When Robert Bennett Williams bought his sister a book in which to record her life in the new home she had built for herself in South Africa, he reawakened a passion that had been dormant for years.
In 1970, Robert began the first in what would become a series of journals documenting his life in and around the gorgeous 15th Century Hertfordshire manor house that has been his family’s home for generations. Then, as life became busy with work and family, he stopped writing.
“I never waste a minute. You’ve only got one life and your duty is to leave something for posterity. You are never to get tired of exploring."
In retirement, and finding himself with time once more to devote to his hobby, the gift to his sister inspired him to search for a high quality, robust journal in which write the newest chapters of his life – a search that ultimately led him to us, just a few miles away from his leafy home which boasts links with the Knights Templar and Tudor royalty.
Whilst personalising the journals for him, we were privileged to see some of the beautiful handwritten entries and self-drawn artwork that graced previous editions of his remarkable life story.
Arriving at his home, it’s easy to see where inspiration comes from. On a beautiful sunlit day, we stepped into a riot of colour in a perfectly maintained garden. The calls of free-ranging peafowl add an occasional subtropical soundtrack to a stillness that is otherwise complete, save for the whisper of a breeze in the foliage. It is almost as though we have walked into a scene from an Austen novel.
We’re welcomed into his home, one beautiful room giving way to another, until we find ourselves in Robert’s den, a room filled with books and antique furnishings and a shelf that houses his past journals, going back years. There are a dozen or more and viewing the delicate hand in which he writes and the beautiful sketches and paintings which adorn so many of his pages is to have sight of an intimate history that is both fascinating and inspiring.
“There are a few of them,” Robert says, pulling a book from the shelf and opening it with a smile. “This was Namibia. Some of them are unfinished and I don’t do them every year. You know, I’ve skipped some.
“I used to keep journals when I was a boy but then I didn’t really have the time and I was a bit shy about it, to be honest. I didn’t draw so much in those days, but then I sort of produced a series of them. And I got the idea that I could take it a bit more seriously, you know?”
He shows us some sketches, surprising us with the rich mix of the ordinary and exotic. There are scenes from the gardens of the Hertfordshire home where he has lived most of his life and then, suddenly, a sketch of a horse race in India. Here a painting of Kim Jung, there one of the moon over the house and here a red kite wheeling against a cobalt sky. Some are political, some historical, others cultural.
“I just put down what attracts me on any given day,” he says. “I’ll do it for as long as I can for the rest of my life.”
It’s not just writing and painting that occupies Robert, either. He also makes tapestries (his house boasts many and one also adorns the walls of a couple of local churches).
"I think it’s like a pianist would practice every day” – and so absorbing is the work that he finds he gets completely lost in it."
“I never waste a minute. You’ve only got one life and your duty is to leave something for posterity. You are never to get tired of exploring.I meet people every day who have talents greater than my own, but one mustn’t be embarrassed by that.”
Robert, a leading figure in his local church and historical society, believes writing his journals is a skill that always benefits from regular practice – “I think it’s like a pianist would practice every day” – and so absorbing is the work that he finds he gets completely lost in it.
“I’m thinking and philosophising to myself,” he says. “Working out how the world could be better or how it might become worse. Thinking about all the people around me; how we should live and what we should do.”
Robert started his first journal in about 1970 and this invitation to look through the full shelf of his work, compiled over many years has been an education. But it quickly feels like the greatest of privileges when Robert tells us the purpose of his work.
“My son will have them as a family record,” he says.
And with those few words we realise that what we’re looking at is so very much more than simply a collection of journals. It dawns on us that this wonderfully erudite and engaging older gentleman is creating a chronicle of family history that will live on for generations to come.