Every woman wishes to travel in style on her honeymoon and the 12th Earl of Moray was determined that his new wife would enjoy every comfort. Described as ‘six feet in stature, dark complexioned and handsome’ the honourable John Stewart had organised a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe for his honeymoon and commissioned a stylish, black travelling coach for the trip.
As a solider and politician he was engaged to the daughter of the Earl of Elgin during the 1830’s and six magnificent white horses had been bought to pull their coach. But, for some reason, the longed for marriage didn’t take place and the heartbroken Earl is said to have had the horses shot. He ordered the coach to be withdrawn from sight and it was taken to the coach house where it sat, unused, for the next 120 years.In 1951, the coach was finally moved to the Tyrwhitt Drake Carriage Museum in Maidstone where it now sits is stately but subdued grandeur. Even its window shutters are drawn against enquiring eyes and, as I stood looking at it, the romantic in me couldn’t help but feel sad for the Earl who largely withdrew from public life while he was still in his thirties.
Even in earlier life is seems the Earl wasn’t a fan of the limelight and despite acting as an MP for Newport on the Isle of Wight between 1825 and 1826 he was a lax attender at Parliament. In 1859, at the age of 62, he succeeded his elder brother, who was apparently insane from childhood, to the peerage and took control of his family extensive estates in north-east Scotland.
Remaining unmarried, the honourable John Stewart died in November 1867, having ‘for many years taken no part whatsoever in public affairs.’ I just hope he wasn’t alone.
PS. Despite its low key appearance, the Tyrwhitt-Drake Museum of Carriages (which is also known as the Maidstone Carriage Museum) is well worth a visit. It covers two large floors and is said to be one of the finest in Europe. The museum’s attendant is very friendly and keen to point out features that a visitor may otherwise overlook.
It’s also a bargain at £5 for a family ticket (2 adults and up to 3 children) and there’s plenty for the children to see including a Mayor’s carriage decorated with the only crest featuring a dinosaur, lots of carved animals – including dragons and snakes – an original ice cream cart and Queen Victoria’s pony cart which was pulled by her beloved donkey, Zora.
I hope you enjoy it too.
The image of a piece of cake topped with a sparkling candle has just dropped into my inbox. Apparently I’ve been on twitter for two years – yikes that has gone fast – and I have to say it’s been great. Some people may love Facebook but I’m definitely a twitter fan. During that time, I’ve learnt a lot and procrastinated quite a bit (yes, I’ve seen your funny pictures) but, most importantly, chatted with some very friendly people.
Being a homeworker can sometimes be a little lonely, so having a virtual hang out is fantastic and I get to ‘meet’ people I never would spoken to have in the real world. There are far too many of you to mention by name but I’m thankful to everyone who takes the time to say hello and, if your reading this post, it’s more than likely that you are one of them so that includes you.
And to celebrate, I’m putting the virtual kettle on and sharing my top ten blog posts with you. I’d love to hear which one is your favourite.
PS Don’t forget you can chat to me at @rachaelhale1
Which one did you like most? I’d love to know so do please drop a quick line in my comment box.
See you soon.
As part of her role Sarah carried out a literary tour of Kent’s public gardens, which has now been turned into a unique book featuring history, plants and poetry, and she has kindly dropped by to share some of the personal stories behind it.
You’re well known as a journalist, novelist and poet so how did you end up writing a book about gardening?
I have always been interested in gardens – as opposed to gardening! I didn’t really have much choice as a child as my mother was a garden historian and the herb gardens at home were open to the public. When I was studying at the London College of Fashion, I went to evening classes on garden history, and kept up the interest ever since. For a writer, they are such a rich source of stories – from the plants to the gardeners to the space itself. Just think how many plots pivet on secrets told in gardens!
How did you decide which gardens to include?
It was so hard. They had to be open to public (even for a few days of the year) as I wanted the public engagement element. I wanted 26 so I had to lose some of the gardens I had visited and really loved, but I tried to get a selection of different gardens. I really could have made this book ten times as long for Kent alone, and I love that people are now contacting me to tell me of a lovely garden I have missed out. I hope that they will write their own poems for that garden! But seriously, it does hurt that I couldn’t include all the gardens.
Are you a lover of useful herbs and plants like your mother, the garden historian and writer Elizabeth Peplow, or are you more fond of the ornamental?
Useful, I would say. We have an allotment at Hawkenbury and some of the herbs and vegetables are just so beautiful. The colour of beetroot leaves is just stunning and some herbs like fennel are just magic. When I put flowers in a pot I will always put herbs in too BUT having watched the Big Allotment Show on television recently, I’m trying to grow more flowers to cut. And edible flowers too, of course. I love all the stories too.
So, when you look at plants do you primarily see their colour and shape or do you think of their stories, their folklore and medicinal use?
I do tend to, I read quite a lot but I’m not an expert really and so that has been one of the joys of visiting the gardens and learning so much first-hand. I visited St Johns Jerusalem and Will Gould the gardener was walking me around with me and he showed me Queen Anne’s Lace. Of course I’ve seen it lots of times but what I didn’t know was that right in the middle is a spot of red and it’s called Queen Anne’s Lace because apparently that was a drop of blood from her finger when she was making lace. I keep looking at the booklet of 18th century recipes I picked up at Quebec House and wondering if I’m brave enough to try some of them. I love the idea of making my own wines – is that medicinal?
You visited many public gardens and parks whilst doing your research, when you first arrived what did you do?
I always did advance reading but when I got there, I tried to rely on my own intuition as to what particularly caught my interest about the garden. With some of the gardens I went round with the gardener or owner but I always tried to walk around by myself too. At first I just walked around and tried to see what was catching my eye. It may be there were connections between them so if I particularly noticed one red plant, I might then see a tree with red bark and then I would start to look for other red things. Sometimes it would be a puzzle. Why was this tree planted here? Or if I had read about a particularly interesting personality connected with the garden, I might try to imagine the garden from their point of view.
Did you write when you were there?
Always, always. I’m a big believer in my writer’s journal so I would write as many notes as I could and I always tried to find a place to sit down that spoke to me. I remember my garden history tutor saying that if you see a bench in a garden, you should sit on it because it has been put there for a particular reason, that’s the view someone wants you to see. It’s a good tip because you are getting an idea of how the garden can be viewed. Other times I’d lie out on the grass, or sit by a wall. I also took lots of photos.
For another project I’ve been doing a lot of research on WW1 soldiers, so I was particularly moved by the Belgian soldiers who ended up at Quex House and Gardens. I could really understand how working in the garden must have helped their recovery, it must have felt like a green tranquil paradise after the battlefields and also perhaps a useful gap between their experiences in the war and returning home. The story of one soldier stayed with me. He didn’t say a word during the two years he was at Quex (although he seemed happy there) but started talking again the minute he set foot back on Belgian soil. But there were so many. I think my favourite discovery was the crocus circle at Canterbury Cathedral that was the exact spot where the rose window would be if the tower fell. My favourite mystery has to be whether there were elephants at lovely Chilham Castle!
You also said that the garden at Chilham Castle gave you goosebumps, why is that?
Garden design is normally thought to be mostly about plants, but the more I learn the more I realise it is about how it can shape our emotional responses. At Chilham, there’s an eastern avenue of sweet chestnut trees tthat were planted in alignment with the rising sun, and apparently two yew trees have been found miles away that follow this line completely. They follow the prehistoric tracks now called the Pilgrim’s Way. There’s something so satisfying about that. We try to control so much of our environment nowadays almost by fighting it, and it’s humbling to sit in a garden and realise how we have always needed nature for our spiritual needs.
Of all the gardens you visited, which one would you like to own and why?
Good question. I think it has to be St John’s Jerusalem, which – perhaps not surprisingly – is one of the smallest gardens I visited. It has a lovely wild quality that feels so serene. The moat helps, I had daydreams of having a small wooden rowing boat and going for picnics, rather like Ratty and Mole!
But most of all, I came away with such enormous respect for the hard work and generosity of all the people who owned and ran these gardens in real life. I am sure they have little time for floating around on a boat. Or indeed daydreaming. It’s a wonderful thing they are doing for all of us.
‘Digging up Paradise’ reveals your own creative responses to the gardens. Did you find other writers’ literary responses to gardens influenced you in any way?
Yes, I think so. There is some brilliant pure garden writing but it was the nature garden writers and poets that made me look much closer than I had been doing. I also think that some of the nature writing is some of the bravest writing now. We can become quite cynical and worried about talking about the spiritual side of things and when they talk about the spirit of a place , it made me realise that’s what I was interested in – what does this place, this garden, mean and, wider still, where is our place in the world. It’s a search for what matters to us.
And finally, Digging up Paradise is unique mix of history, plants and poetry – where can people find it?
You can buy it from the publisher’s website – http://www.culturedllama.co.uk/books/digging-up-paradise-potatoes-people-and-poetry-in-the-garden-of-england. Or of course, order it from any good bookshop.
I haven’t taken part in a blog tour before and, to be completely honest, I’m far happier lurking in the background clicking other peoples ‘like’ buttons than being in the spotlight. It’s one of the reasons I love blogging so much and over the years I’ve discovered some incredible people in the virtual world. My favourites are the ones that let their personality shine through their words and give a glimpse behind the scenes.
So, thanks to Angela Buckley, aka the Victorian Supersleuth and author of The Real Sherlock Holmes, for inviting me to join this writing blog tour, I’m now revealing a little bit about my writing by answering the following four questions. Angela has also linked up with the talented author of Shellshocked Britain, Susie Grogan, who blogs over at nowrigglingoutofwriting and the questions were originally posed by Christine Findlay, Chair of Bookmark Blair in Perthshire, Scotland. The best bit about the tour for me though is that, at the end, I get to introduce you to four of my favourite bloggers.
What am I working on?
Well in true magpie style I can honestly say a bit of everything. I regularly write for two magazines – Kent Life and Kent Homes & Interiors who, despite first appearances, are totally unrelated to one another. So, one minute I’m snooping around someone’s lovely house asking lots of nosy questions for a ‘through the keyhole style feature’ and the next I’m happily lost in an archive or museum researching a historical event or person for my ‘history scrapbook’ series.
I’m also a volunteer writer for the Kent History Centre, hence their archives frequent appearance on my blog, and, when I can grab an extra moment, I’m either writing blog posts or working on my museum related non-fiction book.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I think the greatest difference is that I’m not led by any particular historical era or theme. I love history in general and I’m usually inspired by unusual fact – the type that gets randomly dropped into a conversation when you are least expecting it -or an object, whether that be an entire home or a small personal belonging.
Why do I write what I do?
Because I love the quirky stuff.
How does my writing process work?
I would love to say that I’m a super organised writer who has a regular writing slot and sticks to it no matter what, but I’m not. I’m usually a writer in a rush. I have a list of feature deadlines stuck to my wall and a ‘to do’ book filled with notes, exclamation marks and ‘must do this now’ scrawled across it. As soon as I get a new commission, I set up a file for it, write a list of what I need to do for it on designated page in my ‘to do’ book and start my research. Then, as family and work life evolves, I gradually accumulate everything I need until a week before deadline when it suddenly becomes – URGENT!
As much as I dread them, deadlines are my personal red hot poker, a date not to be exceeded and I actually work better when I have them. So much so that I frequently give myself false dates in order to try and keep on top of things. I think it all goes back to my last job when I had to account for every six minute block of my working time!
As for the actual writing, I always dread starting something new. I love the editing bit but the thought of getting that painful first paragraph down on paper can have me searching for something, anything, more pressing to do and I know I have a particularly bad case of the ‘blank page blues’ when I find myself doing the housework. If this happens I have to bribe myself back into the chair and will gather everything up and head for a local café that doesn’t have internet access. I then force myself to write an outline and at least 500 words before I leave. And by the time I’ve done that I might as well crack on and finish it. The odd hot chocolate awarded at certain stages also helps.
Right, that’s me done with. Now for the interesting bit.
I’ve been asked to introduce you to some of my favourite bloggers and, being in a greedy mood, I’ve invited four of them to join in as I think you might like reading their words too.
So here they are:
If smelly vision had been invented, Midihideaways by Andreas would be perfect and I love virtually touring France through his blog. Just a quick warning though – his images and descriptions frequently leave me feeling hungry! This is what he has to say about himself:
Andreas lives in a small village in the South of France, which he found purely by chance, some 20-odd years ago. A little while ago a friend suggested that he should write a blog to show the many attractive facets of the Languedoc region to holidaymakers, and that was the start of the Midihideaways blog. New posts appear once a week, and topics are wide ranging, including food, restaurant reviews, places to visit, activities, nature and more.
Edward Mooney on the other hand has taught me the power of a good photograph and I frequently look at how he has ‘framed’ the main object in his pictures in the vague hope that his expertise will magically pass itself to me over the internet.
Edward is a Kildare based Photographer and married father of three great kids. In his rare moments of spare time, he can be found exploring ancient ruins and castles travelling around the Irish countryside in search of his next Adventure, which he fondly refers to as ‘Ruin-hunting‘. Edward concentrates on combining his passion for photography with his deep interest in History, Old Ruins, folklore & mythology. You can see more of his work at edmooneyphoto.wordpress.com
Both Nicola Young and I juggle full time family care with a professional writing career and I’m frequently inspired by the variety of topics that Nicola covers. We also have young sons on a diary free diet so her personal experiences and family tried recipes, particularly the cakes, are much appreciated.
Nicola is a freelance copywriter and regular contributor to She Knows UK, an on-line women’s lifestyle magazine. Her blog, Nikki Young Writes, is dedicated to everything Nicola is passionate about: her family, healthy food (including making gluten and dairy free creations for her intolerant son) and her weekly fiction writing link-up. Nicola also writes stories for children and is currently working on her first novel for teens.
And finally, Hannah Griffin at Ditto. Hannah’s enthusiasm and happiness is infectious and her personality pours off her blog’s pages along with common sense advice on the business side of marketing your business. She frequently posts blogs bursting with colour and I’ve learnt a lot from her. Hannah and her team also designed the gorgeous logo sitting at the top of my blog, which gives me yet another reason to be a fan.
Hannah Griffin is a brand stylist, blogger and Creative Director of family-run branding studio, Ditto. She lives in Kent with her fiancé Dan, a graphic designer, and their two house rabbits. Hannah writes about branding, design and business at dittoblog.com.
The smiling figure of a Victorian man dangles from two thin wires above the heads of visitors to the Otford Heritage Centre. It looks like he’s sitting in a flying goalpost, but he’s actually harnessed into the wooden frame of an early tri-plane. The man is Percy Sinclair Pilcher and his plane was called the Hawk.
Percy Sinclair Pilcher – early English aviator
Percy was born in Bath in 1876 and from an early age was fascinated by the thought of powered flight. In 1895, he developed his first two hang-gliders, the Bat and the Beetle, but they were unstable and difficult to control. Undeterred, he moved to Eynsford in 1896 to work with another early aviation pioneer, Hiram Maxim. Maxim had a munitions company at Upper Austin Lodge Farm, just north of Otford, which is where the Maxim automatic-firing gun used throughout World War One was developed. It was also the site that Percy moved his latest project – the Hawk – to.
Mainly constructed of bamboo, the Hawk had a wingspan of 24ft 8inches and weighed just 50lbs. ‘Nainsook’, a material used to make racing sails, was stretched over the delicate wing structure and a hundred bracing wires were secured to the frame to keep it together. Evidence of Percy’s early experiences in the Royal Navy showed through the extensive use of cord lashing and a sprung undercarriage was incorporated to reduce the impact of landing. Finally, sitting amongst this carefully laced creation sat Percy, the pilot, vulnerable to all weathers and totally unprotected from any impact.
Taking to the sky
In 1896, the Hawk was ready and Percy’s first test flights took place on a nearby hill known as the Knoll. The tri-plane was attached to a thin line and pulled into the air through a combination of speed and downwards movement. The first flights were short and low, at around 30ft but Percy had achieved his aim and later on his flights covered 300-400 yards and rose to about 60ft.
The next step was to achieve powered flight and for that to happen, Percy needed financial backing. Working with Walter Wilson, Percy developed a new tri-flight aircraft based closely on the experiments of Octave Chanute in Chicago with the aim of attracting sponsors. Finally, in September 1899, Percy was ready to demonstrate how it worked.
Within the grounds of a wealthy friend’s house in Stanford Park, Percy prepared the Hawk to make a final demonstration. A new engine was being bench tested and he hoped the flight would secure the backing he needed. His first two attempts were unsuccessful as the towline snapped and Percy remarked that the damp conditions were making the nainsook heavier than usual. The third attempt was much better but as the plane rose to around 60ft there was a loud ‘snap’. The tail spar had broken and the Hawk somersaulted to the ground. Percy was left totally unprotected and suffered severe concussion and a fractured left femur. Sadly, he never regained consciousness and, at 32 years of age, he died at 3am the following morning
Percy Sinclair Pilcher was the first man in England to fly a heavier-than-air aircraft. His advances within the field of aviation were significant and just two years later, when the Wright Brothers became the first to achieve powered flight in a heavier-than-air machine with a pilot aboard, they acknowledged his achievements.
Percy’s story is just one of those told at the Otford Heritage Centre and I would like to thank Carol Griffiths, the Centre’s Administration Assistant, for all her help with this blog.
Go and see Percy at The Otford Heritage Centre, The School House, 21 High Street, Otford,Kent. TN14 5PG.
Admission is free but I would advise you to call 01959 522384 before traveling to confirm opening times.
You may also find the following links helpful –
Otford Heritage Centre – ‘Take a journey through 4,000 years of Otford’s geology, natural history, ecology and archaeology. Features include model of Otford Palace, 56 foot timeline, Roman artefacts, historic photographs, local artwork and Otford’s unique millennium solar system model is explained. Walks leaflets and booklets available.’
Kent’s museums and archives are bursting with thousands of fabulous objects that don’t always get the admiration they deserve. So, with the valued support of those involved, I’m going to bring some of them to you through a weekly blog post. And there is no place better to start than the Wihtred Charter that, according to a report by Gordon Ward. M.D, F.S.A. in 1948, ‘takes us back to far off times when Kings of the line of Hengist reined at Canterbury – and found their subjects far less docile that we are today.’
On the 6th day of the Ides of April in the year 699 A.D, King Wihtred of Kent held a ‘witenagemot’ – a great council – at Cilling near Faversham. His kingdom was in turmoil and he was eager to implement a scheme to placate his people.
Numerous attempts by Mull, a Wessex King, to claim the Kentish throne had resulted in the people of Canterbury venting their anger by burning him in his palace, but an air of unrest remained. The ‘new’ Christian faith was challenging pagan customs and King Wihtred sought to save ‘the future of his soul’ by reuniting his people and regaining their loyalty. And what better way to unite a diverse group than by putting money in their pocket?
Having gathered together the highest clerics, abbots and abbesses in the land, King Wihtred proposed a charter granting the churches and monasteries certain freedoms and privileges in return for a more obvious show of ‘Kingly support.’ At that time Kent contained four nunneries (Minster in Thanet, Folkestone, Lyminge and Minster in Sheppey) two non-monastic churches (Christ Church, Canterbury and St. Andrew in Rochester) and two male convents at Canterbury and Reculver. It was a cunning plan that aimed to please both the religious community and reassure the King’s subjects.
According to Gordon Ward’s report, the King’s sincerity should not be doubted, however, as the care taken to ensure the corroboration of Abbot Adrian, the North African Abbot of St Augustine’s, and Beorhtweald, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the presence of Kent’s most prominent Abbesses goes much further than adding mere formality to the charter. King Wihtred was publicly declaring his Christian belief before the council and dedicating himself to church reform. His peaceful intentions were clear and, as a descendent of the royal line of Hengist, he was known to be a man of his word.
The charter was bought at auction in November 1946 by Sir Albert Stern, a former High Sheriff of Kent, who subsequently presented it to Kent County Council. The parchment is now held at the Kent History and Library Centre and is the only original record of the privileges King Wihtred bestowed in a move he hoped would secure him the ‘honour and obedience’ his predecessors had enjoyed.
Omitting the names of the witnesses, an English translation, as given by Gordon Ward, reads as follows:
In the name of the Lord God our Saviour Jesus Christ.
I, Wihtred, King of Kent, considering the future of my soul, have been careful to make this provision because of various calamities threatening the churches of God and the monasteries which exist in this (kingdom of ) Kent, with the consent of my chief men whose names are to be written below.
That they may be free, from the present day and time, from all demand for public taxation and charge or vexation. They are to show to me and my posterity such honour and obedience as they used to show to my royal ancestors, under whom justice and liberty were secured to them. And I decree that both I and my posterity shall hold fast in this pious determination: nor are those things which have been rightly allowed by us and our predecessors to be brought to nought by any chicanery whatsoever, but, as is now said at this time, they are to be preserved with the Lord’s guidance from henceforth and for ever. In full confirmation whereof I have with my own hand portrayed the sign of the Holy Cross and have called upon the most reverend Beorhtweald, the archbishop, to subscribe, together with the most holy bishop Gemmund, as well as venerable presbyters and religious abbots, in the presence of the renowned abbesses ,that is, Hirminhilda, Irminburga, Aeaba and Nerienda.
Done on the sixth day of the Ides of April in the eight year of our reign, in the twelvth indiction, in the place named Cilling.
I just love the mention of chicanery in a legal document and hope you have enjoyed this first instalment as much as I loved researching it. If there is any particular topic or era you would like featured, please do let me know and make sure you don’t miss any treasures by signing up to have new posts delivered directly to your inbox!
Thanks for stopping by.
Many thanks to the staff of the Kent History & Library Centre for their ongoing support and for allowing me to display images of the charter here.
The Kent History & Library Centre in Maidstone is a hub for historical expertise and this newly released series of talks is bound to prove popular. All talks are on a Thursday and will start at 6.30pm. Entry is £3.00 and you can book your seat by calling 03000 413131 or emailing email@example.com
Hope to see you there!
8 May 2014- ‘The Curious Rural Revolt': Kentish tithe wars in the 1930’s -John Bulaitis from Canterbury Christ Church University
Kent was a leading player in this important episode of 20th century history which is incredibly now almost forgotten.
12 June 2014 – The wedding journey of Charles 1 and Henrietta Maria through Kent: a diplomatic rumpus – Sara Wolfson – Canterbury Christ Church University
In June 1625, the newly weds made their way from Dover to London, feted by the crowds. But this was one royal procession that didn’t go like clockwork.
17 July 2014 – George Austen’s Tonbridge – Mark Ballard – Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives
Tonbridge was the home town of the Rev. George Austen (1731-1805), father of Jane Austen the famous novelist. This talk draws on the archives held at the Kent History & Library Centre to describe how the family came to live there, and the buildings that George knew, several of which are still standing.
7 August – The British & Belgian shared experience of World War 1 – Andrew Morgan – Dover Transport Museum; The Shornecliffe Trust
Andrew acted as historical advisor on the film The First and the Last, a commission by the Belgian tourist board that is a must-see in this centenary year of the invasion of their country.
21 August – The Thompson brothers: a story of the First World War – Liz Finn – Kent History & Library Centre
Liz traces the extraordinary story of the three brothers, immortalised in a stunning photograph from the Essenhigh Corke collection.
11 September – The Great War and Great Chart – Emma Hanna – University of Greenwich
Emma, an academic historian, reports her research on the letters sent by soldiers and sailors in response to letters and parcels sent to them from Great Chart. This is one of the most important archives held at the Kent History & Library Centre.
25 September – Union and Workhouse Records – Deborah Collins – Independent Researcher
Deborah, the author of a very useful website on the subject, will describe the wealth of documentation existing in the Kent archives and explain its value to family historians.
9 October – Surviving the Western Front: Regimental identity and officer-man relations in the Buffs, 1914-1918 – Mark Connelly – University of Kent.
You will be enthused and inspired, as well as informed, in this talk by the Professor of Modern British Military History.
23 October – Literacy and Book Ownership in Seventeenth Century Faversham – Linda Taylor – Independent Researcher
Linda, an alumnus of the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Kent, explains book ownership, literacy and education in East Kent 350 years ago using will inventories and other archives from the Kent History & Library Centre.
20 November 2014 – ‘It it a pity what bad men could be turned inside out sometimes': Victorian Scandal on the Kent coast – Carolyn Oulton – International Centre for Victorian Women Writers
Carolyn’s talk will draw on and sum up the exhibition “Victorian Women at the Seaside”, due to tour some Kent seaside libraries in the summer and autumn of this year’
5 March 2015 – Why does Faversham have its Magna Carta? – Peter Tann – Kent Archaeological Society
An examination of one of Kent’s most important documents set in the context of Faversham’s surviving medieval charters.
Many thanks to the Kent History & Library Centre for allowing me to reproduce their programme here and don’t forget you can book your tickets in advance by calling 03000 413131 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
It doesn’t matter where you live, you’re sure to know a ‘character’. A person whose life seems to be full of drama and scandal and who naturally draws attention. For Whitstable during the 20th Century that character was the author Somerset Maugham whose exploits as a war spy and entanglements with a gay lover kept the gossips busy. Revelations following his death have left his reputation in tatters, however, and Victoria Falconer, the director of Whitstable’s new literary festival Whitlit, says it’s time to put the record straight.
In the following guest post, Victoria explains why Whitstable should be proud rather than embarrassed by its former resident and reveals her plan to put his name back on the literary circuit.
Over to you Victoria….
Somerset Maugham was the biggest selling novelist of the 1930s. His books sold in their millions and his plays performed all over the world, but since his death in 1969, his personal and professional reputation has suffered a sharp decline and he remains today a distinctly unfashionable literary figure.
Even in Whitstable, the town where he grew up and made famous (as ‘Blackstable’) in two of his most famous books, Cakes and Ale and Of Human Bondage, the locals feel distinctly ambivalent towards Maugham. When questioned, the few residents who have heard of him comment “Well he hated Whitstable didn’t he?” There are no Maugham plaques or memorials in the town, and his childhood home was knocked down over 50 years ago.
As the Founder and Director of WhitLit, I wanted to make sure Maugham was at the heart of the festival. I first read Maugham as a student having known of the Whitstable connection and enjoyed his books. I particularly remember reading Of Human Bondage in a two day marathon during a holiday to Greece. I’ve always found it sad that Whitstable hasn’t celebrated Maugham more and thinks he hated the town. It’s true Maugham had an unhappy and lonely childhood here, but that was because he was orphaned and sent to live with unaffectionate relatives who he’d never met before. But his recollections of Whitstable in Cakes and Ale are very fond. In later life he became alienated from his family by his private secretary and sadly, his personal life has cast a shadow over the rest of his work. But his books and short stories are still as relevant and entertaining today as they were when they were written. I think it’s a travesty that Maugham is rarely taught in schools or even degree courses and he’s overlooked in favour of more fashionable British 20th century authors like Greene, Waugh and Woolf.
W.Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), was born in Paris but spent his formative years in Whitstable, after being orphaned at an early age. He lived with his uncle who was Vicar of All Saints Church, and had a difficult and lonely childhood. He attended the King’s School Canterbury, and studied in Germany before moving to London to train as a doctor. The success of his second book, Liza of Lambeth, enabled him to become a full- time author and playwright.
He penned over one hundred short stories and twenty one novels, and there are over thirty film adaptations of his work. His influence as a writer has been extensive, his detective Ashenden was said to be the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond whilst George Orwell said he was “the modern writer who has influenced me the most”. Outwardly his life was richly rewarding, but Maugham expertly concealed a turbulent private life. Predominantly homosexual, he made a disastrous marriage to Syrie Wellcome, but also suffered anguish from an unrequited love affair and a shocking final betrayal. He retired to the South of France, but his ashes were scattered at the King’s School, Canterbury. His uncle, the Reverend Henry Maugham, is buried in All Saints Churchyard.
Through a series of Maugham related events, WhitLit will spotlight the writer. The acclaimed one man play Mr Maugham at Home starring Anthony Smee will be performed at the Playhouse theatre, there will be a walking tour of Maugham’s Whitstable taking in the landscapes and landmarks featured in his books, All Saints church where Maugham’s uncle was a vicar will be holding an Ales and Tales event, and courtesy of Vintage Random House 200 copies of Cakes and Ale will be distributed free for local book clubs to read. A debate on the book will take place during the festival chaired by Val Hennessy, literary critic at the Daily Mail.
Headlining the Maugham events will be the screening of the recent documentary Revealing Mr Maugham, introduced by the director Michael House who will be flying in from Paris for the occasion. This will be followed by a debate on Maugham with House, his acclaimed biographer Selina Hastings, and his grandchildren Camilla Chandon and Nic Paravicini.
Camilla Chandon says of her grandfather: “I am very proud to be WSM’s granddaughter and would like to point out that spending much of my time in Spain and being married to a French husband, I am delighted to find that he is still extremely well known abroad and his books are recommended reading for post graduate students studying English in both these countries. He is still highly regarded in the States where people are always very interested in meeting one of his descendants. I have also noticed that hardly a week goes by without a mention or a quote from him in the many literary magazines to which I subscribe. “
Jane Austen, DH Lawrence and Daphne Du Maurier all have literary festivals dedicated to them and I feel it’s right that Maugham is put on the literary map and celebrated in the town. It’s a real coup to be able to bring together Selina Hastings, Michael House and Maugham’s family, who have never appeared in public before to talk about their grandfather. They are delighted about WhitLit’s plans and we hope that the festival gets the town and wider area reading his books again. It’s about time Maugham got credit for his contribution to literature.
Thanks for sharing your inspiration Victoria, WhitLit sounds fantastic and I can’t wait to visit.
WhitLit will be taking place in Whitstable from 8-11 May. For the full programme and ticket information visit www.whitlit.co.uk
Appearing authors: Selina Hastings, Lynn Barber John Gordon Sinclair, Anthony Browne, Jenny Boyd, Ben Moor, Margaret Pemberton, Sarah Harrison, Andy Miller, Nick Russell Pavier, Stephen Cooper, Mary Hamer, Linda M James, Aggie MacKenzie, Pen Farthing, Janetta Harvey, DE Meredith, Essie Fox, Lloyd Shepherd, Andrew McGuinness, Christopher Fowler, Barry Forshaw, Andrew Lycett, Peter Clark, Tom Hodgkinson, Gavin Pretor Pinney, Danny Rhodes, Emma Thomson, Paul Fraser Collard, Angus Donald,
If you fancy a different kind of behind the scenes peek at Whitlit (and two of Kent’s other leading literary festivals) then please read my piece ‘Speaking out’ in the May issue of Kent Life magazine.