Sunday, 13 November 2011

The ideal holiday destination for book-lovers - scenery's good too

Have you ever visited a house or flat where there aren’t any books? If you have, you’ll know just how creepy and lifeless they feel. It hasn’t happened to me since a bizarre dinner with a BBC colleague many years ago in her and her recently-acquired husband’s new-build house somewhere in (very) North London. 

On the seemingly endless journey back to W2 after what had been a less than successful evening (for some odd reason, her lawyer husband had kept addressing me as “young man”, even though I must have been three or four years older than him, and the two other guests had proved to be obsessional BBC-haters who seemed to hold me personally responsible for all the Corporation's failings) I was wondering aloud why the place itself had been so unsettling. “No books”, my wife explained. Spot on.

I had visited a few similarly bereft houses during stints flogging encyclopaedias (sorry – “Home Reference Libraries”) and repellent pseudo-African daubs on velvet door-to-door during student days. The fairly standard combination of no books in the sitting room and a family who couldn’t take their eyes off the TV while I was doing my pitch was particularly soul-destroying, I remember.

When I visit someone’s house of flat for the first time, I feel relieved if the host(s) buggers off to check how the dinner’s coming on or to fetch the drinks, because it means I can case their bookcases. There’s the slight diappointment of seeing the same books you have at home: the excitement of spotting titles you’ve never heard of: the joy of finding a much-loved book you once owned but lost track of (unless, of course, your host stole it from you in the first place). Oddly, I get particularly excited by American paperbacks  – the pastel coloured edges make them seem impossibly exotic. And  I get a real kick out of books in bogs, because you can study them without having to carry on a conversation at the same time.  (We went out for dinner last night and I found a big thick paperback poetry anthology I’d never seen before: it was a mighty long wee.)

Mar Lodge, Braemar
The first thing I do  on arriving at a self-catering place is to check the bookshelves to see what’s on offer. Discovering an unexpected treat usually heralds a great holiday. The most glorious experience of this sort was a visit to Mar Lodge, a vast Edwardian hunting lodge near Braemar, run by the National Trust for Scotland. The sitting room was enormous and very long, it had an intriguing, curved, semi-circular wall at one end, and the views over the estate entrance were stunning. But what made this room so special – so truly lovely – was that three of the walls were lined with a low bookcase that had been specially built to fit the room's curves (see photo below).
And on those shelves were hundreds and hundreds of books, forming the sort of library you might have expected to find in a country house in about 1949 – the usual collection of classics and military memoirs and dry tomes about estate management, yes, but also lots of musty-smelling hardcovers by  the likes of Dornford Yates, Ronald Firbank, Eric Ambler and Margery Allingham. And enormous comfy sofas and armchairs to sink into in order to read them.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite as excited (apart from seeing the view from the apartment friends had booked for us on our first visit with them to the Dolomites, which actually brought tears of joy to my eyes). The gigantic billiards room, the separate lodge with hundreds of stags heads on the walls – even the Cairngorms themselves - paled beside this marvellous treasure-trove of a room. I was secretly praying we’d get a couple of days of torrential rain so we’d be forced to stay indoors – but the sun shone relentlessly, so I contented myself with taking a stack of fresh books to bed every night and devouring them into the early hours.

If, like me, you can’t stand places without books – and if one of your great pleasures is rifling through other people’s bookshelves – it’s hard to imagine a better place for a holiday (unless they’ve started offering B&B at the British Library, or you can persuade my brother to put you up).

I shall always be grateful to the friends who told us about Mar Lodge  – and even specified the apartment we should book. If you fancy the sound of it, it’s called Davorar. When we went there during high season a few years ago, the price was susprisingly reasonable.


  1. Twenty-something years ago, on our way to Cornwall, we broke the journey outside Hungerford to see some friends. Their house couldn't accommodate the five of us, so we'd booked a B&B.

    Run by a retired couple, the husband had been in the Foreign Office, it was an old vicarage with all the trimmings – wisteria, housemartins nesting in the same corner of each window frame, paddock, stream, and inside the furniture and the decoration were all good quality, very English and all very lived in.

    The wife had obviously been "finished" and had us whipped into shape before we'd finished saying hello. In the gracious palm of her hand, the children behaved perfectly and went to sleep quickly.

    Which left me free to mooch around in the sitting room, wall-to-wall books, floor-to-ceiling. I had just finished Naples '44, and there on the shelf was a late 40s or early 50s Norman Lewis. The sofa beckoned and I sat down with it. The book.

    Unreadable. I persevered for about an hour, it was an exercise in horror, tastes have changed, but 70 years ago Norman Lewis obviously felt he'd failed if any noun was allowed to pass without at least three adjectives attached. Purple? Not even. Orchidaceous, I think, would have been Frank's word for it.

    The husband looked in on me at one point, grunted and disappeared. He said not a word to any of us while we were there. English reticence? No, there was just no need to say anything.

    Next morning, after a proper English breakfast, we were packing the car, when the husband came out and loped across the courtyard into the garage.

    We weren't paying much attention, until there was a noise like a volcano with irritable bowel syndrome, and the longest Chevrolet that could possibly get round those Berkshire lanes lurched out of the garage and, 2 or 3 hundred pounds of chrome shining and all tailfins, belched away from the house about 50 miles an hour over the speed limit.

    Highly recommended but I've forgotten the address.

  2. Harumphrey of Arabia17 November 2011 at 16:03

    Sorry to hear you didn't get on with the other Lewis titles...I've always meant to read Naples 44 having thoroughly enjoyed The Honoured Society and Jackdaw Cake

  3. Norman Lewis is usually pretty reliable - you may just have copped a duff one. I loved "Naples 44" (especially the story of British serviceman who asked for medical advice because his recently acquired Neapolitan wife expected him to make love to her between five and seven times every night - and he was beginning to feel a trifle worn out!

    I enjoyed "The Honoured Society", Harumphrey of Arabia, but have never read "Jackdaw Cake" - must give it a go.

    We once stayed for one night at a B&B in Scotland (the last time I actually saw a red squirrel) and as the wife explained how everything worked, she stopped and said, accusatorily, "You're all smiling - you're a smiling family" as if we'd just admitted to being satanists. I said we could all scowl at her if she preferred. Mind you, the books were good there too.

    I forgot the last place I stayed in where there were no books - a truly horrible B&B in Weston-super-Mare (we were waiting for our car to be fixed overnight) which I wrote about at

    By the way, are you using html to create italics in your comments, Mr Moss?

  4. You have cleared something up for me. I am an avid fan of "The Sopranos" and Mafia films in general and often wondered why all these "Mafia Mansions" in which so much action takes place were so bleak and without soul. No books! Not even cookery books in the kitchen.

  5. "By the way, are you using html to create italics in your comments, Mr Moss?"

    Yes, your Honour, and I must ask you to take into account several score similar offences when your Honour held court on

    I hate to think what Bill Nighy would make of it.

    The following HTML tags work in Blogger comments:
    i – Italic
    b – bold
    a – anchor
    and maybe a few others.

    Why can't you use the u tag, to underline? What have Blogger got against the blockquote, super and sub tags?

    Occupy Blogger!