When Marcia finished Postcards from the Past, she wanted us to return to the Fowey valley, the village of St Neot and Colliford Lake. This was because it was there that she had those horribly indistinct and fragile thoughts which, by some strange process, become a novel. Jossie and I were only too happy to oblige: this meant stopping on a delightful bridge over the River Fowey, then on another bridge over the River Lovery (to be more accurate, an old bridge on which Jossie loved to potter and a new road bridge a few yards downstream which meant we didn’t have to worry about the traffic) which overlooked the house with its adjoining smithy, which was of such interest to Marcia, and a final stop by the lake where I could enjoy the bird life and Jossie the many smells to be found there.
It was a good day out but one that failed to be of any real use. Nevertheless, Marcia was convinced that house and smithy were of importance and so, as usual, I took a number of photographs which I then turned into a montage so that she could retain the feel of the place. Then, of course, there was Liv and the dog at Colliford. Was that a complete red herring? That scene with the boy and the horse there had borne fruit in Postcards from the Past so could it be that the glimpse of Liv should be forgotten? We didn’t know and that cameo was to haunt Marcia for the next two or three years.
Then there was that business of the Landrover: that scene where it skidded on snow and a man was killed. This came back to Marcia in a more forceful way but seemed to fit in with none of the other things going on in her head. Poor Marcia, she could see some of the tangled strands beginning to make some sense but not how they related to each other.
Part of the problem was that we were clearing out The Hermitage prior to moving on. This was a massive effort: we knew that sooner or later we would have to downsize and we decided to take the bull by the horns and take with us only the bare minimum (as we thought at the time – later we made a second downsize but that one was far less traumatic). One of our friends has a son who runs an auction house near Exeter and anything we thought worth selling went to him whilst everything else was collected to be sold for the benefit of the North Devon Hospice. With all that going on (getting rid of things you have lived with for many years is quite traumatic) it is perhaps less surprising that Marcia was even more muddled than usual at this stage of a book’s development.
So it was that one day, having moved from The Hermitage to lodge in a friend’s house in South Brent, we decided to take the dogs up to Shipley and walk to alongside the Avon there.
This is an old stamping ground and one I was especially keen to revisit. It was one of those magical evenings when, after a really hot day, everything cools down but there is a real warmth in the air and everything smells wonderful. More to the point, as far as I was concerned, it was the time in the evening when the dippers are out and about getting their suppers – and on a stretch of water that I knew well even down to where they tended to nest. It was late enough for most people to have gone home to their suppers and we would probably have the place to ourselves. Was this going to be the evening when, at long last, I was able to take a decent photograph of a dipper?
Sure enough, the dippers were about. We saw at least two and probably three but seeing is one thing and taking pictures is another. It is, I think, impossible to take a photograph of a dipper in flight. They go like rockets in as straight a line as they can just a couple of feet above the water. The sensible approach would be to take a video and then select frames to provide the required stills. Even then, it means setting everything up where you know they are patrolling their beat and hoping that when they fly past you are sufficiently on the ball to get the footage you want. So, no point in trying to get a shot with a camera – you just have to wait until one lands on one of the rocks they use as landing points. So, as usual, I selected such a rock and settled down to wait. And then, as usual, the rock I had selected was not one the dippers decided to use that day. The harsh fact is that I have no really good pictures of dippers in my collection despite many years of trying.
Meanwhile, Marcia had pottered off with the dogs leaving me to my vigil. When she returned it was clear that there was something worrying her.
‘Anything wrong?’ I asked.
‘Not wrong, exactly, just puzzling. I’ve just seen Kit and I know now that she’s in the book and that it must be set somewhere around here.’
Kit Chadwick will, of course, be well known to you all but this was completely out of the blue. As far as I can remember Kit’s name had not cropped up for many years. Anyway, one thing was clear – it was not to be in Cornwall.
‘So what about that house and the smithy? Are they still important?’
‘Yes, I think so. We shall just have to move them up here instead’.
In essence, that is exactly what we did. We started to quarter the southern edge of the moor and found there was an area just to the east of Ashburton and across towards Bovey Tracey that we hardly knew at all. We kept returning to this area looking for something – not for the first time would we find ourselves looking for ‘something’ without really knowing what that ‘something’ was.
Obviously all this mooching around makes one pretty peckish and so it was inevitable that sooner or later we would end up in the Dandelion Cafè. This is fairly new and is built alongside the Moorland Hotel just below the imposing bulk of Haytor. It was there that everything seemed to fall in place. As has happened in the past, a jumble of ideas, characters, names and conversations all began to make sense after months of confusion.
On the drive home, we finally found the point where Marcia was to set her hamlet which, as you would expect, included a big house and a smithy. In these lived brothers: the eldest (married, staid, a good husband and a good father) lived in the big house with his wife – the younger (an actor, a very good actor, gay) although essentially based elsewhere until he retired to the smithy. Then there were the two cottages and the farm to complete this small group of houses set at an ancient river crossing on one of the old routes that were used to bring sheep down off the moor to the market at Ashburton.
After that there just one other location to be found: Archie (the older of the two brothers) kept a boat somewhere. Well, what better place than in the River Dart near Stoke Gabriel where my old sailing chum, Roger, kept his for many years.
Two final piece in the jigsaw followed quite quickly. Kit and Mungo (Archie’s brother) were old friends and Kit was in the habit of escaping from London and staying with Mungo when she did not want to be with the family in The Keep. This usually happened when she was having a problem – generally a man problem. So it was now: Jake, now a widower, wanted to come back into her life and poor Kit was frightened out of her skin.
Now all that was needed was for Marcia to write the book which, of course, is exactly what she did. As usual, by now she knew both the first and the last line. All that was needed was a few thousand sentences to link the two together.