Picture the scene – It’s Cornwall in the 1930s and two young women are out riding on Bodmin Moor when a fog comes down. They realise they are lost and every rock and gorse bush that appears from the swirling mist seems eerie. Eventually, in the distance, the women spot the lights of a remote inn and head towards it.
The low, grey stone hostelry looks stark as they approach, and the hooves of their mounts clatter noisily on the cobbled yard. But inside a welcoming fire is leaping in a great inglenook fireplace. One of the women glances up to the smoky dark beams that seem just high enough to hang a man from, and her brow wrinkles in thought. Her name is Daphne Du Maurier, and already the atmospheric tale of murder and smuggling is taking shape in her mind.
Okay, so maybe a bit of writerly licence on my part, but I don’t think that’s too far off the mark about how that great novel, Jamaica Inn, came about.
The dark tale has since turned this hostelry of the same name into a tourist attraction, which recently changed hands for a sum in excess of £2 million. But it still remains a monument to the wonderful Daphne Du Maurier.
Inside, a brass plaque marks the spot where her main character, Joss Merlin, (Merlyn) was murdered. There’s also a tableau scene set out in a dark corner showing other main characters from the novel, Mary Yelland, the evil Vicar of Altarnun, as well as Mary’s wicked and debauched uncle Joss, landlord of the inn.
And if you believe the tales that present day staff love to spin, the place abounds with ghosts and spooky happenings that hint back to a macabre past.
The old cellars are now the Daphne Du Maurier Smuggling Museum, featuring not only many mementos of the novelist’s life, but authentic items used by Cornish smugglers in their law evading heyday.
This was Daphne’s desk and typewriter I’d like to think that this is where she wrote her brilliant novels. (Apologies for the streaky flash image, but the exhibit is behind glass.
It was Daphne’s great novel, Rebecca, that first fired my interest in Cornwall – and writing – and then I discovered Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek, My Cousin Rachel, The Loving Spirit, The House on the Strand, and all those other wonderful books.
Daphne died in her beloved Cornwall in 1989, but the life and times she immersed herself in down there still feel real as you walk through this museum, or relax with a drink in the adjoining inn.
If you love Du Maurier, and haven’t yet visited Jamaica Inn, you’re in for a treat.