How lucky can an author get when a neighbor across the street lived in the area where your 17th century story took place. The Sotweed Smuggler began in Modbury, Devonshire, on the southern coast of England. Not far to the north was the city of Exeter. I am pleased and honored to interview Alan Burt. (The only thing missing with this virtual chat is his delightful accent and great humor.) So without further adieu,
YOU ARE IN DEVON WITH ALAN
YOU ARE IN DEVON WITH ALAN
Tell me a little bit about yourself and where you lived in England before coming to the United States:
I was born November 1957 in the City of Exeter. We moved from St. Thomas to Beacon Heath around 1960. I had a good childhood as the estate was on the edge of Exeter so I had plenty of woods and fields to play in.
If you were to picture in your mind, historical Ermington and the villages nearby in Devonshire, what would you describe?
Winding steep banked lanes and roads, small villages and hamlets. Rolling hills and fields of the South Hams dotted with woods and the river Erme. White washed cottages with thatched or slate roofs, and at the center of each village the parish church and local pub.
With the story of The Sotweed Smuggler set at Mothercombe Bay, what was the Devon shoreline like? Deserted? Beaches for pleasure? Fishing or merchant ships?
The Devon shoreline is a mix of rugged cliffs with small beaches. Wide estuaries of sand and mud covered each side with woodland. Small fishing towns and villages with a jetty or breakwater, and houses crammed on the hillside. In the villages would be a mixture of fishing and merchant ships.
On my mother’s side of the family we are descended from the Romany gypsy. I can remember as a boy visiting my Aunts who were in fact my grandmother’s sisters. Aunt Misses and Aunt Ruby wore their hair in plaits. She had a chrome-sided caravan full of cut glass. I found both of them hard to understand because of the dialect and the Romany language. I do remember seeing an old photograph of my great grandmother sitting on her painted, horse-drawn caravan smoking her clay pipe. My grandfather told me stories about the lurcher dogs that would run along side the wagon when they traveled the country. I know they would go to the County of Kent to pick hops every year. I also remember my gram reading my tea leaves and on New Year’s Day, I had to carry a lump of coal in my pocket, and be the first to enter a house for luck.
Back in the old days, what would have been the typical supper? Anything unique to the area. Did your Mum teach you to cook?
My mum did teach me to cook. She was very good at baking cakes. For supper we would have things like sausage and mash, pork chops or lamb chops and on Sunday, we always had a roast, beef, pork or chicken. My mum would sometimes make a Romany dish of beef cooked over sliced potatoes in gravy. We would have a treat now and then of fish and chips bought from the traveling fish and chip van which would be parked at the end of King Arthur’s road every Friday night.
What was the main occupation of the residents?
My dad worked for the Local Council in the refuce department and my mum worked for my uncle (her brother) in his pet shop. I remember my next door neighbor worked at a school teaching cello and music. Most people worked for local businesses in Exeter, shops, warehouses, etc.
If I were a tourist and you the guide and had one day to spend in Devonshire, where would we go?
If we had only one day to see Devon, I would first take you on a tour of the capitol city of Exeter. We would visit the cathedral and its close surroundings. Then, I ‘d take you down to the river Exe and see the old customs house and wharf buildings beside the river. Then show you the old timber-framed house called the “house that moved.” It was put on a flat bed with wheels and moved to make way for the ring road in the early 1960’s. Next we would visit Dartmoor National Park. This is the high moorland in the center of Devon. A place of much beauty with open moorland, granite outcrops of rocks featuring small villages and rivers of clear water nestled among the woods.
What do you miss most about Devonshire?
Family, of course, but besides that I miss the moor and clotted cream and being able to just go out in the fields for a walk with very few restrictions. And Texas being mostly flat, I miss the Devon rolling hills and the coast being so close. I miss sandy beaches or standing on the cliff path watching the boats coming and going. But most of all I miss the tranquility at Dartmoor.
From The Sotweed Smuggler, there is a scene where William and Dewance are walking to Ermington to help his mother move back to their ancestral home from Modbury. He looks back frequently and marvels at the beauty of Mothercombe Bay. Dew threw rocks and whistled jingles, and they both nursed a certain melancholy from leaving, even briefly, what had become home. Somehow, maybe through time-travel, I can envision Alan walking with them.