A rocking-horse with a real mane, a toy box filled with treasures, and a beady-eyed ebony mouse carved so cleverly its every hair is visible. These are just some of the discoveries awaiting young Toseland when he is packed off to stay with his great-grandmother at Green Knowe, an ancient, riverside house. But they’re also part of the fabric of the real Green Knowe, located just outside Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire.
Built in around 1130 next door to the river Ouse, The Manor at Hemingford Grey is one of the oldest inhabited houses in Britain. Today it’s home to Diana Boston, the daughter-in-law of the Green Knowe books’ creator Lucy M Boston. By the time Lucy arrived at The Manor in 1939, its 18th-century extension was long-gone, destroyed by fire. But the Norman house, with its slit windows, huge fireplaces and feet-thick stone walls, survived largely intact.
A passionate gardener, Lucy set about stocking The Manor’s beds and borders with roses, irises, scented shrubs and drifts of fiery annuals. Plump topiary crowns, orbs and chess pieces were primped into being, but with the onset of winter, Lucy would retreat to the house and another love: patchwork. Her exquisitely stitched creations remain on display at The Manor, attracting quilters from around the world. But it wasn’t until she was in her 60s that Lucy started writing.
Been Here Before?
Readers of a certain vintage might remember the 1986 BBC adaptation of the first Green Knowe book, The Children of Green Knowe (1954). The programmes were filmed in Suffolk, but there’s a reason for the frisson of déjà vu you might feel on entering The Manor: the house served as the model for Green Knowe in the book’s illustrations by Peter Boston, Lucy’s son.
Part of what makes stepping inside The Manor so special is this sense of recognition. With not a “Do Not Touch” sign in evidence, trapped-in-amber childhood memories come rushing to life. From the entrance hall, with its birds’ nests and carved cherubs, to the Music Room – where, during the Second World War, Lucy entertained airmen with gramophone recitals – to the attic with its rocking horse, china dogs and that clever little mouse, everything is
as it should be.
Visits to the house are by appointment, and The Manor’s garden is open daily throughout the year (charges apply: see www.greenknowe.co.uk).
There you’ll also find the statue of solemn St Christopher that Green Knowe fans will recognise at once. However, this imposing figure is not all he appears: a prop from Green Knowe-inspired film From Time to Time, he’s actually made of polystyrene. Given that here fact and fiction merge so seamlessly, the deception seems somehow apt.