Painting Opposite by Geraint Goodwin is of Lower Farm at Dagnall Buckinghamshire
A Visit To Lower Farm Dagnall An Account By Joan How, Society Founder
I visited Lower Farm, Dagnall in July 2010. I have woven in some quotes from letters written by Geraint Goodwin whilst staying and writing at the farm, and also from Sam Adams critical monograph “Geraint Goodwin” - from the Writers of Wales series. These quotes are included in order to augment my visit.
There was a wonderful aroma of cooking when I visited Lower Farm, Dagnall on that July day. Doris Nunn, the owner, was baking for the local fete, and, as on my two previous visits, made me very welcome.
Lower Farm is situated at the base of Whipsnade Zoo on the Dunstable Downs, and it was here in the mid 1930s that Geraint Goodwin, his wife Rhoda and young daughter, Myfanwy, rented the farm cottage. Geraint, born in 1903 in Penygloddfa, Newtown (in the then old county of Montgomeryshire) had probably started working for “The Montgomeryshire Express” in 1920 and in 1923 made the move to London to work as a reporter at Allied Newspapers. In 1931, after returning from a T.B. sanatorium in Frimley, Surrey where he had been treated for ongoing tuberculosis he was employed as a journalist at The Daily Sketch. He continued to work at the Daily Sketch until 1935 when he retired to continue his writing career. His wife Rhoda remained on the editorial staff of Allied Newspapers. So the family arrived to live at Lower Farm.
Doris explained that she had not known Geraint but her husband, Steve, who was some years older than she was had known him and had spoken often to her about him. Steve was born in 1909 and would have been 27 years of age when the writer, then aged 33 years, was living at Lower Farm. Steve had affectionately described the writer as “quite a character, enthralling the villagers with his tales, and holding them in awe”. I had with me copies of some of the letters written by Geraint from Lower Farm, and Doris was delighted when I read some extracts to her. The cottage layout would have been different then to the present day arrangement with a bungalow now an addition to the garden. The entrance into what is now the kitchen would originally have been into the front room complete with inglenook fireplace. Geraint refers to the inglenook in a letter dated Nov. 17th1935 to a Miss Atkinson which refers to a misplaced proof.
“I have searched high and low for it and it now seems beyond all question that it has slipped down behind the bricked up ingle-nook and that it can only be recovered by dismantling a good deal of the house”.
Thankfully the proof was recovered so preventing this course of action and prompting a further letter to Miss Atkinson dated Nov. 19th1935.
“The proof which I had thought fallen behind the ingle nook was mysteriously turned up”.
The original kitchen was complete with a copper and a small room off today’s sitting room may possibly have been used by Geraint as a study. The bedrooms of the cottage were down a passageway at the back. The garden at Lower Farm runs along the edge of Dunstable Downs with Whipsnade Zoo looking down from the top, and to the right of the cottage there used to be a well, now bricked up but which played a significant role in the Goodwin’s stay and departure from Lower Farm.
Geraint’s stay at Lower Farm was to prove not only profitable, the author writing three novels whilst there, “the summit of his achievement as a writer” (“Geraint Goodwin” by Sam Adams) but also pleasurable, as illustrated in letters to Edward Garnett who was a reader for Jonathan Cape at this time and a distinguished writer of the period. These letters were published in The Anglo-Welsh Review Vol. 22 No. 49 dated Spring 1973 under “The Geraint Goodwin-Edward Garnett Letters” by Rhoda Goodwin. These letters endorse Geraint’s love of the countryside, and the area surrounding Lower Farm today is still beautiful. Ashridge Forest (then Ashridge Estate) and the lower road skirting Whipsnade Zoo are ablaze in the autumn with rich colours. His mother and stepfather were the inspiration for his love of hunting and fishing which is endorsed by the following extracts from the letters to Edward Garnett.
Letter from Lower Farm dated Aug.14.35
“Every prospect still pleases out here although the rabbits are noticeably less”.
Letter dated Sept.8.35
“I thought I should be up in London this week, and intended leaving a brace of partridges at 30 Bedford Square which I should be very glad if you would accept. Instead I will send them through the post tomorrow (Monday). I shot them Thursday so they will soon be alright”.
Edward Garnett’s response is in his letter from 19 Pond Place, Chelsea SW3 dated Sept 12.1935
Many thanks for those partridges – my favourite bird – which I brought from Bedford Square and cooked yesterday in a casserole. They are delicious eating”.
Whilst living at Lower Farm Geraint was to read, on Garnett’s recommendation, Richard Jefferies writings and was able to find similarities with himself. In Geraint’s letter to Edward Garnett Nov.7.35 he writes “I have been looking into Jeffries “Amateur Poacher”. Grand Stuff. All that background is very nearly mine. It doesn’t change. Some of the technicalities of ferreting I brought into the novel.”
He continues in his letter dated Nov.10.35 “I say it without shame but I have only just come to Jeffries”. Geraint had always pictured Jeffries as a Naturalist armed with microscopes and camera and “to whom the whole rude, exuberant pageant of life is a closed book. How greatly I was mistaken I am now finding out”. Geraint quotes Jeffries “Yet woods and fields lose half their interest without a gun – I like the power to shoot, even though I may not use it”. Geraint had “glimpsed the man” and in his letter dated Nov.15.35 writes “I think I can see Jeffries clearly for a variety of reasons. His background might have been mine…” Geraint continues his interest in hunting in another letter dated Nov.12.35 where he writes of his mother referring to her “gusto for life….” “plunging into a sea that is almost a storm : walks 5 mile over a mountain through all sorts of bogs and then, at a mountain lake with the water ice cold, walks in up to her waist and goes on fishing for hours”. Sadly there is no sea or mountain lake at Dagnall, but when his mother visited them at the farm I feel sure would have enjoyed the shooting that would have been available.
Geraint (like George Orwell living and gardening in Wallington, Hertfordshire) enjoyed growing his own vegetables, and Lower Farm provided him with a garden. Sam Adams writes:
“In Dagnall he had a large garden that he cultivated conscientiously, taking pride in his work with the earth and gaining solace there from the new stresses of uncertainty. He usually wrote from about 10 in the morning until lunch. His wife returned from her day at the office, they would have tea together and then go to the local inn, or perhaps to one in the next village, but he would be back at his desk at about 8 o/clock and often carried on writing into the small hours.”
Another endorsement of Geraint’s enthusiasm for gardening and hunting is to be found in a letter written by Rhoda Goodwin to Sam Adams. It is dated 10thSeptember 1973, and reference is made to Lower Farm, and the family on whose land the cottage stood.
“He took his advice from a local countryman and also bought many gardening books. He did all the work himself and acquired an interest in growing food, the close to earth philosophy which he carried into his writings. He would shoot a couple of rabbits in one of the surrounding fields, bring into the house from the garden potatoes and other vegetables and fruit grown by himself. He made his own beer and country wines, bargaining with the farmer’s son on whose land our house stood, for loads of manure in exchange for elderberry wine. Nothing gave him more pleasure than to sit down to a meal and to be able to say he had produced all that was eaten”.
Within this discipline of gardening and writing Geraint Goodwin was to produce three short stories, “A Woman in the House” (later re-titled “The Young Bull”), “The Old Folk in the Dead Houses” and “There Binna No Spring” (later to become ‘Late Spring’). Whilst working on “The Heyday in the Blood” his writing became hindered by iritis and it was before Christmas 1935 that he was able to recommence his work. During what must have been a very difficult time healthwise, he wrote with such fervour that his pencil was worn to a stump. His letter to Sidney Campion 1stJuly 1936 relates “There was no pencil holder in the village. At this crisis the village grocer loaned me a sweet pea holder which, fixed on the stump enabled me to finish the last chapters”. As I read this letter to Doris Nunn she said at once “That would be George Norman, the grocer”. A collection of short stories, including “Janet Ifans’ Donkey”, was published under the title of “The White Farm” in March 1937, within 10 months of “The Heyday in the Blood”. Geraint’s mother visited in 1936 over Christmas and this visit was to form the idea for his next novel “Watch For The Morning” in which she features as Menna. Through the character of Menna Geraint was able to depict his mother’s strong character, and love of all things connected to Nature.
Since my visit to Lower Farm in July 2010 I have had the opportunity to meet Myfanwy Lumsden nee Goodwin, and we talked of her time at Lower Farm. Although very young when at the farm she could remember that there was no electricity, just oil lamps, and that she managed to singe her hair when leaning over one too far. The family car, a Morris Coupe was another memory. It had an open top which caused many a problem for her mother, Rhoda’s working clothes. Geraint used to run Rhoda to Berkhampstead railway station every day to catch her train to London, and unfortunately the birds had nested in the car overnight leaving white droppings all over the seats! Another memory is of her father so engrossed with his gardening that the young Myfanwy would be forgotten enabling her to wander out of the farm yard and into the road. But I feel her most endearing memory is of visiting Whipsnade Zoo where Geraint was friendly with one of the zoo keepers, the little Myfanwy being hoisted onto her father’s shoulder and feeding a biscuit to a very tall giraffe.
In recent months I have accessed a website (www.edlesborough.gov.uk/tour/dagnall) which features amongst other interesting information about Dagnall the following:
“In 1935 electricity came to the village, gradually the houses and farms had electric lights installed. One age old custom at “The Golden Rule” (where, Doris Nunn informed me, would find Geraint on most Friday evenings making everyone laugh with his stories of London characters) also came to an end. It was usual at the end of an evening of Darts for each player to have 5 darts with which to attempt to extinguish the candle that lit the Dart Board”….I would like to think that Geraint took part in this custom as I feel sure a good laugh would have been had by all.
During Geraint’s time in Dagnall the village boasted two hostelries, “The Golden Rule” and “The Red Lion”. On a very recent visit to the village I sadly found that “The Golden Rule” was now closed, but “The Red Lion” still remains open. Interestingly a “Red Lion” features in “The Heyday in the Blood” with the following description:
“No one knew how old was the house…it spread itself out in its warm coloured brick amongst the trees, with no beginning and no end…one could wander about all day long and there was always something fresh….Nowhere in all Wales were there such ham and egg teas….there was no ham like it…………..” There has been much speculation as to which “Red Lion” is featured in Geraint’s book, I shall have to investigate “The Red Lion” in Dagnall and see if they are serving ham and eggs!
I will end my account here with one final reference to the well mentioned at the beginning of my description of Lower Farm cottage. Just as I was about to leave Doris took me to the side of the cottage to show the site of the well. While the Goodwin family were renting the cottage there was a drought and the villagers frequently came to access the only water supply available from the deep well. Their fondness and liking of the young writer, who had made them laugh so much, caused Geraint a lot of distraction as they wanted to continually talk to him. Unable to cope with the interruptions, the family eventually left to return to Wales. Sadly the well is no more, it has long since been filled in and concreted over.
I often drive near Dagnall, along the lower Whipsnade Road, and each time I remember the Goodwin family that had stayed in the village. It is pleasurable to think that I live not so far away from Lower Farm.
My sources for the above article were:
“The Geraint Goodwin-Edward Garnett letters” compiled by Rhoda Goodwin published by The Anglo-Welsh Review Spring 1973 Volume 22 Number 49
“Geraint Goodwin” Writers of Wales series by Sam Adams published by University of Wales Press
“The Heyday In The Blood” written by Geraint Goodwin published by Jonathan Cape 1936 and republished by Parthian University of Wales 2008