Lizzie's Hill: “Le Terrain Fleuri”

An extraordinary panorama by David Illiff of Stave Hill

Stave Hill, Rotherhithe, London, May 2008 - photo by DAVID ILIFF License: CC BY-SA 3.0

When I awake, I discover that I’m lying on the side of a hill—a perfectly round, incredibly big, green hill—staring out into space. And though I should be wondering how on earth it is that I come to be here, the first thing that pops into my head is that I’ve been blessed with a miracle.
Dear God, I am so safe here. I am protected.

My Dog, Chumley - photo by John Marshall

The hill where Lizzie Blaylock finds herself in The Bridge of Dead Things was inspired by Stave Hill, a thirty-foot high man-made hill in Rotherhithe where I used to walk my dog, Chumley. It was built in 1985 by the now defunct London Docklands Development Corporation after the Surrey Docks (comprising Canada Dock, Russia Dock, and Stave Dock) were filled in to provide land for redevelopment. That was the year I moved to this area, and I still remember all the displaced water (which had to go somewhere) resurfacing on a council estate in nearby Downtown, and permanently flooding the residents out.

Lizzie’s father makes mention of these docks in the novel: ‘I got this mate, right, down the Surrey Docks—he’s got this gear he wants me to sell: furs, all the way from Russia. We’ll be sweet, see…well, just as soon as he gets his hands on ’em.’ This was based in part on stories my grandfather used to tell me of his time as a docker and the scams he and his mates would pull off.

As regards “Le Terrain Fleuri” (the painting of a hill which Miss Otis shows Lizzie), while Justus of Ghent (1430 - 1480) was indeed an artist who worked for Federico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino (1422 - 1482), the painting itself is entirely fictional. When I started writing The Bridge of Dead Things I imagined the painting to be in the style of Piero della Francesca a contemporary of Justus of Ghent—and a far better artist—who also worked for the duke. Visit Wikipedia to see the portrait Piero painted for the duke. Notice the amazing sense of light combined with the smoky, brooding colours. My problem was that Piero della Francesca was far too famous an artist and his works too well known for me to attribute a fictional painting to him, and yet I wanted the picture to sound as if it had a credible provenance. An early version of the novel contained a lengthy, overly-complicated tale involving a wager between the two artists (after a long night of drinking) whereby they each try to paint in the other’s style, resulting in Piero’s “Le Terrain Fleuri” for ever being falsely attributed to Justus. Like Padmini’s Tale the anecdote went on far too long and had to be cut.

Though extremely popular with locals, Stave Hill—together with the ecological park which surrounds it and the Russia Dock Woodlands to the north—remains one of London’s least-known treasures. It may be set in the heart of the great metropolis but once you’re there it’s almost impossible not to imagine yourself out walking in the countryside.