There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Champasak, Wat Phou and then back to Thailand; Part 11 of Thailand and Laos

This a new post though it describes the events of the 17th and 18th of November last year.
It will be moved to the 'right place' in a few days' time.
Our Champasak hotel, with the same name and management as the hotel in Thakhek, consisted of a bar/restaurant on the main street with accommodation in a single storey block in the courtyard behind. Our comfortable room had one feature that was new to us. The shower, accessed through a door at the end of the bathroom was surrounded by a high concrete wall to discourage exhibitionists, but had only the blue sky above. Open air showering is a delightful experience.
Inthira Hotel, Champasak
 In the morning Lynne opened the shutters on the bedroom window and a gecko dropped onto the top of her head. I am not sure who was most surprised, but neither party came to any harm.

Ging had suggested we leave at eight so we had breakfast at seven, choosing the same pavement table where we had eaten dinner. Even this early sitting in direct sunshine proved uncomfortably hot and we soon moved inside. While eating we watched the children of the town walking or cycling past on their way to school.
On the 17th we visited Wat Phoe, just outside Champasak, on 18th we drove to Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand
along the southern red 'worm'
Ging and the driver arrived on time from Pakse and we set off for Wat Phou.

Wat Phou (7km from the Mekong and about the same distance from Champasak) is a UNESCO world heritage site. It was originally a Hindu temple built in the 5th century at the base of Lingaparvata Mountain, a hill with a natural lingam on the summit and thus, obviously, the home of Lord Shiva. The excitement of 5th century man when he discovered a hill with a willy on top can only be imagined, but sadly the organ was lurking in the haze, so I have no photograph.

The area later came under the control of the Khmer Empire based in Angkor and the surviving buildings are mostly 11th century Khmer. When the Khmer Empire converted to Theravada Buddhism so did the temple, which remains an active shrine.

We reached the site after a short journey through farmland dotted with hamlets and temples. Apart from the hills and an artificial lake (the last survivor of several) there is little to see from the entrance where the museum concentrates on artefacts showing the transition from Hinduism to Buddhism.

Leaving the air-conditioned museum, a buggy took us round the lake to the start of the ‘Royal Road’ an avenue leading to the temple and the cliff beyond, once the holiest part of the complex.
The Royal Road up to Wat Phou
 Along the avenue and up the first set of steps are the North and South Palaces lying on either side of the path. Built of laterite in traditional Khmer style, both are currently closed for stabilisation work.
The North Palace, Wat Phou
 The avenue continues....
Lynne and Ging continue up the next section of the avenue
 .... up to the next level to a modern Buddhist shrine and the remains of a small Nandi temple. A stall here sold candles, flowers and other offerings and we bought a good luck charm, destined to become a Buddhist Christmas tree ornament.
Remains of the Nandi Temple and a small Buddhist shrine, Wat Phou

Khmer temples were traditionally built on an east-west axis, which was easy enough in the plains of Cambodia, but the lie of the land here means Wat Phou is 8° off, which may be religiously imperfect, but at least meant photographs did not have to be taken straight into the morning sun.
Looking back down the Royal Road to the reservoir from the first level
The path beyond was in poor condition and the steps worse and required care. The approach was  fully exposed to the sun and it was already immensely hot. Ging's suggestion that we set off so early for what was our only visit of the day was well justified.
The next section of the path was in poor condition, Wat Phou
At the top is the main Buddhist sanctuary. The doorway and carvings on the lintel are ancient….

Sanctuary, Wat Phou
 ….while the Buddha image inside is modern. The sanctuary is still in use.
Modern Buddha image, Sanctuary, Wat Phou
From here we climbed to the base of the cliff, the oldest part of the temple where water from a spring is channelled to fall over a Shiva lingam.

Lynne cools off in the spring water channelled over a Shiva lingam, Wat Phou
There are several carvings along and around the base of the cliff, including a Buddha footprint, which appears to be modern, …..
Buddha footprint, Wat Phou

…an elephant of great antiquity….

Ancient elephant carving Wat Phou
…. and a mysterious carving, reputedly of a crocodile (though I struggle with this), which is definitely pre-Angkorian and may have been the site of human sacrifices. All sources say this – and all include the crucial ‘may’.
Crocodile carving, Wat Phou

From here the view over the temple complex, the reservoir and the plain, with the silver strip of the Mekong in the distance was spectacular….
Looking over the Wat Phou complex with the Mekong in the distance
 …as was the view of the well shaded route back down. Ging had gone ahead and we found him in the shade of a shrine with some under-ripe mangoes and a pot of chilli sauce. He invited us to join him. On its own the mango was not particularly pleasant, but loaded down with the sauce, the spiciness and acidity worked together wonderfully. He kept advising us to use less chilli sauce, not because there was any shortage, but because it is well known that all Westerners fear chillies. He soon learned otherwise, which took us up a notch in his estimation. [We were reacquainted with the combination in Munnar in Southern India in March 2016. We also discovered that chilli does nothing for fully ripe pineapple]
The shaded route down, Wat Phou
 Back in Champasak we said a final goodbye to Ging, who returned to Pakse. It was coffee time but cold drinks felt more appropriate and as we drank our elevenses we watched the children of the town walking or cycling past on their way home from school.

Afterwards we took a stroll through the heat to look at a couple of local temples and visit a small general store. My new shoes, bought at Thakhek after the Kong Lor incident, were rubbing and I needed plasters. They were sold by the individual plaster and as I needed two to encircle a toe, I bought eight which the shopkeeper thought an immense extravagance.

Temple, Champasak
 We had the hotel restaurant to ourselves for lunch; beef pad thai (me) and bruschetta with tomato, basil and onion for Lynne. We were impressed, any Lao cook should produce a good pad thai, but I have seen far less convincing attempts at Italian food considerably closer to Italy. While we ate we watched the children of the town walking or cycling past on their way back to school

We relaxed for a while in the shade by the river, thankful for the good fortune that had brought us to such a beautiful place. Then we went for an amble around town.

Relaxing beside the Mekong
The Kingdom of Champasak established its independence from Vientiane in 1713 and ruled southern Laos and chunks of what is now Thailand and Cambodia with varying degrees of autonomy until 1946 when the French merged the Kingdoms of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak to create the Kingdom of Laos.

Its former capital is now, according to Wikipedia, ‘very small, consisting mostly of guesthouses along the riverbank.’ There is a little (very little) more to it than this, along the main road 100m back from the river.

We walked that way past the hospital, a grubby, broken down looking place that we would rather avoid, even in an emergency.

Near the junction with the main road was a duck farm, the residents becoming very excited when they saw us.

Duck Farm, Champasak
 The school was on the main road, a two storey building from which more childish noise was issuing than I thought appropriate for lesson time. The upper storey windows were barred, which prevents kids from falling out, but we hoped there was a contingency plan in the event of fire.

There was little else on the main road and it was unshaded and unbelievably hot so we returned to the road by the river. It does indeed have many guesthouses though none seemed to open to non-residents so we would dine at our hotel again tonight, which was fine, but a change might have been good.

Apart from the guesthouses there are a number of French colonial mansions, one of them built for the ex-king of Champasak. I cannot be sure it was the one in the picture below, a nice house spoiled by the ridiculously overlarge portico, though the garden was spectacular.

Colonial Mansion, Champasak
We arrived back at beer o’clock (though Lynne had a coffee). As we drank we watched the children of the town walking or cycling past on their way home from school. If they had noticed us, and there was no reason why they should, they might have thought we had sat there all day.
Later Lynne ate pad thai chicken and I had pork and ginger, though for once no school children passed by.


We wiled away the next morning in similar fashion, sitting by the river and writing diaries or blogs. The Mekong flowed steadily, we saw a couple of people fishing and a ferry working its way slowly across, but largely all was quiet. An upright reed floated past and we speculated as to whether there was a spy below it breathing through the stem – it used to happen regularly in stories in our childhood.
We lunched on pork laab with parsley and mint, long beans and lettuce and as it was our last meal in Laos followed it with caramelised pineapple with coconut cream – just my sort of thing.

Another one of Champasak's French colonial mansions
In the afternoon a new guide and driver turned up to take us to Thailand. We were sorry to be leaving Laos, we know few places so relaxed and friendly.

We drove north along the Mekong as far as Pakse, then turned west towards the Chong Mek border crossing. Leaving the van we crossed on foot while the driver endured his own formalities. We spent the last of our kip on a big bag of Bolaven Coffee to take home and some taro crisps to eat on the train.

The border crossing was quiet and took only minutes. Soon we were back on the road, though now driving on the left, heading for Ubon Ratchathani.

When you have a first class ticket on Thai railways they certainly look after you. As soon as we reached Ubon Ratchathani railway station we were escorted to the first class waiting room and plied with tea, coffee and cake. At the appointed time they led the twenty of us, largely Thais as few tourists find their way here, to the train and showed us to our compartments. Diminutive Thai girls struggled to manhandle our cases, but offers of help were not welcome, first class passengers should not lift their own luggage, even if physically better equipped to do so.

Unusually it was a two berth compartment. This gave privacy, but at half the size of a four berth it felt cramped, and the lower bunk was too low to sit comfortably. We left on time, as darkness fell, so there was nothing to look at. A cheerful women brought a multilingual menu and late returned for an order. The cabbage and tofu soup, duck curry with plums and chicken with cashews were very good. We drank orange juice - Thai railways are sternly dry.
First class sleeping compartment, Thai Railways
We read for a while then a flunky arrived and made up our beds - you usually have to do that for yourself. Our arrival in Ayutthaya was scheduled for 4.30 so we retired to bed.


Monday, 25 July 2016

Galway: Part 1 of the West of Ireland

For us, the West of Ireland started at Shannon, the airport that time forgot. Trans-Atlantic air services started in the 1930s with flying boats taking off and landing in the Shannon estuary. In 1936, realising that flying boats would soon be obsolete but that this was still the nearest piece of Europe to North America, the Irish government started building an airport on a patch of boggy ground near the river. By 1945 they were ready for the start of the aviation boom and in 1947 introduced the concept of ‘duty free’ shopping. Eventually improving aircraft rendered Shannon’s location irrelevant, though half of all flights between Dublin and the US included a Shannon stop-over until the Open Skies agreement of 2007. Passenger numbers then plummeted but the airport fought back, upgrading the terminal and attracting seasonal services to European holiday destinations. In 2009 Shannon secured some transatlantic trade by becoming the first European airport to offer pre-clearance of America's notoriously long winded immigration and customs procedure. I shall gloss over Shannon’s controversial use as a stop-over for American troop planes and for ‘special rendition’ flights.

We picked up our hire car and headed for the M18 north towards Galway. The motorway ends after less than 40km near Gort and we decided to drive into the small town for coffee.

Part 1, Shannon, Gort and Galway

The approach to Gort felt surprisingly familiar. From many angles Ireland looks not unlike Great Britain; the cars drive on the left, the signage uses the same colours and the countryside is broadly similar. The approach to Gort was like driving into Porthcawl - a comparison that came to us independently and simultaneously - or any other small seaside town in South Wales with buildings of rendered and white-washed stone

Parking in the wide main street, we crossed the road to O'Connor's Coffee Shop and Bakery.

In 2014, on our first ever visit to Ireland we noticed that after centuries of Irish emigration, Ireland was now welcoming incoming migrants. We had not expected this also to be true of  a small town in the far west, but as of 2011, 400 of Gort’s two and a half thousand residents are Brazilians working in meat packing, doing the same jobs as at home but for much higher wages. And sure enough, the first language we heard in the street was Portuguese.

The coffee shop was packed with locals and tourists. The coffee was fine and the bakery would have repaid investigation, but sharing a rock bun, served with butter and jam was all we could manage.

Johnny Walsh's, Market Square, Gort
There is little else to see in Gort except the small triangular town square (and how many are actually square?). It had one of those impossibly bright Irish pubs that are imitated throughout the world, and in the middle of the square is a well restored late 18th century market weigh house.

The Market Weigh House, Gort
We continued up the N18 to Galway and after a little doubt about where we actually were found our B&B and they kindly checked us in early.

Selecting an appropriate Irish pub in a city full of them, (not to mention pubs that look like cafés and jewellers that looked like pubs) provoked unnecessary dithering, but eventually we settled on the appropriate place for a bowl of soup (me) and my first encounter with the excellent Irish soda bread and a ham sandwich (Lynne). Murphy's stout made a change from Guinness but to my palate it was not as pleasant with a marked bitterness reminiscent of the Guinness sold in England.

Central Galway from the JF Kennedy Garden in Eyre Square and south through the pedestrianised districts is awash with foreigners of all hues. We heard more European languages than we can recognise and English spoken in the accents of three continents, only Antarctica seemed unrepresented. The vast majority were, like us, tourists, but there were also those who had drifted as far west as they could without wetting their feet and were now holding up signs or inhabiting sandwich boards advertising tattoo parlour, pizzerias or hair stylists.
JF Kennedy Garden, Galway

There were buskers too, everything from a five piece band with guitars, bass and drums to an old man sitting on a doorstep playing the spoons, all placed just so far apart that as one faded to quietness the next swelled to fill the space.

Pedestrianised street, Galway
Some wrapped up warm for an Irish summer, others looked at the calendar, found it was July and wore shorts
 Apart from the tourists there is not much to see in Galway, visitors come to enjoy the relaxed charm of a friendly city where every summer day is spent building up to yet another party night.

A rusting sculpture of dubious charm, Eyre Square, Galway
 Beyond the flowers of the Kennedy gardens are a rusting sculpture of dubious charm, the re-erected 16th century facade of the 'Browne House' which looks a little out of place, and the flags of the fourteen 'tribes of Galway'; the families who ran the city for several centuries.
The flags of the Tribes of Galway
With the façade of the Browne House (side on) behind

Strolling south into pedestrian streets we soon encountered Lynch's Castle, Galway’s only remaining medieval secular building. Dating from the late fifteenth century (though much changed over the years) it belonged to the Lynch’s one of the most important of the 14 tribes. It now houses a branch of the Allied Irish bank.

Lynch's 'Castle', Galway
Lynch's window, just south of the pedestrian area, is another piece of Lynch memorabilia. Built in the 19th century, it is a confection of 15th and 17th architectural styles, but the window (top left) is reputed to come from an earlier Lynch house and to be the very window in the story below.
Lynch's Window, Glaway
James Lynch, a 15th century Mayor of Galway sent his son to Spain, captaining one of his own ships, to purchase wine. By the time the purchase was made the money designated for the wine had been spent and young Lynch had to use his father’s name to gain credit. The Spanish merchant sent his nephew back to Ireland with young Lynch to collect the debt, but afraid to face his father, Lynch persuaded the crew to join him in throwing the Spaniard overboard. Later a death bed confession by one of the sailors led to young Lynch’s arrest and as Lynch senior was the mayor and magistrate he had to try his own son. He found the young man guilty and sentenced him to death.

On the day of the execution crowds made it impossible for the prisoner and escort to reach the gallows, so the mayor took his son home, tied a rope round his neck and launched him from the window so justice could be done and seen to be done. Some Galwegians claim this is the origin of the term ‘lynching’, but although it was a killing with bizarre elements, it was not the sort of killing the word has come to be associated with.

Behind Lynch's window is St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church dating from 1320 and a rather ugly building from the outside, though it is better inside. The biggest church in this overwhelmingly catholic city, it was once the catholic cathedral but since Henry VIII’s reformation it has belonged to what is now the Church of Ireland, a member of the Anglican Communion. The memorial to the men of Galway who died in the First World War lists an unusually large proportion of officers, which may be something to do with it being the church of the protestant ascendancy.

Inside St Nicholas' Church, Galway
Opposite is Sheridan's Cheese shop. That Galway is a foodie city might not always be obvious, but Sheridan's is one of its leading lights. The display of cheese, including a magnificent array of Irish artisan cheeses, is fascinating and fragrant. They also do an extensive variety of charcuterie, much of it locally produced.

Leaving the pedestrian area we walked south, crossing the Corrib River which flows swiftly through the town, the torrent augmented by canals feeding it from either side. The Galway Museum is near here but it was late in the afternoon, we had left home at 5.30 and were beginning to flag, so we did not bother to look for it.

The River Corrib, Galway
We did not find the 'Spanish Arch' either, but odd remnants of the city's medieval walls were easy to spot.
Section of the city wall, Galway

We walked back via the Latin Quarter, an area of yet more cafés and restaurants. Back in William Street, Lynne took a breather sitting between Oscar Wilde and his contemporary and near namesake, the Estonian writer Eduard Vilde.
Lynne with Oscar Wilde and Eduard Vilde, Galway
In the evening we made a short walk to Murty Rabbitt's. English pub names have, or pretend to have, a historical context while the Irish prefer eponyms, but do the names - Johnny Walsh’s, Foxy John's, Nancy Myles’ - relate to the present owner, a historical owner or are they marketing fictions? Probably there are examples of all three, but Murty Rabbitt's has an explanatory note on the final page of the menu (basic pub food, well presented and reasonably priced).
Murty Rabbitt's Galway
Cormac O' Coinin returned home after making his fortune in the California gold rush. He first bought a flour mill, and when that burned down purchased a pub and grocers [we saw this combination several times during our sojourn] in 1872. On Cormac's death the pub passed to his son Peter who anglicised the family name to Rabbitt* (Coinin is Irish for rabbit) and then to his son and in 1955 to his grandson Murtagh. According to the menu the pub is now run by Murty’s son, and Cormac’s great-great-grandson, John. Another source says it was sold by the family in 2007.
Folk duo, Murty Rabbitt's, Galway

We had an entertaining evening, the food was all we required, the drink was good and the extended family in the booth behind, who had been in residence long enough for inhibitions to be lowered, entertained us with open warfare. Later a duo sang, not for once traditional Irish music, but what, in the 70s, we used to call 'contemporary folk'. A good evening was had by all.

*The deed was probably done before 1902 when Beatrix Potter published The Tail of Peter Rabbit

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Hemingford Grey and Green Knowe

Sunglasses were essential for the two hour drive to Hemingford Grey. The trip had not been planned knowing this would be the warmest day of the year (so far) but we were happy enough that it was. Recent political upheavals suggest England is not at ease with itself, but beneath a smiling sun and a clear blue sky it looked a green and comfortable country.

The M6 and A14 ran freely and we were a couple of miles beyond Huntingdon and almost there before encountering traffic problems. Our planned route (we learned later) would have shown us a straggling village much of it modern and ordinary, but after leaving the A14 a little early we approached via Hemingford Abbot and a couple of wrong turns and fell, as if by magic, into the old village centre.  It is one of those places cherished in our national imagination as a 'typical English village', though few of us live in such Gardens of Eden now - or indeed ever did. To paraphrase John Major paraphrasing George Orwell, this is the England of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer and old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist.

Thatched house, Hemingford Grey
Apart from the thatched houses, large and small, there were renovated workers cottages….

Former workers' cottages, Hemingford Grey
… and houses where roses climbed the wall.

Roses up the wall, Hemingford Grey
Hemingford Grey is in Huntingdonshire, once a county in its own right but now merely a district of Cambridgeshire and the village pub is Cambridgeshire Dining Pub of the Year. Orwell’s ‘warm beer’ notwithstanding I am sure the beer is as well kept as in the Martin's Arms in Colston Bassett, the Nottinghamshire Dining Pub of the year we visited by happy accident last month. We did however, eschew The Cock today and met our daughter Siân at the Hemingford Garden Room, a Community Interest Company café, in the nearby parish rooms where we lunched in the garden beneath the shade of an umbrella.
The Cock, Hemingford Grey
Well-fed we strolled up the High Street which ends at the River Great Ouse. Across the river is St James’ church where the spire fell down during a hurricane in 1714. Despite the attempt to turn the stump into an architectural feature, it still looks like a stump.

St James', Hemingford Grey
We strolled down the riverside path until we reached a gate in the hedge.

Hemingford Grey is undoubtedly a pretty village, but not so uniquely pretty we would have driven over two hundred miles between us merely to see it; we were actually on a pilgrimage. Siân says she hardly remembers the BBC adaptation of the Children of Green Knowe - four thirty-minute episodes broadcast in 1986 when she was five - but that led to the purchase of the book, and then to the other five in the series, written by Lucy M Boston between 1954 and 1976. They were read and re-read many times in the following years.

The gate in the hedge took us into The Manor, the home of Lucy Boston from 1939 to her death in 1990, and the inspiration for Green Knowe.
Into the gardens, The Manor Hemingford Grey
The books feature a rather solitary twelve-year-old with the unlikely name of Toseland (actually the name of a village a few miles south of Hemingford Grey). While his parents are in Burma he spends his school holidays at Green Knowe with his wise and kindly great-grandmother Oldknow. During these visits Toseland (Tolly) meets the other children of the family who have inhabited Green Knowe over the centuries. They are, of course, ghosts, but not frightening spooks, merely young human beings displaced in time.

The writing, gently paced and literary, immerses the reader in this fantasy world and is demanding for young readers, certainly too demanding for a five or six-year-old, as Siân was. Lynne read the books to her and they both came to love the stories.

Siân had recently discovered that the house is open to the public by appointment. She phoned for an appointment and was very excited when her call was answered personally by Diana Boston, Lucy Boston's daughter-in-law. 

The beautifully tended garden also features in the stories. It contains the malevolent Green Noah, actually a decaying felled tree trunk,…. 

Green Noah, Hemingford Grey Manor

 … a stand of bamboo in which a gorilla is found in one story, and a walking St Christopher, though the statue is new, donated after the 2009 filming of From Time to Time  an adaptation of The Chimneys of Green Knowe. Despite having Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville and Timothy Spall in the cast the film was not a success.
St Christopher, The Manor, Hemingford Grey

We wandered round the garden. Among the highlights were the largest thistle I have ever seen (No, that is a cardoon, Siân corrected me)….
Cardoon, The Manor, Hemingford Grey
 … and a fancy frilly red tree/shrub which I was pleased to find she could not identify.
Unidentified tree/shrub, The Manor, Hemingford Grey
We sat on a shaded bench with some of the other visitors. The afternoon temperature exceeded 33° - for American (and Daily Telegraph) readers, that is 92°F - which may not impress the people of Baghdad where a recent heatwave has seen temperatures over 50, but to a resident of north Staffordshire...

Diana Boston came out to say 'hello' but regretted that after recent medical treatment she could not conduct the tour herself. She left us in the capable hands of a friend and neighbour whose name I have shamefully forgotten.

The Manor is a Norman tower house built in the 1130s and one of the oldest continually inhabited houses in England. The extension on the left, described by the guide as a 'Tudor lean-to' softened its character though the Georgian makeover, which involved doubling the size of the frontage and making it rectangular, inserting new windows and changing the facing from brick to stone was probably a misjudgement. Perhaps fortunately, it soon burned down leaving the sturdy medieval stone building intact. The Manor is now its original shape, plus lean-to, though the Georgian windows and brick facing remain.

Originally the house was moated, the line of the moat can still be seen in the lawn, indeed I was standing in it while taking this picture.
The Manor, Hemingford Grey
Our party of ten filed into the house. One of the books’ medieval characters leaves a window open so birds can fly in and nest on a wooden carving, and there in the narrow lobby, was the very ornament surmounted by a birds nest.

Wooden ornament with birds' nest, The Manor, Hemingford Grey

 We sat in the medieval undercroft. The Manor, very much a family rather than a ‘stately’ home, is smaller than we had imagined Green Knowe to be, consisting of an undercroft and overcroft, both divided by Tudor partitions, and an attic above - a house did not need many storeys to be a ' tower' in Norman times.

Lucy Boston bought the house in 1939. She arrived fresh from her continental travels wearing Austrian dirndl and speaking fluent German and was understandably treated with some suspicion. The guide traced her thirty year journey from distrusted newcomer to village treasure; in her later years as she was losing her sight, village girls would stop on their way home from school to thread needles for her patchwork.

In summer the garden occupied her time, in winter she worked on patchwork seated by the fire in the chair Lynne occupies in the picture, or on her writing.

Lynne in Lucy Boston's fireside chair, The Manor, Hemingford Grey
As we had walked through the village Sian had mentioned a 'hair picture'. In one of the books a mystery cannot be solved until a picture is made using hair from all the participants. Hanging above the fireplace is the hair picture that inspired that idea, made by a French prisoner during the Napoleonic wars. In the early nineteenth century prisoners of war had to fund their own repatriation when hostilities ended and selling such crafts was one way of doing it.

The hair picture, The Manor, Hemingford Grey
Upstairs in the Tudor annex we were treated to a display of Lucy Boston's patchwork. Whilst admiring the work, this rather went over my head.

Lucy Boston's patchwork, The Manor, Hemingford Grey
I did, though, admire the Norman window into the main bedroom that would once have been on an external wall. 

Norman window between the old house and the Tudor extension.
The bedroom in the overcroft was Lucy Boston's bedroom, but more excitingly, it was also recognisably great-grandma Oldknow's. With Georgian windows at one end, Norman windows on either side and a Tudor partition at the end, the room exemplified 500 years of architectural styles.
Norman window, Tudor partition, The Manor, Hemingford Grey
During World War Two Lucy Boston invited personnel from the nearby RAF bases to use her house for recreation and, in an age when recorded music was not the commonplace it has become, treated them to gramophone concerts. I am old enough to remember wind-up gramophones, but have never seen one as magnificent as this. It still works and the sound reproduction is surprisingly good. In 2012, while sitting in a garden in the northern highlands of Vietnam, Lynne noted the surprising variety of useful things she could see made from bamboo. Now she could add gramophone needles to her list.

Listening to Lucy Boston's magnificent gramophone

On the wall was a painting (possibly by Zoffany) of Elizabeth Gunning. Born here in 1733, the second of two sisters born in that year, her father was an impoverished Irish gentleman and her mother a daughter of an Irish aristocrat. The two girls were thrown into London society to make their way without titles or money, relying only on their good looks. At a Valentine’s Day party in 1752 the Duke of Hamilton expressed a desire to marry Elizabeth, then just 18, and the wedding took place that evening. The ensuing scandal provoked a closing of loopholes in the law concerning marriage licences and the calling of banns. The Duke died in 1758, but she became Duchess of Argyll by a second marriage and in 1776 King George III made her a baroness in her own right. My goodness, what a career – though perhaps ‘goodness’, as Mae West observed, had nothing to do with it. Her older sister, Maria, became Duchess of Coventry and a celebrated society hostess. She died of blood poisoning at the age of 27 from the overuse of lead based cosmetics.


Miss Gunning, possibly by John Zoffany

Peter Boston, who died 1999, was Lucy’s son and Diana’s husband. He was at university when his mother bought The Manor and an adult when she wrote the books but is nonetheless the inspiration for Tolly. A successful architect, he illustrated all his mother’s books.
We reached ‘Tolly's bedroom’ by a wooden spiral staircase. The toy box, rocking horse and bird cage - all important elements in the stories - looked exactly as they do in the illustrations. This caused great excitement,….
'Tolly's Room' in Green Knowe, The Manor, Hemingford Grey
 ....but for Siân the ultimate thrill was being able to hold the little carved wooden mouse that is so important to Tolly.
Siân becomes overly excited by a carved mouse, The Manor, Hemingford Grey
....and I did not mean to capture Lynne and myself in the mirror, but as I did...
The guide asked Siân at what age she had come to know the books. 'Six,' she answered with confidence. I was a little surprised, but not as much as the guide. 'They are very demanding books for a six-year-old,' she said.
Descending the stairs we paused while Lynne held our copy of The Children of Green Knowe beside Peter Boston’s original artwork. The book, like all we took to Sudan, is now a loose-leafed folder as the desert sun dried out the glue. That was in 1987, proving Siân right about enjoying the books as a six-year-old.
Lynne, the Children of Green Knowe and the original cover artwork
We paused in the shop to buy a carved mouse and a DVD of the BBC adaptation.

It can be a mistake to revisit childhood joys, they may not stand up to adult scrutiny, but for Siân (and indeed, Lynne) The Manor was Green Knowe, with all the magic intact. It did not have the same impact for me, the story of a lonely and rather strange twelve-year-old and his great-grandmother held less appeal, but I appreciate the quality of the story telling and slow, gentle way the reader is first beguiled and then sucked inside a unique fantasy world. And The Manor itself? The house is a delight, with or without the Green Knowe connection.