A STORY BEHIND A STORY
While waiting for a big file to upload yesterday, I went on an indulgent Google journey looking for my ‘Foxfires’ half a world away. This dilapidated farmhouse, on a windswept moorland site in Yorkshire, possibly inhabited since the fifteenth century, inspired my fourth book of the same name. I walked there on a wintery day many years ago, and everything about the place grabbed hold of me and refused to let go – so much so, that I wrote a whole story about its fictional alter ego, weaving together centuries of folklore centred on a legend from the area.
‘Foxfires’ recently reached that stage of editing where you know you need to change a few things, but you’re not quite sure what. Luckily, the manuscript won an NZSA mentorship, and clever NZ author, Paddy Richardson, helped me identify the ‘whats’. I just need to do the mahi!
Back to Google, imagine my surprise when my search for ‘Bartin’ (the farmhouse’s real name) came up with an auction flyer! My derelict farmhouse was for sale?! Unfortunately the auction was a few months ago and the place sold, not that I could have bought it anyway, but it didn’t stop me wanting it really badly. Imagine owning your muse?
Here’s a screenshot of the flyer* and also an old map of the area – just look at the name of the farmhouse to the left of ‘Bartin’ on the map – ‘Better than Expectation’. What an awesome name! It was later changed to ‘Goodbent Lodge’, named after the area. *(You can find the full pdf flyer with more photos at the bottom of the page, if you’re interested.)
Strangely, a further hunt revealed that the buyer of ‘Bartin’ will most likely be unable to convert the farmhouse into a liveable dwelling based on the rejection of previous planning applications. Minutes from the government website reveal:
The introduction of a residential and domestic use into this landscape would introduce elements that are out of place, incongruous and are harmful to this important example of relict landscape that reflects the development of aspects of the Southern Pennines’ farming and rural economy from the medieval period onwards.Planning Office | Peak District | Minutes 2017
So, it seems like the lonely shell of ‘Bartin’ farmhouse will be left to the sheep. And to the fictional pages of ‘Foxfires’…
Excerpt from Chapter 6…
…In which Jack first arrives at Foxfires.
After labouring across the frozen expanse of marshland in the dark, Jack and Alf finally reached the snow-topped gateposts of the farmhouse. Jack paused to recover his breath, watching it plume into the night air in fragile clouds. With a grunt of effort, his sullen companion shoved at the wooden farm-gate spanning the posts. It creaked open a little before sticking fast in a drift, and the dogs surged forward, making for home.
As Alf squeezed his hulking body through the gap, Jack noticed there were letters carved deep into the left-hand gatepost. He traced a gloved finger along the grooves in the rough stone, spelling out the letters under his breath.
Strange name for a farm.
And then it rose up before him as he limped into the yard on his makeshift crutch. ‘Foxfires’ – a house on the right and a barn with a giant arched door on the left, the two buildings joined at the corner and arranged like a bent elbow. It looked so very old, as if it had grown from the marshes hundreds of years ago, the roof dipping precariously in the middle of both buildings like a laden washing line, the windows separated by stone mullions resembling bars in a prison cell. And now he was closer. Jack could see now there was light coming from within, but it was struggling to escape around the edges of heavy black curtains.
“Look what I found on the moors,” Alf called out as he pushed the front door open. It caught on the flagged floor with a grating protest, releasing a warm glow and the smell of roasted meat.
Jack stood back in the snow. The dogs waited until their master had ducked through the door before they followed him into the light. Jack hesitated.
“What have you found?” A slurred female voice, thick with accent: ‘Worravyer fownd?’
Alf poked his head out at Jack. “Well, what are you waiting for? You’re letting the cold in.”
The room Jack found himself in was low and gloomy, lit only by the flames of a dying fire in an open hearth. In front of the hearth stood an uneven table, worn and split with age and accompanied by two long benches. The table was covered in dirty, mismatched dishes and the scattered remains of a chicken carcass. Overhead hung an iron frame dripping with dented pans and bundles of withered herbs. The sides of the room were piled high with all manner of clutter; a stack of old packages and sacks, a tower of empty wooden crates, a heavy-looking axe, a knee-high bundle of sheets and clothes, dog baskets, a scabby cat in a box… and a woman.
The woman slowly developed the same greedy look as her husband. Maybe it came from living in such a place. She looked uncared for, her greying hair fuzzy on one side as if she’d been sleeping too long on it, and her cheeks mapped out with networks of broken veins.
“Hello,” she said, one syllable low and the other high and long as she cocked her head to one side. “And who might you be?”
Jack hesitated. “I don’t know,” he said, honestly.
“You don’t know?”
“He’s lost his memory, Hilda. Imagine that!” Alf said with a humourless chuckle.
Her greedy eyes became even greedier and she crept nearer to Jack, and even performed an unsteady circuit around him as she looked him up and down. Jack’s skin crawled with the unwanted attention.
“And what’s happened to his leg?”
A strong whiff of some kind of alcohol accompanied her question. Her teeth peered from her mouth, a couple of them missing and the remainder tinted with decaying yellows and browns.
“He’s bloody lucky I found him. Crashed his plane on the moors. Broke his ankle. But it’ll mend, won’t it, Jack?”
“I would hope so,” he nodded, politely.
By now, he was on the verge of toppling over. If they didn’t let him sit down soon, he’d be lying face down on the floor in a minute. The room began to shift on its axis and wobble. Jack pulled off one of his gloves and used it to mop his forehead.
“I’ve decided to call him Jack,” said Alf, as if he were another of Alf’s dogs. “It’s as good a name as any.”
from ‘Foxfires’ (Manuscript, 70,000 words)