steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

The Day I went to Hemingford Grey, by Way of Tokyo

I had a little adventure yesterday. I’m sure some of you have been to Hemingford Grey (the model for the Green Knowe books), but despite having lived in Cambridge for 18 months back in the late 1980s I never had, until yesterday. I didn’t have a car then, after all, and there wasn’t a convenient bus service, but I’m not sure whether I’d have had the chutzpah anyway. I knew that Lucy Boston – then in her 90s – was willing to show people round by appointment, but who was I to dare disturb her universe?

Boston died not long afterwards, perhaps pining at my non-appearance, but her daughter-in-law Diana carried on the tradition. Even so, I never visited what was by now an inconveniently distant village, requiring the crossing of London to reach by train and a taxi at the far end to do the last five miles from Huntingdon.

The impetus to put this shocking omission to rights actually came when I was in Tokyo last April (a location even further removed from Bristol, critics might carp). When I had dinner at Mihoko Tanaka’s house – she who has written on the reception of post-War British children’s fantasy in Japan – she mentioned that she was staying with her old friend Diana Boston in August, and would I like to visit?

A joyous “Arigatou!” naturally flew from my lips, and so it was that yesterday I found myself being picked up at Huntingdon station by both Mihoko and Diana. We had a short picnic lunch, before collecting two more of Mihoko’s friends from the train – a venerable and needle-sharp woman named Mrs Morishima (who has lived in the UK for almost sixty years, being the widow of an economics professor at the LSE) and her young librarian friend Yuriko.

We went back to Green Knowe – I mean, Hemingford Grey – and sat down to tea and cakes in the sunlit garden, with the dog Berky (a successor to a previous Berky – such is the Green Knowe way).


After that we got the tour, much as hundreds before us have done. Even if the Green Knowe books had never been written, this would still be an immensely fascinating house – indeed, it’s the oldest building in the country to have been built as a private residence (rather than as a castle or a church). Much of it dates from around 1130. In that context one begins to scoff at the new-fangled Tudor additions, let alone the impertinence of an eighteenth-century facade.

First, the garden, featuring the topiary walk from the river and other delights...


The green deer (in need of a haircut)...


And of course, the house's Norman aspect:


Then into the house, with cherubs and birds' nests, as arranged by Lucy:


Covers of the books, painted by Lucy's son Peter, Diana's late husband:


And room after room of wonders:


This very serious gramophone (imagine His Master's Voice with an Irish Wolfhound) was used by Lucy to entertain airmen during the War:


You want to hear what it sounds like? Oh, okay then...


Mihoko (I choke back my envy as I write this) is lodging in Tolly’s room – but here it is, complete with rocking horse, chest and, of course, Toby’s mouse.


And Tolly's view to the river...


After that we sat down to an early supper of curry and rice (the Japanese kind, courtesy of Mihoko), and a salad that combined lettuce, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce and wakame seaweed (a bold combination!), followed by Diana’s “Green Knowe mess”.

All this time the sun shone, almost too brightly: my inadequate camera was incapable of dealing with the contrast in some of the interior shots between the bright light and the natural gloom cast by almost-900-year-old, yard-thick stone walls.

I made it back to Bristol around midnight – after a pretty much perfect day for those of us in the children’s lit/fantasy/academic/history/pilgrimage/Japanophile community – which possibly consists of just me.

But we are (or am) a merry band.
Tags: books, nippon notes, real life
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