Lucy Maria Wood was born on 10 December 1892 in Southport, Lancashire to passionately Wesleyan parents. She was one of six children, three boys and three girls. Brought up almost entirely by Nurse, seeing their parents once a day at Family Prayers and twice on Sunday with Chapel followed by Sunday lunch.
Father died in 1899 so mother, who once told Lucy that she wished she had never had children, was left to cope with this family of strong-minded individuals. Mother really preferred her work amongst fallen women, but this made her fear that Lucy, with her high spirits, could end up being a fallen woman. Lucy spent much of her life proving to herself that her mother was completely wrong.
Lucy and the second daughter, Frances were sent to secondary school as far south as possible in order to get rid of any trace of a Lancashire accent. They were regarded as oddities by the other girls who had never heard a Northern accent. Lucy went on to read Classics at Somerville College, Oxford, having been told very firmly by her older brother Jas that he wouldn’t be able to live down having a sister at Girton, Cambridge. War broke out during her first year at Somerville and, like so many of her generation, she left in order to train to be a nurse.
While waiting to be told which military Hospital to go to in France she went to visit Jas and Frank, the two older brothers at Cambridge University. One day they all decided to drive out from Cambridge to hire a punt at Giddings Boathouse in Hemingford Grey. They punted upstream and passed The Manor. Lucy was very taken with the tranquillity of the house in its untouched meadow beside the river and often thought of this house over the next twenty four years.
Early in 1916 Lucy got her offer of work in a French military hospital in Houlgate, Normandy. The hospital was chaotically run and at times life was not easy. Music was very important to Lucy and while working there she found an empty room in one of the buildings, put up a notice saying that on this day at this time she would be in that room playing her gramophone and anyone would be welcome to join her. These sessions proved to be hugely important in the lives of both the staff and any walking wounded who were able to get there.
A family friend of long standing, Harold Boston, discharged from the army having been badly injured in a motor bike accident was now working as a chauffeur to a specialist who toured the military hospitals in France. Lucy and he were now on the same side of the Channel and they often met when they were off duty. They met up again when both were on leave in England, Harold by this time having joined the Royal Flying Corps. They decided to marry in Oxford by special licence in 1917. Lucy sent a telegram to her mother to tell her and Mother post haste sent the older sister, Mary, down to Oxford to take a message. Mary, very embarrassed at having to be the messenger stayed only long enough to deliver it. She had difficulty finding the words but eventually she brought out “Mother says, if it’s for that, don’t.” They obviously ignored her mother.
After the war Harold went back to working in the family tannery and their first home was at Norton Lodge in Cheshire, near Norton Priory the home of the splendid, medieval statue of St Christopher which was to feature so importantly in her Green Knowe books in later years. Their son Peter was born in September 1918.
The marriage failed in 1935 and Lucy took herself off to the musical capitals of Europe and ended up living in Vienna. Here she took painting lessons with Robin Anderson.
When it looked as if war would break out, she returned to Cambridge where Peter was an undergraduate, and took lodgings on Kings Parade. Here she continued to paint fairly prolifically. She wasn’t allowed to sketch, paint let alone photograph inside Kings College Chapel, so she would sit there and study the interior with great care and then return to her lodgings to paint.
Harold had promised to buy a house for her so she was vaguely house hunting. One day she was told by a friend that there was a house for sale in Hemingford Grey. She immediately summoned a taxi and, with her young Austrian friend who had come over to England with her, went straight to the house that she had been remembering all those years. They knocked on the door and Lucy told the McLeods that she understood their house was for sale. They were astonished as they had only discussed selling The Manor that morning over breakfast. The house mentioned to her by the friend was in fact an entirely different one.
According to the house deeds Lucy got possession of the house on 31 May 1939, in her autobiography she says 1938. This house, built in the first half of the 12th Century and one of the two oldest continuously inhabited houses in Britain, was to become part of her. It was her life for the next half century.
The villagers didn’t know what to make of this 47-year-old woman living in the house on her own and word went round that she was a spy. It took a long time for her to be accepted by the village as a whole. She did have a handful of friends who ignored the local gossip and she had any number of friends in Cambridge who often came out to visit her.
She decided to restore the house as near as possible back to its Norman original, having an extension removed and a floor and a partitions taken out. The front door was moved to where it is now.
When all the restoration work was finished in 1941, remembering how important music had been in the hospital in Houlgate, she contacted the welfare officer at RAF Wyton, the local RAF station, offering the house for convalescence, hospitality and particularly music. She started to give gramophone record recitals in the old Norman hall. These were so popular that she gave them twice a week right through to the end of the war. The most visitors, recorded in the Visitors’ Book, in one evening was 36; these evenings were a wonderful opportunity for the men to get away from the horrors of war. She also frequently had young men to stay who needed to have a break. The station would phone if they needed them back.
During the war she mostly planted trees but started to give serious time and thought to the garden once the war was over. She was advised by Graham Stuart Thomas whom she had met when he was at the Cambridge Botanic Garden. While he was at Sunningdale Nurseries he searched out special roses and irises for her.
While Lucy was living at Norton Lodge, she wrote M R James type ghost stories, two of which were published in magazines of the time. In the early 1950s she took up writing again and had two books, Yew Hall and The Children of Green Knowe published in 1954 when she was 62. Lucy found her true vocation as an author of children’s books, all but The Sea Egg were based on her very special house which also became the house of Green Knowe in the series of six books (pictured below).
She was writing at the same time as a collection of other talented writers were also writing serious literature for children. In 1961 she was awarded the Carnegie Medal for A Stranger at Green Knowe.
Spring, Summer and Autumn were spent gardening vigorously. Her writing was mostly done in the winter. Also in the winter she made patchworks, inspired by the mending of curtains bought for the house from Muriel Rose’s Little Gallery. Her patchworks have become very well known internationally, particularly the Patchwork of the Crosses which is now amongst the top 10 best known patchworks in the world. People travel from far and wide to The Manor to see her creations and go home inspired by her artistic eye and particularly by her imaginative use of the printed or woven pattern in the fabric to create intricate new patterns in patchwork. She was way ahead of her time in what is now called fussy-cutting.
She was still writing in her 90s and made her last patchwork when she was 92. She died in her beloved house in 1990. Letters came from all over the world from people saying how their love and choice of music had come from her wartime recitals, their choice of plants in their gardens had been inspired by visits to her garden, patchworks were made because of her enthusiasm and, of course, their love of the Green Knowe books which would last them through their life. Her talents rippled out to influence people worldwide, like the ripples from a stone dropped into a pool.
The Manor, Hemingford Grey
This is the third in a series of posts about writers with a connection to Huntingdonshire, look out for our post next Saturday!
(You can find our first post on T.S. Eliot here if you missed it – https://huntshistoryfest.com/2020/04/04/writer-1-the-most-influential-english-poet-of-his-time/)
(You can find our second post on Samuel Pepys here if you missed it – https://huntshistoryfest.com/2020/04/11/writer-2-the-greatest-diarist-of-all-time/)