When I first became a writer, a friend suggested I should write a novel about the building of the Ladybower reservoir. I thought it would be too hard for me, though the idea immediately interested me. The technical details discouraged me from embarking on a novel at the time, but I was fascinated by the idea of lost villages. I wrote a radio play called The Drowned Village (BBC Radio 4, 1980) in which the ghost voices of drowned children are heard. But I continued to be interested in the idea of the reality of such an engineering project, and its effects on a living community. Ladybower and its connecting reservoirs are beautiful, serene stretches of water in the glorious Derbyshire countryside; the whole area is a haven for walkers and cyclists, and I have visited it many times and absorbed its beauty. In the late eighties a series of droughts drained the entire Ladybower reservoir, revealing the remains of the drowned villages. I walked among the stunted ruins of the farmhouses, the school, the church, the magnificent Hall, and was deeply touched by a sense of irreversible loss. I live in just such a valley in Derbyshire.
It wasn’t until 2001 that I finally committed myself to writing Deep Secret. I was sitting in the café of St Pancras station with my agent at the time, Jacqueline Korn, and she asked me if I had any thoughts for a new novel, and I said, well, I’ve had this idea in the back of my mind for about twenty years, but I don’t know if I can do it. It’s about a drowned village. “Yes,” she said, “I’ve got shivers up and down my spine. Write it.”
The idea of writing about identical twins came some time after I began researching. I had already decided to fictionalise events, to change the place names and to free myself from the actuality of Ladybower, Derwent and Ashopton. This is hard to do, and I’m very grateful to Jacqueline Korn, my editor Jane Nissen, and my partner Alan Brown for constantly reassuring me and for reminding me that it was a work of fiction and not an historical document that I was writing; if you like, they gave me permission to desert the truth! But I was still thinking about the physical truth. If you go to Ladybower now, on a calm day, you will be stunned by the beauty of the reflected images, the world turned upside down. Somehow, and I can’t remember the exact process because such things are intuitive to a writer, I transferred that image to that of the perfect reflection of totally identical twins, and the loss of a way of life to the loss of life itself. At that moment the drowned village ceased to be the subject of the novel, but became a metaphor.
Some facts: Ladybower is situated in the Derwent valley in north-west Derbyshire, and is crossed by the Ashopton viaduct on the A57, running between Sheffield and Manchester via the Snake Pass. Underneath it lie the drowned villages of Derwent and Ashopton. This reservoir links up with Howden reservoir and Derwent reservoir, supplying water to Sheffield, Manchester, Derby and Nottingham, and it differs from the other two dams in that it consists of an earthwork embankment with a clay core. The estimated storage capacity of this new reservoir would be over six thousand million gallons of water. The decision to flood the Derwent valley was originally proposed in 1900, subject to the purchase from the Duke of Norfolk of Derwent Hall and the adjoining land. In 1934 the villagers and farmers were informed, and work commenced. The huge project, which involved the building of the Ladybower dam and two viaducts, was completed in 1945, when King George VI unveiled the memorial tablets. The villagers were offered accommodation in a specially constructed housing development at Yorkshire Bridge.
I was born in Liverpool. It might be a major city, but all I was aware of for the first four years of my life was that little community of the street where we lived, in a council estate in Knotty Ash. Later we moved over the water to Hoylake, in the Wirral, to a street of terraced houses (Newton Road), where the same sense of community existed, and there I spent my childhood. Subsequent homes were in bigger houses, big cities, but now, since 1992, I’ve been living in Edale in the Peak District, in a very similar valley to Derwent. In 1949 it was proposed that Edale, too, should be dammed to make a reservoir. Luckily, a geological fault made the project unworkable, but it is distressing to think that my chosen home might have disappeared forever.