Down to the Blackwater shore: Sarah Perry on creating the setting for The Essex Serpent

20 June 2016

The Essex Serpent came out two weeks ago to amazing reviews and tears of joy from enraptured readers. Sarah Perry takes us on a tour of the fictional Essex village in which much of the novel is set, and shows us her original sketch of the location.

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Aldwinter is the Essex village on the edge of the Blackwater marshes where much of The Essex Serpent is set. Some time ago, I was asked precisely where Aldwinter is. Instinctively, I did what I always do when I am unsure of the facts: I Googled it. It was several moments before I remembered that Aldwinter has only ever existed in my imagination – and in the imaginations of my readers.

I suppose it’s not entirely surprising that I’d convinced myself Aldwinter is real, since I spent two years looking at a map of the village pinned up over my desk. I drew the map late one night when The Essex Serpent was in its earliest stages, using Google Images to look at the curves of the Blackwater estuary, and to locate a village no further than ten miles from Colchester.

The difficulty with placing an imagined village in a real setting is made even more complicated when the geography is in a state of flux. The Essex coast once had tens of thousands more acres of marshland than it does now, since sea defences have made it an altogether drier county at the edges.

Unable to visit Aldwinter itself – to see how the water lapped at the saltings, or how the setting sun looked against the flint tower of All Saints church – I stitched it together from Essex places I knew and loved. I took a boat around the eerie Mersea island, and saw the withy-sticks rising out of the water to mark out ancient oyster beds. I remembered walking through sedge-grass that reached up to my waist from St Osyth towards Clacton, with the marsh on my left and the sea on my right. I spent an afternoon with my parents in a bird hide on an Essex RSPB reserve, and later made notes of precisely which flowers were blooming in the hedgerows on a late June day. I recalled begging to be taken to Maldon as a child, where we’d watch the oxblood sails of the Thames barges go up and down the horizon. All these memories, old and new, created a village that seems to me so real I am surprised I can’t go for a walk along the High Road.

I’ve taken the Aldwinter map down from the wall, now that my imagination has moved on from Essex. When I look at it, I see that the village changed as the book was written: the church is no longer St Saviour’s, and I am not at all sure that Traitor’s Oak is quite where I thought it would be. But all the same I can almost persuade myself I can see Cora and Will: two little black dots walking away from the church, and down to the Blackwater shore.  

Aldwinter map

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