Interview with Nicki Lewis-Smith
Nicki Lewis-Smith was waiting in the garden for me to arrive. Nicki is the daughter of the poet Anne Lewis-Smith who had been Elizabeth’s neighbour in Dog Lane for a decade or more. I had been urged to contact Nicki by her Mother, Anne, with whom I had corresponded both before the site was set up and afterwards. It had taken me a couple of years to work out that she was one and the same as the published poet that I had read.
I was taken inside her old cottage, which had obviously been here long before the estate which had grown up on three sides of it. This was now completely hidden by trees, shrubs and fencing, so that the cottage could still have been in the countryside on the outskirts of Ludlow.
Nicki made us tea and offered biscuits and over these we began to talk. She started by telling me that it wasn’t until after Elizabeth had died that she had really appreciated what a prolific and successful writer she had been. Until then she had just been an elderly lady who was friends with Mum and lived in the cottage down the lane. They then lived in Primrose Cottage which is the cottage a little nearer to The Dog pub. She knew she was a writer because so was Mum, and their talk had been peppered with literature and poetry.
Nicki went upstairs and came back down carrying three boxes, two considerably smaller than the other. Sitting down opposite me at the table by the window so that what light there was fell on the surface, she opened the first box to reveal a small, intricately carved silver writing desk. This she told me was called “the Poet’s Desk” and it had come from the Channel Isles. Originally it had belonged to Elizabeth’s mother Ida Collette, and had then been handed down to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth was poetic to her core; it was the ultimate expression possible in the written word to her and she venerated the poet’s craft. She was friends with Ruther Pitter who lived in the Cotswolds and Anne Lewis-Smith a poet living next door must have been a great boon to her intellectual life. A little like Cousin Mary in Scent of Water, Elizabeth must have been pleasantly surprised to find someone she could discuss Literature with in a small rural village in 1960’s Oxfordshire. This wasn’t the only time I was to be reminded of the similarities between Cousin Mary and Elizabeth that afternoon.
It was exquisite, obviously a family heirloom, and a great bequest to have been given from a neighbour. Elizabeth had no children of her own, and perhaps she felt that as a poet, Anne would be the most fitting person to bequeath it to, someone who would value the symbolic nature of the gift as well as its beauty and value.
The other box was much smaller and was obviously going to contain jewellery of some sort. But the pendant it revealed took my breath away. It was a small amethyst carved with a writers quill and the word “Truth” in its faceted surface. It was a beautiful and most appropriate piece of jewellery for a writer to wear. Nicki told me that Elizabeth had worn it every day, but was unable to tell me where she had obtained it. My impression of Elizabeth is of someone austere; who like Sebastian in Heart of the Family, or Cousin Mary (again!) would rather that any money surplus to her meagre living standards she earned was better spent on the wider community rather than on an expensive trinket for herself.
Perhaps Jessie gave it to her as a gift on one of her birthdays, or indeed another family member, maybe she did buy it with some of her hard won earnings. However Elizabeth had come by it the intimate nature of holding something she had worn was powerful, a talisman from her life.
The third was a box containing letters and cards written to Nicki’s family from Elizabeth spanning many years, even after they had left Peppard Common behind for the wilds of Wales. I could have spent all afternoon handling and reading these treasures, but I felt a little like I was snooping into something really private. They were all fragile, some almost falling apart and I couldn’t help thinking how rare anything in the way of personal writing from Elizabeth was, in light of Jessie’s destruction. They were mainly chatty little notes and cards, both Christmas and birthday, with some slightly longer letters among them. What insights they might give into her character or thoughts there wasn’t the time then to find out.
I had got the impression from Sylvia Gower that Elizabeth had tolerated her less famous neighbour in a spirit of Christian charity. But I cannot retain this image after talking to Nicki. She remembered one incident vividly from that time, when she had been a young teenager and “a bit of a hippie, into my long cloaks and skirts,” Elizabeth had watched her riding past Rose Cottage and around the field at the back of her garden. The young girl with her flowing clothes and long hair on her horse must have seemed to have ridden from the pages of one of her stories. Or perhaps she was remembering the rides she took as a young woman through the fens near Ely.
It was obvious that they had been very close. Why else would one gift such family treasures to neighbours who had moved away? Elizabeth had a wide circle of admirers and many friends in her church and community. But she was a private person who valued the quiet pace of the devotional life she had chosen. Jessie protected her privacy fiercely giving her the time and space she needed to be creative. But the Lewis-Smith family seem to have been one of the exceptions to this, with Elizabeth letting them into her life and affections.