An Eerie Journey in Time
I recently visited, for the first time, the site where I’d imagined the old farmhouse to have been situated in Victorian times, in my novel The Mystery of the Stolen Brides. It was within sight of the Bronze Age burial mounds of Chapman Barrows on Exmoor, with a distant view of the sea from an upper window. Also in the book I’d imagined that the boy who made his horrific discovery on breaking into the derelict dwelling, then staggered to the police station in the nearest village, Parracombe in North Devon, to summon a police constable. The constable walked across the moors and carried back his burden.
Yet at the time I wrote the Victorian detective novel I had never been to Exmoor, and certainly never visited Parracombe. All my research had been done from library books and maps of the area, with no photos that might have helped, so I developed a mind picture of it all, unsubstantiated by reality, which has a nasty habit of making a fool of any author who writes about real places but doesn’t double-check the facts. So when I knew that I would soon be seeing the village and surrounding area in actuality at last, I felt a certain disquiet (as the Victorians might have said).
For a start, would there have even been a police station in such a small village for the frightened boy to report his gruesome findings to? Frankly, I doubted it. Although the main narrative takes place in 1891, the grim discoveries weren’t made until 1902, which is the year the boy would have stumbled into my up-till-now-invented copshop. Also, even if there were such an unlikely outpost for the upholders of the law to have been operating so conveniently from at the time I’d set my story, would it have been physically possible for a policeman to have trudged from there across moorland to the site of a ruined farmhouse near Chapman Barrows, and back again?
Parracombe Police Station
Came the day. With due apprehension at what my findings would be, I booked into the Fox and Goose at Parracombe, North Devon, aware that I couldn’t possibly have invented a more appropriate name for it, and said to Nikki, the nice young woman who showed me to my room, that I’d written a book in which the local area features, albeit set well over a century ago, and that I’d imagined a police station situated in the village at the time. Silly, huh? “Oh no,” she said, pointing through the bay window, “the Victorian police station’s just up the road, you can see it from here.” My Inspector Dearborn would have given a grave “Hmmm” at this revelation, to disguise his astonishment.
So not only had there indeed been a police station here, but a brisk stroll up Parracombe’s main street revealed it was called Peel House, after the founder of the police force, Sir Robert Peel, and that two prison cells were attached to it. The building was now let out as flats, and one of the tenants was kind enough to show me its frontage, which was concealed from the road. There, incredibly, engraved in the stonework above the door, was: DEVON CONSTABULARY 1895 – too late a date to have featured in the main time-frame of my book, but perfect for its appearance in 1902. So here was the very entrance my terrified boy would have stumbled through, desperate to tell a policeman what he had found on the moors. This same kindly lady showed me inside too, up a flight of stairs to where the old police office would have been, from which elevated prospect the local boys in blue could keep an eye out for poachers and sundry rural malefactors.
A short journey from Parracombe to the ancient tumuli of the burial mounds of Chapman Barrows now followed, trudging laboriously upwards across the moors as my Edwardian policeman would have had to do in order to investigate the terrified boy’s findings. The only difference from how I’d imagined it was that the terrain wasn’t all as flat as I had expected, but more rugged and steep in parts. But for a fit young constable the journey on foot from the village of Parracombe to the area of the Barrows was perfectly feasible, albeit a tougher trek than I’d originally envisaged in the comfort of my chair while dreaming it all up. I even found and followed the very moorland track that police constable Sidney Chudleigh would have surely trodden on returning to the village.
As I marvelled about it all later over a pint of good Devon ale back at the Fox and Goose, Nikki, the young proprietress who had first greeted me, offered the possibility that I had known the Parracombe area in a previous lifetime, and that I had undergone a form of déjà vu such as she herself experienced on visiting the Yorkshire Moors for the first time, a sense of coming home, of an uncanny familiarity with surroundings never before experienced in actuality. Yes, it had felt exactly like that. How very strange life is.
Hello, do I feel another story coming on…?
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The Fox and Goose Inn, Parracombe, has a late Victorian facade dating from 1894, visible from the former police station windows.
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Read EXTRACTS from Robin Squire’s books