Penelope Chetwode: (AKA Lady B or Penelope Betjeman)
Born: 1910 in Aldershot, England
Died: 1986 in Mutisher, India.
Known as: Travel writer and wife of John Betjeman.
Special Skills: Riding horses, trekking in India, writing about her travels
Penelope Betjeman is remembered as a Lady of Hay of the late 20th century. She was officially an actual Lady as she was married to poet laureate Sir John Betjeman, although the relationship was a troubled one. Not wanting to play a part in London society life and in an attempt to escape Betjeman’s very public affairs, Penelope retreated to live near Hay above Cusop, preferring the hills of the Welsh borders to the parties and cocktails of the London literary world. She called these hills “her own Himalayas” in reference to her love of the mountains of Northern India.
Penelope was an independent and strong minded individual who loved to travel and established herself as a writer under her maiden name of Penelope Chetwode. She wrote about India where she had grown up as her father was a Commander in the British Indian army. She had a fascination with Indian art and architecture and led many tours of her favourite areas in the Himalayas. She was known for her stamina and one account details her bravely crossing a torrential river on an inflated animal skin.
Aged 50 she decided to tour southern Spain on horseback – this being her much preferred method of transport. She wrote about her travels in her book Two Middle Aged Women in Andalusia. The other Middle Aged Woman of the title is her companion, La Marquesa, a twelve year old bay mare. This funny and intriguing book, gives an insight into her dry sense of humour, her passion for horses and her enjoyment of a simple, uncomplicated life and has inspired many other women to go on their own horseback adventures.
Being an adventurer and a pretty independent spirit, Penelope must have met like-minded friends in the hippy hills of the Welsh borders where there was a community of Buddhists and alternative thinkers in the 1970s and 80s. People in Hay remember her as an eccentric character who used to come into town on her pony and trap, wearing a chunky knitted jumper and jodphurs. She was definitely eccentric, outspoken, sometimes rude, but infinitely kind and always with her very individual sense of humour.
One of the most well known photographs of Penelope was taken during her society youth when she took her Arab stallion, Moti, to tea with her aristocratic friend, Lord Berners. The image of a large white horse inside the delicately decorated interior of Faringdon House, taking tea and standing for a portrait painted by Lord Berners says so much about Penelope’s character, her deep passion for horses and the eccentric circles she mixed in. As well as being an inspiration to Evelyn Waugh who is said to have based the character of Helena on Penelope, she also became a firm friend of Bruce Chatwin, introducing him to many of the characters of the Black Mountains who inspired him to write “On the Black Hill”.
Penelope died leading one of her beloved horse-back tours in the Himalayas. The priest of the temple at Muntisher had rushed out to greet her, ringing the bells of the temple in her honour. She got off her horse and climbed three steps, sat down and rested for a while, shutting her eyes and resting her head against a wall. She passed away peacefully, sat on those steps in the hills she had loved all her life.