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Five reasons Rachel loves Lavenham. Can you think of even better ones?

PUBLISHED: 00:16 13 February 2019

‘My grandma Sylvia Wynne in the late 1920s, whose determination and love of life inspired my character Rose’    Picture: Rachel Clare

‘My grandma Sylvia Wynne in the late 1920s, whose determination and love of life inspired my character Rose’ Picture: Rachel Clare

Archant

Rachel Clare had a real-life family tragedy she wanted to tell people about, and dreamed of writing a novel. Then a holiday in East Anglia provided the spark to make it happen.

Rachel at the school where she's a teaching assistant. 'I’ve had a dream of becoming a writer since I was nine'   Picture: PETER EVANSRachel at the school where she's a teaching assistant. 'I’ve had a dream of becoming a writer since I was nine' Picture: PETER EVANS

Nearly half the tale she went on to write is set in Lavenham, the historic “wool town” that feels like a permanent film set (and where a key character lives).

The book Roses of Marrakech is about fictional primary school teacher Ivy Fielding. The 36-year-old has low self-esteem because of a facial birthmark.

The story links wartime Suffolk and the vibrant present-day souks of Morocco. Love stories interweave and Ivy follows a trail of discovery that changes her life forever.

The book begins just after the death of her spinster great-aunt Rose, who has left a substantial bequest, and her Lavenham cottage. Reading Rose’s diary, Ivy discovers tragedies in her family’s past. They prompt her to fulfil a childhood dream and she jets to Marrakech for the summer holidays.

It's not surprising we're drawn to Lavenham, bearing in mind how pretty it is         Picture: GREGG BROWNIt's not surprising we're drawn to Lavenham, bearing in mind how pretty it is Picture: GREGG BROWN

Rachel owes much to her own family’s real-life history and her own experiences. Two of her great-aunts, Ivy and Gladys Dook, died of TB in 1927 and 1929.

“My grandma, Sylvia Wynne – who my character Rose is loosely based upon – was just a teenager when they died, and losing them inspired her to live life to the full: something she passed on to me.

“I always wanted to write the story of my great-aunts as the tragedy of having their lives cruelly curtailed aged 26 affected my grandma deeply.

“Gladys had been married only a few months when she died and was buried in her wedding dress, while Ivy had just got engaged. I’d decided I wanted a main character on whom I could base my own experiences and I came up with the idea of a diary (my great-aunt’s stories) which she could read and which would inspire her to step out of her safe life as a primary school teacher and really live.

Rachel by the graves of her great-aunts. 'Gladys had been married only a few months when she died and was buried in her wedding dress, while Ivy had just got engaged'   Picture: PETER EVANSRachel by the graves of her great-aunts. 'Gladys had been married only a few months when she died and was buried in her wedding dress, while Ivy had just got engaged' Picture: PETER EVANS

“In July, 2014, I went to Marrakech and felt it would be an exotic, chaotic location where anything could happen, and a perfect setting for (the fictional) Ivy to reassess her stagnant life. So, when I got back, I wrote Ivy’s story.

“In August, 2014, I came down to Suffolk and Colchester for a short holiday with my parents and brother. We stayed on the outskirts of Ipswich. We just enjoyed the end of the summer, visited Colchester, places where Constable painted, and I began writing some notes as it was such picturesque countryside. I loved it.

“My dad was desperate to visit Lavenham, as he was interested in the RAF in the Second World War as his dad was stationed at RAF Marham. So we went to the Swan (hotel) and, looking at the memorabilia of the USAAF on the walls and learning the story of the Christmas Eve raid in 1944, I came up with the link in my story…”

(Sorry Rachel. Spoiler alert! We’ll silence you there, for a minute, before you give away too much of the plot!)

The path leading to the church in Lavenham    Picture: STEVEN RUSSELLThe path leading to the church in Lavenham Picture: STEVEN RUSSELL

“When I got home, I started working this into my story and it just fitted in perfectly: even the ‘Suffolk pink’ buildings and the rose ones in Marrakech.”

That December, she was runner-up in a national Sunday newspaper’s Christmas Truce story competition, “which prompted me to actually knuckle down and write and edit my novel. I’ve had a dream of becoming a writer since I was nine, and, 30 years later, it came true… with a lot of work and editing!”

Rachel is signing copies of Roses of Marrakech at WHSmith in Westgate Street, Ipswich, on Tuesday, February 19 from 11am to 2pm. The novel is from The Book Guild at £7.99

Lavenham on a bright winter's day in 2017 - full of character     Picture: GREGG BROWNLavenham on a bright winter's day in 2017 - full of character Picture: GREGG BROWN

‘An incredibly positive person’

Rachel has cerebral palsy. And she’s a teaching assistant (not a teacher like Ivy, but close enough). How much of herself is in the story?

“To a certain extent, my experiences growing up with CP do lie behind my main character, Ivy. I transfer feelings I had about my disability, while growing up, onto her. However, I didn’t want it to be autobiographical – so to create distance between Ivy and I, I gave her a birthmark instead.

“Whereas my CP is on show to everyone I meet, I thought it would be interesting to explore a character who can, and does, hide her disfigurement – the consequences of which are far from positive, sometimes.”

The past is tangible in the old wool town     Picture: GREGG BROWNThe past is tangible in the old wool town Picture: GREGG BROWN

The novelist has dedicated the book to grandmother Sylvia.

“My grandma was an incredibly positive person who lived each day of her life to the fullest despite the tragedies which had befallen her sisters when she herself was just a teenager.

“She encouraged me to live the best life I could, telling me stories of her sisters’ zest for life and the all-night dances they attended in the roaring twenties.”

The Swan in Lavenham, the hotel that played a big part in Rachel's story    Picture: GREGG BROWNThe Swan in Lavenham, the hotel that played a big part in Rachel's story Picture: GREGG BROWN

Five things Rachel likes about Lavenham

The Swan

“It was like a piece of living history, and reading the names of the American airmen on the wall, and the story on the wall about the Christmas Eve raid over Germany in which GW Castle’s plane came down, inspired me to finish my story.”

Lavenham has character in abundance      Picture: GREGG BROWNLavenham has character in abundance Picture: GREGG BROWN

The Crooked House tearooms

“I enjoyed sitting here with a cake and cup of tea with my family.”

Walking about the streets, with their timbered buildings

“They are so picturesque and, as I like writing descriptions of places, I found I could evoke the place really well. Also, the tranquillity of Suffolk contrasted really well with the chaos I’d evoked in Marrakech.”

The church

“I loved walking up there – and the fact that it is separated from the town gave me a good venue for Rose and Ryan to meet in secret. I also had the contrasting scenes on Christmas Eve in 1944 and 2016 in the church which brought my two love stories to their conclusions.”

The Suffolk pink buildings

“I love the fact that it looks like a ‘chocolate box’ town, but actually behind all that I was able to hide some quite devastating secrets.”

Northern soul

* Rachel lives in Lancashire

* Her real name is Rachel Evans

* She won a writing competition while at primary school

* Has a degree in English and French, an MA in modern languages research (“hence the French-Moroccan setting of my novel”), and a post-graduate diploma in newspaper journalism, “but due to my cerebral palsy I was unable to do shorthand or drive, which hampered my job prospects”

* She qualified as a teaching assistant

* Works with Year 5 pupils

* Also teaches French to Years 3, 4 and 5

* And has set up a school newspaper

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