Did you know But First Maintain the Wall started as a children’s book written for my then 12-year-old son? It was a cautionary tale about the dangers of climbing on the rocks which are placed along the Dymchurch Wall between Martello 23 and the Redoubt. In this 2012 version, a 21st century boy falls between the rocks and ends up going back in time to 18th century Dymchurch. Having suffered from the fall, he was then clouted by an angry wall-worker. Hurt and confused, he is taken in by a kind couple and so his life in the 1750s begins.
In the 2018 version Harry suffers a similar fate, but rather than fall back in time, a head injury causes confusion and he too is thumped by a wall-worker. This rewritten and hugely extended version is set in 1758. The story of 18th century Harry follows very much the same path as that of the 20th century boy in the first version. However, I introduced a second main character – Phoebe – who lives and works with her cruel aunt and uncle in the village store. The story tells of Harry and Phoebe’s struggles to become accepted in Dymchurch and to be treated with the respect they deserve.
A village tour produced by the Dymchurch Heritage Group gave insight into the properties standing in the village at that time and I was able to refer to many of them. Another fantastic resource was Jill Eddison’s book ‘Romney Marsh Survival on a Frontier. The book had some excellent descriptions about the upkeep of the Dymchurch Wall and a fantastic map.
What’s in a name? The problem with writing a book set in 18th century Dymchurch is that the true history of Dymchurch is often confused with fictional history penned by Russell Thorndike in his Dr Syn novels. I found this frustrating, and at times I included events which I believed were real, only to discover they were fictional. The words “Serve God, honour the King, but First Maintain the Wall” were created by Russell Thorndike, but local history books quote this as an ancient Dymchurch saying. Fortunately, I found out before the book went to print and could credit the author.
I used a graphic designer whose work I admired on the covers of another local author. The experience was difficult as I couldn’t seem to express the enormity of the Dymchurch Wall, which was first portrayed as a thin wall of breeze blocks. I was OK with the finished product, but on paper it was far darker than when I saw it on my computer. By 2019, I was eager to have local art on all my covers. In 2020, I commissioned Zoe from Greatstone Art to create a cover.
But First Maintain the Wall was published in the summer of 2018. This was the first book I ‘launched’ with book signings at Romney Marsh Visitor Centre and a craft shop at Lathe Barn, as well as a talk at Mary’s Tearoom. I have ideas for a sequel, but the Dungeness Series took over my writing and now I also enjoy retreating to Saxon times.