One of the places I really looked forward to visiting during our recent trip to England was Great Chalfield Manor, the estate that inspired the manor in my new book The Secret of Pembrooke Park (December 2014).
We arrived more than an hour before the last tour at 4:00, but were told by a man and woman working the table at the gated entrance that the tours were all sold out for the day. The man resolutely explained that some of the rooms were quite small and they had to limit numbers for safety reasons. (It was a speech I heard him deliver to a few others who arrived after us.) Such a disappointment! I tried to remain stoic, and asked if they could direct me to the owner, as we had exchanged several emails and I would at least like to meet her while we were there. The woman at the table said officiously, “Follow me.” I assumed she was going to find the owner as I’d requested. We reached one of the outbuildings where the woman told us to “wait there.” A few minutes later, she came back out, and with a wary look around, quickly pressed something into my hand—two tickets for the 4:00 tour. “I’ve been very naughty,” she said with a secret smile. “Don’t tell anyone.” (Whoops….I guess I just did!) How my heart soared. We truly did not badger her or bribe her to give us tickets. We felt it was a blessing from God, to place this kindhearted woman in our path. I thanked her and hugged her, telling her why touring the house was so important to me, and asking if I might give her a book in return. She said, “By all means. Go and get it!” (She was quite adamant, as a matter of fact.) I happily did so.
So, not only did we get to tour the grounds and lovely gardens, but we were also able to join the tour of the house—quite a crowded tour, I might add. Either the man had not been exaggerating, or we were not the first for whom the dear woman had procured extra tickets!
A husband and wife team of local volunteer tour guides took us around the house, entertaining us with history and anecdotes and pointing out fascinating architectural details that will no doubt make their way into future novels.
I readily admit that the interior of the manor is quite a bit different than I’d imagined or been able to view online. And, for the sake of the story, the interior will remain different. Yes, I like to use real places as inspiration or “models” for my books, so the settings are anchored in reality and hopefully become real to me and to readers as well. But I am not writing about Great Chalfield or the families who actually lived there over the generations. They have their own very real history of which they are justifiably proud, and I have no wish to mess with it. Even so, I loved seeing the place in person.
After the tour, we attended Evensong in the estate church—a small church within the moated grounds of the manor—the parish church of All Saints. I had hoped and planned to do this for weeks leading up to our trip, because the church (and my fictional clergyman) play an important role in The Secret of Pembooke Park. I had emailed the Rector, Andrew Evans, to ask if visitors were welcome and if there was anything we would need to know ahead of time (not being familiar with Evensong—a service of hymns, prayers and a brief sermon). Mr. Evans kindly wrote back and said we would be very welcome. What a pleasure to meet him in person, as well as his small, friendly congregation. I don’t remember when I have enjoyed a church service more. His sermon was everything a sermon should be, in my layman’s view: humble, humorous, insightful, convicting, and affirming.
On that day, and throughout our trip, God felt very close, in large part due to the kindness of strangers.
When was the last time a kind stranger did you a favor? Or, have you had the opportunity to bless someone else by an unexpected act of kindness?