The landmark Cornish building, Fowey Hall Hotel, is the setting for classic children’s book The Wind in the Willows. British author Kenneth Grahame wrote the famous piece of children’s literature in 1908, featuring the adventures of a group of anthropomorphic animals in the English countryside.
Toad, Mole, Rat and Badger embody the timeless themes of friendship, camaraderie and morality as they embark on many an adventure together. When the author wrote his legendary book, he was a regular visitor to the then Fowey Hall country house.
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History of Fowey Hall
It was the inspiration for Toad’s majestic residence, Toad Hall, where much of the action in the book was set. Fowey Hall is based in the scenic harbour town of Fowey, on Cornwall’s sunny south coast. It was the 19th-century residence of local businessman Sir Charles Augustin Hanson.
Born in 1846 in Polruan, across the estuary from Fowey, after emigrating to Canada in his youth, Hanson amassed his wealth in the lumber trade and returned to Cornwall in 1889 as a very wealthy man. He decided to build a mansion that befitted his new-found social status and Fowey Hall was the result.
As one of the most prestigious country houses of the era, it was built from Portland Stone, with a contrasting red tile roof, a lead-domed central bellcote, moulded cornices and a large weathervane.
Upon returning to Cornwall, Hanson became a politician and in 1916, he entered the Commons as MP for Bodmin. The following year, he was elected Lord Mayor of London – the pinnacle of his career.
Grahame’s early life
Grahame, on the other hand, had a very different lifestyle from his wealthy acquaintance Hanson. He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1859 and his early life was spent in Argyllshire at Inveraray. He and his three siblings were sent to live with their grandparents in Cookham, Berkshire, when Grahame was only five, following his mother’s sudden death.
They lived in a house called The Mount, which had a large garden. The children spent hours playing outdoors, including on the riverbank. They also went boating with their uncle, David Ingles, who was Cookham Dean Church’s curate.
Grahame was an excellent pupil at school, but his family was too poor to send him to Oxford University, so he had to take a job instead with the Bank of England in 1879. He worked there for much of his adult life, eventually rising up through the ranks to become Secretary of the Bank of England.
He had been writing short stories in his spare time since his 20s and some were published in magazines, including the St James Gazette. They were later published in two compilations, Pagan Papers and The Golden Age, in 1893 and 1895 respectively.
Although he had some commercial success, he was by no means famous. He married Elspeth Thomson in 1899 and they had a son, Alastair, in 1900. Grahame used to entertain his son with tales of animals’ adventures on the riverbank and this was the beginning of The Wind in the Willows.
The characters’ experiences were based on his own childhood and having fun outdoors with his siblings. He invented his famous characters and gave them human traits. Grahame was a regular visitor to Fowey Hall at the time. His close friend, poet Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, had married Hanson’s cousin, Louise Hicks.
There were always plenty of gatherings at Fowey Hall and Grahame was invited there frequently. When he began to write down his tales of the animals, he was said to have used Fowey Hall as the backdrop to many of their adventures. The book affectionately dubbed Fowey “The Little Grey Seaport”.
Toad, Mole, Rat and Badger lived an idyllic rural lifestyle, enjoying a great friendship in pastoral England at the turn of the century. The story begins with the good-natured Mole becoming tired of spring cleaning, so he goes to the riverbank to enjoy some fresh air.
He bumps into a water vole called Rat and they become friends. They decide to visit the wealthy Toad at his country residence, Toad Hall. He is kind-hearted and jovial, but is completely obsessed with the latest fads and is a little directionless.
The trio start hanging out together and enjoy Toad’s latest obsession: the motor car. Motor vehicles were quite new when the book was written in 1908 and were a novelty to most people. Toad is a terrible driver and admits to having crashed seven cars already!
As winter sets in, Mole panics one freezing cold day as snow begins to fall and they get lost in the forest. Luckily, they stumble on friendly Badger’s home and he welcomes them in, giving them a hot meal and some dry clothes. This completes the quartet and they have a multitude of adventures together.
The book was a massive success. In fact, the author was able to retire from his job at the Bank of England after its publication in 1908. He died in 1932 in Pangbourne, Berkshire, but his legacy lives on. Wind in the Willows is still popular today and has been turned into stage plays, radio shows, TV series, videos and DVDs.
Fowey Hall is one of England’s last great country homes and has become a famous landmark on the Cornish coastline. Now a hotel, it offers breathtaking views of the harbour. The eight bedrooms in the hotel’s courtyard are named after The Wind in the Willows’ characters.
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