Nicola Matthews, based in Kirby-le-Soken, has written a book about Kitty Canham. We find out what inspired and the many places that inspire her in Essex
You have such an interesting background, it’s quite difficult to know where to start – so let’s begin with Kitty Canham. What inspired you write a book based on her?
I live on the Walton backwaters. It is such a haunting place, especially when a mist rolls over the water. It’s a perfect place to get the imagination going. I have known the facts of Kitty’s life for many years, it is a local folk story. We moved here nine years ago, so the backwaters became my regular stomping ground. It was the thought that Kitty walked and worked these lands 300 years before me. The landscape would have changed, of course, but the essential nature of it would remain; the tide washing over the mudflats and receding to reveal a landscape of silver muds, fields where seagulls squark after the harvest and the vast open skies. It was this sense of shared experience of the landscape that inspired me to write Kitty’s story.
How would you describe the book?
It is interesting that you ask this question, because it is something I have wrestled with. It is inevitably historical fiction, taking place in the first half of the 18th century. But in many ways that is happenstance. Kitty’s story is a very human story. She is a woman who finds herself torn by family relationships, by the constraints of the age and by her own inadequacies. It starts on a day in harvest, when Kitty is beginning to see that the life she has always lived and loved is beginning to change. It has been said that it is a story of coming of age, it certainly starts that way. Soon the loves, tragedies and inevitabilities of life mark her steps. The expectations of the age and her desires rarely coalesce, but her fighting spirit takes her to unexpected places which lead her far from home. I suppose it is a story of a woman’s life, the difficulties women have faced through the ages and the indominable spirit of one such woman.
How did the launch event at the Bell Inn go? That has a Kitty Canham connection too…
Thorpe-le-soken is where Kitty spent much of her married life, and is where she is buried. It has been suggested that when the church was re-built in the beginning of the 19th century, Kitty’s grave was covered over. The Bell Inn still stands opposite the church. It is said that she haunts there, though no one quite knows why. Various theories inevitably abound in the village. The Inn suffered a fire in 1999, and apparently there was a portrait of Kitty, which remained unharmed. The Thorpe community gave me a lovely welcome at the book launch and reading. It was a fun occasion.
Did you ever believe you would write a book?
I have always been a storyteller in one way or another, but a novel was an entirely different matter. At school I was told that I couldn’t take a literature GCSE because my language was so bad. I failed the language anyway. It wasn’t until my mid-40s that I discovered I was dyslexic. This was a revelation to me, but it took years to peel away the idea that I was ‘ineducable’ as my mother had told me I was. Eventually I went to art school and found that in writing my dissertation, I could write and enjoyed the process. At this time, I also had a diagnosis of ADHD. Over the years I have worked with my own physiology and have found systems to help me. It was the strange blessing of lockdown that enabled me to write. It kept me in one place and with spell check I was set!
You are also a sculptor too – how does that fit in with your writing?
The sculptures I worked on for my finals at University were all about story. They were rather tortured heads with images of people scribed into them. It was a reflection of all of our lives and the imprint others leave upon us. Also, the creative process flows across disciplines. To me it is about solving problems. You do something and see where it takes you, then you find a need to alter direction, so you step back and think again, sometimes unravelling, sometimes adding, and sometimes introducing other unexpected elements. It is a fascinating process and common to all the artistic disciplines.
You ran Frinton Summer Theatre for 20 years with your husband Seymour. How do you look back on that time?
I have lots of fond memories of laughter amid the craziness of weekly rep. We put on seven plays in eight weeks. It was bonkers. But sometimes actors who had no time to over-think came up with something brilliant. I was also in the midst of bringing up a young family and struggling through the middle years of married life, whilst working with Seymour. It certainly had its pressures. With the wisdom and understanding I have gained over the years, I feel I would have made a much better job of it. But as they say wisdom is wasted on the old! All in all, it was a good time and the community of Frinton was very supportive. Thankfully, the theatre is still going strong under the expert eye of Clive Brill.
How long have you lived in Kirby-le-Soken and what do you love about it?
We returned to the area ten years ago. It is a beautiful area. I love the backwaters, the beach, the proximity to Colchester and all the local communities, so close in distance yet distinct in nature.
Can you pick out your 3 favourite places in the area, or further afield in Essex?
Dedham has to be one of my favourite places. The stour and its history make for a magic place. The Tudor Rose tea room in the village is a favourite place by itself, it still has a quintessentially English tea room essence. Epping Forest has to remain a favourite place even though I don’t get there often. I was brought up in Loughton, the ancient woodland made a wonderful place for adventures. Wivenhoe is a gem, it is a place of artists and writers and you can’t beat a drink on the quiet quay on the Colne. It is my second home. And, of course, my own backwaters, there is no place like it. Oops that is four.
Are there any Essex outdoor spots you love as we head into autumn?
I would always recommend Epping Forest for an autumnal walk. Especially a walk along Loughton brook when the leaves are crunching under foot. The autumn planting at Markshall, Coggleshall is fabulous and the woodland is always lovely. But you can’t beat a walk on Frinton beach when all the summer visitors have made their way home. If, after you have visited Frinton, you make your way south, you will join the A120 at Weeley, there you will see a riot of gold. I have always wanted to thank the person who landscaped the area, maybe this is my chance!
What’s next for you Nicola?
After publishing Kitty Canham I am keen to get writing again. When my children were young I would ask them for three words. I would then weave a bedtime story around the words they gave me. I thought it would be fun to ask the same of my followers. I intend to ask for words, pick them out of a hat, then weave a short story. I will do this monthly for a few months, making my stories available for free on my website. My hope is that from these stories my next novel will evolve. Whichever way, it will certainly get me writing!
Nicola Matthews is the author of Kitty Canham (Hall House Press, £8.99, eBook: £2.99), available now from Amazon
Find out more at nicolamwrites.com/novel