Rare orchid inspires Windermere author's new book

An historic novel published on both sides of the Atlantic has its roots in the Lancashire soil – just like its subject.

When Dee Swift went on a ramble in the lush north Lancashire countryside it took her on a trail littered with murder, romance and revenge, plus a fair smattering of swashbuckling.

She was following a route between Arnside and Silverdale when suddenly the way was barred by a white tent. ‘Inside was a burly man from English Nature who was guarding the rare lady’s slipper orchid, which was flowering further down the path,’ says Dee.

There are only a couple of places in Britain where this orchid occurs naturally and the Silverdale site is well-known among plant lovers. It attracts people from around the world as well as the odd plant thief, which explains the horticultural heavy.

‘A bit taken aback that a guard should be patrolling such a quiet country lane, we followed him to take a look,’ she says. ‘It was a thrilling moment. The orchid took me by surprise - it looked like it had come from another world. It was so out of place, so bizarre looking.’

Back home in Windermere, Dee started to research the history of the plant and her fascination grew into the plot for a novel, The Lady’s Slipper, which is published in hardback this month in the UK and the United States.

It revolves around this rare bloom and it features characters from Preston, Kendal and Westmorland with scenes inside Lancaster gaol. It is set in 1660 in an England resuming its love of monarchy after years of rule by Cromwell. It’s also a time when supporters of Charles II want revenge for the execution of the old king.

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Just over the Lancashire border in Westmorland, a fictitious village called Netherbarrow is riven with bitterness and rivalry following the Civil War.

There, a former solder turned Quaker has the prized orchid growing on his land.

When it is stolen a wide range of characters come under suspicion - the neighbour and artist Alice Ibbetson, who is captivated by its beauty, the herbalist who is seduced by its medicinal powers and the local landowner who hopes the orchid’s value will restore his fortune.

‘There is quite a lot of swashbuckling and a few cliff-hangers,’ says Dee, who recalls first putting pen to paper to write a story for a competition run by BBC’s Jackanory.

Years later, being selected for the highly-regarded creative writing course at Lancaster University set her on the road to being published. The first few chapters of The Lady’s Slipper resulted in her being shortlisted for a national award and this later helped to attract an agent.

The author, who escaped city life in Manchester to live in the Lakes, is launching the book at Townend, the National Trust property at Troutbeck, on June 7 at 4pm. Meanwhile she’s putting the finishing touches to a second historical romance.

Dee was formerly a freelance set and costume designer for the theatre and BBC Television, working on programmes such as the Lenny Henry Show and The Young Ones. Who would bet against the Lady’s Slipper emerging as a TV costume drama in the near future?

The Lady’s Slipper by Deborah Swift is published in Macmillan New Writing on June 4.

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