Herefordshire People: Gwen McBryde - Hereford's Mystery Diarist
PUBLISHED: 17:27 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:33 20 February 2013
It was at Dippersmoor Manor, near Kilpeck, that Gwen McBryde wrote her Guardian Country Diaries, full of acute observations of farm life, animals and plants. Now they are re-published in a new anthology.
A Good Year for Blossom: Women Writers of the Guardian Country Diary
Edited by Martin Wainwright, Guardian Books, 12.99
Gwen McBryde came to live on a Herefordshire farm as a young widow with her daughter Jane, in the 1920s; and the country diaries she wrote for The Guardian, beginning in 1940, tell of struggling to run the farm despite frost, floods, drought and the upheavals of the war, while revelling in her glorious surroundings.
Guardian Country Diaries, which have been published since 1904, have always attracted an enormous correspondence, and a fascination with their invisible authors. Martin Wainwright's fourth anthology, A Good Year for Blossom, features some of the formidable women who have contributed over the years. Among them is McBryde - 'perky, gallant, amusing, daffy'.
She grew up near Hull, the daughter of a Conservative member of parliament, Frederick Grotrian. She looked back later on a 'golden' childhood: "At home in Ingmanthorpe Hall she made gunpowder with her brothers for a home-made cannon, built tree houses and came in for dinner coated in mud after dipping for newts or waterweed in nearby streams." Gwen remained an intrepid explorer and observer of nature throughout her life.
In 1904 she married James McBryde, from a Shropshire farming family, but within a year, when she was pregnant with their daughter, he died. His patron, the author MR James, became guardian to Gwen and Jane, and was a frequent visitor when they were living at Dippersmoor. Its landscape was the setting for his story A View from a Hill: "Across a broad level plain they looked upon ranges of great hills, whose uplands - some green, some furred with woods - caught the light of a sun, westering but not yet low. And all the plain was fertile, though the river which traversed it was nowhere seen. There were copses, green wheat, hedges, and plentiful pasture-land."
Dippersmoor Manor is a combination of early Elizabethan, Jacobean and 19th century styles, with a magnificent tithe barn facing the house. It is approached by a long avenue of poplar trees, and surrounding it are an old knot garden which is now being restored, pleached lime trees, and terraces and lawns lined with unusual climbers and shrubs.
After Gwen McBryde's death in 1958 Dippersmoor was left to Jane, and by her then to its present owner, her godson Hexie Millais, great-grandson of the celebrated Victorian artist, Sir John Everett Millais.
Hexie says, "I got to know Jane as a boy when I used to come to Dippersmoor in the holidays to help with the lambing of her pedigree Clun flock. She left Dippersmoor to me, which came as a huge surprise. I was about to join the Army so my father arranged for Milton Shulman (late theatre critic of the Evening Standard) and Drusilla Beyfus (ex-editor of Brides magazine and features contributor to The Telegraph magazine) to 'rent' the house, which they did for 10 years before Amanda and I moved here."
Hexie and his wife Amanda have lived at Dippersmoor now for 25 years, and they have devoted themselves to the maintenance of the house and the creation of the garden. They offer bed and breakfast and self-catering accommodation: guests can relax in Gwen McBryde's oak-panelled sitting room with an open fire, and eat in the dining room, where bacon used to be cured.
These brief extracts give a flavour of Gwen McBryde's Country Diaries:
The Dippers' Waterfall, February 1941
There is a waterfall at the bottom of Dippers Wood. It is well worth a visit at this time of year. It flows over large blocks of stone, a ten-foot drop. Today it thunders down, brown and foaming, bringing along branches and stones and leaves. Usually it is a tranquil stream, with clear pools between slabs of rock and you can find your way over to the opposite steep bank, where there is a flight of rough stone steps up to the oak roots that grip the top of the slope.
If you hunt under the stones in the stream you will find crayfish. They are like little lobsters, black, and I think with something of the repulsiveness of spiders. I was once persuaded to have some crayfish boiled; they turned a beautiful scarlet, but here at any rate they do not grow big enough to be worth cooking.
Today, as I had hoped, I saw a dipper. His white breast made him very conspicuous as he stood for a moment on a slab of rock flicking his tail. He flew off downstream calling 'Chit, chit'. I had not the good fortune to see him go under water.
Men from the Ministry, October 1951
Rain holds us up today again but there is plenty of office work. I have just opened 30 communications. Here and there one may get hints from Whitehall, if the Ministry of Agriculture is in the mood, such as a paper composed by two women, which modesty forbids me to read. It is suggestions for 'the control of wild oats'. Another paper remarks that 'in the light of investigation there is no scientific justification either for national measures aimed at reducing appreciably the rook population or for encouraging its increase.' This accords with what is understood to be the Ministry's present attitude to the rook.
The character of sheep, March 1953
Sheep are just now the main concern, and anyone who looks on them as all alike and just a flock is in a state of comfortable delusion. They are as individual as , and as difficult as, a rest house of old ladies. It is etiquette to keep with the flock, but each ewe has her personal friend - aunt, grandmother or sister - and she does not mix with the rest; each little group holds together.
There is nothing 'silly' about sheep. They know the time of day and when to come down to be ready to go into the lambing orchard. In the winter an ancient ewe who is still called 'Lamie' (she was once a 'bottle lamb') leads the flock up each afternoon, when she thinks fit, to the hay racks.
Cider time, November 1956
Milder weather has given a rather belated impetus to the picking up of cider fruit, and some dry leaves have been collected to store apples in. It is lovely in the evening in the fields by the woods; golden cattle move slowly, grazing; dull gold oaks match them in colour and the big grey willow trees seem to melt into the mist as darkness falls. Meg and Betty are out to bring in parties of sheep, and lie watching in corners of a big field. They quiver with excitement, each intent on her job, awaiting a signal to move her bunch to the wainhouse now dimly lit, where food and shelter await the sheep. Gates are closed on the sheep and the dogs are ready to escort their own suppers from the house to the loose boxes and enjoy a well-earned rest.
Who was CHDA?
There was another Herefordshire Country Diarist, writing in the late 1930s; but he or she is known only by the initials CHDA. Martin Wainwright believes, judging by the content of the diaries, that the writer was a man, and that it was someone who knew Gwen McBryde and introduced her to The Guardian. Can any readers shed light on the mysterious identity of CHDA?
Here is one of CHDA's diaries:
Murderous owls, May 1938
I saw the first fledgling this week, a thrush from a yew tree beside the front door looking cold and miserable in a very welcome shower of rain. From one of the upstairs windows we could look down into a blackbird's nest containing four nestlings with wide open beaks. Alas! They will never appear on the lawn with the thrush. One by one, a little owl has had them, in spite of the frantic efforts of the parents to drive it off.
A very painstaking report was published last year which did much to vindicate the character of the little owl, but even that report admitted that some of them do steal young birds. I venture to think that while the diet of most little owls may be beetles there are many of them which feed largely upon young birds at this time of year. Probably where they are too thick on the ground more of them turn to the form of food which they find more rewarding for their labours. If it were not for the fact that the little owls themselves have young, I should take my gun to the pair of marauders in my garden.
Amanda and Hexie Millais