The Ghosts of Green Knowe
With the festive season in full swing, we reminisce about our visit to the Manor at Hemingford Grey. This house inspired the book that introduced Lil to the tradition of ghost stories at Christmas from a very young age, and sparked a life-long interest in history, and the paranormal.
This is a very special paranormal postcard for me, in fact I feel that the whole paranormal postcard concept, my passion for historic buildings, and my outlook on the supernatural all comes down to this one place; the ever mysterious Green Knowe.
To confuse matters slightly, that’s not its real name. Our destination for this adventure was a Manor House right on the banks of the River Ouse. A hodpodge of history; with additions and alterations from Tudor eras, Elizabethan, Georgian and everything in between, and–at its core–a nearly 900 year old Norman Hall.
Its proper title is; The Manor at Hemingford Grey, but it was made famous when author Lucy Boston, who lived there from 1929 to 1990, based her series of children’s books on the house … and its resident ghosts. The first of these books was called “The Children of Green Knowe”, and it’s a book that has influenced me greatly.
Although Lucy Boston’s series of Green Knowe books were published between 1954-1976, well before my time, in 1986, when I was just 5 years old, the BBC broadcast a TV adaptation of The Children of Green Knowe, just in time for Christmas. My Mum had the forethought to record the series and, with its very festive theme, it soon became our traditional Christmas viewing, and remained so year after year. Because of this, I literally can’t remember a time when I didn’t know and love Green Knowe, it formed a deep impression on my childhood mind that I carried all the way into adulthood.
Later, I read the books and, when I was around 9 or 10 I got to visit the real house for the first time. I’ve been lucky enough to visit several times over the years, which has only added to my deep fascination with the house. At age 37, as my birthday approached, I once again felt the irresistible pull of the place, and knew it was time for another visit.
Whenever I re-read the books I’m awed all over again by the vividness and eloquence of Lucy’s writing, not to mention the very individual approach she takes to the world of the supernatural.
The hero of the book, Toseland, or Tolly as we come to know him, is used to being stranded at boarding school while his Father and stepmother are abroad. He longs for family and a sense of home, so is very excited when his Great Grandmother discovers that he is in England and invites him to spend the Christmas holidays. He’s even more excited when he starts to suspect there might be other children in the house. But what he doesn’t know at first, is that these children all died many years ago in the Great Plague.
It’s a ghost story of a very different kind, these phantoms aren’t portrayed as terrifying ghouls, but something precious, rare and nervous, like a frightened but beautiful wild animal that you’re desperate to glimpse.
Tolly has to gain the children’s trust before they will interact with him, and the acceptance is one of familial camaraderie. Perhaps rather unusually for a children’s book, the adult of the tale makes no attempt to quash the magic, but is in fact a conspirator, his Great-Granny being perfectly well-acquainted with, and accepting of, the ghosts herself.
The large hallway mirror, where Tolly glimpses the ghosts of the children for the first time in ‘The Children of Green Knowe’
The ghosts don’t just appear as shades in his world either, we see dream-like glimpses into their 17th century lives through Tolly’s eyes, and are given the impression that time itself, is not straight forward in this house.
It showed to my childhood self that ghosts were really quite normal, simply part of the fabric of a house, accepted as part of the family. And that the blurring of time was just to be expected in places of great history.
This all rather had the effect of causing me to seek out ghosts for potential playmates as a child, and to have vivid expectations of every historic place we visited; for the 20th century to suddenly dissolve, and the people and activities of the past to melt into view.
Visiting the real Green Knowe at the age of 9 or 10, did nothing to dispel this outlook. It’s a rare opportunity to be able to quite literally step in to the pages of your favourite book. To hold the toys played with by the characters, to look out the same window, to recognise the room, the furniture and so many things from the story right in front of you, in real life. It was a magical experience. And as soon as I stepped into the house, even to my excited, child’s senses, I could see that Lucy Boston was not lying. There is a palpable atmosphere, and re-visiting as an adult simply re-affirmed this particular memory.
The attic room, and the iconic rocking horse so familiar to fans of the books
It’s quite surprising really, that it took me so long to wonder how many of the ghosts of Green Knowe were real. Perhaps I was scared that I’d find out there was no truth behind my favourite ghost stories. Imagine my delight then, when I discovered that Lucy Boston certainly did experience very real supernatural occurrences at the Manor house. She writes about many of them in her autobiography ‘Memories”.
Soon after she bought the place she discovered that locals called it ‘the poltergeist house’ and avoided passing its gates at night. For herself she experienced a multitude of noises that seemed to have no cause, knockings at doors, the clattering of a broomstick against the banisters, a great crash from upstairs in the middle of the night, disembodied footsteps when there was music playing in the Norman Hall. Once, she and a friend chased the sound of a handbell through every floor, knowing that the place was empty, and that there were no bells in the house at all. She wasn’t the only one either, her son Peter experienced a terrible feeling of dread in one room during renovations, but his next experience was of a complete opposite, as warm and pleasant as the first was malicious. Some accounts report that Lucy would hear a ghostly flute playing in the music room. She doesn’t speak to this herself in her book, but if true it must surely have been a direct inspiration for the flute-playing ghost of Alexander in the Children of Green Knowe.
Of course, I was thrilled, and it only added another layer to my conviction that this house was exceptional. But it also added to the problem that, with such a history as I had with the place, and utter belief in the magic that it held, I could hardly expect to be objective. For this visit however, I had something I’d never had before; a control, an independent opinion. My wonderful partner in crime, Fitz, had no history with the books or the TV series; he had never before visited the house or read Lucy Boston’s memoirs recounting all the actual supernatural activity she had experienced in the house. He was a fresh pair of eyes, and a sceptical mind. I was almost frantic to find out what he made of it, but I didn’t have to wait long, the house made its presence known before we even stepped a foot inside. As we waited outside in the car for the start time of our tour he kept glancing at the windows. “I’m sure someone keeps peeking out at us” he said.
The very particular atmosphere was also evident to him on our very first steps into the garden, echoing almost exactly what I felt myself.
It’s not a dense atmosphere, certainly not a heavy or oppressive one. Neither is it the quiet, empty echo of activity long finished. It’s a vibrant hustle, as though much busyness is taking place right around you, and you, are rather getting in the way! Every time we went into a room I felt as though the real occupants were just waiting, out of sight, maybe even peeking around a corner, keeping an eye on us. Waiting for us to leave so that they could continue with their day. It wasn’t a malicious feeling at all, more one of slightly amused nuisance.
The feeling was most intense in the Norman hall, now the music room. During the second world war Lucy Boston held Gramophone recitals in here for RAF airmen, and there, sitting in the corner, was the very same 1929 EMG gramophone, complete with gigantic papier mache horn, that Lucy would have used, and we were about to hear it being played once more.
The air seemed to positively hum with electricity, part of which–I am sure–was simply our anticipation, and part of which was the tingling feeling that somehow the correct century wouldn’t ever really stay put in this room.
The Norman Hall, now known as the music room, with the 1929 EMG Gramophone
And this is where Fitz had what I had longed for every time I’d visited the house, an experience of his own with the ghosts of Green Knowe. Having settled ourselves opposite the great Elizabethan chimney, eagerly awaiting the gramophone demonstration, I saw Fitz glance down suddenly at his arm. As I followed his line of sight, I saw all the hairs on his forearm stand up in a sudden shock, as though someone had rubbed a balloon to static and then placed it over his wrist. He looked up at me in surprise, and then around the room with obvious curiosity. Later, he explained; “I felt someone gently grip my arm, as though to alert me to something and say–‘hey, hey, look at this’, it was a light, friendly touch”. I’ll admit, I was jealous, but it was a fascinating thing to witness happen.
Our small group of 21st century selves, with our cameras and our smartphones, didn’t fill this nearly 900 year old room, it seemed ludicrous to think that we might. I felt insignificant against the weight of all that history. But it didn’t really seem all that important somehow. I rested back against Lucy Boston’s 1940’s makeshift seating, looking across at a hulking Tudor chimney, listening to the warm, almost unbearably evocative sound of a 1929 gramophone reverberating off the thick, stone walls of a Norman hall, as Diana Boston told us “These walls probably heard conversations about the Magna Carta”. Suddenly time seems quite meaningless, almost preposterous really, to think that anybody in the 21st century could possibly claim this house for themselves over all the souls who have lived and loved and died here before. It brings to mind a quote from the Children of Green Knowe, uttered with such wisdom by Tolly’s Great-Granny. “After all, it sounds very sad to say that they all died, but it didn’t really make so much difference”.
If you find the history of the Manor at Hemingford Grey, and the stories of Green Knowe as fascinating as I do, then you may want to consider visiting the house and gardens for yourself. Details of how and when you can visit can be found at the manor’s website here:
If you’re interested in reading Lucy Boston’s books or watching the (very Christmassy!) BBC adaptation of the Children of Green Knowe, then I would urge you to purchase the books and DVD from the Manor shop or through their website https://www.greenknowe.co.uk/shop.html if you can, as this will mean that the Manor benefits from the sales, and the money can go back into the upkeep of the house. I can only imagine that maintaining a 12th century house can’t be easy, but I very much hope that, with support, this incredible building will around for many more centuries to come.
If you enjoyed reading this, then check out our podcast episode on The Ghosts of Green Knowe to hear more!
Memories – Lucy M Boston- Colt books Ltd – 1992
The Manor, Hemingford Grey – Mary Carter & Diana Boston – Oldknow Books – 2012/2017
The Children of Green Knowe – Lucy M Boston – Puffin Books 1975