Lucy Worsley on The Lost World of Dorothy Hartley

Updated on 06 November 2012 | 0 Comments

Never heard of food journalist Dorothy Hartley? Then you have to watch this fascinating new documentary on BBC Four presented by Lucy Worsley.

We’re big fans of the work of Dorothy Hartley here at lovefood HQ, describing Food in England as ‘the best food book you’ve probably never heard of’. And we’re not alone, it seems. Historic Palaces historian and TV presenter Lucy Worsley has spent the past year researching Hartley’s life and work for a new show on BBC Four which airs on Tuesday 6th November at 9pm. I went to lunch at Kensington Palace to meet her.

Lucy arrived at the splendid orangery restaurant with a package under her arm, which she unwrapped to reveal a first edition copy of Hartley's book... “and it’s even got the original press release in it!” she says. I am suitably impressed.

Original press release

The book has resided in her office at Hampton Court since she got there. “It’s something that has informed the work in the Tudor kitchens. But it’s only more recently that I’ve come to appreciate its… poetry, I suppose. Because it’s not just a facts book, is it?”

It’s not; it's more a love letter to a lost age. Consequently its facts are all uncorroborated. “When I first used it as an historian I got slightly frustrated that it has no footnotes in it. But as you know if you sit down and read it, that’s just not the point of it; it’s an enthusiastic riff on the subject,” says Lucy.

Hartley perhaps anticipates this in her introduction, stating ‘will historians please forgive me that these bits are for cooks, not historians’.

Cooking Hartley's recipes

In one scene in the show, Lucy recreates a ‘bargee’s pail’ (a bucket heated over a slow fire containing water, which heated a jar containing meat and vegetables, much like a slow cooker). “It was rib sticking stuff!” says Lucy, which was probably just what you needed if working a barge on the canals.

Lucy and Dorothy's HandbagPerhaps Lucy's most personal connection to Hartley came when she visted Hartley’s last house in Wales. “I looked inside her handbag, and that’s such an intimate thing to do. In one sense I felt like an intruder, but then I thought, Dorothy would do that, because she nosed about everywhere recording everything”.

I get the sense this has been a fascinating project for Lucy, precisely because it’s all so recent. “For me it's unusual, because most of the people I research have been dead for centuries! It was strange to go there and meet her friends who are still alive”. 

She ends lunch with one final story. “I was interviewing people in her village when I came across Malcolm Whiles, whose family has been village fixers for decades. It was just fabulous to talk to him. Dorothy died in 1985, and this guy talks about her as if it was yesterday. I just got the sense that he missed her, that he valued her… look, little tears are coming to my eyes when I think of that. And he called her Miss Hartley in an old fashioned way that was so admirable.”

The Lost World of Dorothy Hartley, BBC Four 9pm Tuesday 6th November.

If you’d like to explore more of Hartley’s writing, Prospect Books have just published an accompanying anthology of her print journalism also entitled ‘The Lost World of Dorothy Hartley’ - an ideal Christmas present for that special foodie in your life.

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