Thursday, 5 September 2013

Discovering the real Swallowcliffe

When I first had the idea some ten years ago to write a set of books set in an English country house, perhaps the most important thing to decide was what to call my house and thus the series. I made a list of various grand-sounding Abbeys, Manors, Houses and Places and sent them to my editor at Simon and Schuster for her to mull over. We both liked the lyrical rhythm of Swallowcliffe Hall, which seemed to conjure up exactly the right blend of rural beauty and history. I looked in a road map of the British Isles to make sure there wasn't already a place called Swallowcliffe which might have a Hall in it (not wanting to ascribe a fictional history to a real place), but didn't find anything, so started writing.

A couple of years later, when the second book in the series, 'Grace's Story', had just been published, I idly Googled  'Swallowcliffe' - only to discover that there was in fact a Swallowcliffe village, with its own website. How could I have missed it? (I'm actually glad I did, because I might have chosen another name for my series and now I can't imagine it being called anything else.) At any rate, I contacted the person who ran the site to tell him about my books. When he gave me his surname, I nearly dropped the phone. It was Stanbury: the same as that of my heroine, Grace. What are the chances of that? Of course on one level, it's just a random coincidence, but on another, it makes me feel I have some kind of connection with Swallowcliffe, that my stories were waiting to be written and that there's a certain inevitability to the framing of them. Chris Stanbury told me there was a large house in the village, though it's Swallowcliffe Manor rather than Swallowcliffe Hall (which I'm also rather glad about). Ooh, I thought idly, I wonder what it's like? Perhaps one day I should set off to the village and see if I could catch a glimpse...

And then a month or so ago, the new owners of Swallowcliffe Manor contacted me out of the blue via my website with the most wonderfully generous offer: they'd be happy to show me round the house any time I'd like. I couldn't quite believe it, but as luck would have it, we happened to be driving within a few miles of Swallowcliffe on my birthday. Could there be a more perfect way to celebrate? I spent an hour or so exploring the nooks and crannies of this lovely house, from the cellar staircase up to the attic bedrooms where servants would once have slept - two floors at opposite ends of the house, one for female staff and one for male, we guessed, with tiny little fireplaces. (One fascinating fact: the attic bedrooms look out over the front of the house while the grander bedrooms look on to the garden; the servants could keep an eye on who was arriving at the house rather than spying on the family at their leisure!) Swallowcliffe Manor actually looks very like the house I photographed for my book covers, Creech Grange in Dorset - although I must admit the description of my fictional Swallowcliffe Hall was based on Kingston Lacy, a rather larger house. The Manor was built in the seventeenth century as a farmhouse, part of the estate of the Earl of Pembroke, and was skilfully extended in the 1920s.

The most wonderful thing I discovered about Swallowcliffe Manor, though, is that it's going to become a much-loved family home. There might not be a fleet of uniformed housemaids running up and down stairs but there will be children enjoying Christmases, birthdays, and who knows, maybe weddings one day in this magical place. A new chapter in the house's history is about to begin. It has found exactly the right people to cherish and preserve it, while taking it into the twenty-first century with the help of solar energy and other green technologies. I wish them many happy years there as they create real-life stories of their own...        
The view from Swallowcliffe village




  1. Rosy in Australia13 January 2014 at 19:23

    I have just ordered all the books I can find, on Swallowcliffe, on Amazon.....looking forward to a good read.....

    1. Thank you, Rosy! I hope you enjoy them....
      Best wishes, Jennie

  2. Thank you for the memories. My Father grew up in Swallowcliffe Manor. It was owned by his family, the Allan's, for many decades. I still remember going there as a child to visit my Grandparents. It is indeed, a beautiful house.
    Vicky Allan

    1. Oh, Vicky - how wonderful! As you say, what a magical house to grow up in and visit, and what a lovely village. So glad it's still a family home. I couldn't believe a real Swallowcliffe actually existed!