Continental drift

21st August 1998 at 01:00
Wherever Mary Wesley travelled - whether to Somerset, Scotland or Florence - books and governesses were sure to follow.

When I was a child holidays were generally just a time when we had no lessons; we rarely went away. We just rambled round the hillside, rode horses, swam and had fun. I didn't go to school until I was about 14. Instead, my sister and I - and my brother until he went to prep school- had innumerable French governesses.

My father was in the army, and we were continually moving house as we followed him around. My mother once worked out that she'd lived in 27 houses in the first 25 years of marriage. We always lived in the country, and we were allowed to roam freely. I can remember going off on my pony Jenny for hours on end, and the only warning my mother gave me was, "If a strange man talks to you, whip up your pony and canter on".

When we lived in the Quantock Hills in Somerset I remember summers spent roaming the moors and picnicking, and in the Wye Valley, canoeing violently up and down the river, which was lovely, and swimming. We all learned to swim early because we had an uncle who gave us 10 shillings once we could swim 100 yards.

There was a brief bucket-and-spade holiday period on the Isle of Wight at Totland Bay, and when I was very small I can remember being taken to Perranporth in Cornwall. We travelled by train, getting off at Bodmin and then driving in a pony and trap to our lodgings. Occasionally we would go to stay with relations. We had a favourite aunt and uncle who lived in Suffolk, and we took it in turns to go for the raspberry season or the strawberry or nectarine season.

One summer, I remember staying in a farmhouse in Somerset and finding piles and piles of magazines called Home Chat which we fell on and devoured with joy, never having seen anything like it. My mother was very careful that we never read anything that was what she called badly written. We were read to a lot as children, and she and grandmother and the governesses would swoosh through Dickens and Scott and authors of that calibre.

My mother was extremely interested in the arts and we were taken to galleries, even when we were quite young, when we lived in Italy and France for a while. When she couldn't be with my father, my mother would just take off wherever she wanted to go, with children and governesses in tow.

We travelled right across Europe by train, and we would live in little pensions or rent a house. I adored Portofino and Florence. Several times my brother and sister and I travelled unaccompanied to stay with friends in Italy. From the age of about eight onwards I travelled all over England alone by train. The guard would be given half a crown to keep an eye on me and tell me where to get out.

I can't remember not speaking French. My mother was determined that my brother, Hugh, should learn the language before he went away to school, so when I was about three my beloved nanny was sent away and we started having French nursery governesses who didn't speak English.

Even though I didn't usually get along with these young women - I was a difficult child, mutinous, contrary and wilful - I just picked up the language parrot-fashion. When I asked my mother why only one of them stayed more than a few months she explained, "They couldn't stand you darling".

I can remember my brother complaining that we never went away on proper holidays, but he and I did have a holiday together in Brittany once where the swimming was wonderful, and we went to the Faroes where we walked and climbed mountains. Later there were shooting parties in Scotland. Holidays were always very active. I don't remember any holiday romances. Romances came thick and fast, but not on holidays.

Mary Wesley wrote her first novel, 'Jumping the Queue', at the age of 70. Her latest, 'Part of the Furniture', published this year in paperback by Black Swan, is her tenth. Now 86, her books have sold more than 2.5 million copies. She has honorary degrees from Exeter University and the Open University. She was talking to Pamela Coleman

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