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Daphne du Maurier

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Rebecca’s boat-house wasn’t where we thought it was!



While studying a fascinating website showing old maps, and comparisons to modern maps, we discovered something that local Fowey historians have always known, but which probably has a more significant meaning to Daphne du Maurier fans than it does to the historians.  Rebecca’s boat-house is not where we thought it was!!

Rebecca is, without doubt, Daphne du Maurier’s most famous and most often read novel.  Published in 1938 it is now 82 years old and has never been out of print.  Visitors to Fowey regularly make a pilgrimage to Polridmouth, the beach where Rebecca’s boat-house nestles, and the cove where her boat is discovered with her body inside it.  The beach with the beautiful cottage and the lake beside it, the cottage which represents Rebecca’s boat-house.

A popular way of getting to Polridmouth is to drive round to Menabilly Barton Farm, put your parking coins in the milk churn and then take the path down towards the sea.  You walk along, passing the landscape of Daphne’s short story The Birds to your right and the woodland hiding Menabilly to your left. Once you reach the sea, you turn left and there you are on Rebecca’s beach, looking out to sea, with the cottage behind you and the ruins of the old Grotto hidden by trees, just to the right of it.  So, this is where the second Mrs de Winter, Maxim and Jasper the dog walk down to, from the house, through the Happy Valley, to the Rebecca beach.

And then we looked round, and saw that Jasper had disappeared.  We called and whistled, and he did not come. I looked anxiously towards the mouth of the cove where the waves were breaking upon the rocks…

We walked up the beach towards the valley once again.  ‘Jasper, Jasper?’ called Maxim...

In the distance, beyond the rocks to the right of the beach, I heard a short sharp bark.  ‘Hear that?’ I said.   ‘He’s climbed over this way’.  I began to scramble up the slippery rocks in the direction of the bark.

‘Come back,’ said Maxim sharply; ‘we don’t want to go that way.  The fool of a dog must look after himself’…

I pretended not to hear, and began scrambling over the rocks to Jasper.  Great jagged boulders screening the view...

And I saw, to my surprise, that I was looking down into another cove, similar to the one I had left, but wider and more rounded.  A small stone breakwater had been thrown out across the cove for shelter, and behind it the bay formed a tiny natural harbour.  There was a buoy anchored there, but no boat.  The beach in the cove was white shingle, like the one behind me, but steeper, shelving suddenly to the sea.  The woods came right down to the tangle of seaweed marking high water, encroaching almost to the rocks themselves, and at the fringe of the woods was a long low building, half cottage, half boat-house, built of the same stone as the breakwater. (Rebecca, pub. Victor Gollancz 1938, Ch 10, pp 131-132).

It was Rebecca’s boat-house.

So, if you walk down the path from Menabilly Barton Farm and you turn right instead of left, then you can clamber down onto the real Rebecca beach.  Between you and the beach with the cottage and the lake are the rocks that Jasper and the second Mrs de Winter clambered across on that fateful day.  The rocks that Jasper knew lead him to his mistress’s boat-house, and the moment when Maxim first feared that his secret might not remain a secret forever.

Map copied from the National Library of Scotland website

This map is in the series dated 1892-1914, and we do not yet know if the boat-house was still there when Daphne first began to walk in this area, but she must have known of its existence.  It shows, as you face Polridmouth from the sea, the two coves - with the Grotto, the cottage and the lake to the back of the cove in the centre and the boat-house towards the back of the cove on the left.

This image shows a close up of the boat-house on the map

This image is of a postcard showing the boat-house and was kindly sent to us by Nigel Hall*

And this image shows a close up of the boathouse.

If you live in the area or when you are next visiting, walk down to Polridmouth, take a copy of Rebecca with you, and read chapter ten.  Daphne du Maurier walked so much of the area around Fowey and particularly Menabilly.  She observed, and she listened, and everything she saw and heard was absorbed into her and became a part of her.  Her observations and the nuances of the places that she knew so well became part of her novels so that when she wrote, she used these details.  It is a joy for Daphne’s readers, particularly those who are lucky enough to walk in her footsteps, because they can still see exactly what she saw and described in her writing.   Polridmouth is a fine example of this because although time, the tides and the weather have altered the coves to some extent, essentially nothing has changed, and you can still see the beauty through her eyes and your own.

Click here to search maps on the National Library of Scotland website:

*Nigel Hall is a local historian.  He has written two books about Polkerris:

Old Postcards of Polkerris, published 2013
Polkerris: A History of the Village and Its Pilchard Fishery, published 2018.

© Ann and David Willmore 2020.

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