Fellowship of a castle

Anjana Basu | Updated on April 06, 2018

Lo! behold A vintage print of Hawthornden Castle   -  duncan1890

Hawthornden in Scotland unites writers and the wraith of a chatelaine

She had hair red as tomato ketchup — perhaps that was why fate ultimately made her a Heinz after two failed marriages and a spell as an actress on the London stage. I never met Drue Heinz, who died last month aged 103, but I was a guest at her beloved castle for a month, scribbling away at a political novel.

Hawthornden Castle was the name that no announcer at an Indian litfest could pronounce when they introduced me to audiences, even though the name hung around Dom Moraes for the longest while, and there are one or two other Fellows in India.

Drue, with chronic insomnia and nights spent within the pages of books, decided to turn her castle into a retreat for writers, a place where they would be provided with meals, comfortable beds, a library and, in the evenings, interesting conversation with other writers. Hawthornden housed five writers at a time, most of them unknown to each other, and, from 9.30 in the morning until 5.30 in the evening, it was a place of Benedictine silence. You disappeared into your room called Boswell or Bronte or Jonson or Shakespeare and scribbled and thought and thought and scribbled, disturbed only by food breaks — lunch, in a hot box, that was soup and sandwiches, and Kerry’s fresh-baked scones for tea.

I first saw Hawthornden on a cold evening, rising at the end of the pebbled drive. Old rose-brown stone cradled in green hills, daffodils and birdsong. Those daffodils were a surprise of yellow in the clean crisp air, catching the last of the falling light. The front door was a dark-wood thing, with a rusty latch under a worn shield, that creaked open. A metal deer frozen in eternity on a patch of grass and cherubs who made me shiver they were so unclad, watched my passage into the house. I met the real deer the next morning as I hugged my thermals and woollens and walked through the damp mist. Something moved and then I realised that there were two shapes scudding up the slope away from me.

Indoors, though, it was bright and swathed in warmth and tartan carpeting. Hawthornden is far from draughty — though there was once a boiler explosion in shivery February and residents had to board the windows with cardboard to keep the heat in.

Under the 14th-century castle are caves dating back to the Bronze Age and replete with ancient Pictish stones, if you know where to look for them. At a later date, Queen Victoria had the caves lined in red velvet so she could view the stones in comfort. Two hundred feet below, in the ravine is the Esk, a brown stream rushing over pebbles.

There is a river walk, steeply plummeting and swerving dangerously close to the edge of the gorge, with a Lover’s Loup somewhere, where two unfortunates plunged to their death. Friends had advised me to find a knight in shining armour and play Rapunzel, but any knight would have gone rattling like a tin can down the stones.

Evenings at Hawthornden were of a necessity quiet, continuing the monastic mode with sherry and genteel conversation in the Garden Room before dinner. The American poet in my group taught us to play poker with pebbles from the drive instead of chips, and in early May, when the days stretched to long hours of evening twilight, a badger reportedly took shelter by the well in the courtyard, though we never spotted it.

There are cold lairs under the castle where the 16th-century Elizabethan poet Sir William Drummond would cloister himself to write poetry, presumably retiring from an excess of beauty outside; or recovering from Ben Jonson’s visit. Jonson apparently walked all the way from London to be greeted with a cry of “Oh royal Ben Jonson!” by Drummond. Within a few weeks, the two got on each other’s nerves and Jonson had left in a huff. However, the aim of the castle — Drummond persisted — was to retire in ‘honest ease and write poetry’.

That tradition continues, though the castle does not belong to the Drummonds anymore. One of them gave it to his driver as a whim, and from the driver it found its way to the Heinz family. Drue, in her role as lady of the manor, decorated a dark tomato ketchup-red suite of rooms, hidden behind a discreet door that could only be opened if we were sure that she wasn’t there and that the administrator did not know. After she became a Heinz, Drue collected writers, castles and villas rather than diamonds, and she finally passed away in the castle she adored.

I never discovered any ghosts when I was there but perhaps there is one now, the wraith of the chatelaine flitting through the library and peering over the shoulders of writers.

Anjana Basu is a Kolkata-based writer

Published on April 06, 2018

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