Vintage china is an important part of the scene-setting when Alys transforms the café in Alice’s Secret, and the inspiration came from my own collection. I started to buy individual coffee cups in my twenties, mainly designs from the 1920s and 30s, as well as plates, dishes and even a whole coffee set. With a pattern of boughs of cherry blossom, this became the basis of tea set that Ella uses to serve tea to Grace Ward and Esther Weatherall in Chapter 12, overhearing them discussing her sister Alice as she does so. Apart from being inexpensive, the attraction was the beautiful designs painted on the cups and saucers and also their individuality – I rarely found more than one of the same pattern or even of the same shape.
The blue patterned cup and saucer with the design of dragonflies, flowers and foliage that Alys finds in the Nortonstall charity shop, which starts her collection (Part One, Chapter 9), is also my first one, although sadly the cup is now broken and I only have the saucer – I’ve matched it with a different cup. The daisy-bordered sandwich plate in the same chapter is in my collection, too, along with the gold daisy cup and saucer (Part Nine, Chapter 3).
My collection grew quickly, soon filling the shelves of the kitchen dresser that I had at the time. I also picked up a couple of beautiful water jugs or ewers, which would have been used in bedrooms for washing in Victorian times, and these found their way into Chapter 10 of my first published book, Ella’s Journey.
Other vintage and antique items in my possession appear in Alice’s Secret. A locket passed down from my grandmother is the inspiration for the one given to Alice by Richard, and rediscovered years later by Alys in an embroidered bag (Part Five, Chapter 5). The date is different but the back has scrolls of ivy leaves. The embroidery on the bag was inspired by a hand-embroidered vintage lingerie bag once owned by my aunt.
Even the baubles that Alys hangs in the window of the cafés in Nortonstall and Northwaite at Christmas (Part Nine, Chapter 3) are based on ones that once belonged to the same aunt. They come out each year to hang on my tree but they are made of glass and very fragile; over the years their wire hangers have failed and they have fallen and smashed but the ones that remain are very precious to me.
I had to stop collecting the coffee cups ago when I ran out of space and they spent many years stored in a box but I’m still always tempted whenever I see a particularly lovely example in a shop or on a stall. The cups, and the jugs, are now on display again, but I do have a collection of vintage china plates sitting in a box under my bed…