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A Place Like No Other: the 12th-century house that set a writer’s staggering second wind in motion

Lucy M. Boston moved to the Manor at Hemingford Grey when she was in her 40s, a single mother with a job as a war nurse behind her. Soon, she found this mesmerising medieval house – the oldest continually inhabited in the country – working its magic on her. Here, her great-nephew and Inigo’s co-founder reflects on the creative legacy she left there

Albert Hill
Mark Anthony Fox
A Place Like No Other: the 12th-century house that set a writer’s staggering second wind in motion

My great-aunt, Lucy M. Boston, first saw the Manor at Hemingford Grey from a punt on the Great Ouse. It made such a deep impression upon her – a handsome 900-year-old house spied beyond a field, on a bend in the tranquil Cambridgeshire river – that she often returned to the thought of it as she later travelled through war-torn Europe while volunteering as a nurse.

It was only decades later, after World War I had long since abated and Lucy had spent time in France, Italy, Austria and Hungary, got married (and divorced) and had a child that she had the chance to see the house again. Having taken a flat in Cambridge in order to house hunt, Lucy was told by a friend that there was a place in Hemingford for sale. She jumped in the taxi and banged on the door of the Manor. The owners, who had only discussed selling the house over breakfast, were astonished – and obviously very pleased to secure such a quick sale. In May 1939, she moved in, having paid £2,500 for the privilege.

Although originally built around 1130 (it lays claim to being the oldest continually inhabited house in the country), the Norman heart of the house had been largely masked by later additions and a Georgian façade. Lucy took much of the interior back to its most original form and soon began work on the wonderful gardens that still attract visitors from across the globe today.

The Manor is now lived in by Lucy’s daughter-in-law, Diana Boston, who keeps the gardens open all year round and welcomes visitors into the house by appointment. The old roses, rare irises and enchanting topiary draw in the horticultural connoisseurs, while the building itself has a raft of rich stories to tell.

The man responsible for its construction in the 12th century was Payn Osmundsen, a tenant of Aubrey de Vere, 1st Earl of Oxford. In the years that followed and before Lucy moved in, the house had been occupied by, among others, Edmund Dudley (Henry VII’s financial administrator, who was executed by Henry VIII), Sir Richard Cromwell (great-grandfather of Oliver) and the celebrated Gunning sisters, famous in the 18th century for their extravagant beauty.

Living in such atmospheric surroundings at the Manor, Lucy – who had cut off her studies in English at the University of Oxford to volunteer as a nurse in 1915 – felt the urge to pick up her pen. And so, in her 60s, she began to write what would become the celebrated series of Green Knowe stories. Illustrated by her son, Peter, the books (a sort of precursor to the Harry Potter tales) became some of the best-loved children’s novels of the 20th century. They begin with a small boy, Tolly, arriving by boat at a magical old house by the name of Green Knowe, a fictionalised version of her own home. Today, visiting fans revel in spotting details (the rocking horse, the bird cage) that appear here in real life.

When she arrived in Hemingford Grey, as World War II was breaking out, Lancashire-born Lucy was a single woman who had not long before been studying painting in Vienna (where she had picked up a habit of wearing dirndl dresses). Unsurprisingly, the locals viewed this newcomer with suspicion – especially as she seemed intent on taking the Manor back in time rather than bringing it up to date, as most people wanted to do with their homes. Lucy was even reported as a spy, with government officials sent to Hemingford Grey to snoop around. Of course, she had no such links to Hitler’s malicious regime, instead using her previous experience as a nurse and her privileged position as the owner of an enchanting house to offer sanctuary to victims of a traumatic war.

A committed music-lover, Lucy had noticed the soothing effects of playing records to patients in war hospitals some decades before and, with that in mind, set up twice-weekly music evenings at the Manor. These were well attended by the airmen posted nearby – many from as far afield as America and sorely missing their homelands. Grabbing what seating she could (including mattresses and the back seat of her car), she arranged them around the gramophone in the ancient heart of the house – a set-up that remains today.

The most emotional of the Manor’s many visitors have been those that attended these evenings, returning with their families many years later to listen to the records again and see their signatures (alongside what music was played) in the logbooks. There is a wonderful painting by Elisabeth Vellacott of one of these wartime recitals, which is still on display in the main bedroom of the house: uniformed men sit hunched over, their backs to the viewer, enraptured by the music. Murals by Vellacott, a close friend of Lucy’s and a frequent guest at the Manor, are found throughout the house, often alongside elegant scallop-shell lights designed by Lucy herself.

As well as being a writer, lighting designer, gardener and nurse, Lucy is also remembered as a pioneering designer and maker of patchwork quilts. Alongside Lucy’s literary fans and the architectural historians and horticulturists that make their way to the Manor each year, there is another brigade: the quilters, who treat their visits as something of a pilgrimage. Lucy completed around 20 quilts in her lifetime, many of which are in the house. One of them in particular has established a formidable reputation. The so-called ‘Patchwork of the Crosses’, a complex and elegant creation, has become a much-copied classic over the years.

Her dynamic character was such that Lucy may well have enjoyed such a rich, creative life even if she hadn’t moved to the Manor. Yet this remarkable house became the foundation of many of her inspirations – something that the young woman out on the river, so many years before, might just have had an inkling of.

Further reading

For more information on visiting the house and gardens, visit the Manor’s website

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