The Manor, as seen from near the river Ouse
The manor, in the eyes of many, is the quintessential English home. Curious, then, that its current resident was born and brought up in Kenya, over 4000 miles away. Diana attended school in Kenya up to the age of 17, only moving to the UK so that she could train to become a primary school teacher.
“I came over here in 1957 to do a teacher training course at the Froebel Educational Institute in Roehampton,” say Diana, “and I discovered the Green Knowe books when I was doing my course. We were given a list of books to have in our classroom and a friend of mine, who was doing nursery training, wanted to see what books were on my list. She leant over and said, “Have you ever read Lucy M. Boston?” And I said “No, I’ve never heard of her.” She said, ��?Well, I think you’ll enjoy them,” so I read the only two that were available at the time and thought, “Wow!
“Lucy didn’t write down to children and that was the same of all that generation of writers. CJ Lewis was a bit before Lucy, but Philippa Pearce, although younger, was very much of the same time. They didn’t write down to children and that’s why all those books were on this list that I was given at college. The books were used to develop children’s use of language and imagination, and Lucy does write very well, there’s absolutely no doubt about it. A Stranger at Green Knowe, for example, won the Carnegie Medal in 1961.”
After her course, Diana began teaching in London, and married a Royal naval officer called Peter Robertson. Four years into their marriage, in December 1965, Peter tragically lost his life when his ship, the HMS Bastion, went to the aid of an Iranian dhow and Peter entered the water in order to rescue the survivors. Diana and Peter’s children, Charles and Andrew were just 6 weeks and 19 months old at the time.
“He lost his life saving three people from drowning in a storm in the Persian Gulf,” explains Diana. “He already had a survivor under each arm and was taking them back to the life raft when a third grabbed hold of Peter’s life jacket thereby pushing him under the water. The sea was so stormy that the man on the life raft lost Peter’s lifeline and couldn’t pull him in. He was posthumously awarded the Albert Medal and I think was the last person to whom it was awarded before it got amalgamated with the George Cross.
“When I married again it was to Peter Boston, so I’ve come quite a long way round to get here.”
Meet the Bostons
At the time of his death, Peter Robertson was based at the Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in Cornwall, so Diana and the two boys were living nearby. As chance would have it, Lucy Boston’s nephew and niece were Diana’s next door neighbours and Lucy often made the trip from Cambridgeshire to stay with them. “Lucy was very fond of her niece and nephew,” says Diana. “I met her because she was staying with my neighbours and I was invited over to a meal. I was very excited to meet the author of the Green Knowe books. It was after that trip that she wrote a wonderful book called The Sea Egg, which unfortunately is out of print at the moment. I met Peter the same way really; when he came to stay with them. I first visited the Manor when Peter and I got engaged and we came to tell Lucy the news. We got married in ’67, and lived happily ever after, as they say.”
While looking for a suitable property to do up, the couple moved to Watford, before eventually finding an old mill in the Hertfordshire village of Ashwell, less than an hour’s drive from the Manor in Hemingford Grey. Diana’s two sons, Andrew and Charles, were too young to know anything about the Green Knowe books when they made their first visit to the Manor, but understandably found it quite an adventure.
“Once we had moved up from Cornwall to within visiting distance we used to come over here a lot to see her. And it was quite something to bring two littlies into this house with everything perfect. Of course, they wanted to look at everything, so I spent quite a lot of time being the buffer state between Lucy, the house and my children. Possibly too much so, but then one is: I was coming into a new relationship so obviously that’s quite tricky. The youngest one, Charles, was 2 and Andrew was three-and-a-half, so to them the manor was just a place to be explored.
“Later they read the books and were very keen on them. I remember my youngest son standing in the flower beds while Lucy was pruning the roses, and he was telling her the stories as if she had never read them. It seemed to me that that he was telling her what had happened and they were discussing them. I think she had forgotten that she’d written some of the things she had.
“They had quite a close relationship; close enough that when he was asked what he would like for his birthday he said he wanted a story written about a fossil snake and she did write one called The Fossil Snake.”
“But we weren’t involved in the running of the house at all. Lucy was living here, gardening and still writing and Peter was illustrating her books. We didn’t do anything for the house, apart from maybe occasionally pulling the odd weed.”