Weird and wilderness

Sketch map (not to scale) of Rotherweird, based on the text of the first instalment and the cover art of all three books in the trilogy (image © Chris Lovegrove)

Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird (reviewed here) kicks off a fantasy trilogy being published in the UK, with the final volume due to appear in July this year. I’ve previously mentioned my fascination with maps both real and imagined and even suggested that the author, whose distinguished grandfather lived in Sussex and Kent in the far southeast of England, may have based his concept of Rotherweird on the town of Rye in East Sussex. You may remember that Rye boasted many literary associations such as (in alphabetical order) Joan Aiken, E F Benson, Rumer Godden, Radclyffe Hall and Henry James.

Now, I have no idea if Andrew Caldecott visited here, though given its relative proximity on the south coast to London it’s not unlikely, but I believe there are a few clues pointing to Rye faintly being a possible model for the fantasy town.

First, Rotherweird is on the river Rother, or rather in the river Rother. The river flows north to south, splitting to surround the promontory that the town sits on before joining up again with itself. Meanwhile, Rye, famous as one of the Cinque Ports in Tudor times, was once virtually surrounded by the sea but now (due to coastal changes) is skirted by the rivers Tillingham, Brede and … Rother. Unlike London’s Rotherhithe, which is etymologically unrelated to any River Rother, Rye is actually fringed on the east by the Rother; and while it’s not particularly weird it has a certain eccentric charm of its own.

(As an aside, the Tillingham river name was repurposed by E F Benson in his Mapp and Lucia books for the town of Tilling, modelled on Rye) and Rumer Godden used the Brede for her novel on life in a nunnery, which she entitled In This House of Brede.)

Sketch map of Rye. Image credit: http://www.visitryebay.com/maps-and-guides/rye-town-map/

Next, given that there is otherwise little else in Rye’s town plan that exactly parallels that of Rotherweird, I’d like to point to Caldecott’s North and South Gateways for his fantasy town. There are equivalents in Rye, namely the Landgate to the north and the Ypres Tower, which was part of the medieval town wall, to the south. Neither opens onto a bridge but they looking imposing enough.

There are few other exact, though suggestive, equivalents. Rotherweird’s axis, the Golden Mean, is north-south while Rye is more east-west, but both have a church and a town hall in close proximity, along with the nearest thing to a mayoral building in Lamb House (though nothing as old or grand as Escutcheon Place, inhabited by the Rotherweird Herald). But Rye is well served with numerous surviving timber-framed buildings, especially on Mermaid Street, the High Street and Watchbell Street.

The Landgate, from a vintage photo
Ypres tower, Rye, from an early etching (credit: https://www.ryemuseum.co.uk/ypres-tower/)

What about Rotherweird’s setting? Well, as with Rye there are marshes to the east, in Rye’s case Walland Marsh and Romney Marsh, both protected by the substantial bank of shingle called Dungeness Beach. Unlike Rotherweird there are no escarpments overlooking the river (though the South Downs are not too far away) nor a heavily forested area to the west, though historically the Sussex Weald (a mix of “grassland, scrub, solitary trees, groves and more extensive areas of forest”) did once stretch from Kent through to the New Forest, west of Winchester and Southampton.

I can only add that the solitary and inaccessible watchtower to the southeast of Rotherweird is vaguely matched by the Henry VIII fortification known as Camber Castle or Winchelsea Castle. Originally a single tower (like Rotherweird”s watchtower) to the east of a road between Winchelsea and Rye, it was rebuilt and expanded by that Tudor king as a concentric artillery fort to protect the Sussex coast and Rye from French attack.

And this is as far as I feel I can go. A promising combination of island promontory (Rye looks like a mini Mont-Saint-Michel from a distance, its stumpy church tower the highest point), river Rother, gateways, late medieval buildings, marshland and ancient weald (‘wilderness’) can be largely matched by Rotherweird’s topography and name, even if the suffix is ‘weird’ and not ‘weald’.

Andrew Caldecott is obsessively secretive about himself: try searching online and you’ll get the same half dozen official facts about his academic career, professional legal achievements and literary aspirations. I can’t therefore tell you if he has any personal connections to this Sussex town on the border of Kent. But I’m willing to bet a Rotherweird guinea that he does.


My final post — for now — about this novel. I plan a notice about an annual fantasy event next (hint: it’s at the end of October) plus a final review for Wyrd and Wonder, of Diana Wynne Jones’ Power of Three

9 thoughts on “Weird and wilderness

  1. I share your fascination with maps in novels, and have recently been severely tempted by a large book of them in a major bookshop. If there were more posts like yours perhaps I’d be able to resist.

    This is an excellent work of investigation and reasoning, and I may now have to add Rotherweird to my long, long, list of books-I-might-spend-my-last-two-book-tokens-on. I’m hooked by the pictures and the maps, and I haven’t even looked at your review yet.

    Could you do a post on how to become decisive, maybe?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m not the person to ask about being decisive, Cath, decidedly not! But I’m heartened that you liked my investigation, tentative though my conclusions may be. I love atlases on such imaginary places — perhaps I ought to do a short post on books that treat them as real, to go with pieces like this: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-maps1

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh, Caldecott’s piecing together inspiring places, yes? I enjoy that, too. There’s a rundown mansion I remember visiting in my childhood with red brick and a whitewashed room with a tiny door that would inspire a Coraline II…..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A belated response to this comment, Jean, sorry, but I’ve only just seen it. Inspiration, that’s the mark of an inspired reader or writer, isn’t it? An experience (whether real or virtual) that triggers further thoughts, connections, creativity is something to be hoped for and valued when it arrives. As both reader and writer you, of course, know all about that! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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