I am back from the best weekend in quite some time, and I'm going to write up all that happened. I wrote most of it last night, and then finished it off whilst on the train, opposite the woman who inspired my going at all - Justine.
I am currently in the Eliot Arms. No - I've not managed to find a quiet place by the fire (which was blazing all day), I'm in the pub. The afternoon event has finished, and as I've found a very kind person to put me up for the night, I'm waiting for the evening to kick off.
It was beautiful weather all the way up on the train - light blue skies with large fluffy white clouds on the horizon. Fields whizzed by with beautiful old churches, charming cottages and intriguing castles and manor houses nestled in between the trees. I drank it in, rejoicing in the greatly rolling hills (although I heard an Irish woman exclaim, just past Reading, 'My, isn't it flat!'. She has clearly never been to Peterborough! So I had high hopes that the sacrifices Justine and I had made (health and shoes) had been duly noted and the God of Weather had determined to be kind.
Not so. I got off the train and the heavens opened. I walked into the village, marvelling in the quiet, past the entrance to Port Eliot and went to see if the pub had any rooms. No. So that seemed to be an end to the idea of my staying for the evening. Back I walked to the entrance of Port Eliot and meandered down the winding drive.
And there was the house. A beautiful grey brick building, nestled in a valley with the family church set right beside it.
The house itself is a wonder and here I quote Lord St Germans from the guide 'Like most houses, Port Eliot has a front door and about there the similarity ends. There are 11 staircases, 15 back doors and 82 chimneys. The roof covers half an acre and not once in living memory has it been completely watertight. The contents of the house reflect the accumulation, over 400 years, of an ever-prospering family who have lived in the same house. Being a large house, there has never been any reason to throw things away. There are several pieces of museum-quality furniture, including an early Boule armoire, and among the many pictures there are several masterpieces by Sir Joshua Reynolds.'
It's a magical place. One could imagine great Deerhounds romping through the halls, past men in breeches and women in harlequin dresses, like the portrait of Hester Booth in the main hall. No Deerhounds in actuality - just one very friendly grey whippet, Roo.
Like Lord St Germans says, nothing has been thrown away and there were lots of little things to see that added a unique charm to the house. Between two old paintings, a half surfboard with a portrait of the current owners; a dog toy by a door; and in the furnishings arsenic based wallpaper!
The Lenkiewicz mural was - and here I struggle for the right words - well, I think interesting yet disturbing might well fit. It's certainly powerful. But I don't know whether I like it! In the big dining room was something else intriguing. A mannequin in Victorian dress with black lace mantilla was sat on the table, with a great variety of odds and ends surrounding her. Designed by Michael Howells ( resident designer for the Ballet Rambert), the tableau was put together to show off the beautiful pieces of lace that had been found in the house.
It was still raining, so Justine's talk was moved from the secret garden to the Orangery, a lovely conservatory with a boxed in garden to one side. Off came my suede shoes, on went my equally unsuitable, but rain worthy, sandals. I think I changed shoes more times than Cinderella. Justine and Catherine, Lady St Germans, sat at one end and talked all things Daphne - her air of mystery, the menace in her Cornwall descriptions - which when coupled with Justine's explanation of menace as a code for sexual attraction within the du Maurier, struck me as an interesting way to read some of the novels.
Justine read the opening of her novel, and it's strange, but although I've heard her read it four times now, with each reading the nuances change and I get more wrapped up in the despairing world of Daphne in the late 50s.
Then tea! And the sun came out! Catherine had read the description of Manderlay tea in 'Rebecca' which had our mouths properly watering, and what a spread it was. Proper tea, ginger beer for those not inclined to drink hot water, daintily cut sandwiches of cucumber and some of fish, tiny scones and great slabs of wonderful cake. And then I met Dovegreyreader! I was sitting chatting to a couple of women I had met in the tea queue, when someone asked 'are you Oxford Reader?' And thus the Internet and real life merged! Lynne encouraged me to go to the Dartington Way with Words festival. Tempting me with talks that she was doing both with and without Justine. Erm - oh dear!
It was lovely sitting in the garden, spotting Robert Fox in the distance, although I didn't have the courage to go and suggest Emma Thompson as the lead if and when he makes a film out of 'Daphne'. I suspect he will be eternally grateful subconsciously for my lack of courage! Bookends of Fowey were there, and had one copy of 'My Mother's Wedding Dress' left. I simply couldn't leave it there, so it came home with me. I think I've got enough reading material for America now! I got chatting to the owner, Ann, and she said she'd been reading my blog - Hello Ann!
I went for one last walk around the grounds, and at one point I thought I'd entered another world. Walking down one of the tracks, with the rain beating on my umbrella, I caught the scent of wild garlic. The air was humid, and the light darkly dappled. No one else was near and a bird rustled its wings and shrilled. At that moment I truly knew what drew Daphne there and why the link between Port Eliot and 'Rebecca' was so strong. I thought of the passage Catherine had read, not an hour before ....'That corner in the drive, too, where the trees encroach upon the gravel, is not a place in which to pause, not after the sun has set. When the leaves rustle, they sound very much like the stealthy movement of a woman in evening dress, and when they shiver suddenly, and fall, and scatter away along the ground, they might be the patter, patter, of a woman's hurrying footstep, and the mark in the gravel the imprint of a high-heeled satin shoe.'