It’s a family affair

The Hornbys are a talented bunch. Author Gill Hornby, sister of Nick, shares her fave places.

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Gill Hornby lives in Kintbury with her husband, the author Robert Harris, with whom she has four children. Sister to Nick Hornby, her first book The Hive, a sharply observed novel focusing on playground politics, was a top 10 Sunday Times bestseller. She has also enjoyed critical success with her second book, All Together Now, a hilarious and heart-warming story of a small-town community choir, released in paperback today (2 June). Gill is talking at the Wantage Literary Festival on Sat 22 Oct. We’ve just had a good old natter on the phone and she shared a few of her favourite places in Berkshire and beyond.

The Woodspeen, Newbury

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This place is fabulous – a bit of Northern California off the A34! I love the design, the beautiful barn-style addition to the original pub, the open kitchen. We often go to The Woodspeen with friends on weekends or evenings, and because Robert and I both work from home going out for lunch takes on epic proportions, so if there’s something professional to celebrate then we’ll nip here for lunch. The set menu is great.

The Watermill Theatre

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Apart from all the brilliant shows here, my kids have done endless youth theatres at The Watermill, and it’s just so enriching for all the children that go through it. They spend weeks working on a proper show which they then perform for a week to paying audiences. If you’re just 13 or 14 years old, it’s such a wonderful experience. Their funding is under threat and it would just be such a loss for a generation of children if it can’t go on.

Queen Victoria’s Tomb, Frogmore

Frogmore

Until 2011 when it had to close as the building became unstable, The Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore – the spectacular burial place of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – was open to the public for just one day a year on the Queen’s Birthday. Our youngest child had an obsession with Queen Victoria when he was six, and one day marched into the headmaster’s office and asked for the day off to lay flowers on her tomb. He cut tulips from garden and we all drove over there. He moved aside a bunch of flowers that was already there and placed his in the middle of the tomb. A security guard was smiling at us so I asked if they get many visitors and he explained the other bunch of flowers (moved by my son) had been laid there by Her Majesty the Queen! [Although you can’t currently visit the Mausoleum, you can still visit Frogmore House and Gardens – Sarah].

Newbury Rock Choir

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I’m a member of the Newbury Rock Choir, and it actually gave me the idea for All Together Now. Joining the choir was a very successful way of feeding into the community in a completely different way. I was sitting near people from all walks of life that I would never have met otherwise. You get to know people that you see in your local shops or at the doctor’s surgery and you become a whole new community. It’s just such a positive thing to do. The Berkshire Rock Choir leaders are all great – I know because I’ve sung with all of them. It’s a lovely thing to do if you’re looking for change in your life. I started going when my children left home, and there are a lot of empty nesters in the choir. Lots of people join because they’re recovering from something, or simply because they love to sing! I love to sing, love a bit of karaoke too.

The Thames Path

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I do a walking holiday every year with girlfriends – unlike in The Hive, my book about school playground politics, there is no queen bee in my little gang! We’re very happy, without any misery and I’ve known some of them more than 30 years, from my Brasenose days at Oxford. We often walk parts of the Thames Path, it’s so unspoilt and extraordinary, and you get a real sense of the river and how important it was. Every time we draw nearer to London we prepare ourselves for it to get more suburban, and it just doesn’t. Our last walk was Pangbourne to Sonning, and it was absolutely beautiful. It’s about 14 miles and there are two gorgeous proper old-fashioned tea shops at Mapledurham Lock and Sonning Lock, which were our saviours.

Hungerford Bookshop

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Of course I’m biased, but we are just so lucky to have a brilliant proper independent bookshop on our doorstep. And the energy and commitment the owner Emma and her team at The Hungerford Bookshop put into the business is amazing. They get authors in every week to do talks and it’s just such a special place. When I was growing up in Maidenhead all we had was a WHSmith and the library. If we’d had a bookshop like this one, that delivers authors to your doorstop, it would have been life changing. It’s a jewel in the high street.

Martin and the Magpie, Hungerford

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Martin & the Magpie really are the most extraordinary florists. The ‘Magpie’ bit is because they collect all these wonderful things like enamelled pots and quirky ceramics and they plant things in tea cups – it’s all very cool and original. There are loads of wonderful bits and pieces and they just do great combinations of gorgeous flowers and quirky presentation.

Hurley Island, Hurley

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When I was a girl, I’d bunk off school with my friends, go to Maidenhead bus stop and go over to Hurley. There was an island there near the lock and we used to swim in the Thames in our knickers! I probably wouldn’t do it now, but it was great fun at the time.

Jason Palmer Hairdressing, Newbury

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For years I used to drive to London and pay London prices get my hair cut by a hairdresser called Joseph, and astonishingly he moved to Newbury! He’s a brilliant cutter at Jason Palmer Hairdressing. I’ve got quite a lot of hair and it’s hard to cut and he’s the only one who can cut it. I now have to beg for an appointment!

St Mary’s Church, Hambleden, Bucks

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My husband and I were married here, 28 years ago in July. I grew up in Maidenhead and when it came to finding somewhere to get married, having not gone to church for a while, we were told to go to talk to the Reverend at Hambleden and he’d marry you! His one condition to anyone marrying at his church was that the couple would come for marriage guidance for six weeks first. That sort of thing wasn’t ‘us’ at all but of course we went to them with various other couples and it was brilliant and useful and fascinating. There was a really funny bit where we were given pen and paper and asked to write down what we didn’t like about our partner. Robert was too frightened to write anything and I distinctly remember putting my hand up for another piece of paper as I’d run out of room.

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The Urban Guide to the Countryside - Berkshire