Andrew Barrow

Seeing off six monarchs

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Timothy the Tortoise: The Remarkable Story of the Nation’s Oldest Pet

Rory Knight Bruce

Orion, pp. 162, £

This beguiling little book, nostalgically illustrated with faded family snapshots, describes the long and arduous life of a tortoise who died earlier this year at Powderham Castle near Exeter, aged 160. According to the blurb, Timothy survived six monarchs, two world wars and many generations of the family who looked after him.

The story that unfolds is one of the most deceptively sentimental and carefully contrived I have ever read. It chiefly concerns not so much the tortoise as the ups and downs of the Earls of Devon, family name Courtenay, and their successful fight to keep Powderham Castle and its estate going through thick and thin. The reptile quietly residing all along in the castle’s rose garden is sometimes dragged into the story by the skin of its teeth.

He is also given a highly fanciful range of human attributes. He is ‘an innocent in a changing world’. He displays ‘quiet courage’. He is ‘a real character’, ‘a fearless little chap’ and ‘a very independent soul’. He could, says a guide at the castle, ‘give you such a look’, and at the end of his life he was even falsely rumoured to have taken exception to a visit from Sir Elton John. In fact, of course, we know nothing at all about Timothy other than that he was, through no fault of his own, simply a tortoise.

And a big one, too. The author tells us that Timothy was ‘the size of a hassock’ and had ‘the calming density of a medium-sized Le Creuset pot’. He fed greedily off rose petals, dandelions (flowers and leaves), strawberries, melon and lettuce and, on one occasion, swallowed a gooseberry which had to be extracted from his throat with one of her ladyship’s hatpins.

Rory Knight Bruce fills out his story with luscious details of the various places where Timothy lived before Powderham. His first home in England — he arrived from Turkey in 1892 after ‘seeing service’ as a ship’s mascot during the siege of Sebastopol — was at Itchen Abbas in Hampshire where ‘cattle with mottled coats still sit among the water meadows’. He also brings in all kinds of ephemeral detail and chatty irrelevance. He not only drops the name of the great Brigadier Parker Bowles, he also mentions Kazuo Ishiguro, whose book The Remains of the Day was filmed at Powderham, and Jimmy Goldsmith, whose first wife, Isabel Patino, attended the Domestic Science college there in the 1950s.

By the 1980s, the castle has become a successful venue for pop concerts with The Who and Procul Harum shattering the peace of the rose garden. Did Timothy, the author wonders, turn a Whiter Shade of Pale or, heaven forbid, Skip the Light Fandango? Such arch questions may irritate some readers, but pets, too, can annoy and Timothy comes across in these pages as less annoying, and more lovable, than most. ‘He was a very peaceful sort of pet,’ recalls Lady Gabrielle Courtenay, the current Earl of Devon’s aunt. ‘He was just there. That has been one of the most lovely things in life. If someone’s just there.’