ROBERT THOROGOOD: How I fell in love with the country town of Marlow

How I fell in love with the country town where a swan on the loose is a major police incident! Death In Paradise creator ROBERT THOROGOOD thought he’d loathe provincial life – but was seduced by a riverside idyll that inspired his new murder mystery

Unenthusiastic. Perhaps that’s the best way to describe my long-held feelings about living in a small town.

As far as I knew, small towns were full of curtain-twitchers, neighbours who fought over hedges, and men who wore lemon-coloured jumpers and played golf. Small towns, I thought, be they in Cumbria or Cornwall, were very much Not For Me.

These feelings perhaps played a part in me creating Death In Paradise, the hit murder mystery show for BBC1, many years ago. It stars an uptight British detective, but the location — a far distant tropical island — is just as big a star of the show. The Caribbean’s so glamorous.

It’s all a far cry from Colchester, where I was born. The Essex town was always big enough to feel like a city (and, in fact, it’s just been given city status), but while it had everything I needed when young — a great theatre, cinemas, book shops and a terrific magic shop — I always knew there was something bigger out there, something better. At the end of the trainline was London. And I hoped that one day I’d get to live there.

As far as I knew, small towns were full of curtain-twitchers, neighbours who fought over hedges, and men who wore lemon-coloured jumpers and played golf, writes Robert Thorogood, pictured above

I moved to the capital as soon as I graduated. I loved it. Its noise and buzz, the opportunities, the fact you were surrounded by people from all around the world.

Admittedly, it was a challenge financially. Back then I was struggling to earn any kind of living as a writer, and when I married and our kids came along, I was basically a stay-at-home dad who relied on my wife’s income to keep the family afloat.

But there we were, living in the south-east of the capital in a terrace house with a tiny garden, walking to school with our neighbours, and with fab museums on our doorstep. The bright lights of the West End were only a ten-minute train ride away. Perfect.

Then, just over ten years ago, my wife answered a phone call that changed everything. Her older brother, who has Down’s syndrome and lived miles away, had taken a fall in a cafe. He needed emergency surgery and a family member was required to sign the form. No one else in her family could be reached.

She jumped in the car and drove the three hours north to be with her brother. It made us realise we were stuck the wrong side of the Thames, with increasing family responsibilities. We were going to have to leave London.

But where on earth would we go?

At the time, my wife, Katie, read the news on Paul Ross’s LBC radio show. He’d moved to Marlow in Buckinghamshire, a few years earlier, and insisted that the Thames-side town was the perfect place to live.

Small towns, I thought, be they in Cumbria or Cornwall, were very much Not For Me. These feelings perhaps played a part in me creating Death In Paradise, the hit murder mystery show for BBC1, many years ago. It stars an uptight British detective, but the location — a far distant tropical island — is just as big a star of the show. The Caribbean’s so glamorous

Nestled between two direct train lines to London, it has great schools, beautiful countryside on its doorstep, and we would be much nearer Katie’s family and not too much further from mine.

Still, I wasn’t sure how I would fit in. But, as is the case in all successful marriages, my wife makes all the big decisions, so we moved to Marlow in the summer of 2013.

For the children, it was a dream come true. We had an actual garden, big enough to kick a ball around in. They had colour in their cheeks and spent more time outside than they’d ever done in London.

I still wasn’t sure. We knew no one. And it was so obviously different to anywhere we’d lived before. For a start, it was really sporty. Everyone did something — football, hockey, cricket, rowing.

And at the first sight of the sun, the roads filled with people driving classic sports cars, tops down. It felt like another planet.

Strangest of all, people were really friendly. The whole time. Surely everyone knew you didn’t make eye contact or smile at strangers?

But Marlow people were cheerful to a fault.

Our postman, Fred, introduced himself to us on our second day to explain he’d been working our street for 27 years, ‘Welcome to Marlow!’

And we quickly encountered this thing that happens at roundabouts that we call ‘the Marlow Excuse Me’. If two or more cars arrive at a roundabout at the same time, they all just sit there, because no one wants to be rude and pull out first.

It was so different to London. We kept messing up. One afternoon, we hired a small motor boat, not realising it was the day of the Marlow regatta, which is just about the biggest event in the town’s calendar.

The man we hired the boat from said it would be fine as long as we didn’t go too fast and upset any of the rowers with our wash. I was so careful to go slowly that I stalled the engine, couldn’t start it up again, and we found ourselves drifting into the starting line of the next race.

The red-faced race marshal who towed us to safety made his opinions known to us through a megaphone that also made his opinions known to all of the hundreds of spectators in their gazebos along the riverbank.

As for our whippet, Wally, he’d never seen a river before, so when he ran up to the Thames for the first time, he thought it was just a massive puddle and leapt straight in. I had to hook him out and then walk back through town, both of us covered in water and duckweed. He’s now frightened of puddles. Wally by name, Wally by nature.

But as time passed, a funny thing happened. Marlow started to work its magic on us. Our kids joined the church choir, as well as the local theatre troupe and dance school.

We got to know people. They got to know us. Soon, I was the one making eye contact on the High Street, saying hello and smiling at strangers.

Small towns like Marlow are dotted all over Britain. They’re the backbone of Britain. They just get on with the job, creating great communities for people to live in, to work in and to raise their children. For someone who once thought a small town would be the end of him, today I can see how wonderful they can make life.

We’re not the only ones who have been won over by Marlow’s charms. When we arrived, Tom Kerridge’s restaurant The Hand and Flowers had just earned its coveted two Michelin stars, and Marlow has become a real foodie destination since then.

The Compleat Angler hotel now houses a curry house run by the Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar.

Celebrities have also started turning up. Ricky Gervais is here, and Russell Brand is nearby. The radio presenter Chris Evans throws himself into supporting the town as though he’s always lived here.

And my wife still swoons at the memory of bumping into George Clooney (who owns a house further up the river) by the mini roundabout at the top of the High Street.

For me, detective stories are as much about location as they are about the detectives or the suspects, which is why I went for the glories of the Caribbean for the setting of Death In Paradise.

Agatha Christie knew the importance of this, too. That’s why so many of her stories are set in exotic locations, or in perfect English settings such as St Mary Mead.

A good murder mystery is so often about showing a location and a group of suspects that seem on the surface to be perfect, then stripping it all away until the killer (and their black heart) is finally revealed.

I began to realise that maybe Marlow could be the perfect location for a new murder mystery series.

For my new project, my sleuths were going to be three heroines who didn’t normally get to solve murders: a 77-year old widow, an uptight vicar’s wife and a single mum.

As I started writing, I realised the story was becoming a love letter to small-town living. And so my book, The Marlow Murder Club, was born.

The main character, Judith, is based on my grandmother, who was a wonderful, independent woman who was sharp as a tack and who’d have exactly one glass of whisky every night at 6pm.

In the story, Judith witnesses a murder and when she starts to investigate, she soon gathers a gang of other women who help her find the killer — which is made all the more dangerous for them as the killer strikes again. And again.

Mind you, writing a story about the town you live in isn’t without its downsides.

Remember Fred, the postie who knocked on our door when we first arrived? He asked to be put into the book, and who would dare cross their postie? Not me. Which is why a postie called Fred plays such a big part in the first Marlow Murder Club book.

And when I recently did an after-dinner talk for the Rotary Club and asked for questions at the end, all I got was grief for the few changes I’d made to Marlow’s geography in order to make the story work. My biggest crime? I’d put Judith’s house on the Thames where there’s no service road.

I mention the Rotary Club because it was only after I moved to Marlow that I started to understand what an amazing service they offer the town.

And it’s the same for the Round Table, the British Legion, the Youth Centre, the Guides, Scouts and Sea Cadets, the amateur theatre, the local radio station, the sports clubs, the Town Council and the seven churches in the town.

All of these different groups, many of them under threat of closure because of budget cuts are what bind the town together.

These are the sorts of local organisations that unite all small towns across the land. Tens of thousands of people voluntarily working, day in and day out, to make others’ lives better.

This came into sharp focus when Russia invaded Ukraine. I wasn’t at all surprised when Marlow was one of the first towns to snap into action and the Marlow Ukraine Collective was formed to welcome refugees from the war.

As it happened, Katie and I took in a mother and son from Kharkiv, so we saw first-hand how amazing the town’s support was. In that first week, when our guests were trying to get used to their new home, the doorbell didn’t stop ringing as neighbours brought round clothes, food, toys and messages of welcome.

Within weeks, Marlow was covered in Ukrainian flags and had welcomed more than 200 refugees.

The town’s kindness didn’t stop. There were free tickets to the regatta and Bisham Abbey Sports Centre, where the England football team has trained, and the Longridge Activity Centre threw huge welcome barbecues.

Computers and phones were donated, free taster sessions were run at the hockey club, a Saturday football club was set up, the town’s hairdressers offered free haircuts, Monday night English lessons were offered by the local school, and more bicycles, helmets, locks and bike lights were offered than there were guests to receive them.

And Tom Kerridge was a hero. Through All Saints Church, he’d already donated tens of thousands of pounds of free meals to those in need during the pandemic, and now he extended the same offer to the Ukrainian refugees.

We may have been housing our guests, but Tom was feeding them. But as well as all of these high-profile offers of support, there have also been an infinite number of smaller gestures that have gone entirely untrumpeted.

For example, our local dentist, Lara, gave up her lunch break one day to do an emergency filling on our younger Ukrainian guest’s tooth and then refused to take payment. She just wanted to help. It made me so proud to be British.

This kind of community spirit and generosity towards Ukrainian refugees has, of course been, seen across the whole of the UK, but Marlow’s efforts have been right up there — even forcing through a free bus scheme for refugees that was so successful it was rolled out nationally.

At the end of our six-month stint hosting, my wife put a note in our road’s WhatsApp group asking if anyone else would share their home with our guests. So that’s where they are now. A few doors down, staying with another family.

That’s not to say Marlow is perfect. Sometimes there’s antisocial behaviour.

A few days after we arrived, we saw a police car roar past, sirens blaring. As nervous ex-Londoners, we feared what terrible crime had just been committed.

It turns out an angry swan had landed on the High Street and the police were shepherding it back to the Thames. With everyone rallying round to help. Of course, they were. That’s how we do things in small towns. All together. 

Death Comes To Marlow by Robert Thorogood (£16.99, HQ) is out now.

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