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Talking Location With … author Tilly Bagshawe – WENGEN

10th April 2024

Tilly Bagshawe TalkingLocationWith …. Tilly Bagshawe, author of The Secret Keepers – WENGEN

My new novel, The Secret Keepers, is partly set in the Alps during the 1920s and ‘30s.  This era was the ‘birth’ of skiing as the sport we know today.  My hero, Hector Gunn, is a fictional version of the pioneering, adventurous Englishmen drawn to the mountains to race, winning gold at the world famous Lauberhorn downhill in Wengen, shortly before the war.

Wengen  has held a special place in my family history since before I was born.  Along with its sister villages, Mürren and Grindelwald, it makes up the Jungfrau valley, arguably one of the most picturesque regions in Switzerland, and a mecca for British skiers for over a century.  My grandmother, Mary Robertson, learned to ski here in the 1920s, and brought my father as a small boy in the 1950s.  I was nine years old when Dad first introduced me to this magical place.  But even before that it felt familiar, thanks to the wildly romantic stories he used to tell me, steeped in nostalgia and his own inherited love for the mountains.

Dad spoke often and fondly about his ski teacher, Willi Steuri, a local legend and amateur racer.  While teaching dad to ski, Willi would tell stories of his own triumphs and disasters.  The most famous being the time when he was about to set a new world record in the Lauberhorn downhill, but then just before the finish line decided to turn and wave triumphantly to the crowd – and fell. According to my father, it was a lifelong regret.  (Although Willi did go on to win the Lauberhorn combination in 1935, and along with various other ‘Steuris’ is now immortalized on a plaque of Lauberhorn winners in Wengen town square.  More than fifty years later, one of my own childhood heroes, the legendary Pirmin Zurbriggen, won the same race. His name appears a few inches below Steuri’s.)

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For me, skiing and Wengen were always intertwined.  Growing up in the ‘80s, fanatical about the sport, I watched Ski Sunday religiously every weekend, fantasizing about one day  racing professionally, like my heroes.  The ‘80s was another golden age of skiing, producing legends like Franz Klammer, Zurbriggen and Ingemar Stenmark (also immortalized on the Wengen plaque.)  But it was the beauty and history of the Jungfrau, as much as the skiing itself, that enchanted me.  To this day I can remember my grandmother telling me about the fairytale forest path that led to the wooden steubli at Brandegg, where they made the best hot apple fritters in the world.

I was nine when I first skied that path.

A few days ago, I skied it again with my youngest daughter, Summer.  The Stuebli hut has been updated a little inside since I was last there.  But outside it remains the same traditional, wooden chalet-style building, nestled on the hillside next to the railway tracks. Its ceilings are still hung with cowbells. And its kitchen is still making the exact same Apfelkuechli, to the exact same recipe, that my grandmother first enjoyed almost 90 years ago.

All of these echoes of the past resonate for me.  As a novelist I am constantly drawn to themes of family and belonging, and to the pull of ‘home’ and the paths and patterns of our childhood. But of course, each generation has their own memories to make, and their own ideas about what is, and isn’t, magical.  My daughter, for example, was a fan of the apple fritters and was intrigued to see the Lauberhorn plaque, and hear her Grandfather’s stories about his old ski teacher.  She also enjoyed coming with me to St Bernard’s, the tiny, whitewashed English church built in 1927, to cater to the spiritual needs of Wengen’s British visitors after the opening of the Downhill Only Club.    But the magnificent, scenic mountain railway  connecting villages and pistes was “boring” and “ridiculously slow. Why can’t they just make another gondola, for heavens’ sake?”

More sadly, global warming has made a starkly visible difference to the winters here.  During my childhood, and all the childhoods before it, February in Wengen and Mürren was always winter wonderland white. Today, the  snowy peaks of the Eiger, Jungfrau and Mönch mountains loom over villages that are almost completely green.  The frozen waterfalls of my childhood now flow freely.  Although the valley remains utterly idyllic, a wild snapshot of peaceful beauty beneath a blue, cloudless sky, it is changing; profoundly and, I suspect, irreversibly.

Which of course only makes my memories, and my family history here, all the more precious.

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  1. User: Yvonne@FictionBooks

    Posted on: 10/04/2024 at 8:17 am

    What a lovely post Tilly!

    It brought back memories of so many amazing holidays in the area, although I’m afraid we were never as adventurous as your family, as we used to visit during early summer, as soon as the walking trails up from Interlaken were free of snow and ice.

    I too can recall the wonderful vista of snow-capped peaks and the railway journey up through the centre of the Jungfrau to the very top.

    The wonders of the world we have managed to destroy through our greed and want for more, never fails to amaze me and fill me full of dread for the young people coming on behind us!

    For now though, I only want to remember the good times 🙂 – and to add your book to my wish list of course!