A Week in Winter

Bovey Tracey

Bovey Tracey

Two separate houses were going to be needed for this book: one in Devon that had belonged to Maudie’s father and one in Cornwall which she inherited from her late husband.

When we lived to the south of Dartmoor, one of the places we would often walk was at Owley. Pass through the gate to the moor and you have Ugborough Beacon in front of you. To your left is a path that takes you down to the nine–hole Wrangaton Golf Course: to the right is a track that skirts around the north side of the beacon and leads you into the interior of the moor, Just beside the gate is a house called ‘Moorgate’ where there were (still are?) peacocks which used to roost in the trees and whose calls we could hear from home when the wind was in a certain direction.

The thought of living in a house that guarded an entrance to the moor grabbed Marcia’s imagination: had that house been for sale I suspect we would have tried to buy it. However, as we know, the house Maudie inherited was on Bodmin. So it was that two ideas were combined and the Moorgate in this book was created. Once again, although Marcia would have no difficulty in describing the house and the countryside around it, we never really knew where it was.

The house in Devon proved to be a real problem. One day we were wandering over the moor with no fixed destination and we followed the lane from the back of Dean up to where the Abott’s Way (a long distance foot path) crosses the lane at Cross Furzes. We pulled into a gateway to make some coffee or, to be more accurate, for me to make some coffee while Marcia pottered off to return in one of those dreamy states that mean she has left this world and entered that other one over there. Don’t even try to follow – it is far too dangerous.

I think Maudie can see both the sea and the moor from her house,’ she announced. ‘We must come back here again soon.’

When the air is crystal clear and you could see for miles. One way we could see beyond Teignmouth to a bright wedge of dark blue sea: the other way we looked over fields where sheep grazed contentedly to the open moorland beyond. Generally speaking, Marcia prefers the moor when it is shrouded in mystery but today she revelled in the wonderful views. The only problem that day was that there was nobody there. Perhaps I should explain that by ‘nobody’ I mean that none of Marcia’s characters were talking to her.

So convinced was Marcia that this was the right spot, we returned time and time again but it just did not work.One day she decided that enough was enough.

She’s not here. We’re wasting our time. The trouble is I have no idea where she is except that I know she’s near Dartmoor but not actually living on it.’

Oh, how often have I heard those words? So, for a few weeks we quartered the moor looking for Maudie and getting nowhere. This raises an interesting fact about the way Marcia works. There are times when it does not seem to matter exactly where a place is set – as with Moorgate – and others when it becomes crucial. It was soon clear that until Marcia knew exactly where Maudie was living, everything was at a standstill.

The breakthrough came when I trod on my glasses and broke them. I had an old pair which I had to use but they gave me a terrible headache so I rang Vision Express in Newton Abbot and asked if I could have an appointment straight away.

Not quite,’ said the charming girl on the other end of the telephone line, ‘but we could fit you in at 12.30. Is that OK?’

After having my eyes tested we had to wait for an hour before the new ones were ready so we decided on some lunch. I can’t remember where we went but it was probably the restaurant in Austins, the department store.

A couple of hours later, complete with excellent vision, I started to drive out of the car park indicating right as that was the way home. Marcia suddenly said, ‘I’ve just seen Maudie. We must follow her. Turn left. Turn left!’

Causing a certain amount of irritation to my fellow drivers, I followed her instructions whilst still indicating right. Marcia guided us out of Newton Abbot towards the moor and over the A38 at Heathfield.

I think she lives in Bovey,’ said Marcia as we approached the roundabout. Indicating right was not a good move that day. As I started to go round the roundabout, I was instructed to go straight on instead. Shortly thereafter I was directed down a narrow lane on the left just beyond a thatched cottage, between the remaining abutments of an old railway bridge and so to a bridge over the River Bovey.

Stop!’ Marcia pointed through a gate on the left. ‘There, in that wood, that’s where Maudie lives.’

I am sure I do not have to tell you that there are no buildings in that wood and that from her home Maudie could see neither the open moor nor the sea – both of which had been on our ‘shopping list’. Nevertheless, when we returned home Marcia started writing. She had found Maudie. It was only then that we realized that, even though we weren’t sure where it was, the house from which Maudie could see both moor and sea was Moorgate (although, of course, the moor was Bodmin and not Dartmoor). We drove home and Marcia started to write.

This turned out to be one of the most important books that Marcia had written because it attracted a great deal of interest in the United States of America, possibly because it is set, in part, in Cornwall which is always a favourite in the States.

Dinah agent in London appointed a sub-agent in Mew York called Kathy Anderson, and she absolutely loved this book and offered it to a number of publishing houses. The result was an auction where each publishing house increases the advance on offer until only one is left.

At close of play New York time (long after our normal bedtime) Kathy would telephone from the States to give Marcia the latest information. On  two occasions, prospective commissioning editors telephoned and talked to Marcia for a very long time.

As you can believe, it was a very exciting time. When the dust settled, Tom Dunne of St Martin’s Press became Marcia’s publishers in the USA, a relationship that continues to this day.

This was the first time that Marcia wrote about Cornwall. Although we had lived near Boscastle on the north coast of Cornwall for a couple of years, this was generally new territory to us and we soon discovered that it  is very different from Devon. For a start it is a much smaller county. Being at the narrow end of the peninsula, the sea is always nearby and this affects the quality of the light—which can be absolutely stunning: many artists come to this area to paint. It is a county of huge contrasts. Stand at the top of a hill on Bodmin moor: there may be virtually no vegetation apart from a few hawthorn trees leaning close to horizontal, pushed over by the frequent south westerly gales, and short scrubby grass. Drive a few miles down a narrow lane into a valley and you enter a completely different world: the temperature rises, the air feels softer and the banks on either side of the lane – most lanes hereabouts have banks on both sides – are bursting with a huge variety of plant life.

There are more contrasts when you visit the coast. The north coast has some wonderful sandy beaches which are exposed to the full Atlantic swell. This often means surf and this coast is ideal for surfing but not so good for sailors who must look to the south coast to find good, safe harbours. This is not to say that the south is short of beaches – far from it and one of the advantages of being in Cornwall is that if the weather on one coast is miserable, the chances are that the other (which is never far away) is basking in sunshine.

We spent the next few weeks soaking up the atmosphere of this part of the world and a very enjoyable time it was but quite hard work. Not only does she need to learn the ‘feel’ of an area, Marcia insists that all details of place are as accurate as possible. If she says that a given plant is in flower at a given time you may be sure that she has seen it in that environment and on that date. We soon found that many plants come into flower earlier in Cornwall than they do in Devon although in both counties there is a wide variation between the tops of the moors and the sheltered valleys and lanes. So it was that over the next few months we found ourselves making quick dashes to check on one plant or another.

For some notes and photographs describing A Week in Winter country the link is AWIW Country