Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Childhood and Exploring Nature

When I reread the Green Knowe books, what struck me most about them was how much time the children in the books - Tolly, Ping, Ida, Oskar, Susan,and Jacob spent exploring the outdoors. Tolly climbs the beech tree to pretend that he is a sailor boy on the mast of a ship:

He spends hours searching through shrubbery to find a lost tunnel, feeds birds, rescues carp, trims the chess men and pets the green deer:

In Treasure of Green Knowe, Tolly overlaps with Jacob and Susan, two eighteen-century children who also spend their days exploring the garden and the river.

Ping learns not only the secrets of the bamboo grove in the garden in A Stranger at Green Knowe, but also of the islands surrounding the house. In The River at Green Knowe, Ping, Ida, and Oskar spend their time exploring the River Ouse on a canoe. They wake up before dawn so that they can explore before the river is taken over by tourists, and map the islands surrounding the house. Much of their time is spent observing birds such as swans and owls, the terrain of the different islands, and the people who adapted their lives to live on them. In one episode, the three children take the canoe out after a storm and are rescued by River Patrol. Ida's aunt, when told that she will be presented with a bill for the rescue, comments only that it will be cheaper than three funerals. The writing in River is particuarly evocative since the children are not used to going outside at night, and are therefore sensitive to their physical environment.

The children themselves feel a sense of welcome and protection from the house. They know that they can go out and explore the unknown world around them, but always have the safety of the house at the end of the day. Tolly plays that the house is Noah's Ark in Children of Green Knowe, safe in the midst of the flood waters of the Ouse, which have caused the moat to overflow and turn the house into an island.

This freedom to explore is not something readily available to a twenty-first century child. Most parks are sanitized, with little shrubbery and playground equipment designed to produce the least physical damage. Children are rarely let out alone and unsupervised to play, even in yards; no child would be allowed to play alone for hours in the ramble at Central Park or the ravine at Prospect Park. While adults kayak on the Hudson, three children would not be allowed to do so without adult supervision; they would need an adult present even on the Staten Island ferry. While children in less urban areas might have some more freedom, they will still have little unstructured free time outside of school and extracurricular activities to just explore.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Visiting Lucy Boston's House, Part 2

Since we were early for our 2 PM house tour, we decided to explore the gardens. Lucy talks about designing and building the gardens in her memoir Memory in a House, which also contains some black and white photos of the gardens back when she published the book. However, I did not realize until her daughter-in-law Diana Boston gave us the tour how much of the gardens Lucy build from scratch. Apparently most of the yard was just meadow until she set to work.

What stunned me, Val, and Dave was how large the gardens were in size. We split up in the gardens, and they saw only the more cultivated side:


until I took them to see the the other side of the house, which has a  moat that surrounds three sides of it, a flowering meadow, and a bamboo thicket:

The bamboo thicket is where the gorilla Hanno lives in A Stranger at Green Knowe. The moat is a a constant presence in the books because when it floods, the house is cut off on an island, the way it was originally designed to be by its Norman builder, Payne Osmundson. The story of the builders of the house is told in The Stones of Green Knowe, which is the last of the series. The River Ouse features in The River at Green Knowe, and can be seen from the yard and the windows of the house.

One of my friends commented that the house and garden must be smaller than I expected since I had read the books first as a child and was now an adult. This is not quite true. Although the house was small - the walls are three feet thick so the exterior is larger than the interior, the gardens were bigger than expected. Boston gardened in the warm weather and wrote and created patchwork in the cold weather. It is amazing to see the variety of garden sections that she created. In my next post, I will discuss the gardens in terms of the books and of my experiences as a child both as her reader and as someone who grew up in a decent-sized yard and in fine public parks.

Visiting Lucy Boston's House

Two weeks ago, some friends and I toured Lucy Boston's house and garden. My friend Val had read Boston's books; her husband Dave hadn't heard of Boston but wanted to see the old house. We took a train from London to the nearby town of Huntington (pop 10,000), then a short taxi ride to Hemingford Grey (pop.230), a quaint small village on the River Ouse.

Here are photos of the town's main or high street:

Since we got to the village early, we walked on one of the two public tow paths along the river:


until we came to the church, the interior of which was being completely restored so we could not go inside:

The church runs the only coffee & tea room in the town, which is housed in an unused church that is currently also the post office. The old post office is a private house. The coffee shop is staffed by volunteers and serves home-baked cakes, pots of tea, and excellent espresso drinks. The quality of British coffee is much better than American because it is impossible to find drip (or filter) coffee outside of the Huntington train station cafe, so coffee options are espresso-based and therefore very fresh.

After we explored the town, we visited the gardens at Lucy's house.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Memory in a House - part 1

Lucy Boston had led an adventurous life for a woman of her time. She had dropped out of Oxford University to become a nurse during WWI and worked in a hospital in Normandy. She had married her cousin, had her son Peter, divorced her husband, and moved to Germany and Italy to paint. When Peter started Cambridge, Lucy also moved to Cambridge and began obsessively painting King's College Chapel. Then in 1939, she bought The Manor, Hemingford Grey.

In Memory in a House, Lucy describes the two years that it took to restore The Manor as "which were by far the happiest of my life, even in spite of the war that broke out as soon as the builders began." (p. 19) In fact, she views her realtionship with the house as a love affair. She was aware that the house, which was built as a Norman manor in 1120 by Payne Osmundsen, was very historic, and she eventually documented everything she found and all the changes she made.

The forced restoration was brought about by the fact that the house was structually unsound due to cheap and unskillful renovations over the years. Faced with unsupported structural beams, walls cracking from top to bottom, and drastically sloping floors, Lucy was had no choice but to fix these problems. She was lucky enough to get honest and competent builders and architects to help her with the delicate job of historical renovation.

It becomes clear while reading the book that restoring the house was as much a creative endeavor for Lucy as painting a picture, or writing fiction. She was extremely sensitive to atmosphere, and accepted the physical imperfections of the house as part of the character that it had developed as it aged. She was also willing to change her mind about the alterations and restoration as she went along; the dining room, which she had thought was hopeless and would be used just as a corridor, became the center of her life, connecting the interior of the house with its equally important exterior garden.

Introduction to The Children of Green Knowe

My first exposure to Lucy Maria Boston's Green Knowe series came when my older brother took a an introduction to children's literature class during his first year in college. He was required to read The Children of Green Knowe. I found the copy that he had checked out of our village library, loved it, and worked my way through the other books in the series:

  • The Children of Green Knowe (1954)
  • The Chimneys of Green Knowe (1958) (published in the US as The Treasure of Green Knowe)
  • The River at Green Knowe (1959)
  • A Stranger at Green Knowe (1961)
  • An Enemy at Green Knowe (1964)
  • The Stones of Green Knowe (1976)

  • The last book was released after I read the series, and I remember how excited I was to find that the author was still alive and writing.

    What struck me the most about the books was the strong sense of place that Boston was able to create. The house and the grounds were as alive as the people in the books, and the past of the house was as alive as the character's present.

    Years later, I moved to Seattle and was able to take advantage of the wonderful collection of its original main library, which has subsequently been demolished. The library had copies of Boston's two memoirs Perverse and Foolish, and more importantly to me, Memory in a House. This second memoir is Boston's account of how as a 45-year-old divorced single mother whose son was at Cambridge, she heard about a house for sale by a river, bought it, renovated it, and began to write books influenced by the history and atmosphere of the house. The house itself is the Manor at Hemingford Grey, which is still open to visitors.

    For those who have not read the books, these links will provide more information: - Lucy's daughter-in-law still owns the house and gives tours of the house and gardens.

    The Children of Green Knowe miniseries - this was a BBC production in 1980's which was never released on DVD. You can watch it on Youtube at :

    Chimneys of Green Knowe was filmed at the Manor of Hemingford Grey. Directed by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) it was released in 2009 as From Time to Time.

    Exterior shots of the gardens from a  visitor who did not see the house: