Monday, December 27, 2010

walking into the books

This is the post about Hemingford Grey Manor that I promised weeks ago.

First, background: the Manor was built in the 1100s, of stone, and is perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited house in England. It has been adjusted in various ways over the centuries, most notably in the Tudor age and the Georgian, when it belonged to the Gunnings (of the 'beautiful Gunning sisters') who completely covered the Norman stone with a symmetrical (and much larger) Palladian exterior--which burnt down in the late 1790s.
In 1937, Lucy M. Boston bought the Manor, and spent the next two years restoring it. At the time it looked like a 'semi-derelict Georgian farmhouse', only one Norman window showed and only two rooms were livable. But she had fallen in love with it, and decided 'if this should prove to be all there was, I would yet live in a house that had a window into the twelfth century.'

The Manor became her muse. 'All my water is drawn from one well,' she said. 'I am obsessed by my house. It is in the highest degree a thing to be loved.'
At the age of sixty she began to write, and her first novels were published in 1954. The Children of Green Knowe was illustrated by her son, Peter Boston, and her publisher explained that they did not illustrate books for adults. So it was published as a children's book, and became the first of six Green Knowe books.
The Manor, under various names, features in all her novels except one (The Sea Egg), always as a haven, sometimes an ambiguous or embattled one. The countryside around the manor plays its part, from the winter flood that The Children of Green Knowe opens with, to the river Ouse (in the picture here) that is the setting for The River at Green Knowe.

The books: In the first book, young Tolly (Toseland) goes to stay with his great-grandmother, whom he has never met. He arrives during a flood, and is rowed to the doorstep. I want to quote swaths of this, because it is beautifully and sensually written, from the train crossing railway lines covered with flood water, to the entrance hall 'hung all over with mirrors and pictures and china'. But I'll try to restrain myself.
'Toseland waved the lantern about and saw trees and bushes standing in the water, and presently the boat was rocked by quite a strong current and the reflection of the lantern streamed away in elastic jigsaw shapes and made gold rings around the tree trunks.'

He meets his great-grandmother: 'She had short silver curls and her face had so many wrinkles it looked as if someone had been trying to draw her for a very long time and every line put in had made the face more like her.'
Tolly's father and stepmother are in Burma, and he feels alone and placeless. At Green Knowe he finds his family's past, in a place where past and present are not so easily distinguished, where he is welcomed to both.
While Tolly has an ancestral claim, his mother's family of Oldknow being descended from the Roger d'Aulneaux who built the Norman house, the other child who finds a place there is Ping, a refugee child who arrives in the third book The River at Green Knowe. By the fifth book, An Enemy at Green Knowe, Ping and Tolly stand together to defend their home against the conniving Dr. Melanie Powers.
'Green Knowe was full of mysteries. Certainly it was welcoming and comfortable and rejoicing and gay, but one had the feeling that behind the exciting colours and shapes of its ancient self there might be surprises from the unknown universe; that the house was on good terms with that too, and had no intention of shutting out the un-understandable. Of course, it was largely Time. Surely Now and Not-now is the most teasing of all mysteries, and if you let in a nine-hundred year dose of time, you let in almost everything.'
The house: With the aid of Peter Boston's line drawings and scraperboard illustrations, I knew Green Knowe as well as my own home. The nursery with its angled ceiling and rocking horse casting shadows across the wall, the Knight's Hall with its arched windows and high ceiling, the entrance with carved cherub and witch-ball. The thick stone walls that had withstood centuries, and the river that ran quietly alongside, sometimes waking and spreading across the fields.

Before taking up writing, Lucy Boston was a painter and musician, and along with her writing, she was a remarkable quilter and gardener. The fictional topiary garden of Green Knowe and the actual topiary garden of the Manor grew alongside each other.
Here is Mark taking the path through the gardens to the river walk. We came in November, when the gardens weren't at their best--they are famous for roses--but the topiary remained stalwart.
The weather had turned bitter cold and windy, and when we reached the house, Diana Boston told us to come in even though we were early. Mark said he'd be glad to come in out of the cold. She laughed and said 'Out of the wind, maybe. Not out of the cold.' Stone houses are not known for their insulating and heat-retention capacity.

No pics of the Manor, sorry, but you can see a little in their gallery here. Outside it was too bloody cold to stand about, and inside they ask that you don't take photos--though I expect there are plenty on flickr, taken with cell phones and all.
I had been to Hemingford Grey in '04, but without Mark, and since he was also a fan of the Green Knowe books, coming to them as an adult, I'd wanted to visit again with him.

Visiting the Manor is like walking into the books. Over the years, as Lucy Boston describes in her memoir Memories in a House, she collected things that had appeared in the books, and added them to the house. The most recent addition, Diana Boston told us, was the Saint Christopher statue that protects Tolly from demonic Green Noah. Lucy Boston based it on one in a nearby church, and when The Children of Green Knowe was filmed for British television, the company created a statue, which Diana managed to acquire rather than letting it go into the rubbish.
The first time I visited I was in a constant state of 'oh look, there's the Green Deer! there's the window Tolly and Ping look out of at the end of Enemy! there's the carved cherub!' and when Diana Boston put Tolly's carved mouse into my hands (close your eyes first) I was in something near book-ecstasy.
I managed a bit more restraint this time, but it still taps into that childhood imagining that if somehow I could manage to want to enough, I could get into that other world, step through the looking-glass, open the wardrobe door, climb into the painting, shrink to toy-size and catch the dolls moving.
I don't know of another place where the walls between real and imagined are so thin, as thin as the walls between past and present are in the fictional house of Green Knowe.
The nursery is the exemplar. In the photo linked, it is tidy, but depending when you visit, the toys may be put away in the chest or strewn about the house, being played with by visiting grandchildren, great-nephews and nieces, or recently rescued from dogs--the wooden doll has had its arms chewed off--because it is part of a living house, and at the same time it is the very room in Peter Boston's illustration.

Hemingford Grey village is madly picturesque. Here's just one of the thatched timber-frame cottages. Up the street is the post office, which came near being closed down for lack of funding, but was taken over by the parish church.
The colour of the plaster is Suffolk pink (though this is Cambridgeshire), it and yellow being favourite colours of plaster in East Anglia. (They were made with local ochres originally, and you can now buy housepaints in the same tints)
The village does manage to support a gastro-pub, the Cock, where I had the local cider, Cromwell, and the pigeon breast pictured in a previous blog entry.
Hm, I think I should leave the Ghost Story evening to another post, since this one is already longish.


Terri-Lynne said...

I love, love, love thatched roofs. There is an enormous manor house (a replication of some place in Europe that I can't recall at the moment) just on the other side of the state line. It's that ochre color I think you describe.

Thanks for sharing this bit of your vacay!

batgirl said...

I should post my pics of a thatcher at 'work' (he was mostly leaning & talking to us) from 2008 in Oakley. I have so many thatched roof pictures - I love them too.