So, my hometown’s a shithole. Nobody disputes this. Even the locals call Aldershot “All-the-shit”. It’s sprawling, ugly, poor, the only local crime hotspot, the only place for miles where the houseprices won’t quite bankrupt you, it’s dirty, it’s lairy, it’s drunk in the gutter when all the other local towns are sipping tea at a garden party and sneering in our general direction.
It’s an army town where, when I lived in the town centre, I was regularly roused from my bed of a Sunday by the sound of drums and I’d lean from the window to watch the parade go marching by, first the serving soldiers and then the stiff-backed veterans with their medals gleaming. It’s the first army town, the self-proclaimed ‘Home of the British Army’. The first thing you see when you walk away from the station is a fucking great gun on the roundabout. Besides the new shopping arcade stands a memorial to the soldiers once barracked on the site. Scratch any surface in town and the military are there.
It has the UK’s biggest Buddhist population and its first Buddhist community centre. The Dalai Lama has visited more than once. Sherlock Holmes investigated a strange death here. John Betjeman mocked us fondly. The IRA tried to blow us up (and we still raise a finger in their direction now and then, the fuckers). Everyone who lives here moans about how shit it is, but Aldershot people rarely leave. My landlady grew up twenty doors further up the road (I live in what was her grandfather’s house). Her husband came from foreign parts–he lived on the other side of the road. Now in their seventies, they live two roads away and she still lingers to reminisce over her childhood every time she sees the views from my window.
Like everyone else who lives here, I hold the town in a terribly fond contempt. I certainly never meant to set a book here.
But I did. A Frost of Cares is a ghost story set in the (imaginary) mansion of Eelmoor Hall, in the countryside just outside Aldershot. Luke wanders across my heaths, digs into the history of my town. Hell, he even shops in my favourite supermarket.
This was kind of weird for me. I usually write fantasy and there was something oddly compelling about sharing the land on my very doorstep (also, as those of you who have read the first paragraph will know, Aldershot makes me really fucking sweary).
So I thought I might head out last weekend and get some pictures of the scenes Luke sees at exactly the right time of year (A Frost of Cares takes place between Boxing Day and late January). So here’s a rough history of my rough town, complete with pictures which make it look a hell of a lot prettier than it actually is.
Until 1854, there wasn’t much here. Depending on the century, the population varied between 100 and 150 residents. They lived on the hillside and this was their church, St Michael the Archangel. Below them in the valley were the upper reaches of the boggy River Blackwater which rises to the southwest of the modern town. On the next hill there was a windmill and around them rose the bleak and lonely heaths. It was a hunt of highwaymen, almost as notorious as Hounslow Heath.
The history of Aldershot after the army arrived is pretty well-documented, but digging past that to find out about the earlier history is quite tricky. I found the house I wanted to adapt into Eelmoor Hall, my haunted mansion, long before I worked out what era my ghost came from (Eelmoor Hall is loosely based on Bramshill House, ten miles away). This house, on the other hand, is Aldershot Manot, dating from either 1670 or 1630, depending on what source you trust (which date is correct makes one hell of a difference, considering there was a war between the two). It was the missing piece of my jigsaw, because the family who built it were Tichbournes. They were a branch of a very powerful and wealthy family from Winchester way and, all importantly, they were staunchly Catholic in an era where that could be a death sentence. A very distant cousin schemed to depose Elizabeth I and it’s from the poem he wrote the night before his death that I took the title of the book. For my purposes, I was intrigued by the mid-seventeenth century Aldershot Tichbournes. What if, I thought, Sir Walter hadn’t built this modest house in what is now the town’s park? What if he’d built a bloody great mansion on the heath on the other side of town? What if my ghost came from that tumultuous century, when the English Civil War tore apart this part of the country?
In the 1790s, Aldershot found itself with a canal. The Basingstoke Canal runs about a mile north of the old village. I’ve blogged about it many a time, but last weekend I set out along the towpath to find the precise setting of A Frost of Cares. I began here at Ash Lock, half an hour’s walk from the centre of Aldershot, where the canal was iced over.
A little further along I came across this new sculpture celebrating the canal. From this angle it is obviously a hand holding a tree. Approaching it upon the towpath, however, it was rather more baffling and a little too phallic for such a public setting.
This is all that remains of Farnham Wharf. When the army first came to Aldershot, they established two camps on the heath, one on each side of the canal. The South Camp became modern Aldershot Garrison and the other still gives its name to the suburb of North Camp. Army supplies were once unloaded here. There was even a popular inn, until the powers-that-be took objection to its cheap ale and loose women and evicted the landlord (he didn’t leave the premises until Army sappers started demolishing it around him).
The canal is pretty. Many of the bridges across it are of military construction or have been recycled from military purposes. They aren’t so pretty.
This is Eelmoor Bridge. When I decided to set A Frost of Cares in an old military college, I needed a location that was a fair way from any other settlement. Looking at the map of North Hampshire (army country), one location leapt out–the triangle of land between Farnborough, Fleet and Aldershot. I was drawn to this part of the open land, just on the edge of the military training area. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve walked here in the last decade. It’s always eerie.
This is Eelmoor Flash, once a turning point for boats. In all the years I have been walking the towpath, I have only seen clear skies here once, even on days when the rest of the walk was sunlit. How could I resist such a setting for a ghost story?
Here’s the Flash and surrounding heathland from the bridge.
Leaving the canal, I headed up onto the army land, in search of the precise location of Eelmoor Hall. This is the track up the real Eelmoor Hill–a possible driveway leading to the Hall?
Was this pile of rubble the closest I would get?
Or was the Hall here, behind this barred gate festooned with No Entry signs?
This was exactly the landscape I imagined looming around the Hall. All of this land is used for training infantry. it’s also open to the public although you are warned that you may be startled by loud bangs. More often you find yourself suddenly stalked by twenty lads in camo trying to learn how to do that stealth thing.
In the book, Luke and Jay visit the observatory behind the Hall. There was a hillock in the perfect place–shave it of its gorse and it would present stunning skies. Even in its raw state, the view was compelling.
The army came to Aldershot in 1854 and never left. In 1851 875 people lived in the village. By 1861 the population was over 16000 of whom around 9000 were military personnel. it was a rough and rowdy boom town, in its way, swelling out to fill every hillside with terraced houses and the paraphernalia of Victorian life (my own road, half a mile from the old church, was built house by house between 1905 and 1920). Aldershot became defined by the army and by its life. Local roads and pubs are named after obscure battles (although I hear that even the fabulously titled Heroes of Lucknow pub is now a Co-Op, like so many others. Alas). Memorials are scattered all over town. Here in the park is our war memorial. This little garden commemorates the second world war. It doesn’t name individuals–they are gloried elsewhere–but the stones around the edges of the grass are all from bombed towns across the UK. Even today, men and women from across the country come to serve in Aldershot and the town’s memorial remembers them all.
This is the military town’s very own little observatory. Soon houses will surround it. Many of the old garrison buildings are being demolished to make way for a new housing estate, already named Wellesley, although no houses have yet been built. It will nudge up against the woods that reach out towards Eelmoor Flash, bringing Luke’s lonely, haunted mansion suddenly onto the outskirts of suburbia.
This is our high street, a little grim now, but once the heart of a thriving little town. The town lived off the army, and a peek at the town’s directory in 1905 reveals everything from tailors providing uniforms to undertakers to stables to tiny private schools run by gentlewomen for the daughters of officers. Much of that vibrant life has gone now. The garrison here is much smaller than it was in its heyday, and Aldershot is now mostly just the cheapest place in miles (although if you compare average income to average house prices, we’re one of the ten most expensive towns in the UK).
The view from my bus stop in town, looking down Victoria Road, named for the Queen who sent the army here in the first place. On the hill in the distance once stood the village’s windmill.
Back in the park, I snapped a picture of the tennis courts to recall John Betjeman’s tennis playing ‘Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn, / Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun.’
This is the most modern part of modern Aldershot–our new supermarket, restaurant and cinema complex. It was built on the site of the old car park, which itself was built on the site of an old barracks. In the book, Luke doesn’t like it much.
It’s even got an underground car park, which surprised me by being one of those details that caused lengthy editorial discussions on the definition of different names for places you might park 😄
And that’s my town 🙂 It’s a funny old place, but I’m actually kind of glad I set a book here. It’s not a bad place, in its own way, and it has all sorts of hidden beauties.
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