A Book Review. Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols.

Many people are familiar with the trilogy of books Beverley Nichols wrote about his Tudor Cottage;  ‘Allways’ in Glatton, Huntingdonshire.

Allways. Glatton

Allways. Glatton

The most famous is ‘Down the Garden Path‘ followed by the other two in the trilogy: ‘A Thatched Roof‘ and ‘A Village in a Valley‘. The first is the most popular one and is mainly about Beverley discovering the joys of gardening, as a very young man. The books are beautifully  illustrated  with drawings by Rex Whistler.


The books are camp, and some have even called them twee,  but he has a deliciously waspish sense of humour that makes you forgive the odd purple passage. He writes so lyrically about his love of flowers and he is very entertaining about the friends who come and go in the  books. You don’t go to Beverley Nichols for gardening hints, unless you are a beginner too, but for his enthusiasm, wonderful descriptions and for sheer entertainment. They are just the thing for a miserable December day when you don’t feel like going outside.

I have been under the weather this last week with a vicious chest infection which has kept me by the fire. I did mean to go and see the baby seals on Horsey Beach in Norfolk and post about it for December’s Wildlife Wednesday hosted by Tina at Mygardenersays. But that will have to wait until another day. I also would have liked to join in with the End of The Month View with Helen at the Patientgardener blog,  but, no chance. In fact I haven’t ventured into the garden at all, not even to see if my Galanthus ‘Three Ships’ is nearly out. I am also keen to see if Narcissus ‘Cedric Morris’ is coming along, as both these treasures are often in bloom for Christmas Day. They will have to wait. I haven’t even been keeping up with what everyone else has been blogging about this week. My sole reading has been Beverley and very good company he has proved to be.

Many of you will be familiar with the Allways books,  but I wonder if you have discovered the equally delightful Merry Hall trilogy. Beverley only stayed in his Tudor cottage for ten years. There was some unpleasantness in the village, particularly when the young men who came for weekend visits propositioned the local boys. There was talk of the police being involved and of course this was at a time when homosexuality was illegal.

Merry Hall in Ashtead, Surrey was something  completely different. It was a Georgian mansion with five acres. He bought it in 1946.

Beverley said: ‘One grows out of Tudor cottages. Little by little, the charm of being stunned and sent reeling to the wall, six times a day, by the low beams on the ceiling, is apt to pall; one no longer darts gaily to the bathroom for the sticking plaster, chortling with amusement at the nice Tudore bumpe on one’s forehead. Nor as season gives way to season, and as the bedroom floor sinks more sharply, tilting at an even acuter angle, does one take so much pleasure in emerging from bed, as it were, on skis, and sliding down a highly polished slope towards a lattice window...’ He goes on to say that: ‘lingering with the Tudors is merely a sign of aesthetic adolescence.‘ Well, that puts me in my place, as I am lingering in a house built in 1500, with low ceilings which regularly attack the Pianist who is very tall. He does not chortle about  the bumps on the head either. If you heard him I don’t think you would call it a chortle. My lovely old oak bedroom floors are indeed ski slopes and the beds have to be on blocks to stop people from rolling out of their beds.

But I’m afraid we can’t all aspire to growing up aesthetically and buying a Georgian mansion with  five bedrooms on the first floor, five on the second floor, and  I believe five more in the attic. It does seem a trifle large. But as Beverley told his sceptical friend who viewed the house with him: ‘Merely because one has lots of rooms one needn’t use them’. The house was decorated throughout in the most appalling taste but Beverley fell in love with it. He ‘mentally signed the contract’ when he went into the garden and found that there were huge rows of regale lilies.  Most of the book tells the tale of restoring the garden with the help of the wonderful old gardener, Oldfield, who had dedicated all his life to the kitchen garden and greenhouses and grew the most wonderful vegetables. All the ideas for improvement had to have the approval of Oldfield.

Beverley Nichols with A.E. Newby. (Oldfield)

Beverley Nichols with A.E. Newby. (Oldfield)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I believe much of the garden has been sold off and built on now. But it is rather nice that  the housing estate is called ‘Oldfield Gardens’ after the fictitious name for Mr. Newby.  The garden was surrounded by a variegated holly hedge which Beverley and his partner, Cyril  got rid of by setting fire to it. This bright idea came to them after drinking champagne. I wonder if I should try it on my Viburnum tinus. All round the property there were huge elms, which from today’s perspective, now that these majestic trees have disappeared, sound wonderful. Beverley didn’t like them and they had to go.  He said; ‘As soon as Constable had finished painting them they should have been rooted out of the British Isles’. Well, now they have been, Dutch Elm Disease has seen them off and they are a sad loss.

I love the description of the rockery studded with speckled concrete stones and the rank, stinking pond. He threw the concrete stones  into the pond where they protruded like ‘heads of marine monsters with pebbly eyes‘. There are wonderful  descriptions of tree buying and, more extravagantly, urn and dolphin buying, as his vision of a beautiful garden encompassed more  and more expensive schemes. He was extremely extravagant all his life and I gather he was quite hard up in his old age and had to write rather awful little whimsical homilies for a woman’s magazine. He did adverts for cat food too which must have been a bit of a come down.

All his characters are wonderfully drawn . There is Oldfield, the gardener, Gaskin, the manservant who stayed with Beverley for the rest of his life. Cyril, is there, of course, but kept discreetly in the background. Women are always present in his books and he always describes them with humour and affection, although mostly they infuriate him too. ‘Miss Emily’ keeps popping in and as she was clearly in love with ‘Stebbings’ the previous owner she is horrified at any of the improvements on the house. The dreadful Stebbings with his dire ideas of interior decoration haunts  Beverley throughout. Apparently this philistine pedalled on his pianola every morning and used Liszt to stimulate his intestines. The thought of this bothered the  very musical Beverley, as much as the wallpapers like skin diseases, the wort-like extension and the truly horrible stained glass.

Our Rose‘ the flower arranger is another character who Beverley took great enjoyment in describing. He was a great friend of Constance Spry and an admirer of her flower arranging. I don’t know whether ‘Our Rose’ actually existed, perhaps she is Violet Stevenson, another flower arranger of the 50’s. What Beverley objected to was the terrible way she tortured her flowers and her total lack of any aesthetic sense. He always had flowers in the house and was a great enthusiast for winter flowers. Some of his ideas for flower arrangements seem rather dated but others are well worth copying.

His very erudite friend Marius wanders in now and then and is always a source of entertainment. And then there are the ever present and adored cats: ‘One’ and ‘Four’.

For a cold winter’s day of recuperation I cannot think of a nicer thing to do than to sit by the fire  and read my seed catalogues, and  ‘Merry Hall‘ followed by ‘Laughter on the Stairs’ which is all about the improvements inside the house as well as the garden. The wonderful Pianist made some fresh scones today and for once ‘life-inside’ seems very nice indeed. I have ordered the Bryan Connon biography ‘Beverley Nichols; A Life’, so that will be next on the list.
Tomorrow I shall go and see what everyone else has been doing whilst I had my week off blogging.

 

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41 Responses to A Book Review. Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols.

  1. rusty duck says:

    Get well soon Chloris. There is no better way to rest than with a book by the fire. Take care x

    • Chloris says:

      Thanks, Jessica. Reading about Beverley’ s garden -making really cheers me up. I love the profligate way he buys trees. Not just one or two but whole woods of them. That’ s the way to buy trees.

  2. You have whetted my appetite. That sounds like just what I need for my own staying by the fire!

  3. Tina says:

    I hope you’re recovering–a good book in a cozy house will, no doubt, help your cause. Thanks for this fun review of this book. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but will look into his work.

  4. pbmgarden says:

    Feel week soon. These characters sound like good company.

  5. I’m sorry to hear you’re under the weather. I hope you’re up and around soon but, in the meantime, it seems you’re making the best of your down time. I have a Nichols’ book (somewhere) and will look for it – his humor seems a good antidote for the stresses of the holiday season. Feel better!

  6. Julie says:

    So sorry you have not been well Chloris – hopefully you are feeling better after your week by the fire. I loved reading about the books that have kept you entertained this week – a good suggestion for my ‘skiing’ holiday after Christmas!

  7. Cathy says:

    Wish you a quick recovery and a few more days taking it easy with a book in one hand and a scone in the other! 😉 Glad you’ve got the perfect reading material at hand too.

  8. croftgarden says:

    I do hope you are feeling better. I’m sure Beverley was the perfect companion, a little old fashioned waspish humour can be a great tonic.
    This particular style of writing is no longer in vogue, but it is entertaining and gives us a glimpse of a style of life that has totally disappeared.

    • Chloris says:

      He is old fashioned but I do enjoy these glimpses into another age. He is genuinely funny and just the thing for when one is in the mood for an undemanding read. I am reading James: The Portrait of a Lady for my book group and Nichols is a great relief from page- long paragraphs!

  9. Christina says:

    I do hope you are feeling better; but it sounds as if you are being well looked after which always helps, fresh scones sound a wonderful idea in front of the fire. I don’t know these books but they do sound just perfect for a winter’s day in front of the fire.

    • Chloris says:

      I am much better, thank you Christina. Scones by the fire with Bever!ey Nichols for company certainly helped. If you come across these books I think you would enjoy them.

  10. You know, I started reading Led Down the Garden Path but was kind of put off. I guess it did seem rather twee, plus I didn’t like how he complained about how his servant failed to bring him breakfast in bed. I could see that he was a talented writer, though. Maybe I’ll give him another try. I do hope you feel better. I seem to have a bad sore throat myself, today.

    • Chloris says:

      His books are period pieces and the ‘ servant question’ is something we find impossible to relate to now. He is so politically incorrect from today’ s perspective and a crashing snob and name- dropper too. And yet, I do enjoy his books, they always entertain me and make me laugh.

  11. Cathy says:

    Oh Chloris, I too hope you are soon recovered from your lurgy, but in the meantime I am glad you are taking the opportunity to be a little self-indulgent. Your review is a timely reminder that although I raced through the Allways trilogy last year after being introduced to them by blogging friends, and loving his style of writing, I hadn’t ‘allowed’ myself to move on to his next offerings – I certainly need to rectify that even though you have given a very thorough review and described all the characters. I suspect, particularly after the ending of his third book, that he was in fact very reluctant to leave his Tudor cottage although he seemed to have put down new roots in this second property. Sometimes buying books is just TOO easy these days, says she, determined to avoid Amazon for at least the rest of the night…. 😉

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Cathy. I am much better now.
      Buying books is so easy now and how wonderful it is to be able to source out of print books and then buy them for very little more than the cost of postage. I’ m afraid that the ‘buy with a click’ thing on Amazon is all to easy. But how lovely always having something good to read.

      • Cathy says:

        Although just this week I was remembering the hours a friend and I used to spend as teenagers browsing books in a bookshop (whose name I forget) in St Annes Square in Manchester – but then again we didn’t know what books we wanted so browsing was necessary in those days…

  12. Julie says:

    I am sorry you have been unwell, I had been thinking of you and thought you may have been enjoying an exotic holiday somewhere. I am not familiar at all with Beverley Nichols or his books, I enjoyed your review and the link for Wildlife Wednesday.

  13. Flighty says:

    My sympathies, I hope that you feel better soon. I’m sure that looking at seed catalogues whilst eating scones helps no end.
    Thanks for such an enjoyable post. xx

  14. Annette says:

    I’m sorry that you’re not feeling well, Chloris. Take good care and get well soon. I’m delighted to see this review as I adore all of his books as they are so well written and they always make me laugh. The Timber Press edition is beautiful too and a joy to have.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you, Annette. I’ m feeling much better now.
      I know you like Beverley Nichols, I was wondering whether you had discovered the Merry Hall trilogy.

      • Annette says:

        I have all of his books, also the ones about his cats and his biography but the ones about his gardens are my favourites. Glad you’re better!

  15. Love these books; glad to hear Mr. Nichols has been happy company in a tough time. Hope you feel better soon.

  16. Anna says:

    Oh Chloris – you must indeed be really poorly if you have not ventured out to see your galanthus ‘Three Ships’. Mine which is under cover is almost there so I’m sure that yours will be waiting patiently for you. I read ‘Down The Garden Path’ many, many moons ago. Perhaps time to revisit and then try out some of the titles you mention. Hope that you are soon on the mend. Take care xxx

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Anna. I’ ve just been out to look at Three Ships and it has a flower on it which has been eaten by a slug. Blow!. The good news is that Mrs. Macnamara is out.

  17. snowbird says:

    I am not familiar with these books but they sound just the thing when suffering from a horrible chest infection….aww bless, here’s to you getting well soon and being able to check up on you treasures outdoors, which I hope will be blooming.
    I must say that these books sound rather delicious! I was laughing out loud just reading your review…..I rather like a little camp and twee….the bit about being stunned by beams and the ski like floors….hilarious! Lol…poor pianist too, he has my sympathy, we had a loft conversion and we take our lives in our hands every time we stand up straight under a window, I swear I have repetitive brain injury syndrome! And like the pianist we don’t chortle…FAR from it in fact!!!
    I must be careful whilst drinking wine now, I have a fancy to torch the hedge in my front….what inspiration!!!I really enjoyed this, thanks for the laughs….get well soon and hopefully get to see the baby seals! I’m ever so jealous.xxx

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Dina.
      Torching an offensive hedge does sound like enormous fun. It might alarm the neighbours though.
      I am hoping the baby seals won’ t be grown up by the time I get to see them.

  18. a fabulous rendition of this trilogy which I’ve yet to read and am aiming to do so now – have only read his London gardening ‘Green Grows the City’

  19. Chloris says:

    Well, I thoroughly recommend the books. Perfect winter reading.

  20. Alain says:

    Thank you for showing us the cottage. I have long enjoyed his novels and was inspired by him to seed regale lilies. I now have 3 large drifts that remind me of him. I have an issue of “The Studio” magazine from the 30’s in which he is shown in front of the cottage. It must have been taken from the garden side as you don’t see the road.
    He also wrote about travelling in Germany in the 30’s (No Place Like Home). In his postcards to friends back home, he would use a pseudonym for Hitler – “Bertha” or some such funny name. It is also a very good book.

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