When packing my bags, I was sure to bring my red raincoat. The weather report for England showed two weeks of continuous rain, on top of the weeks of rain they had already experienced. Leaving the late autumn warmth of the Napa Valley was not going to be easy, but I was excited to visit my “Britfam,” which consists of my best friend, Caroline (with whom I have remained close as a sister since her time as an exchange student 16 years ago), her husband and two adorable kiddies, plus Caroline’s parents, brothers and their families. I had visited England several times in the past decade, but this was the first visit in five years.
I recovered from my jet lag at Caroline’s house in London, took one day for my regular pilgrimage to John Keats’ house in Hampstead (subject of a future post), and then we headed off to the countryside. Bruton has become a second home to me. Its tiny winding streets, quaint shops and restaurants are familiar comforts. I always make sure to stop in the old print shop for a look at antique etchings of local scenes (one which hangs on my wall at home now), the bakery for a proper scone and of course, the Blue Ball pub for a pint in front of the fireplace flanked by a plaque that reads “1677.” My limited American sense of history has a hard time comprehending standing in the midst of anything that old. But, that depth of history is precisely what I love most about this place. In a letter to his editor, Steinbeck he shared his excitement of living in a place with “nothing in sight that hasn’t been here since the sixth century.” The Steinbeck connection added a whole new level of appreciation for the town and I couldn’t wait to visit Discove Cottage, where he had lived for a year in 1959.
At 9am on a blustery November morning, we made the short drive from Caroline’s family home to Discove Cottage. I wore my red raincoat and anxiously stood in the threshold of the main estate with Caroline and her mother as we knocked on the door. Caroline’s mother mentioned that the estate was known to be the longest thatched-roof home in all of England. It was a massive home, as we were able to experience further when the owner, a very polite, very British woman welcomed us in from the rain. Her husband joined us in what appeared to be one of several sitting rooms lined with walls of bookshelves, photos of horses and delicate-looking antiques. The raindrop-clad window looked out onto the cottage, which I was anxious to explore. We chatted with the owners and learned that they were not the owners of the land at the time and were generally indifferent to the fact that this great American writer had, for a short time, lived just a stone’s throw away. They had never read a word of Steinbeck and yet I had traveled 6,000 miles for this very experience. It was at this point that the husband pulled a thin, beige book from the shelf. “Surprise for Steinbeck” was typed on the cover, with the name Betty Guy.
He explained that an American artist named Betty Guy had been commissioned by Steinbeck’s editor to come to Bruton during his stay and paint a portrait of the house, which would later be a gift. The book had been sent to the house upon its publication in 1992. I thumbed through its illustrated pages, noted the publication city as San Francisco and wrote down the author’s name for later research. Before handing back the book, I noticed a color photo taped onto one of the last pages of the book with the caption: “John Steinbeck and Betty Guy, 1959 taken by Elaine Steinbeck.” Betty was a young brunette woman about my age (early 30s) wearing a cute little red jacket with zipper pockets. She was small next to the towering Steinbeck but looked confident and happy. I was drawn to her.
We were advised to drive up the driveway to the cottage as the rain had made the path too muddy for passage. From the outside, it was just as I expected (minus the thatched roof, which had been replaced by modern shingles). Vines crawled up the white stones and an overgrown path led us to the front door through a wild, unkempt garden. I tried to imagine it filled with the summer vegetable garden tended by
the Steinbecks during their stay (and the lettuce-eating rabbits that John tried to shoot from the window). The interior was surprisingly not at all what I expected. Carpet covered the living room stone floor and chintzy knick-knacks served as limited décor.
In the kitchen I found what I was looking for. The “flagstones . . . smoothed and hollowed by feet” that Steinbeck had written about in his letter to director friend Elia Kazan. Standing there on those stones – the same stones that he stood on exactly fifty years earlier – I read aloud my favorite passage from one of his letters.
We walked out the door in the kitchen to the yard and I immediately recognized the doorway as the same from the photo in the book shown to me by the caretaker. Caroline snapped a few photos of me and we continued on. The four of us crept our way up the rickety stairway to the second floor and to Steinbeck’s writing room. I have visited numerous writers’ spaces and always feel a sense of intrusion when entering their writing sanctuaries. The caretaker explained to us that Steinbeck’s desk was propped up against the window, and we admired the incredible view of the countryside with the main house in the foreground. It was indeed an inspiring perch and was no surprise that he wrote in another letter to Kazan: “I feel more at home here than I have ever felt in my life in any place.”
My companions stood chatting together in the driveway in front of the cottage while I spent a few final moments communing with Steinbeck and the spirits of this amazing place. The incredible fortune of opportunity and coincidence continue to amaze me. I took a few more photos of the exterior and then we hopped back in the car and headed down the muddy driveway.
The gloomy weather of the day threatened to persist, so Caroline and I visited the quaint Bruton museum for a quick look at Steinbeck’s writing desk, which had been preserved in a detailed display, along with a copy of his posthumously published, “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.” While in the museum, and older man walked up to me and asked me if I was the “girl interested in Steinbeck.” This kind gentleman, who had lived in Bruton his entire life (which I assume was about 70 years), explained to me that he had delivered post to Steinbeck while he lived in Discove Cottage. He proudly related his remembrances of humorous interactions with the great writer, including an incident of knocking over one of Steinbeck’s milk bottles. I could just imagine him as a boy, riding his bike up the driveway toward the cottage, nervously approaching this great American writer, no doubt with the same glean in his eye as he had while I talked to him today.
The Steinbeck legacy is still alive in this tiny little corner of the English countryside. What are the odds that Steinbeck’s little corner would be just the same as mine? As I would soon find out, there was another person back on the other side of the planet who shared this connection with us.