Shortly after we were married, Marcia and I rented a cottage near the coast to the west of Dartmouth. Just up the lane was a group of barns and stables set around a courtyard which were being developed and turned into half a dozen bright, modern homes. Later, when we were house hunting, we came across another development, this time in the Dart Valley not far from Dittisham.
Marcia found the concept of a small, close-knit community where there was ample opportunity for interaction between those living in close proximity to each other fascinating although, obviously, at that time she had no idea that she was destined to become a novelist.
How was this to tie in with the stories she had in mind: stories of two women who marry men they do not love: both of whom must make one of Marcia’s journeys?
Nell marries with the best of motives—Gillian out of greed. Nell’s journey brings her to The Courtyard as a place of refuge when her life falls apart—Gillian’s to betray her husband only to discover that she is rejecting the substance for the shadow. It is the courtyard community that enables Nell to journey forward and Gillian to come to terms with her guilt.
Marcia had in mind a scene where the villain in her book is shot in the back by someone out after rabbits. The impact knocks him into a swamp and his cries for help are drowned by some noisy machinery. This called for a very special place which was eventually found near South Brent. There a viaduct carries the railway over the valley in which the Glaze Brook runs on its way to join the River Avon. Under this viaduct is an area of swamp which is deep enough in places for a wounded man to drown and then to sink below the surface. To one side of this swamp there is a cliff—probably the result of work when the viaduct was built—from the top of which it would be easy to fall into the swamp. Let the shot ring out when a train rattles across the viaduct filling the valley with noise and all is possible.
Although The Courtyard was written after Those Who Serve was published, none of us had any idea just how popular Marcia’s books were to be nor did we realize that some of her readers would want to visit the places where she puts her characters. Although The Courtyard is set within walking distance of that viaduct, it is not the courtyard development to be found near the Glazebrook Hotel: Nethercombe is set to the north of the railway line towards Owley Moor.
The main river in the area is the Avon—which has a number of delightfully named tributaries such as the Badworthy Brook and the Horse Brook. After heavy rain the Avon can change from a gently flowing brook to a raging torrent within hours. Before the dam was built to create the Avon Reservoir, it frequently burst its banks when it was in spate. Now the river is slightly tamer but can still be very impressive.
The best way to get a feel of this countryside is to drive from South Brent to Lydia Bridge and then on to Shipley Bridge and back via Yelland Cross. The area is fairly densely wooded with fine oak and beech trees many of which are home to a bewildering array of mosses, lichens, ferns and other epiphytes. For much of the outward journey, the Avon runs to the right of the road and there are frequent glimpses of tumbling water and, if you are lucky, grey wagtails, dippers and the flash of the gaudy kingfisher.
This area is loved by rhododendrons and the display when they are in full flower is breathtaking. At Shipley Bridge there is a car park and a lane which leads to the Avon Dam.
When we lived in that area, we would visit Shipley Bridge at least twice a week and walk the dogs up beside the river. Three events in particular stick in my mind. One was at the beginning of the breeding season and two cock pheasants were sparring in the middle of the road. They took no notice when I sounded the horn so I got out, picked them up and put them on the verge. They just carried on fighting as if nothing had happened.
The second was a magical moment. As you walk up towards the dam, the lane divides where a spur turns sharp left and winds up the hill to the water treatment works. As we approached this junction, on our left and brilliantly lit by bright sunshine—it must have been mid-morning—there was a pair of stoats playing together. Wonderful!
Lastly, as you walk up towards the Avon Dam, you pass the remains of an old property on your left. A few yards further on there is an old and bent ash tree with a tiny knot hole in the trunk. As we approached this tree one day in late spring, a blue tit appeared from nowhere and disappeared down the hole. Seconds later it popped out and another arrived and shot into the hole. Clearly they were feeding young. What was so striking was that they did not seem to stop and then enter the nest hole but flew at it, closing their wings at the last second. Very impressive.
This was about the time when Those Who Serve was being published and Marcia had been invited to attend signings at a number of local book shops. It is hard to look back and really remember what those days were like. The launch of the book at Bookstop was really just a great party. Marcia’s editor, Cate Paterson, came down from London; Marcia’s sister and brother-in-law were there as were nearly all of our friends—the general public hardly got a look in! The press arrived and Marcia suddenly found herself feted by all and sundry. Book signings in other places added to euphoria as Marcia began to meet her first fans—readers who had already bought the book and had brought it back to be signed. Being Marcia, each and every one was given as much time as they needed and so in some shops quite long queues formed which added to the general excitement.
Another moment to treasure. We agreed to take our Newfoundland, Bessie, to a signing at Waterstone’s in Plymouth. She was a great hit but the high point was when the photographer from the Western Morning News wanted a picture of Bessie sitting on a chair beside Marcia at the table with the books displayed upon it. Needless to say, the idea was doomed to failure but we had great fun trying to make it work.
Suddenly, there was a telephone call. There was to be a television programme devoted to the problems faced by service wives. Would Marcia agree to be interviewed and read an extract from Those Who Serve?
Obviously the answer was ‘yes’. The camera crew duly arrived at our home and the first part of the interview took place in our kitchen with Marcia leaning back on our dresser (which the guy in charge thought very photogenic) with a microphone inches from her face. She found it all very daunting. When they had finished the interview and Marcia had read the chosen extract, the crew wanted some outside shots of Marcia to use during the introduction—and wanted Bessie along as well. With the River Avon as a backdrop, Marcia and Bessie walked up and down until Bessie decided she wanted to end her career as a film star and took herself off home leaving everyone else to it.
Marcia had nearly finished writing The Courtyard. The question was: what then to do with the manuscript? We did not feel it could be sent to Headline until they had published Thea’s Parrot so the obvious thing was to put everything on hold for the time being. Yet another lesson to be learned: once a story is in the mind it nags and nags until it is on paper—or, in this age of the computer, on a hard disc—and so it was duly finished and Marcia telephoned Cate Paterson for advice but Cate refused point blank to discuss another book.
‘You need as agent,’ she said. ‘I’ll introduce you to Dinah Wiener.
Thus did Dinah become Marcia’s agent and, over the years, a very close friend and confidante. The relationship between the writer and the publisher can be fraught. On the one hand you need to be businesslike since you obviously want the best deal you can get. On the other hand you want a close artistic or creative relationship with your editor. An agent enables you to have it both ways. The agent handles all the business side and falls out with the publisher if needs be while the author can carry on being friends no matter what. Marcia and Dinah met, Dinah read The Courtyard and, happily, she loved it and so started one of the most important relationships in an author’s life.
Some old characters suddenly appeared in The Courtyard, taking Marcia totally by surprise.
Who had bought the smallest cottage in The Courtyard? While Marcia was brooding on that question, Guy Webster came to her complete with a business in Dartmouth that he was struggling to get off the ground. Shortly thereafter Gemma and Sophie were to appear. Marcia rarely plans to bring back characters but often finds that they have insinuated themselves into the book being written. This is hardly surprising: they all live on this relatively small peninsula and tend to move in the same circles. It is an aspect of her books that many readers love as it demonstrates that life goes on after the books finish—but rarely do they ‘live happily ever after’!
For some notes and photographs describing The Courtyard country the link is TC Country.