Big cities or small villages – I’ve lived in both – and I know which I prefer. In my twenties and thirties I lived in Dublin, Bangkok, London and Bath, but I’ve remained for longer in villages – both in France and in England. People write about the difference between living in the town and living in the country, but I want to celebrate the years I spent in small vibrant communities in France and England, and my very different experiences in each.
In my early 20s, while still a university student in Dublin, I spent a long glorious summer working as an au pair for a French family in the Côte d’Azur, in the south of France. Many of my friends moved to big cities after university, and after a couple of years in Bangkok where I was teaching English as a foreign language, I returned and ended up in London. But after six frenetic years, I hankered to get back to the peace of the countryside and a less stressful life. So I headed down to Wiltshire, where I found a tiny semi-detached cottage in a little village. After the anonymity of living in a London street, where other residents were rarely encountered, I was amazed at how quickly I met my neighbours, and how kind they were. I was inundated with offers of advice and gifts of vegetables. They couldn’t fathom out why a single young woman would want to bury herself in the country – but then none my London friends could understand this either, though initially they were very keen to come down for weekends. When their enthusiasm to keep in touch wore off, I was on my own – and then I got to know the locals. Life was at a much slower pace, and I worked from home doing picture-framing and freelance journalism.
Then I decided to start a new business, and so I moved to the city of Bath in Somerset, where I lived for a few years and I met and married my husband. Five years later he sold his business and with two children in tow, needing a change, we moved to rural Brittany to live in a village we had discovered a couple of years before, when exploring a long river in a sailing boat. We moved into an old terraced house in the main street and soon met our French neighbours who were curious about us. Our son and daughter started at the local primary school, and small children always break down barriers quicker than anything else. I spent hours chatting to other mothers at the gates to the school, so my rusty French soon improved, though Michael found it more difficult to get his tongue round a foreign language that he had never learnt. Nevertheless, we threw ourselves wholeheartedly into Breton life, and listened to their music, sang their songs and learned how to do Breton dancing.
We move back to England after a dozen years and bought a house in Dorset on the edge of a small village of only 250 people – with the church, a primary school, and a village hall, but no shop. It’s not smart or picturesque but the residents are genuine, hard-working and kind. Inevitably there is gossip and inevitable disputes but there is also altruism and mutual support. We have a lively community with a good number who have a strong commitment to the village.
I have been living in Dorset for nearly 20 years, and I feel truly blessed to be in such a glorious county with its extraordinary variety of landscape – open downland, gentle meadows and farmland, and its long beautiful coastline with cliffs, beaches and harbours. Each spring I am stunned by the greenness of this county as of this county! I regularly discover another delightful – or occasionally unkempt – village, and find tiny hamlets that I have not seen before. Thatched cottages abound and there are still many isolated unspoiled areas to explore. I love the sea and have spent much time sailing across oceans, but meandering in a small boat along the Dorset coastline is very special.
This is a county with a fascinating history, lovely architecture (all that mellow Portland stone!) and amazing archaeology, all of which interest me very much. I admire the sturdy small Dorset towns where old houses mingle comfortably with new-build homes. I’m a writer and love reading books so I find it wonderful to live in a place that inspired William Barnes and Thomas Hardy. Many of the residents have lived here for generations and are devoted to the county, and they don’t just tolerate but actually welcome newcomers. I enjoy the Dorset quirky sense of humour and the local accent and jargon, which I have at last learned to decipher. People here have time for each other, offer help when it’s needed and though some might have few words, they show kindness in spades. I can’t think of anywhere else that compares with it and there’s nowhere else I would rather live.
Villages fascinates me with all the myriad characters who inhabit them. I expect this is why, in my first novel: To the End of the Day, for material I drew on my experiences of life in a busy French village, and in my latest novel: Dear Magpies (published in November 2019) I have borrowed ideas from my current life in a rural village.
When I was planning my book, I decided that the main character should be living in Dorset. I needed to give my fictional village a name, and wanted it to sound genuine. There is a village that I often drive through called Slepe, which reflects some the atmosphere that I wanted to create in my story. Then I discovered that there are 15 villages in the county whose names are prefixed with ‘Winterbourne’; they are all named after streams that flow only in the winter and dry up in the summer months. So I put the two together: Winterbourne Slepe. I have enjoyed borrowing some unusual features of the real Winterbourne villages and planting them in my imaginary one.
I wanted my characters who inhabit the place to have Dorset names, so I spent time researching them, and identified a number of surnames which were prominent in some of the Winterbournes over the years. I then selected the names which I felt suited the various characters in the village eg: the village gossip, the pub landlord, a rural labourer etc.
Most authors try to ensure that none of their created characters have too much in common with real people, and I hope mine cannot be identified. But I love telling stories and I like to keep people guessing!