John Drake picked us up in his vintage BMW, and drove north up the London Road, just outside of Cambridge. With great excitement, he told us about our destination. A visit to the house and garden of a dead writer of children’s books did not engender in me very much excitement. On the other hand, John is known for his staggering knowledge of the gardens of Cambridgeshire, (he wrote the book, literally,) so I looked forward to an interesting day, given his great enthusiasm.
When we got to Hemingford Grey, a small village outside of St. Ives, on the Great Ouse River, John led us along the river, past the canal boats moored there, and the church steeple in view past the willows, along the towpath between the river and a long brick wall.
Soon there was an archway in the wall, which led to an inviting gravel path bordered by strange looking topiary trees. They were cut as Coronation symbols, in memory of the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. I immediately concluded that whoever did it had a decent sense of whimsy. Ahead lay a very old red brick house, with a white brick lean-to addition to the left side. Beyond that to the left was what looked like an overgrown rose garden. It looked like a very much loved and lived-in house.
We soon joined a small group of people at the entrance of the house. A rather tall very attractive woman was addressing the crowd. This was Diana Boston, the daughter-in-law of Lucy Boston, the writer. Diana, a friend of John Drake, had allowed us to join one of her small, very special groups who tour the house and garden. Diana herself has a mesmerizing way about her. Tall, slender, patrician, with wavy salt-and-pepper hair, she was dressed very simply in dungarees and a gray linen blouse. She is what my mother would call “a born beauty.” Her love of the place and her determination to keep The Manor going was very evident as she led us through this magical place. For what seemed ordinary at the outset, became just that, “magical” by the end of the tour, magical in its simple evocation of times past, magical in its details, magical in the memory of Lucy Boston, who quickly became the sort of wonderful eccentric I wished I had known.
Here’s how Lucy came to own The Manor: “In 1915, a young woman named Lucy Boston, while punting on the River Great Ouse, was particularly taken with the old house, which seemed to hold an abandoned, yet tranquil air. The image stayed with her until 1938, when she returned from a decade spent on the Continent, to find the property, on the flood plains of Hemingford Grey, for sale. Within two years she had carried out the necessary restorations to the house and could dedicate time to developing a 4 acre garden.”
Many are drawn here for the gardens. For those who love prize irises and old roses in a tranquil setting, it is a must. Many are drawn here because of the Green Knowe books, including an eager Japanese couple that joined our group. Many are drawn here also for the internationally renowned patchwork quilt collection.
The Norman house was built around 1130, and is reputedly the oldest continuously inhabited house in England. There have been Tudor additions and a Georgian addition. Part of the later house was destroyed by fire in 1798, but most of the original Norman house remains virtually intact in spite of various changes over nine centuries. There are the remains of a moat on two sides of the house.
Diana told stories about Lucy Boston’s years in the house with such warmth and humor that we were mesmerized. Lucy Boston, finally exonerated from the local gossip that she might be a spy, entertained World War II airmen from the nearby aerodrome. She played classical recordings on her1928 gramophone that still sits in its usual spot. We were treated to a Mozart clarinet quintet, played with a bamboo needle, which sounded glorious. Concerned about seating for her new guests, Lucy Boston took the back seat out of her automobile, and set up several mattresses in her music room, covered them with hobnail bedspreads, and made comfortable seating, to which I can attest, since it is still there.
In the winters when she was not gardening, Lucy Boston made fabulous patchworks, most of which we were able to see. Diana has laid them out on a large bed, and with the help of a white-gloved John Drake, turned each one back for us to see. They are glorious and clever, including one made out of old tea towels and mattress ticking, the only fabrics available during the war.
When we reached the topmost floor of the house, we were shown the children’s bedroom, complete with artifacts featured in the Green Knowe series, including the rocking horse, the birdcage, the toy chest, and to the extreme delight of the Japanese lady, the little bronze mouse. She jumped up and down with joy as she showed us the illustration of the mouse in the Japanese version of The Children of Green Knowe, which she carried lovingly cradled in her arms.
We were so taken with the charm of the house, its contents, and with the ghost of Lucy Boston, that we immediately bought the first book in the series. Reading it when I got home evoked the pleasant memories of that sunny day at Hemingford Grey. If you’d like to read them, Merritt Books can get them for you: The Green Knowe Series. If you would like to see The Manor, telephone Diana Boston at 01480463134, before you leave for England.
Oh, and while you’re at it, make a reservation for a meal at The Cock, one of those magnificent reincarnated pubs, serving contemporary Anglo-French food in a smart-but-casual atmosphere. It’s at 47 High St., Hemingford Grey, tel. 01480-463609.