We have welcomed our copy of Fellows of the Book, and congratulate everyone who worked to produce it. We have a personal connection with one of the essays.
In writing of “Two Books For All Seasons” Jon Prance tells of Clare Leighton’s Four Hedges, and asks what became of the house and garden in later years. We can record some of those years: soon after World War II ended, my husband Jack Bradstreet and I lived there; our first son was born and spent his first year in “Four Hedges”. It was one of the happiest years of my life.
Jack was a young officer in the British Merchant Navy when we met; I was an Art Teacher at Melbourne Church of England Girls’ Grammar School. His ship went all over the world taking supplies to war-isolated Britain and we met on one of his brief visits to the Port of Melbourne. Jack’s ship had berthed in Singapore shortly before it fell to the Japanese in February 1942. Amid frequent air-bombardment, causing havoc among the ships at the wharves and in the harbour, they took on board many civilians trying to escape, and sailed out to make their way to their home port of Calcutta, without escort. Off the coast of Sumatra the expected air attack came, scoring direct hits which crippled the ship, killing and wounding several of the crew. After landing the worst injured at Palembang, they limped safely to Jakarta/Batavia. Later, in January 1943, Jack survived the sinking of his ship in the North Atlantic, in one of the last big U-boat attacks on convoys. He was one of the lucky ones, rescued from a lifeboat by a British corvette.
We married in Sydney in May 1945 (a few days after VE-Day) and I was able to go to London as a war-bride after the defeat of Japan. Jack finished his career as a sailor and at 25 he began his lifetime years as a bookman, and our 52-year marriage began. We lived with his parents until I found work with a school in lovely Buckinghamshire, which offered us a little cottage on school property as part of my pay.
We had to find somewhere else to live when I left the school, as I was pregnant and the school needed the cottage for staff. It was exceedingly hard to find anywhere to rent in war-battered England. Jack was by this time an assistant earning £4 a week with Weatherhead‟s bookshop in Aylesbury, learning the trade.
We heard of a good house to rent in nearby Whiteleaf village – but alas, the rent was £5 a week. We heard that the house belonged to Henry Noel Brailsford and the artist Clare Leighton (she had lived In America since 1939).1 H.N. Brailsford (the Noel of Four Hedges) was an eminent journalist, left-wing pamphleteer and scholar, who in his youth, in the 1890s, had abandoned an academic career as a philosophy lecturer to fight for Greece against the Turks.2
“Four Hedges” was called “Icknield Cottage” in those days: the road through Whiteleaf is on the Icknield Way, an ancient trade-track in pre-Roman times. It was no cottage, having a large house and a very large detached studio above the garage. I think “Four Hedges” was a name invented for the book. Many people wanted to rent this lovely house, but dear Mr. Brailsford chose us, probably because of our youth, and Jack’s bookishness, and my Art, and the coming baby! He knew Jack’s income and that we would have to share the house. We at once found that the nearby R.A.F. base needed a home for one of its doctors, and they were delighted to pay us £5 weekly for a share of the house. We had a bedroom in the house and the huge studio in the garden, and the shared kitchen and bathroom.
So we lived rent-free and very happily indeed in that most beautiful village, and Clare and Noel’s garden. I remember Jack struggling with the scythe in the orchard, just as shown in the en-graving in Fellows of the Book. The orchard was full of daffodils in Spring, and apple- and pear-blossom, and the grass needed cutting only once a year, after the bulbs had died down.
When after about 18 months, with a one-year old son, we de-cided to come to Australia, Mr. Brailsford gave us a copy of Four Hedges, which we treasure to this day because of our happy time in that wonderful house and garden. I also had a wood-engraving tool I found in the garden and have given to an art-student grand-daughter along with a copy of Four Hedges! We always hoped to find a cache perhaps, on the Icknield Way, of Roman coins. But we still have a small Roman brick, and what may be a boar’s tooth.
We have not been back to “Icknield Cottage” in the years since we left, so cannot tell you how it is today. We have been told that the farm across the road is now built over with modern houses. The ancient cross of Whiteleaf, cut in the chalk at the top of the hill, survives as a landmark and is worth visiting.
Someone touring in lovely Buckinghamshire who knows the book may like to know the address as it was in our time: (no street numbers) “Icknield Cottage, Peters Lane, Monks Risborough, near Aylesbury, Bucks”. If you find Clare and Noel’s house and garden again after half a century, please tell us when you return.
In Fellows of the Book it is an interesting coincidence that Jack Bradstreet‟s essay follows Jon Prance‟s “Two Books For All Sea-sons”!
- 1 Clare Leighton was one of the leading exponents of her art in the flowering of British wood-engraving in the 1920s and 30s: many of the best were women. She was one of the most-admired engravers when she moved to America in 1939, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1945. Continuing to work as an engraver as well as lecturing and designing for stained-glass windows, and for Wedgwood pottery, Leighton received many awards including the Gold Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She died in 1989, aged 90.
- 2 H.N. Brailsford died in 1958 at the age of 84. His books ranged from a classic study of Macedonia (1906) to a history of The Levellers and the English Revolution published posthumously in 1961.