“When I was 2, I discovered that there was a different place, called Cornwall, and I just loved it. It has been magical ever since. I can still remember that feeling of getting out of the car at the end of a very long drive, and running to see the sand and sea.”
Fern Britton’s passion for Cornwall has not waned over the years, and she spends half of the year at her home near Padstow. Indeed, her love of the county shaped her career as a broadcaster and – more recently – as an author. Before coming to national prominence on BBC TV’s Breakfast Time, Fern worked as a continuity announcer and newsreader for Westward Television in Plymouth. “I was offered a position with Radio 4 at the same time, but turned it down so I could live and work in Cornwall.”
She bought a house in the village of St Dominic, near Callington, where she continued to live when she moved on to BBC South West’s Spotlight. “I was studio based to start with, then gradually I was allowed out with the camera and I learnt how to be a reporter on the road.”
It allowed her to see much of her adopted home county, but it wasn’t all pleasure. In December 1981, Fern reported on one of the biggest and most devastating stories in the West Country’s history: the Penlee lifeboat disaster. “It was a huge story, of course, and it dominated everyone’s lives for a very long time,” she recalls. “I reported live from Penlee, as well as doing studio-based reports and interviews. It was a tragedy.”
Her work today is far removed from harrowing news reporting. Her fourth novel came out in April, and she is already working on her fifth book which, like three of her previous books, is set in Cornwall. “It is a perfect setting for my stories. I know Cornwall very well and I hope I can get across to readers the character, romance, drama and feeling of the people and the landscape. It is very special.Readers say they feel it and want to go to Cornwall, or that they love Cornwall anyway and feel I have captured something of its essence.”
One of her biggest fans is her publisher who likes Fern’s Cornish novels so much that she has asked her to set any future books in Cornwall. “It is by my publisher’s request, which is very nice.” As well as having lived in St Dominic and, now, spending lots of time on Cornwall’s north coast, Fern is a big fan of Looe, a place she used to visit with her family when she was young. “We used to stay in a little flat by the church on the front. Every year I go back to Looe and say hello to old friends that I have made over the years.” All of these places have helped to inspire the fictional Cornish seaside town of Trevay, which is central to her latest book, A Seaside Affair, in which the local people come together to try and prevent the closure of their clifftop theatre.
“I began my career as a stage manager working in theatre, and when I was doing the Strictly Come Dancing tour in big arenas in 2012, I was working with stage management and crew, make-up and lighting. We were all having a laugh about life on the road and touring, which I have done a lot of, and I thought what a good story it would make. One of the girls on tour said, ‘We are just a merry band of vagabonds’. I thought it was a lovely phrase. And that was it.”
The people she has met in Cornwall over the years also play their part in her writing. “The book I am working on now – due out next year – is about fishermen and lifeboat men, and the drama surrounding their personal lives. I am very fortunate that I know some of the lifeboat men, coastguards and fishermen, and I ring them up or text them with my questions and they play a big part in my research. They will get a big thank you in the acknowledgments.”
As for favourite Cornish haunts: “I enjoy just wandering around Truro, and I love Bodmin Moor, where I learnt to ride a horse. I wouldn’t mind living there – it’s beautiful.” She also has a cherished place from times gone by. “There is a wonderful spot near St Dominic called Halton Quay, on the banks of the Tamar. I used to spend summers there lying on a blanket, reading a book, watching the salmon leap ….” It seems Fern’s longstanding romance with Cornwall is far from over.