I’ve just had a month in England, researching locations for my medieval crime series, The Janna Mysteries. As the novels are set at the same time as the Ellis Peters novels, and as my main character is also a skilled herbalist, a visit to Shrewsbury was a must. I’d read that a commemorative herb garden and replica of Brother Cadfael’s workshop had been set up at the abbey, which was a huge drawcard – and a great disappointment when I actually got there and found out that they’d been demolished and the Wildlife Centre had taken their place. However, the Benedictine Abbey of St Peter and St Paul is still there (that part of it used by the public, although the monastery buildings were destroyed at the time of Henry VIII.) I attended a sung eucharist, and felt I was truly ‘in character’ at last!
The abbey was founded in 1083 and is very impressive indeed, a huge church constructed of very red local sandstone (which actually looks like brick.) The castle, where Hugh Beringar, the sheriff, used to hang out, is also a huge red sandstone building, set in a dominating position overlooking the town. It has now become the Shropshire Regimental Museum. The train station occupies what would have been the forecourt, where the siege of 1138 took place and where, afterwards, Cadfael inspected the bodies in One Corpse Too Many.
The visit wasn’t a complete waste of time. I picked up a pamphlet on herbs which includes a plan of Cadfael’s herb garden as it was originally designed, and which was opened by Edith Pargeter (Ellis Peters) in June, 1987. I also found a wonderful booklet titled ‘In the footsteps of Brother Cadfael’ which gives three walks around Shrewsbury. The first is around the abbey enclave, the second covers the abbey foregate, St Giles (the leper hospital) and the Gaye, the abbey orchard and gardens where Cadfael spent much of his time. The third walk is around Shrewsbury town and the Severn River, from which Madog of the dead boat fished out bodies.
The walks were fascinating. I became aware of the author’s prodigious imagination as I looked around me and read, in the walking guide, her descriptions of these same places as they might have looked in the 12th century. (A map of Norman Shropshire, which I bought for just over a pound, helped the process.) The guide also quotes extracts from various novels, so that as well as finding out what happened, you can also ‘see’ the hovels where some of the characters lived, where the fair was, and the inns, barns, mills, manor houses, shops and churches. It was an action-packed and interesting few days.
My research also took me to Oxford, to have a look at the castle from which the Empress Matilda made a daring escape in 1142. However, I couldn’t resist going on the Inspector Morse tour while I was there. It was conducted by Bill Leonard, an affable and very knowledgeable guy who, it turned out, has written a book: The Oxford of Inspector Morse. I now own an autographed copy, which is even better than a regular guide book in that it has all the touristy information, plus maps and some beautiful photographs, and also a very detailed breakdown of all the Morse films: what they were about, where they were filmed plus information about the various sites. We were lucky to visit some sites not open to the general public, like the Oxford Union where, in The Infernal Serpent, Morse is supposed to attend a debate but finds himself investigating the death of a Fellow instead.
It was a great thrill to see some familiar scenes: for example, Radcliffe Square and the Radcliffe Camera which is ‘the most photographed location, along with the railway station,’ and which opens each film. Exeter College was just one of the ancient and beautiful colleges we visited. The Fellow’s Garden features in The Way Through the Woods. In the last Morse film, The Remorseful Day, Morse listens to Faure’s Requiem in the chapel of Exeter College before staggering out and collapsing in the quadrangle after a heart attack. Bill told us that the Requiem was actually conducted by Barrington Pheloung, who composed a lot of the music in the series: a touching tribute for John Thaw who, himself, has now died.
We also, of course, visited some of Morse’s favourite hangouts – the pubs! I later went back and had a drink (not a pint of ale but a shandy, I’m afraid) at The Bear, the Turf Tavern and the beautiful Trout Inn near Godstow Bridge, a walk of some miles along the Thames through meadows and woods. I didn’t get to the Randolph Hotel in the centre of the city, which now boasts ‘the Morse Bar’.
Being a mate of Colin Dexter, creator of Morse, Bill regaled us with lots of interesting and amusing anecdotes about writing and filming the series. It seems Dexter is a crossword fanatic, as is ‘Mrs Lewis’. His love of crosswords and the fact that he is deaf came together in several novels, including The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, which he claims is his favourite adaptation. Bill admits that some of the plots became very convoluted (perhaps because they kept changing the scripts) and that they sometimes didn’t make sense. Continuity was also a problem, in that characters would walk into one college and out of another (although that could be attributed to the logistics of trying to park ‘half a dozen TV vans outside a preferred location’ – some of those medieval streets are very narrow.) Morse’s red Jag apparently was ‘a bugger’ to drive, and in fact was put on a trailer and driven about while Morse and Lewis chatted inside.
Perhaps the most interesting titbit of information is the fact that Colin Dexter is currently writing the ‘Inspector Lewis’ series, featuring Kevin Whately (the original actor.) Filming starts in July and it’ll be interesting to see if Lewis has the charisma to match his boss in what would have to be one of the most popular crime series of all time.
© Felicity Pulman, 2005.