Historical author Hilary Mantel on her perfect Surrey weekend
One of the UK’s most respected historical authors, Hilary Mantel was the winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2009. A long-time Surrey resident, when it gets to the weekend she likes nothing better than to immerse herself in the county’s wonderful Tudor history
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine January 2010
Writers don’t have weekends. That’s not as sad as it sounds. Often, with the close of business on Friday, when the telephone stops ringing and the e-mails stop pinging, it’s my chance to immerse myself in the world of Tudor England, and in particular those remains of it that lie all about me in Surrey.
My last novel, Wolf Hall, followed the fortunes of Henry VIII’s adviser Thomas Cromwell, who was born in humble circumstances, son of a blacksmith, and who rose to be Henry’s Minister of Everything. I’m now working on the sequel, The Mirror and the Light, and keeping a close eye on what the archaeological excavations at the ruins of Woking Palace reveal about the Tudor court.
This moated site by the River Wey has a magical atmosphere – I’m torn between wanting people to flock there on open days and see for themselves, and wanting the crowds to stay away so that it retains its fragile, out-of-time quality. There’s been a house on the site since the 13th century – Henry’s grandmother Margaret Beaufort lived there, and he rebuilt it into a princely establishment.
Here in Surrey, we’re surrounded by Henry’s hunting grounds and the remains of the homes of his lords and courtiers. As we drive around at weekends, picking up the shopping, and perhaps dropping in for lunch at the White Hart in Pirbright, or for dinner at the Inn @ West End or the Cloche Hat in Chobham, I’m haunted by the thought of the generations who have danced and laughed and mourned at Sutton Place, now in private hands, and Loseley Park, open to the public – all sites within easy reach of where I live in Knaphill, between Woking and Guildford.
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Surrey History Centre If there are any interesting talks at Surrey History Centre in Woking, we’re only ten minutes away. I’m lucky enough to live in a bit of Surrey history myself – we have an apartment on the top floor of the converted Brookwood Hospital, built in Victorian times as an asylum.
My study is in the old clock tower, and I love to spend time on our balcony, which catches the sun if there is the slightest ray, and looks due south towards Guildford Cathedral on the skyline. Thousands of houses have been built on the hospital’s land, and once the view was brutal and raw, but year by year the landscape changes for the better, the young trees flourishing and the foxes visiting by night. The height of the building puts us above the line of light pollution, and at any hour, at any time of year, I might pop out to scan the night sky.
I’m a late sleeper, and my ideal weekend is spent surrounded by the newspapers till well into the afternoon. If we’re walking, it’s probably in what’s now known as the ‘Royal Landscape’ – we have a season ticket that lets us in to Savill Garden, the Valley Gardens, and allows us to park by the lakeside in Virginia Water. My husband detests gardening as much as I do – but we love it when other people have done all the work.
By night, we’re theatre-goers – we often find that, between the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford, Woking’s Ambassador Theatre, the Rose at Kingston, Richmond Theatre and the Orange Tree, we have the chance to see opera and ballet as well as plays, without going into London – but if we do want to go up to town, Woking’s fast rail link takes us there in 25 minutes. We can be home in bed by midnight, and wake up to an easy Surrey Sunday.