Buchan described his life in Elsfield in a chapter entitled ‘An Ivory Tower and its Prospect’ but as his wife rather acidly comments, ‘I had always understood an Ivory Tower to be an abode of complete peace and seclusion from the world, but I can never remember much seclusion in those days. People came and went constantly’.
In John Buchan: A Memoir, William Buchan supplies a list from the Visitor’s book of the many people who visited the Manor in the 1920s and 30s. It is mainly a mixture of writers and politicians. In 1920, when the Buchans had settled in to their new house, the poet John Masefield and the chairman of Reuters, Sir Roderick Jones, who had offered John Buchan a directorship of his company, and his wife, Enid Bagnold, author of National Velvet and The Chalk Garden, were among the first visitors.
Masefield was one of the few visitors who had not received a university education. Brought up by his aunt, he had been sent to sea to cure him of his addiction to reading. Despite this unpromising beginning, he wrote a well-received book, Gallipoli, about the failure of policy which led to the loss of life in the battle of the Dardanelles and by 1920 was a respected writer. Considering that Buchan himself had written extensively about the war: The Battle of the Somme, The battle of Jutland and especially his well regarded History of the Great War, the two men would have much in common. Masefield received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1921 and would not have had to travel far to the Manor since he had settled near Oxford into a life of country smallholder, keeping bees, goats and poultry.
Another visitor, Violet Markham, who had met Susan Buchan while involved in charity work in London, was the granddaughter of Sir Joseph Paxton and a member of the rich coal-owning family in Derbyshire. She was obviously an able and vigorous woman who in 1927 became mayor of Chesterfield. Violet Markham was involved with the Central Committee of Women’s Training and Employment and later the National Service Department, which was primarily concerned with training women for domestic service. One interesting facet of Violet Markham’s career, in the light of John Buchan’s later political life, was her connections with Canada. In fact so trusted was she that in 1923 the Canadian government asked her to become their representative in the International Labour Organisation based in Geneva. It was on a visit to Chatsworth that John Buchan first made contact with Violet Markham’s good friend Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada. When the governorship of Canada became vacant in 1935, Violet Markham used her connections to promote John Buchan as a suitable candidate. Buchan’s trips to Derbyshire inspired parts of his novel Midwinter.
Another visitor, Walter de la Mare, like Masefield, did not have the advantage of a university education but had been fortunate to be recommended by Sir Henry Newbolt, a graduate of Corpus Christi, and by 1908, a Minister of Information in the government, for a Civil List pension, which allowed him to devote his time to writing. Sir Henry, a poet now best known for his poem ‘Vitai Lampada’, (‘There’s a breathless hush in the close tonight…’) also visited the Buchans. De la Mare had just won the James Tait Memorial prize in 1921, a Scottish award founded in 1919, when he was a guest at the Manor, and Buchan himself was to follow, being awarded the prize for his biography of James Graham, the First Marquess of Montrose.
Like Buchan, another friend, T.E Lawrence, was a great walker, having covered 1000 miles trekking round Spain as a very young man. He had been brought up in Oxford and was a graduate of Jesus College. He and Buchan shared an interest in archaeology and Buchan saw him about half a dozen times a year when he rode up to the Manor on his motorbike, Boanerges. He seems to have had a special place in Buchan’s heart. Buchan writes about him “I am not a very tractable person or much of a hero-worshipper, but I could have followed Lawrence over the edge of the world. I loved him for himself and also because there seemed to be reborn in him all the lost friends of my youth.”
Another winner of the Jame Tait Memorial Prize was Robert Graves, though much later in 1935 for I Claudius. Graves had gained a place at St John’s College in 1918, aged 23 and married in the same year. He also features in the visitors book, being a near neighbour, living as he did in Islip before moving to Majorca.
The political world was represented by Neville Chamberlain, who early in his political life was a competent and respected Member of Parliament. He had a keen interest in fishing and botany and became Postmaster General in 1922, shortly after his visit to the Manor. John Buchan himself was an ardent fisherman and Susan Buchan spent many a long hour sitting alongside her husband waiting for fish to bite.
Sir Stafford Cripps, is something of a surprise visitor but demonstrates that Buchan, in spite of being a Conservative, made friends across the political spectrum. In his younger days, Stafford Cripps was to the far left of the political spectrum, though not a Communist. A visit by Stanley Baldwin, being a Conservative, is more easily understood. He was a rising star of the party in the early 1920s, made a member of the Privy Council in 1920 and becoming President of the Board of Trade in 1921 and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1922.
A final visitor of note who came to the Manor in 1935, just before the Buchans, now Lord and Lady Tweedsmuir, departed for Canada, was Virginia Woolf who paid a fleeting visit. Susan Buchan had first been introduced to Virginia Woolf when they were both girls. Taken along by her parents to the home of Leslie Stephens, Virginia’s father, Susan Grosvenor as she then was, was intimidated by the silence of Virginia and her sister Vanessa and confessed that later she found Virginia’s books difficult to read. She did however very much enjoy reading The Common Reader, which she admits to re-reading innumerable times. She seems to have been overawed by Virginia’s air of aloof intellectualism, and only by a determined effort did she bring herself to approach Virginia much later following an address John Buchan gave at the Hawthornden prize-giving when Vita Sackville West had won the prize for her poem The Land. Both Susan Buchan and Virginia Woolf looked at one another from a distance but did not speak “We were too shy to speak. She looked beautiful but aloof and rather frightening” Susan Buchan wrote. Having arrived home, Susan Buchan’s good sense prevailed and she wrote to Virginia and was invited to visit for tea, where a pet monkey seemed to resent her presence and Virginia toasted scones on the gas fire in the rather dusty room. Susan Buchan was wary at first of Virginia Woolf’s intellectual achievements but their mutual shyness soon evaporated as they reminisced about the past. “Talking to Virginia was a pure, if alarming, delight” wrote Mrs Buchan.
All this involvement with the world of politics and literature must have taken up a huge amount of the Buchans’ time and energy, and William Buchan records that they felt they knew the servants better than their parents. The Buchan boys were summoned from the woods for their meals by a police whistle blown from the nursery window and were initiated into the secrets of woodcraft by the gamekeeper, Jack Allam.
When the house was full, with all the bedrooms bursting with important visitors, Alastair and William would move out and lodge with Miss Parsons across the road at Home Farm, the old-fashioned, draughty house she rented from Christ Church. The chauffeurs of the important visitors were accommodated above the stables in the Manor Yard. John Buchan never learned to drive but bought an Overland car to begin with for his chauffeur Amos Webb to drive, then went from that to a Dodge, finishing up with a succession of Wolseleys. William was often car-sick. This was not helped by the Turkish cigarettes his father smoked and by the smell of petrol. Petrol stations were few and far between so Amos Webb, who lived in what is now Rose Cottage, carried two cans of petrol which often leaked and the smell was made even stronger by the fact that he also cleaned spots off the upholstery with petrol.