Elizabeth Countess Temple of Stowe 1928-2018

On Monday 23rd April 2018 about 100 people gathered in St Mary’s Easton to give thanks for the life of Elizabeth, Countess Temple of Stowe, a long time resident of Easton.

The hymns ‘Immortal invisible God only wise’, ‘Praise my soul the King of heaven’, and ‘Lord of all hopefulness’ were sung.  Adrian Bell played the organ.

‘Centuries of Meditations’ by Thomas Treherne was read by John Clegg;  ‘Wonderful Bears’ by Adrienne Rich was read by Jenny Temple; ‘A Birthday Poem for Elizabeth’ by George Mackay Brown was ready by Gillespie Robertson; and ‘Christmas Cake’ was read by Anna Dawson.

The Bible Reading was Romans 8: 38-39.

The prayers included the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, the Second Collect at Evening Prayer, the Collect for Aid against all Perils and the General Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer and there was a blessing by John Donne.

The following tributes were read:

James Temple of Stowe:

Margaret Elizabeth Graham Scarth was born on 17thNovember 1928 at Kirkwall in Orkney, to Col.  Henry William and Mary Beatrix Scarth and grew up at the family home of Skaill House, on the west coast of Orkney. Skaill is probably one of the most magical places it is possible for a child to grow up. The house has a wonderful patina of age, with stories and legends, impressive rooms, mysterious passages and staircases. Outside, the sea is ever-present with only a few hundred yards to the curved strand of Skaill Bay, the waves crashing on the rocks and cliffs at either end, the virtually intact Neolithic village of Skara Brae, the sunken garden, Skaill Loch, and magnificent Orkney skies. It is an extraordinary place to visit – as a childhood home it was almost sacred.

Elizabeth was the oldest of three children. Her sister, Hester, died in infancy only a few days after she was born. Her brother Walter was 5 years her junior, and I think she absolutely doted on him. Tragically he was killed in an accident with a horse when he was only 14, an event which blighted their family life terribly.

By all accounts Elizabeth was a very active, vivacious and adventurous child, which fits with how we knew her as an adult. Her godfather’s son, who was a year older than Elizabeth, vividly remembers her at the age of 5. While the family were staying with her godfather, she decided to go around the entire house and turn on all the hot taps. Such bold naughtiness made a deep impression on him.

Soon after that, Elizabeth’s adventurousness had rather more serious consequences. I quote from some memoirs that Elizabeth had begun to write in recent years:

‘In 1934 I was given a brand new bike which I was absolutely thrilled about as suddenly at the age of six I was independent.  My parents said I had the freedom to ride wherever I wanted except down the drive of the Dowry House, Kierfiold.  The drive was very steep and led directly onto a main road.  Even at six I was obstinate and headstrong and so did not heed my parents’ words.  I remember looking left and out of the corner of my eye saw a car on top of the hill. Six hours later I woke up in hospital.’

She had a torn cheek that needed 50 stitches, and which was very scarred all through childhood. At 16 she went for plastic surgery at a unit that that was doing highly experimental work with soldiers from WWII. The operation was fairly successful, but very painful.

Another incident that her cousin Robert remembers from Skaill. He was about 4 or 5, and Elizabeth aged 12 or so, had been delegated to look after him. She wasn’t best pleased at this, and wasn’t going to let it hamper her style, so she took the young Robert out on a rowing boat on Skaill Loch. At some point in the middle of the loch the oars were somehow lost overboard, at which point Elizabeth got out of the boat. The loch is very shallow, and only came up to her chest. There were many eels in the loch, and every time she stood near one it would slither away, and Robert can vividly remember Elizabeth going ‘Ooh,ooh’ in disgust at each eel’s slithering!

Going ‘ooh,ooh’ at disgusting things was a lifelong habit.

Elizabeth’s school life was rather disjointed – the war meant she had to change schools more than once, and good teachers were often employed in the war effort, leaving rather less inspiring ones to actually teach. She gave up Latin at 13 because the teacher had bad breath, and maths was never her strong suit, but she was a very early reader, and did extremely well at a drama test, when a school play was being cast. I quote her:

“Understandably I assumed I would be playing a leading rôle.  The play’s producer, however, put me in the crowds saying “rhubarb, rhubarb”.

In her memoir she claims that she did not sulk, but I think we can safely say that that producer was toast.

After school she lodged in London and attended Mrs Hosters’ Secretarial Training College in Cromwell Road which was known for “turning out gels for the establishment”. She quickly mastered shorthand and typing, but gave up on book-keeping as she was hopeless at it.

One of her first jobs was with the National Book League, where she was paid 4 guineas a week, and she became a ‘go to’ for hunting down obscure books.

Later she was offered a job as secretary and bursar at Headfort School in Ireland, and she had to overcome her dislike of numbers and finance by taking a correspondence course.

Unfortunately the next period in her life is not so well documented, and we have to go on the stories that she has told us over the years.

In 1956 she was in Vienna working for the Red Cross, helping refugees from Hungary in the aftermath of the revolution there. She was very quick with languages and became fluent in Hungarian, to the point where she could act as an interpreter.  Somewhere along the way there was a great romance with a Hungarian man, which always came over as being rather mysterious.

I think that period really opened her eyes to the appalling circumstances that people were sometimes forced to live in. She particularly identified with families who had been landowners, perhaps with backgrounds similar to her own, who now had virtually nothing. She admired their stoicism and ‘make do’ attitude. In Vienna, she used to call in to see an old lady who I think had been a princess in her earlier life who now lived in one room and was on the bread line. This lady was very grateful to Elizabeth for visiting her, and one day triumphantly produced a very special treat that she had managed to get hold of, a tin of sardines. She insisted that she share them with Elizabeth. Elizabeth had a real dilemma, in that she couldn’t be so rude as to refuse, but she knew she was allergic to sardines! In the end I think she managed to get away with eating a tiny bit, and feeling sick later.

Other places that she worked or lived were Paris, Munich and Bonn, where she worked in the embassy.

She had a Porsche which she loved, and probably drove in the same way she rode her first bike – fast and furious.

At some point she returned to London, and had some fairly high-powered jobs there in the mid-‘60’s. But I think her career was shortened by a car accident which affected her memory slightly, for a while at least.

In 1967 Elizabeth responded to an advertisement for someone to come and look after 3 children near Winchester. Elizabeth vividly remembers being met by Grenville at the station, and arriving at The Cottage. She also remembers meeting me for the first time, aged 12. Apparently I was having a go at oil painting by numbers, which she later realised gave her a fairly accurate impression of my talents – numbers, good, original artistic expression, not so good.

Anyway, she accepted the post, and came to live with us.

And of course, although we children didn’t realise it, Elizabeth and Grenville soon fell in love.

Grenville and Elizabeth were married on 1stof June 1968, at the Guards Chapel, a splendid occasion.

That summer we had our first family holiday at Skaill in Orkney. We stayed in the flat adjoining the house, and Elizabeth absolutely loved showing us all her beloved home and all its treasures, as we loved discovering them. If you had to list the things that were closest to Elizabeth’s heart, you would have quite a list, and Skaill and Orkney would be near the top.

And so we all got on with family life. Looking back, I think we all had our fair share of laughs, dramas, difficulties, adventures and all the other components of that extraordinary process that families go through in building human relationships, character, personality, values and outlook on life. It isn’t easy for someone just to come in and take on looking after three children, especially when they have recently lost their mother. I think Elizabeth understood that it would take time for all of us to get to know each other, and in the meantime putting three good meals on the table every day and running the house with her characteristic efficiency and expertise would really benefit everyone. Ok, she had very strong ideas about how things should be done, and we children had to sharpen our pencils, as it were. But we had a great deal of fun, games and jokes too.

Although Elizabeth’s primary raison d’être was her deep love of Grenville, she was fiercely committed to the family and home. Of course, family and home were absolutely central to her all through her life. And when Elizabeth fiercely committed to something, that something really knew it had been committed to, and it understood what fierce meant!

There were ups and downs along the way but that is how you learn about love, and we are a close and loving family 50 years on, for which I’m profoundly grateful.

One particular aspect of life with Elizabeth that had a big influence on me, was her love of food and cooking. As a young child I think I was a particularly fussy and unadventurous eater, who had very little experience of, and absolutely no interest in, anything outside of a ‘standard British’ 1960’s diet. By the time I emerged into adult life, Elizabeth had taught me to enjoy a much more extensive range of dishes, and how to cook some of them. She passed on her love of food and cooking to all three of us, and we have all gone on to express that in our different ways.

Along with food, of course, goes drink. In the summer when we were children Elizabeth used to make delicious fresh lemonade, but it has to be said that most of the drinks she enjoyed contained a modicum of alcohol. As a good Scot, a whisky at 6 o’clock went without question, but later on in the evening, she would ask if anyone would like a little something. If you said ‘yes’, you were then faced with choosing from about 30 different eaux de vie, cognacs, malts, and assorted obscure dark bottles that she had collected over the years around Europe.

In the late 1970’s, Elizabeth really wanted to have a home in Orkney and eventually she bought Garth, on the hillside near Stromness. The house is modest, but Garth has probably one of the best views in Orkney (or indeed anywhere), looking out over the cliffs of Hoy, the Pentland Firth and with the mountains of Scotland in the distance, and I think it was love at first sight. Elizabeth and Grenville used to spend as much of the summer as they could there, two or three months usually, and they both loved it. They made the house as they wanted it, Elizabeth with a compact but fully-equipped kitchen, Grenville with his workshop, and a fire in the living-room where whole weeks could go by just reading books or gazing at the everchanging view.

They had many visitors, often of a literary persuasion, but you are going to hear more about that side of Elizabeth’s life later.

Elizabeth was very interested in people, and the stories that they had to tell about themselves, their families and their own interests. It didn’t matter who they were – if someone came round to read the meter or deliver a parcel, she would get their whole life story out of them, and tell them a few good stories in return. They would reel out of the house about an hour and a half later, bemusedly wondering what had happened, and probably how they were going to catch up with the rest of their day’s work.

She was also fascinated by knowledge, both in the areas that she knew so much about, and for its own sake in any field.

This attitude to people and knowledge is beautifully summed up in a story from my son Rowan. Rowan is a physicist, and his current research project is an investigation into the quantum phase transition in iron-rhodium using synchrotron radiation. For many people, that is a bit of a conversation-stopper. Not so with Granny. When we visited last Christmas, she wanted to know all about it (at the age of 89!). Rowan says:

‘Granny wasn’t fazed by the terminology; she was confident and passionate in her own field and she appreciated people being passionate in other fields and wanted to share in that. She was always very good at asking the right questions, which encouraged me to describe the excitement and process of the discovery in quite a lot of detail. She understood and appreciated the process without having to understand the detailed content. ‘

In the last few years, despite her intellect, humour and personality being undiminished, life had been more difficult physically. Looking after Grenville in the devoted way that she did probably took its toll, and it became obvious she would need some more support. From a recommendation, Arlene Ashley from the Just Care Agency kept us supplied with a series of amazing carers, including herself, without whom Elizabeth would have been lost. Two of her favourite carers, Andrea Fisher and Merle Gerritz, were with her at the end, with Candice Bourgogne providing support in the background. We family are incredibly grateful to them all for sticking with us, for their patience and devoted care, which allowed Elizabeth to be in her beloved home.

But I think the person who deserves the most credit and thanks for keeping the ship afloat and the family together is my sister Anna. I really can’t begin to express my gratitude to her for everything.

The memory of Elizabeth that I will take with me goes with the memory of Grenville that I spoke about a few years ago. That is the two of them in their armchairs by the fire, with a glass of something, telling stories of friends, cousins and acquaintances, laughing at jokes, and adoring each other and their family. As we keep saying, it is the end of an era.

Robert Gore-Langton:

As anybody who knew her even anyone who knew her even vaguely, Elisabeth’s great passion was for books. She leaves behind an enormous library. She loved biographies, memoirs, essays, novels,  meditations, prayers, limericks —  pretty much anything made of well chosen words.  As James mentioned, she at one time worked at the National Book league.   

She can also  claim — and after a few drinks often did —  to have had  a minor place in modern literary history. Back in the early Sixties she worked as a secretary at  the British embassy in Bonn where her immediate boss was a young spy called David Cornwell. He gave her the manuscript of a novel he’d written under the name Le Carre  to deliver somewhere.  She promptly left it in a  taxi  and later managed to retrieved  it  — a tale which improved every time she told it!   —  and thus Elizabeth both lost and saved The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.  

But her great abiding love was poetry. She collected several hundred volumes in all sorts of languages.  She was entirely self-taught out and spurred on by nothing but her own enthusiasm. She met plenty of poets who became great friends. Firstly, Orkney’s resident poet George Mackay Brown, a sweet, pipe smoking, thoughtful man who was a frequent guest at her cottage Garth and whose poems about the islands and their people found an international audience.  

Among his great fans was Ted Hughes, who came up to Orkney to read his own work at the St Magnus arts festival and do a bit of fishing while he was at it. Elizabeth bumped into him accidentally on purpose, introduced  herself and they hit if off. Sue and I were engaged at the time, staying at Garth and we sat through an amazing dinner that ended at  four in the morning.  Off Ted Hughes  went at dawn, fished all day, and came back the next night for a repeat performance.  The Cambridge educated Hughes was of course incredibly up on all forms of poetry. But Elizabeth over two nights  more than held her own. She was very knowledgeable about post war central European poets, possibly more than Hughes was. So when he started telling Elizabeth about some Hungarian poet I remember “thinking good luck with that, mate”. After listening to the great sage bang on for a bit, Elizabeth fixed  him with that scary formidable look of hers  and quoted back the poem he couldn’t quite remember…… in fluent Hungarian. She said, “So much better in the original, don’t you think?”.  Game set and match. You’ve never seen a poet laureate so utterly gobsmacked.  

It was meeting Ted Hughes that led her to go to Arvon, the creative writing school in Devon. She went several times and  loved this residential course and started writing poetry herself.  She was also in the 1980s to meet and get to know Seamus Heaney. Elizabeth isn’t here to do the name dropping so I am doing it for her!   Seamus, who was completely charming, came to stay at Garth (he got on very well with Grenville) and he and Elizabeth became pen pals, always writing about things they’d read.  Seamus even read and passed comment on her poetry, saying nice things. Elizabeth for her own part was totally modest, if not rude about her own work but she was proud of Seal Woman, a good poem that we’ve put in the order of service.  I think on rereading it is  partly about her desire to return to the ocean near her adored Skaill House where she grew up and which loomed so large in her mind.  It was through  these friendships with professional writers that led to her to publishing a book to raise money for St Magnus cathedral in Kirkwall . This was to coincide with its 850th birthday in 1987.  To make any money it needed to be a small edition of poetry and  expensive and exclusive book which she would publish herself.  So she set up the Breckness Press and got a poem each out Hughes, Heaney, George Mackay Brown and Christopher Fry — three of the poems were brand new. The book was called Four Poets for St Magnus and she took infinite pains over the edition. Every aspect of reach book was hand made, bound  in vellum, signed by each poet and are today  highly  collectable.  How man people if any could have got four of the  leading writers in Europe to do that?  Somehow Elizabeth, a complete  amateur, managed it. An amazing achievement in my view.   

Going through her stuff  at home I came across typed lists, one had “poets I love” and the other “poets I admire”. There were no poets she hated but quite a few she thought were stodgy or who were creeps. She also  typed or wrote  out verses she liked, sayings that struck her, things that made her laugh, and so forth. She was usually a doddle to buy presents for as there was always a book she wanted. One of her great loves was the work of C P Cavafy, a Greek who lived and worked in Egypt in the early years of the last century and who was discovered by E M Forster. His poems are a combination of ancient Greek history and the shadowy  nightlife he lived in the gay bars of  Alexandria in the 1920s.  When Amazon hit the scene she asked me to buy her an edition of his more sexy poems only available second hand from a dubious publisher in San Francisco. I did so and sent it to her.  She never mentioned it and months later I asked on the phone if the book had ever arrived. She told me that the edition had indeed come, illustrated with extremely explicit images of naked young men. “Oh dear I’m sorry about that” I said ,rather embarrassed. Elizabeth  replied in a stage whisper …. “my dear, I have to tell you, those illustrations…FASCiNATING.”  

If Poetry was a serious business, so was drinking — a dram was always on offer to lubricate the conversation.  That’s another incredible thing about her — her recall. She had hundreds of poems off by heart.  If it was something she loved, it went in to her heart never to be erased. Even when she was old and unwell the gift never deserted her.  All this verse  occasionally drove Dad nuts and he muttered… “damn poets”  occasionally.  

Her  latest boy friend  was the chap who painted the windows at The Cottage here. Johnny was himself a poet so of course out came the malt whisky. They became great friends and on hearing of her death he sent us  email in which he wrote: “Elizabeth was a wonderful woman and someone who I for one will remember (and pass on stories of our timeless chats) from now on in. She was to me a complete inspiration and a character you only read about meeting in books so I was (still am) privileged to know her and call her a friend.”  Johnny was right. I think of her at her best with a huge whisky in her hand,  bubbling with great  enthusiasm for some ”simply divine”  sculptor, writer or artist she had met in person or through a book or by buying their work. She was a  huge influence on and great and generous spirit.  

Anna Dawson read the following recipe for Christmas Cake

2 cups of flour;  1 stick of butter;  1 cup of sugar;  1 cup of water; 1 teaspoon of salt; 1 cup of brown sugar; Lemon juice; 4 eggs;  One bottle Brandy; 2 cups dried fruit.

Sample the brandy to check quality.

Take a large bowl, check the brandy again.

To be sure of highest quality, pour one level cup and drink. Repeat.

Turn on the electric mixer

Beat one cup of butter in a large fluffy bowl

Add one teaspoon of sugar, beat again.

At this point it’s best to make sure the brandy is still ok.

Try another cup…. Just in case.

Turn on the mixerer thingy.

Break 2 eggs, add to the bowl and chuck in 1 cup dried fruit.

Pick the figging fruit up off the floor.

Mix on the turner.

If the dried fruit gets stuck in the beaterers, pry it lose with a drewscriver.

Sample the brandy for tonscisticy.

Next sift two cups of salt. Or something.

Check the brandy.

Now sift the lemon juice and strain your nuts.

Add one table.

Grease the oven.

Turn the cake 360 degrees and try not to fall over.

Don’t forget to beat off the turner.

Finally, throw the bowl through the window.

Finish the brandy and wipe counter with the cat.

Romans 8:38–39(NRSV)

38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thanksgiving Sermon for Elizabeth Temple by Revd Alex Pease

A private person, but a force of nature.  These are two ways in which Elizabeth has been described to me.

Sadly I did not get to know her as she died while I was still waiting to be summoned by her to see her.  My predecessor Amanda took her communion at home very regularly over the last few years and I know that they appreciated each other greatly.

Rob and Anna have described to me how very important her faith in God was to her. She was a voracious reader of what I think are some quite challenging books but the books that she read sparked her keen intelligence and helped to deepen her faith.  She read Bede and St Augustine.  She enjoyed the challenges presented by ‘the Consolation of Philosophy’ written in prison by Boethius who was a sixth century Roman senator at the time of the end of the Roman Empire.  She also loved to read George Herbert, John Donne, Thomas More, William Blake and Thomas Treherne. 

And her faith had a practical outworking as well.  The Impey Family tell me how she spent days sitting with their grandmother Nona praying by her side as she drew close to death.

But perhaps she was not so much of a church goer, except when it came to her great love for St Mary’s Avington which, with the family connection to the founder of that church was a source of pleasure to her.

As I prepared this talk, I was sitting in the garden of our house in Martyr Worthy.  I am so often struck by the incredible variety of God’s creation and part of that creation is us.  There is a wonderful variety in humanity also and it seems to me that it should not surprise us that God expects us to build our relationship with him in ways which reflect that variety and whilst, of course, Christianity is something that we do in community and that community (although often imperfect) is the church, I think that what God mostly cares about is whether our hearts are turned towards him.  Are we really seeking him? Do we love him?

This is where I think the passage that Susie has just read comes in: ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God, nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’

And that nothing for some people may even include the church or a church at a particular time….

Those who are being called by the Holy Spirit to love God and towards God’s love will manifest that call in many different ways because we are all different.  It may start as a little spark of interest in attending something contemporary like an Alpha Course.  On the other hand it may start by an enthusiastic fascination with the Venerable Bede.  

It doesn’t matter how.  We are all different and God made us this way.  But if we are to be fully what he intended us to be we need to choose to fan that little flame, that spark of interest, put in us by the Holy Spirit and see the incredible journey on which He takes us.  

Because once that journey has begun even death cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.


The following poem by Elizabeth Temple was included in with the service sheet

Seal Woman

It was William who noticed it first, and William

Who turned his questioning face to mine,

‘There’s a strange smell of the sea’.

But I was fresh from the warmth of the laundry

And all I could smell was linen.

‘Nothing unusual in that,’ I said,

‘With a sack of mackerel back in the passage

There is always the smell of the sea’.

His look slipped sideways, he turned away,

And that was the day we took stock.


Oatmeal and flour, three hundredweight each,

Of sugar the same, that the slack time coming

Should not find us lacking; the peat in the yard

In the stacks neat as dominoes.

Hook in the kitchen trembling with hams,

And tea in the lead-lined chests.


Was it late in the night that I heard the horses

Thrash through the grass in garden?

The snapping of castanet trot on the cobbles

O currite currite noctis equi!

They swung past the house, the windows panes rattled,

I threw back the covers and stood at the window

And felt the tide rise, rise on the vapour of night.

The smell of the sea was stronger.

The door to the passage is open, I thought

As I sank into sleep.


I was stiff when I surfaced, and patterned in bruises

Darker than purple, darker than that of Imperial Caesar

Whose clay stopped the wind. And down on the shore

Where the sea gnawed at the land,

A rustle of skulls.


Floundering round in the kitchen I broke

Two cups and a plate, and the saucepan handle

Kept slipping around till it fell on the flagstone floor.

The cats were happy, supping the porridge.

The fish had been taken outside.


Clumsily stumbling through Tuesday,

I scrubbed out the passages, reeking of fish:

It clung to me, stayed with me, kept me surrounded;

I breathed in, contented, the smell of the sea.


And the seventh wave will carry you in

To the seven tears on the shore.

I carried the hay to the stable.

The horses were tranced, their sweet breath rising

Like smoke from a sacrifice.

One of them whinnied. I found a sound to respond.


In my skull it tolled like a bell long silent,

Came out of my mouth like a gong

Again and again. The horses shifted.

I buried my head in the hay.


And the smell of the sea grew stronger.


My back had twisted when tossing the hay.

The pain bent me over, I slid to the floor.

My hands were stiffening, palms were hardening,

Bruises were spreading; my pelt grew dark.

I inched my way over and out through the door.


Heaving and dragging my way through the marshland,

My breathing heavy, I leaned to the wind.

And I drank as the first

Thirst of the child at the breast,

The fresh, the cold, the familiar smell of the sea.


Elizabeth Temple, 1992


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