A guide to POTSDAM
Talking Location With author Kim Sherwood – DEVON
17th March 2023
#TalkingLocationWith … Kim Sherwood, author of A Wild & True Relation
A Wild & True Relation opens on the night of the Great Storm in Devon in 1703. Smuggling captain Tom West comes ashore in a rage, believing his lover Grace has betrayed him to the Revenue. Following a confrontation, Tom leaves with Grace’s daughter, Molly Tucker, who he raises as a boy aboard his ship. What follows is Molly’s quest for justice and identity, interleaved with sections featuring historical figures who visited or lived in Devon, who come together to solve the mystery of Molly’s life, from Dr Johnson and Hester Thrale to George Eliot and Charles Dickens. The novel explores genre and gender in what I hope is a thought-provoking and thrilling adventure.
Molly Tucker was born from the red, red, earth of Devon overlooking the gleaming turquoise of the sea. More literally, she was born as I walked the coast path skirting the village of East Prawle and noticed a sign for ‘Molly Tucker’s Field.’ Having seized upon the name, I decided her parents, Grace and Kit, hailed from Widdecombe-on-the-Moor. Visiting the famous spot on Dartmoor, I came across the Tucker family tomb. When it came to naming Tom West, I turned to the compass. Devon forged these characters, and the setting is as much a character in the novel.
Bantham, Bigbury & Burgh Island
The story begins in Grace’s cottage, tucked into the Avon at Bantham Beach where a listed 1930s boat house stands. At low tide, you can walk up to where I’ve placed Grace’s door. Bantham Beach stretches to Bigbury; when the tide is out you can cross over to Burgh Island, a centre for smugglers, who hauled whisky up the cliffs and used a rumoured network of tunnels to the pub, The Pilchard Inn.
For me, getting to know a place involves getting to know its history. A Wild & True Relation owes so much to local libraries, museums and archives, where I gained a sense of how people interacted with and articulated their relationship to land in the eighteenth century. In the Devon Rural Archive, I read a travelogue of the era that described Dartmoor – which may seem barren compared to the coast – as waterlogged, with rivers and streams ‘disburdening’ themselves into the sea. It’s this kind of nugget that shines a light on the past.
Kingsbridge Estuary and Frogmore Creek
A Wild & True Relation first came to me on a family holiday to Devon, shortly before we relocated from London. I fell in love with the water, and wrote this description of Tom West bringing his ship in after a friendly birder took us out on Kingsbridge Estuary:
Past Salcombe’s clasp of fishermen’s houses in the hillside, the early fires of the shipwright and blacksmith, the rakish tilt of masts, and then it was gone, lost in the folds of Snape Point as they spilled into the calm of Kingsbridge Estuary, Widegates ahead, where seven inlets of the ocean collided, conspiring to bring a man on to the rocks just as he thought ahead to the Old Tavern and its pale ale. Starlings puffed overhead, followed by a cormorant disturbed from its perch. Tom twisted to watch bony wings heave the bird’s weight into the air, trailing a fractured reflection along the water. When he looked back, the ship had nosed into Frogmore Creek, and the rest of the estuary closed behind them.
I think it’s the most beautiful place in the world.
Dartmouth and Kingsbridge
Tom West is hunted by Revenue Captain Richard English, and helped by his financial agent, Charles Savage. Both live in Dartmouth in the shadow of two castles. Though we can’t visit the past, in a place like Dartmouth so many old buildings remain, you can start to see, smell and hear through your characters’ eyes.
Devon retains a strong connection to its past. If you get the chance to visit Kingsbridge Fair, you’ll even see the ceremonial glove raising, where the mayor proclaims a daylong freedom for smugglers, a pivotal moment in the novel as hidden truths come to light.
My great-grandfather, the poet Sir J.C. Squire, was President of the Devonshire Association. He is buried on the (much movable) border between Devon and Cornwall. When our family moved South West, I thought I’d miss London, but this beautiful county beguiled me, and there’s nowhere I feel more at peace. I finished writing A Wild & True Relation in Agatha Christie’s garden at Greenway on a writing residency. It began with the earth and sea, and it ended there too. After fourteen years, A Wild & True Relation is now out, and it means everything to bring the book to the water.
Photo credit ©Ellie Baker
Catch the author on Twitter @kimtsherwood
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