Found it!

The famous red-tiled roofs of Rye

The famous red-tiled roofs of Rye

It must be tough to compete for attention with people like Henry James and characters like EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia. I went to Rye today, specifically to visit the former home of James, Benson and others, but also to look for the house where Joan Aiken first lived. Signs direct one to Lamb House, the EF Benson Society offers a map of Tilling, but information about Joan Aiken’s beginnings is simply not there. A tiny reference to her father, Conrad Aiken, was all there was.

Film set

Film set

The town is currently a bit discombobulated by film crews and actors being carted around in mini-vans, all for a new production of Mapp and Lucia for the BBC. I saw a young woman in flip-flops, trousers and a psychedelic shirt hoisting a massive umbrella over Diva Plaistow (Felicity Montagu) to keep her costume dry as they walked 50 yards from the van to the church. Grips and camera-people and sound-engineers mingle with tourists just trying to make their way up the cobbled streets.

Lamb House. Ersatz Garden Room is white framed window on left.

Lamb House. Ersatz Garden Room is white framed window on left.

Like me, most tourists come for Lamb House. The famed Garden Room (if you’ve read Miss Mapp, you know what that is) was destroyed during WWII and not rebuilt. Normally, a wall plaque marks where it once commanded the top of West Street. For the current filming, however, a reproduction is in place — we can see how it might have been for James, Benson and the original occupants, the Thomas Lamb family in the 1700s. A lovely prospect from the house towards the church, and another from the Garden Room towards the town.

And just around the corner: Mermaid Street, one of the poorest areas of Rye in the 1800s but now upscale. I walked slowly down this street, looking carefully for a marker showing Joan Aiken’s house: and found it, a small white circle all but hidden by ivy and virginia creeper. Only her father’s name is listed.

Conrad Aiken lived here

Conrad Aiken lived here

I know there’s nothing particularly magical about authors’ birthplaces. And yet: I still want to see.

Standing outside Jeake’s House (now a pricey B&B with rooms named for Conrad Aiken, Malcolm Lowry and Radclyffe Hall), I looked up at the windows and imagined a young Joan looking out of them. Did she like the name of her street? Did she feel the 300 years of history within those walls? Did she imagine the lives of earlier occupants? Did she ever visit Lamb House and wonder about the authors who had lived there? She might have peered into the Garden Room windows, might have run into EF Benson walking his dog.

That, at any rate, is what I like to imagine.

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
This entry was posted in Time travel, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Found it!

  1. calmgrove says:

    Glad you made it to Rye, Lizzie, and sounds like you arrived at a busy time! Shame there’s no direct evidence of Joan’s links there, but as mermaids feature in so many of her short stories perhaps those are the real memorials of her time in Mermaid Street!

  2. Lizza Aiken says:

    I’m touched to hear of your pilgrimage Lizzie, I didn’t realise you were passing so close? There are a few stories about Rye, A Jar of Cobblestones is a story of Samuel Jeake in that house, The Magnesia Tree in ‘Monkey’s Wedding’ is a Rye story, and then she wrote about three ghostly inhabitants in ‘The Haunting of Lamb House’ too. I have visited that posh B&B and even slept in the Conrad Aiken suite – a far cry from the un- poetic poverty of their real life there! The words turning in grave if not actual haunting spring to mind!

    • Lizzie Ross says:

      Thanks for the references, Lizza. I’m so glad to know my imaginings weren’t far off base. Now that I’ve seen the town, Joan’s stories will have added piquancy, and I look forward to hunting them down.

  3. Pingback: Any news? | Lizzie Ross

  4. Phil Wilson says:

    I have a set of 1930s colour shots of Rye on my flickr photostream. The original garden room is visible in shot 004:
    Rye, Sussex in the Late 1930s

    • Lizzie Ross says:

      Thanks, Phil, for the link to the photos. What a wonderful collection, and what a thrill to see the town as it was so long ago. I can easily imagine Lucia and Mapp vying for supremacy on the streets and behind the doors.

      • calmgrove says:

        We’ve just watched the first of the BBV Mapp & Lucia episodes, Lizzie, with wonderful performances from Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor. Hooked!

      • Lizzie Ross says:

        It may be a while before these reach the US, but I’m sure I’m not the only one eagerly awaiting their arrival. I’m glad to know they’ll be worth the wait.

      • calmgrove says:

        Just on the basis of one dramatised episode, if it’s at all faithful to the spirit and letter of the books, I can see why you’ve raved about them! (There’s bound to be a TV tie-in edition so they can’t be hard for me to access now…)

      • Lizzie Ross says:

        Georgie is my favorite character. I hope the current actor portraying him is as good as Nigel Hawthorne was. The earlier 2-series set is worth seeking, if only to see him.

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