I’ve long been a fan of the Mapp and Lucia books by EF Benson, so I was really happy to make the most of a child-free weekend to pop down to Rye. Rye is the model for Benson’s wonderful, fictional seaside town of Tilling, where his characters, Miss Mapp and Mrs Lucas, are locked in an everlasting battle for social supremacy.
The joy of the books is that we all know someone with a touch of Mapp or smidgeon of Lucia in them, but only Benson has the precision, the humour and the bravery to train his spotlight on them and reveal their machinations for what they truly are. Mapp and Lucia are women who both share the unshakeable conviction that they know best, but absolutely refuse to share anything else. They tussle for control of the hearts and minds of Tilling, using such weapons as a secret recipe for lobster, some ‘Roman’ remains, games of Bridge and piano recitals. It doesn’t sound like a deadly cut and thrust – but it is. But, while Benson’s heroines certainly have their monstrous moments, the humour and affection of the book balances out a fair amount of acid. Benson himself was a fascinating character, the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, whose house in Rye was previously lived in by another great novelist, Henry James.
There was an adaptation of the books on telly last Christmas and lots of people we met in Rye over the weekend had been extras and had hugely enjoyed being involved in the filming, though there were rumblings about the way the books were jumbled around in the script. Sadly, and unaccountably, the viewing figures weren’t high enough to ensure a sequel. Rye seems in very good heart for a seaside town, though, and the high street was pretty full of buzz on a Saturday in June. There’s a lovely bookshop, loads of great cafes and a craft shop that I had a happy browse in. When we ventured out for dinner later, thinking we’d just grab a table somewhere, we discovered that Tilling is alive and well in Rye. Everything was booked, and a lot of eyebrows were raised at our temerity in thinking we could just wing something as socially important as dinner. We eventually found some lovely fish and chips, and caught a movie at the very nice cinema, near the museum.
The next day, we were in Cranbrook, about a forty minute drive from Rye. We stayed at the George Inn there, largely because all the Rye hotels were full (more of that Tillingite forward planning) and partly because Cranbrook is very close to the beautiful gardens of Sissinghurst Castle, once home to Vita Sackville West. Cranbrook itself proved pretty and interesting, particularly as we happened to be there on the day of the annual fair, which involved a parade down the high street. This included adorable tableaux from the local junior schools on Waterloo and Pirates (well, both involved boats) and loads of stalls on the village green, selling plants, homemade crafts and lots of cake. We particularly liked the stall where you paid to smash wooden balls into shelves of china. It seemed so naughty to break stuff on purpose (though the china was uniformly hideous) but it was very therapeutic. We were off to Sissinghurst when we spotted the Cranbrook windmill. I got as far as the first floor, but TL allowed himself to get carried away and returned about an hour later, having had every stage of the milling process explained by wonderfully enthusiastic guides. We also bought some flour milled right on the spot, which I’ve already used in the bread machine to great results.
Finally, we got to Sissinghurst, and inevitably it started to rain. But even in the drizzle the gardens were beautiful, with great drifts of colour, wonderful specimen plants and the clever ‘room’ structure which has made the place so sighed over by gardeners the world over. Vita Sackville West apparently never got over losing her far grander family home, Knole in Kent, to a cousin as the inheritance followed the male line. Well, Sissinghurst would have been ample consolation for me. I couldn’t resist buying a lovely pink rambling rose to attempt to grow in our front garden, and then it was back to London, with a sad ‘au reservoir’ to Rye, Cranbrook and Sissinghurst.