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Talking Location With J M Hewitt – Pomona Island, Manchester
30th November 2019
#TalkingLocationWith... J M Hewitt, author of The Quiet Girls – Pomona Island, Manchester
For the second in my DS Carrie Flynn novels – The Quiet Girls – I wanted to explore one of my favourite writing subjects: barren, deserted places.
In my first crime fiction novel – Exclusion Zone – I set my characters down in Chernobyl, a land abandoned since the nuclear disaster in 1986. The haunting, overgrown Red Forest and the few remaining residents who refused to leave their homes seemed to strike a chord with readers and lent a hand in making my tale even spookier. After I wrote The Night Caller, a novel which takes place in the bright lights of Salford Quays, I wanted to return to a barren land. I had in mind The Hebrides, one of the smaller, uninhabited islands. However, I’d started off a series based in Manchester, as my editor pointed out to me. Why would DS Flynn travel hundreds of miles to the Outer Hebrides? It was a valid point, but I’d plotted out the novel, and it needed to be set in an abandoned place.
Enter … Pomona Island. Did you know that Manchester has its very own island running alongside the River Irwell? I didn’t until I started searching for one, and there isn’t very much information on it on the internet either. But it is there, it is real, and much like when I started looking up Chernobyl, I sank into the history of this fascinating place.
In real life Pomona Island is a narrow strip of land accessed by two footbridges and it has a rich and fascinating history. During the Industrial Revolution, the island was home to the Royal Pomona Palace, with a capacity to hold 30,000 people. Sadly the palace was damaged beyond repair in 1887, as a consequence of an explosion in a nearby chemical factory. Originally known as Cornbrook Strawberry Gardens, in the 1800s it also housed an impressive Botanical Garden. The island was renamed Pomona after the Roman Goddess of fruit.
In 1974, a nightclub was opened on Pomona, aboard a decommissioned passenger ferry, brought up from the Isle of Wight and moored dockside. It proved so popular the owners bought in an old RAF aircraft to act as an overflow restaurant and dance floor. As part of the network of Manchester canals, it has also been a thriving dockland site. Most of my research was found in the helpful form of Stuart Marsden, a professor of Conservation Ecology at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has studied the wildlife on Pomona for years, and Stuart was the one to confirm to me that sadly, the wilderness of Pomona is as good as lost, as the construction of high-rises and new apartments began early in 2019. Incidentally, Stuart’s blog on the flora and fauna of Pomona Island is an interesting read.
In writing The Quiet Girls I decided to use the Pomona as it was only a couple of years ago; a forgotten wasteland, a crumbling centuries old palace, and an excellent setting for a crime fiction novel. Indeed, when I spoke to Stuart and told him the outline for The Quiet Girls, he said he was quite surprised that he hadn’t stumbled upon a body on Pomona yet.
Because that was the heart of the novel, much like Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone; a lawless place where anything can happen without trial and retribution.
The other part of the novel was my fascination with ‘preppers’, people who plan for the end of the world in one way or another, or indeed, many ways. This stemmed from possibly the best novel I’ve ever read; Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days, the story of eight-year-old Peggy, whose father takes her to live in a cabin in a remote forest, and who tells her that her mother and the rest of the world are gone. The solitude, the survival techniques and the very real belief and dedication of the preppers I researched are endlessly intriguing.
Sometimes research is needed for only the current novel in progress, and then all the information is hastily forgotten. Sometimes, with particularly interesting locations or settings, everything I educated myself on is retained, and I think this will be one of those places that I’ll remember. One good thing that could come out of The Quiet Girls, with everything I’ve learned, should the end of the world be nigh, I’ll be ready for it.
Thank you so much to Jeanette for introducing to us this little-known island, so close to Manchester!!
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