Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Attractions of the Country Town


Last weekend I was in Derbyshire, staying in a converted watermill near the town of Ashbourne. There had been a mill on the site since the Domesday book and the current building still preserves many ancient features from the 17th to the 19th centuries including a lot of the mill machinery cleverly built into the current, very elegant, accommodation.

The Peak District, as well as being a stunningly beautiful place, has lots of literary and historical associations. Some scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the 14th century poem, were set there. Sir Walter Scott set his 1823 novel Peveril of the Peak in Derbyshire and of course key scenes in Pride and Prejudice take place in the Peak District too. I had always thought that Charlotte Bronte drew her inspiration for Jane Eyre from Yorkshire but apparently that too was inspired by Derbyshire and one of my all time favourite time slip novels, A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley was set in the county. With so much literary inspiration around me I suppose it’s no wonder I felt a strong urge to set a book there myself!

I wandered around Ashbourne on the Saturday. The Peak District has been a tourist destination for centuries; the Dukes of Devonshire developed the town of Buxton as a spa resort in the 18th century and Ashbourne became a wealthy and fashionable social centre at the same time, attracting visitors who came to admire the scenery of Dovedale. Six of the coaching roads met there including the route from London to Carlisle. There are still a number of coaching inns and elegant 18th and 19th century town houses built by tradesmen, clergymen, doctors, lawyers and the country gentry. Naturally Ashbourne had assembly rooms and a social season offering the usual round of dances, card parties and theatricals. The Mansion is the most imposing Georgian house in the town and it’s garden contains a little summerhouse where Samuel Johnson, a friend of the owner, did some of his writing.

Ashbourne was also a parole town, housing 172 French prisoners of war during the period 1803 – 1814. They were billeted all over the town – I’m guessing that accommodation in the coaching inns and pubs was the most popular – and joined in with the social life of the town, and four of them married the four daughters of the landlord of the Cock Inn!

I enjoy Georgian and Regency books that are set in country towns and could quite see myself setting a book in Ashbourne. How do you feel about country town settings? Is there a particular book you enjoyed that was set outside of London?

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16 Comments:

Blogger Helena said...

I love country town settings! You have scope for people who know one another and those who don't. There are more likely to be interesting social events, and shopping too...

9:57 AM  
Blogger Louise Allen said...

I'm a country town fan too.So much richness of character with a smaller cast who know each other, if only by sight. And today the small towns are more likely to hang onto fascinating relics of the past.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Maria said...

I enjoyed your Fortune's Folly series very much & that was set in a country town.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Nicola Cornick said...

Thanks, Helena! I agree on the shopping! You get all sorts of quirky little shops in towns. One of the reasons I love Prudence Bebb's books about various towns in Regency times is all that detail on the social events and the shopping.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Nicola Cornick said...

I love that about small towns too, Louise. I spent ages in the Ashbourne Historical Association looking at all their Regency relics from POW carvings to boots and shoes!

2:36 PM  
Blogger Nicola Cornick said...

Thanks so much, Maria! I'm so pleased you liked that series. It was great fun setting it in a spa town.

2:36 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Hawksley said...

What an enjoyable post, Nicola. I agree with Helena. Country town settings have much to offer a novelist and Ashbourne seems to be almost perfect: beautiful scenery nearby - just right for picnics - a spa town with an Assembly room, and your pick of dashing French prisoners of war, too!

It reminds me of D. K. Broster's 'Mr Rowl', a book I've always enjoyed.

4:02 PM  
Blogger Rena George said...

A lovely post, Nicola. I adore delving into the past of the places I visit. Ashbourne also hosts a popular Highland Gathering every June.
The event’s website explains that some of the Highland dances are very old and go back to ancient rites in
The male dances show a definite leaning towards the warlike, with dirks and swords playing a prominent part.
The most famous dance is, of course, the Sword Dance. This could well be the oldest of the Scottish dances, performed centuries ago on the eve of battle as a means of relieving tension, exhibiting self-control, and seeking an omen for the forthcoming battle. Dislodging the sword during the dance was considered a bad omen.
Bagpipes were and are used by the Scots to stir their men into battle and put fear into their enemies.
Pipers have on many occasions distinguished themselves on the field of battle and several have been awarded the Victoria Cross.
Pipe Band Contests are recorded way back as far as 1905.
I like to think this Highland Gathering tradition, which began in 1985, pays homage to an event 240 years earlier when Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite rebellion marched on London from Scotland.
He got as far as Derby before turning back. But his arrival in the city in 1745 with 6,000 Highlanders was a defining moment in British history.
After three days in the city, he led the clansmen north again, to be brutally defeated in Inverness at the now infamous Battle of Culloden.
Each year in December, the Charles Edward Stuart Society stage two days of mock battles and re-enactments in Derby in memory of the Bonnie Prince.

7:24 PM  
Blogger Nicola Cornick said...

I enjoyed Mr Rowl very much too, Elizabeth. I should imagine it caused quite a stir in Ashbourne when the French prisoners of War arrived! There are a lot of wonderful stories about their exploits there.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Nicola Cornick said...

Hi Rena! What fascinating information about the Ashbourne - Scotland connection! I had read that Bonnie Prince Charlie had passed through but I didn't know all the details of the Highland Gathering. I rather fancy seeing that! Thank you for the information.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Great post, Nicola, and very interesting comments, too, I really enjoyed this.

I think the idea of the POWs marrying four daughters of the innkeeper MUST be inspiration for a book (or four)

4:47 PM  
Blogger Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Great post, Nicola, and very interesting comments, too, I really enjoyed this.

I think the idea of the POWs marrying four daughters of the innkeeper MUST be inspiration for a book (or four)

4:48 PM  
Blogger Katherine Bone said...

What an amazing experience! Love the Cock Inn information. That's what I love most about history. There's so much unexpected goodness in research and exploration.

I posted a link to this post on my wordpress site!

6:16 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

Great post, Nicola! Yes, I like country towns as settings and they make a nice change from London or Bath. I've really enjoyed Jan Jones's Regencies set in Newmarket as that wasn't a town I was familiar with, but I'm sure there are lots of others too!

9:10 PM  
Blogger Nicola Cornick said...

Sarah, I totally agree about the four daughters of the innkeeper. What a great story idea! They must have had quite a tendre for Frenchmen... or perhaps what one sister did the others felt they had to copy!

Katherine, thank you very much for the link. I too love these little snippets of information one picks up that illuminate real life. It does make it all vivid and real.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Nicola Cornick said...

Christina, thank you for reminding me about Jan's fabulous Newmarket Regencies. I must hunt them up for a re-read. There are lots of little towns I'd love to use as a setting for a series. There are always so many great real life stories to provide inspiration!

7:30 AM  

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