By Haydn Brown.
In May 1933 Sylvia Townsend Warner and her female partner, Valentine Ackland, were driving around Norfolk when they discovered what used to be called Frankfort Manor, but now known as Sloley Old Hall; it lay up a quiet lane in the northwest of the county of Norfolk and about 5 miles south of the town of North Walsham. According to Warner:
“It was a beautifully proportioned house, with a Dutch Gable and a reed-thatch roof – filled with the noise of trees. Valentine found it, exploring inland, but only because her quick eye caught sight of it behind its rampart of trees: backing to have another look, she saw it was to let. It stood in that stretch of Norfolk where the soil is deep and fertile; a soil for oak and chestnuts to plunge their roots into.”
The Manor, as then, was for rent and the two somewhat strange literary ladies leased it until November 1934. They believed that the house and its gardens would provide them with the perfect rural location in which to potter about and write – particularly about a family of cats that lived in the Hall’s outbuildings. These feline creatures inspired Warner’s ‘The Cat’s Cradle Book’ (1940), which is a collection of short stories seen from a cat’s point of view.
In her autobiography, Valentine Ackland described the attraction of Frankfort Manor thus:
“At Frankfort Manor, then, we lived in a kind of solemn, fairy story splendour. The first spring and summer brought nothing but miraculous days. Every day a fresh discovery; one day I found white currents….another day we met a hedgehog walking up the drive, another day I was picking green peas into a colander and saw the earth near my feet heaving and a mole emerged and I caught it instantly in the colander and carried it in to Sylvia and set it down beside her typewriter on her table.”
Clearly, Frankfort Manor was where they enjoyed one of the happiest times of their lives together. But they were not to know, when they took out the lease on the property that within twelve months they would be forced to leave because their money was being drained by heavy legal costs resulting from a libel case involving them and the Chaldon Vicarage back in Dorset. In short, they successfully sued after standing up for the rights of a badly treated servant girl there; it was huge financial blow. Nevertheless, whilst they were at the Manor Warner herself described their days there as follows:
“Throughout the autumn, we worked hard and honestly in the kitchen garden. There was about an acre of it, four square plots with flower-borders smothered in bindweed, two asparagus beds and a fruit wall. When we arrived, the ground was under potatoes. These we sold to a fish and chip shop on the Wroxham Road. ……… We made jam and conserves and pickles and sold them. We needed every penny we could raise if we were to stay on in this kind paradise where we were so happy, so hard-working, so good. Goodness is like a flower of the locality. We were never again so unimpededly good as we were at Frankfort Manor.”
It was also during this time at Frankfort Manor that their first and only collaborative work, a book of poetry titled ‘Whether a Dove or a Seagull’, was published. It was truly a time of happiness and productivity, a time that was to be deeply cherished by Warner.
“There was a Victorian wire arch over a path in the kitchen garden, and I remember hanging grey kittens among its lolloping pink roses to get them out of my way as I thinned carrots, and thinking as I heard Valentine whistling nearby…..It would not be possible to know greater happiness……It did not occur to me that such happiness might be too good to last.”
For the Record:
Sylvia Nora Townsend Warner was born on 6 December 1893 at Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, the only child of George Townsend Warner and his wife Eleanor “Nora” Mary (née Hudleston). Her father was a house-master at Harrow School and was, for many years, associated with the prestigious Harrow History Prize which was renamed the Townsend Warner History Prize following his death in 1916. As a child, Warner was home-schooled by her father after being kicked out of kindergarten for mimicking the teachers. She was musically inclined, and, before World War I, planned to study in Vienna under Schoenberg. She enjoyed a seemingly idyllic childhood in rural Devonshire, but was strongly affected by her father’s death.
On the other hand, Valentine Ackland’s upbringing was quite different. She was born Mary Kathleen Macrory Ackland on 20 May 1906 in London, to Robert Craig Ackland and Ruth Kathleen (née Macrory). Nicknamed “Molly” by her family, she was the younger of two sisters. With no sons born to the family, her father, a West End London dentist, worked at making a symbolic son of Molly, teaching her to shoot rifles and to box. This attention to Molly made her sister Joan Alice Elizabeth immensely jealous. Older by eight years, Joan psychologically tormented and physically abused Molly.
Molly began wearing men’s clothing, and cut her hair in a short style called the Eton crop, and was at times mistaken for a handsome young boy. This was the time, in the late 1920’s, when she changed her name to the androgynous Valentine Ackland; it was when she decided to become a serious poet. Her poetry appeared in British and American literary journals during the 1920s to the 1940s, but Ackland deeply regretted that she never became a more widely read poet. Indeed, much of her poetry was published posthumously, and she received little attention from critics until a revival of interest in her work in the 1970s.
But it was back in 1927 when Sylvia Townsend Warner first met the aspiring writer named Valentine Ackland. In 1930, they became life partners, eventually settling permanently in the village of Frome Vauchurch, Dorset in 1937. In the same year, American heiress, Elizabeth Wade White (1908–1994), moved to Dorset, England, ostensibly to conduct her research on Anne Bradstreet, an early American poet and the first American writer to be published in the Thirteen Colonies. This was actually an excuse; her real intent was to meet Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Valentine Ackland with whom White was to have an affair sometime later.
As an aside: White was coincidentally, a supporter of Sheringham’s John Craske who, in turn, was a painter friend of Ackland. It would appear that for this reason, White became in contact with another East Anglian, Peter Pears, who was collecting Craske’s works; White was to donate her papers about Craske to the Aldeburgh Festival Archive.
Matters were to become difficult for Warner around this time, for she was marked by her mother’s increasing senility. This situation was not helped when Valentine had her ongoing affair with White. Warner was tolerant of her younger lover’s dalliances, but the seriousness and length of Ackland’s relationship with White was distressing and pushed Warner’s relationship with Ackland to the edge. Eventually, in 1949 to be exact (see ‘Warren Farm’ below), Valentine returned to Warner and the next fifteen years were relatively tranquil for them both. This does not hide the fact that Valentine struggled with alcohol addiction for many years of their life together. Valentine’s lack of success as a poet and her financial reliance on Sylvia Warner meant that her self-esteem took a battering and she was often wracked by self-loathing.
After eventually leaving the blissful days of Frankfort Manor behind, Warner and Valentine resumed living back at their cottage in West Chaldon, Dorset. It would be seventeen years before the couple again stayed any appreciable length of time in Norfolk, although there were those moments when Warner, one of the Bright Young Things of the 1920s, frequently stayed with Ackland at her childhood family home of Hill House in Winterton. Its grounds have long since been a holiday centre with those bizarre African inspired thatched holiday chalets. Before then, the house was more recognisable, without the present-day huge bay windows, and from where the two frequented the Fisherman’s Return in Winterton, one of the two pubs in the village; the second was the Mariners, which has since become a private house.
It was also at Hill House that the two wrote poetry inspired by the Winterton beach and dunes; with Warner writing, after one visit in 1930:
“It was the severe presence of the sea which made the rather ugly house romantic. Below the plateau the dunes stretched far as the eye could travel, harshly mossed to the landward (it was impossible to think of them as land), prickled with marram grass as they rose into sandhills and subsided into the beach: a grey pebble beach till the tide went out and left a belt of sand streaked with watery light where the sea lay caught in pits and furrows.”
As a postscript to Hill House; it became an upmarket hotel when it was acquired by ex-RAF pilot Ken Temple. He had spent time living in Africa and it was he who had the roundhouses built as bedrooms for guests. Thatched cottages were also built as holiday lets during the 1950s and 60s in The Lane, which is opposite the Fisherman’s Return public house; at one point the lighthouse itself was part of the holiday centre. The hotel was rather exclusive and among its high-profile guests were film stars. Apparently, Honor Blackman and Richard Burton were at one glittering event there and the young actor, who went on to play Antony to Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, happily chatted up a local girl – nothing new there then!
Warren Farm, Horsey:
In October 1949, Sylvia and Valentine returned again briefly to Norfolk and stayed at Warren Farm, Horsey; it happened to be during the crisis of Valentine’s affair with Elizabeth Wade White. Today, the Farm is somewhat different, situated at the south eastern edge of Waxham Sands Holiday Park and forming part of it. It also adjoins a Nature Reserve and Bird Sanctuary.
Salthouse lies on the North Norfolk coast between Weybourne and Cley-next-the-Sea. At one time, salt was manufactured in the village and exported to Europe. In fact, its name derives directly from ‘house for storing salt’ – a term recorded in the Domesday Book. Above Salthouse is the village church, which provides a spectacular view across the marshes to the North Sea. Mary Mings, the daughter of the famous admiral Sir Christopher Mings, is buried beneath the nave.
It was one year on from their stay at Warren Farm when, in 1950, Sylvia Townsend Warner and her lover, Valentine Ackland, came once more to Norfolk and rented the Great Eye Folly in Salthouse, that was until 1951 whilst Warner worked on her last novel ‘The Flint Anchor’ (1954). The Folly – a former coastguard building – was originally built by Onesiphorus Randall in the 19th Century and for a long time was called Randall’s Folly. It stood on the beach in an exposed and windswept location and would always be vulnerable to the sea. In 1950, when the two writers first set eyes on the Folly, it made a profound impression, particularly with Warner who, in a letter to Alyse Gregory in 1950, described her own impressions of the building:
“…. I think Valentine will have told you about the Great Eye Folly. I have the oddest impressions of it, since we were only there for about fifteen minutes, and conversing all the time with its owners. But the first five of those minutes were enough to enchant me. It is the sort of house one tells oneself to sleep with, and sometimes I almost suppose that it is really one of my dream-houses, and no such solid little assertion of the rectangle breaks the long sky-line of salt-marsh and sea.”
So, the two women stayed, and again potted about and wrote until the moment arrived when it was time to depart and return finally to Dorset. Two years later, the great storm of 1953 broke the Folly’s back and its complete demise was nigh. Nothing remains of it today.
In 1967, Valentine Ackland was told that she had breast cancer that had metastasised to her lungs; after a long struggle with the disease, she died in 1969 at her home in Maiden Newton, Dorset. Warner, then in her mid-70s, continued to mourn her for the remainder of her life, though she found some solace in her garden and her much-loved cats. In her last years, she also enjoyed a resurgence of interest in her work, especially among feminist scholars. Increasingly troubled by arthritis and deafness, Warner became bedridden early in 1978. She died on May 1 of that year, aged 84 years and her ashes were buried with Ackland’s at St Nicholas, Chaldon Herring, Dorset with the inscription from Horace Non omnis moriar (Ode III.30, “I shall not wholly die”) on their gravestone.
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