I discovered Rebecca, and her creator, quite accidently, picking up the novel casually for a holiday read back in 2003. What was sold as a romantic ghost story turned out to be one of the most beautifully-written novels I had ever read, a celebration of the glorious English countryside and female empowerment. I now have several different editions and reread it at least once a year.
My love of Rebecca led me to du Maurier’s other works, and inevitably, to her life in Cornwall.
Fowey, the tiny coastal town on the River Fowey, was the centre of Daphne’s life and works, with most of her novels and short stories set in its surrounding countryside and nearby villages.
Despite the success of many of these works, including the film adaptations of such stories as Don’t Look Now and The Birds, Rebecca remains du Maurier’s most popular work, and the fascination with the fictional de Winters’ palacial home, Manderley, brings many fans to Fowey on the hunt for its real-life equivalent.
Manderley was based on Menabilly, a large house above Polridmouth bay. Daphne discovered Menabilly in her early years in Fowey, secretly trespassing in its overgrown gardens in the dawn light one spring morning, but it wasn’t till many years later that she was able to lease it and make it her home for 25 years.
Menabilly is still closed to the public, and breaking through a run-down back fence as du Maurier did all those years ago is not recommended. All that can be seen these days is a glimpse of rooftops from the public pathway.
It is, however, possible to be one of the lucky ones to stay on the grounds thanks to several Airbnb listings of renovated workers’ cottages belonging to the estate – the former groundskeeper’s cottage and the former head gardener’s cottage: https://abnb.me/1v1Np4Infmb
One of the cottages, on Polridmouth beach, could be said to be the site of the boathouse in Rebecca (although the novel would imply that the house is the other nearby beach, the one that Jasper runs to, and indeed a small building once stood here also. It seems, however strangely, that in the book, the coves were reversed).
Whichever you prefer, a taste of Manderley is surely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Fowey itself is a lovely port town, with nice cafes and colourful shops. The bus drops off at the top of a steep hill, but even this is a pleasant walk, winding down past the beautiful town church. Incidentally, for those on foot as we were, the journey was an easy enough one. Trains stop at St Austell, and the bus station is right next door, with regular connections to Fowey and Polkerris.
We came to take the coast walk from Fowey to Polkerris, with Polridmouth along the way. The walk starts at Readymoney Cove, with a steep climb past St Catherine’s Castle and up through the woods.
As an aside, 2 more du Maurier homes can be viewed on this trip. Ferryside can be seen across the river from the north side of Fowey, as it sits in Boddinick just across the water. This large blue and white house was purchased by the du Maurier family in Daphne’s youth and soon became her permanent base for writing and sailing.
Also, the house across from Readymoney Cove was briefly Daphne’s home during the second world war. Named Readymoney Cottage, it was her Cornish retreat before the opportunity arose to rent Menabilly. It was originally the coachhouse for Neptune House, which overlooks the beach, and can be seen just along the road, and, with its huge black gates, could itself be a good substitute for Manderley.
Our walk was to take around 2 hours – in the planning stage at least – with plenty of time to visit Polkerris and take plenty of photos along the way. However, the weather forecast turned out to be a work of fiction in itself, as we were betrayed by high winds, heavy rain, and mud that sent us sliding towards the treacherous cliff edge at every step. Despite this, the views were incredible, even on a day with such bad visibility, and it certainly was an authentic taste of rural Cornwall.
After one twisted ankle and two hours of battling near death along paths and fields that had become swamps, we gave up and found a friendly local who directed us to a inland path and a less dangerous road back to Fowey.
Despite the failure of our hike, and getting nowhere near a glimpse of Menabilly, just seeing the coast and the sweeping hills around it has added an extra element to my understanding of the book and its author. Subsequent readings will include this new landscape in my mind.
And just like Rebecca de Winter’s boat – Je Reviens – we will also return, hopefully to a little cottage on the Menabilly estate for a real taste of du Maurier’s, and Rebecca’s, world.