Margaret Drabble reveals her love of Somerset and her road to writing to Pamela Spencer

PUBLISHED: 12:38 26 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:02 20 February 2013

Margaret Drabble at her home near Porlock

Margaret Drabble at her home near Porlock

Take a seat next to Pamela Spencer as acclaimed novelist Margaret Drabble reveals her love of Somerset and her road to writing. Photos by Mike Alsford.

Take a seat next to Pamela Spencer as acclaimed novelist Margaret Drabble reveals her love of Somerset and her road to writing. Photos by Mike Alsford.

Novelist Margaret Drabble has lived in London with her second husband, biographer Michael Holroyd, since their marriage in the early 1980s, but during the summer months she loves to spend time at her Somerset 'hideaway' home in Porlock Weir. "I always say we're the last house in Somerset! It's really out in the sticks, and Devon begins just a few miles further along the coast," says Margaret.

Margaret's recently published semi-autobiographical book, The Pattern in the Carpet, makes many references to her life in the county, and as we sit in her lovely Kensington home on a showery March day, I ask about some of her favourite places. "I'm especially fond of Cleeve Abbey, a beautiful group of Cistercian monastic buildings standing not far from Nettlecombe, and an easy outing from Porlock. I love to see the moat full of primroses, irises and marsh marigolds as the season changes. In the Middle Ages, the abbey was rightly known as Vallis Florida, the Valley of Flowers."

One of Margaret's favourite country walks is from her own back door up to Culbone Church, reputedly the smallest parish church in England. "The round trip takes me about an hour and 20 minutes, and it's a perfectly safe area for a solitary walk. I really enjoy that," she smiles. Margaret has three children from her first marriage to actor Clive Swift (best known for his TV role in Keeping Up Appearances) and she loves to have the family to stay at her Somerset home. The nearby resort of Minehead, with its arcades, was a strong attraction to her four grandchildren when they were younger. Joe Swift, the TV gardening personality, is one of Margaret's sons. "I always watch Joe on TV and am extremely proud of him. My father was a keen gardener, and my only regret is that he never knew Joe's success. He would have been so surprised and pleased to have a gardening grandson."

Until recently, most of Margaret's writing was done in the evenings, but she's now become a 'morning' person. "I'll start at 8.30am and write until lunchtime. Afternoons are for snoozing, relaxing and reading," she tells me. Reading was a habit developed during long lonely school holidays, when Margaret admits she missed her pals from The Mount, her boarding school in York.

"I read a lot of detective fiction - Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers and Patricia Wentworth - vintage women writers of that period. At the moment, I'm reading the crime writer PD James because I'm in the middle of dental implant treatment and if I've been to the dentist and am feeling awful, I like a good detective story to take my mind off things."

Writing was not the first career choice of Margaret Drabble. She's always loved the theatre, and was fortunate to have an excellent drama teacher at school who gave her a sense of the excitement of theatre. "I was at The Mount with Judi Dench. She was older than me, so although I didn't really get to know her, I did see her in a couple of school drama productions. I remember them now - they were just wonderful," she recalls.

After reading English at Newnham College, Cambridge, Margaret became an actress, working for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, at one time becoming understudy to Vanessa Redgrave. But the difficult hours of an acting career were not compatible with bringing up her three children, so Margaret left the theatre and became a writer. Although not fond of domestic routine, Margaret thinks she was a good mother, but a bad housekeeper.

"I did the classic 'new housewife' thing of cooking a chicken with the giblets still inside in their plastic bag. The horror! But nobody taught me to cook. My mother always said 'get out of my way', so I got out of the kitchen. I can cook now, but I learned the hard way."

This year, Margaret celebrates her 70th birthday. Has she thought of retiring to Somerset? "This is something that I often think about, but Michael loves the London house and I don't think he'd like to uproot. He likes going to Somerset, but regards it as more of a holiday than a home, whereas to me it is definitely my other home," says Margaret.

The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble (Atlantic Books, 16.99) is now available in all good bookshops.

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