Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Day 13 – Visiting Green Knowe

It was my friend Kathy Baxter who told me she had visited the house upon which The Children of Green Knowe is based and if I had fully grasped how close it is to Cambridge, my mother and I could have gone there four years ago. After rereading the book in August, I was determined to make the Manor at Hemingford Grey part of this trip. I felt shy about writing to Diana Boston, who is the daughter-in-law of author L.M. Boston (1892-1990) and has lived in the house since she moved in to help Lucy after a stroke, but she responded to my email quickly and invited me to come on Saturday, June 18th when she had two tours already scheduled.
I envisioned a sunny day in which I would sit in the magical garden among the topiary and dressed accordingly (mistake - it was over 90 degrees the day before and about 50 today). But first I had to get there. Mrs. Boston was doing tours at 11 and 3:30 so I made a special trip to St. Pancras to ensure I could use my train ticket for an earlier train. That was fine except that train and the one before it got canceled. My eventual train got me to Huntingdon but my taxi driver, although he swore he knew Hemingford Grey, brought me to the Old Lodge instead of the Old Manor. I could not get a signal on my phone to direct him and it was cold and raining. I did not despair but there was no way I was letting him leave me in the wrong place when I was already very late! Luckily, some people out walking pointed me in the right direction, and, shivering, I passed the 12th-century church and dashed along the Great Ouse River until I saw the house. The gardener was in front and I asked if I could go inside. He said no, and I thought it would be a pretty miserable few hours until 3:30, but then he said, “Are you the woman from the train? Diana says you can join the tour late and she’ll catch you up at the end.” Thank goodness!
Like me, Tolly arrived by train, but at a time when the fens had flooded the area around the house and he is brought by boat. I imagined the entrance by the river, which is where it is now, but it was on the opposite side originally when it was built in about 1130. Diana was in mid-sentence to the other visitors – a boy of about 11 named Max and his mother – when I arrived so I never properly introduced myself. It was amazing to walk into Lucy’s Music Room which has the gramophone she played classical music on to RAF pilots during WWII, and Diana said sometimes more than 30 squeezed into this modest-sized room. Of course, what was most extraordinary was seeing Tolly’s bedroom:
It was a long room with a triangle of wall at each end and no walls at the sides, because the sloping ceiling came down to the floor, like a tent. There were windows on three sides, and a little low wooden bed in the middle covered with a patchwork quilt, as unlike a school bed as anything could be . . . . At one side there was a beautiful old rocking-horse – not a safety rocking horse hanging on iron swings from a centre shaft, but a horse whose legs were stretched to full gallop, fixed to long rockers so that it could, if you rode it violently, both rear and kick. On the other side was a doll’s house. By the bed was a wooden box painted vermilion with bright patterns all over it, and next to it all Tolly’s luggage piled up, making the room look really his. A wicker bird-cage hung from one of the beams.
Diana has told these stories about Lucy many times and her delivery is perfect. She showed us the mouse that Tolly goes to sleep clutching on his first night at Green Knowe and I told her that Gabriel, the librarian at Christ Church, told me that when she had visited the Manor as a child Lucy had made her close her eyes and put the mouse in her hand. Diana unlocked the wooden box and showed us the treasures inside.
She told us how Diana’s legendary editor, Margaret K. McElderry, told Lucy she knew as she read the first few pages of the manuscript how special the book was. I said that Margaret’s husband, Storer Lunt, had been my grandfather’s closest friend, which surprised her. Diana told me Margaret and Storer were married at the Manor! She said the ceiling in the kitchen collapsed before the wedding but nothing was damaged.
I had not known that Lucy was an exceptional quilter. About ten of her extraordinary quilts are kept in a bedroom, shielded from the light. Max got to put on gloves and help Diana show them to us, one by one, each more beautiful and intricately designed than the last. Lucy went on quilting until her eyes failed her, and schoolchildren sometimes stopped by to thread her needles.
This was Lucy's childhood rocking horse
Another story that Diana told me was that Lucy was friendly with Philippa Pearce. Didn’t I very recently wonder whether my favorite authors knew each other? Once, Diana and her family stopped by while Philippa Pearce was visiting. Diana’s son Andrew was just a boy and very excited to meet her and told her Tom’s Midnight Garden was his favorite book and he had read it eight times. I told Diana I was afraid that some of the books I loved as a child are too subtle for children brought up on Harry Potter, and she agreed. She admitted that Tolly’s age is also a challenge because children like to read about protagonists older than they are. This is worrying because she needs readers and visitors to help support this very expensive house.
Lucy had bought the house right before WWII, following the end of her marriage to Peter’s father. The house obviously has a long and interesting history but I did not expect to learn that one former resident was John Gunning, father of the beautiful Gunning sisters! I had noticed some Georgette Heyers on the shelves and asked if they were Lucy’s or Diana’s. She said they were both fans and that once some journalist had done a very snide interview with Heyer, making fun of the genre, both those who write it and those who read it. Lucy was so indignant that she wrote to Heyer and got a response. Diana said she had just heard from someone in New Zealand who is doing another biography and wondered if Diana has Heyer’s letters. I thought she might enjoy Jane Aiken Hodge’s book about Heyer so just ordered her a copy.
On the beam is the Feste board Tolly found in the stable
The house is full of interesting things. In her bedroom, Diana has framed some of her husband’s illustrations for the books which are even more striking when displayed. Lucy also has pictures by Elisabeth Vellacott, a 20th-century painter, also from Hemingford Grey who was a friend of Lucy’s. In the living room is a picture of a house that was embroidered in hair and in silk by French soldiers, the inspiration for The Treasure of Green Knowe.
Embroidered in hair!
Diana kindly phoned for a taxi for me and showed me the flood marks so I could better imagine the beginning of the book, and I walked in the garden for a bit although it was very wet. This taxi driver was from Romania and very interested in the price of gas in the United States (I showed him the book, which I thought was more relevant). Back at the train station, I was dismayed to learn the next two trains had been canceled due to lack of staff. I found a shelter and shivered with my book for what seemed like hours before one finally appeared but this magical visit was worth every raindrop. I am so grateful to Diana Boston for taking so much time to welcome me to the Manor!

Miles walked: 4.9
Books purchased: 1; Lucy Boston, An Artist in Everything She Did


Lory said...

So glad the visit turned out, in spite of the terrible transportation situation! I will never forget my own visit many years ago. Diana was also very kind in accommodating me even though it wasn't a usual tour day. And I hope the books will continue to be read and loved as they deserve.

Nan said...

What a wonderful, wonderful thing to do. I haven't read the book but will remedy that as soon as I can, and then I will come back and read the post again. I just loved it. Thank you. (I now have to go and read all the traveling posts. As usual, sadly, I haven't been around the blogging world nearly as much as I want to be.

Charlotte said...

thank you for all the details! I haven't been near Cambridge for years....my inlaws are in the west country so that's where our English visits have been for ages. Now the kids don't want to travel with me anymore I might head out there on my own; it sounds magical.

Cath said...

I actually have no idea whether I read this as a child or not. I fancy not as nothing is ringing a bell. What a shame as I clearly missed out. But Philippa Pearce wrote one of my favourite books as a child, Minnow on the Say, oh gosh how I adored that book and had it out on loan from the library 'so' many times.

CLM said...

It was a magical trip and I wish you had been with me, Charlotte! I only wish it hadn't been raining so I could have spent more time in the garden. The house wasn't as big as in my imagination but otherwise it was exactly as I expected.

Cath, I read The Minow on the Say and another of her books, something about Satin Shore, and there is one Pearce co-wrote called The Children of the House. All are good but Tom's Midnight Garden is generally considered her masterpiece. I had not remembered until Diana mentioned it that it's set in that part of the world. I have not reread it for a very long time.

Lory, I hadn't realized until Diana mentioned it that she doesn't do all the tours herself - who can blame her? But it would not have been nearly the experience with someone else.

Nan, you could read this to your grandchildren at your next slumber party! I am sure your library has it.

Nan said...

I ILLed it from a library in the state. Should be here soon.

Nan said...

I just finished, and have ILLed the second one! I absolutely loved it. For some reason, I always thought the books were scary so I stayed away. I will never get to the house, so I did enjoy your pictures and stories. What a perfect, perfect time (except for the transportation issues). Thank you for taking the time to share all those details. I am especially touched by playing records for those soldiers. What an amazing thing to do.
I would love to read the book to the kids, or give them the book, but as you noted in your post, I don't think they would be drawn to it. Life is very different now from even when my kids were little (they are now almost 40 and 37). There is SO much televsion, and though a lot of it is good, it takes away reading time. Also, all the video games (are they still called that), and there are games that Hazel plays with friends online. They laugh and laugh. So not bad things at all, but I do feel sorry for no long afternoons of being lost in a book. In addition to TV and video, there is so much to do in the area. Time flies away, even in summer. Makes me sad, and especially so thinking of people not supporting the house.