Me And My Home: Once upon a time...

The children's author Martin Waddell talks to Joey Canessa about his Northern Ireland idyll
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The Independent Online

The author of more than 250 books, and a winner of The Hans Christian Andersen Prize for children's literature, Martin Waddell lives and works from his home in Newcastle, Co. Down.

The author of more than 250 books, and a winner of The Hans Christian Andersen Prize for children's literature, Martin Waddell lives and works from his home in Newcastle, Co. Down.

Our house stands on a rock overlooking the sea with four miles of beach, and with the Mountain of Mourne rising behind. There are four houses on this rock and I have lived in three of them.

Me and my wife Rosaleen had always thought that if Rock Moor ever came on the market then we would snap it up. Incredibly, on the morning of my birthday, in 1997, there it was, on the front page of the local paper, up for sale. It felt fated.

I'm not exactly sure about the age of the house, but it was built some time before 1816 and the façade is Grade B listed. It is a boulder-built granite house, with a cellar below cut into the rock. Other bits were added on to it later in a higgledy-piggledy way, so it's mainly granite with some Victorian red brick thrown in at the turn of the century. When we bought it, it was in a bad way. We found that the joists were made from planks of wood that still had their bark attached to them.

As a child, I grew up in this area, and life was idyllic. But when my parents split up in the 1950s, I moved away to London. I spent the next few years of my life with no fixed abode, flitting between London and Newcastle until, in 1969, I married Rosaleen, and we settled in Donaghadee.

In 1972, after the birth of our second son, I was caught in a Loyalist bomb attack. These were brittle times, and with two babies, we lived in constant fear of attack. The local UDA used to drill in the streets outside our house at night. We lived opposite a Catholic church that had been targeted by arsonists in the past and one evening, I noticed a gang of kids hurrying out of the church. They aroused my suspicions and I went to investigate. I remember entering the vestry and seeing what looked like a wasp's nest on a chair. The "nest" lit up, and I awoke in hospital. My immediate thought was that our house had been bombed and that my wife and babies had perished. I woke screaming with terror, for months afterwards. I found myself unable to work, and lost six years of writing as a result. My book Frankie's Story is a tale of those times in Northern Ireland. After the bomb, we thought of moving far away, possibly to Scotland, but in my heart I wanted to stay in County Down, where I had been brought up.

In the winter of 1972, we rented a house on The Rock that had previously been used as a Quaker tea-shop. It was dilapidated and the kitchen was often ankle-deep in water. We stayed here until we could afford to buy our own house, and soon we were able to buy a rambling ex-guest house which was 100 yards down the road.

At this point, I was looking after the kids, and Rosaleen was teaching in the local school. I tried to write, but unproductively, because I was suffering from "total body shock" as a result of the bomb. The kids were two, four and five, and most people will understand the frustration involved in trying to work creatively while looking after tiny children.

They went off to secondary school eventually, and I began to draw on my experiences with infants, producing my first picture books. I had been writing since 1966 but suddenly in 1988 I was an overnight success, 50 books later. And my father used to say to me, "Writing books will butter you no parsnips."

As the kids began to drift away, Rosaleen and I felt that we needed a smaller house in which to begin a new set of memories, and it was at this point that we bought Rock Moor. There's a barn to the side of the house, where I work. The roof space had never been opened, but we cut a square hole in the ceiling and put in a staircase, to open up the space. One end of the space is my writing end, the other I use for painting. The painting is for relaxation - it's very splodgey.

At the writing end I have a desk with a PC, a collection of all my books, and a big red chair that I sit in to write. When Helen Oxenbury was working on the illustrations for Can't You Sleep, Little Bear, she drew a big red chair for the Daddy Bear to sit in. It was extraordinary; it was exactly like the one I sit in, even though Helen had never been to my house. There is also a TV nearby, so that I can watch the racing and the football.

I love pictures and like to surround myself with them. I have a pen-and-ink drawing of a little girl which I bought in a junk shop. On the back it is inscribed with the little girl's birth-date and the date of her death - she had died at the age of 12. This affected me deeply and formed the basis of a story that I went on to write, The Ghost in the Blue Velvet Dress. Most of my stories are the result of events that have occurred within 300 yards of this house.

I'm 70 per cent retired now, and I've taken my foot off the gas. When I was in full flow I would work a normal office day, but now I'm writing much more slowly. Having left this place after my parents split up when I was 10, I can now see that moving back was a way to re-create the life that I had lost. This is the only place in the world that I want to be: at the foot of the Mountain of Mourne, with my pipe and my dog.

Martin's Waddell's 'Sleep Tight, Little Bear' is published 4 April by Walker Books (£10.99)

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