The Christmas Angel

2009 1010

There can be no doubt that this book would not have happened had Marcia not taken a number of retreats at the convent of Tymawr near Monmouth: when Marcia was first aware of Clem and his little son, Jakey, she saw them in the setting of a convent and, more specifically, in the lodge house of a convent. That was about it for a while. Gradually Marcia was able to add a few facts: Clem had been a student at a theological college when his wife, Jakey’s mother, had died or been killed: Marcia was not sure which.

Next on the scene was Clem’s mother who was obviously going to play an important part in the story but did not seem to be living with Clem and Jakey.

Then, and completely out of the blue, an old character started elbowing in. This was Janna (from Echoes of the Dance) who, as far as we knew, was still in Horrabridge. Not now: there she was striding along a coastal path at the top of steep cliffs with the sea crashing on jagged rocks to retreat in a welter of foam and white water. More to the point and so unlike Janna to make it almost unbelievable, she had been to the convent to apply for a job and been accepted. Janna – working in a convent – could that really be true?

Then, nothing more. For quite some time. It seemed as though this was going to be one of those books where the juices just refused to flow until we knew exactly where it was all happening so we decided the time had come to start exploring. From what Marcis had said about her sightings of Janna, I was pretty certain we were looking at the north coast – but it is a very long way from Land’s End to the east of Exmoor which were the only limits I could reasonably place on our search area.

I think that to begin with both of us felt that this would be an Exmoor book. I won’t bore you with details of the trips we made looking at places we already knew but under these circumstances I look with fresh eyes and often see things I had not previously noticed. That use of ‘we’ and ‘I’ may need a word of explanation. Marcia never retains a photographic record of places (even places she knows very well, even houses in which she has lived) but she always retains the feel – atmospheric and emotional – of everywhere we have been. I am the other way around. I carry a visual record of nearly everywhere I have been but, not being a creative writer, fall short on the feel bit. So, it is up to me to select where we visit. I try to avoid everything becoming too random but in the early stages of any book I have very little information to work with. Suffice to say that our efforts to put the action on the shores of the Bristol Channel came to nought and we started again on the boundary between Devon and Cornwall – from there back north and up to Hartland Point has a very different geology which I was sure would not be right.

It was either the second or the third trip when, having driven through Post Isaac and on to Port Quinn and then turning inland again, we found ourselves in Golden Cup territory. This lane leads up to the church of St Endellion and we pulled into the car park to have a look around and to visit David Goddard’s grave (see the Prologue if the name means nothing to you).

‘I think we are in the right place,’ said Marcia, ‘not for the convent but something happens here, I’m sure of it.’

Well, not a waste of a day and we had a place where we could start on our next visit. Anyway, as we turned for home we came across a farm shop with a café where we stopped for a bite to eat to fuel me for the drive back to The Hermitage.

The next trip down was very frustrating. We explored to area to the south of St Endellion and north of the River Camel – an exploration that ended in a sandy car park, which was also the end of the road, on the seaward edge of the village of Rock. I say frustrating not because none of it created a reaction in Marcia (if we had allowed that to be a problem we would have been raving mad by now) but because it did – it all felt so wrong to her that by the time the day was over she was seriously doubting her feelings about St Endellion and the café at the farm shop there.

On our next trip we drove down through Wadebridge towards Padstow and then worked our way out to the end of the road – this time on the south bank of the River Camel. Still nothing but we did find the Padstow Farm Shop where we bought some goodies for lunch. We were, of course, in our camper van so the next job was to find a good place to park to enjoy said goodies. Returning back the way we had come it seemed that someone else had already grabbed all the good stopping places and so, when we got to the hamlet of Crugmeer I shot off down a tiny lane to our right having no idea as to where it went (I’m afraid that neither of us have any worries about getting lost – at all times we can be fairly certain we know which county we are in). And so it came about that I found a lay-bye which looked over a field to the sea to the north beside which there was a path which clearly led to the cliffs. As I prepared lunch, Marcia took off to explore. She was quite a long time but I knew why as soon as she spoke. ‘I’ve been listening Janna on the coastal footpath. They’re all here somewhere and quite close.’ And she was quite right. The question was, where were we? Where was ‘here’?

Unusually I had forgotten to put the map for the area in the van when we left home so there was nothing we could do but keep on along the lane and hope it led somewhere sensible. In moments we were running down a steep and narrow lane that led us on to a beach with a village straight ahead. I will admit to a slight twinge as I drove onto the sand – our old Ford Transit camper van was very good at getting herself stuck in muddy places – but there was no problem. We were to find that the amount of sand over the road varied quite a lot – no doubt wind force and direction being the cause – but we crossed this time without any hesitation. The village turned out to be Trevone and the beach one of the more popular surfing beaches on the north coast of Cornwall. Tired but very happy we drove up through the village and followed the signs to the A39. Marcia was now full of ideas and all I had to do was to sit back and listen as the old van panted her way home.

After consulting the map it was pretty easy to see where the convent and the village of Peneglos had to be (please don’t ask how Marcia came up with that name as I simply don’t know). Another trip down to confirm what we saw on the map and the main setting for the novel was firmly in place but there was still one piece of the jigsaw missing. What was Dossie – we had long since known her name and that she was Clem’s mother – doing in the farm shop at St Endellion?

It was a few weeks before we were able to try to solve that question. It was another one of those journeys – another ‘Maudie moment’ (see Starting Over if that means nothing to you). Simply because we could think of nothing better to do, we decided to drive from the farm shop to Peneglos and see what happened. What happened was Marcia ‘saw’ Dossie driving down the lane until she turned off into a field on our right. Yes, it was a field rather than some woodland but . . .

There, in that field was the big rambling house in which Dossie, her parents and various dogs lived that was to spring out of Marcia’s imagination. It was run as a bed and breakfast establishment but we had to wait before we learned more. Setting off again, we were now following Dossie as she drove from her home to the convent to visit Clem and Jakey. We let Dossie turn right when we hit the main road – no point in going on as we knew where she was going – while we turned left for home.

Now all that was needed was for Marcia to write the book. However, I will confess that whenever I could, I persuaded Marcia that we really did need to revisit the cliffs near Trevone. This was because it is a fantastic place with a wonderful variety of fauna and flora and, something of which I never tire, the endless interplay of water on rocks. I hope that I can do justice to the place in TCA Country.

The music that lived with Marcia when she was writing this book? Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’.

For some notes and photographs describing The Christmas Angel country the link is TCA Country.