When books blogger Davida Chazan reviewed Not Quite Lost, she was intrigued by a remark in the afterword, where I said many of the journeys were the seeds of my fiction. She asked me to write this piece to elaborate.
I have an averagely bad memory, and this has a nice advantage – I can reread books with only the slightest sense of deja vu. It was certainly handy when I compiled Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction. The book was distilled from 20 years of notes, and trawling through them made them new again.
I enjoyed the return trip, especially to places that were desolate, ruined or abandoned. A house in Suffolk that had once been the centre of a medieval village, but was now isolated in a forest, a quarter of a mile from the nearest road. I’d studied them carefully, committed them all to paper, then pretty much forgotten about them.
Only I hadn’t forgotten. As I read, 20 years on, I found the origin stories for my novels. They might have been out of sight, but they were never out of mind.
A significant place was Stevenstone in Devon. Modern Stevenstone is a hamlet of mews cottages and bungalows surrounded by farmland, but is built on the remains of Stevenstone House – a rambling Victorian pile of pinnacles and towers that once overlooked a park with deer, lakes and garden follies. The mansion was gradually demolished in the 1950s, cannibalised to build the houses that stand there now: a couple of bungalows on the old terrace; mews houses in the stables and laundry. Chunk by chunk, the grand house disappeared and just one corner remained, a half-demolished tower thickly shrouded in ivy.
One of the garden follies had survived and I stayed there as a holiday let. It stood on a sward of green, with a view of the ruined tower that was most provoking – provoking because it was securely inside somebody’s garden and not available to nosy visitors. Provoking also because, although it had lost its topmost rooms and roof, it still dwarfed the other structures. What would I have given for a time machine?
But even so, there was plenty to delight. I went exploring with a picture of the house from the 1870s and found some of the structures still intact. A stone staircase in the lawn, rosetted with lichen. Ornate gateposts far too substantial for the cottages that now stood behind them. A long, graceful balustrade, which the picture showed running along the length of the mansion’s terrace. It now bordered the back gardens of the current houses.
Some years later I was walking in a National Trust wood in Surrey and I had a sudden thought: we were treading on the past. Under this path was an older path, which went to places that had now gone. I started to write a novel set in a time when all the countryside had been built on except for one preserved valley – the estate of a grand, crumbled house. It is rediscovered – a marble floor waiting under the tree roots; outlines of rooms tangled in the ivy. That must have been Stevenstone, stirring in the sediment of memory. It became Lifeform Three.
As I wrote deeper into Lifeform Three, I felt I needed a back story for the world. Readers might want an explanation for why we had squandered our green spaces. The answer came easily – rising sea levels had eroded the coastal towns and then crept inwards.
Lucky inspiration? No, I’d been there. For real.
On a visit to Suffolk, I stayed in a Napoleonic Martello Tower on the end of a lonely spit of land. On stormy days, the sea lashed right over the roof. Sometimes the coastguard would hammer on the door and entreat the visitors to drive their car further inland in case it was washed away. The tower itself looked tough enough – a giant drum of brick like a decapitated lighthouse. But even that was barely hanging on. It once had an outer wall, but that had been smashed by the sea, and the waves now lapped against the foot of the building. Pictures from the 1900s showed several cottages and an inn close by, now gone. All up the Suffolk coastline it was the same story. A string of towns, now just names on placards facing over the waves.
But why this love of lost places anyway? I didn’t realise that until I got some unexpected news. The house I grew up in, an Edwardian villa in Cheshire, had been knocked down. This shocked me. I wrote its obituary for the book, remembering rooms I had not stood in for three decades.
I remembered being a very serious child tapping the walls looking for hollow spots that might be old fireplaces. I remembered a footpath that disappeared mysteriously under the bungalow next door.
From my earliest years, it seems I was a house whisperer, a land whisperer. As I toured the house one last time in my memory, I understood a little of where I came from – and where I like to go.
This post first appeared on The Chocolate Lady’s book review blog