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?