There’s a buzz of excitement in Fowey ahead of the release of My Cousin Rachel. The bookshop, run by du Maurier enthusiast Ann Willmore, is busier than normal, and its window is stacked with glossy new editions of the 1951 novel, featuring Rachel Weisz on the cover.
“It’s been a very long time since anything of Daphne’s was made for the cinema,” says Ann. “Some will be looking at the film with trepidation, but just think what it could do for her if people really love it.”
Sitting at the mouth of an estuary, Fowey is Daphne du Maurier’s hometown and has attracted her fans for years. Even Daphne’s husband, Major Frederick Browning, was drawn to the area after reading her debut novel, The Loving Spirit. He sailed the coast on his motorboat Ygdrasil until he found her, and three months later they were married at Lanteglos church.
The countryside Daphne explored as a young woman features in many of her novels, at first with fictional names, like the boatyard in The Loving Spirit, but later with real names such as the farms in My Cousin Rachel. By the time Daphne wrote the House on the Strand – the book most people ask for in Fowey – the places are exactly as you find them today. Her world of mysterious creeks and wreckers’ coves, bleak moors and gothic mansions really exists, and has changed little over the years and makes south Cornwall an idyllic base for a family holiday.
Fowey from above
We visit with my three young children on the night of an electric storm so fierce it shakes our mobile home. We’re staying at Par Sands, a peaceful beach resort just west of Gribbin Head and the Menabilly estate, which appears as the Barton in My Cousin Rachel, and Manderley in Rebecca.
By morning the storm’s blown away and when we head to Readymoney Cove, the sun’s shining and the water is calm enough for the kids to swim. During the Second World War, Daphne and her children spent a year here at Readymoney Cottage, the former coach house to Point Neptune, a grand 40-bed Italianate mansion across the road. When I look at Point Neptune’s gates, I catch my breath, for anyone who’s read the famous first paragraph of Rebecca will know exactly what I’m looking at: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter…”
Point Neptune’s gates
Sadly, what lies behind is not actually Manderley, but Dawn French’s house. The real mansion that inspired the setting of Rebecca is three miles away. I don’t get long to admire the gates as the kids are already stripping off and sprinting down to the cove, which is where I leave them with their dad while I sneak off for a walk in the footsteps of Daphne du Maurier.
The temperature drops as I enter the woods, which are still damp from last night’s storm. The moss-fringed path is slippery underfoot and the sun is blotted out by ferns and vines. It’s not until I emerge on the cliff by St Catherine’s Castle that the bay reappears, glistening turquoise below. There must be 50 yachts out racing, their spinnakers a blaze of colour as they gybe downwind towards the harbour. Like the heroine in Rebecca, Daphne loved sailing. She had a boat of her own and was never happier than on the water.
She wasn’t always a countrywoman, though. Born in London in 1907, Daphne was privately educated and attended finishing school in Paris. It wasn’t until her family bought a holiday home in Boddinick, overlooking the River Fowey, that she discovered Cornwall. The house, known as Ferryside, is where she first began writing, and is still the home of her son Kits Browning (see main picture).
The coastal path, which didn’t exist in Daphne’s day, lies at the bottom of the Menabilly estate. As I chat with a dog-walker in a field of wildflowers and gorse, I imagine her doing the same, and gleaning some historical nugget that she’d later immortalise in print. It was on one of these hikes, with her sister Angela, that Daphne ventured inland and discovered the empty, neglected house at Menabilly. It was owned by the Rashleigh family and for the next 15 years she pleaded with them to lease it to her, which they eventually did in 1942.
Still privately owned, Menabilly is impossible to see from the land, which perhaps adds to its near-mythical status. Helen Luther, the curator of Fowey Museum, is one of the lucky few to have visited the house.
“I remember going to Menabilly as a very small child and playing on Tommy’s boat, Iggy, which was at the bottom of the garden. The house was lovely – though we did hear stories about it being haunted by a blue lady.”
Helen’s father was friendly with Daphne Du Maurier and helped with her medical research. In the museum there’s a copy of the House on the Strand, in which he appears as the doctor. Daphne signed the book to him: “with much love from your schizophrenic and devoted friend”.
The fascinating Fowey Museum is a must-see for du Maurier fans, as are several other sites in Fowey, which I discover with Blue Badge tour guide Lynn Gould, who does walks at the annual Daphne du Maurier festival.
“As a guide, I feel I’m not interpreting Daphne du Maurier’s books, but interpreting the countryside to make people aware of what she’s writing about,” says Lynn.
She stops from time to time to read passages from Daphne’s books, and tells me of one occasion when the scene actually came to life.
“I was reading a piece from the King’s General,” she recalls. “There was a buoy out to sea and a smudge of a sail just as she wrote it. I’m looking at the people and saying ‘the swans thrash their way out to sea’, and just as I did the swans on the lake took off. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. What is Daphne trying to tell me? I wondered. It was quite eerie!”
We have no ghostly experiences today, but I really do feel closer to the author with every landmark Lynn points out. There’s the Fowey Hotel, where she met with writer and academic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, and his home, the Haven, where he lived with his daughter Foy, a friend of Daphne’s. We continue along the Esplanade, passing the former private school where her daughters went, and walk towards the centre of the village.
Fowey is picture-book Cornwall. Its narrow, winding streets are lined with white fisherman’s cottages with daisies bursting out of stone walls. There are palm-trees and monkey-puzzles in the gardens, and echiums that grow 10ft high in the verges. They’re self-seeded, Lynn tells me. If you try to grow them you’ll fail; but if you don’t want them, you’ll have a whole cluster of them in your garden.
Fowey’s streets were clearly designed before the motorcar, as on more than one occasion I’m forced to leap for safety into someone’s doorway as a Landrover Discovery trundles by. Thankfully, there’s not too much traffic because there’s a large car park on the outskirts of town.
We stop at St Fimbarrus Church, which is featured in the novel My Cousin Rachel. “Can you imagine: Philip is worshipping here, while Rachel is having her secret assignation with Rainaldi in the back room of the pub next door,” says Lynn. “You can imagine all the dark wood panelling and red furnishings lit by candlelight.”
I look around, baffled because there’s no sign of any pub – just a war memorial. Lynn smiles, and explains that there used to be a pub here called the Rose and Crown, but it was knocked down in 1810 after its owner was hanged for murder. “Daphne du Maurier was really very good at historical research. She obviously worked out what was here at the time and used it,” she says.
Leaving the church, we head down to the Ship Inn, a former merchant’s house owned by the Rashleigh family. In Frenchman’s Creek, the heroine Dona, dressed as a cabin boy, knocks on the front door to summon Rashleigh to his ship in Fowey Haven.
The main setting for Frenchman’s Creek is 50 miles to the west on the Helford River, where Daphne spent her honeymoon on the motorboat Ygdrasil. I don’t make it as far as Frenchman’s Creek, but the following day I experience a similar landscape, “hidden from the eye’s of men”, while kayaking with Encounter Cornwall in Golant.
Here, just a few miles north of Fowey, the estuary is tranquil and perfectly still, except for the ripples from my paddle as we row past miles of ancient woodland, once used for shipbuilding. We stop for a coffee at the pretty village of Lerryn then head back, spotting herons, kingfishers and an abandoned settlement from the days when Cornwall was built for passage by sea.
As I reluctantly pull my kayak ashore, I learn that it was this stretch of river that inspired Kenneth Grahame to write Wind in the Willows. “Believe me young friend,” says Ratty to Mole, “there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” I have to agree, and I’m sure Daphne du Maurier did, too.
Later, I join the family for afternoon tea at the Fowey Hotel, where Grahame’s letters are on display. Written to his young son on the hotel’s headed paper, they tell the riverbank tales that would later develop into his much-loved books.
A table is laid for us with the most beautiful china and a view overlooking the estuary. But the kids are restless, so we take tea in the garden instead where they run wild while we enjoy the Cornish sunshine. A seagull eyes my scone, and the moment we leave he snatches it from the table, reminding me of du Maurier’s story The Birds, which Alfred Hitchcock adapted into film, only he used crows instead of gulls.
We spend the remainder of our holiday exploring the beaches at Polkerris (which is Poldrea in Rule Britannia) and Polridmouth, where Daphne stood on the beach for the last time before she died in 1989. Both are tantalisingly close to Menabilly, but the nearest you can get to the house is by renting Polridmouth Cottage, which was the inspiration for the boathouse in Rebecca. From here, I’m told by a Daphne du Maurier fan who stays there, you can “knock on the door of the big house for the keys”.
On our last day in Cornwall, there’s just one more place to visit, though I have misgivings when we pull off the busy A30 and arrive at the same time as a coach tour. Jamaica Inn, a 45-minute drive from Fowey, is the setting of Daphne’s fourth novel, a sinister tale of murder, shipwrecks and smuggling. Daphne discovered it while out riding with Foy on Bodmin Moor. Lost in fog, they let their horses run freely, and found themselves at the 18th-century coaching inn.
These days it’s a tourist attraction with hotel rooms, a gift shop, museum, and “photo opportunity” with wax figures of Mary Yellan and the albino vicar of Altarnum. We have coffee and the kids play in the pirate ship outside, and then we head home, box ticked.
Though I’m glad to have finally seen Jamaica Inn, it’s Menabilly – or Manderley – that I’m in love with. The stunning coves, the cliff-top walks, the wildflowers and the fields… even Dawn French’s front gate has cast a spell on me. And though I’ve never actually seen the house, it was without doubt the most exciting place of all. I guess some things are just best left to the imagination.
A week in a Par Sands static home starts at £225. On-site facilities include an indoor swimming pool, adventure playground and Italian restaurant. For details see parholidays.co.uk. For more information on holidays in Cornwall see visitcornwall.com. For kayaking tours visit encountercornwall.com.
My Cousin Rachel is in cinemas on 9 June
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