Crime writer Ann Cleeves bases new detective series in North Devon
- Credit: Jim Wileman
Award-winning crime writer Ann Cleeves tells Catherine Courtenay why her latest detective is based in North Devon. Photos by Jim Wileman
Walking along the embankment where Rock Park meets the River Taw in Barnstaple must bring back many memories for crime writer Ann Cleeves.
Ann is the international bestselling author of the Vera and Shetland books, which have both been made into long-running television dramas.
The locations for each series, Northumberland and Shetland, play a key role in the stories, drawing on Ann's experience of living for many years in the north. It must have been a surprise for fans to learn that Ann had chosen faraway North Devon as the setting for her first new series in 20 years.
But Barnstaple is where Ann grew up, her parents moving to the town from Herefordshire when she was around 11 years old. Her father Don Richardson was head teacher at Umberleigh Primary School, later moving on to Woolacombe School, but the family lived at Sticklepath in Barnstaple.
Ann went to Park School, which was then the Barnstaple Grammar School; it was a "totally liberating" experience she says, having previously been in a tiny school of 30 pupils.
Each day she would have walked to school through Rock Park. She's now on that same path, having her photograph taken for Devon Life.
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"It was so very open and friendly, and I loved my sixth form," she says. A few pages into her new book, The Long Call, the main character, DI Matthew Venn recalls going to the same school.
Matthew is following in illustrious fictional detective footsteps. DI Jimmy Perez was the lead character in eight Shetland books; and then there's DCI Vera Stanhope, immortalised by Brenda Blethyn on television.
Having felt she had come to the end of her Shetland series, Ann was on the lookout for a new crime setting.
"I had rejected Devon as being a bit pretty, all cosy thatched cottages, but then I came back and spent more time here."
Staying with her old school friend Sue Beardshall, Ann was inspired by places like Ilfracombe, with its transient summer workers, large properties turned into flats and its creative community. It reminded her of her home in Whitley Bay, she says.
"I went on a road trip with Sue, to Braunton, Crow Point and Saunton and soaked up the atmosphere - and memories came back. There's an awful lot to explore and write about."
More memories come back as we sit having a coffee in the Imperial Hotel, just along from Rock Park.
"I did some waitressing work at the Imperial," Ann suddenly remembers, before revealing that on one occasion disgraced MP Jeremy Thorpe was dining at the hotel. "I spilt a spoonful of sprouts over him. I'd thought he was quite nice before, but he was very cross and grumpy… But I don't blame him!"
She was never a star pupil at school, but Ann was always writing: "A diary and lots of short stories and letters; I was always trying to put thoughts into words."
"Writing is fun", says the author who gets up very early to write at her kitchen table in her pyjamas with a plentiful supply of tea. "It would never have occurred to me to do this as a job," she adds.
Instead, after a stint as a community service volunteer in London when she was 17, she became a child care officer.
"It was very stressful and I was too young." On a whim, after hearing that a friend was going to Fair Isle to be assistant warden, she went along too, filling a vacancy for an assistant cook and subsequently meeting her late husband, the ornithologist Tim Cleeves.
The couple spent a winter back in North Devon, then moved to Wales where Tim worked for the RSPB, before then going to Hilbre island. Close to Liverpool and Birkenhead, it was a challenging place to live. "We were the only people living there; we had no mains water or electricity."
Ann was training to be a probation officer and ended up commuting across the water to work in deprived areas of Merseyside. She started writing in her mid twenties, when she'd stopped work to have their first child. First published in 1986, she had no commercial success for 20 years.
It seems odd, considering her complex storylines, to hear Ann say she never knows what will happen in her books.
"I never plot in advance, I write like a reader. The first scene comes first and I don't know anything, but something happens. Perhaps a murder? But I don't know who it is… I've got to write the next chapter to find out."
But the location and people in her books are deep in her psyche. "Matthew couldn't have come from anywhere else. He's grown out of this place and this community."
The official launch of The Long Call will be in North Devon at Broomhill Art Hotel near Barnstaple. After a month's touring with the book, Ann will return north to Vera's landscape. She writes a book a year, and it's Vera's turn - so she won't be 'in Matthew's head' for a little while.
But whether it's Vera or Matthew, she's excited at the prospect of being at her kitchen table, writing.
"It's just fun, it's what every kid does in the playground, pretending to be someone else and telling stories.
"It's just natural, it's not work."
The Long Call, the first in Ann Cleeves' Two Rivers Series, was published by Pan Macmillan on September 5.
North Devon locations that feature in The Long Call include:
- Crow Point: The book opens with the discovery of a body at Crow Point. It's also where the book's hero, Matthew Venn, has a house.
- Ilfracombe: The police are led to a house in the town as part of their investigations
- Braunton: DI Matthew Venn gets caught up in the all too familiar traffic congestion in the centre of the village.
- Barnstaple: As in real life, the police station is at the Civic Centre. A new arts and community centre, formed from old riverside warehouses, which features in the book, is based on the derelict Oliver buildings, part of the former Shapland and Petter riverside site. The book opens with Matthew witnessing the funeral of his father at the North Devon Crematorium.