A Local Good Pub Guide

Something I’ve always wanted to do is to explicitly celebrate the pubs of Steam Highwayman. Every one featured in the series is based on – and usually, named directly after – a real, visitable pub in our very own timeline. And now that the Kickstarter for Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis has raised an incredible £10,000 in pledges, I’ll be producing a trio of special maps and a printed guide to the regions, which will feature reviews of every single pub.

The page above is my first attempt at a mockup, and it has its own story to tell. The image is my own pen and ink, but heavily inspired by a certain poster I once saw in an Oxford bookshop…

When I was still in the process of writing Steam Highwayman I: Smog and Ambuscade, before had any experience of publishing or working with an illustrator, I was looking for someone to draw my world and the pictures for my gamebook. I knew a few illustrators and I had received some help refining exactly what I was looking for and writing a brief, but I had no strong leads. The people I knew weren’t about to jump into a new project, or to draw what I was looking for: monochrome, classic, pen and ink, with an exciting sense of movement and a realistic take on steampunk. Where to find such an illustrator.

One evening as I was praying on the balcony of our flat, I distinctly heard the word ‘Oxford’ in my mind’s ear. It popped into my head accompanied by a sudden sense of peace and a release from the worry I’d been accumulating about how I would ever find myself a collaborator. So the very next day, I drove to Oxford.

I didn’t have a particular plan or destination, but reached Oxford around lunchtime. I walked around for a short time and entered Blackwell’s art shop. There, just inside the door, was a fine poster of the pubs of Oxford, drawn in pen and ink, in a fine, confident style.

http://www.benmayart.com/

It took me a little while to work out what I should do, but I eventually plucked up the courage to speak to the person behind the desk and to ask if the illustrator of the poster was local, and if they knew how I could contact them.

“This poster?” asked the young man behind the counter.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I’m the artist,” he said.

And that’s how I met Ben May, who designed the Ferguson velosteam and illustrated the first two volumes of my adventure: the power of prayer and a good pub drawing.

The Fight is On!

Russ has sent me a finished version of his first illustration for Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis, and I love it! From the fancy footwork to the flying gobbets of blood, the leashed dog and the multitude of hats.

I’ve also released another five slots at the SPONSOR A LIKENESS pledge level in the Kickstarter Campaign: that’s five more lucky backers who can be drawn into the final book by Russ.

On top of this, I’ve added some stretch goals to the project: head over and take a look.

Steam Highwayman III Reward Pledges

In just over a week, Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis will go live on Kickstarter. It’s taken a long time to plan this campaign, partly because I’ve chosen to add some merchandise into the equation, as well as offering two ways in which Backers can see themselves in the finished book.

The basic pledge is exactly like in my previous campaigns; for £15, backers can receive a copy of the gamebook with a written acknowledgement printed in the back. This is a little cheaper than the RRP and, of course, you’ll know that you helped create this. If you’re looking for extras, I’ve been working on custom dice, as well as beginning to redraw the maps from Smog and Ambuscade and Highways and Holloways. These will be printed, large (at around A2 size) and folded, together with a small booklet of further regional info, much like an OS map. For £30 you will be able to receive the book, three maps (one for each volume) and two custom D6.

If you don’t yet own your own copies of Smog and Ambuscade and Highways and Holloways, or if you’d like to make a pledge as a gift for someone, you can also have all three books at a considerable saving, with or without the maps and dice.

However, for an additional cost of £10 for one book or £20 for three, you can have a custom Wanted Poster printed into the front of your book. This is made possible by the power of print-on-demand, and your books will be completely unique – these will be true one-offs. The extra pledge will pay for the additional printing cost and contribute towards the rest of the project. You will be able to submit a digital image of yourself (perhaps a photo in costume, or even in everyday clothes) that I will edit into the poster, and this will be the first thing you see when you open your copy of The Reeking Metropolis.

Finally, there is a limited and exclusive opportunity to be drawn into the book itself, featuring as a character in one of the illustrations. This is going to be limited to only 5 backers, since it impacts directly on Russ’s timeline and on the whole budget. But it’s something I’ve wanted to offer for years! As part of your pledge, you’ll receive each book, customised with a Wanted Poster, the three maps, dice and an art print of your illustration for your wall. After all, YOU are the Steam Highwayman!

If you’re not currently following the Kickstarter, head over there now. You’ll be reminded on launch and get a chance to pledge for your reward straight away.

Bare-knuckle brilliance!

Russ has sent me the first draft image for The Reeking Metropolis – and I’m sure you’ll join me in agreeing it’s a corker. Wow! I love the depth and the movement in this, as well as the character of all these figures, each one of whom could have a fascinating backstory. I asked Russ to produce something to illustrate a bare-knuckle boxing fight, but I’ve certainly got more than I asked for: I’ve got another piece of the Steam Highwayman world, inspiring me to write more stories and characters. Now that’s good value.

It’s massively exciting to see this here, as it feels like the beginning of the existence of the third volume of Steam Highwayman adventures as an entire book. I’ve had passages, and a cover, and now have the first internal illustration. I’ll be revealing some more of Russ’ work during the upcoming Kickstarter – don’t miss it! – but there’ll be plenty held back to surprise you once you hold the book itself, hopefully later this year. If you haven’t yet found the pre-launch page, why not head over and follow along?

To work with a legendary illustrator like Russ is a real privilege. He recently featured on the Vintage RPG Podcast talking about his work, on what he says is his first ever podcast. Fair enough considering he has a career spanning more than half a century of drawing!

Russ. Nicholson.

Who draws the Steam Highwayman? Well, for The Reeking Metropolis, I’m incredibly pleased to announce that Russ Nicholson will be illustrating our hero astride the Ferguson riding through the fog and murk of Steampunk London.

If you’ve been a member of the gamebook community for any length of time, you’ll know Russ. Not only did he draw Fabled Lands, my own inspiration for Steam Highwayman, but he drew the very first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. In recent years he’s collaborated with gamebook author Jonathan Green, to complete the excellent Beowulf Beastslayer – which I whole-heartedly recommend, both here and in my Amazon review – and drawn the seventh Fabled Lands book, The Serpent King’s domain.

Russ reached out to me after seeing my online posts about seeking a new illustrator and expressed real excitement and interest in the Steam Highwayman project. The prospect of including his artwork within the my third book, as well as in the upcoming Kickstarter campaign, excites me enormously – as I hope it does you too.

This all adds considerably to the excitement of being able to offer original art and draw-in features as rewards for the SH3 Kickstarter. If you haven’t added your ideas to the reward survey, please let me know what you’d like to receive. So far there have been a few stand-out choices: lots of people are excited by the idea of large, printed maps and customised dice. More of this soon, but for now I’ll be continuing to refine and plan the Kickstarter campaign, as well as to write the second half of Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis. The campaign is currently scheduled for 23rd January – 22nd February and you’ll be able to pledge your support and choose a reward very soon.

But back to the illustration. What I’ve always loved about Russ’s work is his atmosphere: whether illustrating monsters in dripping caverns or smugglers beneath a glowing moon, he has a way of creating a scene that you can return to again and again, to breathe in the salt spray or the reek or the smoke. Here’s one of my favourites from Cities of Gold and Glory (Fabled Lands II).

What I love about this is the depth of space, the scale of the natural world – something I think Russ really excels in – and the little figures so carefully poised – all in quick, ready penstrokes. You can ready secrecy, movement, danger – and perhaps someone looking on. There are caves up in those cliffs – cave which Dave and Jamie never wrote into the book and which you can’t explore, but which have always intrigued me. The sequence with these smugglers is brief but memorable, and all the more so for Russ’s contribution.

Here’s another – this time from Beowulf Beastslayer. It displays Russ’ famous filigree style, his skill with detail and also his skill with likeness. There are at least two members of the online gamebook community drawn into this, as part of their reward for Jon Green’s Kickstarter, and Russ has told me that he’s keen to do some draw-ins for my project too. So if you’d like to see your face featured as the Lady of the Burnt Rose or Lord Hadrian Beaufort, Chief Constable, you’d better be quick with your pledge!

What’s possible with a few strokes of the pen…

If you’re interested in seeing more of Russ’ art, why not take a look at the Facebook group celebrating his illustrations? And if you’re interested in seeing what he’ll do for Steam Highwayman, well, simply watch this space! I’ll be posting a few more updates about plans for rewards and the kick-off for the Kickstarter Campaign for Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis is 23rd January, 7pm.

Highwayman’s Hamper: Rhubarb Gin

I’ve been helping a church friend manage her allotment since Christmas. Once of the challenges; rhubarb glut. There are around 12 rhubarb plants on the five-pole plot – which means that as cut-and-come-again croppers, these delicious Russian beauties can easily produce more than 3 kilos of rhubarb every week between April and September.

I love it. Sour and surprisingly fragrant, as well as possessing a beautiful bright pink colour, rhubarb has now colonised our freezer as well, cut into chunks ready for a year’s worth of crumbles. And our shelves, pickled and chutnied with onions, malt vinegar, cardamom and coriander seed.

But I still had too much. So I bought some gin to infuse. After three weeks on the jar, the chunks of rhubarb were greyish brown green and the liquor… floral pink.

I think inside me there must be a frustrated product designer, born one childhood breakfast when staring at cereal boxes. I did in fact design food packaging for fun from about the age of eight or nine.

If I have time (it’s been a full and looks to be an even busier year) I might be returning to this brand. Rosehips will be ready to make cordial before I know it, the first elderflowers are already out and desperate to be champagnified and with allotment access… Anything is possible. A Highwayman’s Hamper reward level on the next Kickstarter?

A note on allotments: in the UK, the standard size of a Local Authority Allotment is 10 poles – around 250 square metres. However, many allotments are let, as my friends is, as a half-allotment of 5 poles. Now these are strictly square poles – areas of ground 5 1/2 yards broad by 5 1/2 yards long, and the traditional dimensions of an allotment are 1 pole  broad by 10 long, similar in size to ancient shares in common fields. OF course an acre is exactly 160 square poles, so it won’t surprise anyone that my friend’s allotment is 1/32ndth of an acre, or around 5.5 by 27 metres.

If you’re still with me, take a quick look at these two maps. The first is a hundred years old, published in 1919 but surveyed in 1915, and shows the site of the current Barking Abbey School and Barking Allotments. In the centre, beneath a label number 58, is a decimal number: 42.579.  This means that the surveyors making this particular map in 1915 measured enclosure 58, the eastern portion of Barking Park, to be 42.579 acres. Or the equivalent of 681 full size allotments. Or 1362 allotments the size if my friend’s. The second image shows the same piece of England now, with the patchwork of the allotments in the far upper right. Of course, the good council men of Barking didn’t decide to turn the entire plot into 1362 half allotments. If they had, extrapolating from the density of rhubarb plants on our share, that could have produced 4 tons of rhubarb every week between April to September. Or around 80 tons in a season.

Barking Park 1919 (note the acreage on the right)
And in 2019. Allotments in upper right.

That would be a lot of rhubarb. Most of the UK’s rhubarb is grown in sheds in the Rhubarb Triangle, up in Yorkshire. But not the fragrant pink treasure that flavours the Highwayman’s Hamper Rhubarb Gin. That comes out of the alluvium of the Thames floodplain, with gratitude to Barking council and Danguole.

Still reading? You deserve a refreshment. If you haven’t a bottle from the most exclusive Steampunk Hamper on hand (understandable – I’ve only made two so far), then other rhubarb gins are available. These are the two suggested servings printed on the rear label:

Crooked Billet
Pour two measures Rhubarb Gin and two measures rosehip cordial into a heavy mug. Top up with hot water, a strip of orange zest and a cinnamon stick.

Hedgerow Ice
Shake 1 measure Rhubarb Gin, 1 measure Creme de Cassis, crushed ice and fresh mint leaves. Strain into a Martini glass and top with a borage flower.