BIRTHDAYS are a wonderful thing. They have that knack of making even the most grumpy of people smile.
Admittedly, the man we bumped into had good reason to be a bit serious.
After all, there were three rather suspicious looking people wandering about the road looking at his house, and one of us had a camera.
But after we explained we were there for a piece in the newspaper about Margery Allingham, the county’s famous detective writer, and it would have been her 105th birthday that day, he relaxed,
smiled and became very interested in the woman who grew up in his house in Layer Breton, just outside Colchester.
Fortunately, we could help him out with all the information he required because the photographer and I were with Julia Jones, biographer of the great lady, who has just recently updated her
brilliant book about her.
Entitled the Adventures of Margery Allingham, it follows the writer’s life from her early years growing up in Layer Breton, to her holiday escapes in West Mersea, and finally her later life in
D’Arcy House, Tolleshunt D’Arcy.
As a homage to Margery, and as a bit of a jolly adventure for ourselves, we retraced the life of the writer to the local places which inspired her career.
Margery lived in the Old Rectory, in Layer Breton, from 1909 to 1916, and as Julia says, it was wandering around the garden where she first became a writer.
Across from the house, there is a barn, now part of a residential property, which Julia said was used as a church during the First World War.
“It was quite a touching place in Margery’s childhood,” Julia said.
“It was an old barn, which had been converted into a church. She wrote about how it still smelled of hay and during the war, they used to read out the names of the men who had died in the trenches.
“Those memories certainly haunted her, especially when the Second World War came about.”
Julia also described how the house would have been packed with writers at various times, friends of her journalist father Herbert Allingham.
Her father was quite clearly a very important influence in her life and as we moved on to our next place, East Mersea, Herbert plays another large part in her story.
It was in Seaview Avenue, in West Mersea, where the Allingham family spent many of their holidays. It was on one of those holidays that Margery, her father, brother Phil and a friend of theirs
called George Hearn, had a go at a seance, a fun parlour game at the time.
As soon as they began “trying the glass”, the spirits appeared to be talking to Margery about a man who had murdered his wife on the island. The next day, Margery and her father went to the site
where this dastardly deed was alleged to have taken place. As they did in 1921, the three of us made our way to the site of the Old Ship Inn, where Julia told us the chilling tale.
“The transcripts of those sittings are still around today,” Julia revealed. “They say that a local man called Joe Pullen told them the story about a local girl, Anny, who had been murdered by a
“Herbert was fascinated by this and the next day, he and Margery went to the site and spoke to some locals who told them about the landlord of the Old Ship Inn, who had murdered his wife because he
thought she was having an affair.”
It was to be a turning point in Margery’s career because the story that came out of those paranormal sittings went on to form the basis of her first novel, Blackerchief Dick.
Our last port of call was to Tolleshunt D’Arcy, the Essex village most associated with Margery. The spectacular treat that awaited us was a meeting with Margery’s secretary, Gloria Greci, who still
lives in the village, just round the corner from D’Arcy House, where Margery and her husband Pip lived from 1935 until to her death in 1966.
It was in the house where Margery wrote most of her novels, and her assistant Gloria had the enviable job of being the first person to read them.
She said: “I started working with her in 1950, and at first, it was just half a day a week. By the end, it was all through the week. I used to go to a room upstairs and type up the manuscripts on
my own, which could be a bit eerie.
“I could look out on to the lawn from there and imagine what was happening in the story. I was always excited about what was going to happen next.
“She was a very kind person with incredible strength and determination, especially when she was ill. I thought I was extremely lucky to have had that opportunity and I still do.”
As Agatha Christie said about Margery Allingham, her “whole intriguing personality seems gathered” in the area in which she lived and Julia Jones’ book captures that supremely well.
Even our little trip managed to evoke her inspiring spirit. The people she met and worked with in Tolleshunt D’Arcy live on forever in the works of an incredible woman and one of this county’s
l The Adventures of Margery Allingham by Julia Jones is published by Golden Duck and is available in good book shops, priced £14.99.