One of the nicest things we have is a late Victorian box that was given to my paternal grandmother by her father when she married. It would be wrong to describe this as a wedding present, it was more personal than that. In it, she kept her very special correspondence as well as a few other bits and bobs which were important to her. To say it was made of rosewood is a simplification. It is decorated with the most beautiful veneers of many contrasting woods and inlaid between some of them is a narrow strip of some yellow metal – gold? – while the hinges and other furniture are exquisite. When we were at The Hermitage, this box sat in Marcia’s study.
You could say that it inspired this book. Marcia could see a character – a young man – with the box which had come into his possession when his mother died. In the box, amongst other papers and mementos, are about a couple of dozen photographs which clearly fascinate the young man. Standing alongside the box (both the one in Marcia’s study and the one in her imagination) is one of those Russian toys: wooden, bottle-shaped and about five inches high in which there lies a smaller bottle and so on until in the middle is a tiny one about an inch and a half tall. In this case these are all painted as cats – except the tiniest which is a mouse.
Between them, the photographs and this Russian toy provided the answer to a mystery but what mystery? Who was this man? Where did he live?
Then life began to become more complicated as more people began to appear on the scene but Marcia was having great difficulty in seeing how they fitted together: an older man (a war correspondent or photographer perhaps), two women (sisters?) and the shadowy figure of another woman who seemed to be enmeshed in despair.
More in hope than in anger we decided to go and spend some time in our cottage on Exmoor and see what might happen. For a few days the answer was simple: nothing.
But then, one summer’s morning – and I can no longer remember why – we decided to drive from our cottage to Exford and then up to Brendon Common, where we stopped for coffee, and so down through the tortuous valley of the Lynn to Lynmouth. From there we climbed up to Countisbury before turning left off the A39 to drop down the toll road that leads down to Porlock.
One of our favourite brooding points is about half way down where, on the right hand side, you can pull off the road and you have a splendid view over the Vale of Porlock to Hurlestone Point in the east and north over the Bristol Channel to the hills of Wales. Here we are only a few yards up from the cottage Piers owns.
Having arrived we sorted out lunch – we had bought the makings in Exford on our way over – and then settled down for a snooze on rugs supported by the springy sheep-cropped grass. Actually Marcia was not snoozing but multi-tasking. A robin, perched on a gorse bush, had been watching us eat our lunch. Now she was feeding him crumbs, enticing him closer and closer. A jab in the ribs to alerted me of what was going on and so I took a series of pictures of said robin which I used on my blog and will, I am sure, find a place in TSH Country.
Meanwhile she was also watching a group of hang gliders wheeling and turning over Hurlstone.
Then, quite suddenly, ‘I don’t believe it,’ she said. ‘I can see all of them – over there.’ She was staring at and pointing to the bulk of Hurlstone. ‘Can you see that pale coloured field backing onto the moor. They’re all there. In The High House.’
Well, it didn’t turn out to be all that simple, how could it when you consider the characters Marcia had assembled? Still, from that moment on there was no turning back and the next few weeks were lived at full stretch as more and more of the pieces fell into place.
It was wonderful for me. We were to spend a good deal of time soaking up the atmosphere of the two villages in the valley of the river that ran past the property – the Aller. Both Bossington and Allerford are beautiful and enjoy a blissful micro-climate being barely above sea level and sheltered from most of the bad weather by the hills that surround the Vale of Porlock.
It was on our next trip that the last two locations were found. Another vantage point where we would stop was on another steep lane leading out of Porlock, this one taking us up to where we could look over at the church at Selworthy. This, being painted white, shines like a beacon when the sun is out and soon after we had settled down Marcia told me that she wanted to go and explore the churchyard that evening when all the tourists had gone home and it would be quiet. Which we did to good effect.
The next day we drove out to Simonsbath and further west seeking a home for Imogen. This, too, was a success but on the way home (well the way we decided to take) we had a profound shock. The area in which we fed the robin was a tangled mass of burnt gorse. Clearly a picnic fire had got out of control. If that had happened before Marcia ‘found’ The High House would this book have seen the light of day? We shall never know,
Oh, by the way, the scene on the toll road was to be played out, if somewhat differently, in the book (no experience is ever wasted) and we meet another parrot but his part was of little importance. Still, he was certainly more colourful than Percy.
For some notes and photographs describing The Summer Houose country the link is TSH Country.