The Cornish Cliffs of Black Thorn with Sarah Hilary
Where Land Meets Sea: Black Thorn
Sarah Hilary takes us around the flash but deadly housing estate she has built (for this novel) on the edge of the Cornish cliffs…
Where is she taking us? CORNWALL!
Black Thorn opens above the Cornish sea, as a delivery driver negotiates the rocky, perilous road along what is called the Tin Coast. The Tin Coast runs for seven miles between Pendeen and St. Just in West Penwith. It goes from the Pendeen lighthouse to Cape Cornwall and its southern valleys.
Its name comes from the Cornish mining industry. It is marked along the way by ruined chimneys, the skeletons of engine houses and long-dead mine shafts. Some of these stretch under the sea. Botallack Mine has an arsenic labyrinth: chambers used to collect the deadly poison which was a byproduct of the tin production process.
Really, is it any surprise a crime writer would want to set a novel here?
The action in Black Thorn takes place in an imagined place high on the Tin Coast. Here. a paradise building project has captured the hearts of six families, including the Gales. Adrian Gale is the chief salesman responsible for luring buyers to it. Blackthorn Ashes is a Scandinavian-inspired dream housing development, perched on cliffs above the sea.
My nearest geographical reference for the location of Blackthorn Ashes was the Crown Engine Houses at Botallack Mine. However, Blackthorn Ashes occupies a fictional piece of land. Ashes Road is the ancient route (also fictional) by which this place is reached. It is a narrow road where vehicles struggle, scratched by the encroaching tangle of blackthorn hedges.
Spirit of the West in Retallack
Over the course of six weeks, Blackthorn Ashes becomes a nightmarish crime scene. Six people are dead, the survivors devastated and dispersed. Agnes Gale and her family are homeless, temporarily housed in a caravan park about twenty minutes walking distance from Blackthorn Ashes.
Indigo Park is muddy, bleak and overcrowded but it’s home to Bette Argall and her grandson, Errol, whose friendship means so much to Agnes. Indigo Park was inspired by a number of places, including the long-abandoned and now destroyed Spirit of the West in Retallack. Derelict theme parks and pleasure gardens hold a special interest for me, and inspire more than one setting in my books.
Agnes’s father is wracked with guilt and sunk in depression. Her mother is furiously trying to keep the family afloat. And her thirteen-year-old brother Christie is only happy when walking the cliff path back to Blackthorn Ashes, to ransack the abandoned houses there.
I’m fascinated by the ‘lure of home’, and by liminal spaces. The urge to return to the place where we felt safest or happiest can survive long after that place has been proved unsafe and unhappy. Cliffs and edges are ideal settings for a crime writer, suggesting cracks, falling, hidden spaces. I can rarely look at a map of coastal places without being inspired to set a story there.
The route from Indigo Park to Blackthorn Ashes leads ultimately to the sea: a sheer drop to the waves below. On this land, a long time ago, a nuclear power station was built and then abandoned. I based this (fictional) abandoned power station on Oldbury, in South Gloucestershire:
The ground beneath the feet of everyone in Blackthorn Ashes is poisoned, ruined, risky. The toxins that bled into the soil broke up the bright gardens and laid waste to the lofty dreams of the developers. Into the cracks that destroyed the houses, poisonous gases leaked. But the real poison is inside the people who escaped here, hoping to start over, or to hide.
Walking the cliff path with her brother, Agnes searches for answers to what happened. Each night from the caravan in Indigo Park, she escapes to walk the path out to where the cliffs meet the sea, summoning the ghosts of those who died in Blackthorn Ashes. One death, she becomes convinced, was not like the others. One death was murder. It’s here on the threshold where land meets sea that she and her mother confront Agnes’s old enemy, Trevor Kyte. Close to the place where by the end of the book Blackthorn Ashes stands in silence, its ghosts routed but not yet laid to rest.
Many thanks Sarah!
BookTrail Boarding Pass: Black Thorn