Friday, 28 December 2012

The Last Friday

On this, the last Friday in the year, Marcia and I have been back to Tavistock to meet up with some of our friends in that area. There are two ways of making the journey – by main road or across the moor. Most ‛sensible’ people would take the first option: A38 down towards Plymouth and straight out on the A386 to Tavistock: distance about 28 miles and time in the order of fifty minutes. We, however, habitually take the road over the moor. This is about the same distance but will take you ten minutes longer and there are, for us, huge plus factors.

Even on a day such as today when for most of the journey we were in low lying cloud with very poor visibility it is a magical place and, to us, as beautiful as it is in brilliant sunshine. In some ways it is even more magical and, as often happens when we cross the moor, we started talking about the books: today it was about the way in which Marcia gets inspiration. Often these discussions are centred around places but today we talked about people. It is an absolute fact that not one fictional character in any of her books is based on anyone she knows. I put it like that because in some books she will mention a real person in a specific context. A good example is Patsy in the Post Office in South Brent as recorded in The Courtyard. Patsy, long since retired, was, of course, based on the real Patsy and she still lives in South Brent.

Marcia started the ball rolling by saying she thought she had received more inspiration from books she had read than from people she had met – did I agree? Well, no, I didn’t think I did. I have watched Marcia watching people for over thirty years and I know when she is just being very polite but has allowed her brain to slip into neutral and when all the antennae are waving about and notes are being taken in some dark recess in her mind.

It is body language that she studies when she is at a distance from the people in focus. ‛That man is telling lies,’ she may say. I will watch him attentively but be completely unable to see what it is that she sees – the tilt of a shoulder, perhaps, or the movement of a hand – but, at the same time, I do see that she is absolutely right.

When her ‛prey’ is close to and talking to her, I watch the story that is being told wash over her knowing that she is not the least bit interested in what model her companion’s grandson made during the last art class but fascinated to observe what the person is feeling, what is making them tick. Then the following conversation can be quite unsettling. ‛She is terribly unhappy,’ Marcia will say. ‛How can you tell?’ I ask. ‛You can see it in her eyes, poor darling. She is worried about something, very worried.’ I have to be content with that.

What makes her characters so real to us all? There is no doubt that readers who send us emails and so on all feel that these characters have become personal friends. I don’t really know (and could, I suspect, make a lot of money if I did know) but it is a fact of life that when she is writing she lives in the world she has created and it is ‛real life’ that ceases to be our ‛reality’.

Talking about emails: a huge thank you to all of you who send us emails. They really are terribly important to both of us (needy creatures that we are). We now get so many that some, I fear, do go unanswered. Please forgive us when that happens: it really is because there are too many to cope with and not because they have been ignored.

May I wish you all a peaceful and healthy New Year. Believe me, 2013 will be a glass half full: not one half empty.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Christmas Books by Marcia

A few days ago a guest on BBC Three’s morning programme said that it had become a lifelong habit to read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens at this time of the year to get him into the Christmas mood. The opening few sentences of the book were read – ‘Marley was dead: to begin with.’ – and immediately, in my mind’s eye, I saw my own childhood copy of the book, almost A4 in size with rubbed, faded red boards and, inside, the wonderful full-size illustrations by Emil Weiss (two of these below). As I listened I remembered how I, too, used to read the book each year as a pre-Christmas treat, saving it for this special time. I rather liked the two Ghosts, Past and Present, who seemed very jolly, sympathetic fellows, but the Phantom of the Fourth Stave frightened me and the scene described as ‘a den of infamous report, with a low-browed beetling shop’ is still vivid in my mind – as are its owner, the laundress, the charwoman and the undertaker’s man.

When this was first read to me I was too young to grasp the deeper meanings of this passage – perhaps my mother edited out some of the gloomier parts – but I instinctively recoiled from it. Yet the idea of redemption shone through; that life-affirming opportunity to step free from the the limitations that keep us small and mean, as Scrooge does in Stave Five: ‘No fog, no mist . . . Golden sunlight; heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells . . . Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness.’

I have the book beside me now as I write and, whilst I was looking for it, I found another book I used to read in the same spirit. This is Christmas at Nettleford by Malcolm Saville. The first chapter is titled ‘Home Again’ and thirteen year-old Elizabeth Ann Langton wakes up in her dormitory bed on the last day of the Christmas term thinking of going home to a ‘large vicarage in a small country town.’ Such a satisfying read, with the Wise Owl bookshop – well, there would have to be a bookshop, wouldn’t there? – its two gangs, the Owlers and the Red Handers (who become friends at the end), the discovery of a valuable antique, which disappears and then turns up again offered as a present at the crib by Elizabeth’s well-meaning small brother during the nativity play – and snow in all the right places! I loved it.

Looking along the shelves I discovered other books my clever, intuitive mother had found for me to read all those years ago: wonderfully strange books, apart from the usual classics. I wonder who can remember Hilda Van Stockum’s Pegeen, Mary Maple Dodge’s Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates. Kate Seredy’s The Good Master. Winifred Letts’ Naughty Sophia. John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk.

This last I first heard serialised on the BBC’s Children’s Hour. It’s theme music was taken from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and even now each time I hear it I am back in the past, crouched by the big radiogram waiting to hear more about Kay Harker and his friends, Nibbins the cat and Bitem the fox, and the scary witch Mrs Pouncer with her sneaky familiars, Greymalkin and Blackmalkin.

I have no doubt that all these books, along with many, many others, have influenced my writing, and I thank all those writers who brought such magic to my childhood. Much more than that, the books became my friends; there for me when times were sad or bad or happy.

I’d like to thank you, too, for reading the books that I write, for sending such generous, heart-warming emails to me and for the beautiful Christmas cards. May I wish you all a blessed, peaceful Christmas and say – along with Tiny Tim – and Uncle Theo – ‘God bless us, every one’.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

A winter journey

The other day, we had to drive across Dartmoor to attend a meeting. It was one of those brilliant but cold days and you could see for miles. I'm afraid that it would have needed a better photographer than I am to justice to the sheer majesty of the moor on such days. As we drove up onto Holne Moor, the sun suddenly lit up hills beyond Buckland-in-the-Moor.

I love the contrast between the evergreen gorse in the foreground with the golden glow of the dying bracken on the further hills and the slash of buff yellow where the winter grasses are catching the sun. 

As we drove up from the River Dart at Hexworthy, I spotted this old (and very nearly dead) hawthorn growing in the wall. It may be on its last legs but it is home to some wonderful lichens.

As we turned the next corner, there was an even more spectacular display. This tree remains healthy - you can see the red berries which will, no doubt, provide a decent meal for a passing blackbird.

We weren't the only ones enjoying the sunshine. These people will spend the winter up on the open moorland, their thick coats protecting them from the cold and the wind. As you can see from the frost which still remains on the grass up here, it was not the warmest of days.

These cattle are really beautiful, aren't they?

On the way home again, we stopped off for a warming cup of tea at Two Bridges Hotel where, to my surprise, the hotel geese were on parade in the car park. I say to my surprise since I have never seen them here before: they are usually down by the river.

The temperature began to drop quite rapidly, as you can see, and we were very glad to be on the way home.

As we headed south, the mist began to form in the valleys below but from the colour of the sky it seemed likely that the next day would be just as fine. And it was.

Friday, 7 December 2012

More sun and less rain, please.

Today for the first time the rising sun was too low to shine through the roof light into the kitchen (you will recall that we now live in an ‛upside-down’ house). Sun is so important to both of us and the other kitchen window faces north. Hmmm. Still, we must remember that it is but a fortnight to the shortest day and so we will be ‛without kitchen sun’ for about a month. When we moved here in the middle of the summer, we had a number of pointless discussions as to how long this period would be and it is actually far shorter than either of us expected.

We sometimes wonder how people living within the Arctic Circle manage without seeing the sun at all for days on end. There was a time when we considered moving to the far north of Scotland. It’s a long story with which I will not bore you but one of the reasons we decided against was the long winter evenings. As a friend of our living near Ullapool said, “When I was young we would all gather together in the evenings for a céilidh but now everyone sits at home watching television and drinking far too much whisky.”
Actually, when we gave this project serious consideration we both realised that we would hate to leave this part of England.

In recent days our local evening news on the television has shown film of the Dorset coast (the Jurassic Coast as some call it) falling into the sea. It seems that the attack is coming from two directions: the sea (of course) and from the heavy rain saturating the fairly soft sandstone from which these cliffs are made. Some poor folk have been watching their gardens fall away and are obviously very worried since, sooner or later, their houses will also disappear. They are in a dreadful place for there is nothing they can do: nobody will be prepared to buy a property about to become a part of the sea bed.
Even quite small streams are carrying huge quantities of silt.
Even the far tougher rocks on the coasts of the western part of Devon and Cornwall are not immune from erosion. Hallsands, a village on the eastern flank of Start Point, was engulfed by the waves on 26 January 1917. Why did that happen? Well, the probable answer is that the removal of many tons of sand and gravel from the sea bed in order to provide material for the breakwater at Plymouth caused the beach which had protected the village to subside. There was the usual public inquiry before this work started and the inspector determined that the dredging would not cause any problems. However, further investigations at the turn of the century queried this and the licence to dredge was revoked in 1902 since when the beach has returned to its former level but too late to save the sea wall and the village – the remains of which can be seen from a viewing platform built above it by the local authority.
The River Erme at Ivybridge doing all it can to take Devon and dump it out at sea.
My mind has been brooding along these lines because when we crossed the moor last Friday there was a good deal of flood water pouring down the lanes, tumbling out of banks and swelling the streams and rivers already in spate. Often we were forced to slow right down as we crossed through fords where water was running over bridges rather than under them. And all of it was a dark brown: all of it was carrying little bits of Devon away and taking it grain by grain down to the sea. And what is left behind is often all the more beautiful as a result – until the day comes when the last vestige of topsoil is lost and all that remains is a rocky desert. And there is nothing we can do about any of it. It may not be a comfortable thought but in the end nature is a lot more powerful than we are.
The last signing was in Waterstones of Exeter.
Marcia has now finished her round of signings for this year and is getting stuck in to the next book which is coming along nicely. This is the exciting bit: then comes the desert (the middle bit which seems to go nowhere and take for ever to get there) before we get towards the end and then, as the light at the end of the tunnel burns every more brightly, there is the romp to the finishing post. Most of that will be in the New Year: now we are both having fun as more is revealed about the group of people who, in the fullness of time, you will all come to know. Despite this Marcia has promised that between now and Christmas she will either write a special blog for you or talk to you on a video clip.

Friday, 30 November 2012

A dog blog

Marcia is often asked, ‛Are your characters based on people you know?’ The invariable answer is, ‛No. Now, with the dogs, it’s different. I know every one of those.’

So, just for fun, I thought that I would tell you something about some of the real dogs and doggy moments that have crept into her novels.
Marcia as a young naval wife with Cassie
Marcia’s first dog was a golden retriever called ‛Cassie’ so it is not terribly surprising that one of the main characters in her first novel Those Who Serve was called Cassandra and that Kate bred goldens. Marcia became very friendly with Shirley Crick who bred goldens up on Dartmoor – where, incidentally, they tend to have pink noses because it is so wet. One of Shirley’s champion dogs was Mugwump Morquest – those who read The Chadwick Trilogy may remember ‛Mugwump’.
Marcia with my collie cross shortly after we got together.
When Marcia and I met, I had two dogs: a pedigree cairn terrier that had been given to me as a Christmas present by the breeder and a year-old collie cross that had been dumped on me by a friend. That was meant to be a temporary arrangement but . . . Anyway, we meet the collie under the name of Nellie in The GoldenCup. The cairn, as far as I know, has yet to appear. He was terribly old when Marcia and I got together and had already lost most of his sight and hearing. Within a week or so he life ended. It was a terrible day for me, we had been almost inseparable for nearly eighteen years.
Marcia and Bessie up on Dartmoor on a windy day. 'You can't use that one,' she said.
Rarely is Marcia wrong! Anyway, I love it. 
Then came our Newfoundlands: Lyddie (mad as a hatter), Huggy (big and macho), Bessie (with whom I was totally in love), Shrimp (housed for the breeder for some months when she was a ‛teenager’) and Trubshawe.
Marcia and Trubshawe enjoyed a very special realtionship
Trubshawe, Admiral Jellicoe to you, was without doubt Marcia’s dog. When he eventually died (in his sleep: his heart just gave out) she was broken hearted. Then came the tapestry. Completely out of the blue there was a letter saying that someone had a present for Marcia and could they please send it. Well, yes, of course. When it arrived it was a beautifully worked tapestry of a Newfoundland dog – and it was the spit image of Trubshawe. It turned out that the reader who embroidered it had been looking at various Newfoundland options and was always drawn back to this one. Very odd, spooky and entirely wonderful. Don’t ask how these things happen – it is probably safest not to know! It really does feel as if he has come back to live with us.
Our last dog together (and that does sound horribly final) was, of course, Jossie. Those of you who have followed this blog for a long time will know that Jossie belonged to the mother of Marcia’s closest friend. She is now immortalised as the terrier called Pops in The Sea Garden who had the same temperament but was somewhat smaller so that she could sit on Lady T’s lap.
We revisit The Bedford Hotel in Tavistock in The Sea Garden and here is Marcia on the hotel steps with Wellie, a friend's old English sheepdog. Wellie - a very patient soul - is still waiting to find out in which book he is destined to appear.
Lastly, there was a scene in that book where Kate drives up onto the moor – Plaster Down to be exact – and she watches a young father playing with his two small boys and another golden retriever. That was taken from real life. We were researching for the book and retracing Kate’s steps though the years and were on our way to Pew Tor when we witnessed this scene exactly as Marcia described it.
At the signing a few weeks ago in Torbay a reader came along with photographs of other dogs from the Morquest line.
This is Argus, a splendid looking chap.

Friday, 23 November 2012


The week before last, I left a comment which hinted that I was going to tell you a story about the world in which Marcia lives for most of the year. Wind the clock back some fifteen years or so to a chilly March Sunday which, weather wise, could easily have been in the middle of the winter.

Sally (who had bought her cottage many years before from Marcia and had become a close friend) was walking down the road past where we then lived to go to church and Marcia joined her.

“Will the girls be home for Christmas, Sally?” she asked.

“Umm. Well. You do know it’s nearly Easter, don’t you?” Sally retorted.

Poor Marcia was terribly embarrassed as she told me when she came home. Life in a parallel universe can be equally as fascinating as any of David Attenborough’s ‛Life on Earth’ series – and sometimes just as scary.

She was writing the first of the Chadwick Trilogy, Looking Forward. This short extract may bring that book back to some of you.

By the time Prue arrived later on Christmas Eve everything was ready. When she came into the hall, fetched from the station by Fox, they were all waiting for her. The tree, soaring up to the ceiling, was covered in lit candles, the only light apart from leaping firelight. The tinsel and baubles shone and glittered and tiny parcels, beautifully wrapped, hung from the stronger boughs. Holly and mistletoe, tied with scarlet ribbon, decorated the hall; mince-pies and sherry were waiting on the table before the fire. She stood quite still, just inside the door, and stared in delight while the family smiled at her pleasure.
'It's perfect,' she said at last and - as though she had released them from a spell - they surged forward to greet her, hugging and kissing her, making her welcome.

Now, as I write, with the signings nearly over (one more on 1 December) Marcia is already withdrawing slightly from the here and now as she sinks deeper into the world being inhabited by her characters.
There are no particularly apt pictures for this week so I thought I would share a couple I have taken recently that I quite like. This is Vixen Tor on Dartmoor. It usually merges into the background but the light was making it stand out in relief which was rather good.
One of the problems we have always had (but now resolved, I am happy to say) was that various Inland Revenue inspectors just could not grasp how the creative process works.

“You have here traveling expenses for MOTS? Please explain.” I would be asked.

Having explained that MOTS was shorthand for Memories of the Storm, I went on to say that Marcia needed to visit where her characters were to connect properly with them. Clearly this concept was inexplicable to those from the Inland Revenue and I can still see the deep suspicion and dis-belief staring at me from the other side of the desk. What I was saying was the absolute truth – Marcia never suffers from writer’s block but there are times when she, as she puts it, “hits the buffers” and then we set off to wherever we need to be going. We are rarely on the road for more than half an hour when she starts talking about the book – exploring new ideas that are coming to her as we drive along and through the area where the book is set. It may be that she wishes to explore a town or village and we stop so that she can wander off (on her own) and see what connections she can make.
We thought we would miss the sunsets when we left The Hermitage. Well, this was taken from our bedroom window the other night when the moon (you can just see it top left) was only a few days old so, clearly, we were wrong.
Would the books be the same if we never droned about like this? Would there be any books? I can’t give you a definitive answer to that question but, obviously, the way we go about things works – it produces very popular and (if I may say so) moving novels. Eventually, after both sides said a lot of things that should not have been said (and I hope they regretted these as much as I did) they accepted my arguments.

We have made two such trips this week, grabbing moments of reasonable weather in between the torrential rain which has flooded so much of the west country recently, and I am happy to report that matters trundle along very satisfactorily.
Just to prove that I haven't forgotten the Jackdaws. Here is one prancing (do you agree that is the right word?) on the drive - track, really - that leads from the house.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Listening to the characters

The last signing session this month took place in Torbay (see above) and was, by all accounts, great fun. A pattern sees to be evolving whereby a group of readers are all there together at the beginning of the signing and a conversation builds up with Marcia answering various questions. She loves this sort of interaction with her readers – far better than just sitting there signing books. Of course, it does rather depend on the size and shape of the shop.

Two events this year did include a more formal talk and question time: the one in the Liskeard library and the evening spent in Saltash.

Anyway, with the signings out of the way we are back to creating the best possible situation for Marcia to ‛listen to’ her characters or, if you prefer, for the ideas to flow more freely.

With most of the books there has been a particular place – or group of places – where she has been acutely aware of her characters and it has been in those that they have become fully rounded.
This robin was to appear in the book. He is perched on a gorse bush in the place where we would park and look across to the 'High House' and 'Summer House'. Shortly afterwards, all these gorse bushes were burnt down (probably by accident) but by then the book was finished.
In the case of The Summer House this was a place on the Toll Road out of Porlock from where you could see the field in which Marcia set the High House with its Summer House. In the case of Echoes of the Dance it was beside the ford at Bowithick while the cliffs above Trevone did it for The Christmas Angel. In these cases, the exact location of the book was known but that is not always the case.
The ford at Bowithick
We have never really pinned down The Keep which is in the Chadwick Trilogy and The Prodigal Wife. Yes, we know it is in a triangle bordered by three roads but where in that triangle remains a mystery. Oddly the same thing is true of house that Henrietta is minding: somewhere near the villages of Crowcombe and Stogumber but that is the closest we every got to it. Even so there were particular places: a field running down to woodland where the cuckoo called not far from Rattery for the trilogy and the area around Robin Uprights Post on the Quantocks.
The cliffs near Trevone on Cornwall's north coast
The same is true of the book Marcia is working on at the moment. There is this hamlet and we now have a pretty good idea of what properties there are there and we have created a sketch map which will probably be changed a bit as time goes on. Having said that, we have no real idea of where it is (other than on the flanks of Dartmoor somewhere) but we do know where Marcia is finding inspiration and we have been visiting there whenever we have had the time and the weather has been reasonable. It is a shock for us to be doing this at this time of the year. More usually it would be from late April to the end of May and we would have our coffee – from the hamper in the back of the car – while sitting out on our faithful folding chairs.
The Two Bridges Hotel huddling in the valley on a very cold but clear day in March
Not now. It is far too cold and so, and for us very unusually, it is a question of finding places to go in for the odd bit of refreshment. I suppose it is possible that some of them might even appear in the book. So far we have been to the Two Bridges Hotel, the community shop in Holne which also includes a small café and the Dandelion (a sort of café bar associated with the Moorland Hotel near Haytor). 
Holne Moor is my favourite part of Dartmoor.

The distinctive outline of Haytor
Well that should narrow things down bit.
On our return from The Dandelion the heavens opened for a moment and the rain came sizzling down. Then the shower stopped as abruptly as it had started and for a moment the setting sun peered through the clouds to outline the tors in the distance.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Taking a well earned rest

Another Friday and Marcia is absolutely shattered. This is not really so surprising as she does tend to give of her all when she is with readers. Anyway, I persuaded her to take a couple of days off and I am please to report that (for once) she agreed.
All the photos here are associated with The Sea Garden.
The Royal Albert Railway Bridge (Wikipedia).
However, I can also report that she has had a great time with two pretty unusual events in the last week. First up was an afternoon talk in Liskeard library after which she – and all who attended – trooped across the road for tea, cakes and a signing in the bookshop on the other side of the road. ‟It was really lovely,″ she said, ‟such fun and such wonderful people.″

Then, on Wednesday, to Saltash bookshop in the evening for a talk and (of course) a book signing. This one was special because, for the sake of those who don’t already know, Saltash is near the mouth of the River Tamar on the Cornwall side – and The Sea Garden is set just up river from there. In the prologue to the book Kate is on a train from Cornwall bound for London and actually crossing the famous Brunel railway bridge that links Saltash to Plymouth.

Marcia explained how she had found the setting for this book – which those of you who follow this blog will know about already – and that was followed by a lively question and answer session. Marcia was delighted to catch up with some of those who had been to her talk at Trematon (arrange by the Saltash Bookshop) last year.

Tomorrow she will be in Paignton and that is the end of the signings for this year apart from the one in Waterstones of Exeter which will take place in December. It is clear that bookshops are really struggling and we feel very sorry for them facing both on-line outlets (Amazon and so forth) as well as cut-price books being sold in supermarkets (notably Tesco). Having huge negotiating powers, these giants are able to have a very serious impact on publishers too who are finding their profit margins cut to the bone. Having said that, most of the evidence points to the fact that more people are reading more books (whether in paper form or as ebooks) and that must be a good thing.

Modern technology has its advantages. Not long ago it would have been impossible for me to talk to you all every Friday and I have horrid memories of writing on my old portable typewriter. One particular chapter has lived with me for over twenty-five years: I had to retype it thirteen times before I felt it was right. The computer makes life so much easier. There is, of course, a downside – there is always a downside. In this case it is that there is a tendency to write too much and that has to be curbed. In writing (but not all writers would agree with this) both Marcia and I feel that ‛less is more’. Trimming back, using less words but never losing the message is hard and time consuming work but can result in some superb and economical writing.  

Friday, 2 November 2012

Jay's Grave

Yesterday, Marcia wanted to check out one of the places in the book she is presently writing. This is not far from Jay's Grave. We left home in brilliant sunshine, then we were hit by a vicious squall and the car was lashed by sleet. This passed over and rolled away towards the south west (from where the weather usually comes) and I shot this out of the car window. 

Well, I said I would tell you a bit about Jay’s Grave. Some of this is, of course, myth. Some people like myths and encourage them by embroidering the old stories. Other people think that is wrong and try to destroy myths that cannot be properly proved. That is sad. Folk memory (which you could say is another name for myth) often retains some of our history which is not to be found in any written record. Of course there will be differing reports of the same event. If six people see a car accident and give the police witness statements within a couple of hours of the incident you will end up with six different versions of the ‛truth’. Anyway, here is what it is all about.

At about the same time as the Paris mob stormed the Bastille a new born baby was left at Wolborough Poor House near Newton Abbot. The first letter of the names that the babies were given rotated through the alphabet and hence this baby was called Jay which, as it happens, was also local slang for a prostitute. Was there a reason for this choice? We shall never know but the home also gave her a Christian name: Mary. As in Mary Magdelene? Again we shall never know.

When she became a teenager, she was sent to Canna Farm near Manaton upon Dartmoor. Here she was ‛employed’ in the farmhouse and in the fields. The days would have been long and the work incredibly hard by modern standards. Most of these youngsters taken from workhouses were lucky if they were properly clothed and given enough food. Anyway, it seems it was here that she received the nickname, ‛Kitty’.

The farmer had an attractive, young son and, probably inevitably, in the course of time Kitty found she was expecting a child. There was uproar. Clearly the whole thing was her fault: she had been true to her name and seduced this innocent boy. She was thrown out of the farm and news of what had happened spread rapidly throughout the area.

Unable to find any employment, starving and homeless, Kitty took her own life by hanging herself in one of the barns at Canna. Now, there was a problem in those days with disposing of the corpse of a suicide. Clearly the last thing that anyone wanted was for the soul and return to haunt the upright members of society who had rejected this evil from their presence. The only answer was to bury her in unconsecrated ground.

Even then, or so it is said, there was a problem since none of the three parishes in the area wished to take responsibility. Thus was Kitty Jay buried where three moorland parishes met. If this is true, the parish boundaries have since changed. It is, I think, more likely that she was buried at the nearest convenient cross roads. This is an extract from “Criminal graves and cross roads” which appeared in the British Archaeology paper dated 25 June 1997: The reasons why crossroads were used for the execution and burial of criminals have only begun to be investigated. They may derive from a belief that the roads would confuse the ghost of the deceased, preventing it returning to haunt its home. The use of communal boundaries may have emphasised the criminal's outcast nature, while signifying the boundary between life and death.

Soon known simply as Jay’s Grave, strange things happened: it was said that on some nights a figure clothed in a heavy cloak would be seen kneeling with bowed head beside the grave and always there are fresh flowers or greenery laid on the grave. No one knows who puts them there – some claim to have camped out all night and that they have not slept but that by morning the flowers had been renewed.

There are photographs of the grave without flowers and with plastic flowers – presumably published to disprove the theory. It is, of course, easy to remove the ones that are there and replace them before taking a picture so I fear these images are not very convincing. All I can say is that Marcia and I have passed that grave dozens of times and every time there is an offering of flowers or other greenery in the usual place.

There was an interesting article in the North Devon Journal dated 23 January 1851 which read as follows:

In the parish of Manaton, near Widdecombe on the moor while some men in the employ of James Bryant, Esq., of Prospect, at his seat, Hedge Barton, were removing some accumulations of way soil, a few days since, they discovered what appeared to be a grave. On further investigation, they found the skeleton of a body, which proved from enquiry to be the remains of Ann Jay, a woman who hanged herself some three generations since in a barn at a place called Forder, and was buried at Four Cross Lane, according to the custom of that enlightened age.

So, was she Ann or was she Mary? Was the farm Canna or Forder? Clearly there was no defined grave as such in 1851 and there were no flowers being left as a votive offering.

To add to the confusion "Things Old and New Concerning the Parish of Widecombe-in-the-Moor and its Neighbourhood, a book edited and published in 1876 by one Robert Diamond contains this paragraph.

A simple mound and unwrought headstone by the roadside marks the site of a more modern grave. A poor old woman, called Kay, having hanged herself, was laid here under cross roads without the rites of Christian burial. There are many such graves of suicides hereabouts, and the country folk shudder as they pass the whisht spots by night. This one is about a quarter of a mile from the Swallaton Gate, on the road leading from Ashburton to Chagford; it is not now a cross road, but a path strikes across the main road, and leads between the farms of Hedge Barton and Heytree into the valley of Widecombe. The grave is known as Betty Kay's, and about twenty years ago, the late Mr. James Bryant, the owner of the property, opened the little mound to verify the local tradition, and discovered the bones, which he placed in a coffin, and reinterred in the same grave with a head and foot stone properly set up

You begin to rather like James Bryant, don’t you? But, Kay or Jay? And I must say I really do like the word ‛whisht’.
The signings last Saturday went very well. In the morning Marcia was at the Harbour Bookshop in Kingsbridge and is seen here with the owner, Pat Abrahart (left), and Alex Doughty, one of Marcia's readers. In the afternoon it was over to Totnes Bookshop which is owned by Dartington.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Book signings begin

Marcia in The Bookstop with (left) owner Natasha Church and  reader Jean Jones.

Today Marcia is signing books in The Book stop, Tavistock and I am in the Bedford Hotel writing this blog. As many of you will know, it was in this bookshop that Marcia held the first book signing some fifteen years ago. It seems far longer than that.

In the early years, she used to write two 'Marcia Willett' books each year and then there were the four years when there was only one but also another: a 'Willa Marsh' book. She is now working on her twenty-eighth novel (I regret I said yesterday that it was publication day of her twenty-eighth which was wrong - that should have been twenty-sixth: number twenty-seven is in production and will be out next year).

It has been quite a journey: a journey which included the Chadwick Trilogy. In recent years, publishers have been far from keen on trilogies and Marcia was delighted when Clare Foss of Hodder Headline agreed to go along with the idea. Then there was the sequel. How often have these gone badly wrong? You can hear the comments, can't you? 'What a pity she felt she had to write a fourth book about these people. It really is not as good as the first three!'

To make matters worse, when Marcia finally gave in to Jolyon - who had been tapping her on the shoulder for some years demanding that the next part of his story should be written - she was now being published by Transworld who knew almost nothing of the first three books. I hope you will all agree that The Prodigal Wife was a worthy fourth in what is now being dubbed the 'Chadwick Chronicles'.

The 'Willa Marsh' novels were published in the UK by Sceptre and resulted in Marcia having an excellent review in The Times. Considered to be more literary and rather less cosy, these resulted in an amusing exchange during question time after Marcia had given a talk.

'I have just read Sisters Under the Skin,' said this woman. Then there was a long pause.

'And?', asked Maria.

'And I always thought you were such a nice person,' was the rather devastating response.

Although no longer in print in this country, to Marcia's delight one of the most prestigious publishers in France, Autrement, bought them and have built up a cult following for Willa Marsh over there. They talk about her 'tenderness for old people and her spiky black humour'. Having published all four books, they have now bought The Children's Hour but will be publishing it as another Willa Marsh novel. Does this suggest that the two voices are gradually merging into one? I rather feel it does. What do you think?

In the early days, Marcia's books were usually published in May and the cherry trees across the road from where I am sitting would be in flower. Today there is definite feel of autumn in the air with the churchyard covered in leaves swirling around in the chilly wind. Even so, the bar here is full of ghosts: Cassandra and Kate, Quentin and Clemmie, Oliver and Unk, Felicity and many others. Now that The Sea Garden has hit the bookshelves I can say that some of these will be meeting here again where, in some ways, that journey started. It will, not, however, see the end of that journey - of that you may rest assured.
On the way home, we realised there was a need to buy some milk. In the village of Holne on the edge of Dartmoor is a community shop. I first came across this sort of 'village venture' when I was writing a book of that name a couple of centuries ago and, since we thoroughly approve of these shops, we diverted (not very far) in order to buy a couple of pints there. Hitched - using the other end of the rein - to the fence outside was this chap We had a quiet chat whilst Marcia was in the shop and it seems his owner was in there too, enjoying a warming cup of coffee. Note: she must have been riding bare back. Brave girl.
Next week we will be talking about the sad history of a lovely young girl called Jay.
Just thought I would share my frustration with you. This jackdaw is sitting on a neighbour's clothes post but he might just as well have been a cardboard cutout. Oh, or she lest, in this day and age of political correctness, I am accused of sexism.

Friday, 19 October 2012


Another week and more rain. The west county has been hit yet again by flooding. The village of Clovelly on the north coast suffered badly and now the problems are to do with the conjunction of high tides, strong tidal surges (big waves built up many miles away), low pressure (which always means slightly higher sea levels) and – and this is the unusual bit – a huge volume of water coming down the rivers from the moors and high ground.
Clovelly in normal times (library photo)
When that happens, when the tide surges into the river mouths and meets the water pouring down, the lower levels on the banks face what feels like a tidal wave sweeping through them. Places with the narrowest river mouths suffer most: Looe has been inundated by most of the high tides this last few days. Think how depressing it is to clean up only to know that you are likely to be hit again twelve hours later. Most people living in these conditions have flood protection devices: boards to close off the lower parts of the doorways often reinforced by bags of sand are commonplace. Sadly it isn't as simple as all that. Underground, unseen (of course) the soil becomes totally saturated and new water arriving has to go somewhere. All too often, having carefully dealt with all the entrances, property owners find it pushing up through the floor.

Clovelly is a lovely little village – still privately owned – with a narrow, stepped and cobbled high street which tumbles down to the sea. No cars or other vehicles are allowed into the village and most of the goods which have to be distributed are either taken down on sledges or are carried by donkeys. This high street was turned into a raging river earlier in the week. Not only was there damage to property but many of the cobbles were torn free and carried downhill.
At the height of the flooding (from amateur video via BBC)
We know from your emails (and please keep them coming, we love hearing from you) that this extreme weather is not restricted to the UK. It seems to be a global problem and one that, if the scientists are to be believed, is likely to stay with us for some time.

There is something ironic about the fact that copies of The Sea Garden have been shipped from the publisher and are, as I write, winging their ways to book shops and stores throughout the UK. I say ironic because, as the name suggests, one of the settings in this book abuts the 'sea'. That's not really accurate – it abuts the River Tamar and so this property, too, must have been at risk in recent days. I can tell you (normally I have to remain very quiet about books until after they are published) that flooding does not enter into this story. Snow, yes: fog, yes: floods, no.
This picture of Walkhampton Common was taken about fifteen years ago. Those of you who have read Those Who Serve  will know that Kate walked here a good deal with her dogs. Note the hawthorn tree in the foreground.
We are now in 2004. This is late autumn and the leaves have dropped from the tree which has been partially uprooted. A pond has formed in the hollow where it once stood.
When we drove past this morning, there was very little sign of life. The hollow has gone - no doubt filled in by dust and debris - but the sheep continue to graze on this part of Dartmoor.
There are one or two events that have yet to be sorted out – notably a signing in Waterstones of Exeter – and I will add this to the others in the right hand column as soon as I have details. If you would want to come to that, please keep an eye on the blog.
I suspect that all of Marcia's readers know the story of Jay and her grave. Every day someone puts fresh flowers on the grave but nobody ever sees who does so. When we passed by earlier today,there was a single hydrangea head braving the rather dull day. If you don't know the story, let me know and I will tell you next week.