The Ashgrove – Diney Costeloe

‘Who do you belong to, I wonder?’ she asked aloud. There was nothing to indicate whom each tree commemorated… or that the place was a memorial at all. She moved from tree to tree until she had rested her hand on each trunk, and thought of all the young, fresh-faced men who had gone so jauntily to war, never to return to their homes here in Charlton Ambrose. Such high hopes they must have had. The adventure of fighting in a war, seeing a bit of the world, before settling down to their humdrum lives here in the country. Rachel thought of the pictures she had seen of the trenches in Flanders, the mud and the squalor, the cold and the rats. She shuddered, and drawing her coat more closely around her, walked out on the far side of the grove where the allotment hedge barred her way.

Rachel Elliot is a reporter working for the local Belcaster Chronicle. She has been sent to cover a meeting in the Charlton Ambrose village hall to discuss a proposed housing development. She expects it to be a routine assignment but it’s the beginning of a quest that will lead her into the past & to discoveries about her own family history. The developers are brought up short when an elderly woman stands up & accuses them of planning to demolish the Ashgrove, a group of trees planted in 1921 as a memorial to the local men killed in WWI. Cecily Strong’s brother, Will, was one of the men commemorated &, even though the metal plates have long since gone, there are still local people who know what the trees mean. Rachel is intrigued by this new angle on the story & visits Cecily to find out more.

Cecily’s long term memory proves very helpful & a trawl through parish records & the newspaper archive fills in more of the gaps. Eight local men, including the Squire’s son, Freddie, were killed. Squire Hurst paid for the trees & the metal plates but he died the same year & so the stones that were meant to replace the plates as a permanent memorial were never erected. There’s also a mystery because there are nine trees, not eight, in the Ashgrove. The ninth tree was secretly planted soon after the dedication & the Rector, Henry Smalley, who had served at the Front, convinced the Squire to let it stand as a memorial to the Unknown Soldier. Rachel also discovers that the Squire’s daughter, Sarah, went to France as a nurse & was killed when her hospital was shelled. She decides to try to trace the descendants of the other soldiers to see if they can convince the developers to find some other way to build the access road they need & plans a series of articles for the newspaper on the Ashgrove & the men who died.

Rachel is surprised to discover a personal link with Charlton Ambrose when she visits her grandmother, Rosemary, & hears that she lived in the village when she was a child. She was born illegitimate & her mother had been unwillingly forced to return to her parents.When Rosemary’s mother died soon after, she lived with her grandparents for some years. Rosemary’s mother’s diary & a sealed packet of letters that she has never opened, take Rachel back to 1915.

Rosemary’s mother, Molly, is a housemaid at the Manor. Sarah Hurst is determined to nurse in France & is desperate to overcome her father’s disapproval. Sarah’s aunt is a nun in a French convent hospital & reluctantly agrees that Sarah’s help would be useful if she can get her father’s approval. Sarah asks Molly to go with her &, because Molly is frightened of her abusive father who has insisted she leave service & work for higher wages in a munitions factory, she agrees. Molly’s diary tells of their journey to France, their work at the hospital & her meeting with Tom Carter, a soldier who has been brought in with his best mate, Harry, who is Molly’s cousin. Molly & Tom’s friendship turns to love although their relationship must be kept secret from the disapproving nuns. Tom returns to the Front just before the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 &, although he survives the battle, the confusion afterwards & his desire to get back to St Croix to marry Molly, who has become pregnant, leads to tragedy & an injustice that has only been rectified in recent years.

The Ashgrove is such an involving story. I read it in two long evenings as I was totally caught up in both stories. Rachel’s researches were fascinating (I can’t resist a bit of digging in the archives) & her personal connection to the Ashgrove is very poignant. Sarah & Molly’s story was also totally involving as they become friends rather than mistress & servant. Molly discovers her abilities as a nurse & Sarah is drawn more to the spiritual side of life at the convent which leads to tensions between the girls as Molly’s relationship with Tom grows. I’ve read many WWI diaries & memoirs & I can see how much research has gone into creating this picture of a hospital under enormous pressure. Having recently read Emily Mayhew’s Wounded, this novel was the perfect companion read as Diney Costeloe has brought the factual accounts to life in a very moving way.

I should declare a personal interest here as Diney is a friend & fellow member of my online reading group. She asked me if I would like to review The Ashgrove as she is hoping to give it a bit of a relaunch with Remembrance Day coming up. She kindly sent me e-copies of The Ashgrove & the sequel, Death’s Dark Vale, which continues Sarah’s story & takes us up to WWII. I’m looking forward to read it very much. Both books are available as paperbacks & Kindle editions.

4 thoughts on “The Ashgrove – Diney Costeloe

  1. It's a very involving story, just right for this time of year. I received my Persephone Biannually yesterday but haven't had time to sit down & read it so I'll have to have a look for my quote, very exciting! I did notice they've reprinted one of my favourite short stories, Miss Anstruther's Letters.

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