A delightful eighteenth-century house where the Vicar and Mrs. Quail live, strewn with Mrs. Quail’s favorite wisteria, sending wafts of perfumed loveliness over the pretty front lawn. Inside, Mrs. Quail’s decorative taste prevails, with plenty of tasseled curtains and floral wallpaper, and a profusion of plump rose-colored velveteen cushions.
An old, stone church has been standing, and lilting very slightly, since the fifteenth century. It has been freezing inside ever since, even at the height of summer. There is a rumor that the ghost of a highwayman haunts the main apse every night, hunting down the Curate who handed him in.
Set up in 1862 to teach young locals to read and write, the main classroom still contains four rows of wooden desks facing a small blackboard. Hattie has worked as a teacher here for just over a year, before which the class was taught by Mrs. Poultice.
This is a sprawling red gothic-style mansion built a few generations ago by the original Mr. Brampton, a trader who got rich in India. Now they’re a big local family, with Mrs. B. determined to make them even bigger. She lives here with Henry when he’s not flying Spitfires. Her husband, the current Mr. Brampton-Boyd, prefers to live in India, far from his somewhat busy wife.
Through the ivy- and rose-covered garden lies picturesque Ivy House. Mrs. Tilling lives here with David Tilling when he’s not fighting at the front. Her deceased husband, Dr. Tilling, was a veterinary surgeon, and there’s a residual sense that Ivy House is a place for all lost and hurt creatures to come and find care.
The communal hall is the meeting place for the Women’s Voluntary Service (or WVS as everyone calls it these days), led by the forceful Mrs. B. However, it is also the meeting place for the men in the Chilbury Defense Volunteers (CDV), led by the domineering Brigadier. Let’s hope they don’t try to meet at the same time.
A quaint terrace of Tudor cottages, built in the sixteenth century, the old blackened beams askance with the wear of time. Each one has its own character, like the souls who reside within.
The glow of gold strikes you as you walk into the small hallway, a series of little things, satin boxes and artifacts from India and the Far East, covering every surface. The sitting room contains more, while the back room is filled with musical instruments of every type, awaiting an invisible orchestra.
Miss Paltry’s House
Spartan and gray, Miss Paltry has rented the house from a Mr. G. H. Pennington of Litchfield for a number of years, without changing a single thing. The smell of cat wafts around the place, as well as a sense that Miss Paltry, for all her medical expertise, is not necessarily a friend of housecleaning.
The delicious smell of homemade chicken and vegetable soup greets you as you step into the cozy yet practical little house. Blue and cream walls and wooden floors scrubbed and polished until they gleam gives the place a feeling of warmth and love, like Hattie herself, bustling out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron to welcome you in.
Mr. Slater’s House
Although he hasn’t lived here for more than a few months, Mr. Slater has transformed the living area into an artist’s studio, complete with a giant wooden easel and tubes of paint of all colors. The old window facing the field behind lets in a red and pink sunset, shining around the warm ochre and maroon interior.
This elegant Tudor mansion house, with two drawing rooms and servants’ quarters, has been on the property market for a few months. The splendid beamed exterior bespeaks its heritage: it was built in 1603, additions and updates in 1769 and 1909. For more information, please telephone Mr. Tallant of Tallant & Short Property Agents, on Litchfield 274.
Back in the medieval era, the green would have been created as a common space for villagers to graze cows, the pond being used as a water hole. But since then Chilbury’s Green has become so much more: a place where villagers meet and chat, and the site of the annual May Day celebrations, replete with a maypole strewn with a hundred pink, blue, and yellow streamers.
Many young boys, no doubt including poor David Tilling and the brute Edmund Winthrop, will have pondered at some point exactly how deep the indigo-mirrored pond goes down. Could one be lost in its depths? Or maybe swim to a different world? The ducks always sit on the southern bank; breadcrumbs from Mrs. Tilling have become more sparse since rationing began.
The Fox & Ferret
In the medieval era, Richard II urged pubs to put up signs outside, and since the population was mostly illiterate, this was often a painting depicting something easy to remember, such as the Fox & Ferret. This old place has plenty of nooks and crannies for hatching a plan or making a secret tryst.
Now that food is being rationed, Mrs. Gibbs’ village shop has become all important. You have to register with a shop so that they can be allocated enough food for the number of people they serve. Bacon, sugar, and butter are already rationed, and there’s talk that they’ll extend that to include meat, eggs, cheese, milk, soap, and—don’t panic!—tea.
The sport of both the idle rich from Chilbury Manor and the lowly farmhands from Dawkins Farm, cricket brings everyone together. The big match of the year is the Chilbury vs. Chartley, the neighboring village. For this, the ladies of the village turn out to watch in all their finery; if there were a competition for the most glamorous hats, Chilbury would most certainly win.
The big house of the village, Chilbury Manor is a grand, Georgian hall filled with antiques, antiquities, and blue-gray velvet drapes and finery. Since the 16th century, the manor has housed the lord of the surrounding area, the ancient Winthrop family. In good eras, they better the village with prestige and riches, and in bad, they pall the inhabitants in hate and loathing.
Magnificent beech trees mix with holly, firs, and elms across acres of tightly packed woodland, coursing down to the copse around the babbling Bullsend Brook. Kitty’s favorite places are the Chestnut Patch, full of broad-trunked giants, and the Pixie Ring, a spot where fallen tree trunks create a secret meeting place where magic things happen.
Deep in the thickest part of the wood lies a broken down old stone barn, covered in ivy and moss and full of nettles. No one knows how long it’s been there, but it’s believed to have been built by a woodsman who lived there until his life was gently oozed from his body one midwinter night by the woodland fairies, trying desperately to preserve their wood.
First brought to the farm by a cousin from Sussex—you must never pay money for bees: they must be a gift—the beehives have been here for over a century. Whenever there is a death in the family, someone must tell the bees, so the tradition goes, or the bees will flee the hives and wreak their revenge.
The old rickety bridge needs to be fixed, but since the young men of the village went to war, the farm has been short of farmhands. It gently collapses a little more every day, easing itself slowly into Bullsend Brook as if returning to the earth, recreating the landscape as if it had never existed in the first place.
Once a thriving stable packed with horses for showing, jumping, and hunting, it now houses only a few older horses, such as the beautiful Amadeus, now past his best. Long were the days when Venetia would show him all over Kent. Today only little Silvie pays him due homage, creeping into his stable and saddling him up to gallop across the hills as if her life depended on it.
The old farmhouse has a thatched roof made from straw and rushes that have to be reaffixed or mended from time to time. On one side is an oast house, a conical-roofed building with a white pointed tip, used for drying the hops for beer. On the other side is the farmyard, complete with sheepdogs, barn cats, and the occasional hen pecking away at any stray grains.
Rail travel is limited now the war is on, so you can only get the train to London if you have a war meeting, as is the case with Brigadier Winthrop, or if you have important business with the Women’s Voluntary Service, as is the case with Mrs. B. Funny how she always makes sure she gets all the good jobs.
Hop Picker Huts
Even though there’s a war on, the hop pickers are still coming down from the poor parts of London to pick hops every summer. These days there are fewer men, more women, and a lot more children, like Tom, whose parents are too busy to look after them. The huts are sparse metal sheds, but everyone always has fun during the hop-picking season.
Each spring, the cherry trees burst into a delicate pink bloom, sending showers of soft petals cascading over the countryside with every light breeze. The trees, lined up and down the hillside, bear red and black cherries well into the autumn, as the leaves turn yellow, then the brightest of reds, before fluttering back to the earth.
Click on the white dots above to tour the village of Chilbury and learn more about the characters in The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, then read below to learn about the author’s inspiration.
The Inspiration Behind the Book
When I was growing up I had two grandmothers, one was Shakespeare Granny, who was an expert on the tragedies, and the other was Party Granny, who loved nothing better than a good knees-up with a Pink Gin. Party Granny was always telling thrilling and often racy tales of her war years in Kent, and it was these stories that formed the backdrop for The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. I wanted to bring the feeling of the era to life. Women of all ages faced tragedy and hardship, but they also had opportunities for work and new personal freedoms with fathers, husbands, and sons away at the front.
There was a shift in cultural gender norms brought about by the needs of the war; women suddenly found jobs opening up for them in the country’s hour of need. Plus, there was that heady notion that each day might be your last, so you need to make the most of it. Sexual norms relaxed as people made the best of things while they could. Premarital sex, extramarital affairs, sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies were rife. Who knew what would happen tomorrow, so why hold back?
Party Granny was also in a choir, and told hilarious stories about how bad they were, losing a carol competition because they had colds and blocked up noses and instead of singing “Ding Dong Merrily on High” it came out as “Dig Dog Merrily on High.” She told us how choir competitions were popular during the war to “keep up spirits.” Another time, one of the altos was hurt in an air raid and they went to the hospital to cheer her up with a few songs, hamming up their bad singing to make her laugh. It was so successful that the nurses took them around every ward to cheer up the whole hospital. She’d fall about laughing as she told her stories, her eyes gleaming with the memories.
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My fascination with the era continued, leading me to read memoirs and diaries of women and children of the time. There’s something heartwarming about the way everyone pulled together to win the war, putting aside their differences to fight the common enemy, no matter what it took. And so, when I started to think about writing a book, the seeds of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir had already begun to grow.
A Summer in Kent
Chilbury is based on a beautiful old village in Kent, Chilham, where I once spent a glorious summer in my youth. A castle and manor house sit prominently on the square, with beautiful Tudor tea shops around the tumbledown churchyard. My days consisted of picnics in meadows of wildflowers, or long rambles through the woodland speckled with sparkling sunlight. In the evenings, we heard the echoing hoot of barn owls as we sought a fireside nook in the White Horse pub. I stayed in an old oast house on a nearby farm, which might have been Dawkins Farm, complete with barns, stables, and even some beehives. It was the perfect picturesque haven to let the drama unfold.