Cornwall is the location for many of my favourite crime and thriller writers – from Agatha Christie to Daphne du Maurier – and it’s my memories of Cornish holidays in the 1970s that inspired my novel Half A Pound of Tuppenny Rice. Revisiting those places where I hung out on the beaches as a teenager, had holiday romances and snuck into local pubs, I realised how important a sense of place is to any good novel. I hope they will resonate with you too.
First off, Tregenna Caste Hotel, St Ives. In the late 1960s and early 1970s this was a place of destination and eminence. It was a British Transport Hotel (British Rail). At the outset of the railways in the late 19th Century BTH hotels sprung up in railway destinations such as York, Liverpool, Manchester, in addition to resort locations such as Stratford, Devon (Manor House, Moretonhamstead now Bovey Castle) and Tregenna Castle, St Ives. These days it still operates as a hotel but has built an extensive number of cottages/woodland homes and operates a timeshare facility. But back in 1972 the long sweeping drive, took the traveller past hard and grass tennis courts (on either side) a pitch ‘n putt 9 hole golf course to the castellated building, which looked down onto a kidney shaped swimming pool, surrounded by escalonia bushes. You can almost hear the Alan Whicker commentary! Further down stood the beautiful bay of St Ives. On arrival, the traveller was immediately struck by the uplifting aroma of fresh sea air and the calm of the view to the bay below.
Next comes Zennor. Zennor church has a carving of a mermaid on a bench; the popular Cornish fold tale was first recorded by folklorist William Bottrell in 1873. Legend had it she attended the church at St Senara’s in Zennor infrequently but on one fateful occasion was seen to talk to a Matthew Trewella, ‘the best singer in the parish’. One day he followed her home and disappeared, neither has ever been seen again. The parishioners of Zennor commemorated the story by having one end of a bench carved in the shape of a mermaid. The Zennor Museum is a treasure trove of information about the various folktales and legends of Cornwall. A random person, who had seen me note taking in the Church, on seeing me taking more notes in the museum “Are you a Tax Inspector?” (No, I’m just an ‘umble novelist, I thought).
In the novel I use the lure of the mermaid as an incentive for two of the characters, Ivan Youlen and Trevor Mullings to entice the drunk Hector Wallace into the sea telling him, he could get lucky and ‘shag’ the ‘mermaid from Zennor’! In reality, they (together with a third character, Paul Galvin) were looking to swindle Hector out of a forthcoming inheritance they believed he was due to receive from his Aunt Agatha.
Gurnards Head is where I stayed and got a lot of my more dramatic ideas; waking at 3am I imagined hearing ‘Half a Pound of Tuppenny Rice’ sung by what sounded like a child outside in the corridor echoing as if in a Cathedral.
Constantine Bay – When I holidayed as a youngster, I remember a real life rescue at this beach, the currents being very strong. The person was saved, but it was terrifying for everyone witnessing it.
Minack Theatre – This is a wonderful theatre cut out of the cliff in northern Cornwall. I recall going and getting absolutely soaked one moment, and then watching a glorious sunset spread out behind the stage, a little later. In the novel, one of the characters, Bob Silver, is seen accompanied by a young man, Clive. People mistakenly believe the young man to be Bob’s lover, and, it being the 70s, murmur about ‘electric shock treatment’ being a suitable cure for his alleged homosexuality.
Finally, Caerhays Castle – I visited and thought what a great place to view the extraordinary arrangement of plants and flowers that flourish in Cornwall – 200/300 different types of rhododendron alone; seemed a good place to pack Mrs Lucy Charnley (aka The Duchess) off to when her husband, Arnie wanted her out of the way.
The book features these plus many places we visited: Penzance (for go-karting) Sennen Cove (swimming) and Carbis Bay (water skiing) as well as frequent forays to the town of St Ives. It was Cornwall’s West Coast at its finest and the music of the era was part of the charm, emanating from clothes shops, tourist boutiques, pubs, car radios etc., The town was, as now, never tacky but full of interesting small shops, art displays and general curios! I lost count of how many times I heard David Bowie’s ‘Starman’ blasting out!
Other Cornish locations have, over the years since, also inspired me such the areas around Falmouth and Fowey and the north Coast such as Bedruthan steps and the hotel St Moritz near Rock. I love the contrast between the two coasts, the tranquillity of the south and the rugged surfing beaches of the north; but also the wonderful expanses of moorland around Bodmin and surrounding areas.
It’s a mysterious, magical place, and I’m sure it will continue to inspire mystery novels for decades to come.
Half a Pound of Tuppenny Rice by David Coubrough is published by Peter Owen Publishers on 21 April, price £9.99 paperback