Continuing our series of locations that have inspired Prime Writers, Sarah Vaughan explores the wild beauty of Cornwall and how it inspired her latest novel, The Farm at the End of the World.
When I was a girl, we holidayed in a pilot’s cottage on the edge of a cove in north Cornwall, where the water pooled petrol-blue and deep then slithered over the sand all day. Behind us the cliffs were high: a headland where you were buffeted by the wind and the sky stretched from Land’s End, to the west, and all the way up to Devon. In front of us, the estuary shifted: silvered puddles of water then ribbons of sea, and then a mass of charcoal ocean through which fishing trawlers chugged, drawing seagulls and wheeling guillemots in their wake.
Beyond the sea, there were fields and a farm: a low-slung stretch of granite seen on the horizon. Our stay would often coincide with the harvest and I would watch the combine as it trundled through the fields of barley all week. The air was thick with the smell of crushed camomile, dog rose and gorse, and the shoreline casually offered its gems: jewel-like anemones; blennies and crabs; a shoal of mackerel, spiraling through the water; a pair of seals, spied from the cliffs as they basked on the salt-lashed rocks beneath.
This area to the west of Padstow became almost mythologized in my imagination: the cliffs I chose to visit for my 21st birthday; the place I couldn’t wait to show the man I would marry and, later, our kids. And each time I return, that view provokes the same response: a pricking of my eyes; a swelling of my heart; an overwhelming sense that this is the place where I belong; where I am happiest. Those positive memories come tumbling back. “Don’t tell me,” says one child. The other rolls his eyes. “Yep. It’s made her cry again.”
With The Farm at the Edge of the World, I wanted to capture that sense of a place that is so emotionally powerful it becomes a character in its own right – in much the same way as Egdon Heath (The Return of the Native), Manderley (Rebecca), Jamaica Inn, Wuthering Heights or Fox Corner (Life After Life). I needed the reader to understand the lure of the place as well as its complexity: a setting packed tight with memories that are dark as well as light.
For I didn’t want to evoke merely the Cornwall of my golden, childhood memories but one at the outer reaches of civilization: at the edge of the world, where dark events can take place. The darkest moment in the novel takes place on Bodmin moor and I needed to conjure up a Cornwall that can be windswept, desolate, lonely and, out-of-season, really quite bleak.
My research took me deep into the moor as the mist came down; saw me exploring tiny hamlets; then clambering along the cliffs. I’ve swum in its sea; rock-pooled on the shores; probed its caves; and sunk into its silky sand dunes. It’s my love letter to Cornwall and I hope I’ve done it justice.