The Cheltenham Literature Festival – 5th to 14th October 2018
Talking Location with author Robert Crouch – South Downs, East Sussex
27th January 2017
#TalkingLocationWith… author Robert Crouch, who shares his love of the South Downs, East Sussex.
When I look at the iconic view of the Seven Sisters on the East Sussex coast, I see a struggle between villain and hero, teetering between life and death on edge of the cliff. But then death and murder always seem much harsher against a peaceful, beautiful backdrop like the South Downs.
It’s this stark contrast which makes this part of the Downs so fascinating. Mention Beachy Head and people think of suicide. The rolling green hills that gently dip and rise can be torture when you’re running a marathon. And a trip to Birling Gap reveals the relentless march of the sea and elements as they gnaw away at the cliffs, sending tons of rock tumbling into the waves below.
Not that long ago, the owners of the Belle Tout lighthouse lifted it out of the ground and moved it away from the advancing cliff edge. Famous for its part in The Lives and Loves of She Devil, the lighthouse now offers bed and breakfast accommodation, leaving coastal protection duties to the newer model situated off Beachy Head.
From Belle Tout, it’s a short walk along the cliffs to Birling Gap for a cream tea in the National Trust café, followed by a stroll over the tops of the Seven Sisters.
For the less energetic, it’s a short drive inland to East Dean, where Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective and beekeeper, spent the last years of his life in a flint cottage on the village green.
The thought of the famous detective, walking across this enchanted landscape, inspired me to create Kent Fisher, environmental health officer turned sleuth. His parents, who live at the foot of the Downs, can trace their ancestors back to Saxon times. For generations, the family has preserved and protected the land and its traditions until forced to sell the manor, due to spiralling costs and disrepair.
They are helpless to prevent entrepreneur, Miles Birchill, turning the family home into a luxury hotel, complete with golf course. There’s worse to come when he builds a Wild West theme park further inland. Then, one morning in the park a body is found, victim of a horrific work accident. This is an investigation for environmental health, not the police.
While a traditional whodunit at heart, No Accident is a modern story. Filled with irreverent humour, it plunges a determined environmentalist into a secret world of deceit and corruption that ultimately threatens everything and everyone he holds dear.
The action moves between the theme park and Kent’s animal sanctuary, next door to his former home. The sanctuary, along with the nearby town of Tollingdon, is fictional like the theme park, but all the other places in the novel are real, based on my extensive knowledge as a visitor, runner and environmental health officer, maintaining hygiene standards in food businesses and health and safety in the workplace.
Now that I write full time, I can indulge in my favourite walk, which follows the Cuckmere River as it ambles between the hills, threading its way past Alfriston and Litlington before twisting a lazy route into the sea. After lunch in the Plough and Harrow at Litlington, my wife and I follow the banks of the Cuckmere with our West Highland white terrier, Harvey. He features in the novels as Columbo, named after Kent’s favourite detective.
Heading north, we walk to Alfriston with its picturesque High Street, filled with shops, tearooms and pubs.
To the south, the Cuckmere winds its way to the sea with long slow bends, beloved by water fowl and canoeists.
With the sun glistening on the sea, and the Downs rising on either side, it’s a perfect place to relax …