Probably the Best Shed on the Planet
Keggie Carew has lived in London, West Cork, Barcelona, Texas and New Zealand. Before writing, her career was in contemporary art. She lives near Salisbury. She grew up in the gravitational field of an unorthodox father who lived on his wits and dazzling charm. Tom Carew was born in Dublin in 1919. He served in the Jedburgh unit of the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War. The Times of India called him 'Lawrence of Burma' and 'the Mad Irishman'. He married three times, and had four children. As his memory begins to fail, Keggie embarks on a quest to unravel his story, recorded in her book Dadland, winner of the 2016 Costa Biography Award, and soon finds herself in a far more consuming place than she had bargained for.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, Keggie celebrates her writing shed ‘the best shed on the planet’ which was once the outside privy of her home in Wiltshire, once owned by Winston Churchill’s niece Clarissa Churchill.
Author photo © Juliette Foy
Probably the Best Shed on the Planet
I am guilty of cracking the same joke about my writing shed, that even I am jealous of it. It is has had various incarnations, beginning life as a calf shed, then a garden shed, and now has transmuted into probably the best writing shed on the planet. Feng Shui is hard to define, but I know my shed has got it. It is overgrown with ivy but tardis-like when you open the door. And full of books, curiosities, spiders (I like them), and treasures. The wire cake with ‘Wire Egg Cake’ spelt in wire around the top like icing - a birthday present that took me a while to realise it was an anagram of my name. Dad’s compass, binoculars, telescope, his Burmese kukri dagger with little daggers tucked into the sheaf, and his magnifying glass for reading microfilm documents from his guerrilla days in the war.
On the windowsill: cockle fossils, some Mosasaur throat teeth (a giant aquatic reptile 80 million years old – the Pterogoid teeth helped to prevent prey escaping!), a tin of real wolf pooh from Croatia with wild boar hair in it, and a blow up tarantula. Beside my desk, different stages of Dadland manuscripts pile high on the floor; while inside Mum’s bureau, family, friends, lovers and old enemies with all their surprises are forced to reconvene: letters; telegrams; photographs; diaries; wills; marriage certificates; divorce settlements; a Permit to Carry Arms in Ireland… There is a wood-burning stove, a rocking chair, and a filing cabinet bristling in yellow post-it notes bearing words like ‘plangent’, ’pillion’ and ‘liminal’.
It has an outside privy with stable doors that look out over the garden, a luxury Dad called ‘The Best Shit House in Christendom!’. And not any old privy, but most likely graced by Winston Churchill, and Greta Garbo, when Churchill’s niece, Clarissa, owned the cottage in 1954. There are fragments of original wallpaper still clinging to the wall. Reading matter of course is provided: The Specialist by Charles Sale, which our neighbor, Terry Pratchett gave us for the privy in 2004. The Specialist (a carpenter specialising in building privies) advocates siting a log pile nearby so that on every visit you can bring a log back for the fire. Terry loved the economic efficiency.
Our two bedroom thatched cottage in Wiltshire was Clarissa Churchill’s first house. Anthony Eden, at the time Churchill’s Foreign Secretary, owned the cottage next door. Something must have sparked over the hedge for they were soon married, and Eden took up residence. The cottage would become their favoured escape from London over Chequers. When we first moved here, fifteen years ago, quite a few people remembered the prime minister and some of his eminent visitors. According to Clarissa’s memoir, Clarissa Eden, Greta Garbo would walk across the hill from Cecil Beaton’s house in the village, to visit for tea. I wrote to Clarissa after her book came out, and sent her some pictures to show - miraculously in this day and age - how little the cottage had changed. She kindly wrote back and sent me a sketch of what roses she could remember planting in the garden.
My writing shed looks out over a garden that is somewhat bigger since their day, with a bit more land pegged front and side. We even have a tiny scrap of wood, (which we bought with Terry Pratchett, seven years ago), and in our half acre there is a ribbon of a winterbourne chalk stream (only running in winter) that dashes through an old weir where, in the old days, drowners, as they were called, would put the sluice in so the river would overflow and drown the valley, thus encouraging an early flush of spring grass to raise the first crop of lambs. I am besotted by the river and make sure every day I leap in and get my 12 stroke fix. As this is only possible during the winter (and nakedness prerequisite) it causes a certain amount of local conjecture as to what time this madness takes place.
We never tire of the view down the valley or the ash trees, or the willows, or the winterbourne. If the sheep are moved out in time, each May the hill behind us is smothered in cowslips. We try and let the garden be a place for wild things to live, although a mole once tested us severely. Could ours be the only house in England (built straight on the chalk) in which a mole actually pushed up the brick in the dining room floor? More than once we have come home and had to shovel out a barrow-load of earth.
Internal and external shots of shed © Keggie Carew
Image of Churchill and Anthony Eden from Clarissa Eden - A memoir from Churchill to Eden, ed Cate Haste