Henry James thought that these two words, Summer Afternoon, were the most beautiful in the language and it was on a perfect August day that we visited Lamb House in Rye. This was Henry James's home from 1897 to 1916. He bought it after the failure of his play Guy Domville as a kind of refuge and there he entertained everyone who was anyone in literary life of the time. The front hall of the house is hung with small portraits of his visitors and it's quite a list: Max Beerbohm, Rupert Brooke, Ford Madox Ford, George Bernard Shaw, and many, many others. Edith Wharton was a friend of his. Mrs Humphry Ward, too, and on and on. They all came to see him in this warm and elegant place, with its most beautiful garden, and I wish it were possible somehow to overhear some of the conversations that went on in the oak-lined living room, or sitting among the roses.
James wrote many of his later novels here, in the Garden Room which was destroyed by bombing in 1940. There are examples of his handwriting displayed in Lamb House and it's illegible. Towards the end of his life, he employed a secretary to type his manuscripts and it was fun to read a laminated copy of his typed letter announcing the installation of the first telephone in Rye. His number was Rye 51.
James was a very handsome youth indeed and even in his later years, he was a good-looking chap, though one photograph shows him looking a little more like a nightclub bouncer than a famous writer. We weren't allowed to take photos inside the house but I took one of the writing room while standing in the garden and it shows something of what the interior is like.
As Henry himself put it: "There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea." He and I are of one mind in this matter. He didn't know much about horticulture but he loved a garden. "I am densely ignorant," he wrote in 1898. "Only just barely know dahlias from mignonette." Still, the garden that was created at Lamb House is glorious. Here are two photographs which don't really do it justice.
E.F.Benson lived in the house for many years after James's death. Anyone who has read the Mapp and Lucia novels knows that they are set in Rye and that they offer a unique, hilarious, and sharply-written account of the eponymous heroines and their battle for the heart and minds of Tilling (Rye) in a series of books adored by their many fans. Perhaps these stories have fallen a little out of the mainstream but for their admirers (and I'm one of them) they shine like a good deed in a naughty world. Noel Coward loved them and so did W.H Auden and their author, even though he was quite acerbic about Rye and its citizenry, was Mayor of the town three times. He also wrote ghost stories, which I haven't read, but Mapp and Lucia are his best-known creations. He makes a world entire and when you're in the town and in particular in Lamb House (Mallard House in the novels) you step into it. We went up to the top of the tower of St Mary's church and it's true that you can see into the Lamb House garden. It's easy to pretend you're Mapp spying on Lucia doing her callisthenics. The tower, incidentally, provided a couple of Vertigo moments but the view from the top was well worth it.
We had tea in a delightful tearoom called Cobbles. Their coffee and walnut cake is wonderful, and they have an enviable dresser.
We had a perfect summer afternoon. Visiting Rye is in many ways like stepping into the past...the 1950s, say. Our friend Philip remarked that not a single brand name from the High Street has an outlet there, and that hadn't struck me but it's true. I loved the windows, both of shops and private houses and here, to end with, is a selection of some of them.