A departure to think about a person rather than a place in one of these research jottings. I’ve thought about this tonight and still think it’s appropriate. I’ve ambitiously given this a number in case it turns out I want to reflect on it more – some things about location and spirituality, perhaps- or if (as I’d really like) some more of my Wild Spaces Wild Magic colleagues can make it for a return visit.
The Manor at Hemingford Grey is the setting for much of the writing of Lucy Boston, notably the books in which the house is called Green Knowe and stands as the still point – or not so still, since it feels like a character in its own right – of a number of narratives that explore the house’s relationship to its history and its visitors and inhabitants. I have written about this before so I won’t labour the point.
We – colleagues, friends, Twitter acquaintances of Ed Finch, who convened us – arrived in the afternoon “ready for anything,” as Mrs Oldknow says to her great grandson Tolly, and were greeted courteously -warmly – by Diana Boston who showed us things to see in the garden, let us wander then gathered us together for a short briefing on the architecture of the house, a moated Norman tower-house, its grand rebuild into a status home, and then swift destruction-and-return to humbler size. I say humbler, but I found myself looking at the Norman windows, the doorway up the wall, and the things I associate with “old money:” the bric-a-brac of years of collecting, of finding things to make a house live comfortably with its history. I was reminded of Elizabth Jenning’s reflection on Grove House at Iffley:
Each way I look some loved thing meets my eye… The handsome objects here invites one’s touch…
and then to enter with Tolly (that construction comes very easily as I write it) into the scullery-hallway with its bird’s nest (still?) on a carved cherub, is to cross a line into a story.
We see the room where Tolly learns the story of his family, the history of his friends, the children who died in the plague, and in the same room we see Boston’s MS of the book in which all this is represented: the MS is placed by Diana on the table where Lucy Boston wrote, and we see the same view with the same book before us.
We move up into the Hall, through Diana’s bedroom (she invites a child to open what looks like a wardrobe door and voilà, the bedroom turns out to be a division of the larger Norman aula): we move through, and Diana explains the setting as the book has it, the restoration Lucy undertook, her musical evenings in the war. We sit and drink it all in, and Diana plays a 78rpm record on a record player with a massive horn. We are quiet and receptive; Diana has a surety in her presentation which means we are in her hands.
At her invitation we move up to the final room. The children’s bedroom, the boys’ bedroom, Tolly’s bedroom is at the top of the old house, and in some ways is the finale of our drama. So many of the intimacies of Tolly’s time here are presented: the mouse; the china dogs, the toy box: ah yes: with a sword, a book, a flute – the belongings of the ghostly children who accompany Tolly.
We spend a long time here, then move back down to the Knight’s Hall. Diana, teacher and storyteller, tells us more, helping each of us piece bits together. She talks about Lucy Boston’s friendship with Phillippa Pearce, of the villagers’ mistrust of their new neighbour Lucy, of the restoration and how removing panels had shown the Norman windows. She talks of the real medievalist, a Mr Bishop, who appears in The Enemy as Mr Pope…
And then Diana is asked a question I expect she has been asked before: Is this house haunted? Her first response is to tell us how locals didn’t used to like to pass by the “poltergeist house” at night; she says she doesn’t see ghosts but “ one hears noises;” she tells us of times when people have felt unable to stay in Tolly’s room or on the stairs by it; she tells of the flute being heard when no one was playing; she recounts how it felt “angry” and “malevolent” at times in the Knight’s Hall before Lucy’s restoration work, opening it up again to light, to views of its earlier architecture. I wonder how it feels to be alone in the house at night.
She leaves us and Jack reads Feste’s story from the book to us. He reads to us in a beautiful, engaging voice, and I am struck again by how Boston is a massively strong writer, to tell the story she chooses when this house has so many ponts to inspire. I read the passage where Tolly and Mrs Oldknow sing the Coventry Carol to lull a baby to sleep. And I sing the verse.
And we end, reluctantly, but peacefully.