Ann Cleeves on falling for the North East: “I knew immediately it would be a brilliant place to set crime novels”

The author of Vera lives in Whitley Bay and likes to spend days off climbing sand dunes and spotting otters

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It’s a surprise to discover you’re a southerner…

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Yes, I’m a Geordie by choice not birth. I’ve lived in the North East since the 80s and love it. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

What is it about the North East?

I think it’s the space and then the people. I just knew immediately that it would be a brilliant place to set the traditional crime novels that I wrote – because people do know everybody’s business and you get a real mix of different people. It might be quite tricky to write a contemporary traditional crime story set in a southern village where most of the people are commuting to London or so busy that you never meet your neighbours. Whereas in Northumberland it’s not like that at all – even now.

Where do you live nowadays?

Whitley Bay, a town on the coast just north of Newcastle. I like being on the edge. Even if I don’t go and look at the sea everyday, it’s nice to know that’s where I am.

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St Mary’s Lighthouse, Whitley Bay

Did you grow up by the sea?

I lived in North Devon from the age of 11 until I left home. That was lovely too but it did get so busy with visitors. Northumberland has got lots of space for everyone. Even on a bank holiday, you can go to one of those great long stretches of beach and there are very few people there. The great thing about Vera is that it’s bring people to the North East and people are seeing how wonderful it is.

Why is place so important in your books?

It’s where characters and stories grow from. So Vera grew up in the hills in Northumberland with a father who was an illegal taxidermist and egg collector, so her form of rebellion was to join the police. And you get that sense of far away horizons and big skies from the character, not just the setting – they are all very much linked.


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Why is Vera’s surname a real village in County Durham – Stanhope?

She came fully formed with the name so I’m not entirely sure. Brenda Blethyn – who plays her – says that people are always asking her where the name Vera comes from and she says: “It’s obvious. The Latin root “ver” means “truth.” But no, it’s just a name that came into my head when I started writing her.

What’s your ideal Saturday?

We’d potter up the coast and call into Newbiggin – which is an ex-pit village on the coast – and go for a walk along the seafront. There’s a marine center there that does nice coffee and cake. Then we’d drive up the coast a bit further, go for a blow along the beach at Druridge, climb over the sand dunes and look for geese and otters at Cresswell. We’d finish off with a lovely seafood lunch at Amble.

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Druridge Bay

Anything else you’d recommend snacking on?

Go to Craster and eat smoked fish. Craster is a village with its own smokery. The kippers are famous and they do smoked salmon as well. Look out for little griddle cakes called “singing hinnies” – “hinny” is a term of endearment to a rural Northumberlander.


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Ann’s guide to the North East:

Most tourists come to the castles and beaches of north Northumberland, but south-eastern Sunderland has a lot to recommend it. So you could start at Whitley Bay, which is a faded seaside town that’s trying to come back to life in lots of little ways – community enterprises, arts projects, a new community garden. We have a lovely little independent cinema called the Jam Jar, which is run by volunteers. People are really working to try and restore its faded glory.

Just a little way north, there’s the Woodhorn Colliery Museum, which is testament to the fact that it used to be all pits in Northumberland. I think something like 2000 men used to work in Woodhorn and you get a real sense of where the industrial wealth came from. And the grounds are probably the best place in Northumberland to see red squirrels.

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Hadrian’s Wall

Go up the coast a little way more and you’ve got Druridge Bay, which is this lovely wide sweep of sand. Just inland from it are lots of subsidence pools, which again came from the pits. You’d never realise that now because they’re beautiful nature reserves. If you’re interested in natural history, go and see the otters in Cresswell or Druridge.

A little way further north again, there’s a small town called Amble on the coast. It used to be thought of as a bit rough but people are now taking pride in it again. There are some really good fish restaurants and craft shops. From there, you can get the boat out to Coquet Island to see the puffins.

Don’t forget the beautiful places inland. I think you’d have to go and have a look at Hadrian’s Wall, which stands in the most beautiful countryside. You can look out across that sweep of moorland towards Cumbria. There are lots of very pretty little market towns to explore like Hexham, Rothbury and Wooler.


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Vera returns on Sunday 31 January on ITV at 8pm 

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