House of the spirits

It's the inspiration for the most pungent series of children's novels ever written. And until she finally crossed the threshold, Suzi Feay had visited Green Knowe only in her dreams...
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What on earth am I doing, driving to Green Knowe on a hot day in June? As we nose round the lanes of Hemingford Grey, looking for the Manor, as it is more properly known, I think of Tolly's very different arrival at this magical house, in Lucy M Boston's classic novel, The Children of Green Knowe. Toseland, a rather forlorn little boy in the best tradition of children's literature, arrives in a winter downpour at the atmospherically named station of Penny Soaky in the Cambridgeshire Fens. The taxi which fetches him soon has to halt because the lane is flooded. "Almost at once they heard the sound of oars, and a lantern came round the corner of the lane rocking on the bows of a rowing boat. A man called out, 'Is that Master Toseland?' The driver shouted back, 'Is that Mr Boggis?' but Toseland was speechless with relief and delight."

Toseland - soon to be rechristened Tolly - and the gardener, Boggis, row in through the gates of perhaps the most extraordinary house in children's fiction. A Norman hall, one of the oldest continuously inhabited houses in England, filled with mirrors, paintings and treasures, becomes the setting for exciting adventures involving the natural and supernatural worlds. Any imaginative child who has ever been left to play in a garden alone will instantly recognise the book's charm and power.

When I read The Children of Green Knowe - and its successors, The Chimneys of Green Knowe (1958), The River at Green Knowe (1959), A Stranger at Green Knowe (1961), which won the Carnegie Medal, An Enemy at Green Knowe (1964) and The Stones of Green Knowe (1976) - I had no idea the house at the centre of the spell was real. When I did find out, as an adult, I felt queasy and ambivalent about visiting the place I could already see so clearly in my mind. What if it was a disappointment?

Just before Christmas last year I appeared on BBC Breakfast to talk about The Big Read. The last question from the presenter was: "What should I give my niece for Christmas?" As much as one hates being fired unexpected questions on live television, at least I had a ready answer. "You must buy The Children of Green Knowe," I said. Not least because it has one of the most wonderful evocations of Christmas that I've ever come across.

An email from Diana Boston, the daughter-in-law of Lucy and now keeper of the flame, popped into my inbox a few days later, thanking me for my support. Did I know that 2004 is the 50th anniversary of that first book? Perhaps I would even like to write something...

Months later, here I am, quite lost and longing for Boggis to hove into view. The satellite navigation system has just announced: "You have arrived at your destination. Guidance ends here." But I'm in a sleepy village street - no moat, no Norman hall, no topiarised yew in sight - and have to ring for directions. Diana is clearly tickled that the manor doesn't even register on 21st-century technology; quite appropriate for the home of a woman who claims: "Sometimes I think I'm disappearing into the 12th century."

Lucy Boston, the author of the books, as well as several other works for children and adults, and two sparkling memoirs, was born in Lancashire in 1892, the youngest of six children. Her father died when she was quite young. "I was said to be strikingly like him, though I can't see it in photos, or in the very unappealing portrait of him as Mayor that confronted all my youth," wrote Lucy in Perverse and Foolish, the record of her earliest years. "It was a monstrous picture, painted by a cripple (doubtless because he was a Wesleyan as we all were) with his feet." Her parents were ardently religious, and bible readings and prayers were a daily occurrence. On his return from the Holy Land, her father had turned his drawing room into "perhaps such a room as Joseph of Arimathea might have had", with a frieze depicting the journey from Jerusalem to Jericho, brass lanterns with glass oil-containers "shaped like udders... such as might have hung in Solomon's temple", wooden arcades and recesses, and brass bowls and jugs. "This unexpected room did not look at all like a Kardomah Café as you might perhaps think," wrote Lucy drily. "It looked like a gentleman's enthusiastic and satisfied near-lunacy."

Judging from photographs, the Wood children divided into two physical types: the fair ones, plain Mary and Phil, who wore cascading Fauntleroy curls; and the dark haired ones, with sloe-black eyes, into which category Lucy most definitely fell, with her indomitable chin and piercing gaze. Looking at photographs of her as a child, it's hard not to think that she was always somehow practising to be an old lady.

In his adventures, Tolly is abetted by the mysterious and wise figure of his great-grandmother, Mrs Oldknow, who is immeasurably aged yet somehow the best company a boy could wish for. In her survey of literature for children, Boys And Girls Forever, Alison Lurie comments that whereas adults and experts approve stories which contain a "Wise and Good Grown-up", children would much rather have adult villains and children who fend for themselves. Nevertheless, The Children of Green Knowe works so well because Mrs Oldknow is a benign but often absent figure. Tolly's adventures are his own, but Great-Grandmother is on hand to solve riddles and offer gentle support and comfort. Just as well, when the questions posed by the house turn out to be so complicated.

Green Knowe, as Tolly discovers, is an extraordinary place where time doesn't seem to work properly. Unseen fingers push over the dominoes, the rocking horse moves of its own accord; Tolly soon realises he is not the only child in the house, but the others - Toby, Alexander and Linnet - are frustratingly elusive. Toby rides a horse, Feste, who can be heard whinnying at nights in the deserted stable, though nothing is ever seen. Tolly is seven, so "to him a long time ago meant more than seven years." Nothing can compare with the delicacy of the passage when Mrs Oldknow tells Tolly the truth about the children, whose toys and belongings still fill the house.

"Why doesn't he want it [his sword] now?" Mrs Oldknow looked at him with an uneasy wrinkled face. Then she sighed.

"Because he's dead," she said at last.

Tolly sat dumbfounded, with his big black eyes fixed on her. He must have known of course that the children could not have lived so many centuries without growing old, but he had never thought about it. To him they were so real, so near, they were his own family and he needed them more than anything else on earth. He felt the world had come to an end.

"Are they all dead?" he said at last.

We are going to have a leisurely lunch at the table on the lawn, flanked by Lucy Boston's gorgeous collection of old roses, before I join Diana's 2pm tour of the house. Impromptu visitors have been arriving in a steady trickle for years; a fan letter to Lucy Boston would more often than not elicit an invitation to come and listen to the house's ghosts. But now a more constant stream must be encouraged if the house is to survive. Underneath Diana's cheerful demeanour I sense a certain strain. The house must be a burden as well as a privilege, and all the more of a burden for being so beloved.

"There are three types of people who visit us," says Diana. "There are the fans of the books; the people who are interested in the garden; and those who want to look at Lucy's patchworks."

"You've forgotten the third category," says her son, Charles, helping himself to ham and cheese. "The towpath people. The ones who just look over the hedge and wander in." And indeed a few minutes later a hat appears briefly over the foliage, followed by the click of the gate. Visitors entering this way must walk down the path past a guard of sentinel yews, clipped into crown shapes by Lucy for the coronation of Elizabeth II. "Come on in! It's all right!" Diana calls cheerily, then goes in for more plates. I ask Charles what he remembers of Lucy. He's silent for so long I think I may have trespassed somehow, but eventually he smiles and says: "Feeding the squirrels from the front step. And the birds. Just like the books, really... although she never buttered my hands."

"The birds are very hungry. You see, they can't get worms, or seed or ants' eggs until the floods go. Would you like to be introduced to them?"

"Yes please," said Tolly.

"Come here, then," said Mrs Oldknow; although her back was rather bent and her face was wrinkled, when she looked at him so mischievously he could almost imagine she was a boy to play with. "They love margarine better than anything," she said. "Hold out your hands."

Lucy Boston was intrigued by the manor at Hemingford Grey years before it came into her life. In 1915, she would travel by boat from nearby Cambridge. "Every time I took a punt out, I passed the north front of the old Manor, of which I knew neither the name nor the history. It appeared a semi-derelict Georgian farmhouse, lived in joylessly, if at all." Atmospheric photographs show it set in rough grass and farmland. Lucy called it "this sad, waiting house. I was not to know it was waiting for me."

After the break up of her marriage to her cousin Harold Boston, she lived in Italy and Austria, developing her talent for painting. "Mussolini pushed me out of Italy and Hitler out of Austria," she wrote. "I had become a solitary. I came back to Cambridge because my son Peter [born in 1918], was at King's." Chancing to hear that there was a house for sale in Hemingford Grey, Lucy knew that it was "her" farmhouse, and took a taxi to the door. "I hear this house is for sale," she announced brightly. "Well... it is," said the puzzled occupants. "But how did you know? We only just decided this morning, and haven't even rung the estate agent." The house for sale was a different house entirely. It was fate, and it was inescapable.

In her memoir, Memory in a House, Lucy Boston describes the backbreaking task she then set herself, to uncover the house's soul and history, a work of conservation remarkable in its sensitivity. She could, it seems, listen to the house, hear the voices in its stones, infer what it was trying to tell her. Lean-tos were demolished, floors were ripped out, plaster removed. She was astonished to find that the brick Georgian farmhouse (the remaining half of a large mansion) encased a Norman hall, with walls three feet thick. There were traces of a fire, burn marks on the stone and rafters. Other discoveries included a partially dismantled Tudor fireplace which had been turned into a cupboard. (The missing stones were found in the garden.)

Meanwhile, she had to live in the near-derelict mansion with no locks or windows. One evening she persuaded a departing workman to nail up her door from the outside, shutting her in until next morning. She spent such an anxious, spooky night that she opted for an open house and slept peacefully thereafter. During the renovation, as various periods were uncovered, she noted different levels of poltergeist activity. "The period of the Regency post-fire patching up seems to have been evil," Lucy wrote. A (non-existent) handbell rang in an upper room. A broomstick was rattled down the empty staircase. An enormous crash was heard, as of the collapse of a stepladder with a bucket of nails on it ("the clatter as of rolling nails continued for quite a time"). There was no physical explanation for the sound at all.

Diana's 2pm tour begins slightly late. One couple doesn't turn up. The group includes a pair of Japanese women, one of them passionate about patchwork; a wild-haired, coltish young woman who looks like Nick Drake's twin sister; and one child, a bashful, red-haired girl called Erin, with her family. The others look like towpath people. Despite Diana's enthusiasm, it becomes clear that Erin read the first book a long time ago, and can't remember much of it.

We stop at the back door. "Do you remember in The Children of Green Knowe, when Tolly arrives at the door and sees, down the end of the hall, another door opening and another little boy stepping into the hall?" she asks, gesturing to us to come closer. We peer in. This is the door, and there at the end of the hall is the mirror which explains the effect. In the hall, too, are the birds' nests, the carved cherub and - oh heavens! - the nameboard from Feste's stall, nailed to a beam. Is it a fake? Is it a joke? Whatever it is, it's magical.

We move on to the room in the Norman part of the house where Lucy used to sit in winter, working on her patchworks while she mused over her latest story. On the table, Diana has placed the manuscript of A Stranger at Green Knowe, the story of Hanno, the escaped gorilla from London Zoo who finds refuge in the bamboo grove, and makes friends with a Chinese boy, Ping. The exercise book is open at the first, carefully written page. Above the fireplace is the picture (of Green Knowe in the books, of Burghley House here) stitched entirely in human hair. At the windows are the 18th-century patchwork quilts, made into curtains, which first spurred Lucy to pick up the hobby, continuing to stitch 20 to the inch into her nineties.

At the door into the garden, Diana pauses: "This is the room that the witch Melanie Powers is always trying to get into in An Enemy at Greene Knowe," she announces. "She couldn't come in through the hall because there were too many mirrors. So we've put an extra one in here to make sure she keeps out."

The greatest treat for me, as I suspect for many Green Knowe fans, lies at the top of the house, through the Norman "Knight's Hall" as it's known in the books. (And there, on a high ledge, is the magic Persian mirror with which Tolly and Ping spy on the hateful Melanie Powers! There, hanging from the high ceiling, is the red silk Chinese lantern!) Up a narrow staircase lies Tolly's attic bedroom, complete with the rocking horse and Alexander's flute. Diana, who has dispensed with Erin for the time being, asks me to come forward and close my eyes. "I'm going to put something in your hands. Can you guess what it is? Don't worry, it isn't the bat book," she laughs, referring to one of the more repulsive occult artefacts in An Enemy at Green Knowe.

"It's Tolly's Japanese mouse," I say softly, opening my eyes to look at it. This is the carved wooden mouse that squeaks under his pillow in the night, immediately familiar from Peter Boston's wonderful illustrations, as much a part of the Green Knowe experience as the text itself. "He's the most important thing in the house," says Diana, gently putting him back on the chest of drawers. "I've had adult visitors burst into tears on seeing that little mouse."

Downstairs in the shop, under the witchball, Diana collects the modest fee from the visitors and hands out tourist information cards, with impossible questions such as "What was your impression of Huntingdonshire?" "Please fill them out later and post them," she pleads. "I came bottom in the list of tourist attractions last year, because I kept forgetting to hand them out." One of the Japanese women spends 10 minutes showing Diana photographs of her own patchworks. Postcards and books are sold, and quiet descends on the house once more.

Lucy Boston died in 1990, aged 97, after a long, tempestuous life, retaining much of her vigour and all her passion to the end. Frances Lineham, who made friends with Lucy when she was six and Lucy was in her eighties, wrote this after her death: "She made me know that time was not straightforward. Just as Tolly could hear a baby crying centuries before and was teased by Linnet, Toby and Alexander, just out of sight, I know that Lucy is still at Green Knowe. Although she has left this earth she is just round the corner, probably standing next to the yew deer in the dark cool under the trees - if I can be quick enough." *

The Manor at Hemingford Grey is open by appointment. The six Green Knowe titles are now back in print. Call Diana Boston on 01480 463134 for details.