There was never any question but that Abbot’s Mill was at the head of a creek off the River Dart. For some years we had boats moored in various locations off the river including Old Mill Creek. Another influence was the much more peaceful Dittisham Creek. Neither seemed quite right. Both have mills at the creek head and, since Marcia is very careful to avoid any risk of anyone thinking she has placed one of her characters in a real home, this put both out of the running.
We ended up with the usual mix of fact and fiction. The fictional Abbot’s Mill Creek is set on the western bank of the factual River Dart opposite factual Long Wood (through which runs the line of the Paignton and Dartmouth Steam Railway which explains how Hattie hears the sound of a steam engine). At the head of this creek there is a mill with its two cottages and small quay, as you move towards the river you pass a pair of old cottages, now knocked into one, on the left and, a bit further on and just out of sight of the mill, a boatyard.It is perhaps worth recording that Marcia is a reluctant sailor, much happier when she has dry land beneath her feet. It says much for her that she was willing to indulge me to the extent that we lived on our forty foot ketch for the better part of a year and that she accompanied me on many trips up and down the Dart from its mouth to Totnes – and the occasional trip out to sea – in a variety of craft, some with engines but some relying on sail.
Hattie retires from the Queen’s Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service and decides to buy a property somewhere near the home of her oldest friend, Sarah Farley. On the list of houses to be viewed is a part-converted mill and a couple of cottages on the River Dart. Hattie is no sailor and has no desire to be on the water but it is love at first sight and she makes an offer there and then.
Fully aware that she has a big project on her hands – the completion of the mill itself and then the problem of finding tenants for the two cottages – the one thing Hattie has not realized is that she is about to become the matriarch of what becomes, in essence, an extended family centred on the creek.
There are only two inhabitants when she moves in. Toby is a partner in the boatyard. He was a very successful trader on the London Stock Exchange who wanted a complete change of lifestyle. Ruth, his wife, was at first supportive but soon found she was disenchanted with life away from the bright lights and so returned to the big city taking their daughter with her. They have been living apart for a couple of years when the book opens. Joss was in the army and saw some pretty dreadful things in Northern Ireland: he is living on his ketch, Westering, which he is gradually restoring with a view to making a long voyage. We once owned a forty foot coble built in the 1920’s on which we lived for nearly a year. Joss’s boat is modeled on ours.
When we had a boat moored in Old Mill Creek, there were a number of hulks lying around which had been abandoned by their owners. One was the hulk of an old fishing boat moored on the southern side of the creek in a backwater with the woods louring overhead. It was a dank and dismal corner. One day a young man arrived in the creek. He was carrying an axe and was clearly out of his mind but whether fueled by alcohol or drugs it would be difficult to say. For some reason he decided that this old boat belonged to him and had been stolen. Anyway, he wanted to burn her and started using his axe to make some kindling although he soon tired and wandered off. It was all rather spooky but I have no doubt that it was that boat and this incident that gave birth to Abigail.
One day Toby is in Dartmouth and, having finished his shopping, wanders in to The Royal Castle for a spot of lunch. There he sees a girl to whom he is immediately and strongly attracted. She is alone and clearly waiting for someone. To Toby’s delight, it is a friend of his who greets her and he decides to join them. Thus we meet Miggy, a meeting that is destined to add many characters to the creekside family: her daughter, Daisy; Hester, Miggy’s friend, and Ned, Hester’s son, even Janice and Brian Parker who, escaping from a life wrecked by Brian’s addiction to drink, come to live on Abigail.
Hattie finds herself becoming increasingly fond of them all, especially Joss who begins to take the place of the son Hattie never had. Thus it is with some relief that she learns that Joss, who has taken his boat down to the grid on the embankment at Dartmouth so that he may inspect her hull, finds that she needs far more work done on her than he had anticipated and thus will have to remain in the creek for at least another winter.
Years ago there was a gas works at the end of Mayor’s Avenue and the coal to be coked arrived on colliers which were unloaded by a crane that ran in a gantry over the road to the gas works. At one time, when the tide dropped, these boats grounded on the mud and became very unstable: unloading was then very hazardous. The grid was built by the old gas company to enable the colliers to sit upright when the tide fell. Now is provides an invaluable facility to people like Joss who want to inspect the hulls of their boats. This change in use is but one of many changes that have come about in Dartmouth since the middle of the twentieth century. Once the town relied on shipbuilding and fishing – plus some activities which were outside the law – for its living. Today it relies largely on tourism. The main shipyards are now marinas and a number of shops which once sold groceries and other essentials now offer souvenirs and gifts or have become restaurants or cafés. Despite this change in its fortunes, it retains much of its charm and some of its old medieval buildings are extremely photogenic.
The river is a very different environment to the moors. Its banks are heavily wooded, the undersides of the lower branches forming an almost perfect horizontal line as the growth is limited by contact with the salt water. We have seen seals in the river almost as far up as Totnes and otter are not uncommon. The tides act as a pulse around which life rotates. The birds that live on or near the water are controlled by them as are the pleasure boats that ply between Dartmouth and Totnes, passing the heronry on the western bank of the river which has been there for as long as I can remember. It is a good river for bird watching – there are gulls, ducks, swans and waders in addition to the usual woodland and farmland birds. It is also a fine river for fishing: there is nothing finer than a freshly caught mackerel, grilled and eaten with bread and butter – but it must be fresh.
Finally, we must say something about Admiral Jellico. He is the only character in this book based on a real ‘person’ – in this case on our most beloved Newfoundland, Trubshawe who used to love lying on the slate floor in the larder and was almost impossible to move once he had settled down against door.
For some notes and photographs describing Hattie’s Mill country the link is HM Country.