Spent a delightful morning in the Northamptonshire village of Evenley near Buckingham in the steaming sunshine. It has one of those simple, but enormous village greens, with pub and post office, that seem too good to be true. I was there taking a look at the Old Manor House, a handsome smaller manor house, probably of the mid 17th century, but in that unchanging masonry tradition that lasts from the late 16th century to the late 17th. It sits tucked away in a corner off the village green at the beginning of Church lane. It is thought to have been the home of the Lisle family and in the pretty victorian church I was pleased to find the monument of the last of the Lisles whose first name was Fermor, which may suggest a connection to the Fermors of Easton Neston. The house has a nice simple plan and handsomely detailed windows with that dignity that only comes from a hand-crafted building. I feel I have tasted a rare slice of the best of old England; a treat after being trapped by the traffic for Silverstone.
On my trip to Barbados for chapters in an Oliver Messel book I wrote a letter to my family, which summed up my trip excellently.
”Never in all my travels for writing can I say so heartily that I wish you were here with me now. As well as being terrifically interesting as background research to the chapters in the Oliver Messel book, the house which i am staying in Fustic House, is one of the most delightful houses I have ever stayed in; the main house is like a french farmhouse in Provence, and the wing which Oliver Messel designed includes a beautiful loggia with views through a deeply, green jungle-like garden towards the sea.
I am staying in a separate guest house, surrounded by old mahogany trees, banana trees and a flowering tree calles something like abundance – red and yellow flowers are always dropping on the terrace where we eat supper surrounded by candles. I arrived exhausted, but find it hard to sleep, and lie awake listening to the chirruping of the tree frogs and cicadas, or in the early morning light watching the hundreds of birds flitting about, and the little green lizards, almost luminous crawling on the walls.
While I was doing some writing a few minutes ago a monkey sat watching me from the tree. There has beensome heavy rain while I have been here, but not much and the following morning seemed fresher for it. You may have been a bit bored visiting the elegant houses of rich people, which I have to do for my research for this book, but they are rather special ones, cleverly designed as kind of dream houses, where people could escape the winters of Europe or North America, relatively few are lived in all year round.
I have also had long chats with men and women in the 80s who remember Oliver Messel (one elderly American I was interviewing was very frail and passed out while I was with him and I had to carry him to a chair, but he cheered up over pudding, poached bananas with raisins and ginger).
My hosts are a lot of fun and very kind. There is also a chef, and a butler, and some maids. Mr Gordon insisted on taking me out in a boat this morning before it got too hot, so i could see the views of these houses from the sea; the sea is very blue, and the coast is made up of little cover, sandy beaches with palm trees behind (so it’s not like any research I have ever done before) although there are hundreds of houses here now, many built for the world’s richest people). I did do a short swim with a mask off the boat to see silvery, striped fish, and all the curious shapes of the coral.”
As part of my oddysey looking at English ruins, during half-term I went on a visit up to Northumberland, with my research assistants, namely the two Misses Mussons. We stayed at Chillingham Castle – which was one of the houses i featured in The Curious House Guest with Sir Humphry Wakefield, who gave us a wonderful tour of the local district, pointing out Bamburgh Castle, the dramatic coastline, and the gardens at Howick. He hosted a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the great hall at Chillingham, played in traditional garb with great gusto. Without Sir Humphry, Chillingham could have easily become a ruin itself, but instead it’s a wonderfully romantic family home where visitors can experience the full theatre of english castle architecture. The ruin we had come to see was Dunstanburgh which is the most fairytale of the Northumberland ruins right by the sea, designed originally to evoke the legends of King Arthur. We walked up from the village of Craster in the steaming sunshine, and explored the ruins with excitement before scoffing ice-creams. To me, this is one of the ruins which every english schoolchild should see, and I was pleased to have made it here with my daughters (after much confusion with parking). With Sir Humphry we found out many interesting facts like white horses are called grey horses because the Lady Wakefield’s ancestors, the Grey family, went out at night on white horses instead of riding black or brown horses to be disguised, therefore, they then were called ‘Grey’ horses, such things entice the young. The girls felt that in the sunshine, Chillingham gardens made them think of the scene in the Sound of Music clip of Do-Re-Mi, and they spent a happy afternoon making a little film of the famous song – just brilliant.