Tea and Books and Two London Gems

I was in warm, sunny London on Thursday. The original plan was to meet a friend from my online book group and attend a showing of the 1953 film “Little Boy Lost” organised by the Persephone Book Shop. I always book my cheap train tickets way ahead and when we came to enquire about the film all the places had been taken but I still had my train tickets. In the end it turned happily as the weather was so warm and sunny that it might have been a shame to have been cooped up in the BFI.

Our Plan B was to visit the National Trust property Sutton House instead. I’ll copy and paste Clare’s summary of the history of the house as she summed it up perfectly to our group yesterday :

“It is a Tudor house, with lots of later additions, and a
fascinating history. It was first owned by Ralph Sadleir, an important
official in four reigns starting with Henry VIII. After that it was owned by
other individuals plus passing through the hands of two separate girls’
schools, a boys’ school, a church institute which ran all sorts of
activities for young men, and in the 1980s it was occupied by squatters who
wanted to form an arts community there.”

Today Sutton House is very much a part of the local community and the only staff we came across were volunteers all of whom were friendly, helpful and knowledgable. You can check out the website to see the variety of activities organised at the house – not surprisingly it’s booked up for over a year for school party visits. At one point I spotted a flyer for ‘Sutton House Book Brunchers’ who meet at the Bryck Place Tea Room once a month. Bryck Place is the original name for Sutton House and the tea room is a delight – a book lovers’ and tea drinkers’ paradise! There was a bit of renovation going on in the tea room on the day we visited so it was a matter of help-yourself to drinks and cake or scones and jam and drop a contribution in the box. So we did! The tea rooms are surrounded by shelves mostly stacked with secondhand books but some also with secondhand cups and saucers and jugs and teapots all for sale.

The tour of the house began in the Linenfold Parlour (see the poster pictured above). This would have been an important room in Sadleir ‘s original building in what was at the time (1535) a quiet, rural village. You then can visit the cellars, climb the Painted Staircase to the Gallery, the Little Chamber and the Great Chamber, a bedroom now decked out as a Victorian study and climb up again to an exhibition and history room on the second floor. A further staircase takes you right down to the ground floor again where, on this east side of the house, is a Tudor kitchen with access to an enclosed courtyard and a Georgian Parlour. This last room had a corner devoted to tea and it’s accoutrements and I was happy to note the following little verse :

 “In lands near or far

or wherever you be

friendship is welded by

a good cup of tea”

From Sutton House it’s a short walk to Hackney Central Station where we boarded our London Overground trains in opposite directions. As I sat on my train heading towards Whitechapel the following text came through on my ‘phone : “Afternoon tea now available at 45a!”  Some friends, staying at the Landmark Trust property 45A Cloth Fair this week, were inviting me to join them for (another) cuppa and more cake. I’ve stayed at 45A in the heart of Smithfield between Barbican and St Paul’s tube stations half a dozen times already so it was like arriving home as I climbed the creaking staircase to the first floor sitting room and joined my friends for tea and cake.

Tappington Hall and The Ingoldsby Legends

“THE JACKDAW sat on the Cardinal’s chair!
Bishop and abbot and prior were there;
        Many a monk, and many a friar,
        Many a knight, and many a squire,
With a great many more of lesser degree,—         5
In sooth, a goodly company;
And they serv’d the Lord Primate on bended knee.”

Did you read The Jackdaw of Rheims at school? We did. And it all came back to me last Monday when I visited my friend Sarah’s family in Kent. Sadly, Sarah died in November 2008. We’d known each other since our first days at university in 1970 and met up several times a year ever since. Sarah’s parents and other family live near Canterbury in Kent and one of my reasons for travelling down there for a birthday treat was to visit them and talk with them about Sarah and our friendship.

It was the snowiest day of the winter but I was not deterred from my journey. Luckily Sarah’s brother was clearing snow at his parents’ home and kindly turned my car round in the drive. After my initial welcome Andrew took me in his steadfast farm Landrover to see the Ginko tree that had been planted in Sarah’s memory and on to the area of woodland on the farm where her ashes had been scattered.

After a few moments’ quiet contemplation Andrew offered to take me to visit his own home and meet his wife Sue. Tappington Hall near Denton is a lovely old house tucked away down a farm track a few miles from his parents’ place. Sue and Andrew offer bed and breakfast on an informal arrangement. They were expecting two Canadians that evening and hoping that they would find it warm enough. I think Canadians are probably used to snowy weather!

Of great interest to me was the fact that Tappington Hall was the former home of The Reverend Richard Harris Barham  (1788-1845) alias Thomas Ingoldsby of Tappington Everard in Kent. Sue and Andrew have a vast book collection which includes many versions of Barham’s Ingoldsby Legends. Unbeknown to me until I opened one of the books was that The Jackdaw of Rheims poem is one of these Legends.

Barham was ordained in 1813 appointed to the parish of Westwell in Kent and later to the living of Snargate and Warehorn, on Romney Marsh. He and his wife and children later moved to London where he was appointed to a post at St Pauls although he kept his Romney Marsh living as well.

His writing  and journalism took off when he got to London and he was published in several periodicals including Blackwoods and  Bentley’s Miscellany. He seems to have enjoyed mixing in literary circles in London, knew Charles Dickens and Richard Bentley and was a founder member of the Garrick Club (1832). Probably he is best known for

” … his Ingoldsby Legends, which began to appear in 1837 in Bentley’s Miscellany. Under the guise of Thomas Ingoldsby of Tappington Everard in Kent, Barham ‘discovered’ old documents which provided the basis for his tales. In effect, most of these are reworkings of other narrative sources, from medieval chronicles to Kentish legends and Sir Walter Scott. The mixture of crime and the supernatural, in both verse and prose, is given a comic and grotesque dimension, immediately appealing to Barham’s readers.”

Extracted from : The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

The Legends passed through very many editions some with illustrations by such artists as Tenniel, Cruikshank, and Rackham and Sue kindly showed me several of these. Many of the editions were best sellers in their day.

On the Sunday night before my visit to Barham and Tappington I stayed at a B&B between Sittingbourne and Faversham. I was delighted to find a selection of Persephone Books beside my bed at Dadmans – even though I had read them all.

A further selection of Kentish books made up the library at Obriss Farm. There is no shortage of reading materials at Landmarks.

Neglected classics – but not any more thanks to Persephone Books.

“Persephone Books reprints neglected classics by C20th (mostly women) writers. Each one in our collection of 96 books is intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written.”

As you know I love to sit in my boudoir reading. Some of you may have noticed the uniform grey bindings of the books on the shelves just behind my chair.

Persephone Books produce the most beautiful books, ever – totally thought through with care from beginning to end – from the simple grey covers to the endpapers to the quality paper and print to the Forewords and Afterwords written by well-known authors and others relevant to each book’s content or its provenance.

Each book comes complete with its own bookmark.

As long as you keep buying the books – is that a problem? – they send out a lovely printed newsletter “The Persephone Biannually” free of charge twice a year. In the past it was “The Persephone Quarterly” and  so I have to wait a bit longer these days for my new copy to arrive – Spring/Summer in April and Autumn/Winter in October. The Biannually is always accompanied by a new bookmark.

If you request a copy they’ll also send you their latest annual catalogue. Generally this is published to coincide with the Autumn/Winter magazine.

The publishers operate from their own shop premises in Lambs Conduit Street in Bloomsbury which are a delight to visit. Besides their own books they sell copies of the 50 books which they wish they had or wish they could publish and a selection of relevant secondhand  titles too. Besides books there are some household textiles, some pottery, cards, postcards and their notebook for sale.

Not all of the books are fiction – there’s some cookery, a gardening book, a book about The Sack of Bath in the 1960s, personal memoirs, biography. I certainly don’t have them all. Books can be ordered online, bought from the shop and from good booksellers. For a small extra payment they’ll gift wrap any book. They make perfect presents.

To keep your interest, just in case it is beginning to wane between book publications, you can sign up for an online Persephone Post to drop into your Inbox every day – mine arrives about 9pm each evening. There is also an online book group forum with a new book under discussion each month and you can receive email offers occasionally.

Then there are the real live discussions, talks, films, tea parties and book groups – usually held in London but they have been known sometimes to travel out of town – even as far as Scotland – and once they even went  to New York – to promote their wares and meet their customers.

And what’s best about them is that it was through them that I joined my lovely online reading group of friends around the world in 2004. I have met many of the members, mainly in the UK and mainly in London but also in Stratford upon Avon, Edinburgh, Berlin, Potsdam, Chicago and Massachusetts!

What’s my next Persephone read? In the new year I’ll be reading, along with the group, the latest Dorothy Whipple book to be republished in a smart grey cover – Greenbanks PB95. I already had an ‘original’ copy of the book!