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Pearls, Pedals and Piers: In Praise of the British Seaside!

Murder on Sea – Julie Wassmer (Constable, 2015)

Eat, Sleep, Cycle – Anna Hughes (Summersdale, 2015)

From Piers to Eternity – Hazel Preller (IndePen Press, 2013)

What is it about the British seaside that can bring out the adventure in us? Three female authors have recently answered that question in entertainingly different ways.

Julie Wassmer has embarked on a pearl of a crime fiction murder mystery series set in streets, buildings and places that are recognisably real in her home town of Whitstable in Kent.

Anna Hughes and Hazel Preller have journeyed in real life from their London and Somerset homes, saying (as John Masefield did): I must go down to the seas.  Anna pedalled her road bike on a 4,000 mile marathon round the entire British coast. Hazel sought out the seaside spots in Britain where a pier still stood: 55 in total, at time of writing her book.

Murder on Sea (A Whitstable Pearl Mystery) – Julie Wassmer (Constable, 2015)

Julie Wassmer has previously written drama scripts for television, and an award-winning part-autobiography. Now she is a convert to the so-called ‘cosy crime’ genre of fiction. And what better choice of setting than the quaint and charming seaside resort of Whitstable? For one thing, there is no need to invent place names like Harbour Street, Island Wall, the Old Neptune and Squeezegut Alley for purpose of creating due atmosphere for a maritime murder mystery. These places really exist!

The Pearl Nolan Detective Agency and her seafood bar The Whitstable Pearl are figments of Julie Wassmer’s imagination, but the more that Pearl sleuths through real places like Kemp Alley, Marine Terrace and Wave Crest the more you might expect that you really would meet her if you lived in Whitstable or you were one of the many DFLs (Down from Londoners) that flock there in summer. Murder on Sea comes hot on the heels of Julie’s debut Pearl Nolan story The Whitstable Pearl Mystery (2015). A third book May Day Murder has hit the bookshops in mid-2016, and a fourth is in preparation. It is fast shaping up that Whitstable will become a rival to Edinburgh, London, Oxford and other such places (even the fictional Midsomer) where crime fiction stories abound!

In time-honoured convention, Pearl Nolan the amateur detective is scorned by official policedom. Julie Wassmer has a clever second string to her bow by virtue of her created character DCI Mike Macguire. His headquarters are in Canterbury - thus allowing the author to introduce some authentic cathedral city references too. Female intuition equips Pearl Nolan to fish for information and unveil the murderer; I think this could be a seaside adventure series that will net plenty of enthusiastic readers!

Eat, Sleep, Cycle – Anna Hughes (Summersdale, 2015)

To my knowledge, Anna Hughes is a previously unpublished author but this is a splendid debut because she has a most assured writing style and a poet’s eye for descriptive flair. The early paragraphs describing her ride out of London through Rainham Marshes near the Essex A13 remind me of Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital book (2000). It is a flying start to the book to read such a wonderfully evocative portrait of this east London landscape where bird habitats and wetlands nestle among industrial sites, traffic fumes and pylons.

Balance is a very important skill for a cyclist! – and this book nicely balances the need to tell us some of the practical details of the trip while also entertaining us with descriptions of the places visited. I enjoyed learning that a LEJOG is a ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats! Meticulous budgeting and planning included ‘a detox of possessions’ (Anna filling her saddlebag with minimum clothes and other items), temporary abandonment of her vegan diet, and pre-arranged nightly stopovers with friends living at strategic points along the 4,000-mile route.

Solo sailor Roz Savage credits Anna Hughes for ‘A wonderfully worded whirl around beautiful Britain’. Although it is a ‘whirl’ we get surprising gems of information. Did you know that there is a California in Britain? Did you know that where The Wash meets Lincolnshire almost every road is named Marsh Lane or Marsh Road? Did you know that there are villages in England with the delightful names Old Leake and Friskney Tofts; and a part of Wales that is nicknamed Copperopolis?

As a reader who would be saddle-sore after cycling four miles let alone four thousand I am in awe of Anna Hughes and her adventuring spirit. One thing I could never do is bike across the vast span of the Humber Bridge where Anna felt the high wind barrelling her towards the side-railings while the incessant heavy traffic roared past. Scary but exhilarating! – I think that would be my positive summary of Anna’s admirable prose account of her ten- week odyssey of Eat, Sleep, Cycle.

From Piers to Eternity – Hazel Preller (IndePen Press, 2013)

New author Hazel Preller can be proud, I would suggest, that her debut self-published book achieved national media publicity when launched in 2013. BBC News and some of the daily papers  generously caught on to the romance and whimsy of her mission to research the history of all of Britain’s surviving seaside piers then visit each one. Most importantly of all, Hazel and her fiancé Jay would conclude each visit with an on-pier kiss, in anticipation of their forthcoming marriage that would take place on Brighton Pier in October 2010, as recounted in the penultimate chapter of the book.

The idea for the book was fired by the catastrophic destruction of Hazel and Jay’s beloved pier in Weston-super-Mare. It was spectacularly engulfed in flames in 2008. A showpiece attraction of the book is the centrefold spread of black & white photographs to demonstrate the fascinating variety of different shapes, sizes and structures that our piers come in. I like especially the symmetrical wavy-line fascia of Cromer Pier – with soaring seagulls captured in mid-flight when the camera shutter clicked!

Weston pier is pictured shrouded in smoke in 2008 but happily beneath it is a photograph of the brand new rebuilt pier that opened in 2010. Other piers have not been so lucky. A good few have vanished or have been closed in recent years. In her count of 55 surviving piers, Hazel had to make some compromises. For example, at Herne Bay in Kent there is a gap of more than 3,000 feet of open sea between the modern-day front part of the pier and the forlorn abandoned back end, after the middle section collapsed into the waves in 1978. And at Ramsey on the Isle of Man she needed special permission to set foot on a structure that became closed to the public in 1994.

Let’s hope that for British posterity there will be no more disappearing piers – instead we want to have Piers to Eternity!

Jerry Dowlen

September 2016


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn

Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986

Shakespeare's 400th Centenary

Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film

The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

A Tribute to Margaret Forster

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...



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