An early reader of Silver and Salt wrote to me yesterday: ‘I would like to go to Pennerton.’
‘So would I!’ I wrote back, explaining there was no such place. The sprawling country house in Kent, where much of the novel is set, is made of fragments of memories of houses I’ve visited in my life. One New Year in my 20’s, I sang a concert in London and took a train to Somerset. I walked in the Quantocks every day of the week I was there. Happening upon Alfoxton House, one-time home to William and Dorothy Wordsworth, I found its gardens largely neglected.
As the daylight faded, I discovered a low wooden door in an old brick wall which led to something quite different: a pristine kitchen-garden, where fat, over-winter cabbages squatted in rows, and the earth was freshly dug. A chair with a coat slung over it stood at the garden’s midpoint. The coat was made of thick, soft wool in a camel colour, and it bore the label of a Jermyn Street tailor. Beyond the vegetable beds was a tiny caravan, and a small bonfire smouldering. I waited, and walked to the caravan and listened at the door. When no one came, I left as quietly as I’d arrived. On the walk back to Nether Stowey that evening, under bright frost-filtered stars, a house called Pennerton took root in my mind and began its long hibernation. In the years that followed, it sent out tendrils towards other memories, of other houses, some of which were still to be formed: one in Kent called Egerton, one in Sussex called Tilton, and another in Cornwall which had no name, and which I’d known too long ago to be able to remember properly.
In fiction, low wooden gates in old brick walls are always left unlocked, and houses can be built on foundations of air.