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Hampstead, Northampton, Towcester: a British tour

Too much to tell – yesterday and today! I’m getting behind.

Yesterday I took the tube north to visit my old friend Tony Bingham in Hampstead. Tony was my boyfriend, briefly, during my year at theatre school in 1971-72. He’s 11 years older and was the first man I knew to wear platform boots – white platform boots. So cool. From humble beginnings, he was then becoming, and did become, one of the world’s premier dealers in antique musical instruments and metronomes. His flat then was littered with crumhorns.

After a long walk on the Heath, he took me to a mansion at its centre, Kenwood House. I didn’t even know this place existed, let alone that it was full of masterpieces, including a stunning Rembrandt and a Vermeer, just there, on the wall, no one paying attention. Vermeer! Tony was more interested in how the antique clocks worked and of course knew the kind of guitar Vermeer’s lady was holding. His house is stuffed with paintings of people playing or holding instruments, piles of ancient bassoons, and a harp made for Marie Antoinette. He drives a Jaguar station wagon — that’s a thing? He’s very interesting, and so is his partner, an Australian sexual health educator. It’s good to have interesting friends.

Speaking of which, this morning I was to take the train to Northampton to meet my interesting friend Penny. The provenance of our friendship is explained in the story “Correspondence” on this website under Articles, if you’re interested; her older sister was my penpal from 1962 until her death in 1966. As I waited at Euston Station, I learned that because of some unexplained issue, my train would no longer stop at Northampton. Get the later train, I was advised. But then, 3 minutes before departure, I asked again and was told, get the train after all, it might actually get there, and if not there’ll be a shuttle bus at an earlier stop. So I flew down and climbed on as the doors were closing. And sure enough, eventually, it did stop at Northampton and I arrived on time. A bit of tension to enliven the day.

Penny and I drove around the city to three addresses, the homes of my two great-grandmothers and a great-uncle, whom Mum and her sisters visited regularly from their village, Potterspury. Then to that village, to see, once again, the cottage where Mum was born, on the high street. But also unfortunately, it was an extraordinarily unsettled day, one moment hot sun, the next torrential rain, then sun, then hail, then sun, then cloud and darkness and fierce cold wind. It was freezing at that point, so we did not linger. We did stop in a very old, low-ceilinged place for a cup of tea. Oh yes, how I grew up to treasure a nice cup of tea.

We went on to nearby Towcester; I wanted to see the grammar school where the three Leadbeater girls went to school, and Penny had rented us a farmhouse b&b nearby. We drove deep into the countryside, until it looked like there were no homes at all, until the GPS turned us onto a driveway with a locked gate. We found out way in and to our home for the night, a palatial cottage, probably formerly a stable building, at the centre of a huge farm. We have a fully stocked kitchen, a living room, our own bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, central heating (YES!) and fast internet. We both loved it so much, we decided to find a shop to buy pre-cooked food and to eat dinner at home. We drove back into Towcester – in a rainstorm – found the school, much smaller than I’d imagined, as is almost everything in Britain, and then a Tesco where we bought a delicious ready-made dinner and a bottle of wine. Sublime.

So here we are, vivid green fields on all sides. There has been so much rain, the animals have to be kept in the barns. All we can hear is the wind. There’s a telly, if we want distraction But we have lots to talk about, Penny and I. I am still coughing and quivery, but I’m here, where my 42% British roots are planted. It’s utterly beautiful country, soft fields, tiny winding roads, ancient trees. Roots.

  1. Love the sign: “Humps for 300 yards.” Off Kensington Church Street.
  2. Kenwood House – in the middle of Hampstead Heath!
  3. The Vermeer and Rembrandt room – the little Vermeer on the far wall, all alone
  4. the Heath. Another brilliant London park
  5. 17 Sandringham Road, Northampton, where the terrifying Nana, my grandmother’s stern mother Charlotte, lived and where Marion Edith Alice Bates was born
  6. School House in Potterspur where my mother Sylvia Mary Leadbeater was born, though the thatch has been replaced
  7. through the windshield of Penny’s car – the landscape my mother grew up in. And then she married a Jew from Manhattan, whose early life could not have been more different. They were an interesting pair.

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One response to “Hampstead, Northampton, Towcester: a British tour”

  1. Alan Millen says:

    I loved today’s report and photos. Your urge (need?) to know your family’s history and the places where their lives unfolded aligns with my own rambles whenever I am in or near Edinburgh and Newcastle, with a few locations in or close to London adding to the mix. My first-cousin-once-removed gave me a tour of Northampton in 2015. That was a fun day out. Here’s a little theme piece to go with your next cup of tea. https://youtu.be/t-OLjyA9fQQ

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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