Although Edward Frederick (E.F.) Benson wrote over 70 novels as well as a number of biographies, ghost stories, and other works of fiction and non-fiction, he is best remembered today for his six novels chronicling the social squabbles and adventures of two middle-aged ladies, Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline Lucas (known as “Lucia” to her friends).
Lucia first appears in Queen Lucia (1920) as the autocratic but benevolent ruler of her small social circle in the village of Riseholme, a lady of artistic pretensions who affects to speak Italian when she knows but a few phrases, and plays only the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata because it is the slowest and easiest. Mapp makes her appearance in Miss Mapp (1922) while spying on her neighbors from behind the curtains of her garden-room window. “Anger and the gravest suspicions about everybody had kept her young and on the boil,” Benson introduces her. Like Lucia, Mapp leads her own social circle in the town of Tilling.
The two ladies meet in armed combat for social supremacy in Mapp and Lucia (1931), when the recently widowed Lucia comes to Tilling, and the battle rages through two subsequent novels. Joining Mapp and Lucia in their ongoing war are a collection of delightfully idiosyncratic neighbors: fussy and feminine Georgie Pillson; Mrs. Wyse, who wears her fur coat even on warm days and takes her Rolls Royce into the most narrow and unnavigable streets, and Mr. Wyse, her antiquary husband; gender-bending artist, “Quaint” Irene Coles; blustering Major Benjy; the Reverend Kenneth Bartlett, who affects a Scottish accent even though he is not a Scotsman, and his mousy wife Evie. As a writer of the foibles of the upper classes in England between the two world wars, Benson’s work can be compared to P.G. Wodehouse’s, if Wodehouse had focused more attention Bertie Wooster’s aunts. Like Aunt Agatha’s zeal in stealing a silver cow creamer, the quarrels that arise in Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels involve trivial objects and circumstances that take on ridiculously exaggerated importance; for example, one of the fiercest battles between the ladies concerns a recipe for lobster a la Riseholme.
I decided to visit Colchester specifically because of a Time Team special about the discovery of the only Roman Circus (that’s chariot races, not clowns) in the British isles at Colchester.
In the first century CE, Colchester was Colonia Claudia Victricensis—the city of the Emperor Claudius’s victory—or Camulodunum, a Latinized version of the city’s original Celtic name. It was the Roman capital of Britain from the 50s, built in the style of a Roman city. There was a huge temple at the city center (razed by Boudica in 60 and rebuilt), a theater, and the circus on top of the hill; the ruins of the latter only discovered in 2005.
I’ve visited Westminster Abbey a half-dozen times since I first went to London in the 1980s. I’ve been inside 2 or 3 times and found myself inadvertently standing on a grave-slab in the floor over someone famous: Sir Isaac Newton on one occasion, and Aphra Behn at a later date.
I don’t intend to give a general overview of the abbey inside or out, nor of its long history. For the purposes of this blog, I’m concerned only with my most recent visit, which was a very brief drop-by while I was in London one spring afternoon. As long as I was nearby, I had to take a few minutes to see the site of Time Team’s 17th-series opening episode, Corridors of Power.
In this episode, Time Team was looking for the location of the sacristy of Henry III, the 13th-century king who began building the current abbey to replace the older abbey of Edward the Confessor on this same site (although it wasn’t finished until more than a century later; in the nave you can see the point where the original, elaborate stonework was left off and resumed in a more simply carved fashion).
This impressive castle which dominates the village of Gorey on the eastern coast of Jersey was the main reason I chose to take a Channel Island tour last spring. I had watched Time Team’s episode, “Castles and Cannons” multiple times, and it was a place I longed to visit one day.
When my tour group left Portsmouth by ferry, it took us 7 hours to reach the island of Guernsey; I had started reading a brick-sized biography of Queen Victoria the night before, and got as far the Crimean War during our voyage before we spotted land. We spent several days on Guernsey and visited nearby Sark before we took a second, much short ferry ride to St. Helier on Jersey. We didn’t get to the castle until our last day in the Channel Islands before we went on to France.
Mont Orgueil Castle was built around 1200 by King John as an English stronghold after he had lost most of his land in France and the island became an outpost on the edge of his kingdom. The castle is set on a high, rocky outcrop facing the coast of Normandy, little more than 10 miles away. On a clear day, you can see France from the castle’s battlements.
I’ve been a fan of the British archeology show Time Team for years. I used to catch random episodes on hotel televisions during my trips to the UK. Since then, I’ve collected all available DVDs from the UK and, strangely enough, Australia to view at home on my region-free player.
Watching some of these shows again recently, I realized how often I was saying “I’ve been there” to Time Team dig locations. Some were places I’d visited on my usual travels; others, I’ve gone to specifically because I saw the archeological site on the show and was interested in what was there.
I’ve decided to start a new feature based on the places that I’ve visited, starting with the Royal Garrison Church in Portsmouth.
A couple of weeks ago, I was staying in Providence, Rhode Island. Fall River, Massachusetts, is only about 10 miles away. Since I’d written a review of The Legend of Lizzie Borden this past spring and felt I was pretty well read up on the case, I had to go and see the site of the murders for myself. So on that Saturday morning, I took the short drive over to Fall River and located the Borden house on Second St.
The house is about the only thing in the neighborhood that remains the same as it was in 1892. The neighboring homes of the Churchills, the Kellys, and the Bowens are long gone, replaced by new and larger buildings.
I knew that the present owners ran the house as a bed and breakfast and also held tours on an hourly basis.
I arrived too late for the first tour of the day and had to wait for next one. Tickets can be purchased inside the barn at the back–the barn where Lizzie Borden claimed she was eating pears and looking for lead for sinkers during the time her father was murdered. It’s now the gift shop.
The photograph for the cover of Who Killed Toby Glovins? was taken at a place called Layer Marney, which is about 1/2 an hour’s drive outside Colchester in the UK. I went there at the end of the same day I wandered around the lanes of the Suffolk countryside in search of Abbotshill; after I visited Lavenham, I drove south again down around the other side of the city. This was my last stop of the day.
Let’s call this part of the journey “Looking for Foxgrove.”
Abbotshill had never been Frederick Babington’s home, but he was as fond of it as he was the environs of Marsh Hall. This tiny village ten miles from Ipswich had once been the site of a medieval abbey, now in ruins. In these modern times, a collection of quaint cottages, a post office, and a brown-timbered tavern sat at the convergence of five country lanes on one side of a mill pond. On the other side of the pond was the old mill with its enormous wheel, more cottages, and shops around a green. The Mill Wheel Inn sat adjacent to an on-request railway platform.
Abbotshill doesn’t really exist, nor is it based on any particular village between Ipswich and Colchester. I scouted the general vicinity via Googlemaps before I wrote The Abrupt Disappearance of Cousin Wilfrid, but this was a part of England I’d never actually visited–until a few weeks ago.
On May 25, I rented a car in Colchester and drove east on the A12 out into the Suffolk countryside. I knew I wouldn’t find any place that exactly corresponded to my idea of the village where Freddie visits his aunt, but I thought I’d see what was really there. Continue reading “In Search of Abbotshill”
The morning after my tour of Scotland and the border counties was over, I didn’t fly home directly. Instead, I took the short flight from Edinburgh to Heathrow. I wanted to spend an afternoon in London–in particular, I wanted to go to Kew and finally visit the palace there.
I’d been to Kew Gardens before, most recently with my mother when we went to the UK together about 7 years ago. That was on the day we arrived in London after the sleepless overnight flight and we never got as far as the palace; the hike to Queen Charlotte’s cottage completely did us in and I remember having to lie down for awhile in one of the vast Victorian greenhouses.
Whenever I’ve been back in London since then, it was always too early or too late in the year and Kew Palace was closed for the season. But on this day I was out of the airport early enough in the afternoon that I was determined to go while I had the chance. Continue reading “After the Scotland Tour”
When we left Abbotsford, we drove for about half an hour along the River Tweed to reach the final house on our tour of the border counties, Traquair House.
Ages ago, perhaps even as far back as high school, I heard a story about a Scottish lord who locked the gates to his home and vowed they would never be opened again until a Stuart returned to the throne of Great Britain. I didn’t realize until we were actually here that this is the place. The gates are still locked, but there is another entrance off to one side and a new drive that takes you to the house; people want to be able to get in and out, after all. Continue reading “Scotland Travel Journal, Part 8”