Long before the term was used to describe talent-free people in the public eye, John Betjeman was a celebrity: Poet Laureate, saviour of ancient buildings and National Treasure. But though his wife Penelope is affectionately portrayed in his letters, and in a biography by their granddaughter Imogen Lycett-Green, for me she always remained an enigma. Until, that is, I was cast to play her in a BBC Radio production and discovered the first of her two books, Two Middle-Aged Ladies in Andalusia (1963).
Penelope Chetwode was a Daughter of Empire. Her father was Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, and, though born in Aldershot, she lived in India for extended periods as a young woman and again later in life. Her second book, Kulu: The End of the Habitable World (1972), chronicled her trek by mule in northern India. She also made a seminal television programme in the 1970s called A Passion for India and she wrote about the country for several magazines. How I should love to have met her. Refreshingly un-pc, yet compassionate, altruistic and non-judgemental, she was clearly completely without what used to be called ‘side’.
Candida Lycett-Green’s edition of John Betjeman’s letters documents the myriad exploits of her doughty mother. Easily bored, Penelope was a restless soul who found many outlets for her vast energy. She was an inveterate volunteer and a pillar of the Women’s Institute (making an impressive 70 lbs of jams and jellies in a single season). She bred fowl, ran a popular café, entertained prodigiously and at one point wrote a cookery column. She also travelled extensively throughout her life and from childhood was a superb horsewoman. And though, like her husband, she was greatly loved, it’s clear from Two Middle-Aged Ladies that she preferred horses to humans.
Spain held little interest for her until the possibility arose of a solo ride in a remote region. Friends had long urged her to visit th
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