28 December 2012

On Location for The Link

In the course of writing my historical thriller, The Link, my grandiose plans soon birthed  a number of roadblocks that threatened to detour the project. One of these was the locations. As soon as I determined that my story would be centred around the events leading up to the announcement of the Piltdown Man finds in 1912, the locations pretty much decided themselves: the story would be set in London (the home of the natural History Museum) and Lewes (the Sussex home of Charles Dawson who featured prominently in the affair.)

As I dove into the the plot, it became pretty clear that the settings were also going to be core elements in the story. I couldn’t simply say “McKay ran down a street”; I would need to be clear what street. In Lewes the Castle had to loom over all the action and in London the Natural History Museum would be virtually a character in the story. I had to convey a real sense of place and atmosphere. 

I couldn’t justify the cost of a trip from Sydney, so I started collecting contemporary maps and photographs. For a couple of years I was resigned to the reality that, distance and money being what they were, I would have to live with photos, maps and my meagre imagination as the sources for the places in The Link.

Toward the end of 2008 the Baker Street Irregulars, that venerable New-York-based Sherlock Holmes society, announced that it would be launching my Australia and Sherlock Holmes at its annual Sherlockian celebrations the following January. My co-editor on that book, Bill Barnes, and I started talking about how great it would be to actually be there for the launch. Before you could say “The red-headed league is dissolved,” we had agreed to make the trip. And as long as I was going that far, why not continue around the world, stopping at the Sherlock Holmes Society of London’s annual dinner? And then . . . Well, you can see where I’m going with this.

So it was that on Friday, January 16 2009, I climbed the broad steps of the Natural History Museum on Cromwell Road in South Kensington and stepped inside London’s venerable house of nature. The bogus Piltdown fossils lay in a cabinet somewhere in the building and it was important for me to acquaint myself with them, but just as important was my need to soak up the atmosphere and details of the museum itself.

Humans in any era have a remarkable capacity for building structures of surpassing ugliness, monuments to misguided vision that the following generation just can’t wait to swing a wrecking ball at. The Natural History Museum is not one of these. It is, in fact, a brilliant example of a purpose-built building, a place supremely fitted for its job. Opened in 1881,  it is a temple to the natural world.
The building’s two imposing wings converge on a pair of square spired towers that flank an expansive arched public entranceway. The exterior stone is faced with terracotta and cobalt-blue tiles. Inside the doors you pass immediately into the great hall, a vast chamber 170 feet (52m) long with a high vaulted ceiling. The huge space is largely empty except for a cast of a full-sized 80-foot long (24m) dinosaur skeleton - a diplodocus. Affectionately known as Dippy, it was a gift of the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1905 and has presided over the great hall ever since. The only other bit of ornamentation is a white marble statue of Charles Darwin himself, gazing benevolently over the proceedings from his seat on the far landing.

The great hall in the Natural History Museum.
Darwin's statue resides at the far end on the landing.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this building is its ornamentation. Terracotta animals, birds, fishes and plants are scattered liberally over the interior and exterior surfaces. Ivy snakes up columns, monkeys gaze wickedly down from cornices, fleet-footed little dinosaurs sprint along the walls. Even the ceiling panels bear painted elements of nature, both extant and extinct.

My host was Robert Kruszynski, a curator in anthropology at the museum. He led me to his office in the bowels of the building where he presented me with a stack of cardboard boxes. After a quick tour of the contents, he left me alone with the sacred artifacts. “Take as much time as you need,” he said affably. And I did. I describe the various Piltdown pieces in The Link and I’ll wax poetic about my hands-on experience with them in a future blog.
One of the NHM's many
terracotta monkeys

I returned to the Museum the following day and haunted its halls and galleries, trying to picture what it would have been like in 1912: bowler-hatted men in starched collars rushing by on their Museum business; young mothers with their troops of restless children and long-suffering governesses trying to make the best of a rainy day; eager-eyed students of antiquity hovering over the display cases, notebooks and pencils in hand.

The London Docks in 1882
The Museum would be my main story location in London. For other places, such as the defunct Mark Lane underground station and the London Docks, which had been filled in for development during the 1970s, a visit was impossible. I needed to fall back on my imagination again.

On the Sunday afternoon I followed Stephen McKay’s example and caught the train from Victoria Station – not the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway this time: simply Southern – arriving an hour or so later at Lewes. And like McKay, I trudged up Station Street, turned left at the High Street and checked into the White Hart Hotel.

The White Hart, Lewes High Street (2009)
Based on photographs, Lewes hasn’t changed much since 1912. It is a quiet country town with a population today of about 16,000. Harveys still brews traditional bitter and ales and the White Hart still welcomes guests in accommodations much like what McKay experienced.  

I had already plotted the story by this time, so I knew my locations. I just had to visit them in person.

My first stop, for very good reasons, as you’ll know if you’ve read The Link, was Lewes Castle. Built shortly after the 1066 Norman conquest by one of William of Normandy’s companions, it served the local barons well over the following centuries but fell into disuse and by the end of the 16th century it was already described as a ruin. Today it crouches on the highest point of land in the town and, diminished though it be, it still dominates the area. Only two of the original three towers survive along with the walls connecting them, and those are much broken down. The rest of the walls are almost completely destroyed.

The walled structure encloses the keep, an open circular lawn dominated by a massive lime tree at its centre. I could not wait to climb the winding path up the 50-foot high castle mound and soak up the atmosphere of the keep.

Lewes Castle from the bottom, with the unclimbable path
under construction
But it was not to be. Health and safety regulations and a view to modernisation had mandated that the path be rebuilt, so I was confronted with a “Do Not Enter” sign and a bunch of workmen toiling away at the ruined path. I was informed by the nice folks in neighbouring Barbican House, home of the Sussex Archaeological Society which owns the castle, that for reasons of insurance liability no exceptions could be made, even for an author who has traveled all the way from Australia. Once again I would need to rely on old photographs, in this case a single one.

Lewes Castle keep (early 20th century).
Note the policeman.
I was able, however, to wander up the narrow lane called Castle Gate, past the red-bricked Barbican House and through the Barbican Gate where I could view the castle from the bottom.

Castle Lodge (2009) with Lewes
Castle above.
Up the path a bit, if you peer over the stone wall faced with local flints and topped with rounded bricks, you can spot Castle Lodge, the home in 1912 of the famous Charles Dawson, discoverer of Piltdown Man. In my novel I have described the house in some detail based on historical photos and documents, but I was reluctant to poke my camera – or indeed myself – through the gate out of respect for the owners, for it is still a private home.

In the three pleasant days I spent in Lewes, I managed to check out a number of iconic spots in town and get a sense of the place, including some of its historic public houses.

There was one more disappointment. On a cold, drizzly January afternoon I spent a soggy hour wandering through the quiet churchyard of St John Sub Castro (“under the castle”) Church, peering at ancient gravestones but I failed to find Dawson’s grave. Since I returned home, I managed to locate its photo, taken by more perceptive observers.

St John's churchyard. Charles Dawson is in there somewhere.
St Nicholas Lane, where Parker & McKay encountered some small difficulties
Lewes High Street (2009)
Countryside at the edge of town (2009), where in 1912
a company of vandals launched a furtive night-time raid.
Castle Gate looking toward the Barbican Gate (2009). Castle Lodge just visible to the left.
Barbican House on the right, impenetrable construction barrier on the left.
The lesson of my expedition was clear: there is no substitute for going on location if you’re writing about a place. It gives me new respect for those science fiction writers who make life on Mars or in the 23rd century Earth come alive. 

The Link is published by Loquat Valley Books, 2012. You can pick up a copy here.

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