Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Author’s Inspiration ~ Merryn Allingham #History #HistoricalFiction @MerrynWrites

It is with the greatest of pleasure that I welcome historical fiction author, Merryn Allingham, on to the blog today. Merryn is going to share with us her inspirations behind her fabulous books.

Author’s Inspiration

When authors are asked what inspired them to write a particular book, it’s very often a character who has been lurking in the back of their minds and needs his or her story told. Or a real life event the writer has read about in a newspaper or seen on television that has the creative mind humming. Or simply a snatch of conversation overheard on a bus or train or in a café. When I look back at the books I have written, it’s clear that no matter what historical period I’ve chosen, it’s place, a particular setting, that has galvanised me to write that very first word. In the Daisy’s War trilogy it was India and my family connections to the country, in a recent timeslip it was Hastings in East Sussex and the town’s association with the Pre-Raphaelites, and the book I have just sent to my agent is set in Constantinople in the first years of the 20th century when the Ottoman Empire still ruled swathes of the Middle East.

The Buttonmaker’s Daughter and its follow -on, The Secret of Summerhayes, (though both are standalone novels) owe their existence to a memorable visit I made three years ago to the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. ‘Lost’ because they were only rediscovered in 1990 and since that time have been lovingly restored – the work, in fact, is still ongoing. The gardens’ heyday was in the late Victorian/Edwardian period when their owners spent a great deal of money, time and effort, in creating a beautiful and exotic paradise. But, when in 1914, war came to England, everything changed. Over half the staff perished in the mud of Flanders and the gardens were left to a slow disintegration.

Heligan Gardeners 1900

It was as though they slept for the next eighty years. And because they remained untouched, the buildings the gardeners had known in 1914 – the bothy, the bee boles, the pineapple pit, and wishing well among others – stayed essentially the same. These were what the pioneers who hacked their way through the undergrowth in 1990 discovered, along with what had once been a two acre vegetable garden, south facing walls for the fruit harvest and a series of beautifully designed individual spaces, among them the Flower Garden, the Sundial Garden, the Italian Garden and the Ravine.

The Flower Garden

There was plenty of evidence, too, from the previous century. Lead and zinc Victorian plant tags lay buried in the soil. A giant vine weaved its way through broken panes of glass in the walled garden. True romance! Not quite so romantic were the effects of requisitioning. In 1916 Heligan became a military hospital and during the Second World War housed the American army. The beautiful lawns, or what was left of them then, were concreted to provide hard standing for tanks and jeeps and the trees, many of them rare, used as target practice.

The Bothy

We had a brilliant guide the day we visited Heligan and it was one particular story he told that lodged in my mind. It concerned the ordinary men whose labour created the beauty of these gardens. On one particular day in the summer of 1914, every gardener on the estate downed tools and walked together to Redruth, to enlist at the local recruiting centre. Most of those men never returned. The Day Book, which would normally list every job completed, that day carried only the date and was never used again. With the loss of so many, the gardens slowly succumbed to the ravages of nature, until the ‘sleeping beauty’ was rediscovered some thirty years ago. The image of those men, honourable and courageous, leaving a hard but secure life, and walking together to enlist in what they saw as a just cause, stayed with me, and I knew I had to record that moment in a novel.

South facing wall used to grow fruit

My fictional estate, Summerhayes, is nestled in the Sussex countryside, rather than Cornwall but it offers the same perfect idyll. And like Heligan, that idyll is disrupted by a war that looms ever closer. Disrupted, too, by conflict nearer to home - between neighbours and within the family itself. In The Buttonmaker’s Daughter the summer of 1914 changes everything for the Summer family, as indeed it did for so many, and in The Secret of Summerhayes set in 1944, the estate has become a shadow of its former glory. Since the start of World War Two, the house and gardens have been requisitioned and the Canadian army are billeted there. Occupation by the army has had predictable results: the gardens are wild and impenetrable, the once beautiful lawns are under concrete and the Arts and Crafts house is battered and bedraggled. As with the earlier novel, historic events are central to The Secret of Summerhayes - in 1944 it is the dangers of the D Day invasion of Europe. And like The Buttonmaker’s Daughter, the novel traces a romance that grows strong in the face of dangers that emanate from much closer to home.

A small part of the Ravine

By the end of both books, Summerhayes has survived - and with the promise of future restoration. Who knows, one day I might visit again!

The Buttonmaker’s Daughter
May, 1914.

Nestled in Sussex, the Summerhayes mansion seems the perfect country idyll.
But with a long-running feud in the Summers family and tensions in
Europe deepening, Summerhayes’ peaceful days are numbered.

For Elizabeth Summer, the lazy quiet of her home has become stifling.
A chance meeting with Aiden Kellaway, an architect’s assistant,
offers the secret promise of escape, but her marriage to a man of trade
has no place in her father’s plans. In the ensuing conflict, Elizabeth along
with her family faces a dangerous future.

As the sweltering heat of 1914 builds to a storm, she faces a choice
between family loyalty and an uncertain life with the man she loves.

One thing is definite: this summer will change everything.

The Secret of Summerhayes

A war-torn summer
A house fallen into ruin
A family decimated…
Summer 1944: Bombed out of London by the Blitz, Bethany Merston takes up a post as companion to elderly Alice Summer, last remaining inhabitant of the dilapidated and crumbling Summerhayes estate. Now a shadow of its former glory, the house and gardens have been requisitioned by the military and show the scars of army occupation.
Alice has struggled with the realities of war but is now plagued by anonymous letters and haunting visions of her old household. At first, Beth tries to convince her it’s all in her mind, but soon it becomes clear that a sinister force is once more at work in the Summer family.
The Secret of Summerhayes tells of dark secrets, almost-forgotten scandals and a household teetering on the edge of ruin.

Merryn Allingham

Merryn Allingham was born into an army family and spent her childhood on the move. Unsurprisingly, it gave her itchy feet and in her twenties she escaped from an unloved secretarial career to work as cabin crew and see the world. The arrival of marriage, children and cats meant a more settled life in the south of England where she has lived ever since. It also gave her the opportunity to go back to ‘school’ and eventually teach literature at university.
Merryn has always loved books that bring the past to life, so when she began writing herself the novels had to be historical. Her latest books explore two pivotal moments in the history of Britain. The Buttonmaker’s Daughter is set in Sussex in the summer of 1914 as the First World War looms ever nearer and its sequel, The Secret of Summerhayes, forty years later in the summer of 1944 when D Day led to eventual victory in the Second World War. Along with the history, of course, there’s always plenty of mystery and romance to keep readers intrigued.

Merryn loves to hear from readers, you can find her: Website Facebook Twitter


  1. Such beautiful gardens, I can see why they would inspire you. However, I don't think I would have the courage to walk across that Ravien! Thank you for sharing your inspiration with us!

  2. The bridge was a little wobbly, I guess, but it held!

  3. I visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan last year, it was so beautiful. We also visited the Eden Project while we were there, which was amazing.

    1. I have never been to the Eden Project, but it is somewhere I have always wanted to visit. Is the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project close? Perhaps I could visit both next time I find myself in Cornwall!

  4. I am visiting Cornwall in April and perhaps might see these gardens. What a fabulous post!

    1. Hi Mary Anne and Carol

      The Lost Gardens are in the same part of Cornwall as the Eden Project. We were staying in Looe at the time, and both were easily reached from there. I hope you manage a visit - they are wonderful!


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx