September 2023

It is the first week of autumn here but the days are still warm and sunny, with blue skies and long evenings. The hedgerows are full of ripe blackberries and the last of the summer roses and wildflowers are blooming, yet the leaves are starting to turn. 

North Devon is so beautiful and a delight to explore. On the rugged coast there are golden beaches and quaint fishing ports, while inland has miles of rolling green farmland, narrow country lanes and pretty thatched cottages. To the north are the rolling moors, covered in purple heather, with wild Exmoor ponies and black-faced sheep. Such a stunning place to walk. 

I have been in Barnstaple for nearly two months, so two-thirds of the way through my writing residency. It has been an incredible experience to live and work here. Wandering the streets, chatting with neighbours and shopkeepers, I feel like a local. Everyone is so friendly. 

Last week I took a few days to explore Cornwall, including the former smuggling coves of Boscastle, Port Isaac, Padstow, Fowey and Mousehole. I visited the Padstow Bookseller, a gorgeous bookshop which was established by Australian publisher and booklover Sarah Stein.

The highlight of my Cornish visit was a literary quest to walk in the footsteps of Daphne Du Maurier, around the medieval port of Fowey. Daphne du Maurier lived here for most of her adult life. 

I followed one of Daphne’s favourite hikes from Fowey to Readymoney Cove (where Daphne and her children lived during World War 2), past St Catherine’s Castle over the cliffs, to Polridmouth (the stone cottage here inspired the boathouse in Rebecca) and up to Gribben Head. It was on this walk that Daphne first saw Menabilly, the house she fell in love with and later restored. Menabilly was the inspiration for Manderley in Rebecca, Barton in My Cousin Rachel, and the setting for The King’s General. The grand house could just be glimpsed, hidden amongst the woodland, from Gribben Head. 

Another highlight was staying a night at the atmospheric Jamaica Inn, on Bodmin Moor. This former smugglers’ haunt was discovered by Daphne on a riding holiday with a friend. The weather turned and the girls became lost in the mist. The horses found their way to the old inn, and there Daphne heard stories about its history of smugglers and murderous wreckers, inspiring her famous novel. 

Cornwall has been an inspirational setting for so many writers from Daphne du Maurier, Winston Graham (The Poldark series), Antonia Barber (The Mousehole Cat), Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows), William Golding (Lord of the Flies), Thomas Hardy (Tess of the D’Urbervilles) to Australian Kate Morton (The Forgotten Garden).

A couple of weeks ago was Book Week in Australia. I ran a creative writing workshop with a group of talented young writers at Melton Library in Melbourne, via Zoom. I was a little nervous about the time difference (very early morning here!) and the technology, but it all went off beautifully. The stories and characters which the children created were fantastic. 

In August I was invited to speak at Barnstaple Library to the Writing For Children group, about the Society of Women Writers’ Di Yerbury Residency, my books and the Australian publishing industry. The group was a mixture of local published authors and aspiring children’s writers. They were thrilled to hear about Di Yerbury, the writing residency and her connection to Barnstaple. They were also very interested to hear about my creative writing practice and the collaborative process with my Penguin publishing team. I shared a sneak peek into my upcoming junior fiction series and the development of the book covers. 

Next weekend, I’m looking forward to catching the train to Bath for the annual Jane Austen festival. Later in September, I will be attending the famous Appledore Book Festival, which features writers such as Ann Cleeves, Val McDermid, Deborah Moggach, Alexander McCall Smith, and Children’s Laureate Joseph Coelho. So lots of wonderful opportunities to look forward to. 

It has been such an inspiring trip and I am so grateful for this wonderful opportunity provided by our Patron, Professor Di Yerbury, and the Society of Women Writers. Until next time!

Best wishes
Belinda Murrell