I write a lot about the countryside, probably because 23 years of my life have been spent living there. But the 24 other ones have been spent living in towns and cities.
In the 70’s we spent Saturdays at my grandparents’ house, on a street in the heart of the Black Country. The houses on that street were stuffed with my relatives; Aunty Dolly, Uncle Jack, Aunty Vera, Uncle Ted, Aunty Esther, Uncle Harry… a tight tribe, full of portents and proclamations. My grandparents were much older than the other children’s; they called me ‘wench’ and seemed to belong to another time.
Their house was very interesting. There were shoe boxes of sepia seaside photos, drawers containing mysterious old papers and a visiting Communist uncle who called me ‘comrade’. These were different times: the Rag and Bone man still visited and stray dogs patrolled patches of waste ground, occasionally succumbing to makeshift leads. There were even abandoned air-raid shelters and brambly rubbish tips to find treasure in.
Best of all were the travellers’ horses tethered at the top of the street, long manes cascading down, dining on the smart privet hedges. The sight of these wild-looking creatures in an urban setting was astonishing, like spotting an eagle in a post office. My Nan, noticing my interest, made no bones about it: I was to steer clear of the gypsies.
However my favourite book was Dahl’s ‘Danny Champion of the World’ and I wasn’t put off so easily. Inevitably I made friends with a traveller girl, her ears adorned with gold. We dug old bottles up from ground baked hard in the summer heat and ate ice lollies from the shop that dripped down our arm. We played on the swings and made-up spooky stories to scare each other. At the end of the day we went our different ways; me to a brick house and her to her wheeled one, surrounded by horses. I loved my Nan and never troubled her with the truth.
Years later, when I lived in Oxford city centre, I found myself cycling down the towpaths, gazing longingly at the narrowboats with smoke curling out of the chimneys. Soon, I’d moved out of a house and on to Frank Thomas, a 64 foot narrowboat.
This time of indoor/outdoor living left its mark on me. Although I’ve been a house dweller for a very long time, I’m still at my most content when I am outdoors, wrapped up in a jumper, woodsmoke in my hair, mug of tea in hand.
One of the best things about being a writer is that you have the power to give memories the kiss of life. When I had the idea for a broken-hearted ghost horse searching for its Romany owner , beloved wagon in tow, I leapt on it. All the pieces fell into place, but only because a lot of them were there already.
Long ago I painted a picture of a horse that lived at the end of the lane – the real lane that Winnie and the Beloveds walk down every day to the bus stop – and I always hoped it would find its way into a story.
Then I met an amazing wagon painter called Sarah Harvey who painted this beautiful sign for me. She travels all over the place, working on remarkable pieces. I kept looking at it until, eventually, it started to feel like it really had belonged to the Starr family in the story.
I borrowed fascinating books on Romany history from my knowledgeable author friend Victoria (Victoriaeveleigh.co.uk) and spent the whole of the Christmas holidays reading them. Victoria had owned a Romany wagon ( a vardo) for several years too. Then I visited her magnificent heavy horse, Sherman whilst she and her husband Chris told me all about wagons and horses.
I went to the library and gathered piles of books on constellations and meteor showers, about helicopters, the North Pole and highwaymen.I read and read and read.
Then I began to write.
A year and a half later, by the wonderful guiding hand of Usborne and the extraordinary illustrative talents of Ross Collins, Knitbone Pepper and a Horse Called Moon was born. Today it is published, which is just brilliant.
I wish I could go back to my eight-year-old self and hand her this book with the beautiful pictures and the purple silk ribbon, because I think she’d really like it. I imagine me and the traveller girl flicking through the pages, sat on the swings and kicking our legs, until the grown ups called us home for tea.