The Low Road: Coffee Pot Book Club Blog Tour

In 1828, two young women were torn apart as they were sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay. Will they ever meet again?

Norfolk, 1813. In the quiet Waveney Valley, the body of a woman – Mary Tyrell – is staked through the heart after her death by suicide. She had been under arrest for the suspected murder of her newborn child. Mary leaves behind a young daughter, Hannah, who is later sent away to the Refuge for the Destitute in London, where she will be trained for a life of domestic service.

It is at the Refuge that Hannah meets Annie Simpkins, a fellow resident, and together they forge a friendship that deepens into passionate love. But the strength of this bond is put to the test when the girls are caught stealing from the Refuge’s laundry, and they are sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay, setting them on separate paths that may never cross again.

Drawing on real events, The Low Road is a gripping, atmospheric tale that brings to life the forgotten voices of the past – convicts, servants, the rural poor – as well as a moving evocation of love that blossomed in the face of prejudice and ill fortune.



We alight onto a riverbank, just as the sun is leaving the sky. I look around as I take my goods from the boat. The pastureland has been cleared of trees and reaches down to the water. A herd of healthy cows graze quietly in the field and then two men come walking, crying out to the cows. A smaller flock of sheep huddle together nearby.

I close my eyes and listen to the sound of the cows going in for milking, and the years roll away like a carpet up for beating and I am a child again, hearing the farmer touch their flanks, softly saying, “Gooo on in.”

In front of me, as I open my eyes, is a small, neat house with a verandah stretching round it. Washing hangs on poles and sticks and the master sees me looking and says, “We can dry clothing at any time of day there, and it protects us from the worst of the sun. I built it after my first harvest came in,” and then he strides towards the house, eager to get inside. He points, hastily, to two huts at some distance from the house.

“I lived there when I first landed here. Now the men live there. You will live in the house; I have a room prepared for you.”

As we step into the house, he calls out a welcome, and then a faint sound is heard, and he drops his bag and runs to an open door and closes it behind him.

I look around, at a clean, neat room, with a fireplace stoked up and guarded all around, and with a table set already for tea, with mugs and a quart pot, on a blue and white tablecloth. A silver candlestick stands in the centre, the stub worn down low. He must want tea, as I do. I lift up the kettle and it has been filled already, so I boil the water and make the tea.

He comes out with a closed pail, which he places carefully on the verandah, then goes over to a bucket and washes himself. “I made tea, sir. Should I take some to your wife?”

His words come thickly, although he holds up the tea cup and thanks me.

“Eleanor sleeps now. She can take tea when she wakes. I will take it to her today, introduce you to her tomorrow.”

A silence, then he says, as if reluctantly, “She is lingering. It may not be long now.”

I do not know what to say, for how should I comfort him, my master? And what does it mean for me – the thought comes quick. He pushes his chair back, clatters the cups together and says that he will show me where to wash the kitchen items the next morning. Then he lights a lamp for me, and shows me my room. It is a clean room and this is something I realise about my master. He keeps everything spick and span by choice. I walk over to the window, and notice that he has tacked up a sheet of sprigged cotton, and I wonder who has sewn the quilt on the bed, for the stitching is delicate. I can hear the river but the birds are silent now. I unpack what I need for the night, and slide Mama’s dress underneath the mattress. I fall asleep holding the edge of it, as if it might keep me safe.

I am woken by the birds yelling at dawn, even louder and more urgent than in Norfolk. I try and distinguish the cries, but I do not recognise the clamour and all of a sudden I feel utterly homesick. I dress hurriedly and wash my face in a pitcher of clean water.

I see him silhouetted, standing by the kitchen window, a clear square of glass looking over the landscape. A morning fog lies over the river so that it has disappeared and it is tinged with pink. It drifts away, slowly, as I join him, but the birds sing on insistently and are joined by other sounds, scraping, a kind of low purring as well as a low clatter. I feel something rise in me, and I remember that this is how I felt when I heard London at dawn, standing on the steps with Jane, looking out. I want to know this place.

Excerpt from

The Low Road

Katharine Quarmby

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Katharine Quarmby has written non-fiction, short stories and books for children and her debut novel, The Low Road, is published by Unbound in 2023. Her non-fiction works include Scapegoat: Why We Are Failing Disabled People (Portobello Books, 2011) and No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers (Oneworld, 2013). She has also written picture books and shorter e-books.

She is an investigative journalist and editor, with particular interests in disability, the environment, race and ethnicity, and the care system. Her reporting has appeared in outlets including the Guardian, The Economist, The Atlantic, The Times of London, the Telegraph, New Statesman and The Spectator. Katharine lives in London.

Katharine also works as an editor for investigative journalism outlets, including Investigative Reporting Denmark and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

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LinkedIn: Katharine Quarmby – Writer, Journalist, Editor – Self-employed | LinkedIn


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