Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Manor at Hemingford Grey. You might know it as Green Knowe.

Some books shape your childhood.  They catch at the imagination and become a part of you.  Alan Garner's "The Moon of Gomrath" and "The Owl Service", C. S. Lewis's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", Susan Cooper's "The Dark is Rising", Arthur Ransome's "Swallows and Amazons", Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock's "The Far Distant Oxus" were all books that I read again and again, trying to leave just long enough between rereadings so that they regained just a little of their magical strangeness or their ability to surprise.  One of these books which made me was Lucy M. Boston's "The Children of Green Knowe".  Around ten years or so ago I read somewhere that Hemingford Grey Manor was the inspiration for Green Knowe and that it was possible to arrange to visit.  The idea hung around on the edge of my consciousness.  Hemingford Grey is near Huntingdon in the East of England.  We live way over in the west in Wales.  It seemed unlikely to happen unless we made a special visit but I always thought it might one day.  And last week the day came.


It was a quiet sunny day in the village of Hemingford Grey.  There were no signs to the Manor that we could see but I knew from the books that the house was by the river. We walked through the drowsy streets following signs for the river and the church, meeting only a cat sunning itself on a wall.  There: a sign.  An empty road with large modern houses, another sign and a long shaded drive and suddenly we came out into sunlight and there it was.  The garden exploded in colour around it.  A man was working in the borders but it was sunny and silent.  We had been told to come to the front door at half past two for our tour of the house so we had a few minutes to wander around.  Everywhere there were sights that jolted the memory: the statue of St Christopher who carried Tolly over the flood; the topiary crowns, the huge yew tree and the hidden garden.




We assemble by the front step, three couples, together with a man and his seven year old daughter who prove to be part of the wider family of Lucy Boston.  Diana is Lucy's daughter in law and it is she who takes us round the house.  In through the front door, over the threshold which Tolly had approached by boat when the house sat surrounded by flood water. 


Like Lucy, Diana is a storyteller, weaving the story of the house with the story of Lucy, her son Peter and with the story of the books which sprang from Lucy's deep connection with the house.  Diana has been sharing her house with people in this generous and informal way for twenty years.  How many people has she invited into her house?  How many times has she told the story of Lucy's musical evenings in the second world war when the oldest room in the house was packed with airmen from the local RAF base?  It all feels fresh and funny and new.  That is a true artistry.


Every spot in the music room was used for seating on those wartime evenings, two lucky people sitting right in the fireplace.


Everywhere you look there are things of beauty and interest.  The light streams in.


I love the idea that this nine hundred year old room was crowded with young servicemen listening to records before they launched themselves into the skies of World War 2.


But it is the room at the top of the house that makes you feel that you have fallen into the books.



 
Here is the rocking horse which Tolly heard riding away into the night.



In the toybox are Toby's sword, Linnet's doll and Alexander's flute.


And on the chest of drawers sits the little wooden mouse which Tolly took to bed with him and which slept under his pillow.

It is an extraordinary house and an extraordinary family have lived in it since Lucy Boston bought it in 1939.  You don't need to know the Green Knowe books to spend a fascinating hour or two here.  Ian hasn't yet read them but he too loved the house, the complexity of its story and the layers of history which surrounded you as you walked through.  One room is full of the stunning patchwork quilts which Lucy made by hand right into her nineties.  On the walls hang many beautiful pictures, some by the artist Elisabeth Vellacott who lodged with Lucy during the war years, some the illustrations for the Green Knowe books by Lucy's son, Peter.


Spending some time in Green Knowe is like listening to music, reading a poem or watching a play.  I felt as though I had looked into another world, the light was brighter, sound was little keener.  It was a privilege to share it for a short time.  Go if you can.

33 comments:

  1. I totally want to read the Green Knowe books, and how lovely you got to visit the home and the owners are so generous in allowing tours and keeping it up.

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    1. The books are really worth reading. I particularly like the first and the last in the series, but they are all memorable.

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  2. What an amazing house. I have memories of reading Green Knowle books very many years ago. Novels that conjure up place and time always fascinate. That house looks like you have stepped back in time. Wonderful. B

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    1. the house is just like the books! magical

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  3. What a very lovely and magic house!

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  4. Isn't it amazing?? I was so fortunate and got to visit in June, when my mom and I took my kids on a trip to the UK. Your photographs are beautiful--much better than mine were!

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    1. it really does make for a special memory Jean. I'm glad to hear you got to see it

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  5. Beautiful place. For those who never saw the BBC series, it's on youtube in sections as well as now out in dvd.

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    1. oh i didn't know it was on YouTube. thank you!

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  6. I visited on a beautiful summer day in 2014; the house is full of things from the Green Knowe (and other LMB) books; the cherub with the bird's nest on its head, the mouse, rocking horse, bird cage from 'Children of Green Knowe' are all still there, and no doubt the descendants of the chaffinch and squirrel in the gardens; the straw donkey head from 'Guardians of the House' and the willows along the river recall 'The River at Green Knowe'. Anyone who loves the books should visit!

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  7. Elizabeth, thank you so much for this post! Was it you who first introduced me to Lucy Boston's house and books? I cannot remember. However, a year or so ago, I had such pleasure borrowing the children's books and Lucy Boston's memoir from the library and feeling as if I had entered into a magical place, and gotten to meet the unique lady who had created that place.

    How wonderful that you and Ian were able to visit on a glorious day and to reach the house by walking by the river, and enter the grounds via the garden. It's also grand that Diana gives these tours.

    I loved reading the memoir about how LB came to live in the house, and how she persevered in restoring it, and with help from builders (some more sympathetic than others) was able to discover the "bones" of the house which spanned several eras.

    Those war time concerts must have been both beautiful and heartbreaking.

    Were you able to take any photos of the quilts. Their creation is a story itself, as is the garden. Does the river still flood?

    I would love to read more about your visit! xo

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    1. I'm glad to know you have read the books Frances. they are so much more than children's books!

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    2. Diana has produced a book about the quilts, Frances. It might be available on the website.

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    3. Diana was very generous about photos and spending time in the house. The quilts were the only room where photos were discouraged, understandably. The book is fascinating. I bought it and think you would love it if you can find it.

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  8. It was a post of yours, Elizabeth, about comfort reading and the Green Knowe stories which inspired me to suggest a visit to The Manor at Hemingford Grey on our return from my father-in-law's funeral in March 2015, and to return for the full visit in May that year. I was so inspired by this magical place that I posted about it on both occasions and it is now threaded through with memories of John.

    Your photos are lovely and although I was more drawn to the garden, it is extra special to see these. I came away with a necklace that Diana had made and the book she put together about Lucy Boston's quilts.

    If you are interested, do come over and have a read.

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    1. I thought of you while we were there Marianne because I knew we were in your part of the world. it was a very fleeting visit so there was no time at all but we lived it so I hope we will be back and with time enough to say hello!

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    2. If you do come back this way, Elizabeth, let me know. There is always a bed here if you need one. I shall send you my private email.

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    3. Thank you marianne. That's great!

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  9. It's a wonderful house and garden isn't it? I've visited the garden a couple of times and also done the house tour with Diana quite a few years ago now. I was allowed to actually hold the little wooden mouse, I seem to remember that I was by myself on the tour - I stopped on my way down to Suffolk. Lucy Boston's quilts are really beautiful aren't they. I'd love to go again now that I've read your post.

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    1. I thought Diana was exceptionally generous with the tours. we could only manage one day which was not when that week's tour was taking place but she happily laid on another for us!

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  10. Envy is not a pretty thing, but all I can think is, you've been there, you jammy thing! We had a dachshund called Tolly, and I'd have had a Toby and a Linnet among my children if my husband had only agreed. I adored Lucy Boston's books, at a particularly impressionable age, clearly!

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    1. I adored them too and have read some of them again this last year. The Chimneys of Green Knowe resonated just as strongly with me as an adult. There are books, of which The Far Distant Oxus is an example, which I haven't read as an adult just in case the magic has quite gone!

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  11. I completely agree with you and thanks for the lovely photos. It is a good idea to go while Diana is still looking after the house, she does a far better job than anyone else could do and is most magical. DId you like the needlework? I was blown away by it. What an amazing person Lucy Boston must have been!

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  12. I completely agree with you and thanks for the lovely photos. It is a good idea to go while Diana is still looking after the house, she does a far better job than anyone else could do and is most magical. DId you like the needlework? I was blown away by it. What an amazing person Lucy Boston must have been!

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    1. yes I loved the quilts and bought the book. I agree about the experience of having Diana show us the house. wouldn't be quite the same with anyone else.

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  13. Hello,
    I was recently visiting Wales and happened to see a unique photo of a castle/hotel grounds a few days after -- I was told it was taken in Wales. Can I send it to you and ask if you know where it is? I am desperately trying to figure this out, so I apologize if this is an odd question. I cannot think of who I should ask, as I do not know very many Welsh people.
    Sincerely,
    Kate

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    1. yes of course you can. there's an email link on the holiday cottage page. can't guarantee to know but I'm very happy to try!

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  14. Hello again, Elizabeth. Did you send me an email? I have received one, but am not sure it is actually from you, and thought I would ask before opening it. xo

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    1. hi Frances. no I didn't send an email. must have had my email hacked. thanks for letting me know

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  15. How completely wonderful, Elizabeth. I haven't read the book but I wish I had (and maybe I will!). I do love reading your blog and I'm catching up with your summer posts. Have to stop now to take my daughter somewhere but I'm looking forward to reading more later! Sam x

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  16. Popping over from Instagram to read further! How lucky you are to have visited Hemingford Grey. I heard it rather than read it first - on Jackanory. We listened harder in those days I think, because there were no recordings, no internet to listen to again and again. I still remember the sense of a world opening up, totally new and yet with the familiarity of homecoming.

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