Mary Rayner, writer and illustrator of books has died. She was sufficiently notable, that she warranted an obituary in both The Guardian and Daily Telegraph. But we knew her because of her cottage.
It was the summer of 1982. The children were aged one and three, and we were just about keeping our heads above water. The mortgage accounted for more than 50% of the outgoings, and our 'new' house needed about a full year of my salary being spent upon it in order to bring it up to an acceptable level of repair. We decided that we needed a holiday. In those days we read The Guardian, and found there an advertisement for a cottage in Wiltshire available for a two week let. The owner was a Mrs M Rayner.
The cottage was perfect. It was in the tiny village of West Overton, a few miles west of Marlborough. Stone built, fairly basic but entirely adequate, with a very attractive walled garden. And we were fortunate that that year we had a glorious English summer; we could sit in the garden and look at the grasses waving in the wind on the down opposite.
Everything about that holiday was delightful even though at one point I had to make an emergency dash to a laundrette to wash the entirety of the children’s bed-linen after an ‘incident’. West Overton is very close to Avebury, a name that was familiar to me but a place that I had never seen. Then there was Stonehenge twenty miles down the road; several books in the cottage reignited my interest in it. But perhaps the most intriguing discovery was Silbury Hill, a mile or so from Avebury. Silbury Hill is a sort of English Pyramid, dating from the time of Stonehenge. It is conical and made of turf and timber. It was thought at one time to be the great burial chamber of the genius who built Stonehenge, but excavations have found absolutely nothing. It remains a real enigma.
It was all a perfect salve for the stress of our lives at the time. I did a very minor running-repair to the plumbing in the cottage; I think it was a tap washer or something equally trivial. Mary Rayner sent us one of her books in appreciation; an illustrated story in which pigs were the main characters. It was intelligent, amusing, educational, and thoroughly charming. There was also in the cottage a novelette she had written called The Witchfinder; quite a dark story about a young girl’s obsession that her mother was a witch. It too was clever and thoughtful. Mary Rayner was a very talented writer, and ‘Mary Rayner’s Cottage’ became a family trope. Two years later, we went back, and I heard later on, when we again enquired about renting, that she had sold the cottage. But it remained, and remains, a wonderful memory; an idyllic summer of the type we think we remember from our childhood, and a very timely re-engaging of my interest in the prehistoric monuments of Wiltshire, land of my ancestors. RIP Mary Rayner!
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