Starting Over

Belted Galloways  on the lower slopes of Black Hill.   Max's centre is just down the road and on the right.

Belted Galloways on the lower slopes of Black Hill. Max’s centre is just down the road and on the right.

The manuscript of Hattie’s Mill was finished. That is a simple statement but matters are not quite so straightforward.

A manuscript, when completed, is sent to Marcia’s agent, Dinah Wiener. When she has read it, she makes a few suggestions for Marcia to consider. Generally speaking Marcia finds that these are likely to mean a better book – and Marcia is always willing to do anything she can to make her books as good as she can.

Having incorporated Dinah’s comments – or not, as the case may be – the manuscript next goes to Marcia’s editor. In the case of Hattie’s Mill that was Clare Going of Hodder Headline (Cate had returned to Australia and Clare had taken on her authors). In due course (and assuming that the manuscript is acceptable) a letter containing the ‘editorial comments’ arrives. Marcia writes very tightly and these are usually along the lines of ‘we need to know a bit more about so-and-so’ rather than calling for major changes.

At this point Marcia goes into overdrive. She works right through the manuscript, weaving new bits in here and there, until she is sure that she has met all her editor’s requirements – but rarely in the obvious way! Off it goes again and then, once her editor has confirmed that all is well, Marcia can relax and really start thinking about the next book – in this case, Starting Over.

Marcia had been brooding on what happened to Hugh Ankerton for a long time. You may remember that he was a close friend of Charlotte, Cassandra Wivenhoe’s eldest daughter, who died in a riding accident or, as Hugh believed, deliberately killed herself because Hugh had let her down when he began a relationship with his cousin, Lucinda.

By now, Hugh is at Bristol University and Marcia gradually saw that Hugh is unable to break free from the great burden of guilt that he carries and things are going very badly at Bristol University where he has another year to go before completing his course. Soon she knew two things: he will never complete his course at Bristol University and his relationship with Lucinda was doomed to failure. Eventually Marcia realised that Hugh will find solace only on his beloved Dartmoor.

Another loose end she wanted to explore was how Cassandra finally copes with the death of her daughter, Charlotte. Unlike Hugh, who believes that he has been responsible for Charlotte’s death, Cass knows where the blame lies and is unable to forgive herself.

Meanwhile some new characters were coming onto the scene. One was Max. Max has done well in the Royal Marines, although his marriage ended in divorce, and now he is due to return to civilian life. Marcia was sure that he had been born somewhere on Dartmoor and that his people had been farmers and that, on the death of his father, Max had inherited a few acres of marginal land. There was not enough land to make a living from farming but Max never wanted to farm – for years he had been planning to create an adventure centre for young people there when he finally left the services.

The question was, where on the 365 square miles of Dartmoor, was this centre? After many exhaustive (and exhausting) trips we eventually we found what Marcia sought – when we weren’t even looking for it (which is often the case). We were up on the moor and stopped for a cup of coffee in a disused quarry. While I brewed up, Marcia wandered off with the dogs and, as she returned, I guessed something was up. When she ‘finds’ one of her people she almost literally lights up.

Is this it?’, I asked. She just nodded, being somewhat out of breath. We were just above the bridle path that runs from the foot of Black Hill to the bottom of Trendlbere Down alongside the north-west boundary of Yarner Woods. This bridle path runs through Max’s fictional holding. It is easy to find on the OS map.

Many years ago, Marcia and I were house hunting. We had no fixed idea as to where we wanted to be except that we thought it would be a good idea to be nearer the main road to Exeter, the A38. One of the properties we looked at was in Ashburton. What was so incredible was that it was tucked away so that when you were in its courtyard enclosed by high stone walls (yes, it had a very sunny courtyard) none of the town sounds intruded and all you could hear was bird song. This little town house became the inspiration, as opposed to the model, for the home of another new character – Annie, recently widowed, a friend of Hugh’s mother and godmother to Pippa, a young mother with a son called Roly.

The characters were chattering away into Marcia’s ear and the location for Max’s new venture had been found – but what was the link between them all? The answer was to be found in one of Marcia’s famous journeys – this one being taken by a distracted Frances (Hugh’s mother) just as the weather takes a turn for the worse.

Frances is at her wits end and decides to go and visit her friend Annie in Ashburton. In order to make sense of what follows one needs to understand that the moor offers many routes from one side to the other (despite the fact that a cursory glance at a map shows only two main roads crossing it). When we lived near the south coast and Marcia’s son was at Mount House School, we travelled back and forth many times.

Sometimes we drove around the western end of the moor, crossing it from Ivybridge and then either driving up to Yelverton or through Meavy and Dousland: both routes taking you to Tavistock and then out to Mount House. Sometimes we would cross the middle of the moor and again there were options. Go to the western edge of Ashburton and drive via Poundsgate and Dartmeet or cut up behind Buckfastleigh Abbey and so to Holne (two options here – one via Hembury Woods and the other up a long lane through farmland). All these roads take you past Dartmoor Prison and on to Two Bridges before dropping in towards Tavistock passing Mount House on the way.

The route we chose depended on various factors – how much time we had being the main one and the weather another. Frances is facing the same choices when she sets out for Ashburton. As it turned out, she makes all the wrong ones. It is just beginning to snow. Although it always hits the headlines when there is heavy snow on the moor, it is very unusual and Frances is not expecting serious problems – although she throws her Wellington boots and a good coat into the car before she sets out. She is thinking about a comment her husband had made earlier – ‘Life is easier when your decisions are made for you.’ – and she was not really concentrating.

Having passed the prison, she turns left just beyond Two Bridges. With the weather closing in this was silly – she should have gone straight on to Ashburton. However, she nearly always took what she described as ‘the scenic route’ and in her distracted state she did what she usually did without thinking.  As she crosses the Cherry Brook and drives through Postbridge,  she realises her mistake so, instead of turning right at Challacombe Cross she keeps straight on to join the Bovey Tracey road as she feels this will be more sheltered and more likely to have been used than the road through Widecombe. By now she is very nervous and the roads are treacherous and, just beyond Harefoot Cross, she loses control and the car slides off the road.

There is no possibility of Frances going anywhere in her car without help so she decides she must walk into Widecombe.  Luckily for her, Max is driving home in his Landrover and picks her up. Unwilling to risk being stranded himself, he keeps going until he is back at Trendlbere where he is now living in a caravan while the holiday complex is being built.

And so it is that Frances meets Max. In this book, Marcia wanted to find out how people live with their guilt when something that they have done, or believe they have done, has seriously damaged someone else: in Cass’s case her daughter and in Hugh’s a close friend.

Cass was described by her friend Kate as being ‘amoral’ rather than ‘immoral’. That could not be said about Pippa’s husband, Robert, whose immorality springs from the page. Pippa, who is in love with him, finds it very hard to accept the truth but when she does, as so often in Marcia’s books, it is the friendship of others that comes to her rescue.

For some notes and photographs describing Starting Over country the link is SO Country.