J.L. Carr and Stocken Farm

tumblr_inline_mtdcp1TAyu1rtdn10 I am a long time fan of the great English novelist J.L. Carr. The title of my novel ‘The Battle for Dole Acre’ is an homage to his ‘Battle of Pollock’s Crossing’, and I took ‘How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup’ when I was invited on the Radio Four programme ‘A Good Read’ a few years ago.

In 1986 Carr was interviewed by Vogue magazine and, as a publisher and writer of tiny dictionaries, was asked for a dictionary definition of himself. He answered: “James Lloyd Carr, a back-bedroom publisher of large county maps and small books who, in old age, unexpectedly wrote six novels which, although highly thought of by a small band of literary supporters and by himself, were properly disregarded by the Literary World”

I guess Carr’s best known book is ‘A Month in the Country’. It was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1980, was made into a film in 1987, and was adapted for the radio as recently as 2010.  Although Carr’s estimate of himself was a little underplayed (after all, The Battle of Pollock’s Crossing’ was also shortlisted for the Booker, in 1985), it is fair to say that he is not regarded as highly as he should be. Perhaps his besetting sin was that there was no one else like him.

One thing always puzzled me. Although ‘A Month in the Country’ is set in Carr’s native North Yorkshire (and the original hardcover shows a picture of Tintagel church), and although Carr lived and worked for much of his life in Kettering, Northamptonshire, where he was a much-loved primary school headteacher, the text closes with the words ‘Stocken, Presteigne, 1978.’ This would imply that he had written it there.

Stocken is a farm, maybe a couple of miles away from our house, halfway up Stonewall Hill. The border between England and Wales runs up the road at this point, so although the to-die-for brick built Georgian farmhouse is in England, the farm buildings are in Wales.

I asked the critic and writer D.J. Taylor, a fellow Carr-ite, if he knew of the link. He didn’t, despite being an expert on all things Carr. He put me in touch with Carr’s son Bob, who continues to run the press, Quince Tree, which publishes his father’s work;  the books, the pocket dictionaries, and the wonderful county maps that Carr himself refers to in his self-definition.

I asked Bob Carr if he knew anything, and this was his reply;

‘I’ve been searching the archive for Presteigne and cannot find anything written down. I remember we had a camping holiday in the area which included a night or two at a hamlet called ‘New Invention’ near Purlogue, N of Knighton. This was in about 1957/8, we climbed Caer Caradoc [it may be that the evocative name figured in my future career as an  archaeologist], but Presteigne? No. However, he was much taken with the locality at the time and I do remember him taking his caravan to a favourite place somewhere in Powys or the Marches several times in the 80s – not a formal camp site, just a friendly farmer’s field; sadly the last contact with that time died last year so I cannot trace it any further.’

So why did it say ‘Stocken. Presteigne’ in the book? I knew Carr must have had some links with Radnorshire, because one of the teams that Steeple Sinderby Wanderers play on their way to the FA Cup Final was Cascob Miners –  Cascob being a tiny village four or five miles away from here, up in the Radnor Forest.

A few months ago I leant the book to a pal who was doing some decorating at Stocken Farm, and asked him if he knew anybody who might know anything. Today, after Palm Sunday church, (a suitably Carr-like way to spend your morning), this pal introduced me to Mr Danny Powell, who was born and who grew up at Stocken, and who took the difficult desicion to sell the house five years ago.

I told Mr Powell of my problem. ‘No, I can’t remember any writers,’ he said.

‘He might have been staying in a caravan.’ I said.

‘Could he be the chap who did the maps? Beautiful intricate maps, with drawings and tiny writing in ink?’

My heart beat faster.

‘It certainly sounds like him.’

‘Lovely gentleman. Stayed in a caravan in our top orchard while he was travelling around Herefordshire making his map. He gave me a copy.’

‘What?’

‘Oh yes. It’s up on our living room wall. I look at it everyday, and always notice something new.’

And so, although I cannot 100% prove that Carr wrote the first draft of ‘A Month in the Country’ in a caravan in the top orchard at Stocken Farm in the evenings while he was researching his map of Herefordshire, I feel I’ve solved the mystery to my own satisfaction.

Mr Powell has invited me round to see his map. The only thing I now need to establish is whether the top orchard at Stocken is on the Herefordshire or the Radnorshire side of the border.

10 Responses

  1. Ian Marchant says:

    Thank you; that’s an interesting thought, but one which might have surprised Carr. All his novels are signed with a place where and a time when he wrote them, and I suspect his handful of dedicated readers would have expected this, and not read anything into it. And Carr really was at Stocken at the time he uses in the book. So it would have been a leap, on Carr’s part and the readers, to get to your reading, I think. Still interesting though.

  2. Linda says:

    I think you’ve slightly missed the point. That last page on which Presteigne appears is still part of the book. It’s being ‘written’ not by the author but by Birkin, the hero of the book. Birkin is looking back at that month in the country, from his old age. So Presteigne is where he, Birkin, is living at the end of his life. In effect J L Carr is giving us a little bonus, something to think about. What happened to Birkin through the rest of his life? Did he finally get rid of Vinny? What twist of fate took him to Wales?

  3. Olive Bennewith says:

    Thank you for this. I live in Knighton and have just read A Month in The Country as the book of the month for a local book group. We all loved the book and members of the group were intrigued to hear the results of your investigations.

  4. Olive Bennewith says:

    Thank you for passing on the results of your research. I live in Knighton and am a member of two book groups. Coincidentally, this month’s book for both groups is A Month in the Country. It is a really beautiful book.

  5. Jennie B. says:

    I have just read ‘A Month in the Country’ for the first time and really enjoyed it. I think the review I came across was in the Waitrose newspaper last month and I ordered the book from my local library. I am pleased to find the description of Stocken Farm here as it is an interesting story. Thank you for making notes about it.

  6. Gareth B says:

    Just finished re-reading one of my favourite books A Month In The Country, for the umpteenth time, and came here after a google search. Fascinating, thanks for your detective work! Recently visited the church they used for the filming in Radnage, worth a visit if you’re in the area.

  7. Ashley Nunn says:

    Just reread A Month in the Country after quite a few years and still love it. I went to school in Kettering, and have always been a JLC fan. I now live about 3 miles from Presteigne and have just Googled Stocken, after noticing the mention at the conclusion of the story,and found this. I shall hunt the farm out. I did speak to JLC briefly on the phone when ordering books for Ottakar’s in Hereford, asking him to sign a book for me but, as is the way, was too shy really to tell him too much of how I admired his work.
    Cheers

  8. ruth white says:

    HI We now live at Stocken Farm – but I still dont know whether the top orchard is in herefordshire or radnorshire!

  9. David Stanton says:

    One of my favourite books. I reread it every 2-3 years and have “googled’ Stocken. Presteigne every time for the past 8(?) years. Now I have an answer. Thank you very much

  10. Dan says:

    Impressive story, nicely told too Ian. I hope you can update when you have found out which side of the border the field is on. I think you can be confident that you have solved this.

    Reminds me that the film of A Month in the Country was one of my favourites from my mid 80s teenage years

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