The Green Knowe books are children’s fantasies written between the 1950s and 1970s by Lucy M Boston. The six books centre around the house of Green Knowe, where times are fluid – the spirits of children who used to live in the house play with the children of the present.
I admit my memory of some of the Green Knowe books is fuzzy. I’ve only just realised I don’t have a copy of Stones of Green Knowe with my other books in Australia and so I probably haven’t read it since I was a child, if at all. But I bought a second copy of Children of Green Knowe in preparation for my visit, and it was still enjoyable. Children of Green Knowe (and some of the sequels) feature Tolly, a lonely 8 year old who has gone to live with his grandmother. The warmth of his relationship with his grandmother, and the believable way they interact with the past, made it a great re-read. It was slightly disquieting in a way that it wasn’t as a child reader, though.
Visiting the Manor at Hemingford Grey was great fun. Although it didn’t match up to my picture of Green Knowe, it was interesting to visit what is apparently one of the oldest continuously inhabited houses in the UK. Lucy’s daughter-in-law, Diana, ran the tour. The Manor is very close to the river, and even has a moat-like vegetated ditch running around the back. So it was easy to picture the flood from Children of Green Knowe. As you can see there are topiaries in the gardens, although none of animals.
The brick facade in this picture is from a more recent time (18th century?) and used to extend for the same amount of space to the right of the house. But it burnt down years ago, only stopping at the solid stone walls of the original 12th century house. There are still deep window sills and arrow slit windows in some parts of the house,* and this room had a fireplace that was reconstructed using the original stones that had been chucked in the garden and left there for a few centuries (I felt like a model housekeeper after hearing that). The reason it has kept so many original features over the years is that it was mostly rented out and the landlords didn’t worry about making it too fancy.
The gramophone is the corner of the room above is from 1929. Lucy used a similar one during the war when she held musical entertainment evenings for the local RAF base. We got to listen to one of her records, which was amazing as I doubt anyone will be able to use our CD players in decades to come.
The attic room (picture here) was set up differently to the way I imagined Tolly’s room. However, I appreciated the way the family has tried to recreate parts of the books, such as the old fashioned rocking horse, an ebony mouse, a toy trunk filled with things like dominos and a flute and a matryoshka doll.
Another lovely feature of the house was that there were original illustrations from the covers and interiors of the books, including this lovely one of the Chimneys of Green Knowe.
We heard stories about Lucy Boston, including that when she first moved into the Manor in 1938 she was viewed with suspicion by the local townspeople, as not only was she separated from her husband she had chosen a haunted house to move into, one that the local people wouldn’t walk past at night. When the war started it didn’t help that word got about that she used to live in Austria, gardened in a dirndl and could speak German. What was even worse was that one night she accidentally left a lantern on in the attic and as there were clear fields opposite the house, it was felt she was likely signalling to enemy planes! But by the time she was old and finding it difficult to thread her needle to make her wonderful quilts, local children were coming in after school to help her, so she was eventually welcomed.
I have just realised Lucy wrote two memoirs and have put them on hold at the library – I’m glad I’ll be able to picture the house while I read them.
* Diana told us about how a group of fourth grade school children had visited the previous week and were asked to look around the room for clues as to its age. One girl immediately said the lack of a television set!