Picture houses, panoramas and pasties in Polwhipple by Holly Hepburn
All aboard the last train to Polwhipple! Holly Hepburn takes us on a tour of the locations that inspired her fab new book, The Picture House by the Sea.
I sometimes get asked what comes first when I’m planning a new novel. Is the characters, or the premise or the plot? And I usually answer that it’s different every time. But back when The Picture House by the Sea was little more than a twinkle in my writerly eye, there was only one thing I knew for certain; this book was going to be set in Cornwall.
I’m a Cornish girl, although I don’t live there now, and it’s the place that exerts the strongest pull on my heart. I feel a peculiar sense of belonging when I am there, very much like I am home, and I wanted to incorporate that into the story. So I knew my main character, Gina, would be someone who’d spent a lot of time in Cornwall when younger but who had since moved away and lost touch with her roots. And once I knew this was a story about working out where you belong, I started to wonder exactly where the Picture House by the Sea might be; where among Cornwall’s lush green land and golden sands was the town of Polwhipple?
I decided on the north coast, partly because I’d visited the previous year and fallen in love with the gorgeous coastline, and partly because there needed to be a steam line nearby that I could reasonably extend for the purposes of the plot. I started off around St Ives – the train line that runs along the beach looked perfect, until I realised it wasn’t a heritage line: no steam trains. I moved further north – as soon as I discovered the Bodmin and Wenford railway, I knew Polwhipple would be within striking distance. So I fired up Google Maps and started to look for an unpopulated stretch of coast upon which to build my fictional seaside town.
I’ll admit to letting out a squeal of excitement when I saw Beacon Cove on the map, not far from Mawgan Porth.
Switching to Earth view made me even happier; it was absolutely perfect, with a delightful sandy beach and nothing nearby to get in the way. Gina could live in Mawgan Porth and easily commute to Polwhipple. She could even take the South West Coast Path if she chose to, which you can clearly see on the image.
With the location fixed in my head, I started to write.
It wasn’t until long after I’d delivered the final part of the book that I actually visited Mawgan Porth and walked the route Gina would have taken to Polwhipple. I was gratified (and relieved) to see that there was a real set of steps leading down from the cliffs where I’d placed Gina’s apartment to the delightful sands of Mawgan Porth beach, just as I’d imagined there would be.
After spending a few minutes admiring the view of the beach (and imagining Ben Pascoe surfing the waves) I set off on foot for Beacon Cove. I got lucky; it was a beautiful day, with cloudless skies and hot summer sunshine. The sea glittered like the finest jade and turquoise. I pictured Gina walking the path, stopping to look back at Mawgan Porth behind her, listening to the roar of the Atlantic Ocean below, admiring the breath-taking colours of the water. It was so much lovelier than I’d hoped. And then I reached Beacon Cove itself.
I stood there for ages, practically speechless because it was so stunning. I got as close to the edge of the cliffs as I dared and sat in a daze as I tried to picture Polwhipple’s promenade cut into the rock, with the Palace at one end and the rest of the town nestling behind it. I recorded the sound of the waves crashing and the seagulls crying and it was as close to perfect as it is possible to be. I think I probably welled up a bit. I certainly didn’t want to leave, which sums up how I felt about reaching the end of Gina’s story, to be honest.
So that’s where Polwhipple is – Beacon Cove, right next door to Mawgan Porth. And in case you want to admire the setting without me jabbering over the top (and using the word ‘beautiful’ FAR too often), there’s another video here. In this one I let Cornwall do the talking – it says ‘beautiful’ much more eloquently than I ever could.