Hidden histories

Author Mollie Walton’s latest novel A Mother’s War was inspired by a holiday last summer on the North Yorkshire coast. Yvette Huddleston reports.
Author Mollie Walton whose novel A Mother’s War, set in North Yorkshire, is out now. Picture: Emma Shardlow HudsonAuthor Mollie Walton whose novel A Mother’s War, set in North Yorkshire, is out now. Picture: Emma Shardlow Hudson
Author Mollie Walton whose novel A Mother’s War, set in North Yorkshire, is out now. Picture: Emma Shardlow Hudson

It was a google search for ‘hotels on cliffs’ that took Grimsby-based author Mollie Walton on a creative journey that led to her latest novel A Mother’s War, published this week.

One of the places that came up in the search was Raven Hall hotel, dramatically situated 600ft above sea level on the North Yorkshire coast overlooking Robin Hood’s Bay, and last summer Walton and her teenage daughter went to stay there for a few days.

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“Like everyone else we had spent most of 2020 in our house, so when things looked like they were starting to open up a bit again after lockdown we decided to try and get away. We both felt we wanted somewhere with great views that would just make us feel like we had escaped.

“When we got out of the car we were dumbstruck by the view and just walking around the grounds we could feel what a special place it was. It has a fascinating history and a secretive sort of atmosphere. I remember saying to my daughter ‘this would make a great setting for a movie or a story’. It was a serendipitous thing.”

Walton had already started work on a three-book deal of stories set during the Second World War and had not yet decided where they would be located, but it very quickly became apparent that she had found the perfect place. She rang her editor on a video call, showed her the house and the cliff-top views and she agreed with Walton’s instinct.

“After that initial visit I went back on my own for a few days. I sat and looked at the view, I spoke to the staff at the hotel, wrote lots of notes and took hundreds of photos.” That immersion in the house, its grounds and its history certainly paid dividends, lending an authenticity to the novel’s setting and narrative. A Mother’s War is set at the beginning of the Second World War and tells the story of Rosina Cavert-Lazenby, owner of the Raven Hall estate, and her five daughters.

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Eldest daughter Grace decides to join the home-front effort by signing up with the WRENS and becoming a wireless-telegraphist based at a listening station in Scarborough. The women who carried out this top secret, vital war work, transcribing and decoding encrypted messages from German U-boats, have been largely written out of history and with her novel Walton aims to bring their stories to light. “They could sit there all night and not hear anything for nine hours, then one message could come through – so it was intense concentration for hours on end,” says Walton. “They couldn’t chat or have a break. It was tough.” The information the women gathered was then passed on to other agencies including the codebreakers at Bletchley Park.

Walton did a lot of reading and research about the period but the most valuable she says was speaking to Patricia Owtram, a WREN now in her 90s, who had worked as a wireless telegraphist. “She was incredibly helpful and had perfect recall of events from 80 years ago. She could answer my questions about how the headphones felt, the banter between the women, their social life, the kind of details I couldn’t have found anywhere else.”

A Mother’s War, published by Welbeck, is out now, £12.99.


Mollie Walton is the pen-name of historical novelist Rebecca Mescull.

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She has published four novels – The Visitors (2014), Song of the Sea Maid (2015), The Wild Air (2017) and The Seamstress of Warsaw, published in September last year.

As Mollie Walton, she writes saga fiction and has written the Ironbridge Saga – The Daughters of Ironbridge (2019), The Secrets of Ironbridge (2020) and The Orphan of Ironbridge (2021) set in 19th century Shropshire in the dangerous world of the iron industry. A Mother’s War is the first part of a trilogy looking at women’s work during the Second World War. Each book will follow the story of one of the Cavert-Lazenby daughters and their contribution to the war effort.

“I am fascinated by the hidden histories of women,” she says. “One of the reasons that making the transition from historical fiction to writing saga novels was easy for me was because I was already writing stories about strong women doing unusual things.” In Song of the Sea Maid she told the story of an 18th century woman scientist and The Wild Air was about a shy Edwardian girl who became a pioneer aviator. “The Wild Air came about through me wondering if there were many female First World War pilots and when I began my research looking at that early period, I thought I might find one or two, but actually there were hundreds, they had just been just written out of history. It was the same with 18th century women scientists. I want to tell those untold stories.”