On 2nd August 1958 Alison Uttley wrote in her diary ‘A 20 page letter from Mrs Clay, Harry went to Castle Top but never told me. She tells me such interesting things, and she loves the place.’ They were to correspond for many years, on at least one occasion Mrs Clay sending snowdrops to Mrs Uttley from the orchard at Castle Top. It must have been a real comfort to Mrs Uttley that the house was cared for once more after the years of neglect.
Castle Top, on the hillside overlooking Cromford, was lived in and looked after by Mr and Mrs Clay from the early 1950’s when they bought it and moved up from Cromford. I first met Mrs Clay, an avid reader, when she used to come in to Scarthin Books in Cromford, where I lived at the time. To celebrate the centenary of Alison Uttley’s birth, we planted an oak tree to replace the one described in The Country Child, and Mr and Mrs Clay very kindly hosted a memorable open day. This was described by Mrs Clay with humour as their ‘moment of glory’ as it had prompted Mr Clay to finish off all sorts of odd jobs!
No doubt Mrs Uttley would have described Mrs Clay as a ‘true countrywoman’: at one time she kept a pony, dog, cats and chickens, enjoyed baking for her children and grandchildren, watched in particular the birds and badgers, and interested herself in animal charities and country issues. She would walk through the woods to Cromford to take her son John to School in Cromford. Many Alison Uttley enthusiasts were given a tour of the house, coming from as far away as Japan.
I started to visit Mrs Clay in the latter part of her life when she was confined to her home. Always ready to patiently answer my questions, I learnt which door the Irishmen took down for their clog dancing, that the kitchen window had once been a door, and the location of the tennis court, and much more.
Even when Mrs Clay became very frail, she always had a book on her lap, and would take some time outdoors even in winter. The first flower on the hellebore or the progress of the new climbing rose were always of interest to her. I was struck by the fact that she was always interested in the world outside and would always enquire about my job and my family.
It is thanks to Mrs Clay that many of the original features of Castle Top described so vividly by Alison Uttley and illustrated by Tunnicliffe survive today: the trees, the wooden shutters, sandstone benches in the dairy, troughs for cooling the milk and the layout of garden, pigsty and orchard. She was a true guardian of this lovely spot and I was fortunate to know her.
Mrs Clay died peacefully in her home on 9th August 2009 and leaves three sons, 5 grandchildren and 4 great grandchildren.