“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”
Until you’ve experienced a few gorgeous English summer days, you don’t fully appreciate the honour Shakespeare was paying to his lady. We’ve had some perfect summer days lately, as lovely as a perfect autumn day in Perth, but with fluffy white clouds for interest and a sun that’s hot but not burning. We have lunch in the garden most days at a table near the honeysuckle-covered side fence, and the scent is heavenly…
I’m settling into research and writing. This is my writing nook, in the sunny bay window of our bedroom. I set myself up originally in the spare room. The view over the garden is lovely, but I like to be a part of the world, and the world seems to wander down Church Way each day.
One trap I’ve discovered is that it’s very cheap to buy second hand books here! My purchases over the last few day (all under £5) are: Civilians at War: journals 1938-1946; The Blitz!; Love Lessons: A wartime journal; Raiders Overhead: A diary of the London Blitz; Slipstream: A Memoir; A Wander through wartime London; Eggs and No Oranges: the Wartime Diaries of Vera Hodgson; Bombers and Mash; London at War.
So it will come as no surprise when I say that the next novel is set during the London Blitz!!
On 11 June we went into London and I spent 5 1/2 hours in the City of Westminster archives, poring over the Bomb Map – a map of where all the bombs fell on London in WW2, reading the original incident reports of where and when bombs were dropped and the damage done, and looking at photos of bomb damage from 1940. It was all so interesting, and you could almost smell the smoke.
You know the Vera Lyn song ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”? Well this is 30 Berkeley Square after a couple of delayed action bombs exploded on 18 September, 1940:
And this is the incident report about it.
It is amazing to touch the handwritten incident reports, and view the photographs taken at the time. I know that digitisation is the latest trend, but NOTHING beats ferreting around in the archives.
We’ve joined the Friends of the Bodleian Library and on 17 June we were invited guests to the opening of a new exhibition, “From Downing Street to the Trenches”. It was opened in the amazingly beautiful Divinity School by Michael Morpurgo, who wrote the children’s novel, War Horse, among many others. His speech included him reciting a poem by his Belgian grandfather ‘the Rupert Brook of Belgium’ and he finished by singing, unaccompanied, the theme song to the musical production of War Horse, ‘Only Remembered’. The audience of academics and various worthies (including me!) all joined in at the end and it was really quite moving.
I even got to meet him in the Quad afterwards and he’s a lovely, unassuming man.
The exhibition is a display of letters and diaries that belonged to politicians, soldiers and civilians, all in some way connected with Oxford University. Among the personal documents are diaries and letters from the Oxford alumni who served as junior officers on the western front. These reveal, not only their experiences, but also their attitudes towards the war.
So many of them were killed. Made me cry…
A couple of weekends ago we drove into the Cottswolds so I could see Stanton Harcourt, where there was a large airfield in WW2. The airfield has become fields again, and there’s a sense of tranquility that would not have been there in 1940, when the Battle of Britain was raging.
I suggest that there’s little call for the bus service:
WE had lunch in the pub and wandered around. It’s a lovely village:
I want to live here!!! I fell in love with this house, which is next to the Church and I may use it as a setting in my next novel.
You see some odd sights in Oxford. If we walk into town along the Iffley Road we pass The Cricketers’ Arms – a lovely 1930s pub which I have discovered is dedicated to none other than Our Don Bradman. He’s been imortalised in stone on the front and is eternally at the crease, facing the bowler. It’s now an up market night club and renamed The Mad Hatter, but they can’t get rid of the Don.
Mind you, our local pub is the delightful Rusty Bicycle, on Magdalen Road. As you can see, they are not averse to dogs in there:
It’s now light until 10.00 at night because last weekend was the Summer Solstice. We spent it in Kent and Sussex, seeing family and meeting up with our friends Joanna and Mark, who are living down there for a while. We stayed in a hotel near Hayward’s Heath and on Friday night saw Toby’s 88 year old uncle in Seaford, near Beachy Head. We took him for a meal in the Old Plough, an old pub. He was particularly taken with the scampi!
We’ve joined the National Trust, and want to make the most of now free admission to the properties. So, on Saturday we visited Standen, a gem of the Arts & Crafts Movement and a National Trust property. It was built in the 1890s, and gives a wonderful feel for the life of an upper middle class family during the 1920’s. The house was designed by Philip Webb, who filled it with the genius of his friend William Morris and other big names of the Arts & Crafts period. This is what you could have as a ‘country get-away’ if you were a solicitor who made it big representing the railways. Beats our Bridgetown cottage!!
Then we met up with Joanna (Sassoon) and Mark at a fascinating stone-carvers’ studio – Stone Carving Now – where I bought Toby’s Wedding Anniversary present, a paperweight – it has a “T” carved in a stone in a medieval font.
And off we all went for a bracing walk on the Downs at Ditchling Beacon. Apart from the prodigious views, the best part was exploring a 19th-century windmill which some volunteers have opened to the public: http://www.jillwindmill.org.uk
On Sunday we visited Batemans, the former home of Rudyard Kipling. It’s a Jacobean house set in beautiful gardens in Sussex.
And when we were there Toby bought me the perfect wedding anniversary present – a first American edition of Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), a book I adored as a child, which has original Arthur Rackham illustrations. The UK edition was issued later with a different illustrator. Lucky me!!
We met up with Joanna and Mark again at a pub called “The Poet” in the village of Matfield (Kent). The poet who’s referred to in the name is Joanna’s famous relative, Siegfried Sassoon, who lived in the village for many years. After a toasting Sigfreid (and Joanna) We picnicked on the lovely village green surrounded by fine houses.
And after lunch we managed after much looking and asking of locals, to find Sigfreid Sassoon’s home Wayleigh, a Victorian monstrosity.
But it did have the blue plaque and here’s Joanna under it.
It took hours to get home on the M25 on Sunday evening! To avoid some of the traffic we stopped in at the White Hart pub in Brasted, Kent, which was a favourite of the Battle of Britain pilots, as Biggin Hill air base is very close.
During the Battle of Britain, in the summer of 1940, it became so popular with the young pilots that it was virtually a second mess. With four or five scrambles a day, The Few were permanently shatteringly tired. The White Hart provided a moral boosting bolt-hole, which heard more than a few sing-songs from the young airmen. A regular at the White Hart was Biggin Hill Station Commander in 1940, Group Captain Richard “Dickie” Grice. Every evening during the Battle of Britain the Group Captain would lay on a coach to take his war weary pilots to the White Hart to play a game of darts and eat a meal. Apparently he had a loud speaker fitted to the roof of his car and as he led the coach from Biggin into the hotel’s forecourt, he would announce “25 beers!” (or whatever number) on the loud speaker.
Unfortunately the pub’s been completely refurbished – there are a few photos over the bar of the pilots – but it has lost any sense of that era. It had a pretty beer garden, though, and we drank Pimms and I thought of the young men who’d visited all those years before.
Our eighth wedding anniversary is today – 26 June. It’s also the first birthday of Toby’s gorgeous granddaughter Sunday Cammell. Happy Birthday, Sunny darling.
Last night we went to the New Theatre in Oxford (built around 1932 and amazingly Art Deco) and saw – wait for it – “Annie Get Your Gun”. It had our very own Jason Donovan in it and he did very well. We’re suckers for the old musicals, although this one was given a ‘modernisation’ in the 1990s and the version we saw won a Tony award as a result (with a different cast, of course).
Today we’ll be attending the AGM of the Friends of the Bodleian Library followed by afternoon tea in the Divinity School, and Toby has booked us in for dinner at Trip Advisor’s top Oxford eating place, a Thai restaurant just off the Iffley Road.
I should comment that over the past couple of weeks, Toby has been glued to the TV watching the World Cup – a disappointing result Australia ☹ and England. And what about that bite!!
Next week, we’ll be in Cornwall because our wonderful neighbour Venetia has lent us her holiday house at a place called Port Quin (http://www.kestrelpromotions.co.uk/quaycottage/quaycottage.htm).
I’m going to write and read and generally relax. We’ll be out of Internet contact, so the next blog update will be after we return.