A Miss Read day at Minster Lovell

This week, I had the great pleasure of meeting up with Jill Saint, daughter of Dora Saint, who wrote as ‘Miss Read’. We met for lunch at The Swan in Minster Lovell in the heart of the Cotswolds.

01This is the very pub which Phyllida ‘Phil’ Prior is taken to by Richard in News from Thrush Green but, where Phil and Richard’s trip took place on a day ‘peaceful in its winter emptiness’, ours was on a warm and sunny day stolen from summer.

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After lunch, which we ate by what could have been the very fireplace that was lit for Phil and Richard’s visit, we followed in the fictional characters’ footsteps, walking through the pretty village full of thatched cottages and perfect English gardens full of hollyhocks and roses.

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The ruin of the 15th-century Minster Lovell Hall was our destination.

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‘What had these venerable walls witnessed in their time, Phil wondered? Passion in plenty, bloodshed without doubt; but also piety, perseverance and simple happiness.’

4 A bonfire had been lit in the neighbouring churchyard, a pungent reminder that autumn was on its way.6But, today, the sun dappled its light through the trees along the River Windrush and I noted that the river is given its real name in News from Thrush Green, perhaps because Minster Lovell is a real place. In other Thrush Green books, where Woodgreen becomes Thrush Green and Witney becomes Lulling, the Windrush is called the Pleshey. 7

We so enjoyed our trip to Minster Lovell. It’s always a magical experience to walk into a scene which has been described so vividly in a favourite book and I hope we can visit again another time – perhaps later in the year – witnessing it as Miss Read’s characters did: ‘The ancient inn drowsed in the winter sunlight, and welcomed them with a great log fire’.

Buy News from Thrush Green here.

miss-read News from Thrush Green

Jill kindly agreed to answer a few questions from our Facebook group ‘I Want to Live in Fairacre’.

Interview with Jill Saint

Pauline Downing: What was Dora’s favourite season?

Jill: She almost certainly liked summer best.

Carol Hager: Did Dora have a favorite character?

Jill: I’m not sure if she had a favourite character, though she did once say when asked, that Mrs Pringle was the only one that got away from her, and she did of course write a book of that title.

Teresa O’Hara: What was Dora’s favourite dinner and dessert or cake?

Jill: Dessert: Crème brulée; don’t know about main meal, but she wasn’t an enthusiastic meat eater. Possibly poultry. Shepherd’s pie. Cake: gingerbread and Battenberg, but she was very keen on any cake at afternoon tea-time, right up to the end!

Linda Rachel: Do you know why Miss Read was never given a Christian name in the books? She was only ever “Miss Read”.

Jill: I don’t think Dora ever thought about a Christian name for Miss Read.  In the early 50s, most people would have addressed each other as Miss/Mrs Whatever, especially the local schoolmistress.  Only once, a journalist or reviewer referred to her as Grace Read, which was in fact Dora’s mother’s name.

Mandy Hobbs: Did she live in a cottage? And what was her favourite flower?

Jill: She lived in a fairly remote cottage not far from Hungerford in Berkshire. Her favourite flowers were roses, cottage pinks and wild flowers.

Dora Saint Miss Read house Strouds

Tracey Raper: Would your dear mother be pleased that she has a following on Facebook?

Jill: Dora would have been amused and pleased to know about the Facebook following, though it would have taken ages to explain it to her. She didn’t do computers, or even electric typewriters.

Denise Shaw: I would be interested to know if she enjoyed visiting other parts of the country on holiday perhaps or days out? Did she ever travel abroad if so where?

Jill: They visited Malta, Austria, Germany, Portugal, Bruges, Vienna, Paris, and Italy – Lake Como, Venice, Florence, Siena and Rome, and south – Capri, Naples, Sorrento, and Sicily in their earlier days. As they got older and didn’t want to travel so far, they went to UK places, indulging themselves in very good hotels just for a few days at a time.  They were fond of the Welsh borders and the New Forest, but travelled all over the UK including Scotland and Ireland, as well as days out in the sort of radius you’d expect. They had a timeshare flat in Torquay which they used for many years, so they saw a lot of south Devon.

Jeanne Gale: I have always wanted to know the impetus that led her, from the essays she wrote to tackling something as big as a book.

Jill: The best description of her move from journalistic writing to the Miss Read books is her own, which you’ll find in Mrs Griffin Sends Her Love. Essentially, she was commissioned to write Village School, and the rest is history.

Jackie Bridgen: Was there a real life inspiration for the dreaded Mrs Pringle – or indeed the very sophisticated Amy?

Jill: Dora was always particularly careful not to base characters on real people who might be offended, but I can see two of our friends in Amy – one a very practical and efficient person who was a wonderful hostess, and another who was always immaculately dressed and groomed.  I’ve no idea if Dora had them in mind, or whether it was unconscious – I don’t think I ever asked her, and I wouldn’t think she’d do it deliberately. I’ve no idea about Mrs Pringle – I don’t remember anyone like her!

Margaret AndValdis Juskevics: I would like to ask Jill where exactly did you live in Wood Green? Do you remember wheeling your little dolly pram around Witney?

Jill: We didn’t live on Woodgreen itself, but at 94 High Street, Witney (Lulling in the books) in the top flat of the house. Our landlady became my godmother, and Pam Ayres has a wonderful description of her in her own memoirs.  I remember it very well (and the dolls’ pram), and Woodgreen itself. We went back regularly when older friends were still alive, and I go quite frequently now. The Tourist Information Centre does a roaring trade in the Thrush Green leaflets!

Deborah Joynson: I would like to know what happened to her sisters Lil’ and Betty. What did they think of her career, and are they portrayed in any characters?

Jill: I’m not aware that she put Lil and Betty into the books at all, though they both read them.  Lil didn’t marry;  taught at primary schools in the East End of London (Docklands when it really was) her whole life, and died in her mid-80s in a nursing home in Henley, very much supported by Betty who lived not far away.  I got on very well with Betty, who was sadly widowed soon after she and her husband Alan retired.  She was a very keen gardener, and we used to egg each other on to buy things at garden centres.  She was also extremely funny and good company.  She died of cancer a few years ago.  I still keep in touch with her son Pete and his wife Debbie; not as often as I should.

Zuzanna Michoń Haslam: I would like to know how Dora celebrated Christmas and does Jill have any special enduring little girl/family memories of that time?

Jill: We didn’t make a great deal of Christmas and birthdays, though my parents always made sure that I had a good time at both.  We had the traditional tree, decorations, presents and meal, and often went to the pantomime with another family.

Victoria Connelly: We had a fun discussion on the Facebook group about ‘Morny’ soap after a reference in Summer at Fairacre. Are there brands of cosmetics or food/drink that your mother loved that still survive today?

Jill: Dora used mainly the traditional toiletries like Morny and Bronnley.  I can’t think of anything in the food and drink line, except that she liked Pimms.

Sally Oliver: Which writers did Dora Saint enjoy the most?

Jill: Trollope above all; Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, Barbara Pym, Angela Thirkell, Colin Dexter’s Morse; E M Delafield’s Provincial Lady; Ngaio Marsh and Agatha Christie; Adrian Bell and Ronald Blythe. She liked detective novels and poetry.

Thank you for the questions and to Jill for taking the time to answer them all. And come and join us on our ‘I Want to Live in Fairacre’ Facebook page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summer Reads

Can you believe it’s September already? Where did the summer go? But – oh – how wonderful it’s been. I’ve enjoyed many an hour sitting in the garden reading a good book. My favourite summer reads have been The Inn at Eagle Point by Sherryl Woods, Last One Home by Debbie Macomber, and Blackberry Summer by RaeAnne Thayne.

Books Sherryl Woods, Debbie Macomber, RaeAnne Thayne 1Our Springer spaniel Hattie often hopped up onto the bench beside me, wondering what I was up to!

IMG_9709I also really adored Robyn Carr’s What We Find – a moving novel about healing and allowing yourself to risk your heart one more time. It’s the start of a new series and, if it’s anything like the wonderful Virgin River series, I’m going to be hooked!

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The Honor Roll!

I was absolutely delighted to hear from my publisher that I’d sold over 100,000 copies of The Rose Girls and just as pleased to receive this gorgeous gift from my publisher to commemorate reaching this milestone.

The Rose Girls framed

Sales of The Rose Girls mean that I am now featured on the Romance Writers of America’s Honor Roll along such luminaries as Nora Roberts, Debbie Macomber and Robyn Carr. My publisher was so thrilled by the news that they sent me a dozen red roses. When they arrived, my husband said, ‘They’d better be from your publisher or you’ll be in trouble!’

Roses for RWA Roll of Honour P1280232So, a special thank you to every single reader who has bought a copy of The Rose Girls because, without you, I couldn’t have achieved this and it really has made me very happy indeed!

The Full Brontë – out now!

Kindle The Full Bronte_final web600I’m really excited to bring you a brand new novella this summer. The Full Brontë is a light-hearted story which can be read in the space of a summer’s afternoon. Fun, warm and romantic with a gorgeous Yorkshire setting that I think you’re going to love! I really hope you enjoy it!

It’s available from Amazon as a Kindle Single.

Buy Now on Amazon UK
Buy Now on Amazon US
Buy Now on Amazon AUS
Buy Now on Amazon Canada

What summer is made for…

Last month, we had a very special invitation to join friends at their beach hut at beautiful Wrabness on the Essex coast. The day couldn’t have been more perfect with peerless blue skies and endless sunshine. The perfect day to venture out onto the water. This was my first time in a canoe and I loved it! Being surrounded by the heavenly blue of the water and the sky was something I’ll never forget.

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Back on dry land, we took a walk along the coast path to Grayson Perry’s extraordinary ‘House for Essex’ and we all fell in love with the wildflower meadow surrounding it and loved how the colours of the house perfectly mirrored those of the summer countryside.

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I love that we are all wearing hats for our expedition!

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Walking through the fields along the coast, I felt like a character from a Rosamunde Pilcher novel.

17These are the sort of days summer is made for: eating, drinking, walking and talking with friends and kicking your shoes off and just being.

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Summer Party

As a new member of the East Anglian Writers’ Group, I was so looking forward to their summer party which is held each year at the beautiful Norfolk home of Ann and Anthony Thwaite.

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The garden borders the River Tas and it’s from this very spot that poet Philip Larkin took a punt with his editor, Anthony. Here I am, reading Larkin by the river!

IMG_9658 trimmedAnd the lovely Alice Thwaite was punting guests up and down the river after a splendid buffet-style lunch in the garden so Roy and I climbed aboard.

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PuntThere is something magical about being so close to the water. We saw damselflies galore and some beautiful plants and flowers and the gentle beauty of the Norfolk countryside.

IMG_9670No wonder Ratty in Wind in the Willows says that there is, ‘nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’

 

The Shakespeare Sisters!

My favourite day of the year – bar none – is when we go to collect our new ex-commercial hens from the British Hen Welfare Trust and bring them home to enjoy a happy retirement. This July, we rehomed four gorgeous girls who we named after heroines from Shakespeare’s comedies in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the great man’s death. So let me introduce you to…

Hermia – who I hope is going to grow lots more feathers very soon.

Hermia

Viola – who is very inquisitive and follows us around the garden.

ViolaBeatrice – the top hen of this little flock who keeps everyone in check.

BeatriceAnd Rosalind – a very vocal hen who lays beautiful pale eggs.

RosalindCollectively known as The Shakespeare sisters!

The Shakespeare SistersViola and Hermia are the little uns and have so many bare patches that I’ve been trying to pop a bit of sun cream on them as they are keen sun worshippers.

The Little UnsIt’s wonderful to have the hen head count up to seven. The garden was looking a bit depleted with just three, but the old girls haven’t taken kindly to the new arrivals and I fear that further battles will be fought before the flock settles down!

Secret Offer

I’m really excited to tell you that The Secret of You has been chosen by Amazon as part of their summer promotion in the UK so you can get the ebook for just 99p.

Set in the beautiful Cotswolds, The Secret of You is a novel about love, trust and antiques. So, if you’re missing your big country house fix from Downton Abbey and like a little bit of mystery with your romances, grab a bargain and get reading.

Buy from AmazonSome reader comments for The Secret of You:

“A highly recommended read if you want a delightful escape with beautiful settings, mysteries, friendship and romance.”

“I loved every minute of this story very enchanting. I certainly didn’t want it to end.”

“Made me cry at the last 2 chapters so have a hanky at the ready.”

“Such a great read couldn’t put it down.”

Limited time offer

Price correct at the time of posting (July 2016)

The great summer maze hunt

I seem to be writing a lot about gardens at the moment. First, there was The Rose Girls, then came Love in an English Garden which will be published next year, and now I’m planning a novel featuring a maze.

The great maze hunt started in May with a visit with my friend, Ellie, to the Bridge End Garden in Saffron Walden which we loved even though the sun was hiding and it was freezing cold!

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Saffron Walden also boasts an incredible turf maze – the largest ancient labyrinth in the British Isles which features four corner protrusions known as bastions.

IMG_8067But it’s hedge mazes that I’m most interested in so, with that in mind, Roy and I headed to the beautiful Rococo Gardens at Painswick in the Cotswolds whose maze has two separate centres – one easy to reach and the other a little harder.

Victoria Connelly Maze 1

Victoria Connelly Maze Centre

But I made it! And I’m so looking forward to my next maze. This could so easily become an addiction…

Cider with Rosie country

We recently had a little holiday on the Somerset coast but, with me navigating, we took a detour to the Cotswolds to visit a very special village – Slad, the setting of Laurie Lee’s wonderful book Cider with Rosie. It was tricky to find the village, but we knew we were getting close when we saw the sign at Bulls Cross – ‘that ragged wildness of wind-bent turves … a sort of island of nothing set high above the crowded valleys’ – the place Lee and his friends would frequent in the hopes of seeing a ghostly spectre.

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Arriving at the village, we quickly spotted the school where the fabulously named Spadge Hopkins was taught alongside the young Laurie Lee. Lee describes him as ‘thick-legged, red-fisted, bursting with flesh, designed for the great outdoors … the sight of him squeezed into his tiny desk was worse than a bullock in ballet-shoes.’

IMG_8304We spotted the house Lee bought with the proceeds of the book, nice and handy for The Woolpack pub and with glorious views over his beloved valley, and how lucky we were to see it in all its summer glory with ‘all sights twice-brilliant and smells twice-sharp’.IMG_8340Being a writer who has stuffed many an envelope with a fat manuscript in her time, I couldn’t help wondering if Laurie Lee had ever posted any of his work in the letterbox near the pub and did he ever realise how many people would fall in love with his valley through his words?IMG_8309His grave in on a hill by the church and simply says, ‘He lies in the valley he loved.’IMG_8320Our journey then took us to Painswick which gets several mentions in Cider with Rosie. I wanted to visit the extraordinary churchyard which is famous for its ninety-nine yew trees and its beautiful table-top graves.

IMG_8293It was then on to our destination – Woodspring Priory on the Somerset coast, passing the pier at Weston super Mare – where Lee and his family and neighbours enjoyed a day out. He writes, ‘We saw a vast blue sky and an infinity of mud … rousing smells of an invisible ocean astonished our land-locked nostrils: salt, and wet weeds, and fishy oozes; a sharp difference in every breath … we had never seen such openness, the blue windy world seemed to have blown quite flat, bringing the sky to the level of our eyebrows.’

I love visiting the places which my favourite writers have written about so this was a very special journey for me and one I hope to repeat again.

Woodspring Priory

Some birthdays are special and have to be celebrated in style which is why I booked The Landmark Trust’s Woodspring Priory in Somerset for a milestone birthday of Roy’s.

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Founded in 1210 by the grandson of one of the knights who murdered Thomas a Becket, and added to in the fifteenth and eighteenth-centuries, the priory stands on a rural peninsula on the Somerset coast and has lovely walled gardens full of arches and well-placed benches where a writer can sit with a notebook and pen.

04Hattie met her first stone spiral staircase and soon got the hang of going up and down, and up and down, and up and down…

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Now, a surprise party is a lot of fun to organise, but it’s not easy! I booked the priory a good six months ago, making sure that Roy’s artist friends kept the date free in their diaries. With emails flying back and forth and Facebook messages being exchanged, I had to make sure that nothing was left open on my computer and all my own personal notes were written in shorthand! Oh, how many times I nearly slipped up, desperate to share each stage of the planning with my husband!26

But it was so worth keeping the secret and how wonderful it was to share such a magical setting with our talented artist friends including John Dobbs, Karl Terry, Peter Brown (aka “Pete the Street”) and Liam O’Farrell. And I sneaked in a couple of writer pals too – Victoria Eveleigh and Ruth Saberton.

32There are so many fabulous moments to remember like drinking champagne and singing Happy Birthday under a fan vaulted ceiling, being the curators of our very own museum for the week and sitting in the sunny walled garden with gargoyles watching over us. It’s a holiday we’ll never ever forget!