Marsden Grotto's sea-lashed shoreline, vertiginous cliffs and resident smuggler's
ghost have been appealing to the creative, whether poets or artists, for generations.

So when author Ray Crowther was looking for a location for the climax of his latest book - a murder mystery involving old school friends - he needed to search no further than this atmospheric spot on South Tyneside's coast.

But although he's a southern lad, features editor JANIS BLOWER discovered that his choice of background lies closer to home than you might think.

IT'S only a month or two since Ray Crowther last visited the Marsden Grotto.

He was there to show his daughters, Caroline and Rebecca, one of the locations featured in his latest book, and to enjoy nothing more dramatic than a spell of late autumn weather and the splendid views of the coastline.

Unlike the characters in Schoolfrenz, that is, for whom the Grotto, carved jaggedly into the cliff face and surrounded by shrieking gulls, is the scene of a gripping denouement.

To say anything else would be to give the game away. Ray, a retired businessman, has written a complex book that, taken to its extreme, should serve as a cautionary warning to anyone about looking-up old school pals!

Schoolfrenz is his third book but the first to be set partly in the post-industrial landscape of the north-east of England.

"I based my first two novels in the south, and was keen to site the third in another area I knew well," said Ray, who lives in Essex.

How well is revealed by how the action in the book roams over not just the coastline at Marsden, but also neighbouring places such as Whitburn, South Shields, Hebburn, Cleadon, Newcastle, etc.


The descriptions, such as those of the old bottlehouse terraces at Bill Quay, reveal a good grasp of each location's history and character.

But how could they not when Ray has come to know the area well over the years, thanks to his wife Christine?
"I've always been in Essex or London, but Christine was born and bred in South Shields and her mother still lives in the north east, in Washington.

"Naturally, I've been to Tyneside many times. I have always loved the location of the Marsden Grotto, and because it is so unusual, I thought it would be the perfect place for the climax of Schoolfrenz," he said.

Her own old friends will remember Christine, now 48, as Christine Dixon. She was born in Birchington Avenue, and lived there for 16 years.

She went to Mortimer Road Infants' and Juniors' School, and then South Shields Grammar School for Girls, finally graduating from Newcastle University with a degree in mathematical sciences.

She worked at Marconi Radar in Bill Quay until she was 24, and then transferred to the same company in Chelmsford, Essex. 

Said Ray: "For a while she worked at Willis Faber in Ipswich before joining Selven Limited in 1983, which was the company I ran in Witham, Essex."

They became an 'item' six months later and lived together for 21 years, before eventually marrying in November 2004 while Schoolfrenz was being written.

By then Ray had sold the company and retired to pursue other activities, the key one being full-time writing.

"Christine stayed on with Selven and joined me in retirement last month. Her main pursuit is now to expand her vegetable plot to take over the whole garden!" he said.