środa, 10 października 2012

One day in real Moreton-in-Marsh

Polska wersja tekstu jest dostępna na ZwB 

Why Moreton-in-Marsh?
When I was searching for a suitable setting for my book, I decided I wanted write about a provincial English town that I hadn’t visited before. I prefer the idea of creating everything from scratch rather than trying to catch up with reality, so I wanted my town to be half real, half imagined. Thus I didn’t have any requirements for the place, I only wanted it to a have nice name and to be located no further than a two hours train ride from London.
I opened a map of England and started searching. Warwick – no, I have been there. Oxford – no (then main character would inevitably run into Inspector Morse!). Or maybe… Moreton-in-Marsh! Yes. That sounded good.  

Thus my adventure with the Costwolds began. When I actually learned more about Moreton-in-Marsh, I was a bit worried that despite its name, the town did not actually have a decent bog or marsh. And what's more I needed a fen! Well, it's in moments like these that imagination comes in handy. I decided on Moreton-in-Marsh and in my crime story book I gave it the most wonderful wetland one could wish for: wild, dangerous, dark… A perfect place for murder!

While describing and creating my Moreton-in-Marsh, I was supported by my friend Kit Donisthorpe, whose family comes from this region. Generously he endowed me with information about the various tourist attractions of Cotswolds, the Batsford Arboretum (which after dark becomes a really spooky place, almost begging for a bloody corpse) and ghost stories from Gloucestershire folkore. Thanks to Kit’s help, I could imagined my Batsford and create its alternative topography.  
Yet, when the book was finished, I felt overwhelming longing to visit the Cotswolds and see with my own eyes the real Moreton. In many ways I wanted to check “if I was right”. Therefore in April 2012 when I was in London I departed one sunny Sunday from Paddington Station for Moreton-in-Marsh, for the town that became so dear to my detective, Nicholas Jones. 

The bookshop – that’s the place!
Moreton-in-Marsh turned out to be a bit smaller and much more enchanting than I imagined it to be. As it was Sunday, I missed all the rush and bustle of market day. The High Street was calm and peaceful. People were strolling around, talking with other people standing on the pavement or sitting outside at the tables drinking coffee. It was a bracing and serene morning. The honey-coloured Cotswold stone was positively imbibing the sweet and raw April sunshine and I could smell the wonderful aroma of hot chocolate coming from “Tilly’s” tea house. It was all perfect. I looked around, satisfied and strangely moved. I saw the market hall, The Black Bear, the toy shop, the sign indicating the way to Batsford Arboretum, the bookshop… The bookshop! 

A little bit confused by my mixture of both strange familiarity and intriguing foreignness, I ran there willingly, as if it were a safe haven. As it turned out, the Cotswold Bookstore resembled a hobbit’s burrow rather than a harbour. As the owners say on their blog: narrow fronted, but surprisingly large. More and more amazed, I was exploring this extraordinary place step by step. Finally I reached a counter… and a rack in front of it… and my eyes practically popped out of their sockets! The rack was full of crime stories whose shiny covers left no doubt that the action was set in the Cotswolds! I was dumbfounded. How come..?! So… I was not the first one to come up with the great idea of writing a detective novel about the Cotswolds?  

A bookseller, noticing a new face and – possibly – the emotions visible on that face, approached me and asked if I was particularly interested in those writers. “Never heard of them!” I said, almost reproachingly and I asked if it were really that popular among writers to scatter their corpses all around the Cotswolds. Yeah, apparently so. The helpful bookseller (named Tony, as I learnt later), who himself looked as if he had stepped out of Tolkien’s books, printed for me a whole list of the names and titles. Rebecca Tope, M.C. Beaton, Ann Granger, Jane Bailey…  “A Cotswold Killing”, “Grave in the Cotswolds”, “A Cotswold Mystery”, “Death in the Cotswolds”… Overwhelmed, I told Tony everything about my detective, Alfred Bendelin aka Nick Jones, my almost adventitious interest in Moreton-in-Marsh, about the birth of my tiny village called Little Fenn… everything. He was very pleased to hear that I had written about his town – apparently the other crime stories set in the Cotswolds don’t focus on Moreton-in-Marsh. 

Tony answered all my questions about the bookstore which he runs with David and Nina. As I understood, The Cotswold Bookstore is rather a place of exchanging gossips than any significant amount of money, but Tony didn’t seem to be troubled by this. It’s a cosy, friendly place where readers come for little chat. They also organize meetings with the authors, who live in the Cotswolds and write about the Cotswolds (lucky guys!). Among them Polish readers will recognize M.C. Beaton, the creator of the nosy Agatha Raisin stories.  
If you visit Moreton-in-Marsh, you should definitely drop by Cotswold Bookstore. And there is their blog 

Honey-coloured marshmallows in Bourton-on-the-Hill
“Show me your shoes” demanded a lady in souvenir shop, though not unkindly, and then examined my trainers. “That’s ok, you'll be alright getting across the meadows” she said. “Is it very muddy?” I asked, full of hope. “No, it’s quite dry actually. There's been a drought here for quite a few years now”. 
Well, you can’t always get what you want... in real life. My Cotswold fens exist only in the book.
I said goodbye, wishing her a real downpour and I headed to Batsford. Eventually I decided to take the main road, not the shortcut, because I hadn't brought my map with me and I had a strange feeling that the local, if stopped for directions, would say something like: “Turn left behind the third sheep and then straight on till morning”.

It turned out that it’s actually quite a walk from Moreton-in-Marsh to Batsford. Fortunately though, I had a lot of time. And that’s why I gave into the temptation and climbed up to the beautiful panorama of Bourton-on-the-Hill, and didn’t turn straight towards the Batsford Arboretum.

The Cotswold Hills are truly an amazing part of England, famous due to the Cotswold stone, sheep farms and beautiful views. I have to admit that when people told me about the charm of the Cotswolds, I had some doubts. All those mild, green hills, calm pastures, small bridges over sleepy waters – it will be all sugary-sweet and mawkish, right? It’s not.

Bourton-on-the-Hill is maybe not the most attactive village in the Cotswolds, but it is still very pretty. On the both sides of the uphill road you can see the typical houses built from honey-coloured limestone, famous in the region. Limestone in Polish – “wapień” – brings association only with pale, indistinct chalk and for sure doesn’t give any idea about the richness of Cotswold stone colour. It says nothing about this golden hue, the tones of ocher, amber and honey, this mellow and warm tinge. My friend Kit says that “it's like they have absorbed the sun's heat and sit there glowing for hundreds of years”. For me this limestone it’s like crusty honey marshmallow or a jaggy cube of golden eye shadow.

Few houses were for sale. I looked at them greedily, imagining how nice it would be to live there and ride a bike to the bookstore in Moreton-in-Marsh for little chat every day. But the harsh truth is that in order to get one house like this, you have to be VERY rich (or have a fine family tradition of breeding sheep since ages past). South Gloucerstershire is a wealthy region, full of empty mansions and lonely, rich old ladies (maybe that’s why it’s such a good place for fictional crimes). Nearby, outside Minchinhampton, lives Princess Anne. Nice neighbourhood, eh?   

Batsford Arboretum
In Polish, the word „arboretum” sounds a bit mysterious, so I was surprised to learn that it just means “a park where you can admire trees”. Admire the trees, hmmm. I was quite skeptical about this idea while writing my book. I spent my childhood in a little house in the woods, so I doubted if there is anything about trees that could astonish me in anyway. Entering the arboretum I decided that I would show some fortitude and I would not stoop to goggling over trees. It might be alright for the daughter of a forester or biologist to gasp in awe at some cheery trees in bloom, but not a crime writer. So it’s good that nobody saw me there when I did! 
Eventually I just lay under them on the grass. From here the cheery flowers looked like galaxies made of delicate lace. 

In autumn the arboretum must look totally different and I hope that in future I will have opportunity to visit Batsford in the end of October to see it the way Nick Jones saw it while walking there with Ann Hope and her children.

From the park you enter Batsford though a stone, mossy gate. The village that I wrote about in my book consists, in reality, of few houses which by day seemed a bit abandoned. Most likely the owners of these wonderful limestone cottages only come here for the summer. The thing I found the most astonishing was that the real Bastford was so appallingly clean and tidy. The grass is perfectly mowed, the trees are well-maintained, the paths are carefully swept. On the doors of St. Mary church was pinned the sheet of paper that read: “Please keep door closed to keep birds out and please remove muddy boots“. The doors WERE closed. I hoped that maybe visiting the graveyard would be a thrilling experience, but unfortunately the graveyard looked like wedding cake. Just it was tombstones, not marchpane figures of newlyweds that protruded from its surface. The idea of burying someone there just seemed profane.   

When I was back in London, I shared my disappointment with my friends, Sandy and Leah.
“I imagined it to be more murky, you know. The ominous sound of the wind in the thicket, the demonically disheveled bushes, the taciturn villagers in ragged coats…”
“But twenty or thirty years ago I'm sure it was a lot more sombre” said Leah, trying to comfort me with her lovable American enthusiasm. “I’m telling you, I'm sure it was all gloomy, windy, scary, dark… Well, they would have had electricity already but…” she said hesitantly.
“But only just” said solemnly Sandy, nodding his head knowingly.

The Black Bear 
Thanks to Martha Grimes’ books I had assumed that all English pubs were friendly places where you could feel at home. It’s certainly true for The Black Bear in Moreton-in-Marsh. Well, if you are from Moreton-in-Marsh that is.

I came back from Batsford quite tired and as it was time to think about leaving Moreton, I wanted to visit The Back Bear. It was like a dessert of my trip, the cherry on the cake.  Excited, I went inside and immediately I drew the full attention of the regulars who were sitting there. They gazed at me with such an intensity that I blushed. I started to look around demonstratively, showing that I was just a plain tourist, but it didn’t help much. 
The pub was smaller than I expected, but the restaurant part was probably bigger. It was more cramped than cosy, but maybe that was just my impression, induced by the all those staring men. Well, at least the wooden bear was standing next to the window, that was the important thing.

I approached the barman timidly, a young man who seemed as bashful as I was. Actually, he looked a bit like Nick Jones from my book. As I was so confused I asked him a question that I had been asking all day around Moreton, trying to imagine how the town looked like back then, in the times of Nick Jones and Rupert Marley.
„Excuse me, could you tell me how long this pub has been here? Longer than twenty or thirty years, right?”
The young man blinked, clearly surprised, and just then I realized that I hadn’t needed to ask this question in a place like The Black Bear.
While the barman tried to choose the right century, some other man who was sitting at the bar, came closer to me. He was very friendly which was probably somehow connected with golden liquid that was served there.  
“Oh darling, this pub's been here for ages!” He spread his arms in a jovial gesture and managed not to fall from his chair. “Ages and ages! In the old days it was a traveling inn for them… them post carriages, you know. AGES” he emphasized once again, smiling to me.
“Thank you very much” I said. “and is that the famous Donnington ale?” I asked, pointing at the shiny taps.
They confirmed eagerly that it was. Unfortunately they didn’t have it in bottles, so I couldn’t take it with me and try it later. I was already tired and hungry (before my little excursion to Batsford I had only had a cup of wonderful hot chocolate with nutmeg, whipped cream and marshmallows at “Tilly’s”)  and I didn’t have time to eat dinner, because I had to catch my train to London. If I had drunk ale at the bar, I would have started singing merry music-hall songs, just like Rupert Marley. I was quite sure about that.
“And that’s the black bear?” I said, determined to ask about everything.
“Yes” said the barman who apparently got used to me already. “But… we actually had three of them. But the other two got nicked” he confessed quietly and blushed again.          

Hunting for policemen in Moreton-in-Marsh
Asking myself how drunk they had had to be not to notice that somebody was taking away two massive wooden figures, I went to the shop. I wanted to buy something to nibble in the train and I decided that a pint of milk and brownies would be the best choice. Whilst I was paying I realized that I forgot to ask the inhabitants of Moreton-in-Marsh about a very important matter. 

“The police station? In Moreton?” repeated the seller, looking with surprise at my shoppings. Maybe if I had bought doughnuts, my question would have been more understandable. “No, we don’t have a police station here in Moreton. The closest one is in Something-on-Something” he explained.
I probably looked quite disappointed, because he added warmly, as if to cheer me up:
“But there was one here a year ago. Then they closed it last year”
“Brilliant!” I said, brightening up immediately. “Great!”. And, satisfied, I went to the train station.
Thinking about it – what a pity that policemen from Moreton-in-Marsh couldn’t have stayed there for just one more year! They lost such a unique opportunity to hear about Constable Willy Talbot, Superintendent Linnet and – of course – Nick Jones.  

Kit, thank you again for your help! :-*

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