It is to Parson Woodforde, the endearing and much put-upon diarist of the 18th century that I owe the name of Molly Dade. Her name is not the only one in Highcragg House that I borrowed from his pages, but I was struck by the sad tale of his servant Molly Dade who came into service in his household only a little younger than her namesake, my creation, and captivated everyone with her cheerful, modest demeanour, intelligence and efficiency. Kind Parson Woodforde is obviously terribly stricken when in a few short months she succumbs to consumption, returns home and dies there with as much quiet dignity as she had exhibited while alive. Her death seems to touch him as do few others in his pages and it struck me that I would like to give a life to this poor girl, obviously very different from the one cruelly curtailed and though not without sorrow, ultimately rewarded with happiness. From such inconsequential beginnings do stories grow.
For the description of the mining disaster I drew on family tragedies in my own past as well as the account of an actual disaster which occurred in a lead mine in the book’s landscape much later in the century, when the cage taking the miners down to their shift snapped its chain. I have changed many details to suit my purpose, obviously, but the very real victims of that tragedy are buried in the small churchyard of Hope, in Shropshire. Which brings me to the setting of the book. Although not an accurate description, some readers may recognise the landscape as the beautiful Stiperstones, its many lead mines now deserted though plentiful relics of that arduous history lie scattered along the hills. There are to be found the rocks, the heather, the precipitous valleys, Isaac’s cottage (well, my version of it anyway) and the diving swallows. It is, quite simply, one of my favourite places in the world.