I felt a little apprehensive approaching The Manor at Hemingford Grey. Normally I’m a big fan of spotting film and book locations on my travels – it’s fun to stand quietly, looking at “the real thing” and trying to work out what their creator actually saw and what was pure imagination.
But this old house, located on a bend in the Great Ouse river, is the setting for one of the most magical books from my childhood. I’m concerned this visit will somehow tame and perhaps even destroy the wild sense of wonder The Children of Green Knowe inspired in me the day I first read it.
I needn’t have worried. The place is as mysterious, magical, timeless and hauntingly beautiful as I’d imagined. And that’s because of the legacy of the woman who lived there for more than fifty years, author Lucy M. Boston.
If you haven’t read the books, there’s plenty to amaze and amuse, but if you are a fan you will be enchanted.
The Real Green Knowe
It was too dark to see what kind of a house it was, only that it was high and narrow like a tower
My first glimpse, like Tolly’s, was of the three storey house after sunset (although fortunately not surrounded by flood water). It glowed palely through the dusk, bounded by smudged topiary bushes and blooming borders as bats flitted across the riverside path.
The garden is open daily but tours of the house are by appointment only. If you are lucky you will be welcomed by Diana Boston, the Manor’s current chatelaine and Lucy’s own daughter-in-law.
“People come here for many different reasons. Some out of simple curiosity to see a place that’s been lived in continuously for all of its nearly 900 year history.”
“Garden lovers are keen to see the collection of over 200 old roses and our award-winning irises. Artists come to admire the paintings and the original drawings for the books.”
The quilts of Lucy Boston
“And then there are the patchwork enthusiasts who want to view the extraordinarily detailed designs Lucy created – she spent her summers in the garden and her winters sewing and writing.”
It’s Diana’s personal touch that makes the visit such a joy – with a lifetime of knowledge to draw on she tailors her talks to the interests of the visitors and never seems at a loss.
Wherever there was a beam, or an odd corner or a doorpost there were children, carved in dark oak, leaning out
I’m amazed and delighted that so much of “the house at Green Knowe” still exists – lived in, cared for and loved.
The wooden angel figures in the hallway, complete with straggly twigs; the old fireplace in the dining room where Granny Oldknow sat, stitched and told her stories; Feste’s name-board from his stall (actually created by Lucy’s son Peter especially for the story).
And for me the real highlight – Diana very carefully shows us the original manuscript, in Lucy’s own handwriting, laying it gently on the table where the author sat and wrote through the long winter months.
The history of Hemingford Manor
The house itself has an extraordinary real-life story. Built in the 1100s it was a tall and narrow stone house, moated and fortified, accessible only by boat. Generations of families lived there, adding, amending and updating as fashion dictated.
In the 1700s a whole new frontage was built, completely swallowing up the original home which stayed safe behind the new walls. The famously beautiful, but poor, Gunning sisters, who took the Regency world by storm, lived here before their debut – for which they had to hire theatrical costumes being too strapped for cash to have ball gowns made for them!
Gutted by fire in 1798 (the inspiration for the second book, The Chimneys of Green Knowe) the old stone house was the only part to survive and traces of the blaze can still be seen in the smoke-blackened walls.
When Lucy bought the Manor in 1939 she was determined to preserve it and its history and she lived there, a strong, self-contained, creative and highly individual woman, until her death in 1990.
Diana knew her well but even so she’s still learning things about her mother-in-law, snippets and stories from locals and visitors alike.
“When Lucy first came here the villagers were a little suspicious. She had lived in Vienna, spoke fluent German and wore an old dirndl skirt to do the gardening. In wartime everyone was worried about spies and that, coupled with the fact that many locals referred to The Manor as “the poltergeist house” and wouldn’t walk past it after dark, gave rise to some strange rumours.”
“She kept forgetting to put out the attic light and the warden had to have stern words with her, amid fears she was signalling the enemy.”
Music at The Manor
But nothing could have been further from the truth. Lucy even offered her comfortable home to airmen from the nearby RAF base for rest and recuperation. She also held musical recital evenings on the spectacular gramophone installed in the first floor room. Stuffing the old stone embrasures with cushions, old car seats and improvised covers, she made them all welcome.
“She was also passionate about restoring the house as much as possible. She was thrilled when she found in the garden, all overgrown with ivy, the stones from the original Norman fireplace which the Tudors had chucked out when carrying out their renovations. Painstakingly over a period of two years she cleaned and rebuilt a fireplace in the original Norman style.”
Lucy showed the same attention to detail in her writing – drawing again and again on the imagined stories from the house where she lived. She was adamant that the books should also be beautifully illustrated. Diana explains how her husband, Lucy’s son Peter, was called on to share his skills as an architect and how the original illustrations – some in scraper-board, some reversals and others pen-and-ink drawings – were meticulously executed.
Diana particularly loves to show the place to children who have read the book. As they climb slowly through the house together she senses their mounting excitement and when, as we did, they reach the very top room, Tolly’s bedroom, Diana introduces them bit by bit to the key parts of the story.
The Children of Green Knowe
There is the window, left just a little ajar for the birds to come and nest in the rafters. Here’s the rocking horse that Tolly hears going creak-creak when there’s no one around.
Tolly’s mouse that he takes to bed with him is sitting on the chest of drawers. A little felt chaffinch is perched in a wicker cage and, most exciting of all, is the toy box that Tolly and Granny Oldknow get to open once the cheeky chaffinch finds the missing key.
Inside, as in the story, are Toby’s sword, Alexander’s flute, Linnet’s Russian doll and her favourite book, Aesop’s Fables.
The Green Knowe series of stories are classics from a time when writing for children was just beginning to be valued. As with all good tales they can be read by children on one level and by adults on another. It’s almost impossible to categorise them but they are, in a very subtle way, ghost stories.
Nobody’s claiming that The Manor itself is haunted, but it definitely has an atmosphere and anyone with an imagination can’t help but breathe it in.
“I show about three thousand people a year around the house, and in all the time I’ve been doing it there have been a handful who’ve reacted strongly, saying they can feel something, a presence. Some have been quite disturbed by it.”
And did the mouse squeak under your pillow, and did the china dogs bark?
Has Diana herself ever heard anything, as Tolly did?
“Well I have heard a flute playing a couple of times. Once I knew it was someone from a group of Japanese visitors, but the other time….?” Diana’s voice trails off as she pats the stone walls. “Who knows what we could hear if these stones could only talk?”
Nearly 900 years of family life and conversation.
The legacy of Lucy M. Boston is in safe hands.
More information about the Manor at Hemingford Grey
Read more on their website
Tours of the house can be arranged by prior appointment. Prices in 2017 are £8 for adults, children £3.
The gardens are open from 11am to 5pm each day (dusk in winter) Adults £4, children free.
Disclaimer: We were the personal guests of Diana but left a donation for the preservation of this beautiful and iconic family home.