Durham-based novelist Pat Barker describes how the Northumberland coast appears in her novel, Noonday, and why this particular shoreline enhances her creativity. Interview: Alex Reece
My favourite stretch of shoreline is the Northumberland coast, in particular the part around Dunstanburgh Castle, which features in my novel, Noonday. One main character is born very close to the castle and, when she’s a little girl, she’s caned at school and she runs there. She stands on the edge of what is known colloquially as the Rumble Churn.
If you’ve ever stood there, right on the edge of the cliff, with your toes curling over, the sea runs into a narrow rocky inlet and the spray is being sent up as each wave crashes in – and the water appears to be boiling. It is a most magnificent part of the coast. For this little girl who grows up to be, in some ways, a very troubled but interesting woman, this becomes a place she goes to in her mind whenever she’s having problems in her life.
There is an absolutely amazing poem by Katrina Porteous, called simply, Dunstanburgh. It was written for radio, and I think it’s the best evocation of a place I’ve ever read. It begins, ‘There is a castle by the sea, that no road leads to anymore…’. There’s a chorus of women’s, men’s and children’s voices telling the story of Dunstanburgh Castle, and the legend that there is a girl imprisoned in the castle walls. Sir Guy the Seeker, who is supposed to haunt the castle, is still looking for her now, throughout eternity.
I go on holidays to Northumberland with my daughter, her partner, my granddaughter (who is six years old) and their dog – a little Jack Russell. I absolutely adore those Northumberland beaches, where you just let the dog off the lead and he runs for miles and miles and miles. I think a dog on a really empty beach, which the Northumberland beaches tend to be, is the most joyful sight in the world. It revives your spirit.
If I run into a block on a book, and I spend a day watching the dog racing in and out of the waves, very often when I come home, the block has cleared and I can see the way forward again.
Pat Barker’s novel, Noonday, is out now (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99).