This week I travelled to Herne Bay, the location of my novel, for a few days writing and research. It felt like stepping out of time as I checked into my seafront B & B and looked out onto a watery landscape that, for me, had so far only existed within the pages of my manuscript.
With the deadline for delivery of the novel looming I set myself a target of 5000 words a day which I would write on a rickety little desk overlooking the splendidly named Neptune’s Arm – a mile-long stretch of breakwater that juts out from the bay. With no distractions and limited internet access I managed to achieve my daily word target, something which would have been impossible at home.
In between writing bouts I set off into the town to explore the locations featured in the novel and, in doing so, found myself getting closer to my protagonist, war reporter, Kate Rafter, and the life she left behind in this beautiful but desolate town. Herne Bay itself is strangely incomplete; like it was on its way to becoming something wonderful but was stopped in its tracks. Opulent Georgian townhouses sit incongruously beside boarded up fish and chip shops and deserted amusement arcades. There are few shops, a smattering of chain pubs and endless charity shops adding to the sense of dereliction.
It is like the whole town was preserved in aspic sometime around 1983 and has remained that way ever since. Stepping inside Kate’s consciousness and exploring her memories made me think of my own past and the ghosts of my childhood. Herne Bay has a strange ‘otherness’ about it, a sense that the spirits who made their way through this windswept Kent town have left something of themselves behind.
But nothing prepared me for what I was about to encounter as I walked away from the town and made my way up the cliffs to Reculver. A pair of mysterious towers are all that remain of the Roman fort that once stood high on the cliff tops just outside of Herne Bay. The towers are a forbidding sight jutting out precariously on the edge of the rocks and, like most places of historical interest, are reputed to be haunted.
Before I arrived in Herne Bay I had read stories of ghostly cries that are said to emanate from the ruins on dark, stormy nights and the rumours that Roman soldiers had buried children alive in the foundations of the fort as human sacrifices. Death and destruction are recurring themes as you make your way along the shore: the beach below the towers was the place where Barnes Wallis tested the bouncing bombs that would go on to be used to blow apart German dams in the Second World War and inspire the film, The Dam Busters.
The tiny strip of beach and the black, eerie towers feature considerably in the novel. At one point, a young Kate picks up a fragment of bomb from the shingle and wonders how something so beautiful could cause so much pain.
So with these tales of death and horror racing through my head I set off up the beach, crunching mussel shells underfoot. The day was misty and the sky a Turner landscape. The view ahead of me was chalky and scumbled and it felt like I was seeing only a fraction of what was really there. Up ahead people walked their dogs but the mist and the strobing sun made shadows of them as I made my way blindly towards the path that would take me to the cliff top.
The sight that greeted me at the end of the beach took my breath away. Three years ago, when I had conceived the novel, I came up with an idea for the title. The bridge I had in mind was a fairytale bridge, a Disneyland fantasy that only existed in the pages of travel brochures and the imagination of a little boy living in war-torn Syria. I had chosen the location of Herne Bay simply for its proximity to Dover and the likelihood that a young refugee may end up there. So when I rounded the corner and saw a simple wooden bridge built across the shingle I was lost for words.
Something odd happens when you are in the middle of writing a novel. Moments of serendipity seem to occur more frequently and strange coincidences crop up at every turn. I always feel at my most raw and exposed when writing a novel as if all of my senses are turned up to their highest setting. And it was in this state that I stood on that wooden bridge and looked up at the cliff face that surrounded it. Chance, coincidence, call it what you will, but I like to think that the name I saw carved on the rocks was a pat on the back, a silent message of hope. Simon.
In all my wildest dreams I could never have imagined that I would find myself hundreds of miles away from home, standing on a bridge that had moments before existed only in my head and looking up at the name of a young man who had encouraged me to write. Simon was my ex-boyfriend and great pal. We met in 2004 on a train from Darlington to London, got talking and never stopped. One summer night as we sat on the steps in Trafalgar Square listening to The Beatles on my iPod he turned to me and bet ten pounds that I would write a novel one day. I told him he was crazy. Simon died in 2012. I always felt he was my guardian angel, even when he was alive. That day on the train, when we met, I was at my lowest ebb but he made me laugh and gave me the courage to return to London and get on with ‘my one crazy life.’
Now, a decade later, he was here again and as I stood looking at his name I felt all my anxiety melt away.
Seeing Simon’s name in the place where my novel was set seemed to be a sign that all would be well and as I left the bridge and headed for the towers I felt my energy and spark returning. I could smell The Body Shop’s vanilla oil on the air and I smiled. Perhaps my thirteen year old self was walking alongside me as I crossed open countryside with the towers in my sights. This was, after all, a day for ghosts.
Huge rocks clad in seaweed stood like sleeping giants at the foot of the cliffs, guarding the fortress from below as I approached the towers. As I wandered through the ruins taking photographs and imagining the young Kate down there on the beach with a bomb in her hands I felt my own ghosts dissipate and, in their place, a renewed sense of purpose and creativity came to the fore. Sometimes you have to travel a long way from your desk to get a true sense of what it is you are trying to achieve and I had found it on a desolate cliff top.
I stayed up there for an hour or so before heading back along the cliffs to Herne Bay. Sand martins flew above my head and the path was strewn with candy-pink shells and postage stamps. The birds and shells were standard seaside fare but the stamps? They were everywhere: wedged into crevices, stuck to the seawall, scattered across the path like confetti. Maybe someone had dropped them, I reasoned, as I walked on, but they multiplied with every step I took. Finally I stopped and bent to pick them up like Hansel with his breadcrumbs.
When I examined them I went cold. These were old stamps and they had been neatly cut out from post that had already been sent. Black postmarks had been stamped on them and on the back of a purple 2p one someone had written the date: 1965.
As I gathered the stamps and put them in my pocket I giggled at the strangeness of it all. But as I walked I thought about the person who had inspired my novel; the woman I saw fleetingly when I worked at the Chelsea Arts Club in my twenties; the woman whose courage had taken her into the most brutal and terrifying places on earth; a woman who always managed to extract the human story from the horrors of war. Three years ago this month Marie Colvin, the award-winning Sunday Times Foreign Correspondent, was killed while reporting on the war in Syria. A couple of weeks after her death I read a piece written by her sister, Cat, who described how, when they were children, her older sister, Marie, would curl up and tell her bedtime stories from far-flung places. When she had finished she would smother her sister’s face in ‘postage stamp kisses’ so she could go off and explore those wonderful places in her dreams.
And as I opened my pocket and took out those coloured stamps I felt a sense of validation. There had been something fated about this trip to Herne Bay, something beyond research, beyond reason, and as I set off back to the B & B to write another 5000 words I knew that I was on the right track.