Today my mother Margaret Ashbrook (née Balfour) is 100 years old.
On the day of her birth the United States took possession of the Danish West Indies, which became the US Virgin Islands, after paying $25 million to Denmark. In that year of the first Russian Revolution, Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station in St Petersburg and the October Revolution. King George V announced that male descendants of the British royal family would in future bear the surname Windsor. Wilfred Owen met Siegfried Sassoon, the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals was founded—and the First World War was raging.
John F Kennedy, Eric Hobsbawm, Andrew Wyeth, John Cornforth, Jessica Mitford, Indira Ghandi, Googie Withers and Vera Lynn (who is still alive) were born in 1917. So Mum was in good company.
Mum’s father was Alexander Balfour, whose father was Sir Robert Balfour (Liberal MP for Partick, Glasgow, 1906-22). Mum was very fond of her grandfather whom she said was extremely kind to her and her mother. (She mentioned that he had rather poor taste and gave her a bearskin rug which she didn’t like too much.) Alexander’s mother was Josephine Beasley.
Alexander died in 1921. Mum’s mother, Ruth Macfarland, was from Lincoln, Nebraska. Ruth’s parents were John Davidson McFarland from Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and Nannie Cobb.
Mum had an older sister, Nancy Balfour (1911-1997). They were brought up in London and Mum was a deb and was presented at court in 1935.
Mum has always liked being out in the country, and in the 1930s she would visit her cousins, the Hutchisons, who owned an estate called Bolfracks in Perthshire. Here she walked the hills and joined shooting parties. William (Bill) Hutchison was a Scottish portrait and landscape painter.
Mum’s mother bought a beautiful house called Higham, in Northiam, East Sussex. During the Second World War Mum became a land-girl (1942-6) at Great Dixter, next door. She milked cows, tended pigs and chickens, brought in the hay and drove the pony cart to collect the oats from the fields for threshing. She looked after a pony called Patience, who did not live up to her name.
Great Dixter was owned by the Lloyd family (the late Christopher Lloyd was a well-known gardening-writer). For the earlier part of the war Mum also manned the early-warning post at Dixter. She wore the traditional land-girl’s sweater and breeches with overalls over her breeches, which she considered ‘unbecoming’. She worked very long hours.
In 2008 she received the government medal for her services to the Women’s Land Army.
Her photo albums show the busy social life at Higham before the war, with a succession of visitors, including her good friends Anne Larken (later Dunsterville) and Ros Roche (later Hodgson). Anne and Ros became godmothers to my sister Sue and me respectively.
Dogs were a big part of Higham life, and Mum’s dachshunds Andy and Amos feature in many photos.
In 1942 Mum met Jay Ashbrook; he was in the US Army and his friend Janey Bennett, from his home town of Madison, Wisconsin, was Mum’s cousin; she asked Mum to look out for Jay, and Mum with great difficulty got leave from Mrs Lloyd and travelled to London to meet him.
In 1948 they were married in London and lived there for a few years.
In 1952, they bought Wrango, a Queen Anne house in the centre of Denham, an unspoilt village in the Buckinghamshire green belt.
Sue and I were brought up here with a succession of dogs, starting with Elmer (Boston bull terrier), and continuing through Horace (dachshund), Wilbur (Boston bull terrier), Abner (dachshund) and finally rescue dogs Winkle and then Mitzi who died only a couple of years ago. It is sad that Mum is now dogless for the first time in her life.
Ours was a lovely childhood, Wrango’s large garden was a great place for children. We had good summer-holidays too.
Mum’s interests included gardening, art and needlepoint. For many years, she worked as a volunteer at the National Trust’s textile-conservation workroom at Hughenden Manor, restoring fabrics for display in National Trust properties, which Dad called the ‘stitch-and-chatter session’.
Sue has lived in America since she went to the University of Wisconsin in 1968, but with her husband Fritz and boys Ben and Peter, she visited Wrango regularly—and Sue still does.
After Dad died in 2002, Mum stayed at Wrango. It is far too big for her, but it has been her home for 65 years, and it is lovely that she is able to remain here thanks to wonderful carers, helpers and friends.
Today we shall celebrate her grand anniversary, with Sue, Ben and Peter crossing the Atlantic for the event, and Denham friends gathering at Wrango to wish her every happiness.
Happy birthday to my magnificent Mum!