Robin Mills went to Lyme Regis to meet Rosie Young. This is her story.
“My twin sister Susy and I were born in Somerset in 1946. My grandfather, a tea planter in India, retired early and bought a house near Bridgwater. That was the thirties; the Depression came, and he lost a lot of money, and the large house. My father had been working in Java for a Dutch shipping company; he was on one of the last boats out when the Japanese invaded, losing en route many possessions including his precious books. When they met, his parents (my Irish connection) and my mother’s parents lived in a small village on the Somerset Levels, and my father was teaching in the local school just to make ends meet.
Then my father was offered a job in London with his old firm Delarue, and we went to live in Harrow. My mother wasn’t happy there; she was used to country life, and disliked suburbia. So then her father, an imperious man, said, and I can imagine the conversation, “I’ve found this wonderful little tea-room in Dorset that you and Phil (my father) might be able to make a go of.” On viewing it, it turned out to be a fully up-and-running 13 bedroom hotel, Hammonds Mead, set in 7 acres of land, right by the beach in Charmouth. Quite a tea-room—and quite a lot of money at £18,000. That was 1948; my sister and I were aged 2, and my brother David 3, when we came to live there, with our faithful nanny Libby (who has only just died), and an idyllic carefree childhood began. We could go through the garden, with its various lawns, tennis court and large vegetable plot, through a field, over a stile, and there we were on the beach where we spent most of our young days. It’s difficult to be objective about one’s childhood, but I think we were very much left to run free; being twins gave us a certain confidence, and having an older brother only added to our fun. Our parents were always so busy with the hotel; our mother cooked, Libby was a sort of Maitre d’, while my father took bookings, organised food from the gardens and kept the many hens and geese under control. They were not well off. My grandfather would arrive at intervals to see how they were getting on, always a big event, and he’d sign the cheques. But in the end they managed to pay him back, and we remained there for 25 happy years. During those years, our small hotel played host to some interesting guests, including the artist Ruskin Spear, MP Hugh Gaitskill, and author Kenneth Grahame’s son.
On arrival in Charmouth my parents were introduced to the Miss Whittington sisters, direct descendents of Dick Whittington, Lord Mayor of London. They ran an old fashioned ‘Dames’ school, and invited us to attend. Our education was eccentric; from a very young age we performed plays in French, spoke Latin at lunch, and sang Victorian Ballads around the piano, whilst sums were pretty much ignored. We therefore failed our 11-plus, couldn’t go to Woodroffe School where my father wanted us to go, and instead went to Leweston School near Sherborne. We enjoyed it there, never unhappy, maybe because there were two of us, but we didn’t totally conform. We wanted to go to Art School; we didn’t complete our A levels, and instead did a Foundation course at Bournemouth Art School. After a year we decided to cut short our studies, went travelling to Spain, and never returned to Art School. Instead we headed to London; it was 1965.
Our mother must have worried about us, aged 18, apparently guiding ourselves through life. It was all so casual in those days—everything and anything seemed possible—it didn’t seem necessary to worry about qualifications or careers. Everything would somehow be ok. But we remained close to our parents, our easy-going upbringing had made sure of that, and we loved our home in Charmouth.
Being the older twin, I was usually the one who instigated things, and I insisted we get jobs as soon as possible in London. I went for an interview at Harvey Nichols, and landed a job in the “Inexpensive Shoe” department. In the meantime Susy found a job at Biba, one of the first boutiques, and the only place to be; I, of course, envied her. Shop girls became glamorous; they were to join the whole trendy, swinging scene that included photographers, designers, pop stars, actors and hairdressers, and there we were at the centre of it all, the culture that people talk about now when they refer to the mid-sixties. When Susy told Biba she had a twin sister, they gave me a job there too. We were now special shop girls, the “Biba Twins” and were much photographed as such, appearing in magazines of the day; we were never models, but as pretty twins we were in demand by photographers.
Everyone who was anyone went to Biba. Amongst the many famous names who visited the Kensington Church Street shop, the two people who caused the most stir were Princess Anne, and Brigitte Bardot, an icon even then. Promoted to “personnel manager”, one of my few claims to fame was the unfortunate sacking of a youthful Anna Wintour. After 2 years we left and ran Big O Posters, a stall in Kensington Market until a friend, a graphic designer, suggested I go and work for him, because I liked typography and lettering. That led to another similar job; I loved the design of books, type in relation to illustration. I worked on designing books including David Hockney’s version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. And I started collecting books.
Like many people at that time, in the early seventies, with self sufficiency as our aim, we decided to move back to the country. We knew people in Dorset of course, one of whom was the writer Peter Glidewell, who offered to rent me, Susy and her boyfriend, the painter Michael Upton, the miller’s cottage which adjoined his watermill in Stoke Abbott, for £2 a week. Each morning, Susy and I would whizz through the Marshwood Vale in our VW Beetle to work as chambermaids at our parents’ hotel.
All this time I was collecting books. I’d visit a particular book shop in Crewkerne, and when the shop came up for sale, the hotel by then having been sold, my father gave Susy and me the money £3000 to buy it fully stocked. We sold books and antiques, and by this time Susy, Michael and I were living together in South Perrott. Susy then became pregnant, so wasn’t able to help with the shop as much, especially after the birth of her second child. I was doing more and more book fairs, and working with other book sellers. When my partner Crispin Meller and I wanted to buy a place together, I sold the shop and we bought a remote farmhouse in the Marshwood Vale. I continued to sell books at book fairs and on a market stall in Bridport, working now with Caroline McTaggart, who remains my business partner to this day. This was the early 80’s, and soon I had two boys, Harry and Barney.
Then came great sadness. My sister died. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, and although she lived for 8 years after having had a mastectomy, the cancer returned. I think treatment today would have been different and maybe more successful. At this point she was living in Bridport with Michael and her two children Jess and Sam. Her death left me completely devastated. But I had my young children to look after, and Sam came to live with us, becoming part of our family. After Susy’s death, my relationship with Crispin ended; I left, with the boys, and rented a house from a friend in Charmouth. I was happy there with the three boys—I had a lot of help from friends, and managed to continue selling books.
Caroline and I had always wanted the shop we now run, Bridport Old Books. It was then called Pics, owned by Peter Craddock. I’d pester him regularly, asking if he was fed up with it yet. When he finally said yes, we took it over with another colleague, Stephen Clark, and the three of us ran it together. That was 16 years ago, and it’s been a success. My main interest is still, whatever the subject, good typography, illustration and design; the feel of a book—something Kindle can never replace. Now it’s just Caroline and me, Stephen having sadly died. We’re the best of partners and it’s good to be part of Bridport’s cultural and friendly community.”