If you’ve ever noticed the plethora of German number plates on our roads or the mass of towel-bearing Teutonic holiday-makers on our beaches, the answer lies in the pages of the novels of Lelant-born Rosamunde Pilcher. CAROL BURNS meets the literary ambassador for Cornwall
It seemed fitting that the sun was setting in glorious technicolour as I arrived at Newquay’s Headland Hotel to meet Cornish-born Rosamunde Pilcher, OBE, writer of many romantic works of fiction and who has helped put the county on the Teutonic tourist map in a very unusual way.
Now 89, and retired from writing since 2000, she was heading for a lively wrap party taking place at the hotel following the now familiar German TV station ZWF’s latest dramatised version of one of her many Cornwall-based stories.
‘It all started here in Cornwall. On beaches, sitting on rocks and making up stories in my head’
The station has produced more than 100 of her stories for TV – and its director and Rosamunde Pilcher were awarded the British Tourism Award in 2002 for the positive effect the books and the TV versions had on tourism in Cornwall and the South West.
“The films are like a tourism documentary for the area,” she says. “Germans don’t have [much] a sea coast of their own and love the coast, the sea and the gardens here.”
Rosamunde was born in a lodging house in Lelant and has gone on to become one of the county’s most cherished writers. She spent her formative years with artists in the mostly genteel St Ives, excepting, she says, ‘Swindon Week’ when all the railway workers took their annual holiday with a free ride to the harbour town.
“The nearness of St Ives was a very strong effect because of the tremendous creativity always going in there,” she says. “Bernard Leach was just starting out in the county making his pots and there were a lot of artists who weren’t particularly brilliant painters but were very amazing people. One couple, the woman was South African and he had just come out of the Navy, had this fishnet studio and we would climb out of the window on rope onto the beach and go surfing with belly boards.
“In the wintertime the arts club in St Ives would be inveigled into putting on a play and we would spend the Christmas term rushing to St Ives to rehearse and for costume fittings – I don’t think the shows were very good, but it was exciting.”
She moved to Penzance at 12 while her mother and older sister visited her father, who had been out in Burma during her childhood. “Penzance showed me a completely different part of Cornwall, I got to know all the coves there.”
‘I didn’t ever stop writing short stories, but I started writing little books that could be serialised. I had a wonderful feeling of independence, that I could go out and buy presents for my children, husband, mother – the satisfaction of being independent is one of the best feelings in the world.’
Soon after, her father was recalled back to the Royal Navy from Burma when World War 2 broke out and she says, the focus was on finishing school as soon as possible so she could join the war effort, rather than a university education studying great literature, as she would have loved to.
The war took her first to Cardiff, where she finished her schooling and it was here that she discovered writing. “It was rather a secret thing that I did,” she says. “It was something I wanted to do.”
But after school and a quick shorthand typist course, she headed to the Foreign Office in London and from there she spent two years in Portsmouth with the Women’s Royal Navy Service before the D-Day landings happened and she was drawn to an opportunity of going to France.
“The next thing I knew I was on a ship to the Far East and ended up in Ceylon [now Sri Lanka]. The war in Europe had finished and the whole naval fleet came out to Ceylon – I knew somebody on almost every ship.”
It was during her time here she had her first story published. The story – the title of which has been lost in the mists of time – was a war-time story and appeared in Woman and Home magazine. “My father cabled me to say it had been bought for 15 guineas.” She remembers.
“Then the Americans dropped the atom bombs and the war was over just like that.” She returned to Lelant in the September unsure what to do with herself – and was married two months later, but was always independent and wanted to earn her own money. A typewriter found in the attic of her new home meant she was able to sit and write short stories inspired by the people she had met in her varied life so far, eventually graduating to novels, which were picked up by Mills and Boons.
“I didn’t ever stop writing short stories, but I started writing little books that could be serialised. I had a wonderful feeling of independence, that I could go out and buy presents for my children, husband, mother – the satisfaction of being independent is one of the best feelings in the world.
“Alan Boon [of Mills and Boon] was a terribly nice man – he used to take me for lunch at the Ritz,” she says. She moved on to Collins and on to an American publishers which encouraged her to write ‘a big deep read’ of a book.
“I was 60 and I thought I should be putting my feet up and getting my old age pension, and I had to write a huge book.”
But she did, using three plotlines she had thought up. And the result was The Shell Seekers, a family saga set in Cornwall, which became a New York Times bestseller and has gone on to sell more than five million copies worldwide. It has been made into a film, mini-series and stage play and was nominated by the British public as one of the top 100 novels in the BBC’s Big Read. In 2002 she was made an Officer of the British Empire (OBE).
“For some reason it had huge global appeal – and after that it was much easier,” she says of her writing career. “But it all started here in Cornwall. On beaches, sitting on rocks and making up stories in my head,” she says before heading off to the wrap party of her latest German TV film.