Inspirations: From J. R. R. Tolkien, Jane Austen, Arthur Ransome, Beatrix Potter, John Fowles to The Brontë sisters and me

I never cease to be fascinated by the inspirations that send authors and artists imaginations spinning.

My own mind constantly absorbs information and I seek out opportunities for cropped-10562997_888718807805375_8533099977768604640_n.jpg inspiration and often write scenes that are set in real places. So, when I do things like standing on the harbour in Lyme Regis, I cannot help but image the moment when John Fowles watched the woman looking out to sea and the story of The French Lieutenant’s Woman began unravelling in his mind.

I particularly loved, discovering the inspirations behind Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, though. I didn’t know his inspirations at all until we visited The Vyne in Hampshire.

70192667528+RESIZED_thumb_460x00There, we discovered the gold ring with the Roman inscription, that had been found locally and shown to J. R. R. Tolkien. I could imagine him holding it and it did have a sense of glowing, with the mystery letters inscribed in the gold a bold statement. The 4th Century ring turned up in a ploughed field locally. It was not found as part of a planned excavation, it was just found, as though it wanted to be found. I wonder if you could see Tolkien’s mind spinning in the way he looked at it when he held it?

But it was not just the ring that he knew about and saw. Something else is held at The Vyne. A distance from where the ring was found, a Roman temple was excavated. The temple was built over a spring, so the spring itself was excavated. As part of their devotions, Romans would write down their prayers on small pieces of lead, mostly asking the god to do things. Then they would roll the soft lead up into a tiny scroll, so their words remained private, and throw their scroll into the holy spring. with an offering. One of these tiny lead rolls revealed a request to find a lost ring, and a curse on anyone who had stolen it. Sound familiar at all…

I love these little facts. There is no way anyone can prove that the ring and the scroll have any connection, but both ended up at The Vyne Tudor Mansion and because they were there they created such a fabulous idea for a series of books.

cropped-horse-from-bridge.jpgLike me, Tolkien was also inspired by places. The Wiltshire Downs with their undulating bare hills and the White Horse, that I grew up in the shadow of, sitting on my bedroom windowsill and staring at, appear to have formed the setting of many scenes in J. R. R. Tolkien’s books.

cropped-img_3802.jpgI won’t say anything about Jane Austen’s inspirations, because, as you know, I was so fascinated by that discovery that it became the inspiration of a whole book for me, in Jane the Authoress. But as much as she was inspired by some of the history of her wealthier relations, the Brontë sisters were inspired by the dark and brooding moor on their doorstep and by the wicked and sad life of their brother.

In the Lake District recently, when we went out for a boat trip on Coniston Water, as we cruised around the lake the guide pointed out sites that were the settings for the adventures of The Swallows and Amazons. I could clearly see that John Fowles was painting a picture in his books of a life he knew very well.

Beatrix Potter, though, is my favourite for inspirations in the Lake District. Her inspirations are easily relatable because she not only wrote them, but painted them. The paintings in her books, beyond the characters, replicate the places around where she lived. What is even more fascinating about her inspirations is that this year, I discovered that Beatrix did not live in the house where she depicted her characters in her books.

Hill Top Cottage in Sawrey Village, in the Lake District, was initially Beatrix’s holiday home. She spent a couple of weeks there at a time, but she couldn’t live there because it was not appropriate for a woman to live alone. Then she married and moved to live somewhere else in Sawrey with her husband and kept Hill Tip Cottage as place where she wrote. It makes it far more fascinating when you walk around the cottage just as she established it, with the understanding that it was created to be an inspiration for her books. What a wonderful novelty. It is also extremely brilliant that in her will she left the property and all its contents to charity with the stipulation that it must remain exactly as it was.

When we were walking around the house, because we have recently bought a IMG_4792grandfather clock, my husband now looks at them wherever he goes, and he said, ‘Has that clock always been on the stairs? I’ve never noticed it before.’

The answer is obviously yes…

I wonder if David Williams is doing that with his house for the characters for his children’s books? 😉 If not, he’s not as dedicated. Tee Hee.

The advantage, though, for todays authors, is that we have the internet. If we cannot go somewhere, we can find pictures and descriptions online. But perhaps if we do that, we miss out and our readers lose something.

My preference is still to use experiences, and I venture out to find experiences that spur my imagination. I explore what if feels like and sounds like to be there doing that. Physically being somewhere does help to get the words and images flowing. Although you know from this blog I read a lot of other peoples descriptions of life too. But, I also often share my inspirations in images on Pinterest and Instagram  if you want to take a look at the places and things that inspire me.

I will only mention one of my own inspirations in this post. A particularly special inspiration. Pepper, our Patterdale Terrier, has been an inspiration for every dog that I have written into my books. But Pippin who is in Treacle Moon that is released in June is the most Pepper like dog that I have written. Sadly we lost Pepper last month, so it seems fitting to mention him here.

Thank you for all your inspirations, Pepper.

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The tale of a house on an English village green: from 1066, through the Civil War and growing barley for breweries.

When I was young my parents used to belong to an archeology club and I would fieldwalk with them longing to spot something interesting. One particular memory is when I walked Faringdon bypass while it was being built in the summer of 1976. I was wearing my favourite halter-neck summer-dress and the sun was burning my back raw as I stared at the mud, longing to find a spearhead or a piece of pot.  I saw nothing. Ever.

But now I have found a lost, possibly saxon or norman, moat!!! Me! My name is on the Wiltshire records as the person finding a “potentially significant site” with my research used as a reference.

Great Chalfield is a manor near us that is still occupied, though, it was rebuilt in the Tudor period. You may recognise it no matter where you live because they have filmed some Poldark Scenes there. As you can see in the picture below the whole front element of a saxon moat is still in situ at Great Chalfield. That is what I believe the land in front of our house could have looked like, many years ago.

 

So let me tell you the story behind this discovery.

Obviously from this blog you know how much I love the real stories I discover in history and use in my fictional books. But it has been even more exciting discovering the stories about the place where I live.

Like most English villages, Poulshot, near Devizes in Wiltshire, has its myths and rumours about its history. But I became tired of hearing the things I knew could not be true because I have done so much research I can tell what is pure fiction. So I decided to go to the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre and look for the truth.

We know our house is old, but we have no idea how old and so that was where I began this journey, searching back through the information about who had previously owned our house. So, initially, I was looking for the story of my house and then it became the story of the village green.

What I knew before I went to the records centre is that our house has been around since 1786 at least, because an artist, John Baptiste Malchair, drew our house in 1786. our house 1786The image was drawn from the parlour of the vicarage on the far side of the road from where we are. The drawing below was sold by Sotherby’s a few years ago but we do not know who bought it.

I have a list of some owners of our house after this date, but I did not investigate from the current date, back. I was mainly interested in who owned the house at the time this image was drawn, and who had owned it previously. When was it built? Why was it built? What did the owners do? What was the village they had lived in like?

The first stop in my search was the Articles of Agreement for the Commutation of Tithes in the Parish of Poulshot, a document from 1837.

This document shows that Rev. David Hopkins owned our house, a nearby house and quite a few fields (I found out from his will that the land was 165 acres in total). Our house and the attached orchard, were being rented by John Gilbert, while Edward Gilbert rented a property named Manor Farm and the fields.

The houses and land stayed in the Hopkins family for another generation, and then remained in the ownership of a mother, then a sister. The land and property were then split among more distant relatives.

Below is a map of the land the document above describes but this was drawn in 1874 when the land was sold by the Hopkins estate.

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The village green is the area called ‘common’ on the image above, and the house weimg_4058 own half of, is at the bottom of the village green.  Plot number 283, homestead and garden. At the time the occupants of our house were also leasing plot 284, the orchard.

Before I progress, note that the 1874 map shows you what was owned by the Hopkins estate, not other properties. Ours was not an isolated house, other houses had been built about the green. In fact there were five farms in positions around The Green.

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The second map (on then left above) was drawn earlier, in 1840. The 1840 map shows you the other houses.

These maps told me something more than just that the house was let as part of a larger estate. Where the dotted lines run past the front of our house, is now the main road through the village.  Years ago houses, unless there was a reason to travel to them, were built on the roadside. They did not build closes, and estates. Houses were always on the edge of some network that connected them to daily life. A road. A canal. A river. A green But as you can see from the 1840 map, our house, is at one end of the green and it stands out on its own, that is when you realise it was not built on a through road. Our plot of land closes off the green.

This first step in my story told me two things about our village myths straight away too. All around Poulshot are what is known as the Green Lanes. They are really wide byways and bridle ways. I have lived in a few villages, and walked around many, and I have never seen track ways between fields as wide as these.

I have asked some of the other villagers, ‘What is the history of these lanes?’ No one I have asked has been able to tell me. Well, having seen the 1840 map, I now know they were the roads. Carts and carriages would have travelled around the village green behind the properties, on this main route. The road through the middle of Poulshot as we know it today was simply not there. The road across the green does not show up on maps until 1919, but it had not been there even in 1899.

So when did the road appear? Nora Dixon, who wrote about life in Poulshot Village in 2002 explains in her book that The Parish Council applied for a road to be put in across The Green in 1896, and then again in 1905 using a new idea for a reason for a new main road, ‘extraordinary traffic over the roads in the parish by traction engines hauling timber, which caused great injury to the roads.’ The new main road that ran straight through the village and over the village green was laid in stone in 1909 and flattened by a steamroller brought down from Devizes 😀

But, as you can see in the 1786 drawing, above, there was a narrow pathway across The Green before the road existed. This was a cobbled track and is still buried under the grass. It was (and still is) claimed to be a pathway put in place by Monk’s and I am told it goes all the way down the hill to the village church.

But not everyone believes that is true.

Anthony’s Walk (Vol, v, page 374) “There seem as always to have been a strong tendency to connect any old track or causeway either with monks or nuns. A walk near Warminster, known as the Nuns’ Pass, was in 1777, the subject of a descriptive poem of 35 pages, and very recently when the question of relaying part of the time-worn causeway some two miles in length, which travers the village of Poulshot, was introduced to the Urban District Authority at Devizes, it was at once identified as an old Monk’s Walk, in accordance with usual tradition.” 

It makes far more sense to me that the cobbled track was put in because while carts and horses would have used the roads and travelled around the edges of the green, (although in those days roads were no more than mud tracks). In the watercolour painting below you can see what those tracks may have sometimes been like. Travellers who were walking or droving animals to market, may well have there taken the short cut over the green. As would the locals. As recorded in a letter from John Aubrey (1626-1697) Poulshot was a ‘wet and muddie place’. (An aside: I have loved the fact that most of these records are pre-Victorian and therefore pre the inventions of exact spelling and grammar; so refreshing for someone with dyslexia). So why not build a pathway that means you can keep your feet dry. The leather shoes of history, would have been no match for persistent damp and mud. Which is why people wore metal or wooden clogs called patterns underneath their shoes when they went outside (otherwise in the towns they were likely to step in animal or human waste while in the country it was mud).

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I would not like to have to balance on those when it was icy, and I do not think they would have been much use on a muddy track turned into a quagmire by the rain in winter, as Diana Sperling showed by her painting of her life experience. No, a much better idea to put in a path.

The last thing to say in this post about the village is to give you another example of a potential old path used to keep feet dry.  I cannot share a picture of the cobbled path that runs across the green,  but here is an old brick path that we found a couple of feet down in our garden when we built our extension. This runs towards where we know our outdoor toilet was, and it was at the same level as the original foundations of the house. So perhaps it went to the toilet… or you never know perhaps it is a continuation of the Monk’s path.

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There is a lot more to be said (obviously), I have barely scraped the surface of this story, but for today I will give your eyes a rest.

Thank you for joining me in this historical investigation/adventure. I have felt a little like a time traveller in the days I was immersed in this research.

I will post the next chapter soon.

 

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