The footpaths, the meres and mosses, the wimberries and the trees, especially the silver birches, of Delamere Forest were imprinted upon me as a youngster running free in the forest. So it is hardly surprising that Delamere is the place I home in upon in much of my writing. But my writing country stretches further afield. From Lancashire down through Cheshire and Shropshire to Herefordshire I feel at home. Stories seem to hover around there just waiting to be given words.
The book which first set me off on this partnership of story-telling and this large tract of England which I claim as my home ground, was Mist Over Pendle by Robert Neill.
I was living in Clydebank just outside Glasgow in the mid 60s. (Never mind why – that’s a different story but there are non-specific hints to it in two of my books, Counting the Days, and Leaving Gilead.) Feeling rather homesick and, I suppose, already a little jaded over my reason for being up there, I began to spend lots of time in Clydebank Public Library. Idly browsing the fiction shelves, I spotted Robert Neill’s book and the title, with its reference to somewhere close to home, caught my eye.
I was soon hooked on Neill’s writing. Mist Over Pendle is a historical novel about the notorious alleged witches of Pendle Hill in the seventeenth century. I loved the way that Neill took his readers around the places where his story was set. That wonderful part of Lancashire became as vibrant a player in the novel as his characters. And his use of language echoed the period without being intrusive or false.
Within a short while I began to read all of Robert Neill’s books. His style never flagged. He triggered my interest in historical fiction, an interest that was to last several years though Neill set the standard and not many writers, in my opinion, could quite match him.
Neill also triggered my interest in regional fiction and I guess with Whitaker’s Basin, his influence is showing through. It’s not just the regional aspect. There is also a historical dimension as Judy Whitaker tries to piece together Grandfather Solomon’s story and the story of the elusive French prisoner in Delamere Forest, Jean Luc Anquetil. And then there’s that pub name, Whitaker’s Basin. I lifted it from an unpublished novel I wrote thirty years ago. And the heroine of Mist Over Pendle just happens to be Margery Whitaker. No relation to Judy Whitaker.