Of Cornwall & Yorkshire
6th Aug 2011
One of my favourite towns in England is Fowey, in Cornwall. My father’s secretary, Dorothy Farmer, was born in Fowey (pronounced ‘Foy’). It is a charming town with houses huddled above the harbour with bobbing boats below. The Fowey Hotel is one of the finest pubs in Cornwall and offers accommodation, without advertising that one of the rooms is haunted with the ghost of a murdered pirate. ‘Pirate’ accents are still part of the town. If you ask the barmen for a ‘point’, he will serve you 20oz of beer.
There are also a number of Bed & Breakfast establishments in Fowey. The one I stayed in, on a number of visits, was owned and managed by a charismatic and garrulous chap called Derrick. Think of windswept thinning hair, a knotted scarf around his neck, an open neck shirt, some distinctive eye lines thanks to squinting into the sun and laughter with the wicked, rollicking smile of a pirate.
Derrick was an accomplished artist and he gave me free lessons on how to paint boldly in watercolours. Watercolours don’t have to be wishy-washy. Derrick had studied at the Royal Academy in the 1950’s under the then elderly but still much revered artist, Augustus John.
Augustus John was renowned for portraits of his famous contemporaries like Thomas Hardy, George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats and T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). His most famous portrait, however, is of fellow countryman, Dylan Thomas. Thomas also wrote about the artist:
On Saturday Augustus comes, bearded
Like Cardy’s bard, and howling as Lear did.
A short stay only but oh, how nice.
No one more welcome than the oaktrunked maestro
Augustus John’s portrait of Caitlin Thomas is also stunning and captures the fire and gypsy in her soul. They were also lovers at one time. While Derrick and I were knocking back ports next to the open fire in Fowey I had no idea his mentor had done the definitive portrait of the scribbling mentor who would lead me to pursue a career in what Thomas described as “art, or sullen craft”.
Derrick’s other hobbies included fishing and drinking, two pastimes I was also fond of at the time. After other guests had retired for the night, Derrick and I would be the last to head for the stairs, preferring to stay chatting by the open fire with port or brandy.
I had fished in the estuary and harbour but the most memorable day on the water was out in the open seas in Derrick’s boat. We pulled in a lot of fish and, on the way back to shore while gutting them, birds swarmed like something out of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds. I offered to pay for the day on the water but Derrick would have none of it. I discovered why at dinner. Fish was on the menu, the guests paid handsomely for the meal and he charged me as well.
The Birds had its inspiration in Fowey, as it was home to Daphne du Maurier. The author lived in a lovely brick cottage on top of a hill above the other houses clinging to the hillside. The house overlooks the ferry crossing and can be seen from the scenic walk. On my visits she still lived there. This is the author in the 1920’s…
In the Fowey bookshop I purchased a copy of Daphne du Maurier’s The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte. Haworth, in Yorkshire, was home to the literary Bronte family and on my list of places to visit. While paying for the book I asked the assistant if she knew the author. She laughed and said that everyone knew Miss du Maurier and that she had, in fact, just been standing next to me in the shop. The assistant pointed out the window and a little grey haired lady in an overcoat was heading up the cobblestone street in a hurried stride, like Mrs Marple on a mission. This is the author, age 70, taken the year before I visited Fowey…
Hanging on my office wall is a painting I did of the huddled houses and harbour in Fowey. It won first prize in an art competition at the Gundagai Show.
Dorothy Farmer was not only my father’s secretary but also, as the years went on, a close family friend. She was intelligent, independent, highly mannered and had a great love of books. I only knew her as ‘Mrs Farmer’. And even though she and my mother were close friends, they also referred to each other as ‘Mrs Farmer’ and ‘Mrs Heydon’.
I always enjoyed dropping in to her house in Otway Street, Gundagai, as did Annie. Mrs Farmer kept corgi dogs and exuded good ‘karma’. Mrs Farmer ‘was part of the furniture’ and one of the few people outside family I enjoyed giving a gift to at Christmas. It always included bottled raw, pickled ginger, a tin of shortbread and an interesting book. Finding the book was the enjoyable bit. This is the house in Otway Street. Mrs Farmer lived upstairs.
Mrs Farmer arrived in Gundagai as a refugee during World War Two. She and baby daughter, Lesley, were British expatriates, evacuated from Hong Kong via Singapore when the Japanese invaded. She never saw her husband again and assumed that he was killed by the Japanese. She never forgave them and even had a hatred for the growing import of Japanese made cars.
“You would think that they won the war.”
She never remarried but, for a time, lived with a gentleman friend. That was before my memory but I think his name was Joe Wotnar. Apparently Joe was a sweet-talking and loveable scoundrel who ran up a large amount of debt around the town. One morning Mrs Farmer found a note on the kitchen table that said, “Gone fishing.” She never saw him again.
For the next few years she managed to pay back all the money Joe had borrowed and having done that said, quietly, to my mother, “Mrs Heydon, I can now walk down the street with my head up.”
I have always liked to choose a reason to travel, a purpose as the destination if you like, and have usually found that the journey there is as every bit as interesting as reaching the goal.
Haworth village in West Yorkshire, as mentioned, was on my list of ‘must see’ places, simply because I found the lives of the Bronte family fascinating. I wanted to see where the Bronte sisters grew up and gained their inspiration for the literary classics Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I also wanted to have an ale in the pubs where their tormented brother, Branwell, once drowned his sorrows.
The Bronte children grew up in The Parsonage (below), adjacent to the church where their father was minister. The Parsonage is now a museum and holds some fascinating Bronte exhibits like the miniature hand-written novels written by sisters Anne, Charlotte and Emily. In those days writing novels was not something women ‘did’, especially racy novels that featured hot-blooded, passionate suitors like Heathcliff or the brooding and fiery Edward Rochester.
To get the books published initially the sisters chose androgynous pseudonyms that could pass as male names – with the surname ‘Bell’, Anne become ‘Acton’, Charlotte became ‘Currer’ and Emily became ‘Ellis’.
Visitors to Haworth can stroll across the wild and windy moors to the ruins of Top Withens, which inspired the setting for Wuthering Heights. An enlarged photo hangs on a wall in our home today. The visit was surprisingly haunting, especially when the mist began to descend. Kate Bush was in my head, out on those wiley, windy moors.
Perhaps it was the air of the moors that gave the Brontes their desire for passion because Haworth also seemed to have absorbed some of that in 1978. One morning I was admiring the equestrian talents of a young lady through the window from our B&B over breakfast. She was the owner’s daughter and was, indeed, highly attractive. The mother sat next to me at the kitchen table, poured a cup of tea and said, “She’s a pretty thing, isn’t she?” Before I could agree I felt a hand run up the inside of my thigh. She smiled and looked deep into my eyes. Maths will tell you that, as I had been admiring the daughter, this woman was old enough to be my mother. While she may have been a well-kept forty-something ‘cougar’, I made my apologies, saying that time was short with the sightseeing list long and made my way to the car.
That evening Peter and I found a lively pub with a good band and fun people. We were feted as some sort of celebrities. They didn’t get many Australians up that way, although the band had a rock version of Waltzing Matilda in its repertoire. We drank and danced and then I found myself walking arm-in-arm down the mooncast cobblestones with a rather pretty young lass. She said that she lived with her parents but they wouldn’t mind if I was there for breakfast. I silently planned to make an exit before the bread could become toast.
One of the parents was waiting up. Her father was a short man with a waistcoat, a neatly trimmed moustache and a handshake that could crack walnuts. He beckoned me into the parlour.
“Good to meet you lad, like a drink?”
“Oh Dad, not the liquor cabinet,” sighed the young lady.
“Aye, must be hospitable to guests, lass.”
The lass gave an exasperated gasp and ran upstairs. From behind a slammed door came her voice, as clear as if she were next to me.
“Don’t be long!”
This was a workman’s house, attached either side to other workmen’s houses, with two rooms upstairs (the bedrooms), two rooms down, an outhouse out the back and walls as thick as paper.
“Now, have a look at this, lad,” said my new ‘best friend’ as he opened the liquor cabinet. “All liqueurs and all types. Crème de Menthe, Curacao, you name it. I make them myself.”
“No, thanks, but I really must be going.”
“Don’t be silly lad. Won’t be long till you can go upstairs and go at it. Try one of these, you won’t pick it from the real Baileys.”
I downed the drink quickly, asked him to thank his daughter for a wonderful evening and made my second escape for the day.
It was an experience straight out of Monty Python.
As they say in Yorkshire, “there’s none so queer as folk”.
I recall not sleeping well that night, being on guard in case the equestrian’s mother was in search of company. She wasn’t. Nor was she in Peter’s bedroom, or at breakfast. She hadn’t come home that night.
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