A Novel Take on Trent Park

A Novel Take on Trent Park
Way back in the Eighties I was a reporter on the Barnet Press, part of a north London local newspaper group, which included the Enfield Gazette. Sadly, neither of these publications still exist, but some of the rumours I first heard when working ​‘my patch’ stayed with me. I can’t remember exactly who originally mentioned something about German prisoners-of-war being held at Trent Park during the Second World War. It may have been a fellow journo, or possibly a local resident. Either way, the story struck a chord.

A few years before, my parents had told me about Italian prisoner-of-war camps in my native Lincolnshire. I was still at university, but intrigued, I investigated and stumbled across a long-abandoned POW camp on a farm. I remember uncovering the most extraordinary mural of a Tuscan landscape painted on one of the walls of a barn that had served as a former mess room. Those homesick men had recreated a little bit of Italy in the Lincolnshire fens. I subsequently wrote an article about it for Lincolnshire Life magazine.

While working in Barnet, I used to live in Finchley and prompted by the rumours, I visited the grounds of Trent Park, then a college. But the rumours remained just that, tucked away in my mind, along with snatches of pleasant memories of a Sunday stroll – until, that is, one morning in 2016. I switched on the radio to hear the mansion at Trent Park had been bought by property developers who wanted to turn it into luxury apartments. Its unique past was in danger of being lost forever. But what was this unique past? Over the next few days, I read all about what had really gone on at the mansion during the Second World War. No wonder, I didn’t know much about it. Operations conducted at the mansion had been classified until just 12 years previously and some information still is.

I’d already written several historical novels, set during the 18th century, but to me, the extraordinary story of what went on at Trent Park was not only a fascinating field for academics, but also an amazing setting for a novel waiting to be written.

We historical novelists love half-told tales and stories that have an element of mystery surrounding them. I’ve often likened penning such novels to painting by numbers. It’s the author’s job to fill in all the colour and the details that history hasn’t always recorded. So that’s what I did in my novel The Light We Left Behind.

I was thrilled to read in a short book by Julia Pascal, entitled The Secret Listeners, that, alongside members of British intelligence and other Armed Forces personnel, a team of psychologists was based at Trent Park. It seemed, however, that no one knew anything about them. That’s when I knew I’d found my female protagonist. In my research I invented her back story, her character and her own personal journey. My male protagonist is a secret listener; a half-Jewish émigré from Munich, who joined the Pioneer Corps, as so many secret listeners did. I am indebted to the former BBC journalist Robin Lustig, whose parents worked at Trent Park’s sister camp at Latimer House, for insights into their lives. It is to people like them, the ​‘Secret Listeners’, that I dedicated my novel. Their courage and self-sacrifice I found even more remarkable since I was writing in ​‘lock-down’ and longing for normality to return. Other characters in the novel are loosely based on real personnel.

Of course, while I fictionalised the characters and plot for my novel, I wanted to get the basic facts right and for this I turned to Trent Park’s official historical, Dr. Alex Henry, who was a huge support throughout the writing process. I have also had a great response from my social media requests for information about the mansion during the war from local residents. Interestingly while, like me, many people responded by saying they’d heard rumours of Germans being held in its walls, only one person said his engineer father divulged he’d installed microphones there.

From the outset, my goal has been to elevate Trent Park’s unique status in World War Two history to be recognised for its contribution to the war effort alongside Bletchley Park. As far as I know, this is the first novel to be set mainly in the mansion.

Rudyard Kipling once said: ​“If history were told in the form of stories it would never be forgotten.” I sincerely hope that my own novel will make the story of Trent Park and, most importantly of the Secret Listeners, stay in the minds of my readers for a long time to come. I also hope it will instil in them the desire to find out more for themselves about Trent Park’s extraordinary story and, of course, even visit the museum when it’s up and running in the near future.

The Light We Left Behind is published by HQ Digital. It is available on eBook, and is published in paperback by HarperCollins.