'Smuggler's inn' on market for an arm, leg and a shipload of rum

Max Davidson

LONDON – Take a pretty woman, some unshaven smugglers – plus a shipload of rum – and you have a recipe that sells all over the world. How else to explain the buzz which has greeted the news that the original Jamaica Inn has come on the market?

Thanks to Daphne du Maurier's novel of the same name, the 400-year-old inn on Bodmin Moor is so firmly associated with smuggling that you half-expect customs and excise officers to burst into the bar and impound the Bacardi.

Few properties in the country have such a colourful and chequered history. Fewer still have just been put up for sale at £2-million (R37-million).

It seems a small price for such a valuable piece of literary history, not to mention a working, 17-bedroom inn. Buyers are responding accordingly.

"The interest we have had has been extraordinary," said Matthew Smith of Christie & Co in Exeter, who are marketing the property. "The Daphne du Maurier connection has got people excited."

In the smuggling museum attached to the inn, pride of place is occupied by the desk on which Du Maurier wrote Rebecca and other classics. "We paid £8000 (R147000) for it, and that was more than 10 years ago," the present owner of the inn, John Watts, explained. "People thought we were mad, but it would fetch far more today."

No writer is more indelibly associated with Cornwall than Du Maurier, who spent most of her life in the county. Jamaica Inn is arguably one of her weaker novels, but its evocation of Cornish smuggling in its 19th-century heyday – when the infamous "wreckers" would lure ships on to the rocks – has caught the eye of filmmakers since its publication in 1936.

The 1939 Hitchcock film was a turkey thanks to an over-the-top performance by Charles Laughton. At least it gave Maureen O'Hara her first big break as the orphaned heroine Mary Yellan – a role played by Jane Seymour in the ITV serialisation in the '80s.

Later this year, the BBC will be getting in on the act, with a three-part adaptation starring Jessica Brown Findlay, previously Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey. Expect heaving bosoms, lashings of contraband rum and enough spooky happenings to send a shiver down the nation's spine.

The present Jamaica Inn is a cosy hostelry, offering cheap-and-cheerful food to passing hordes. It is hard to imagine it providing the setting for a lurid Gothic thriller – what Du Maurier called "a place of tense excitement and claustrophobia".

But something of the eerie atmosphere lingers, according to Watts.

"There is something a bit creepy about the place. Overnight guests report experiencing weird sensations: rooms suddenly feeling ice-cold even when the radiator is on."

Resident "ghosts" are said to include a mysterious green-cloaked highwayman.

Watts bought the inn for £46000 (R845434) in 1976 from the thriller-writer Alistair Maclean, and since then he and his wife, Wendy, have been running it as a hotel. It is a bit out of the way, in the hamlet of Bolventor, but the remote moorland setting contributes to its charm.

Even if you don't encounter the Beast of Bodmin, the phantom wildcat said to prowl the moor, you can hardly fail to be affected by the bleak Cornish landscape wreathed in fog.

"A lot of inns associated with smugglers are on the sea, for obvious reasons," Watts added. "But we are actually quite a long way inland." It was Jamaica Inn's strategic trading position, on the turnpike between Launceston and Bodmin, that accounted for its prominence.

The contraband sold by the smugglers included silk and tea as well as tobacco and spirits.

Guests have the option of staying in rooms named after characters in the novel, such as Squire Bassat, and pottering around the lovingly stocked museum.

"We have had interest from a whole range of prospective buyers – from seasoned hotel-operators to high net-worth individuals," Matthew Smith explained. "They are fascinated by the literary associations."

The new owners of Jamaica Inn will have to pay their taxes like everyone else. But they wouldn't be human if they didn't hanker for the days when the bar rang with swashbuckling tales of smugglers and their molls.

Jamaica Inn trivia:

Daphne du Maurier got the inspiration for Jamaica Inn after staying there in 1930. She had taken refuge in the inn after being stranded in thick fog.

Jamaica Inn was the first of three Du Maurier novels to be filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. The others were Rebecca and The Birds.

Smuggling in the UK dates back to the 13th century, when customs duties were first introduced.

At the height of the smuggling trade, half the brandy smuggled into the UK was landed in Cornwall and Devon.

The most popular Cornish coves for bringing contraband ashore, were Polperro on the south coast and Boscastle, Trebarwith and Tintagel on the north coast.

Nineteenth-century smugglers were not held in as low esteem as modern drug-mules. They often got lenient sentences from magistrates, who had consumed their illicit booty. ©The Telegraph