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Talking Location With… Jan Mazzoni – EXMOOR, UK

30th November 2020

Jan Mazzoni#TalkingLocationWith… Jan Mazzoni, author of The Snow Fox Diaries set on Exmoor, UK

Confession time. I cheated. The real-life incident that inspired me to write my novel, The Snow Fox Diaries, actually took place much further to the north of the UK. But rather than set it in an area that I’m sure is beautiful, but that I’ve never been to, I transferred it to Exmoor in Devon where I’d recently set up home. I came here in search of solitude, a simpler life, and air so sweet it tastes like lemon sorbet. And wildlife; I’m passionate about the natural world. And I wasn’t disappointed. But I discovered one or two things that I hadn’t expected, and to be honest, don’t much like.  Perhaps not surprisingly, my protagonist, Katie, feels much as I do about Exmoor. We love it, and yet sometimes – just now and again – find rural life too down to earth, too violent.  Or as Guy puts it in the book: too real.

Jan Mazzoni

© The Photo Gallery, Lynton

But to start, the things that I love about Exmoor.

The moors themselves. Over 170,000 acres of uninhabited wilderness.  Drive across the top and the sky is immense, an ever-changing rippling of clouds above a landscape that’s a mix of rough grasses, coconut-fragranced gorse, heather. Alongside the road that snakes from one side to the other there are frisky ponies, ginger cattle with horns who watch you with trusting eyes.  And sheep, lots of sheep; at dusk they like to hunch down to sleep on the warm tarmac, meaning a drive is like playing dodgems. The only sounds are the wind, the occasional plaintive call of a buzzard.  Officially designated Europe’ s First Dark Sky Reserve, Exmoor is one of the best places in the world to stargaze. There’s even an annual festival to celebrate this.

Jan Mazzoni

© Graham Carnduff-Young

What more brilliant setting for a novel then? R.D. Blackmore did it first. Poor Lorna Doone had a tough time surviving the elements as well as her dreadful family. I moved my action down to the valleys with their dense dappled woods thick with ferns, trees draped with lichens, tinkling streams. Katie lives in a dilapidated house that’s tucked away but not isolated. Even so, coming from a city she at first finds the solitude unnerving. But gradually she begins to enjoy it. And as she does, she notices the wildlife. It’s all around, but you do have to look hard for it. Unlike in the cities, Exmoor wildlife is timid, reluctant to show its face. So when you do catch a glimpse of a wild creature it feels like a real privilege.

Jan Mazzoni

© Jan Mazzoni

Other things I enjoy? To the north the moors reach the dramatic coastline, craggy cliffs dropping down to wide stony beaches from which you can sometimes spot porpoises and dolphins. You can’t miss the surfers of course. Or agile feral goats using ledges as a playground In a nearby valley. I love the mists that spring up out of nowhere and block out sound as well as sight, so you could be underwater. Villages with narrow lanes, sombre churches galore, cosy pubs with dangerously low ceilings.  Tea gardens with tables set on overgrown lawns, scones and jam served on chunky plates made by a local potter. There are lots of people doing pottery on Exmoor. Lots of artists too, and photographers, all inspired by this unique environment.

Jan Mazzoni

© Heather on the Hill by local artist Hannah Roberts

As for the other side of life on Exmoor…

Once you’re tuned into the natural world you realise that life in the wild is nothing like it’s presented in the beautifully filmed documentaries that flood our TVs nowadays. It’s a jungle out there. Wild animals live short, tough lives and are vulnerable to all sorts of threats: disease, starvation, predators, the changing climate, the growing mounds of litter. In the west country the tradition of hunting wild mammals with dogs – despite being banned in 2004  – still continues to this day, to the distress of many animal lovers. It isn’t easy for farmers either, working to make a living from their humanely reared animals whilst trade deals mean our UK shops are flooded with cheap factory farmed imported meat.

© Valley of Rock Goats by Rupert Kirby

Life and death. Beauty and violence. Sunshine, gales, torrential rain. It makes for an interesting place to live, that’s for sure. But even more important – for me as a writer anyway – it provides a never ending supply of ideas for stories. So no danger of me moving away yet awhile.

Jan Mazzoni (and connect with her via her website)

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