I was brought up in a stately home. It was a fantastically big house, terribly old-fashioned, with children on the top floor coming down after tea to see their parents, and not really having very much to do with them; and being rather frightened of them as a distant authority to whom you would be sent if you misbehaved.

There was a series of very nasty governesses who didn't give a damn, and we had somebody called Major Osborne who lived nearby, and who used to come and teach us in the schoolroom.

I never understand why people think childhood is such a blissful time, because my experience was one of always being told off, and you never had any privacy in your own mind.

People would ask you: 'What are you thinking?' or 'Why did you say this?' 'What are you reading? You can't read that, it is not suitable.' 'Have you combed your hair?' I cannot understand how children can bear the constant intrusion from the grown-up world.

There was one rather nice governess, called Mademoiselle Burnod, who was about 100 and was in love with the estate carpenter. She used to take creme de menthe from a spoon, saying it was cough mixture, and she taught us to eat dandelion salad. She was a proper person in an odd, crazy way, and she wasn't at all cruel or unpleasant.

And maybe it was to do with her, but when I was asked, at the age of eight, if I would like to go to France I thought, 'Oh yes, sounds quite nice, France . . .'

My mother had some friends with whom I went to live, in a little chateau in the Loire. They had three daughters and a baby boy in a pram.

Nowadays, everybody goes abroad when they are incredibly young, but to me then, it was the most exciting thing that could possibly happen.

I don't remember, on any occasion, feeling homesick. I don't remember ever not liking anything I was given to eat. In fact, I thought everything I was given to eat was delicious, and children don't usually like new things, do they? At home in England, we were still having nursery food sent up from the kitchen, awful things like stewed gooseberries, and I loathed all that sort of food, but I was always being told, 'Eat up your gooseberries.'

When I first arrived in France, I could only say a few sentences in French, but I learnt very quickly, and I don't remember feeling self- conscious about speaking it.

I went to a school in the village, which was about half a mile away. I remember on the first day being given a little brown paper bag, and told that it was my tea. On the way to school, I looked in the bag, and there was a piece of French bread, two lumps of sugar, and two squares of chocolate. I remember thinking, 'That is a pretty rubbishy tea.' But when the tea break came and the teacher said, 'Now you must have your goute,' everyone had exactly the same, and I thought, 'This is the most brilliant tea I have ever had.'

I remember learning at the village school to write with purple ink on square writing books, like French children do, with great, loopy French writing.

I remember being furious when, for religious instruction class, they said, 'Because you are a Protestant, you obviously don't know any religion, so you had better go into the class with the five-year-olds.' Of course, I had had Major Osborne teaching me everything quite correctly and properly.

One of the five-year-olds asked: 'When you say your prayers, do you say them in English or in French?' When I replied, 'In English,' she said, 'How does le petit Jesus francais understand?' And I thought, 'You stupid girl . . .'

I didn't feel at all oppressed during that period. I must have been supervised, people must have said, 'It is bedtime,' or 'Get up and go to school,' but I don't remember any feeling of being ordered about. There was a great sense of freedom. I never remember thinking that I didn't want to be there, I never remember not liking it, and, in fact, I was quite sorry when I had to go home.

That experience set me on the path of a great passion for France, and for a long time I went every year; I had the rather silly thought that everything French was better than everything English.

I have often wondered why I was so happy at that time, and I think it was probably my first sustained period of being happy. I look back on that period with nothing but pleasure.

When I came back home, the oppression of childhood didn't feel quite so great, although the relationship between me and my parents went on much the same. I was a child up on the top floor again.

Teresa Waugh is the author of 'Sylvia's Lot', published by Sinclair- Stevenson.

(Photograph omitted)

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