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How to dress for a cold castle [click on photo above]

Many people will walk in and out of your life, but only true friends will leave footprints in your heart
Eleanor Roosevelt

I met her my first morning in the Castle. I’d arrived from the States the night before, and only had time to learn one thing about castle life—the meaning of stone cold—before collapsing in a jetlag coma.

4-03-40-01I’ve always thought that our friendship was based on the purest of human emotions: pity. She must have taken one look at me, gaping up at thousand-year-old walls, and still wearing what I’d slept in. (Which was, basically, everything I could pull from my suitcase, as explained here.) She introduced herself as my landlady, the owner of the castle, and informed me that it was Wednesday—which, to be honest, I couldn’t have sworn to. With Wednesdayness established between us, she took me (dog and all) to my first Village Coffee. And my life in the tiny, perfect village in the North of England officially began.

I couldn’t begin to list all the experiences she introduced me to over the next several years. First, there was the Village itself. With no actual commercial entities—not even a pub!—entertainment was homemade and varied. But no matter the event, there were two things you could count on—there would be raffle tickets, and there would be alcohol. (Lots of each.) There were gala reenactments of the Queen’s Jubilee and the Royal Wedding, Progressive Suppers (which seemed to mean progressively sloshed), garden club “walks” (see progressive supper results), dance/casino/quiz/archives/garden show/you-name-it nights, and of course, the Christmas Show.

1545114_10152518184399692_350813276_nBut that was only the beginning. As owner of a medieval castle, she belonged to something that probably had an impressive title, but which I called Castle Club. In England, you often drive past tall stone walls and lines of trees with the occasional crest-topped gates. Well, she took me inside some of those gates, up the long drives, and into the castles and stately homes you couldn’t even see from the road.

In my family, what’s going into my will is more of a threat. (As in, “Okay, kids: last one to call me on Mother’s Day goes in my will for that Elvis on velvet painting from Great-Aunt Mo.) So it was an amazing window on a new world for an American from the suburbs to hear people debate the best way to install a roof that will last for centuries because you’re only borrowing the place from your great-great-grandchildren.

Waiting (behind Prince Charles) for my turn with HRH [photo by Paul Burns Photography, Limited]

Waiting (behind Prince Charles) for my turn with HRH
[photo by Paul Burns Photography, Limited]

Then there was her generosity. She took charity to an art form, and invited me along. In the name of her favorite causes, I got to help with this proper victorian tea party, a ceilidh dinner dance, castle tours, and so much more. When I told her that I’d never been to the Cotswolds, she joined me as my guide in a week-long driving tour which culminated (I’m so not making this up!) in joining Prince Charles at his home for tea.

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Ceilidh at the Castle

I was just one of so many lucky enough to have her friendship. Last week, I joined a crowd who gathered to remember and share stories. They told of amazing generosity and hilarious eccentricity. Some shared her life of triumph over severe physical limitations that were supposed to end her life as a child, only to have her stubbornly confound every imposed limit. Some talked about her husband, who I never met because he died just as they bought the castle, leaving his relatively young widow to raise their large family and run their company.

But for me, she’ll always be the one who introduced an American stranger to England—village, castle, estates, country, and even future king. I was incredibly lucky to have her for my friend and I’ll miss her every day.

[click for obituary]