An Account of the Blue Plaque Ceremony
The afternoon was grey and overcast with mean spits of rain in the keen wind, not the kind of day one would have wished for an event so long anticipated. We arrived outside the whitewashed bulk of the Dog Inn which that same day was re-inventing itself as an Italian Restaurant, and found the verges and car park overflowing with vehicles. Some had come for the restaurant opening but a surprising number were going to the Blue Plaque ceremony.
Dog lane tottered off to the left and disappeared between sodden trees, it looked much as it probably had before tar macadam roads made travelling a pleasure rather than an adventure. Rose cottage is set right on the lane, but invisible from the highway, making it seem set apart.
On first appearances it bears little resemblance to the home portrayed in Elizabeth’s auto-biography, until you notice the thick strength of the chimneys and the rippled red roof line, with windows peeking out from under the eaves. You realize then what a long time it’s sat there, watching and absorbing all the changes that have occurred to it and its surroundings. It would have been very rural when Elizabeth and Jessie moved there in the early fifties. The Blue Plaque was high up under the eaves to the left of the front door, and had been hidden by drapes.
About fifty people had come to share in the event, a good turn out for a gloomy afternoon. It was so good to begin to meet people who had so far just been names and a friendly email or two, that the first ten minutes or were like a family reunion, everyone appearing vaguely familiar. Mark and Liz Dutton, Elizabeth’s heirs, had arrived with their son and a box of books which he was generously giving to any who wanted them; they had also brought a painting of a young Henry Goudge which in the past had hung in the cottage.
Sylvia Gower and her husband George arrived at the same time we did after a long and tiring drive, it was to an extent as much her day as Elizabeth’s, the culmination of all her hard work was finally taking place. Sonia Harwood’s son Andrew and his wife Hilary were present, his mother had been a close friend of Elizabeth. A regal elderly lady called Betty in a wheel chair had already arrived; she had known both the cottage before Elizabeth lived there, and Elizabeth and Jessie after they moved in. Others had known her too, such as Shirley who had looked after them both in their old age.
The deputy head of the Oxfordshire Civic Society gave a short speech on the Blue Plaque organisation, and how many and varied had been the plaques that had gone up in the county and how now Rose Cottage too was on the map. Then the Sub-Dean of Oxford spoke to us about his knowledge of Elizabeth’s writing, and how he remembered Green Dolphin Country and the quote from Ruth in the book .”for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” which had stayed with him all his life, a trait which readers of her work will empathise with, Elizabeth was good at finding an appropriate quote to emphasise her work. He managed to unveil the plaque with a flourish of episcopal purple just before the rain really started to come down and the umbrellas to go up and we were all ushered into the arms of the cottage.
The entrance hall was narrow and the stairs to the upper floor rose steeply on the right. On the left was a step down into the main living area, and ahead the new extension and kitchen/diner. Everywhere was clean and bright and the sound of voices emanated outwards to greet us. The main living room was long with a low ceiling and windows in two of its thick walls, an enormous fireplace took up the end wall. Sofas and chairs had been set out around the perimeter, and people were talking animatedly to each other. Elizabeth’s quote about the hospitality of the house sprang instantly to mind. “The great and Christian virtue of hospitality is a rather weakly plant in myself and Jessie; it needs a lot of nurturing; but in the cottage itself it is so strong that the moment the front door is opened to a guest I can feel the delight that rises up from its hospitable old heart. I once entertained thirty writers in our sitting room and even above the noise of the thirty all talking at once I imagined I was aware of the contented cat-like purring of the cottage. It liked it. This cottage knows in its wisdom how much human beings need each other.” (Goudge 1974 p 255). Karen our hostess had laminated the quote and placed it in the dinning room where an army of her friends and herself had prepared a gorgeous buffet.
After a short speech from Sylvia in which she introduced us all to each other the company went in search of hot drinks and the talk of Elizabeth and her life in this amazing place flowed between us. There is never enough time to speak in depth at parties to all the people that you wish to speak to, and that was the only slight disappointment of the day, I wanted to talk to everyone at once and more importantly, to hear what they had to say. I tried to picture Elizabeth sitting by the fire listening to all that was going on but I could not find her in the crowd.
I circulated through the house, listening to conversations about people that Elizabeth had known in the village. Mr & Mrs Baker, not their real names, she took and used in Scent of Water, and how kind and generous an employer she had been, how the garden had benefited from Jessie hard work, and I was shown the small downstairs room in which she had died, not being able to get up the stairs in her final illness. How sad I thought that was for someone who had grown to deeply love the atmosphere and changing views from the room they came to call the captains cabin, due to its size and shape.I spoke at length to the lovely Liz Dutton who had brought a photograph of the Little Things to show us. The glass cabinet contained all the miniatures. A wise lady called Lois who accompanied me upstairs said, “imagine the power of imagination, thought and prayer that must have seeped into the walls of this place, it must have soaked it up like blotting paper.” Suddenly I realized she was right, Elizabeth’s ghost had long been laid to rest, but the power of her mind and thoughts were evergreen and always accessible to those who wanted them. I had so wanted to feel her presence, but of cause Elizabeth would have laughed knowing that it was just a room. Suddenly I was glad that it wasn’t a museum piece, a sad replica of how it had been, it had changed, been transformed as she had.
We wandered back down to find that people were beginning to leave; it was already over. The cottage glowed and I realized that the gloom of the day didn’t matter either, the warmth and light had been contained inside, it came from the people who had gathered to celebrate the life and achievements of a great lady.
The friend who had introduced her to Jessie had found this poem in a Devonshire cottage and copied it out. She sent it to her, as she thought it appropriate to her new home. It shows what the village and cottage were like when she moved here. Then she would have been only a few years older than I am. Like me one of the great joys of Elizabeth’s life was poetry, it seems a good way of ending the account of the visit to her home.
My room’s a square and candle-lighted boat
In the surrounding depths of night afloat.
My windows are the port holes, and the seas
The sound of rain on the dark apple trees.
Sea-monster-like beneath, an old horse blows
A snort of darkness from his sleeping nose,
Below, among drowned daisies,
Far off hark,
Far off, an owl, amid the waves of dark.
Elizabeth had been unable to discover who wrote this haunting and appropriate verse but with a little research I’ve found her.
Frances Cornford (1886-1960) was born and lived for most of her life in Cambridge. She was the granddaughter of Charles Darwin, and on her mother’s side was related to William Wordsworth. In 1909 she married the classicist Francis Cornford, who was to become Professor of Ancient Philosophy at Cambridge, and they had five children. Frances Cornford published eight books of poetry and two of translations. Her Collected Poems (1954), the year Elizabeth moved to Rose Cottage, was the Choice of the Poetry Book Society, and in 1959 she was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.
Elizabeth Goudge Joy Of The Snow 1974 Hodder & Stoughton.