Discover Daphne Du Maurier’s Cornwall

80 years since Daphne Du Maurier spent a night on bleak Bodmin Moor, Cornwall is still powerfully associated with the famous author, as Nicola Smith discovers

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On a cold day in 1930, Daphne du Maurier stayed at Jamaica Inn, a remote 18th-century coaching inn perched high on Cornwall’s wild and desolate Bodmin Moor. The inn, in a place called Bolventor, used to be a haven for smugglers, and when the author discovered its history she was inspired to write Jamaica Inn, her fourth novel and one of her most famous. Eighty years on, Cornwall is synonymous with du Maurier’s writing. She wrote 17 novels and numerous short stories, many inspired by the county that she eventually made her home in 1943. She once wrote of Cornwall: “Here was the freedom I desired, long sought-for, not yet known… Freedom to write, to walk, to wander, freedom to climb hills, to pull a boat, to be alone.”
 
As I stand outside Jamaica Inn, the wind howling and gusting around me and Bodmin Moor rising up to the right and rolling away into the distance behind, it is easy to imagine how these dark and haunting buildings captured du Maurier’s imagination all those years ago. It is still a hotel and pub, and while it is interesting to visit once – if only to drink in the location and imagine the horses’ hooves clip-clopping on the cobbled courtyard in the dead of night – it is now a tourist trap, frequently besieged by coach parties and a far cry from the inn du Maurier knew and imagined.
 

The lure of Bodmin

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But the moor itself is enchanting and evocative; lonely and vast, craggy and wild, with hues that are ever-changing, from browns and blacks to purples, greens and yellows under a huge kaleidoscopic sky. As du Maurier wrote in Jamaica Inn: “On either side of the road, the country stretched interminably into space. No trees, no lanes, no cluster of cottages or hamlet, but mile upon mile of bleak moorland, dark and untraversed, rolling like a desert land to some unseen horizon.” There are hundreds of miles of footpaths to walk, not least the trek up to Kilmar Tor, where Joss Merlyn, the notorious uncle in Jamaica Inn, was born.

Bodmin Moor is cornered by the towns of Launceston, Liskeard, Camelford and Bodmin, but it is the little villages in between that are of most interest. In Jamaica Inn, one of the characters is the vicar of Altarnun, a tiny village nestled in the tributary of the River Inny. On the village green is a 15th-century church with a tower measuring 33m (109ft). Known as the Cathedral on the Moors, it took a generation to build. If you walk further along the road, you will see the Grade II-listed Old Rectory that du Maurier visited before featuring it as the vicar’s home in the story.

“This now, is my life”

Just over 20 miles south of Bolventor is the Fowey Estuary, on Cornwall’s south coast, where du Maurier’s love of the county first took root. It is this area that is now thought of as true du Maurier country. Her parents bought a holiday home at Bodinnick, a hamlet just over the estuary from Fowey. The dwelling was a former boathouse right on the slipway, and it is here that du Maurier wrote her first novel, The Loving Spirit. When she first visited from London in 1926, aged 19, she was captivated. She wrote in her diary of “the lights of Polruan and Fowey. Ships anchored, looking up through blackness. The jetties, white with clay. Mysterious shrouded trees, owls hooting, the splash of muffled oars in lumpy water… All I want is to be at Fowey. Nothing and no one else. This, now, is my life.”

Today the house, a large cream and blue building nestled into the water’s edge, has been renamed Ferryside and du Maurier’s son, Kit, still lives here. It is not open to the public, but if you get the ferry over from Fowey you can admire it from outside before starting Hall Walk, a popular six-mile stroll round the lower reaches of the River Fowey, with sweeping river and estuary views. It takes you through the wooded creek of Pont Pil and on to Lanteglos-by-Fowey, where du Maurier was married to Major Tommy ‘Boy’ Browning in 1932. The beautiful 14th-century church here also featured as Lanoc Church in The Loving Spirit. Inside is a royal plaque, presented to the parish by Charles II in 1668 in appreciation of its loyalty during the Civil War.

Follow the South West Coast Path to Polruan (the fictitious boatyard of Plyn in The Loving Spirit) and it will bring you back to Bodinnick.

A glimpse of Rebecca

Fowey is alive with the history of Du Maurier. Just outside the main town is the 17th-century Menabilly Estate where the author lived for 24 years. It famously gave her the inspiration for Manderley, the house featured in Rebecca, arguably her best loved and most enduring novel (it has been continuously in print for eight decades). You can get agonisingly close to Menabilly, but it is impossible to catch a glimpse. Closed to the public, it is shielded from the footpath around the grounds by a wall of stubborn, overgrown rhododendrons and brambles – exactly as it was when du Maurier herself first trespassed in the 1920s, finding her way by the coastal path and climbing up from the beach. If you approach Menabilly by road, you come to Menabilly Barton Farm, which provided the setting for both My Cousin Rachel and short story, The Birds (which Alfred Hitchcock used as inspiration for his horror movie of the same title). The idea for the story – where birds become hostile to humans – came to du Maurier one day when she was walking from Menabilly to the farm and she saw a flock of seagulls diving and wheeling above a farmer ploughing his field.

Bustling Fowey
 
Fowey itself is a quaint and bustling little town with narrow winding streets that seem to tumble down the hillside to the water. While you are unlikely to see pirates and smugglers lurking around this ancient seaport, there is a palpable sense of history here. The town’s oldest building, the Well House, was built in 1430 and is now a B&B – still boasting some of the original cobbles.
 
In summer, Fowey is often buzzing with tourists and the sailing fraternity, particularly in August when the Fowey Royal Regatta takes place (see left) and people spill out of the waterside pubs and restaurants, and the streets crawl with shoppers trying to cram into the tiny boutique shops, galleries and cafés. The compact du Maurier Literary Centre has a host of information on the author’s life and work, while the week-long Daphne du Maurier Literary Festival, which celebrates her life and work, is held in May each year.
 
Away from the hubbub, you can leave the town centre on foot along Tower Park Esplanade, past the beautiful Quiet Gardens – a little-known morning suntrap overlooking the estuary – to Readymoney Cove, a sheltered sandy beach that feels almost private. Set back frbetween 1942 and 1944. A plaque can be seen on the front of the house, which went on the market for nearly £2m in July last year – for the first time in 50 years. It was built in the 1860s as a coach house to Point Neptune, the nearby cliff-top property that is now home to Dawn French.
 

Frenchman’s Creek

Readymoney Cove features in several du Maurier novels, including her 1941 novel, Frenchman’s Creek, as the place in which the heroine takes refuge. The creek itself is actually some 35 miles further west, on Cornwall’s Helford River, another captivating area of Cornwall and certainly one of my favourite haunts. It is also where du Maurier spent her honeymoon, aboard a motor cruiser.

The lanes along the south shore are lined with tall hedges and the roads are littered with blind bends, but if you’re not at the wheel, you can catch glimpses into the Helford’s many inlets, one of which is Frenchman’s Creek, named after a real 17th-century pirate. In her novel du Maurier writes: “The trees were thinning, she was coming to the bank – and there suddenly before her for the first time, was the creek, still and soundless, shrouded by the trees, hidden from the eyes of men.”

The best way to see this secret inlet is on a summer morning at high tide, by water. I have kayaked from the north bank of the Helford River, leaving from the beach in front of the Ferryboat Inn, and paddled for 45 minutes to Frenchman’s Creek, only to find the tide was too low to access the creek itself. I could see the tree lined banks and the huge hunched trees skimming their fingery branches through the water, and sensed the eerie silence as I was forced to turn back from the entrance. Somehow this thwarted attempt made the place even more appealing and perpetuated the sense of mystery weaved by du Maurier. If you’re feeling less adventurous, you can also get the ferry from the Ferryboat Inn to Frenchman’s Creek and follow the footpath back to Helford Village – the place that time forgot.

From wild Bodmin Moor to quaint Fowey and the sleepy Helford, du Maurier’s Cornwall still exists, particularly if you explore it with one of her novels tucked under your arm and just a tiny piece of her enchanting imagination…

 
 

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