Running For The Hills

Running for the hillsI love reading books when I’m sat in the place they are set in, mixing the pleasure of being transported to a different time whilst staying in the same geographic location. I feel like I’m slipping between the universe’s folds, watching a story play out in front of me somewhere between the time it happened in and now. Last month my husband and I were on holiday in the Welsh borders, and whilst he headed out to bag some hills I took myself off to Brecon to amuse myself in bookshops and cafes. It was strange day, the day after the UK’s referendum on its membership of the EU, and I found myself listening to the lilting Welsh accents around me to hear local reactions to the vote. After an hour or two pouring over the papers in the library and feeling cross, I hopped across the road to The Hours, a lovely little cafe bookshop with wooden beams and an upstairs full of secondhand books. My eyes soon alighted on a gem, a just-my-type of gem, Horatio Clare’s Running For The Hills (2006). A self-proclaimed ‘family story’, it follows the Clares as they struggle with, and settle in, to life on a Welsh farm in the 1970s and 1980s. I went downstairs to part with £3 for it,  but got lured in by delicious smells coming from the cafe’s kitchen, so settled down to read it over lunch – I didn’t end up paying until the food was long gone and I was several chapters in.

The Clares, well, Miss Williams and Mr Clare Senior as they are at the time, acquire the farm in the days of their courtship, bought by him for her as a symbol of their love and in response to her need for space to be outside of London. It’s bought at auction for £11,000, out-dated and wild and full of mice and romance. Jenny and Robert marry soon after, and two boys are born within a few years – heroically named Horatio and Alexander. The marriage begins to disintegrate under differences of personality, the pressures of depression and distance, and in the end it’s Jenny living there by herself with the boys shuttling between Wales and London. For all this domestic instability the book isn’t a depressing read: Jenny’s love of the landscape is beguiling and easy to share, and anyone who has every longed for the space and freedom of living up in the hills will share her affection of this little corner of Wales, hunkered down by the Black Mountains.

For me it was an especially delicious read, as a few days before we had walked to remote Llantony Priory and along the way had come across a couple of farmhouses high in the hills, one derelict and empty of human life, the other in the process of transformation from ruin to homstead. The former was a tiny cottage hiding away in the woods, smelling of mould and mice, the latter a great late mediaveal manor lying at the valley’s head, painted a warm butternut yellow. No doubt the Clare’s house lay somewhere between the two: habited but gently crumbling, returning to the earth decade by decade. P1010077

What is unusual about the story is that it is told in the third person, with Robert and Jenny at a slight remove, but that it also moves into the first person as Horatio becomes sentient: what were Jenny and Robert’s becomes ‘ours’, and ‘I’ appears. Clare has drawn directly from his parents’ letters and diaries, combining this source material with his own memories of childhood, and it must have been a curious process, moving between what you could remember doing, seeing and feeling and what your parents recorded as having happened at the time to construct a narrative. You might expect a certain amount of navel-gazing too, but Clare is too wise a storyteller for this, and keeps his audience enthralled in the haphazard world of a London family making a go of it on a Welsh hill farm. Although the Clares’ marriage fails, the farm falls further into disrepair, and money runs away like water, I finished the book with a strengthened desire to do it myself, to live remotely and farm a small piece of land.

Ceres Fife RCAHMSI’m making a small step in this direction later this month, moving from the bustle of Edinburgh to the rolling hills of Fife. We’ll be taking on the lease of a small cottage in the village of Ceres, and I can’t wait to have a garden to tend again and a kitchen bigger than a cupboard to cook in. The house (the middle one in the picture above) is older than most of the places we’ve lived in and we’ll have to walk over an ancient footbridge to get home each day. There’s no farm to tend, but I can’t wait to have space to roam in the evenings, and leave the omnipresent drone of cars and the wailing sirens behind. Edinburgh, you’ve been grand – but my heart’s in the country.

 

 

The Morville Hours

Each of us has the potential to hold a thousand different languages on the tip of our tongue. Even if we have nothing more than a smattering of schoolgirl French or the ability to order a glass of wine in Greek, within our mother tongue lie several hundred possible modes of language, each one individually special and specific.

The use of Latin plant names, unapologetically untranslated, in English represents straight-forward borrowing, words imported wholesale and their rules applied to each new hybrid as it emerges from the ground. But there are many more subtle tongues being spoken every day, ones flying so low under our daily radars that we probably don’t even think of them as languages. But in many ways they are: compare the cable and casting off of the knitter against the casting off and cable of a sailor, the builders’ kentledge against the printers’ colophon. The rosin and vibrato of a violinist, the anemometer and the quadrant of the geographer, the gomme and gouache of the painter. Each special skill offers the acolyte a shibboleth – how do real horticulturalists pronounce corymbs and guelder, proper teachers say Melpomene and Calliope? The hunter’s tack is a world away in meaning from the seamstresses’ word for the same, the language of the hack for the horse and the news hinting at the different universes inhabited by both. These idiolects of trades and interests can be both ancient and modern: ‘a bit of 2-by-4’ and an RSJ are immediately understood by a builder but may mystify a hairdresser, who would be more familiar with an upsweep and a fauxhawk.

morvilleThis is a fairly roundabout way of approaching Katherine Swift’s The Morville Hours, but the reason for doing so is because Swift is so astonishingly good at entwining the languages of gardener, builder, priest, beekeeper and a multitude of others into her narrative. The Morville Hours tells the story of Swift’s life and garden using the dual frameworks of the mediaeval book of hours on one hand and England’s traditional horticultural calendar on the other. Both are potentially off-putting subjects in their extreme specificity and almost complete irrelevance to our city-centred modern lives, but in Swift’s exquisite prose both become fascinating and beautiful in their complexity. I found that although I didn’t know what many of the words Swift used meant precisely – the list includes terce, none (pronounced to rhyme with ‘one’ and ‘stone’, not ‘bun’ and ‘fun’), achillea ptarmica, and a hundred other plant names. But it didn’t stop me understanding Swift’s story, and I didn’t mind not knowing as she made me feel that a world was opening up to me through these words, not shutting me out. The Morville Hours is a magical book in that it has the power to transport, translate and transmorgrify things of which I was completely ignorant into fascinating subjects that I just want to more and more about.

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Kellie Castle, Fife

It also made me long for the outdoors, for a life lived closer to the soil and the seeds. It made me miss my birthplace in the south of England, which was so much warmer and more verdant than the colder climes of Scotland. But it also inspired me to go on a visit: to Kellie Castle, a National Trust for Scotland property close to the Fife coast. Like the Dower House at Morville where Swift made her incredible garden, the Castle was home to what are known as ‘improving tenants’, people who live in a property but pay a lower rent because they have offered to improve the building or gardens on behalf of the owner. At Kellie the ‘improving’ family were the multi-talented Lorimers, best-kent among them sculptor Hew Lorimer (he who made the Lady of the Isles on South Uist and carved the seven allegorical figures on the front of the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh), architect Robert Lorimer and artist John Henry (J.H) Lorimer. Inside the house they sensitively restored the building and filled it with beautiful furniture, either of their own making or from the periods spanned by the house’s history. Outside they rebuilt the castle’s walled gardens and created beautiful spaces in which people could while away many a happy outdoor hour. Many of JH’s paintings perfectly capture the play of light on the buildings and grounds at Kellie, and below is one of my favourites – Happy Easter!

Sunlight in the South room

Sunlight in the South Room (c) The National Trust for Scotland, Kellie Castle & Garden; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation