England 2014 (6) – Searching for Manderley in du Maurier country

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again… I came upon it suddenly; the approach masked by the unnatural growth of a vast shrub that spread in all directions… There was Manderley, our Manderley, secretive and silent as it had always been, the gray stone shining in the moonlight of my dream, the mullioned windows reflecting the green lawns and terrace. Time could not wreck the perfect symmetry of those walls, nor the site itself, a jewel in the hollow of a hand.”

That is the opening line of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, one of her best known novels. The first adaptation for it was a black and white movie by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fotaine. Hitchcock, doing what he does the best, captures the depth and length of Rebecca’s dark secret. What has stoked my fantasy however is Manderley, the beauty and romance that it represents. It is so much in my mind that it is the impulse behind the purchase of a set of oil paintings.

Daphane du Maurier was born and grew up in London. Her family started going to Fowey for vacation when she was little child and eventually bought a vacation home there, which is the house now known as Ferryside in Bodnnick, about 1 mile north of Fowey. She fell in love with Fowey. She got married in Fowey and lived in Fowey the most of her life. She loved Cornwall and Cornwall in turn returned her affection with generous inspirations and material; all her novels are set in Cornwall and most in Fowey. One such place lending her inspiration is Menabilly, a house she discovered by accident while on one of her exploring walks, which was not occupied at the time. There the idea for Rebecca and Manderley was born. du Maurier herself would eventually move in to Menabily and lived there for more than a quarter century. She would have loved to extend the lease and continued to stay at Menabily but the Rashleigh family wanted the house back for themselves. du Maurier thereafter moved to another house in Fowey not far from Menabilly, Kilmarth, and lived there till the last of her days. By and by and not surprisingly, Fowey and its surrounding area became “du Maurier Country”.

There are number of walks that would take one to du Maurier’s stomping grounds and the premises of her novels. My brief stay there however can afford me only the tip of the iceberg so I must set my priority.

My quest for du Maurier and Manderley started at Fowey Hotel located on Esplanade. We stayed there for two nights, maybe in part because du Maurier had gone there for tea in her days. In any case, Fowey Hotel is beautiful in its own right. Elegant and classic, it still has one of those earliest elevators, a rarity these days.

Arriving Fowey late in the evening, the town in silhouettes tantalized. But all was revealed in the morning. Fowey Hotel is an elegant building of Victorian architecture and enjoys a gorgeous view of the river. It stands opposite to the lovely town of Polruan, near the estuary and conveniently close to town center. Its dining room, bar, sitting room, balcony, outdoor picnic/sitting area and garden across the street all come with fantastic views.

After breakfast, we walked towards the town center east of the hotel. The town, most of it built on the slope, is picturesque with its labyrinth of narrow lanes and charming houses, buildings and churches. One third of a mile from Fowey Hotel, there are The Ship Inn, a 16th century pub that we came back later for dinner, Fowey Museum, where on that Friday there was a Craft Fair, and St Fimbarrus Church, Fowey’s Parish Church. Right next to the church, there is the Daphane du Maurier Literary Center located on the ground floor of a small house. The room in the front is a gift shop and a smaller room in the back hosts an exhibit about du Maurier’s life and works. The Tourist Information Center is nearby and the river is just steps away.

Provided with the information from the ladies at the literary center, we were able to prepare ourselves better for our main expedition of the day. We picked up something for a light lunch from a bakery and Kittow Bros, “Butchers Delicatessen”, a salad, two types of buns, a quiche and something sweet. I also stopped at the hotel and switched from the ballet flats to sturdier walking shoes, which proved to be an absolute necessity.

With that, we embarked on a journey to Menabily that took more than 5 hours. Starting from Fowey Hotel and heading west, Esplanade becomes Readymoney Road. At the end of Readymoney Road, are Neptune Point, a gorgeous waterfront, Italianate stone mansion that used to belong to the Rashleigh family but now the home to actress Dawn French, Readymoney Cove and Beach, a small cove and beach situated right next to Neptune Point, and Readymoney, a house facing the cove and beach where du Maurier lived between 1942 and 1943. The town seems to also come to an end right there. We took the path going around Readymoney to get to SWC. Shortly after that we reached St Catherine’s Castle. A pair of small artillery ports was built by Henry VIII in the 1530s to defend Fowey Harbor, one of which sits at the western end of Fowey, the other, right across the estuary in Polruan. Waterfront view of Neptune Point from St Catherine’s Castle, and town of Fowey, are spectacular.

From then on, the path zigzags, ascends and descends. It meanders through sloppy pastures, goes through gates and stiles, and we came close to large groups of cows multiple times, but SWC always hangs close to the cliff’s edge. Breathtaking and idyllic, it is one of the most exhilarating and inspiring scenery I’ve ever seen.

It was mostly cloudy throughout the day. Earlier at the hotel’s balcony, a dense fog moved in at such a speed, Polruan across the river was almost completely lost in sight in a matter of seconds. Then it cleared up almost as fast and unexpectedly as it had came over. The clouds however did not diminish the beauty of the area. Oddly, it added a quality that was almost je ne sais quoi, a wild, daring and unattainable spirit.

About two hours into it, we came to a stunning view, one that came with rocky shore line, coves, hills, cows, and a light house that was barely visible on that day. I recognized that view, we were close to Polridmouth and Menabily estate.

Menabily House is completely concealed by heavy woods and could not been seen from any perimeter. When du Maurier trespassed and discovered it decades ago, the house was unoccupied. The Rashleigh family is now living in it and has a reputation of being very private. There are few photos and description of it from du Maurier’s days and it remains that way still. Polridmouth however, cove, beach and cottage that are part of the Menabily estate and inspiration for Rebecca’s boat house, is within reach. The cottage on the beach is now a holiday cottage for rent. Booking of the cottage has gone as advanced as 2016 but there are some weekly spots available, check their website for details. Or you can just pass by via SWC, which cuts through Menabily between the beach and the cottage.

The path rose and fell one more time and we reached Polridmouth. The cove is secluded and there are actually two beaches, separated by rocks. The beaches, where du Maurier and her children had often played and swim when they lived at Menabily, were strewn with seed plants. Few other people were around, among them a dad and his two kids playing on the edge of the water at the beach to the west. It was quiet overall and the cottage showed no sign of occupation. We set down on a rock on the beach to the west and took our lunch break.

At that point, we were on the southern end of Menabily estate, not far from its house north of the woodland. But since we were not there to duplicate du Maurier’s discovering expedition, the best bet would be to go up to Menabily’s gate, located somewhere northwest of the estate and of the house and end it there. A tiny path off SWC and opposite the beach where we just sat seemed to be the one and we took it on.

First we went through a path lined by hedges, passing cows and sheep. It was quiet and the only people we encountered were two young men walking about half dozen very lively dogs. At the end of the gravel road was Menabily Barton on the left, a farm west of Menabily estate. It also offers some rooms as Bed and Breakfast, which I had considered because of its proximity to Menabily but decided against at the end.

The path turns into a paved road and shortly after that, there is a car park to the left, which is the closest car park to Menabily’s gate and Polridmouth. I was aware of that car park and it was to be a contingent option, but we did not need to take it up. The truth is, if you can do it, walking the whole route from Fowey is a much better way to experience the du Maurier country.

The paved road continued on and we passed a few small houses on the way. Finally, about 30 minutes from the beach, we reached the gate of Menabily and its lodge house. Quietly the gate stood but it was wide open that day. I found myself lost for words for a moment. I did not expect to see it open because all reviews there were invariably lamented at the anticlimax, firmly closed gate. A sign was set atop each of the gate posts, “Strictly Private” on one and “Strictly Private” on the other. From the other side of the road I stared hard at the gate and down the approach road beyond the gate; I got glimpses of what looked like a house in between trees. “Has anyone attempted to run down that road?” I thought. At that moment, a car zipped by, passing through the gate and disappeared down the approach road.

We turned around. As it was pointed out by the lady at the literary center, Menabily is the inspiration for Manderley but it is not Manderley. It was probably better to leave Menabily alone in its woods and to keep the mystery alive and the dream of Manderley.

When we were passing by Polridmouth again on the return journey, I could see a young man and a young women sitting by the window. Outside of the cottage, another young woman was coming towards the east facing front door, hair wrapped in a big towel as if she had just washed her hair. She smiled at me. I wondered if they were in the car that zipped by me earlier at the gate.

Back on the hill where we first spotted Polridmouth, we ran into the two young men walking the half dozen dogs. One of the dogs got a bit too frisky, took a lunge at our direction and was put back on its leash, the others remained unleashed, which seemed to be the norm there.

An hour and half after leaving Manabily’s front gate, we were very close to Fowey and were coming down the hill towards Readymoney. By some impeccable timing, we ran into the group of three women again, whom we ran into at Readymoney earlier and we chatted about du Maurier and Readymoney House. We stopped to exchange a few words. They asked how our journey was. I told them we had gone all the way to Menabily and stopped at the gate and that I had loved every part of it. They said they were heading back that way. It was after 5pm and I could not imagine going on for another one and half hours. They said no worry, it would be easily done.

I wish I could say the same. Having been on my feet for more than five hours at that point, my legs were about to fall off. Yet, as strenuous as it was physically, my spirits were high, I remained excited and elated. Just as the nameless heroine of Rebecca wishes to bottle up her good memory, I wished I could bottle up that spirit and keep it forever.

So there in du Maurier Country, Manderley was close and palpable, and yet it remained elusive. That is perhaps how it should be. And I wished to come back before I had left.

Fowey Hotel

Fowey Hotel

View from Fowey Hotel

View from Fowey Hotel

St Catherine’s Castle

St Catherine’s Castle

Polridmouth from SWC

Polridmouth from SWC

Polridmouth Beach

Polridmouth Beach

Polridmouth Cottage

Polridmouth Cottage

Towards Menabily Barton

Towards Menabily Barton

Menabily Gate

Menabily Gate


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