Illustration of pandemic pete on billboard

An author’s perspective on the city’s role in shaping her imagination, her work, and her books.

  • 14 June 2021
  • 5 min read

Our port may not, at first glance, be the most glamorous of locations, but it has certainly provided me with the opportunity for so many adventures! 

Portsmouth is a global city, so growing up here, and being lucky enough to live close to its International Ferry Port, France has never felt far away. Over the years I have been lucky enough to have enjoyed many happy experiences during my frequent trips across the Channel or La Manche. 

Piping across the port

I am a piper in an international pipe band, so on many occasions I have played my bagpipes on the ferry as we have sailed out of harbour and again coming back from Ouistreham! Commemorating Le Debarquement or D Day with the veterans has created so many treasured memories over the years.

We were delighted, for example, to be able to help to fundraise and play for the unveiling of the Bill Millin Memorial Statue (the piper in The Longest Day), but more than that, so many wonderful friendships have been forged and flourished during these times together.

Creating Little Creatures

Portsmouth’s gateway on the world also enabled me to travel deeper into France and led me to finding a home in Basse Normandie. The contrast between our busy bustling city and this rural retreat couldn’t have been more striking. Spending days in Normandy, sitting, watching, listening, taking in the fresh country air, and closely observing nature all around me has been a tonic for body and mind, but it also inspired me to write the book Little Creatures, a children’s story in which a cast of tiny animals do their bit for the war effort during the Nazi occupation of France. 

How it came about is a rather curious story. A toad used to come and sit on our porch as the sun set each evening, and my daughters used to say it looked like he was on sentry duty. The house had been occupied by the Nazis during the second world war….and so the story began! 

But back to Portsmouth, because my book is a product of Pompey as well as Normandy: teaching in local schools, I have always been deeply inspired by the potential and talents in young people, and the best part of my job was being able to nurture their creative energies. I worked for many years with pupils who are often overlooked in our society, and were unable to access mainstream education, yet their unique talents and skills were abundant and our days were invigorated by helping them to recognise what they had to give and developing their strengths and abilities. So whilst Little Creatures began in France it was also inspired by the young people in our City.

Portsmouth’s strong literary heritage inspired my writing from an early age, and part of my degree involved studying the works and life of Charles Dickens. Whenever I walk past his statue in the Guildhall, I always thank him for his influence!

Caroline S Henton, Local author

Taking inspiration from Portsmouth’s literary heritage

Portsmouth’s strong literary heritage inspired my writing from an early age, and part of my degree involved studying the works and life of Charles Dickens. Whenever I walk past his statue in the Guildhall, I always thank him for his influence! 

I can relate to Dickens’ style of writing - its compelling mixture of fantasy and realism, the way in which he weaved topical events into his writing, and his talent for creating and using strong characterisations which take on a life of their own outside the book, many of whom have endured and live on in our everyday language: we all know a ‘Scrooge’! Many readers have taken the characters in Little Creatures to their hearts and I have been told there is a photo shop in Portsmouth which has a photo of Lily the Ladybird pinned up behind its counter!

A port to a world of inspiration

Like so many people over the centuries, our port has provided me with a gateway and opportunities to travel, and I have never come back without being enriched by new experiences. There is always a sense of delight when I step onto the ferry knowing that new adventures await! Equally, as we sail back into Portsmouth Harbour there is also a sense of excitement and pride: as I stand with other passengers on the upper decks, watching them take in our local sights, perhaps for the first time, I know that for me personally, I am coming home.

Sadly in recent times with the pandemic, our port has been quiet and empty and I have been unable to make my trips. However, we are lucky to have a strong and vibrant Twinning Association between Portsmouth and Caen, and thanks to the efforts of Andrew Starr and the power of the internet, we have been able to keep our links strong and continue to fuel and forge new friendships! These will no doubt be cemented face-to-face in better times.

Pandemic Pete takes flight

In the meantime, one thing leads to another, as they say, and creating Little Creatures led me to develop new ideas and characters for a second book. Pandemic Pete (pictured above), a children’s story about a little robin, will be winging its way to book stores in Portsmouth (and beyond) soon! Inspired by the pigeons who became heroes during the Second World War, such as Gustav (whose Dickens’ medal is on display in the D Day Museum in Portsmouth), and Winkie, Pete and his friends set about helping their human friends cope during the pandemic.

Now working as a counsellor with adults and young people, I have seen how in recent times, the people in Portsmouth have rethought their relationships with nature and the environment and gained a greater appreciation of the positive impacts it can have on both our mental and physical wellbeing. That too is part of the motivation for Pandemic Pete, and it will be available from Olympia Publishers and well-known book stores soon. 


Caroline S Henton (nee Dowland) is a Portsmouth author, counsellor, educationalist, and piper. We will keep you updated on the progress of Pandemic Pete.

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