Green Knowe

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Green Knowe

Green Knowe

The Manor House, Hemingford Grey, south east of  Huntingdon is reputedly the oldest occupied house in the country, part dates from Saxon times. It is even better known, however, for being the inspiration for Green Knowe, the house and garden on which the late Lucy Boston based her series of classic children’s books.

Lucy Boston wrote her books in winter, in the summer she gardened, often for twelve hours a day. The house and garden were the great loves of her life, in fact she first caught sight of the house from a boat on the River Ouse which flows past the bottom of the garden. In Memories of a House, her account of the restoration of the Manor and the making of the garden, she says, “as I punted past I gave it a friendly thought. If I lived there I would at least give it sweet briar.”

She did buy the house some years later and as she writes, “ the non-garden, as I first found it, was very beautiful. The lawn was covered with cowslips and an Elysium of small flowers….I made an unconvincing resolve to keep my hands off it.”

This she didn’t quite achieve but she did let it develop bit by bit and somehow managed to retain the original spirit. A moat remained from an earlier age surrounded by woodland, here she planted bamboo and cut walks which in spring were edged with cow parsley. She made a wide gravel path, (straight, Lucy Boston hated “aimless wiggle-waggle”) from the house to the river which she planted with yew cut into topiary orbs, crosses and crowns to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Later she planted more yew clipped into chess pieces. Over the ensuing years she made eight large borders.

The garden regularly flooded.  “The river sucks the bottom away,” as she put it, so soil came high on her list of expenses. This soil was enriched to suit another of her great passions, old roses which she enjoyed not only for their delicious scent and form but also for their literary and historical allusions.

Irises over the wall

Irises over the wall

The roses in fact, were celebrated at summer parties, still remembered by her friends, where wine was actually drunk ( messily by all accounts) from roses instead of glasses.  This had apparently started when a Cambridge friend, on sniffing a Damask rose called Hebe’s Lip  quoted,  “Oh might I drink from Hebe’s Lip. ” Of course he might, replied Lucy, producing a wine bottle and so the odd but somehow characteristic tradition began.

Lucy Boston soon discovered what we all learn in the end, that restoring a house and making a garden does not come cheap. It was in fact, to finance these operations that at the age of sixty, she began to write. She had by then  lived in the Manor for nearly twenty years and had absorbed its history so thoroughly that it was natural for her to write about its imagined past.   Tolly, the little boy who comes to stay with his grandmother Mrs Oldknow in the first Green Knowe book gradually becomes aware of the children who have lived in the house in the past. In the books the garden echoes with their teasing laughter; in reality if you listen hard enough you can almost hear it.

the interior of Green Knowe

the interior of Green Knowe

Boston lived until 1990 by which time she was 97. For the last 20 years of her life she actively encouraged people to visit her garden. So it was that out one day my children and I first peeped over the sweet briar hedge (yes, she did give the garden sweet briar) from the tow path. We saw a tall spare figure in jeans and an anorak weeding a border – until that is, she spotted us. As soon as she knew the children were familiar with the books the gate was opened and we were welcomed in. None of us will ever forget the visit. Lucy showed us the flute, the rocking horse, the birdcage and the trunk in the bedroom where Tolly slept and we went with her to see the topiary deer and the tree where the children from the past played. At one point, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, a squirrel came up and gently  took a chocolate from Lucy’s hand  – for us fact and fiction blurred, we felt we had walked into the books.

When Lucy died all who loved the place wondered what would become of the Manor House. Of course towards the end of her life it had become difficult for her to maintain the garden. Although she was still clipping the topiary at the age of  ninety-three, gardens are no respecters of age and bindweed began to creep into the borders.

Fortunately after her death, her daughter-in law Diana Boston took the house and garden over and began to restore order.  It was a struggle but with the help of part-time gardeners, gradually things fell into place and now both house and garden are open to the public.

In fact very little has been changed in the garden, some new perennials have been introduced into the borders to prolong the season into winter and give interest when the old roses are over (Lucy had a more radical approach, she cut all the buds off the despised Hybrid Teas early in the season, allowing them to flower only after the old roses had finished !)

the Norman front © Anna Baria

the Norman front © Anna Baria

As well as the roses the garden is full of old-fashioned country flowers: irises, violets, love-in-a-mist, poppies, polyanthus, stocks, tobacco plants, campanulas, honeysuckle, wallflowers, lilies and pinks. Scent plays a vital  role in creating the potent atmosphere of this garden for here, as in few other gardens the mysterious spirit of place is almost palpable. At any moment you feel a small boy and his grandmother might come hurrying around the corner, or that you will come across an elderly figure stooped over one of the borders – Lucy promised she would come back to the garden if she could – but in fact the garden is haunted not so much by her presence as by her absence. All that Lucy Boston put into the garden is there for us to enjoy, preserved in the same magical way as she preserved the past in her books.

It is open daily and now the house itself is open – strictly by appointment except throughout May when there are guided tours at 2pm.  On show are some of the patchwork quilts which Lucy Boston made and which also play  a role in the books and  a series of events are staged there – maybe not  drinking wine from roses but interesting things like candle lit ghost story telling.

To visit the house or gardens, e -mail: diana_boston@hotmail.com

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