Daphne du Maurier was five when she first discovered Cornwall. That summer, she had watched as the gardener caught a snake in the grass of her Hampstead home. He nailed it to a tree, standing back to watch it writhe.
‘He’ll do that through the day,’ the gardener told Daphne. ‘But the venom will go out when the sun goes down. Then he’ll die.’
She watched the snake and then went over to the wall near the downstairs nursery window where she had a cage with two doves inside. Suddenly they bored her. The snake would struggle until the sun went down – unaware that only death awaited him. He was brave because he was wild.
That was when she opened the cage door wide.
Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me.
This is one of my favourite openings; its rendering of the dream state – the enticing quality of menace and wistfulness. But, most of all, it is the longing for a house, which I find enchanting. It’s something I’ve felt all my life. Even today, over twenty years on, I still dream that I am back at the farmhouse where I spent the first ten years of my life. Queen Manor. The name has the same exotic magic for me. There were times, after we moved, when I felt my happiness had been trapped there – that I would never get it back.
We can never go back to Manderley again.
During my sailing trip the other week, a day or two before the storm hit, we were on our way to Fowey. I was on the tiller and my Dad’s friend was sitting in the cockpit with me.
Have you heard of Daphne du Maurier? he asked me.
Of course! I said. Actually, I’ve got a short story published in a collection alongside her.
I felt myself blushing as I told him this.
Oh, he said. Then you’ll know she lived at Fowey.
He began to explain that there was a house there, which had provided the inspiration to one of her books.
Rebecca? I asked, excited.
I’m not sure, he said.
Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again, I said.
Manderley, that’s it, he said. Or, something like that anyway.
The house is called Menabilly.
Once we arrived in Fowey, my dad pulled up alongside the jetty so that I could jump ashore. They were going to moor onto a buoy.
Call us when you’re done, my dad said. We’ll send the dinghy to get you.
I found the tourist information and got hold of a map, and then I began to walk through the town. It was filled with holidaymakers. Dogs marched on the ends of their leads, their nails clicking on the tarmac streets. The sun was bright. Cloud had kept it hidden most of the day, but now the sky was a sharp blue. Heat radiated, though it was drawing towards the end of the afternoon. Children stomped in the narrow streets, tired out, grouchy – needing to go home, but unwilling to part with the joy of a day at the beach. I passed several tantrums as I made my way to the coastal path. And then I was alone, surrounded by hills that lifted up to my right – long grass swept over by the wind, which came in cool and salty from the sea.
There was a beacon on one of the headlands further on, a slender thread of cloud resting just above so that it seemed as if the beacon held it there, balanced on its narrow top. I could feel something rising within me – a powerful sense of luck or gratitude, to be here on this mission, heading with hopeful purpose. But it was more than that. Yes, I wanted to get close to the place that had inspired Daphne – the house Menabilly – but really, I was already here, seeing everything she would have seen. This was where her life as a writer began.
Daphne was nineteen when she first came to Fowey with her mother and two sisters. The hire car dropped them at the foot of Bodinnick hill where they would pick up the ferry to Fowey. They decided to stop for lunch first. Before climbing the hill to the Ferry Inn, Daphne and her sisters caught sight of a board on a gate just above the ferry. ‘For Sale’. Behind the gate was a rough piece of ground and a house by the water’s edge.
I went and stood beneath the chalet, the water immediately beneath me, and looked towards the harbour mouth. There were small boats everywhere, and yachts at anchor, but more stirring still a big ship was drawing near, with two attendant tugs, to moor a few cables’ length from the house itself. There was a smell in the air of tar and rope and rusted chain, a smell of tidal water.
After a blissful summer, learning to row, to snare rabbits, gut fish; bathing naked in deserted coves, climbing upon the rotting hulls of ships and trespassing upon estates, Daphne’s aunt wrote to her: ‘isn’t it time you came back to London?’ It was the same aunt who had given Daphne those doves.
‘We can’t think what you find to do with yourself in Cornwall,’ her aunt wrote.
In the second hand bookshop at Fowey, there is a book in the window by Daphne du Maurier – Vanishing Cornwall. Signed copy, it says. There is also a framed photograph – a beautiful shot of Daphne. There is a quote above the picture, which is the very moment she first saw that house at the bottom of Bodinnick hill.
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. It could not be mere chance that brought us to the ferry, and the bottom of Bodinnick hill, and so to the board upon the gate that said For Sale. I remembered a line from a forgotten book, where a lover looks for the first time upon his chosen one: ‘I for this, and this for me.’ The cage was not fastened…the way was open.
It was this that I thought of as I walked along the coast, feeling the calm rhythm walking brings. Each step I feel as if I’m shedding. It is like walking out of a mist: a thick impenetrable white surrounds, but as you move onwards, it begins to thin, and slowly the light shines from ahead, guiding you into the clear; and what a blissful clear it is, like a soft sandy beach, which awaits the rush of ideas, flooding upon it, soaking into it, leaving it tinted with inspiration.
As a child, I had that freedom Daphne talks about. It is the love of what that space can bring, which guides me now, keeps me at my writing. I know that words are the path back – they are like the missing link.
Did you see it? my Dad’s friend asked once I had got back to the boat. My body was tired, my deck shoes filthy with mud, but I could feel the ache of my cheek muscles from smiling all that time.
Not the actual house, I said. There were too many trees.
I had climbed through the barbed wire and navigated my way a little into the forest, enough to see the edge of a brick wall between the thick dark trunks. But I lost my nerve then.
Oh, I thought you’d just walk up the front drive, my dad’s friend said. You could have told them you’re published in the same book as Daphne.
I smiled, blushed again and looked out over the estuary where all the brightly coloured dinghies were bobbing on their buoys.
Actually, I said. I was happy just to roam in her territory, imagine what it would be like to have my own.
My dad’s friend grinned and nodded. He knows all about territory – this boat is his: the peace of the open sea.
So, he said. Any other adventures?
Actually, I told him. There’s a painting in Wales I’d like to go and see.
Who’s it by?
Rex Whistler – I’ve already seen one and I’d like to visit another.
Whereabouts in Wales? My dad’s friend asked.
Plas Newydd, I told him.
You’ll have to go to Maes Caradoc.
What’s that? I asked.
The cottage, he said – as if I knew.
But I did. I saw his boys then, laughing, jumping on the beds. There was hard, grey rock, bursting up around me out of the mist. Now, I wander outside in the middle of the night, a small light shining the way; there is an unknown feeling in the darkness, or a sense of what it might hold within its dense black.
My spirits soared, Daphne wrote, as the hired car swept round the curve of the hill, and suddenly the full expanse of Fowey harbour was spread beneath.
I’d felt it too as I walked away from that photo of her in the bookshop and that line: here was the freedom I desired, long sought-for, not yet known.
I carried on through the busy town – families had come in like the tide, and would go out in much the same way, leaving debris just as the sea puts down its own offerings – driftwood, plastic bottles, seaweed.
As I made my way up the final hill that would take me to the forest, which surrounded Menabilly, I passed a group of little girls not more than five of six years of age. There were adults a little way behind, carrying balls, towels, and bags. One of the girls was flashing her pink knickers, dirty from the sand. Look! Look! she kept calling.
You have to step in mud! another said, thumping in her wellingtons.
I stopped at the top of the hill to eat a banana and finally the girls reappeared. Two dogs came next, one of them holding up its front paw and going on three legs. Then there was no one for some time so that I imagined the children, living free by themselves, running up fevers of uncontrolled emotions, bursting beyond boundaries. How those memories would shiver inside them in adulthood.
I wanted something feral, untamed – old rock, open space that the wind could rush through. Silence – or the silence of the wild. I have found it here in North Wales – along with my memories, but those are for another time!
The splendid solitude of a grey manor house set deep amongst tall trees and rhododendrons growing wild, its owner ever absent from home. Perhaps if I won a sweepstake I might live there. Menabilly…Menabilly…Manderley…