trained?
Nell: Poppy trained under Gulldon Ramsay. A rather loud seagull. You might know him. He has a reputation for being rather fierce but he and Poppy got on extremely well. Her language was a little risque for a while after she left him but I soon sorted that out.
Sara: I think it prepared her to deal with The Beefies.
Nell: You might be right. Her sword skills are exceptional.
Amy with Rescue Tins: Another beloved member of the Martin family is the petite and beautiful chocolate lab Harriet. It is known that she is often quiet and thoughtful, loves to cuddle, document, run and swim, and is the absolute crush of Jim the Farm Dog. Could each of you share an attribute of Harriet’s or an event involving her which our readers might find surprising or out of character for her?
Sara: Harriet can be really wild. When she has her mad moments she runs up and down the stairs and jumps on the beds and sofas.
Nell: David and I just watch her in amazement.
Sara: Well, that isn’t strictly true, Nell. I’ve seen you join in more than once. You and Dave chase her around the garden.
Nell: Everyone enjoys a game of chase now and again.
Nell: I would like to point out that Harriet can be a thief on occasions.
Sara: That’s a bit harsh.
Nell: She steals my ball and runs away with it and she won’t give it back.
Sara: When she does wrong she makes the sweetest guilty face and I simply can’t resist her.
Nell. Works every time.
Sara: I know. Sorry.
Amy with Rescue Tins: No interview about your family, Sara, would be complete without mention of Mutley, the wise and worldly senior Patterdale. He played an integral role in the family dynamic, and had lived a rich life as a well-traveled entrepreneur. I was quite interested to learn he was a Rescue Dog. Could you tell us his rescue story?
Sara: Yes, Mutley had already had 5 owners when Kev rescued him at the age of only one and was days away from being put down.
Nell: Such a shocking thought.
Sara: One of his previous owners left him in a room on the first floor with the window open and he fell out of it breaking all four legs. This left him with a Scooby Doo kind of walk but he wasn’t bowed down by it and soldiered on.
Nell: Nothing could stop our Mutley.
Sara: Such a wonderful old boy. We had to say goodbye to him in April 2020.
Nell: He is watching over us all now.
Sara: Yes. Sorry.
Amy with Rescue Tins: Thank you for sharing Mutley’s rescue story. It is so important that these stories be heard, so that people everywhere know the value these special dogs bring to the families who adopt them. One of my hands-down favorite co-stars of “Conversations with Nell” is Dave, the huge gentle giant of a Black Lab. Sara, I love his big heart, his silly, affectionate ways, and his role in the daily goings-on. I especially love that you refer to him as
your “Big, Brave, Beautiful Boy”. If Dave had to choose one hobby he loves above all else, would he choose surfing, singing, snuggling, or bacon-devouring, and why? Do you agree or disagree Nell- would you answer this question differently?
Sara: I think cuddles are right up there in Dave’s world. He loves nothing more than a good
snuggle. He closes his eyes and smiles.
Nell: Nonsense. Nothing comes close to a bacon sandwich for David. Don’t be ridiculous.
Sara: Ok. Cuddles and bacon then.
Amy with Rescue Tins: I’m all in for cuddles and bacon, and so is my own black lab! We all know that Labradors are loved and admired the world over for their many superlative traits. Sara, since your family includes two black labs and one chocolate lab, can you tell us three or four traits that make Labradors special to you and Kev? Nell, speaking as a Labrador yourself, what would you name as the top two most admirable traits of the Labrador breed?
Sara: Another difficult one as there are so many.
Nell: How kind. Personally, I think we Labradors are excellent at showing our Support through Strategic Placement or a Winning Look.
Sara: You can certainly focus when it comes to food.
Nell: Yes, we are exceptionally focused when we need to be and we are also Incredibly Patient. The Waiting we have to do, Amy, you wouldn’t believe it.
Sara: Labradors are wonderfully loyal, gentle and kind. They are incredibly affectionate although some are slightly more aloof and need their space.
Nell: I certainly hope you aren’t referring to me.
Sara: Well, you are unusual.
Nell: The word you are looking for is unique.
Sara: Yes. Above all labradors are family animals. Nell is my best friend. She keeps me grounded. I don’t know what I would do without her.
Nell: You are never without me. You and Me always. Remember?
Sara: Yes. Sorry.
Amy with Rescue Tins: Absolutely true! Your readers get wonderful glimpses of the scenic cottage and grounds of your home in the South Hams in Devon. So many of us have an appreciation for the history of properties and structures. I was wondering if you knew anything about the history of your home you could share with our readers.
Sara: I believe the house we are living in used to be a barn.
Nell: Excuse me? The Barn is where the larger animals live.
Sara: Yes, I know they do now but we are living on a working farm here and at some point the farmer converted the barns into dwellings.
Nell: I know we live in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Sara: Yes, we do.
Nell: A barn, indeed.
Sara: Yes. Sorry.
Amy with Rescue Tins: I just knew that cottage and your farm had an interesting story! Something else that interests me is to know is, Nell, if you could have tea with anyone alive today, who would you choose? How about you, Sara? And if you could have a lengthy discussion with any author, living or dead, who would it be?
Nell: I always enjoy tea with The Queen and I have a lot of time for that actress Maggie Smith who played The Dowager Countess of Grantham in ‘Downton Abbey.’
Sara: I would be delighted to have tea with the cast of ‘The Archers’ from BBC Radio 4. It’s one of the longest running radio soaps in the UK and has been with me for most of my life. I count myself very lucky to have one of the cast Sunny Ormonde as a dear friend.
Nell: What about authors?
Sara: Oh my goodness. Well, it has to be A.A.Milne for me. I simply adore the way he writes and the humour and gentleness in his books. They are my safe place. I have his book by my bed and dip into it when I need comfort. One of the biggest compliments for me is to hear that my readers do the same thing with ‘Conversations with Nell.’
Nell: She’s not an author but I think Mary Poppins and I would get along extremely well. I like her no nonsense approach to life.
Sara: I can just see the both of you putting the world to rights over a cup of Earl Grey.
Nell: And one of Poppy’s scones.
Sara: Of course. Sorry.
Amy with Rescue Tins: Nell, I would love to have tea with the Queen, but I don't have your credentails! And to be candid, Sara, “Conversations with Nell” brings me much comfort and delivers humor whenever I need a good dose, so I believe your devotion to A.A.Milne has been well served. I love his work as well. And Sara, I love that you dedicated this book to your mother Sally. You had said she always loved your stories, so I know she must have been an enormous supporter of your work. Can you tell us how she helped influence and mold a young Sara to become the writer and the lover of books and good literature that you are today?
Sara: My mother loved books and we were surrounded by them. I grew up with the A.A. Milne stories and poems and Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows’, not to mention Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and she particularly loved Charles Kingsley’s novel ‘The Water Babies’. I remember her taking me to see ‘Peter Pan’ on stage in London and the wonder of seeing him fly. We both loved Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters as well as Jane Austen. She had a great sense of humour and enjoyed the magical side of life. I wrote my first play when I was only 7 and she was a huge supporter of my writing. Some of my fondest memories are of talking about books with my mother. I just hope she is up there smiling at the author I have become.
Nell: She is.
Sara: Yes. Sorry.
Nell: No need for sorry.
Amy with Rescue Tins: I can’t help but agree wholeheartedly with Nell about that. I can’t imagine anything that would make a lover of literature more proud than to see their child become a successful author! Another joy of reading this book and your blog, for me and I am sure many of your other American readers, is coming upon a word or phrase uncommon here in the States. I thought it would be fun to have you explain a few of these terms to us. Nell, feel free to chime in here!
Let’s get stuck in (concerning pavlova):
Nell: What Sara should have said was ‘Shall we have a slice?’
Sara: Yes, it means let us get involved. Only, in this case it was involved in yummy meringue and
Nell: And fruit. Don’t forget the strawberries and raspberries.
Sara: Yes. Sorry.
A bit of a corker (relating to a football game):
Nell: Sara’s does come out with some very old fashioned phrases.
Sara: It means very good.
Nell: Why on earth didn’t you say that then?
Quay (as in the one located in Kingsbridge):
Sara: The quay is actually the path that runs along the estuary where the boats are moored.
Nell: It’s a popular meeting place at the bottom of Kingsbridge town.
Clotted cream (we might have a similar product but nothing in store labeled this way):
Nell: Clotted cream is a very thick cream and a speciality of the South West of the UK.
Sara: It’s absolutely delicious and if you are ever in our part of the country you should definitely try it on a scone. Our cows give the best milk.
Nell: When they’re not spreading gossip.
Sara: True. Sorry.
Nell: This is an old-fashioned dessert made from a flat-rolled suet pudding which is spread with jam, rolled up like a Swiss Roll cake and steamed or baked.
Sara: It is usually served with custard. It’s a bit on the heavy side to be honest.
Nell: Mutley loved it.
Sara: Yes. Sorry.
Bubble and squeak. Whatever this is- I must try it. Anything with a name like this deserves a go!
Sara: Bubble and squeak is made from the left-over vegetables after a Sunday roast.
Nell: Yes, they are chopped up and fried the next day and served with the left-over roast meat,
or a fried egg on top.
Sara: The name comes from the cabbage which squeaks when it is fried.
Nell: I’ve never heard a cabbage squeak.
Sara: Neither have I, but you never know.
Nell: I do.
Sara: Yes. Sorry
Amy with Rescue Tins: Thank you so much for the explanations, so much fun! Personally, I love learning new words and can’t wait for the next possible opportunity to use “a bit of a corker”. And I have been making bubble and squeak for years and had no idea it had a wonderful name. Speaking of wonderful, Sara, your children seem to share your love of dogs. I could not help but notice Chris has a handsome Black Lab of his own named Marvin. Did you have a family pet when the kids were young? Is there anything special you did that nurtured this love in them? Nell, please chime in if you have any thoughts here.
Sara: Yes, we have always had pets. When we lived in Africa we had a Rhodesian Ridgeback called Teddy and two cats Sweet and Cheeky named by the children.
Nell: You have always talked to your animals and made up stories about them and both Alice and Chris are excellent listeners.
Sara: Yes, they are.
Nell: Chris is devoted to dogs but I’m afraid to say Alice is rather partial to cats.
Sara: We love all animals, Nell.
Nell: Except for Beefies.
Sara: Yes. Sorry.
Amy with Rescue Tins: Along this same vein, what experiences in your youth nurtured your love of dogs Sara? Did your family have pets?
Sara: Yes. One of my happiest memories is when I was about 4. My parents secretly got us a Golden Retriever puppy for Christmas. When I opened my presents there was a dog bowl, and a collar and lead. I was learning to spell and spelt out the word DOG on the side. Then they took me downstairs and there she was. We called her Santa. She lived until she was 14 and I still miss her. Such a wonderful family dog. She would take my sisters and I down to the park where we would play hide and seek. She would hide behind a tree but we could still see her tail wagging. I can still remember the day we had to say goodbye as if it was yesterday.
Nell: You know she has been watching over you ever since then as your Guardian. So no need to be sad.
Sara: Yes, you’re right. Sorry.
Nell: No need for sorry.
Amy with Rescue Tins: I love this memory of Santa- what a magical Christmas that must have been. Those first dogs hold a precious place in our hearts for sure. It was noted earlier that your husband Kev rescued Mutley. It is obvious that he is also a dog lover, as well as an all round great guy. How big a part did Kev’s love of dogs and his compassionate nature play in your deciding to team up with him for life?
Sara: I think you can always tell what someone is like if they are kind to animals and Kev loves them. When we first met back in 2007 he had three dogs. Zapp, Monty and Mutley.
Nell: Zapp and Monty were Yorkshire terrier brothers and Mutley you already know of course.
Sara: I remember him telling me in the early days of our courtship that he would give me anything, except for his boys. His dogs meant the world to him. I saw that as a very good sign.
Nell: And you were right.
Sara: Yes. I am very lucky to have such a wonderfully loving and caring husband.
Nell: We are all lucky to have each other.
Sara: You are right. Sorry.
Amy with Rescue Tins: Conversations with Nell is such a warm, humorous book which is such a joy to read. The reviews have been fabulous, and I couldn’t agree with them more. I am dying to know- at what point in your relationship did you decide to write your conversations with each other down and create the book? Was it primarily your decision Nell, or did Sara have something to do with it?
Nell: I was the driving force behind this, I feel.
Sara: You would say that.
Nell: You were constantly telling people what I thought, so I said ‘Write it down then.’
Sara: You did.
Nell: So, you did.
Sara: And the rest is history.
Nell: I think you will find it is the future, too.
Sara: Yes. Sorry
Amy with Rescue Tins: And with that being said, the question that is burning in every fan’s mind, including my own: are there plans for a second volume of “Conversations with Nell?”
Sara: Absolutely, the next ‘Conversations with Nell’ is already in the planning stage. I am busy gathering stories and hope to have it published as soon as possible.
Nell: In the meantime we will continue posting our stories every day on WordPress, Facebook and Instagram.
Sara: Yes, I would like to take this opportunity to thank all our wonderful fans for their kind words. Your support truly means the world to us.
Nell: We think of you all as family.
Sara: Exactly. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Nell: I know. That’s why the Conversations are with Nell.
Sara: Yes. Sorry
Amy with Rescue Tins: Nell and Sara, I cannot tell you how much I have enjoyed our visit, it has been an absolute delight!. Thank you so much for taking the time to join me and fill us in on all of these things we love to hear more about. This blog has made me laugh, and made me think, and filled my mind with wonderful images of Devon and your life with the dogs and the entire menagerie. Just like “Conversations with Nell”!
I hope our readers will visit your website at www.conversationswithnell.org for even more fun and interesting details. I would also highly recommend checking out their blog on facebook for a daily dose of joy: https://www.facebook.com/conversationswithnell. It gets me out of bed on a better note than hot coffee. Or how about checking out their Instagram, filled with excellent photos of the whole gang at https://www.instagram.com/conversationswithnell.
And most of all, give yourself and someone you love the gift of pure entertainment and get your own copies of “Conversations with Nell”. Get your author signed copy here. You will fall in love with them as I have. This wraps up my blog for today, and I must say- it has been a bit of a corker!
Amy Celeste Smith
Rescue Tins 09/21/20