I’ve tried writing all sorts of novels in various settings but somehow, mysteriously, always find the characters drifting back to housing estates, council graveyards, rented flats, rundown pubs and fields on the edge of town.
There’s an obvious reason for this: it’s the world I live in and have always lived in. It’s the world most of us live in.
Bins in the yard. Litter in the hedgerows. Brambles and bus stops.
In fact, I have a suspicion that if you could climb into my brain and wander about, you’d find a landscape that resembles the outskirts of a fading town – all traffic-calming measures, ditches and fly-tipping.
In other novels I’ve written (unpublished, as yet) these settings have crept up on me. The stories somehow always leading police officers away from the nice end of town to the terraces and industrial parks where I feel at home.
I used to worry that people would find this boring and un-glamorous but, growing more confident in my instincts, I’ve come to think it only enhances the horror of the crimes I’m writing about.
After all, these are the places where murders really happen, where murderers really live and work – next door to you, me and Auntie Pat.
When I describe suburban houses that are a little worse for wear I hope people will think, oh, I’ve been here.
If I describe the broken windows of an unremarkable Gothic chapel in an overgrown cemetery, I want the reader to picture a place they know.
We’ve all stopped to buy something at the One-Stop Shop on the new estate on the edge of town. We’ve all been to a christening in a post-war church on a new estate. We’ve all seen sitting rooms full of laundry, toys and half-finished cups of tea.
Like the details I’ve borrowed from true crime, these help sell the fiction.
The Grave Digger’s Boy takes place in London, Exeter and Okehampton, with a brief excursion to Birmingham, but even so there’s a touch of Subtopia in the treatment: dual carriageways, waiting rooms, scraps of woodland, new-builds and laybys that could be almost anywhere.
Though I can’t claim to have done it consciously, this all echoes the sense of drift and loneliness that defines the protagonist, Ben Hodge. He doesn’t belong anywhere but that’s fine because everywhere is nowhere.
Take the wrong path through Torquay, in the wrong weather, and it can seem a decaying place.
Despite the very point of the English Riviera being the gentleness of the climate the buildings look weather-beaten. Their paint peels and they are streaked by gulls and pigeons. “You have to keep on top of it,” one local stopped to tell me as I stared up at one particularly forlorn building. “Lick of paint, keep it in good repair, or round here nature sort of comes and starts to take it back.”
Hotels and bed-and-breakfast establishments with grand names have ageing Perspex signs that are missing letters, or sagging under the weight of crowns of nails intended to keep incontinent birds away. It’s as if they’re one good season away from the full refurbishment they need, but always one full refurbishment away from that good season.
There are too many junctions that make no allowance for pedestrians, or rather treat them as a nuisance to be managed, prodded out of the way of traffic by fences and obstacles. Boy racers fly through town using the gravitational pull of roundabouts to boost acceleration, although sometimes what looks at first glance like a Hot Hatch is actually just a Hatch being driven by a hunched pensioner hammering the pedal for fear that the car won’t make it up a steep hill.
An entire row of shops in what ought to be a prime location is derelict, near collapse, while a huge post-modernist mall with galleries and walkways dominates the centre. The old market hall, built in the 1850s and with a plaque from the local historical society, has been gutted and partitioned so that the interior, like a reverse Tardis, barely has the grandeur of a Portakabin.
A leisure centre lurks beyond the promenade – a last dry breath of brutalism from the 1980s, the grey Atlantic Wall intimidation exercise of its exterior undercut by a curl of fibreglass waterslide that pops out and back in again like some parasite. At ground level it is all warning signs, cameras and black grilles, some of which blast sickly-warm chlorinated air across the weed-covered car park.
The landmark Pavilion Theatre on the seafront is a beautiful Edwardian building that, scaled up, would look at home in Monte Carlo, except it is derelict and boarded up – too precious to demolish, but too much trouble to use, and so being left to rust and rot.
And yet come at Torquay from another angle, in the sun, in a better mood, and the Riviera fantasy of GWR posters and The Persuaders lives on. The marina is full of yachts, some of them sleek and substantial, and the streets nearby accordingly full of yacht people – tanned, posh and loud. Motorboats motor across the bay as middle-aged couples in designer clothes (men sockless, women perfumed) stroll arm-in-arm, summoning the spirit of Nice.
Even the bland modern blocks on the hillsides add their own glamour, evoking the aggressive development of the coastlines of the Mediterranean.
My favourite parts of town, though, are those reserved for purposes other than tourism or shopping: the remarkable Central Church with its concrete launch gantry; the boldly Art Deco council offices, and more modest library of the same vintage; the Edwardian town hall; and St Andrews with its rows of dignified white war graves.
Torquay, I think, is a deeper town than all the seaside superficiality might suggest, with plenty more to discover yet.
A thief, conman, beggar, trickster, adventurer and teller of tall tales, Bampfylde Moore Carew is the most famous West Countryman they never tell you about in school.
I first learned of his existence in a book called Somerset Legends by Berta Lawrence, published in 1973, a copy of which I bought for 10p in a sale of cancelled books at Bridgwater Library when I was about thirteen. Reading this was the first time it ever occurred to me that my home county might be anything other than rather flat and rather dull, and I took the book away with me to university, and then to London, as an antidote to homesickness.
Now, thanks to the magic of online book archives, I’ve been able to go back to Ms. Lawrence’s source, namely a book called The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde Moore Carew, published in 1745. We would probably now recognise it as having been ghost-written for Carew by one Robert Goadsby, though its status as autobiography-biography, or perhaps even a form of picareseque proto-novel, remains muddy. It is almost certainly a pack of fibs built around some kernels of truth, but was nonetheless a bestseller in its day and reprinted, with further embellishments, many times in the century that followed.
Carew was born in July 1693 in Bickleigh, a village near Tiverton in Devon. His father was the rector of Bickleigh and his family was well-to-do. He was sent to Blundell’s, the famous West Country private school at, at the age of 12, but (according to his own account) ran away rather than face punishment for tearing up farmland with his horse-riding hunting pals and a pack of hounds. And this is where his life got interesting.
He joined a band of gypsies and made a living with them through trickery and petty crime. As a well-spoken, gentlemanly figure he was uniquely well placed to win over respectable folk and relieve them of their money, as in the case of Mrs Musgrove of Monkton just outside Taunton, in Somerset. (Now best known for its garden centre — such romance!) She called on young Carew having heard that he was an expert gypsy-trained treasure diviner.
When he came, she informed him that she suspected a large quantity of money was buried somewhere about her house, and if he would acquaint her with the particular place, she would handsomely reward him. Our hero consulted the secrets of his art upon this occasion, and after long toil and study informed the lady, that under a laurel-tree in the garden lay the treasure she anxiously sought for; but that her planet of good fortune did not reign till such a day and hour, till which time she should desist from searching for it; the good lady rewarded him very generously with twenty guineas for his discovery. We cannot tell whether at this time our hero was sufficiently initiated in the art, or whether the lady mistook her lucky hour, but the strict regard we pay to truth obliges us to confess, that the lady dug below the roots of the laurel-tree without finding the hidden treasure.
This is a classic con-man story in which the mark positively asks to be ripped off because of her greed, and her stupidity — perhaps one of the earliest in print?
Eventually he was convinced to come in from the field and return to Bickleigh where he was welcomed with tears of gladness and the ringing of church bells. But having had a taste of freedom and adventure, he got bored and went back to the gypsies, via their camp at Tiverton, and set out on a new phase of his career: he became a fake shipwrecked seaman.
Our hero’s wit was now set to work, by what stratagems he might best succeed. The first that occurred to his thoughts was that of equipping himself with an old pair of trowsers, enough of a jacket to cover his nakedness, stockings such as nature gave, shoes (or rather the body of shoes, for soles they had none) which had leaks enough to sink a first rate man of war, and a woollen cap, so black that one might more safely swear it had not been washed since Noah’s flood, than any electors can that they receive no bribes. Being thus attired, our hero changed his manners with his dress; he forgot entirely his family, education, and politeness, and became neither more nor less than an unfortunate shipwrecked seaman.
He learned the jargon and the manners of a sailor and in this persona conned multiple people out of “a considerable booty”, before reinventing himself again as a simple Kentish farmer who had lost his cattle in a flood:
His habit was now neat but rustic; his air and behaviour simple and inoffensive; his speech in the Kentish dialect; his countenance dejected; his tale pitiful—wondrous pitiful; a wife and seven helpless infants being partakers of his misfortunes; so that if his former stratagem answered his wishes, this did still more so, he now getting seldom less than a guinea a day.
Next, he adopted the persona of Mad Tom, a half-naked lunatic, roving the countryside and observing human nature, learning more “than most of our youths who make the Grand Tour”.
From Dartmouth in Devon He travelled to Newfoundland where he acquired a “fierce and large dog” and stayed just long enough to learn enough about fishing and sailing to take his shipwrecked mariner act to the next level. On his return, via Newcastle, he fell in love, eloping with one Miss Gray, marrying her in Bath, and settling in Bristol, where they turned heads with their dandy dress.
Going back on the road, he impersonated a clergyman to prey on Quakers; developed a wheeze whereby he would turn up anywhere there had been a notably large fire and pretend to be a survivor, with a singed hat for evidence; and strapped himself up to portray the part of a one-legged beggar. Circling back to Bristol, he pretended to be the son of a Newfoundland gentleman whom he vaguely resembled, lately arrived in England and in need of credit on clothes and provisions. On one occasion he witnessed a shipwreck off the Dorset coast and had the presence of mind to strip and fling himself into the surf to be rescued as a survivor or, as he tells it, to attempt to rescue one of the crew like some kind of superman, only to be quite innocently mistaken for a member of the ship’s crew.
Eventually, all this caught up with him and he was arrested at Barnstaple in Devon, and taken to court in Exeter, from where he was transported to Maryland in the American colonies. You might think this was the end of Carew’s West Country career but, no, he somehow escaped custody, convinced some Native Americans to remove his irons, and made his way back to England via Philadelphia, New York and various other fascinating places out of the scope of my project.
He carried on where he had left off (shipwrecked sailor act, turban-wearing Greek, French smuggler, Presbyterian parson, and so on), got caught again, and sent back to Maryland, from where he escaped a second time. (If he was making this up, he could have done with a firmer editor – who would invent this repetitive narrative structure?)
In the third and final phase of his career as a conman he tried some bigger schemes, such as convincing a group of his school friends to join him at St Matthew’s Fair in Bridgwater, Somerset, in the guise of a group of crippled, deaf, dumb, blind beggars. The mayor, though, suspected the trick and had them thrown in prison for vagrancy, but contrived to let them escape so that he could see which of them broke into a run on leaving their cell and then re-arrest them on more serious charges. (This sounds like something from one of the sillier spaghetti westerns to me.)
Although the book presents all of this with a sort of smirk, and its sales are evidence that people found Carew’s antics to some degree charming or at least entertaining, his admitted tendency to prey on the bereaved is simply grim. For example, he tricked a man whose son had died at sea into giving him money in exchange for a supposedly first-hand account of his death and burial, which of course Carew knew nothing about that he had not learned from gossip around the village. In another instance, at Buckfastleigh in Devon, he got an accomplice to dress as a victim’s dead grandmother as part of another ‘hidden treasure’ con:
In order for the execution of this scheme, Coleman put a woman’s cap on his head, washed his face, and sprinkled meal on it while wet, stuck the broken pieces of a tobacco-pipe between his teeth, and wrapping his body in a white sheet, planted himself in the road that Collard and Mr. Carew were to come; the moon at this time shone very bright, which gave an additional horror to the pretended spectre. Our hero, by virtue of his supposed profound learning and most mysterious science, spoke to it in an unknown language, to the following effect:—“High, wort, bush rumley to the toggy cull, and ogle him in the muns;” at which command the terrific hobgoblin fiercely advanced up to poor Collard…
But this couldn’t go on forever and eventually, having made a small fortune, and growing old and ill, Carew retired to a cottage in the West Country, published his memoir, and died in 1759.
One of my favourite paperbacks is The Other England by Geoffrey Moorhouse (1931-2009) and here I want to share a few of his observations on a favourite city of mine: Plymouth, in Devon.
The book was published as a red Penguin Special in 1964 and contains a set of essays on every part of England except, pointedly, London, though of course a few digs are made along the way. It employs a mix of observation, political commentary and sly wit which makes it as fun to read as it is interesting.
When I lived in Penzance, Plymouth was the nearest ‘proper’ city (sorry, Truro) and a mere two hours away by train compared to three for Exeter (which feels distinctly less metropolitan) or four for Bristol, another great maritime city with which Plymouth shares a certain style and atmosphere.
Moorhouse sets the scene for his observations with a cinematic wide shot:
There is an element of surprise about Plymouth if you approach it from the East. After the bleak and haunted bulk of Dartmoor you don’t reasonably expect much in the way of civilization beyond; the idea of an ultra-modern city of 200,000 people sprawling down from that boggy plateau is faintly preposterous.
Plymouth doesn’t seem ultra-modern today and, indeed, is gaining considerable traction as a kind of living museum of mid-century planning and architecture. In 1964, however, it was ahead of the curve:
It was as early as 1943 that Plymouth, with the help of Sir Patrick Abercrombie, drafted its post-war plan. It decided that the city centre had been a pretty awful mess anyway, and that this was a chance to make something better of it. Instead of the narrow, wriggling maze bequeathed by generations of city fathers and commercial hardheads, there would be broad traffic and pedestrian ways keyed into a rectangular grid. The Plymouth Plan was something the town-planners from half Europe came to marvel at, for no one had thought of attempting anything like this before. Perhaps Plymouth got off the mark with this vision of the future just a bit too soon; if it had waited until Coventry and then the New Towns had hit upon the idea of shopping precincts totally devoid of traffic it would doubtless have been happy enough to follow suit.
Despite being from Bolton in Lancashire Moorhouse had a personal connection with Plymouth because, like many British men, he had lived there while serving in the Navy. In this book he recalls the excitement around the opening of the first of the city’s newly built shop, a department store, in 1951:
[You] couldn’t, as I remember, do much shopping in Dingle’s that Saturday, so congested was it with West Countrymen who had come not only to wonder at the extravagance of it all after years of buying from makeshift shops rigged up out of Nissen huts, but simply to travel up and down all day long on the escalators. It was the first time this new-fangled device had been known West of Bristol.
There’s an unfortunate hint of ‘Ho ho, get a load of these bumpkins’ in that last line but I don’t doubt it’s true.
Revisiting the city in the early 1960s Moorhouse found the transformation remarkable:
The city centre is now just about finished, a gleaming thing of Portland stone and as fine a shopping area as any you’ll find out of London; as the official guide book remarks, ‘Many London fashion houses and Bond Street tailors have seen fit to open branches in the Metropolis of the West’. It is true that hardly any of the buildings there quite dare us to accept a revolutionary line or two — thought out of Crownhill there is one of the most adventurous of our post-war churches with a free-standing altar and a flower-bed by the font. In the centre they have laid out a mosaic piazza, planted a swathe of trees…. and conjured up a pool beside the civic centre in which sailors are apt to bathe after a roistering night ashore.
He was quite won over by what he called a ‘smart and enterprising city centre’:
In its way it is all as exciting as a New Town, though they have meticulously reconstructed the Guildhall shell in a fanciful mixture of English and Italian Gothic, presumably to keep faith with the past. An almost tangible air of ambition hangs about this work of restoration and not long after the visitor arrives and starts investigating it dawns on him that Plymouth, having got well into its stride, doesn’t know where to stop.
That last thought suggests that, despite his admiration for the city, Moorhouse was aware that Plymouth’s post-war reconstruction was in the process of grinding to a halt. The grand architects’ plan was hobbled at various points (see this post from Municipal Dreams for details, or the account in John Grindrod’s 2013 book Concretopia)and long before the mid-1960s locals had begun to grumble about the vast empty spaces, the howling winds and how inhospitable it was for smaller independent businesses.
If you come across a copy of this book, do you pick it up — my copy cost £2 — and if you get chance, take it on a trip to Plymouth to trace for yourself the outlines of a more optimistic time.
Above: an easter bonnet competition at Sealed Motor Construction, Bridgwater, c.1973.
For years when I told people I was from Somerset their response would usually be something like “Oh, how lovely!” at which I would laugh inwardly, and grimly.
I knew that they were picturing a summer day at Minehead, the roaring log fire of a country inn, or perhaps Bath, or maybe even confusing it with Devon at its most lush and rolling. They were thinking about the cover art on Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles.
What they did not have in mind was the industrial estate on Wylds Road in Bridgwater where Grandpa vacuum-formed plastic cups for vending machines and Mum packed aerosol solvents. They weren’t picturing the heat and filth of the factory where my Dad worked nights making pistons, or the one before that where he waded in chemicals, or the one before that where he (and Mum, and her parents) put together waterproof motors, or… You get the idea. They didn’t have in mind the thundering lorries or freight trains and the infrastructure that served them.
Bridgwater was shaped by industry even if many of the factories have gone, and there are other places like it up and down the West Country. What I want to do here, for my own learning, is highlight some of those industrial towns and villages and the sheer, mad range of work undertaken in a part of the world more usually associated with tourism and agriculture. It’s nothing like complete and I’ll no doubt come back to this subject when I’ve done more reading.
1. At Bathampton outside Bath, for example, William Harbutt’s factory produced Plasticine, the non-drying modelling clay, from 1900 until 1983. This might sound like a bit of a joke but it was a substantial industrial operation. You can see some (small, watermarked) photos of the factory at Bath in Time.
2. Street, Somerset, was home to shoe manufacturing firm C &J. Clark, founded in 1825, and was the site of the original factory. Clark’s eventually had factories all across the West Country in places such as Radstock, Bridgwater and Minehead. The last, at Ilminster, closed in 2005. Clark’s head office is still in Street but the original Clark’s factory buildings have been absorbed into Clark’s Village, a rather characterless discount shopping centre with upmarket pretensions.
3. The Wansbrough paper mill at Watchet, Somerset, was a major local employer for several hundred years, from the middle of the 17th century. It closed in 2015.
Yeovil, also in Somerset, has been a centre for the manufacture of helicopters since the end of World War II. What was Westland Helicopters is now owned by an Italian firm, Leonardo, whose almost 3,000 staff build military and civilian models including a licenced version of the Apache Longbow for the British Army. Growing up I remember that the local news was always either ‘Westland in trouble’ or ‘Westland to expand’; a helicopter came and landed on the school playground one day but I’m not sure if they were recruiting for Westland, the armed forces, or both. An oral history project recording the experiences of workers at Westland is online here.
5. Centrax has been making industrial gas turbines and jet engine components since the 1940s and relocated to Newton Abbot in Devon in the 1950s. Today it employs around 700 people. From 1964 to 1979 one of the local football teams was called the Newton Abbot Dynamos and played at the Centrax Ground. (Very Soviet.)
6. Cornwall is of course known for mining and its landscape is marked by the debris, architecture and scars of this once great industry. At Geevor near Land’s End you can visit the remains of a tin mine that only ceased operating in 1990 and which is preserved much as it looked in those final days with lockers unemptied and curling calendars on the office walls. At Par outside St Austell a large and fully operational China clay works sits surrounded by fences on the seafront – a gritty two-finger salute to the tourist industry. China clay has been mined and processed in Cornwall since the 18th century and still employs around 2,000 people today.
7. Bridgwater in Somerset and Tiverton in Devon shared a notable brewery in Starkey, Knight & Ford. It was taken over by Whitbread in 1962 and operations were concentrated in Tiverton which became Whitbread’s western outpost until operations ceased there in 1982. Devenish, another big West Country brewer, had breweries in Dorset (Weymouth) and Cornwall (Redruth), with the latter still working as a brewery into the 21st century. There are still substantial historic working breweries at, for example, St Austell in Cornwall, Bridport in Dorset (Palmer’s) and Devizes in Wiltshire (Wadworth).
* * *
For starters, then, that’s a vast range of industry, from toys to war machines, and I haven’t even touched on bricks, dairy products, seafood processing, furniture manufacturing, chewing gum, chocolate bars, semiconductors…