A Cornish romance: Following in the footsteps of Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier used the hidden coves, historic villages and striking scenery around Fowey in Cornwall as inspiration for many of her novels. In the week of the author's centenary, Linda Cookson steps back in time

The exploding cow didn't make it into any of Daphne du Maurier's novels. Nor did the family goat that scoffed her best silk nightdress and then glowered defiantly down from her bedroom window, a cloven-hoofed Mrs Danvers. These insider snippets of information were reserved for audience members at the Daphne du Maurier Festival in Fowey last Saturday, where du Maurier's three children shared memories of their famous mother on the eve of what would have been her 100th birthday.

The picturesque town of Fowey, once an ancient Cornish sea port, has hosted the annual Daphne du Maurier Festival since 1997. It has a pretty estuary setting, with ferries running across the river to Bodinnick, to the north, and Polruan, to the south. The narrow streets behind the quayside are filled with restaurants, historic pubs and quaint shops. Among them is a blue-painted corner building that houses an antiquarian bookshop, where the owner's private collection of du Maurier memorabilia is currently on display in the front window. Inside, a first edition of Rebecca, du Maurier's most famous novel, is on sale for £1,500.

Daphne du Maurier was 19 when she fell in love with Fowey and the magical surrounding landscape, which - even on local road signs - has become known as "Du Maurier Country". The du Maurier family home was in London, but in 1926 her father bought a former boat house next to the slipway at Bodinnick as a holiday cottage. The waterfront setting enchanted her. She wrote ecstatically 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."

The house, which they re-named Ferryside, stands next to the ferry crossing - an unmistakeable white building with royal blue-painted eaves, built directly into the cliff face, with the tidal waters of the river lapping below. Du Maurier's son, Christian (known as "Kits") Browning, bought the house from his aunt in 1993 and has devoted years to restoring it. On a beam below what used to be the young Daphne's bedroom window is an intriguing ship's figurehead - a relic from a wrecked 19th-century schooner called Jane Slade, which du Maurier came across while walking at nearby Pont Creek.

The Loving Spirit, du Maurier's first novel, is based on her research into the family of the woman on the figurehead, the real Jane Slade. Jane Slade became "Janet Coombs", and the story chronicles the lives of four generations of a Cornish boat-building family living in the town of "Plyn". Plyn's landscape of boatyards, of heron-haunted creeks and of granite cliffs scattered with outcrops of yellow gorse is unmistakeably the landscape of Polruan. Even now, the little village has a strangely timeless feel about it, with its settlement of stone houses clinging to the waterfront and a small red-canopied passenger ferry plying endlessly back and forth across the river to Fowey. At the head of the estuary, towards the open sea of St Austell Bay, is the 14th-century block house from which heavy chains were stretched across the harbour mouth to prevent the entrance of unwanted visitors - a vivid reminder that this coast was once a favourite haunt of pirates.

Jane Slade is buried at St Wyllow's, a medieval church nestling in the hamlet of Lanteglos above the quiet waters of Pont creek. The creek is silent and mysterious, still littered with the occasional neglected boat, which lies decaying on the grey mudflats. The water is the thick brown-green of the surrounding trees, but the gentle climb from the creek to the church takes you up into the light through a leafy tunnel of hedges, into a landscape bright with bluebells and populated by butterflies.

In July 1932, following a whirlwind courtship worthy of one of her novels, Du Maurier married Major Frederick "Tommy" Browning at St Wyllows. A young officer from the Grenadier Guards, he had sailed his yacht into Fowey harbour in search of the girl who had written The Loving Spirit. They married three months later.

Marriage to an army officer had its drawbacks, as du Maurier was to discover. Rebecca - a novel whose setting could hardly be closer to home - was begun in Egypt. Tommy had been posted to Alexandria, which she hated, and she was desperately homesick for Cornwall. The novel opens with the famous sentence "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." In many ways, the dreamer was du Maurier herself, pining for the sea and the wooded headlands around Fowey. "Manderley" was Menabilly - an Elizabethan house hidden deep in the folds of the cliff-side a few miles west of Fowey, and shielded from public view by dense woodland. Later, du Maurier would fulfil her dream and live there - she acquired the lease in 1943. But when Rebecca was written she had yet to step inside it.

Menabilly was (and remains) part of the private estate of the Rashleigh family, passed down through the family since Tudor times. But at that point the house had been shut up for many years. Du Maurier had first visited its grounds as a trespasser in the 1920s, and was fascinated by its "strange mystery". She called it "My house of secrets, my elusive Menabilly". By the time she wrote Rebecca, it had cast its spell over her imagination for nearly a decade.

The Daphne du Maurier Festival was running a "Rebecca Walk". Unfortunately, rain stopped play. But the following day brought intermittent glimmers of sunshine - so off I set solo, armed with an Ordnance Survey map, du Maurier's 1946 essay on first discovering Menabilly, and - most important of all - the anecdotes of her children about the place where they grew up.

Daphne began her quest by rowing at 5am from Bodinnick to Fowey harbour. I gave that bit a miss and started instead at the harbour-front, walking westwards along the Esplanade - a flower-decked walkway bordered on one side by large Edwardian houses and on the other by smaller cottages painted in ice-cream colours. Within minutes, the houses were behind me, the path was heading cliffwards, and channels of churning water were splashing and sucking on the rocks below. The strange, post-storm sky had turned the sea into a chessboard. Across the water I could make out a cave at the foot of the cliff face. The stretch of sand at its mouth must once have been a perfect place for smugglers to land.

First port of call, less than 15 minutes from the town, was Readymoney - a small sandy-beached cove, ringed by rocks and overlooked by the cliff-top fortress of St Catherine's Castle. Daphne's daughters, Tessa and Flavia, had mentioned that the family lived there for a year before moving into Menabilly - and sure enough, a pretty white house, covered in roses and clematis and perched right on the water's edge, bore a plaque recording their stay. Readymoney Cove features in several du Maurier novels - Lady Dona, the heroine of Frenchman's Creek, takes refuge there. Even on a murky day, with seagulls shrieking restlessly and the wet sand strewn with driftwood and bunches of seaweed, it was easy to see why the children much preferred living there to life among the bats and rats of feudal Menabilly.

After that came a walk along the coastal path that climbs up over the cliffs towards Gribbin Head. I followed the trail through tall beech hedges tangled with rain-soaked briar roses and honeysuckle, before the path dipped down into tiny Polridmouth Bay (pronounced Pridmouth). This is where Rebecca country begins. A notorious blackspot for shipwrecks, the bay had a strangely brooding atmosphere - perhaps because the weather was so bleak. The beach of slate-blue pebbles backed onto a waterfront lake, fed by a stream emerging from high above, from within the dark woods of the Menabilly estate. The only signs of habitation were a small cottage and boat house. This was the cottage where Rebecca held her romantic trysts, the boathouse from which she launched her sailing boat, and the bay where the scuttled craft was washed up.

The climb from Polridmouth Bay to the gates of Menabilly was to be my Road to Manderley. First, though, I crossed a second sandy beach, known as Menabilly beach. This is where du Maurier picnicked with her family and where, if you'd been a du Maurier/Browning child in the 1940s, you would have had the experience of encountering the exploding cow. The beach was land-mined then, a throwback to wartime when it was lit up at night as a decoy for Fowey harbour. The unfortunate creature who went there to graze was blasted into two trees, from which its various body parts allegedly hung suspended for over two years.

The ascent towards Menabilly was lovely. First I walked through another leafy tunnel of hedgerow and trees, with the wind whistling through the foliage all around me. The only other sounds were of birdsong - and the crunch of my own (by now muddy) boots on gravel. Then the path widened into a shady lane, part-arched by trees and dense with dark ivy and red campion. To the right were the mysterious woods of Menabilly; to the left was the cheerful normality of Menabilly Barton farm, whose lands provided the setting for both My Cousin Rachel and The Birds (although Hitchcock transported the latter to the coast of California).

But then, inevitably, came an anti-climax of sorts. Passing a car park, I joined a country road. The tarmac was a useful wake-up call to reality. For in a matter of minutes I'd finally reached my destination - a lodge-house and a firmly locked gate. And that, alas, is the end of the road for du Maurier pilgrims. Menabilly itself remains out of sight, its ribbon drive winding tantalisingly into the woods. Privately occupied once again by the descendants of its original owners, du Maurier's "house of secrets" has - perhaps fittingly - retreated back into itself. But, truly, it's enough just to take the walk.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The nearest train stations are at Par and St Austell (National Rail Enquiries: 0845 7484 950; www.nationalrail.co.uk).

STAYING THERE

Two holiday cottages are available to rent on the Menabilly Estate (01726 808 150; www.menabilly.com) from £309 per week. Jamaica Inn, Launceston (01566 86250; www.jamaicainn.co.uk). B&B starts at £70. The Old Quay House, Fowey (01726 833 302; www.theoldquayhouse.com). Doubles start at £125, room only.

MORE INFORMATION

Fowey tourist information: 01726 833 616; www.fowey.co.uk Visit Cornwall: 01872 322 900; www.cornwalltouristboard.co.uk

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