THE SETTING THAT INSPIRED MY NOVEL…
What could be lovelier at this time of year than a walk in the English countryside, with everything so fresh and green you can almost taste the sap in the air?
These days I live in London, but I often return to Herefordshire and have such happy memories of childhood walks in the local woods, where I used to run along sun-dappled paths, where the darkness around seemed magical. But I always stayed very close to my mother. I never wanted to go and get lost, because who knew what monsters those trees might hide.
The romance and mystery – and fear – of those woods went on to inspire my novel. The heroine, Phoebe Turner, is raised in the bustle and grime of East London. But then, one hot summer she leaves her mother to work in a sprawling country house – and that house is surrounded by miles of woods where Phoebe often wanders alone, unaware of what dangers and secrets might lurk in those shadows...
‘My skirts brushed against the damp grasses. Directly ahead trees were steaming with moisture almost as if they were living and breathing. I hesitated, and all Nature’s sounds seemed to hesitate too, as if those woods sensed my arrival, the stranger about to enter their dawn realm of dappled green gloom.’
The house in which Phoebe goes to live is as real and alive as those woods to me. It has haunted my thoughts for many years, ever since those Sunday afternoon drives where, on one particular route, I would peer through the car’s back window and see tall iron gates looming out of the verge, and beyond them a long straight gravel drive at the very end of which was a house – and the feelings I had on seeing that are echoed on Phoebe’s arrival …
‘I shivered and yawned with exhaustion, finally letting my eyes droop closed – only stirred when Jim pushed my head from his shoulder, when he jumped from the cart to close up some gates which, being of iron, very heavy and large, made the most horrible clanking sound. And now, wide awake from that raucous alarm, as we drove on past expanses of lawns, nothing prevented my view of the house – a central square tower above an arched entrance, castellated walls running either side, and so many windows, I couldn’t count – and each one unlit and unwelcoming. But, as the moon’s face broke through fast-scudding clouds I saw something else that quite took my breath, the thing that was lying behind that house, spreading upwards and outwards for several miles: the dense, sloping woodlands that glistened like silver. And, being quite overawed, and sounding far more like Old Riley than me, I exclaimed, “Strike a light! What a wonder. I’ve never seen so many trees in my life.”’
I always felt a tingling excitement whenever I saw that view. To my fanciful eyes it seemed to be the setting for a fairy tale, and surely a sleeping beauty must be hiding somewhere within those walls. But, as the house was privately owned no opportunity ever arose to see if my suspicions proved true – until one hot summer holiday when I came home from university and was offered the job of a cleaner; a post I accepted immediately, and though not particularly fond of the work it did give me the chance to explore every room and soak up the wonderful atmosphere – a mixture of mediaeval splendour combined with the later Victorian wings. One moment I was polishing ancient suits of armour, the next I was dusting ornate sets of china, or changing the linen on four poster beds, or gazing into the orangery; a glass house designed by Paxton who also constructed the Crystal Palace that once graced Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Hampton Court in Herefordshire – renamed in my novel as Dinwood Court – really is worth a visit today, if only to see the redesigned gardens which are absolutely glorious, or to sit in the elegant café converted from Paxton’s orangery – though personally I’d much rather see it filled up with pots of palms and ferns. And perhaps, when you’ve had your cup of tea, why not venture on up into the woods and imagine my heroine’s spirit there – just sleeping, just waiting to come to life.
Essie Fox’s debut novel, The Somnambulist, is a Victorian gothic mystery published by Orion Books on May 26th. To be in with a chance of winning a signed copy, leave a comment below and we'll draw the lucky winner's name out of a silk-lined top hat.
Essie’s website is: www.essiefox.com
Essie blogs as the Virtual Victorian: www.virtualvictorian.blogspot.com
The Hampton Court official site: http://www.hamptoncourt.org.uk/