The first of a series of posts by Grey Cells Press author Margaret Callow, offering background and detail to her historical crime novel, Rust.
“My novel Rust, set in Norfolk, is based on a true Victorian story which came to be called the Stanfield Hall murders. The book is due for publication on the 19th March so it might be interesting to take a look at life in the county in the 1800’s.
No matter what the time of year the changing landscape of Norfolk draws the gaze and no more so than the Tiffey Valley at Stanfield. The shallow valley is a walkway to large spreads of dense woodland which carry a melancholy air. In contrast passive slopes and gentle rises of rough pasture soften the view. Ignored by the beasts put to graze, great tufts of coarse grass moulder in peace amongst meadow land whilst on dark rich soil, grain ripens in wide ochre swathes.
Nourished by the easy flow of the river, green ditches thrive. Precious moisture seeps from its banks to feed the water meadows in times of heavy rain and allows the colour wash of wild flowers in the summer. When autumn grows tired of shedding leaves of gold, reds and browns, it finally allows winter to supply a white mantel to hold fast until spring arrives again.
The big sky with its endless horizon illuminates the land below with a myriad of colours and none more brilliant than the winter’s sun slipping away behind a valley of Scots pine. Not even the most talented of artists could hope to capture the soft lavenders, bold scarlet and orange flame which like shot silk bathe the sky at the end of the day. Just as easily as the county can hold you in her icy grip in the winter months so she can bathe you in a soft warm light on a summer day. It is land which seems to like the arable growing, sheep rearing and dairy farming which it lends itself to whilst the river water powers mills to grind grain for animal feed and human sustenance.
Whilst peasants have long gone from the landscape, huge swathes of land are still owned by large, rich landowners, but now their land is rented out to tenant farmers such as Rush, the land being worked by those with little to offer other than their labour.
In Norwich, sprawled in the shadow of the castle below the mossy-green castle mound, ‘Castell Dykes’ is the site of the livestock market. Its heat and smell were all encompassing. Regulars in the selling shed were used to it. In fact they contributed to it with their frequent coughing, sweat-ridden clothes and their sheer numbers as they jostled for space and a good view. Across the stone slabs drovers brought in a continuous line of cattle, sheep and pigs and those farmers who were willing to pay sixpence saw their stock herded into metal pens.This was Norwich Cattle Market on a Wednesday morning in Victorian times.
In the shed, local farmers meet up with friends and acquaintances and exchange news, but never once take their eyes off the parade of beasts up for sale. The auctioneer’s voice which was more a bellow bounced off the walls into their ears and being understood by the watchers elicits a furtive finger wave or an imperceptible nod of the head. The circular stall around which they all clustered saw one lethargic beast after another being paraded for sale. Often their progress was encouraged by a heavy stick from the attendant until finally the animal was sold on and another took its place.
The sawdust in the stall is beginning to roll into balls as yet more manure is deposited on it. Every so often a boy, no more than ten years of age, drags a sack through the doorway and with a lack-lustre motion of his hand throws a further blessing of wood shavings onto the stall floor.
Little did anyone realise that with the coming of the industrial revolution, agricultural work was rapidly dying out in favour of manufacturing jobs in the cities. Whilst in London, barns crumbled and green fields were swallowed by bricks and mortar, rural life was unchanged and this was the time when Rush set out to become the rich owner rather than the tenant farmer. “
Rust, by Margaret Callow
Available March 2015