J.L. Carr and Stocken Farm
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.’
‘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.
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.