As many of my readers know, I’ve been researching my mother’s childhood in Gibraltar and England for a number of years. While she was still alive I traveled to Gib, as she always called it, to see firsthand what it was like to grow up on the Rock on the edge of the Mediterranean where you lunched across the border in Spain and spent the afternoon watching polo in Tangiers. The Barbary apes loped down to town to snatch the laundry off the rooftops, oranges grew on trees and the breezes blew balmy and tasted of salt. I returned with lots of stories and a book of pictures that my mother pored over every day as her memory faded and her youthful existence felt more immediate than the visitor who’d just dropped in for tea.
I promised her that I would visit the places in England where she spent her childhood holidays and the years of the war, but as she grew increasingly frail and disoriented, I didn’t feel comfortable taking an extended trip out of the country. Now that she’s gone, I’m ready to keep that promise.
My fiction writing has always been enriched by an intimate knowledge of the place where I’ve chosen to set my books. Whether it’s my grandmother’s house in Connecticut or an island off the New England coast or the mill town in Vermont where Lewis Hine took some of his best known child labor photographs, an intimate acquaintance of setting enriches and expands my understanding of the characters in my fiction.
Now that I’ve come to the end of the first draft of my family history, A FRAGMENT OF WHAT YOU FELT, Searching for My Mother, I’m ready to see where she lived in the years between her exile from Gibraltar as a young teenager and her transatlantic crossing as an eighteen-year-old pregnant bride. If I walk through the rooms of her convent school, stand in her grandmother’s Cotswold garden and wander the hallways of the Yorkshire castle where she met my father, then surely, I’ll understand better the determined young British colonial who left her job as a decoding agent for MI5 so she could marry an American parachutist twelve years her senior who she barely knew.
When I began to plan this journey, I discovered to my amazement that all the important places in my mother’s life are open to the public. Her convent school is a hotel. Her grandmother’s house is a bed and breakfast. Her best friend’s home is a Gothic Revival castle, now open for tours.
Will I know her better if I walk in her footsteps? The only way to find out is to go.
May 8-10: We’ll be staying at the Hanbury Marriott in Hertfordshire. This building used to be Poles Convent, the school my mother attended from the age of 13 to 17. I’ve asked that we be put in the Manor House, the main hall, which means we might actually be sleeping in what was once my mother’s dormitory room.
Driving from Ware to Bourton, we will stop in Oxford on Saturday May 10th for lunch with Margaret and John Barnard Hankey, my mother’s second cousins who I have never met. We will also connect with them again at Fetcham Park later in the trip.
May 10-13th: We’ll be staying at Whiteshoots Bed and Breakfast in Bourton on the Water up in the Cotswolds. This was my great-grandmother’s last house. She was Ellen Gertrude Moon, the mother of Arthur Hankey, my paternal grandfather. My mother often visited her so we’ll most probably be sleeping in the one of the rooms where my mother stayed.
While in the Cotswolds, we’ll be visiting Stanway House in Broadway.
This is the home of the Earls of Wemyss. I’ve been in touch with the present Earl of Wemyss (pronounced Weems) who has kindly agreed to have us drop by for a private tour. Stanway is where my mother (and her good friend, Bee Mowbray) lived and went to secretarial school from August 1942-March 1943 when at the age of 17, my mother was taken on at MI5 as a decoding agent.
May 13-15: We’ll be staying with Edward and Nell Stourton, in the stable house at Allerton Park in Knaresborough, Yorkshire. In the summer of 1942, my parents met at Allerton Park as my father had enlisted in the Kings Royal Rifle Corps, training in nearby York, and my mother was visiting her best friend, Bee Mowbray. Bee’s father, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, was the Premier Baron of England and the owner of Allerton. On August 31, 1942, the night before the Royal Canadian Airforce requisitioned Allerton to use as a barracks, Lord and Lady Mowbray gave a farewell party and invited the “Yanks” from the regiment which was training nearby in York. My father (age 28) sat next to my mother (age 16), and the rest is history. The castle itself has been purchased by an American named Gerald Rolphe, but Edward Stourton and his wife, Nell, kept the stables and have kindly invited us to stay. We’ll join the public tour on May 14th, and the tour guide has promised to take us upstairs to see parts of the house not open to the public.
While in Yorkshire, I will also be visiting Ampleforth, which is the Catholic equivalent of Eton. This is where my uncle Ian, my mother’s only brother, went to school from the age of 9 to 18. He joined the Kings Royal Rifle Corps in May, 1940, soon after the family was evacuated from Gibraltar, and was killed in the western desert at the battle of Alma Halfa, on August 31, 1942, the same day my parents met in Yorkshire. He was 21 years old.
May 15-23: We’ll be in London for the last week meeting more cousins through the Gibraltar side who contacted me through the Internet. I’ve planned two day trips, the first to Winchester to visit my father and uncle’s regimental museum. The Kings Royal Rifle Corps were also known as the Green Jackets. The regimental historian, Christopher Wallace, who has been very helpful with my research over the last four years, will be giving us a tour.
The next day we’ll travel down to Fetcham Park in Surrey where my grandfather, Arthur Hankey, lived until he married my grandmother, Cecilia Mosley. The people at Fetcham are thrilled about our visit and are arranging a lunch for me to talk to the historian of the house as well as Hankey cousins. They will give us a tour of the house and the graveyard where many Hankeys are buried.
Stay posted. I’ll be writing more here about this very personal journey.