Secrets underground

Sketch map of Kent to illustrate Cold Shoulder Road locations

In a previous post, ‘Dark doings in Kent’, I discussed some of the sites in Kent, real and imaginary, which featured in Joan Aiken’s alternative history novel Cold Shoulder Road, one of her Wolves Chronicles. In this post, therefore, I want to mention the remaining locations, primarily down on the Kent coast but also near Calais, visited by our young protagonists Is and Arun Twite.

What exactly is the purpose of this kind of discussion and others like it? I suppose there are actually three purposes.

  1. Because I can. I worry away at details in each chronicle because it’s fun, and it helps me, if no one else, to inhabit the series as much as is possible.
  2. Because nobody else much will. Apart from a few correspondents (and thank goodness for them and their engagement!) most readers and reviewers are happy to ride the crest of the narrative, and occasionally puzzle about something obscure, before moving on.
  3. Because Joan Aiken’s worldbuilding deserves acknowledging. Though she’s often inconsistent there’s a glorious mix of imaginative terraforming and flexible timelining into which she places her colourful characters.

Without further ado I shall now plunge into the remaining, rather peculiar, geography of the novel.

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Let me start with a bit of history, both literary and actual. The first of the Wolves Chronicles, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, pretended that in 1832 there was already a Channel Tunnel in existence (one in fact having been proposed by Albert Mathieu-Favier as early as 1802); wolves from the Russian steppes had travelled through this corridor, ravaging the island as well as the continent each winter.

It wasn’t till 1994, however, that a real tunnel was completed, with a railway line entering the tunnel at Coquelles, Pas-de-Calais in France, emerging near Folkestone; and just a year later, in 1995, Cold Shoulder Road was published in which smuggling via the fictional tunnel played a part. Unsurprisingly, both the actual and the fictional tunnels occupy more or less the same space, but that’s not the case with all the locations mentioned in the novel.


Folkestone, from the Ordnance Survey First Series 1816

Folkestone, Kent

When Is Twite and her cousin Arun arrive from Stonemouth, a port in the northeast of the country, they are put ashore from the Dark Diamond at Folkestone, disembarking on the pier. To their right is Wear Street (possibly the same as Wear Bay Road) where they see a mean little fair in operation selling food and oddments. In the centre of town is the steep and narrow High Street (now The Old High Street) with its shops.

Going inland through the town’s crisscross of streets — all clearly devastated by the flood — they turn east onto the one-way thoroughfare called Frog-Hole Lane, also called Cold Shoulder Road. These alternate names perhaps echo the names of former sites in the vicinity, Hole Farm and the hamlets of Upper and Lower Coldham or Cauldham, which are now subsumed under streets with modern names but which can be spotted on early Ordnance Survey maps.

Beyond the “tumbledown row of weather-boarded houses, joined together by a common roof” where Arun once lived with his parents is the beach, and then the sea. The dwellings, which were once mostly inhabited by members of the Silent Folk, are all abandoned: in the February after the disastrous January flood the secretive sect upped sticks and moved up the coast to Seagate, that is, apart from those who had already suffered unfortunate deaths at the hands of the smugglers or had previously emigrated to New England.

East Hill House, East Cliff

This building is reached along the cliffs east of Folkestone, maybe in the region of Capel-le-Ferme. Situated along the Old Dover Road from the town, the modern settlement retains East Cliff in the name of a country park, all overlooked by a trio of Napoleonic-era Martello towers guarding the famous White Cliffs.

It is here then, near the edge of the cliff, that Admiral Percival Fishskin has his redbrick residence, East Hill House, with a garden partly supported by girders over the cliff edge. Under the house are chambers cut into the chalk, reminiscent of the chalk quarries called dene-holes that dot the Kent and Sussex Downs. (One, Moseling’s Hole, is known at Alkham, five miles to the northeast of Folkestone.) From one of the chambers a tunnel leads eventually towards a partial collapse around a cache of treasure, explored by Is and Arun.

This treasure is supposed to be a long-forgotten stash placed here by past smugglers, retrieved a generation or more before from the HMS Victory wrecked on the Goodwin Sands: this particular vessel was the fabled treasure ship of Queen Henrietta — wife of King Charles I of England and mother of Kings Charles II and James II — and not to be confused with either Nelson’s flagship or another HMS Victory built in 1620 to defend against pirates, first in the Mediterranean and then in the English Channel.

(For comparison, an East India Company ship, the Admiral Gardner, was wrecked in this area in January 1809 with around fifty tons of coins, just one of several hundreds of wrecks on the Goodwin Sands.)

The wrecks of Britannia and Admiral Gardner on the Goodwin Sands, 24 January 1809.

Beyond the collapse a passage leads to a point overlooking the entrance to the Channel Tunnel, where Is and Arun spot the smugglers known as the Merry Gentry, led by a white-masked Dominic de la Twite, unloading contraband goods from a freight train at the station by the tunnel.

When Frenchman Albert Mathieu-Favier originally put forward plans for a Channel tunnel in the Napoleonic era he envisioned horse-drawn carriages travelling from one country to another, profiting from ventilation chimneys. Passenger trains were barely a concept in 1802, of course, though literally a going concern by the 1840s, when this novel takes place; and as we’ve noted the tunnel was already in existence in 1832, the year when Aiken set the first in the sequence, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, in train (as it were). Interestingly, wolves are still using the tunnel as a corridor into Kent in Cold Shoulder Road.

Albert Mathieu-Favier’s 1802 plan for a tunnel under La Manche


Before the novel opens most members of the Silent Folk had moved lock, stock and barrel to a settlement called Seagate. Estimated to be about a dozen miles from Folkestone, this would place it just the other side of Dover; the problem is there is no settlement called Seagate here. While there’s a Sandgate to the west of Folkestone, and a Sangatte near Calais — nearly above where the tunnel ceases to run under La Manche before emerging a few kilometres further on in the French countryside — these suggestive names are not what Seagate is modelled on. However, there is an area called Swingate Downs east of Dover, which is almost certainly near where we must imagine Seagate to be situated.

Having escaped from Admiral Fishskin’s chalkpit and crossed over where the railway went into its tunnel, Is and Arun head onto the road towards Dover, a little over four miles away; Arun’s intention is to go on to Seagate, “not far, on beyond Dover.”

Dover, from the Ordnance Survey First Series 1816

Swingate Downs were part of the 13th-century upland manor of Bere in West Cliffe. When the rough track from Dover to Deal and on to Sandwich was turned into a turnpike road in 1797, the road to Guston (opposite Dover Castle) was roughly where one of the tollhouses was sited, with another near the Swingate Inn. The Historic England website tells us that the two-storeyed building dates to around 1800 and that “the name derives from a swingate over the road”; this was originally a turnpike or spiked barrier which swung up or aside to let traffic through.

Folkestone, from a 1797 map when toll roads were introduced into this part of Kent

Tolls were introduced on many roads in the early 19th century to pay for the upkeep of roads which, in times past, had been undertaken by landowners’ tenants — if at all. There are no mentions of toll houses and only one or two references to turnpikes in the Wolves Chronicles (in Cold Shoulder Road Ruth, Is’s sister, talks of “waiting to cross the turnpike road”) meaning that either there was not much need to mention them. This might account for the name of Swingate morphing here into Seagate, a name which seems to parallel the ports of Ramsgate (“raven’s gap”), Margate (“a gap in the cliffs with a pool or mere”) and Sandgate (“sandy gap or cleft”, analogous to Flemish Sangatte).

Arun’s estimated distances to Seagate — admittedly unreliable, because vague — place it “not above fifteen miles” from Folkestone and “six or seven” miles from Womenswold, which fits in reasonably well with Swingate’s position (12 or so miles and 9 miles, respectively).

South Foreland lighthouse in the early 19th century, marked as Signal House on the 1816 map.

Seagate settlement unfortunately doesn’t seem to occupy the same footprint as the National Trust White Cliffs Visitor Centre, with its vantage point overlooking the modern port of Dover and footpaths leading north-eastwards from the modern car parks towards the South Foreland lighthouse a mile or so away; instead Seagate seems to be situated close to sea level, having “suffered badly from the flood.” It consists of “a small huddle of houses” in two rows “facing each other across a sandy lane which ran parallel to the beach”:

The houses were humble, too. Mostly built of weatherboard, with tiled roofs, they squatted close to the ground. Narrow alley-ways threaded between them; the shingle bank which protected them from the sea was strewn with a clutter of upturned dinghies, spars, oars, piles of nets and tackle, anchors, and pieces of rusty iron. At either end of the village were boat-sheds and shacks and tall sail-lofts, mostly painted black.

This description sounds to me very like Dungeness, near the border with East Sussex, a hamlet with black-painted wooden buildings, a massive shingle Bank, and beached boats: Joan Aiken would have known this area well, her early years having been spent in Rye not too far away. Still, on the 1816 Ordnance Survey map a couple of buildings can be faintly discerned south of the cliffs east of Dover: we may imagine Seagate in this area if we wish.

Halfway up the main street a large timbered inn, The King’s Head, stands on the edge of the beach; the landlord of Seagate’s pub believes it dates to the time of Charles I. It may be modelled on the public house of the same name in Dover, which survived from the early seventeenth century in various incarnations until 1932; equally, The King’s Head further up the Kent coast in Deal still claims to be the same building as existed in the eighteenth century, and so may also be a contender. Also in the hamlet is a school and a chapel for the Silent Folk; their Leader, Dominic de la Twite, lives apart from the sect with his sister Merlwyn in a converted sail-loft at the end of Seagate.

1888 plan of Calais and its immediate hinterland (Wikimedia Commons).


After a journey in the Channel Tunnel the cousins and others arrive on the French coast. The train station

was tucked into a green chalky dent in the hillside, which was not at all unlike the country around Folkestone. To the north lay level, marshy land, intersected by dykes and canals, and beyond the marshes extended a long, flat, glistening beach, tapering away to the distant horizon.

A hill is behind the station, to the south, and beyond that smoke rises into the sky from a town, which Arun thinks might be Calais. And nearby is an isolated château-like mansion with several turrets topped with witch hat roofs, owned by the de Puy family.

It’s impossible to be firm about any of these locations. Arun seems to be mistaken about the town being Calais as there is no hill to the north of the bourg — just a fort and the sea — and the tunnel actually emerges three or four miles to the southwest of the town and two miles from the sea, in a commune called Peuplingues near Coquelles. In the world of the Wolves Chronicles there are clearly differences between the France the Twites visit and the France in our world, and I can locate no existing château that may correspond to the mansion belonging to the Conte de Puy. (In French le puy indicates an eminence or tor.)

Having now covered all of the key sites in Cold Shoulder Road, I shall next be moving on to the themes that it shares with the other instalments in the Wolves Chronicles before a look at the principal actors in the novel.

17 thoughts on “Secrets underground

  1. The person who would really have enjoyed your searches and discoveries is Joan herself! I’m always sad she isn’t here to appreciate them…

    I wonder if she knew that tunnel plan with its chimneys and candelabras…quite a job to keep all the candles burning – like painting the Forth Bridge?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Lizza! I would’ve loved to have known if and when Joan agreed or disagreed with my assumptions and conclusions, and whether (like Philip Pullman with Laurie Frost’s guide to His Dark Materials) she’d have been gratified to have her unconscious worldbuilding organised and clarified!

      The early plan for the tunnel is extraordinary, isn’t it? It would have made more sense to have carriages carry their own lamps then to send teams of lamplighters replenishing the candles! I suspect Joan knew of early plans to build a tunnel, though, they were an element of Napoleon’s fruitless designs to conquer Britain, but of course in the world of the Chronicles there would have been no Napoleon…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a tribute to Joan Aiken, Chris. World-building is so often the invisible base of the story-telling iceburg, it’s a joy to share your investigation, and I agree with Lizza. I can imagine Joan Aiken not just enjoying, but feeling really chuffed that you’ve taken the trouble to work this out. What a tribute to her story.

    Great post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s the story that remains paramount — as in this case — but hopefully all the finicky details provide the solid base that traditional stories require. And I do like alternative histories where the interface between reality and fantasy is porous! Thanks for your appreciative comments, Cath, I’m pleased you liked my picking apart those details.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Love them, Chris. It’s great having someone ‘open-up’ a piece of writing. I get the feeling I’m sharing a secret, or being given a glimpse into an alternative world.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Your metaphor of opening up a piece of writing is vivid, Cath, and very close to what I hope I’m doing.

          To extend the metaphor, I think Joan’s stories are like those pop-up picture books, colourful and surreal, but I also like to look behind them and see the cereal boxes the figures have been fashioned from, the scraps of material, feathers and so on purloined from elsewhere that go towards creating her Illusion; and by noticing the care she’s taken, sensing the humanity she infuses them with. Her heartbreaking short story The Serial Garden encapsulates this perfectly.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I read and absolutely loved “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase” as a young girl, and this fascinating post brought that world right back to me. I don’t know if I read any other of Joan Aiken’s works, but I suspect she might be worth revisiting at some point!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you suspect right! If you enjoyed TWOWC then best to go on with the next two or three in the series (Black Hearts in Battersea, Night Birds on Nantucket and The Whispering Mountain) rather this one, which is quite late on in the sequence.

      Then her short stories are worth trying too, The Serial Garden for example, or The Monkey’s Wedding, many of which have a bittersweet Russian feel about them though absolutely British in their playful motifs.

      Liked by 1 person

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