Finding the right location and immersing myself in it is really important to me when writing. The Mill Valley Girls novels – Ella’s Journey, Alice’s Secret and Sarah’s Story – are all set in a fictionalised version of Hepstonstall (Northwaite) and Hebden Bridge (Nortonstall) in West Yorkshire. They came into being during an Arvon writing course that I attended at Lumb Bank, once Ted Hughes’ home. Every morning before breakfast I would take a walk down along the wooded paths to the side of Colden Water, to the ruins of the mill there, sometimes walking further along the bank, crossing over then coming back along a higher path on the other side.
After heavy rain overnight, the waterfalls of Colden Water churned fierce and brown and the sound of the rushing waters became a backdrop to our writing days. I was completely captivated by the landscape, photographing the unusual tree and rock formations I saw there, and when we were asked, as a writing exercise, to create a character, decide what they did and set them in the local landscape, then the character of Alice, a mill worker in the late 19th century, was born. The Prologue of Alice’s Secret is almost word-for-word the piece that I wrote on the course.
When it came to developing the story I had, like Alys, locked everything ‘deep within the phone’s digital heart’: the mill past and present, where Alys sits and waits, trying to connect to the past (below).
The Deer Pool – a mysterious pool (below left and bottom) set back from the path and easy to miss unless you spot the animal tracks leading through to it – where Alice has trysts with Richard. The Bathing Pool, where Colden Water collects in a deep and tranquil pool and Rob comes across Alys swimming. The stone which Alys thinks of as the Fairy Slide (below, right) – a section of the path that seemed polished as though by the passage by hundreds of feet over the years.
Then there are the tracks down through the woodland, past trees with strange root formations and deeply incised bark, where I imagined Alice to have walked to the mill each working day, and her mother Sarah before her. It’s also the path Richard would have taken on the day of the fateful fire at the mill, and Alys would have trodden some of the same route on her walks to Nortonstall.
There’s also the path up over the top, high above the valley, where John walks in Ella’s Journey, trying to drive from his mind the memory of everything he had witnessed in war (below, left). Lumb Bank itself became the model for The Big House in Alice’s Secret. Alice stands alongside one of the stone walls at the edge of the wood, looking out over the field towards the terrace of the Big House (below right, seen from the house) and witnesses Richard’s wedding reception there.
I’ve returned several times to the area and explored further afield, each time finding things that have fed into the series. Looking at the views I captured from my bedroom window at Lumb Bank, down into the garden or along the wooded valley, it’s easy to see how such a beautiful setting can be so inspirational and how over 250,000 words, several generations of one family and a whole cast of other characters grew out of my five-day tenancy of that lovely space.