Peter Maughan’s early ambition to be a landscape painter ran into a lack of talent – or enough of it to paint to his satisfaction what he saw. He worked on building sites, in wholesale markets, on fairground rides and in a circus. And travelled the West Country, roaming with the freedom of youth, picking fruit, and whatever other work he could get, sleeping wherever he could, before moving on to wherever the next road took him. A journeying out of which came his non-fiction work Under the Apple Boughs, when he came to see that he had met on his wanderings the last of a village England. After travelling to Jersey in the Channel Islands to pick potatoes, he found work afterwards in a film studio in its capital, walk-ons and bit parts in the pilot films that were made there, and as a contributing script writer. He studied at the Actor’s Workshop in London, and worked as an actor in the UK and Ireland (in the heyday of Ardmore Studios). He founded and ran a fringe theatre in Barnes, London, and living on a converted Thames sailing barge among a small colony of houseboats on the River Medway, wrote pilot film scripts as a freelance deep in the green shades of rural Kent. An idyllic, heedless time in that other world of the river, which later, when he had collected enough rejection letters learning his craft as a novelist, he transported to a river valley in the Welsh Marches, and turned into the Batch Magna novels.
PS Kingswear Castle, seen here plying the River Medway, is the last coal-fired paddle steamer in Britain. A vintage lady (1924) with trim lines and a saucy bustle, she carries her years becomingly and with spirit. She is skippered by the admirable Captain John Megoran and is the inspiration for the fourth novel in the Batch Magna series Clouds in a Summer Sky.
The otter, which features on the Strange family coat of arms (the Batch Magna novels) and for the houseboat dwellers on Batch Magna's river, the Cluny, comes to have a magical significance, is happily on the increase in the rivers of England and Wales. Given full legal protection since 1978, when otter hunting was banned, they were then almost wiped out by harmful farming chemicals - now also banned - polluting the rivers and habitat. We came near to losing a species from our world in which the mother, as if holding hands, links paws with her cubs.
England and Wales, two halves of the same place that is Batch Magna.