Let us start by saying that two sisters, Mina (Wilhelmina) and Nest (Ernestina) had been the subject of many conversations as they became clearer and clearer in Marcia’s mind. Considering how her characters dominate our lives it is hardly surprising that they become as well known to us as our closest friends and relatives. What was not revealed at that time was where they lived.
We both work at home and, for one reason or another, are no good at going away on holiday (our last one was a week in a hotel in the middle of Wales about fifteen years ago). This makes it a bit difficult properly to relax. While we were still living south of Dartmoor, we decided that it was time to explore Exmoor a bit just for fun. This was an area about which I knew almost nothing although Marcia had visited it many times as a child.
During one of these trips, we stopped by the headwaters of the East Lyn River by Southern Wood. Whilst I made us mugs of coffee, Marcia strolled over the lane to the water’s edge and stared at the hill opposite which rises almost vertically for three hundred feet. After a few moments she saw a tree creeper feeding on a tree on the other side of the river. These busy little birds search for insects and spiders looking for all the world like little mice scurrying erratically up the trunk of a tree only to fly back down to the bottom and start all over again.
When she returned from this bit of ornithological observation she announced, ‘Mina and Nest are up here, on Exmoor’. And so it was.
At about this time, a friend of ours introduced us to one of her friends who had been recently widowed. We became firm friends very quickly and she found our home a bit of an oasis in her then turbulent life. When we said that we would have to spend a few days on Exmoor and that I was rather dreading all the driving she offered to be our dog and house sitter so that we could spend a few nights in an hotel up there. At the time we had two very large Newfoundland dogs: difficult in even the most canine friendly of hotels. So it was that we booked into The Hunters Inn at Trentishoe.
Marcia saw her new characters in a deep valley leading down to the sea and we started our search far to the west at Lee otherwise known as ‘the fuchsia valley’. The road to it is rather boring, running along the top of the downs through fairly uninteresting farmland, but then you start to wind down lanes into a truly spectacular valley. We were to return to this valley on a number of occasions because Marcia loved it and really wanted her people to be there. Sadly, they refused – point blank! While still sure that her characters were around somewhere on that north coast of Devon, we returned home without finding out where.
Things really looked up during our second stay at the Hunters’ Inn. After we had eaten dinner, Marcia suggested we walk the mile or so from the inn down to Heddon’s Mouth where the River Heddon joins the waters of the Bristol Channel. I decided to opt out as I was pretty tired after our long drive so Marcia set off alone. When she returned she was jubilant: this was exactly what she was looking for. To make matters even better, she saw a dipper on the river as she climbed back to our hotel. However, life is not that simple.
‘It is almost right,’ she said, ‘and I know they are very near here but their house is in a smaller valley and is much closer to the sea than we are here and the path down to the sea is much steeper.’
The next morning we drove westwards, up through the tiny hamlet of Trentishoe (bravely ignoring the notice which suggested – rightly – that the road was unsuitable for motors) and so up onto Trentishoe Down. There we found a car park which looked over the Severn Sea (as some call the Bristol Channel) and over to the coast of Wales. Only later did we realize that the excellent visibility we enjoyed that day was far from common.
‘Down there!’ Marcia pointed towards a fold in the hill. ‘Just there.’
And so it is that Ottercombe sits slightly to the east of The Mare and Colt overlooking Elwell Bay.
A few days were spent exploring the area and that included visiting Parracombe. One of Marcia’s characters was to arrive by train during the Second World War and we discovered that Parracombe once had a station – and was within a two hour walking distance of Ottercombe. I assumed that this line had been closed when the line to Minehead ceased to operate following the Beeching cuts. I was wrong and this was another lesson: check and double check all facts. Long after the book was published, Marcia received a letter in which the writer explained that this section of the line was closed long before then. Grr . . .
Meanwhile, there was the small matter of where Lydia lived. Marcia was convinced that this would be in Dunster so the next morning we set off to explore that town – but with no success. Just to the west of the boundary between Devon and Somerset lie Lynton and Lynmouth. No matter which road you take, it is pretty demanding – narrow with very tight bends and places with the car is inches from a stone wall or a rocky outcrop. The Hunter’s Inn is to the west of this area: Dunster to the east. Unsurprisingly we decided to use a hotel somewhat nearer Dunster for our next visit and we chose The Anchor at Porlock Weir – simply because I love boats.
While we were in Dunster, Marcia felt all sorts of interesting ideas flooding in – but none of them had anything to do with Lydia. It was some weeks later that Marcia started to talk about Liam: Lydia’s Irish husband who owned a bistro simply called The Place. Something in Liam’s character clearly pointed to somewhere far bigger than Dunster and Marcia felt that there was a cathedral in the background. That meant it was either Exeter or Truro and she decided to start with the latter. Shortly after we arrived, Marcia began to exhibit all the signs of a novelist in creative mode so I was not at all surprised to learn that she now knew the location of The Place, the part of Truro where Lydia and Liam lived, that Lydia had a dog (a Bernese Mountain Dog called the Bosun) and that there was a coffee bar (and this was a real coffee bar) which would be important at some point in the book. All of which readers will confirm is true.
From my point of view, it was a fascinating time. As I have remarked, The Children’s Hour country was new to me. My firm love affair was with the south coast between Dartmouth to the east and Falmouth to the west. Now I found myself happily embracing a new love: Exmoor – even though it was going to be quite a few years yet before I had the opportunity to explore all of it and to know it in all its moods.