I am really looking forward to going to Budleigh Salterton literary festival in a fortnight's time. In the morning I’m doing a talk at 10am at the Temple Church and in the afternoon I’m teaching a prose fiction workshop at the Playhouse.
On summer evenings this year the beach was busy but not over-busy with people swimming, kayaking, cooking and fishing. The mackerel evidently queue up to be caught.
There are many reasons to love Budleigh:
It rarely gets overcrowded (perhaps because it has a pebbly rather than a sandy beach)
The pebbles themselves - beautiful, sea-smoothed, rounded and perfect
In what might be a trick of the light and the contours of the sloping beach, people standing or sitting amid the undulations of those pebbles acquire an extra intensity of presence and appear to be etched against the sea and sky
On the river Otter, which meets the sea at the far end of the beach, lovely bird-filled little islands and half-islands have formed
The best ice-cream in the southwest is to be found here
The cliff is proper Devon-earth red
The beach shelves down in such a way that you don’t have to be brave putting your sensitive body parts into the cold English sea because the lay of the land does it for you; one minute you’re tentatively dipping your toes and the next you’re up to your shoulders and it’s too late to whimper
In the town a stream runs alongside the road so that some of the houses have to be entered via tiny bridges
The colourful beach huts are very much used; people sit outside them, reading the newspaper, brewing tea, eating a rich tea biscuit or two, wringing every bit of quiet delight from simple pleasures.
One time this summer I cooked these stupendous prawn and herb salt kebabs (a la Jamie) using bay leaves and rosemary from my garden. And halloumi skewers too.
I love it too because it is a place that, while being quintessentially Devon, seems to me to evoke other places, acting as a sort of portal in my imagination. For example there is a walk on the other side of the river, between the Otter Estuary nature reserve and farmland and something there, the layout of the fields, the unassuming farmhouse, the way that the vegetables grow right up to the path, unfenced, reminds me of rural France.
Then there is the iconic line of trees on the cliff-top. I don’t know if it’s the long shadows when the sun is low in the sky, a trick of the light there, the luminosity of the place where the river Otter enters the sea, Otterton ledge it’s called, the red rock of the cliff or a combination of all these but, fanciful though it sounds, it always puts me in mind of West Africa.
But I also love Budleigh because it’s the home of this wonderful jewel of a literary festival of which Hilary Mantel is the president. And Hilary Mantel is my literary hero. Since long before the Cromwell books, I have sought inspiration in her writing. The opening scenes of Beyond Black, for example, are a lesson in how to paint a picture with words and how to pull the reader instantly into the world of the book. I adore too the quirky humour and unexpected twists of Fluud. But the book that I have read so much it inhabits my mental landscape is An Experiment in Love. When I was writing my first (unfinished!) novel I turned time and time again to examine its sentences and to see how it fitted together, to try and discern the seams and the stitching, asking myself how she did it. How did she pull it off? How did she turn that paragraph on a sixpence? How did she tell us without ever spelling it out what this character was thinking and feeling and what the doubts were, what the complexities. How is it so richly layered?
I’ve heard Hilary Mantel speak a few times and she is never anything other than enlightening. I’m so glad that she is there keeping the bar that high.