To the manor born: The former home of children's author Lucy Boston continues to enchant. Alexandra Buxton stepped back in time

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The Independent Culture
If you walk out of the Cambridgeshire village of Hemingford Grey along the towpath of the River Ouse, you will see an old house shaded by trees. On a gate post are a pile of leaflets weighted down by a stone. The text reads: 'Built in 1130 and made famous by the author Lucy Boston in the Green Knowe books, the Manor is reputedly the oldest continuously inhabited house in the country. It is now open to the public, by appointment.'

Lucy Boston was well known for her hospitality. As a frail old lady in her nineties, she frequently invited passers-by, whom she spied looking over the gate, to see the house she had rescued and the garden she created. During WWII she gave gramophone concerts for RAF fliers and took in French resistance fighters.

Today the Manor is home to Lucy Boston's architect son Peter, who illustrated his mother's books, and his wife Diana. For the past three years, Diana Boston has opened the house, by arrangement, to small groups of visitors.

Some come purely to see the Manor, others to see the garden with its topiary and collection of old roses. An increasing number are drawn by the vibrant patchwork quilts which Lucy Boston made.

Diana Boston most enjoys visits from children who have read her mother-in-law's Green Knowe books. Green Knowe, a magical house where children from different centuries meet to play, was based closely on the Manor. Children visiting it today discover, with Diana Boston's guidance, many of the elements in the stories. 'Children often tell me that it's just like walking into a book,' Diana Boston says. 'They are always enthralled.'

It was built from pale stone, as a fortified manor house, in the reign of King Stephen, at roughly the same time as the Round Church in nearby Cambridge. In the 1730s an impressive Georgian house was constructed around the original Norman building. In this era the house was tenanted by the Gunning Beauties, two sisters who, having no great pedigree themselves, each managed to acquire an aristocratic husband. In 1798 most of the house burned down, though the ancient stone building survived along with one Georgian end.

When Lucy Boston bought it in the late 1930s, the Manor was a very strange house indeed. 'Some time after the fire, new floors had been built inside - in such a way that the top of the first floor windows poked into the attic, lighting your feet,' Diana Boston says. 'It was known in the village as the poltergeist house and local people avoided it.'

During the restoration of the house, Lucy Boston slept on a camp bed among the builder's rubble, drawing water from a well. 'She argued with her architect, who fortunately couldn't visit very often due to petrol rationing' Diana Boston explains. 'Aided by the builder's workmen and by Peter, her son, she revealed a series of Norman openings and, in the dining room, a huge Elizabethan inglenook. The dining room, which she had written off as suitable only as a store for gardening tools and gumboots, became her favourite room.'

Lucy Boston's own childhood had been repressive in the extreme: even the pleasure of good food was denied. At the end of her life, she spoke of her passion for her house and garden as the need to create a milieu - 'somewhere to be and a reason to be there'. She explained that her writing had been a means of consoling herself. Her fictional children have a sense of belonging to their environment, a closeness to nature and the past, that she feared was fast disappearing from the modern world.

The Manor, Hemingford Grey, Huntingdon (0480 463134). Open all year. Visits by appointment. 'The Children of Green Knowe', and other children's books by Lucy Boston, are available from Penguin in paperback

(Photograph omitted)

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