A few weeks ago, I went to Devon and met one of my heroes.
He was standing in the middle of the road, staring at the traffic with a haughty expression - the same stern gaze which terrified his opponents and stirred the hearts of his compatriots, the men who followed him to the other side of the world.
I knew he wouldn't talk to me, so I didn't bother saying anything.
I just stood and stared.
Francis Drake stared back at me.
I was in Tavistock, the small town where he was born. It's a lovely place, just on the edge of Dartmoor. I spent a couple of hours wandering around the market and looking at the river, before meeting Simon, the proprietor of the local independent bookshop, the Book Stop, and going to talk in a local school.
That was the first time that I had ever been to Tavistock, but I’d met Drake before. Not once, but many times. In history books. In biographies. On the deck of the replica of the Golden Hind that is moored in London. And in my own book, The Island of Thieves, where he is a marginal but crucial character.
I've been fascinated by Drake for most of my life, but I’ve never particularly wanted to meet him in person. I doubt I would have liked him much; he was fierce, grumpy, greedy and single-minded to the point of madness.
Of course, you probably had to be all those things if you were going to sail around the world in 1587, taking a route that no one had ever previously sailed, battling the weather, the sea, hunger, thirst, the Spanish and even your own crew, who might mutiny at any moment.
If Francis Drake hadn’t been so uncompromising, so single-minded, so fierce and brutal and aggressive, he’d never have left Plymouth; he would have spent his life pottering about the coast of Devon in a little dinghy, fishing for mackerel, rather than sailing around the world.
Meeting your heroes in the flesh is probably never a good idea. How can they be anything but a disappointment? But meeting them in fiction - reading about them or writing about them yourself - is much safer. They can continue being as heroic as you’ve always imagined them.