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Sarah Crowden on Penelope Chetwode, Two Middle-Aged Ladies in Andalusia

A Hot-Water Bottle and a Horse

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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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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 the country, and finally she was persuaded, both by them and by an article in a Sunday newspaper on conducted rides around Andalusia. The idea of a conducted ride in England would have been anathema to her, but Spain was another matter. After a preliminary guided excursion organized by friends, on 5 November 1961 she set off alone from Illora, north-west of Granada, to travel round and up the sierras of rural Andalusia, a trip of approximately 200 miles. She stopped only at places she felt might be interesting. Sometimes she followed the Guadalqivir river which took her in an easterly direction, to her furthest point north, Torreperogil, and thence to the city of Ubeda, to view its magnificent architecture. From there she turned for home, meandering back to her starting-point. Two Middle-Aged Ladies, illustrated with her black-and-white photographs, is based on the diary she kept on the trek. The ride was intended to be spartan – she took only a few clothes (a skirt for more formal occasions stored in a stocking to prevent creasing being my particular favourite), a hot-water bottle and a sturdy horse. It was an extraordinary undertaking, at a time when ‘middle-aged’ described anyone over 40, to ride alone over unforgiving terrain on an unknown mount in a country where she had only rudimentary knowledge of the language. Airily dismissing the concerns of friends and family, she ‘thanked God for a plain middle age’ which would stave off unwanted attentions. Her mount, the Marquesa, on loan from the Duke of Wellington, a family friend, is described as ‘equivalent in horse age’ to her rider, not beautiful but ‘a good doer . . . the greatest blessing on a ride of this kind’, and blissfully unperturbed by strange stables and strange company. It was she who turned out to be the object of endless attention from Andalusian men, natural horsemen all. Penelope clearly approved of the basic accommodation provided by posadas – inns with stables attached, ‘the animals being often better housed and better fed than the human beings’. ‘Posada life must be entered into in a spirit of adventure,’ she observes. Most of the bedrooms lacked glass in the windows and she often, without complaint, slept in all her clothes to keep out the cold. Plumbing was also virtually non-existent, and ‘a po cupboard’ a rarity. She was a convivial guest, particularly when staying with families where there was no posada. Here she was visited by curious villagers, paraded at ‘social engagements’ and taken to other homes, once joining in, willing as always to learn, in the preparation of pig’s intestines (she likens a ceiling festooned with sausages and black puddings to one by Robert Adam, with added odour). The perfect day was one on which she enjoyed ‘an orgy of spiritual, gastronomic and aesthetic delights’. Her intention was to keep to the Spanish equivalent of bridleways, to satisfy her ‘passionate desire for adventure . . . beauty and solitude’, using the sun to orient her. She was well aware that rural Spanish roads with their many potholes would deter curious tourists, and she would therefore be unaccompanied for much of the journey. Only she could have taken with her as reading matter her daily missal and Cervantes’ Don Quixote – ‘homework’, read as she rode (his ‘lavatory humour’ particularly appealed). Only she could have set out with two almost illegible and conflicting maps, having researched her journey by consulting the works of nineteenth century fellow travellers in Spain, George Borrow and Richard Ford. And only she, instead of counting sheep to get to sleep, could have prayed to St Anthony (in French!) for the return of her Dayella pyjamas, lost from the saddle. St Anthony, of course, obliged. A late convert to Rome, her faith sustained her, providing an immediate connection with priests and host families alike. Regular attendance at Mass, sometimes twice a day, helped her to master the language. Though self-critical about her linguistic abilities, she at one point discussed theology at length with a parish priest. Of the many churches in the towns and villages, she preferred the small, simple ones. There is a charming, schoolgirl earnestness about Penelope Chetwode’s writing; and the sheer stamina required to complete the journey, as illness and bad weather beset her, had me rooting for her. At one point she is tempted to turn back on an almost invisible and extremely hazardous path, but no, ‘this was not the way the British Empire was won’. A quick prayer to the Blessed Virgin, and a man on a mule appears and guides her to safety. Her respect for the country and its people grows. The relentless modernization of England and the disappearance of its traditions compare unfavourably with what she sees in Spain, and she robustly dismisses the canard that ‘Spaniards are unkind to animals’ when everywhere, clearly, the comfort of the horse is paramount. By 3 December, she is back where she began, having ‘seen human beings as God meant them to be’. Her journey, a true act of faith, is over, its ‘healing silence . . . like lanolin being rubbed into your soul’. Penelope Chetwode died in 1986, on a riding tour in her beloved India. She was 76. How I wish she had written more. Thanks to her I have a renewed interest in Spain and, stamina levels permitting, I intend to go on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. I shall wear stout boots, carry a dictionary and a copy of Don Quixote, and at my destination I shall raise a toast to those two adorable middle-aged ladies.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 66 © Sarah Crowden 2020


About the contributor

Sarah Crowden is an actress and writer who performs stand-up comedy as Dame Theresa Thompson’s-Gazelle, also a Daughter of the Empire. And there the resemblance ends.

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