Friday, 20 February 2015

Three Moors

In recent days, Marcia and I have trying to find the answer to the following question: what is it that makes a novel a pager-turner? Obviously there are all sorts of possible reasons and I would really like to know what you who read my blogs would suggest. Go on, put up your answers as a comment below. In one of Marjory Allingham’s wonderful Campion mystery stories Cargo of Eagles there is a delightful character who goes by the name of Monica Weatherby. She is, as she puts it, ‘the string man in these parts’ (freelance journalist for those who need a translation) and one of her sayings is, ‘I only ask because I want to know’. Well, that’s why I am asking for your help in this matter.

Incidentally, if you haven’t read any of the Campion books you have missed some beautiful writing, a wonderful if understated sense of humour, some delightful characterisation and some thumping good yarns. Be that as it may, back to the question.

We conclude that the number one requirement is that at all times the reader is able to suspend disbelief without even realising that this is happening. Thus one coincidence too many; one character doing, saying or even thinking something ‘out of character’; one reference to somewhere real that contains an inaccuracy; a plant in flower in the wrong season: all of these sorts of things can stop the reader and destroy that suspension of disbelief and that, once destroyed, is usually gone for good.

Putting the characters to one side – very definitely Marcia’s department – the rest of it is what I describe as ‘the geology of the book’ since it the very rocks below the surface of the earth that determines all above it. For the last two weeks I have been brooding on matters associated with Dartmoor which it is the largest area of granite in Great Britain. That, and the fact that it is ‘unglaciated’ (the ice shield that covered most of this country stopped just short of this moor) makes it a very special place.

Five views of Dartmoor including Marcia at Bonehills.
Just as special, but completely different thanks to having a very different geology, is Exmoor. Here the rocks are sedimentary – muds laid down by the silt settling in the seas. They are old: the earliest were being laid down in the Devonian geological age some 400 million years ago. Over time, these were distorted by two crustal plates (one to the north, the other to the south) drifting towards each other, pushing the layers of rock up to form an east to west ridge or arch-like fold. That is, of course, an over-simplification: over time there were all sorts of minor movements superimposed on that basic fold and some of the resulting contortions can be seen where the moor meets the sea. These rocks contain no fossils.

For about 200 million years this area was above sea level but during the Jurassic Age (from about 210 to 145 million years ago) parts of this moor was again covered by the sea. The sediments laid down during this period are full of fossils and are very similar to those on the south coast of Dorset which is known as the ‘Jurassic Coast’.

Then there was more shoving and heaving and, of course, constant erosion due to water aided and abetted during the ice age. Was this moor covered by ice? Probably not permanently in the way we think of the ice shield but there is evidence of the surface being repeatedly frozen and then thawed: with shards of frost-broken rock scattered down the hillsides and jumbles of unsorted fragments lying in the valley floors. All of this creates a very different landscape to Dartmoor. Rarely do you see exposed solid rock except on the coast (which is truly one of the most spectacular coastlines in the country). Instead you have softly rounded hills with deep valleys formed by streams and rivers cutting through rocks very much softer than the granite on Dartmoor.

Five views of Exmoor - with Marcia somewhat dwarfed by the landscape.
Then there is Bodmin Moor. Here we are back to granite again but this moor is much smaller than Dartmoor and, to my eyes at least, there is a bleakness about it – probably because, like so much of Cornwall, there are far less trees than there are in Devon.

And here we are on Bodmin. The second down is rather interesting. Marcia wanted to set a house (this was in The Way We Were) here on Treswallock Down. I was saying there was absolutely no reason why there should be a house up here - full stop. Then we came across this hut circle and Marcia, quite reasonably, pointed out that if people had been living here about six thousand years ago then there was no reason why they couldn't be doing it now. So it was that this is the exact site of Julia's home and I had to come up with the best possible reason for it being there. Oh, and that's her in the next picture down near where she set Mellinpons in Postcards of the Past.
One thing they all have in common: if you know where to stand and which way to look from Dartmoor and Bodmin you can catch glimpses of the sea; on Exmoor they are hardly glimpses: the northern boundary of the moor is the Bristol Channel or, as some call it, the Severn Sea.

I am sure you will all agree that we really do know which of these moors we are on when reading Marcia’s books. I am not sure how she achieves this but somehow she manages to evoke the differences in her wonderful descriptive passages and with only one exception (as far as I know) all the books are true to the geology of the settings. I will explain how that error crept in next week and I have to admit that this was entirely my fault – not hers.