Walk a mile along the clifftops from Polperro in south-east Cornwall and you'll come to the tiny village of Talland; a place whose arguably most famous resident was its 18th century vicar, Richard Dodge. Dodge had a reputation as a ghost hunter, allegedly riding out to the moors one night and sending a carriage driven by a headless horseman back to Hell. Yep. Apparently there were witnesses... You can even find written documentation of the event inside Dodge's church which still stands on the hill.
Dodge was also known for conducting elaborate exorcisms in Bridles Lane outside his church. Thanks to the vicar's theatrics, the villagers became convinced the lane was haunted by demons. Once dark fell, they refused to venture onto Bridles Lane, leaving it clear for the local smugglers to carry their contraband from the beach at Talland Bay and hide it in the church.
I know, right? Truth is definitely stranger than fiction. I love this story. So of course, I wrote a book about it...
Bridles Lane is the first book in my new West Country Trilogy, set in Cornwall, one of my favourite places on earth. I think my legs are still recovering from my research trip to Talland when I climbed possibly the two steepest hills on the planet to get to the church. I could only imagine what it must have been like carting smuggled liquor up those slopes!
So I'm excited to share with you the first chapter of Bridles Lane. You can also click here to download your free copy of Moonshine, the prequel to the West Country Trilogy.
BRIDLES LANE (West Country Trilogy Book One)
Ship in the bay.
A woman crouches in the churchyard. She grips a lantern and peers over the cliff at the sea thrashing the headland. Behind her, a little to the right, her family lies; their coffins crumbling and their bones becoming earth.
But there is a living brother, in a whisky-laden lugger, past where her eyes can reach. Scarlett Bailey has tossed a bunch of heather down to the sea spirits.
Bring him safely home.
She has been waiting here since dusk; signalling lantern in hand. A bundle of furze sits at her side, ready to set be ablaze if riding officers appear.
A flash of the lamp for an empty beach. Fire for prying eyes and revenue men.
Instead of Isaac’s ship, this beast of a brig had come seesawing around the point, mainsail thudding. It would strike the cliffs for certain. Be wrecked upon their beach.
One, two, three shots of the banker’s pistol and the villagers had poured onto the sand. Men and women, barefooted children, arms laden with rope and axes.
Wake up! Ship in the bay.
Scarlett tucks the lantern behind a headstone. There’ll be no need for it tonight. The crowd will pillage the wreck; tear it clean. Isaac and his crew won’t land their goods with such an audience.
The path from the churchyard down to the beach is steep and slick. Scarlett grabs her skirts in her fist and runs it with the certain legs of a native.
The ship plunges. Its yardarms strike the headland, hull into rock. Mast lamps dance wildly; one plunging into the sea.
No shouts. No cries for help. No-one struggling for escape. The strange stillness makes Scarlett’s breathing quicken.
Men launch themselves into the sea. A whaleboat pulls towards the brig’s starboard side. Men working for Charles Reuben, Scarlett is sure. Following orders while Reuben stands on the cliff and counts his fortune.
The ship writhes against the land like a wounded beast. Scarlett tucks her skirts up and clambers over the rocks at the edge of the beach. She will board the ship from her port side and get her hands to a little of the cargo.
Look what I found, she will tell Isaac. Are you proud of me?
The cold sea steals her breath. She lurches towards the ship’s ladder, a sudden swell slamming her legs. She snatches the rungs and pulls herself from the water. Climbs tentatively over the gunwale.
The wreck is dark. Spars groan and glass shatters. Lifeboats sway on their davits. The boats look untouched. No attempt made to use them.
In the moonlight, Scarlett sees dark beads staining the boards. Blood? Perhaps.
It leads from the hatch to the gunwale and disappears into the sea.
She ought to leave.
No. She cannot go to Isaac empty-handed. To hell if she will let Reuben’s men take everything.
The hatch opens with a creak. She climbs below and feels her way, sightless, through the dark passage.
There is no sound of life here in the crew’s quarters. But nor is there anything in the darkness to hint at the presence of the dead.
She feels an indentation beneath her hand. Traces a finger along the carving in the bulkhead. A crooked crucifix is scrawled into the wood.
She can hear Reuben’s men raiding the hold. She can’t hope to compete with them. But she will find plenty in the captain’s quarters. Trinkets and navigation tools, no doubt. Coin if she is lucky. Enough to put food on their table for a few nights at least.
The ship groans. The sea thunders into a distant cavity.
Scarlett stumbles down the passage, water at her ankles. She shoves open the door of the captain’s cabin. The sea swirls around her knees. Lamplight from shore glows through the shattered porthole.
She wades towards the desk and tugs open the drawers.
No trinkets, no tools, no coin.
She goes to the cupboard in the corner of the cabin.
Dead wreck, they call the ships that are flung onto their shores with no living soul left aboard. But here is a skeleton; a wreck already plundered.
Scarlett’s mind goes to freak waves, to sirens, to hidden monsters and mutinies.
The rising water chases her from of the cabin. Soon this ship will rot on the floor of their bay. She hurries back to the deck, clutching the corner of the pilot house to keep her balance.
She hears movement, groaning. She crouches, reaching into the dark. Her fingers find something hot and wet. Blood.
And this dead wreck, she realises, is still breathing.
He feels fingers work across his neck, searching for a pulse. Sharp pain at the side of his head. Blood runs over his ear.
He makes out the shape of the person leaning over him. A young woman.
Her hand on his forearm eases him into sitting. Nausea turns his stomach. He hears the sea battering into unwelcome places.
He shifts, his hand finding the pool of blood on the pilot house floor.
The woman tears at her underskirt and presses the fabric against the cut on his scalp. “Listen.” Her voice is a sharp whisper. “There are men plundering your ship. They’ll want this to be a dead wreck so they can legally claim her cargo. If they see you, they’ll want you killed.”
Asher stands, stumbles. He hears voices and footsteps. Life. But these voices are unfamiliar.
“Nothing down there but a few ankers,” a man says.
“Take them ashore.”
The woman darts out of the pilot house, leaving Asher alone in the darkness.
“What are you doing here, girl?” says a gravelly voice on the other side of the door.
“I thought to bring something back before you get your greedy hands to everything.” Fear shakes her words. “You found cargo?”
“A little. Half the hold is underwater.”
“The rest of the ship is empty,” she says. “Was this Reuben’s doing?”
A laugh. “Not everything untoward is Reuben’s doing.”
“Get off the ship, Miss Bailey. We’re setting her alight before the riding officers find her.”
The men’s footsteps disappear.
The woman throws open the door. “Come with me,” she tells Asher.
He grips the bulkhead to keep his balance. “What’s your name?”
She glances over her shoulder. “Is it important?” A flash of light illuminates her face. Thin and pale, dominated by large charcoal eyes. Tangled black hair clings to her cheeks.
“Your name.” Urgency in his voice.
“Scarlett. Scarlett Bailey.”
Asher’s heart quickens at the impossibility of it. He says nothing.
She clamps a hand around the top of his arm. “Come on now. Lean on me.” She crouches, edging her way across the violent slope of the deck. The sea swells over the gunwale and the ship’s ladder vanishes.
Asher grapples with the deck’s smooth surface. Finds nothing to steady himself. He reaches instinctively for a fistful of Scarlett’s dress.
Her eyes scan the sea for a path back to the rocks. “This way.”
Dark water sweeps over the deck, licking Asher’s boots. He breathes hard, tightens his handful of her skirts.
“Can you swim?” he asks, his mouth dry.
“Ayes. I can swim. But the water’s shallow. We’ll not need to.”
With a deep, undersea groan, the deck shifts further. Scarlett pulls her skirts free from Asher’s grip and laces her fingers through his. She moves with sudden urgency towards the shore. He stumbles behind, blood running into his eye.
And the ship is gone from beneath his feet. Water on all sides. He panics, thrashes until his toes find the rocky sea bed. Scarlett looks back at him, gripping his hand tightly. Water swells around their shoulders. Asher feels the sea tug him back towards the wreck. He keeps wading, keeps stumbling. Finally, the water becomes shallow and he drops to his knees on the rocky outcrop beside the beach.
Orange light flares on the edge of his vision. He glances over his shoulder to see flames shooting up the limp, tangled sails. Smoke plumes, melting into the blue dawn.
A crowd is gathered on the sand. Their murmurs carry on the cold air.
An empty wreck?
The boats untouched.
“Stay back,” Scarlett hisses. “Don't let them see you.”
A sight he must be with his matted hair and his shirt black with blood.
Keeping his back pressed to the cliffs, he edges around the point behind Scarlett. At the top of the hill, a church spire is silhouetted against the lightening sky.
Oh, this village. How he despises it. And yet what twisted joy he feels to have been flung onto her shore.
Scarlett follows his gaze. “You can’t go to the church. No one there will help you. Come with me.” She leads him up the steep path from the beach. By the first bend in the road sits a dark stone building.
She thumps on the door. “Flora! Quickly! Let us in!”
And then there is a woman in the doorway; pale hair falling over her shoulders and lamplight flickering on her cheeks. Her eyebrows shoot up as she takes in Asher’s bloodied clothes, Scarlett’s wet skirts. She takes his other arm and leads him into a world of shadows and flickering orange light.
He is in the village tavern, Asher realises. A dark wooded room lit only by the lamp in the blonde woman’s hand. The bar is empty of both people and liquor. Crooked shelves, stacked stools, tables lined up against the wall. A great black hearth sits cold and empty.
The noise from the beach has disappeared, replaced by the loud, fast thud of his heart beating in his ears. His legs give way. The dark closes in.