Being an admitted Anglophile, there’s not too much about Great Britain I don’t enjoy, but I adore the Lake District and knew I would ultimately use that place as a setting for a novel in my Nora Tierney mystery series. The land of Wordsworth, Ruskin and the inimitable Beatrix Potter, it comprises almost nine hundred square miles of national park, the largest such area in England and Wales, all lying within the county of Cumbria.
This area is the most picturesque I’ve seen in England, with the bluest skies and fluffiest clouds. It contains England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, and its largest lake, Windermere. There are shallow tarns, rising fells, sparkling ghylls and every species of tree found in Britain in its woodlands. The area’s unparalleled beatify beckons lovers of nature: hikers and campers, fisherman and boaters, artists and writers.
I’ve visited Dove Cottage in Grasmere where Wordsworth lived with his sister Dorothy from 1799 until 1808, during the years he produced some of his most memorable poetry. The Lakeland house of stone, plaster and whitewashed walls is carefully preserved and can be seen almost as it was in Wordsworth’s day.
Only two miles away in the hamlet of Rydal is Rydal Mount, his home from 1813 to 1850. A field of daffodils, named in memory of his beloved daughter, Dora, runs beside the road from Ambleside to Grasmere. Rydal Mount contains family portraits, first editions and personal possessions of the poet.
Artist and writer John Ruskin’s home stands on the eastern shore of Coniston Water. Brantwood was his home for twenty-eight years, and the house is preserved with most of his furniture, pictures and books in place. From his lovely garden, visitors can sit at tables, share a snack, and take in the view across the lake to the peak of Coniston Old Man.
Another spot I have fond memories of is Hill Top farm, Beatrix Potter’s home in Near Sawrey. That house is also open to visitors and is one of the busiest National Trust properties in the region. Potter bequeathed 14 farms and over 4,000 acres to the National Trust in her will so that the land would never be developed.
There is much to see and do in Cumbria, even if you’re not a hiker or outdoor enthusiast. Many homes and attractive gardens exist in the Lakeland area, ranging from Middle Ages farmhouses to huge castles built and restored over many centuries.
In southern Cumbria near Grange-over-Sands (the area Elizabeth George set her latest Lynley novel, Believing the Lie) is Holker Hall, a large rambling mansion complete with a green-roofed turret and extensive gardens with rare shrubs and trees. It houses fine examples of paintings and carved furniture. Near Kendal are two beauties: Levens Hall’s garden includes topiary forms laid out in their original 17th-century pattern; Sizergh Castle features a 14th-century pele tower and a 15th-century great hall. And in the western Lake District, near Ravenglass, Muncaster Castle has gardens boasting one of Europe’s finest collections of azaleas and rhododendrons.
It was an easy decision when I was writing The Blue Virgin to picture Nora moving to the Lake District. I devised a way for that to happen, and she’s packing up for that move as the first book in the series opens.
In the second book, The Green Remains, Nora is settled into Ramsey Lodge for at least the next year, working alongside the illustrator of her children’s books, awaiting the birth of her first child in the lakeside village of Bowness-on-Windermere. And of course, she becomes involved in a murder investigation.
The books are a mix of cozy and police procedural, as Nora manages to ruffle the feathers of the investigating officers on each case. I moved the characters around the village of Bowness and its neighboring town of Windermere with ease, trying to capture the nature-filled sense of the region. Indeed, Nora’s brisk walk around the shore of Windermere leads to her discovering a body at the water’s edge and sets the events of the story in motion.
When I wrote The Green Remains, I kept my local maps of Bowness clipped to cardboard in front of my laptop. My photo albums of the village are on a shelf behind me, and a few of them are clipped to the same cardboard. But it had been a while since I’d physically been there, and I needed a local contact to clarify things for me newly retired Steve Sharpe of the Kendal Station, Cumbria Constabulary, did the honors, and here I struck gold.
Steve had grown up in the area, and is something of a local naturalist and fisherman. Besides being able to answer my questions about policing and proper titles for everyone from my detective to the pathologist, he gave me wonderful information about things like: what is in bloom in autumn? What birds would be around? What is the weather like at that time of year? Steve has become a long-distance email friend and is still answering my questions. And that’s a good thing, as I am writing the third book in the series, also set in the Lake District, The Scarlet Wench.
Marni Graff is the author of the Nora Tierney mystery series, set in the UK. The Blue Virgin is set in Oxford and introduces Nora, an American writer living in England. She becomes involved in a murder investigation to clear her best friend as a suspect, to the chagrin of DI Declan Barnes. The Green Remains follows Nora’s move to Cumbria where she’s awaiting the publication of her first children’s book and the birth of her first child. When Nora stumbles across the corpse at the edge of Lake Windermere, she realizes she recognizes the dead man. Then her friend and illustrator, Simon Ramsey, is implicated in the murder of the heir to Clarendon Hall, and Nora swings into sleuth mode.
Graff is also co-author of Writing in a Changing World, a primer on writing groups and critique techniques. She writes a weekly mystery book review at www.auntiemwrites.wordpress.com. A member of Sisters in Crime, Graff runs the NC Writers Read program in Belhaven and founded the group Coastal Carolina Mystery Writers. She has also published poetry, last seen in Amelia Earhart: A Tribute; her creative nonfiction has most recently appeared in Southern Women’s Review. Her books can be bought at Amazon.com or at http://www.bridlepathpress.com.