The story of Penelope Chetwode


Penelope Chetwode was the wife of the famous Poet Laureat John Betjeman and was obsessed with India, especially the Kullu Valley penelope chetwode area in Himachal Pradesh. In the late 1900′s she made many visits to the area & became a well known figure who was deeply admired by the locals, due to her love of the area & her vast knowledge of the local temples & there architecture, she could read Devnagiri script & became a leading authority on the area & it’s temples, writing several articles for magazines & the like.

She first arrived in India in 1928 as a reluctant 18 year old, her father was made British Commander-in-Chief in India around 1930, when they lived in Delhi they took up residence at Teen Murti House designed by the famous architect Lutyens, it later became the residence of Nehru & is better known now as the Nehru Memorial Museum. Penelope Chetwode spent part of her childhood in Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj, the Chetwodes summer residence there was at Snowdon. In 1931 she set off with her mother Lady Chetwode on a 140 mile journey by pony from Shimla to the Rohtang pass via the Jalori pass at around 10,500ft above sea level staying at resthouses & dak bungalows along the way.

Years later in 1963, she returned to the Indian Himalayas to organise her own mule trek along the same route passing through Fagu, Theog, Narkanda, Ani & Khanag to cross the Jalori pass continuing through Aut & Banjar before passing through Kullu & Manali & eventually reaching the Rohtang pass. On her way back someone recommended that she paid a visit to the Parvati valley, which she did without hesitation visiting Jari, which at this time was the bus terminal. However there was a jeep track as far as Kasol, but from here you could only get to Manikaran by foot. She rode by mule as far as Pulga & then continued by foot to the hot springs at Khirganga, where she bathed fully clothed in front of the resident sadhu. She had longed to visit Malana village on her way back down the valley, but due to severe weather conditions she failed to do this trek & was convinced that Malana’s all powerful Devata Jamlu had sent a huge cloudburst to to stop her reaching this mysterious hidden village.

On her return journey to Shimla she again crossed the Jalori pass making a detour via Goshaini & Bandal to cross the Bashleo pass into Sarahan, Arsu & Rampur. She returned to the area again the following year & for many years after this she led groups of people on treks all over the western Himalaya. In Manali in the ’70s she bumped into a Scottish woman called Christina Noble author of “A Home in the Himalayas” who had taken up permanent residence in Manali & married an Indian & ran her own adventure travel company. Over the years Penelope did lots of work for Christina escorting her clients to hidden temples & amazing them with her wealth of knowledge on the area.

She also became a close friend of John Bannon of the well known John Bannons G/H in Manali & would stay there often on her regular visits. She also was friends with many locals & officials in Shimla where she spent lots of time studying books on the area in the Shimla reference library. A very close friend was Mr Sud of the famous Maria Bros bookshop, which still existed till last year on the Mall in Shimla.

Kulu Penelope ChetwodeShe wrote a wonderful book on the area describing her 1963 journey by mule called “KULU The End Of The Habitable World” She chose the title because the full name of Kullu is Kulanathapitha which means end of the habitable world. She also wrote an article for the Cornhill Magazine in the summer of ’72 called “Notes on Hippies and Drop-outs in the Upper Kulu Valley” (which i have not managed to procure a copy of, but if any of you reading this knows where i can find a copy then please let me know.) In 1985 she returned to the area once again with her 18year old granddaughter Imogen Lycett Green & spent 3-4 months traveling all over India.

In April 1986 she set off on another tour escorting some of Christina Nobles clients over the Jallori pass, they stayed a few days at Chapslee Hall while in Shimla run by Penelopes old friends Reggie & Mrs Singh, from here they took a local bus to Dalash a village situated at 6000ft in outer Saraj where the porters were waiting to escort them. When they reached the pass the way had been blocked by fallen trees due to a landslide & the porters said they would have to go a much longer way round with the ponies. Penelope was not happy about this as she wanted to visit a small temple on this route at a place called Mutisher, the majority of the party set off the long way round, but the determined Penelope decided she could get through to Mutisher & carried on with 2 other members of the group, one of whom was a nurse. Three hours later they reached Mutisher. Penelope was greeted by the temple pujari who was excited to see her as he knew her well from previous treks. He performed puja in her honor & rang the temple bell. Penelope dismounted & climbed 3 temple steps and rested her head on the stonewall. The nurse who was in the group shouted to Penelope that they needed to get moving to reach the village of Khanag. Penelope didn’t move, the nurse walked up the steps & shook her but she did not move. She quickly tried artificial respiration but to no avail. Penelope had passed away on the temple steps in one of her favorite spots in the Himalayas. The local villagers of Khanag gathered wood & built a funeral pyre where she was cremated. A few days later close friends scattered her ashes in the Beas in Kullu valley, which had been her request if ever she was to die in the Himalayas.

In 1986 her Granddaughter Imogen Lycett Green set off for India once again to retrace her grandmothers footsteps & to take a stone grandmother footstepsmemorial to the village of Khanag to be mounted in honor of her grandmother, the stone can still be seen there today, she visited Shimla where she met the Singhs from Chapslee Hall, Mr Sud from Maria bros & many other Shimla acquaintances of her grandmother, in Manali she visited Christina Noble & the Bannon family plus many others. With the information she had gathered she wrote her own book about this journey called “Grandmothers Footsteps” which like her grandmother’s book is an excellent read.

(Article solicated from Indiamike.com and written by Kullu Kid)

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29 thoughts on “The story of Penelope Chetwode

  1. Excellent article.
    I have had the honour of meeting Penelope Chetwode when I was a kid. She was staying in ‘Woodville Palace’ in Shimla when my father, who was going there alongwith his close writer friend Capt. SS Chandel to meet her, insisted that I should come along. Although I didn’t know anything about her till then I still have fond memories of that meeting.
    Her fascinating book on Kullu continues to be my constant companion on all trips to different valleys of Kullu. It adds so much thrill to these journeys by the meticulous information it provides about the temples and places on the way.
    My father, Late Dr. BR Sharma, and Penelope Chetwode went together to attend many BHUNDA Ceremonies in Upper Shimla and Kullu. Both were passionate about knowing more and more about the culture and folklore of the Himalayas and whenever Penelope Chetwode came to Shimla, they made it a point to meet each other to exchange notes on their favourite subjects.

  2. Hi I lived in Kullu for some time and know all the people you mention. I lived at Towa by the Krishna Mandir. I have been looking for info on the film of the book Penelope made for British TV. Any one know where I can get a copy please mail me.
    russuk34@yahoo.com

  3. Staying once in the early ’80s with Penelope Betjeman at New House, Cusop, I described for her the exquisite sensation of being in a light aircraft fitted with skis. I said I wished she could have been with us in that Finnish plane. Such terrific fun, taking off and landing on snow. She looked up at me sternly.
    ‘Skis? It can’t have skis. There’d be nothing to push it! How can it take off without wheels to push it along?’

    I have always had trouble dealing with the non sequitur. I believe I got as far as saying ‘Well, the propeller, you see,’ but anyone who knew Penelope will know that she was never one to hold back an honest opinion if she felt it would help the other person to see sense.

    ‘Nonsense. The propeller’s for flying. The wheels push it along the ground! Skis! You’re quite mad.’
    I can hear her voice again, the unmistakable voice of command recognised by many Himalayan mules and coolies. Her understanding of aeroplanes was in inverse proportion to her knowledge of India, its architecture and its temples in particular.

    I first met her at one of her lectures on Hindu temples. Not that I was interested in Hindu temples. It was a pretext for trying to fix a meeting with John.

    ‘Yes, of course,’ she said. ‘But you MUSTN’T STAY MORE THAN TEN MINUTES. D’you understand?’
    Capitals, sometimes underlined, were Penelope’s way of laying stress upon the written word – in fact, most of her letters are sprinkled with them. It seems only natural to use them when I am quoting her. When wishing to be clearly understood she spoke in an oboe-like voice that could cut through rioting cockatoos.

    I said ten minutes would be fine, and would she give this book to him with my compliments? It was my first published effort – only a coffee-table package job but the apple of my eye at the time. It was A Victorian View of Old England, a compilation of Victorian text and engravings which I had just produced for Collins. I felt it would please him.

    ‘Oh, he’ll like that. Thank you.’ She pulled out a small notebook and wrote in it. ‘I’ll arrange a meeting for you with his secretary.’

    And so she did.

  4. This piece in your blog set me off in the week that went by. I traced Penelope Chetwode’s route from Fagu to Theog past Narkanda, Ani & Khanag to cross the Jalori pass to rest at Sojha before going on to Banjar. Did a small detour to Seryolsar and now wish I hadn’t gone. The litter along the forest trail is heart-breaking.
    However, this is still an amazingly scenic route, mostly unpsoilt (I used the word ”mostly” advisedly!) and completely breath-taking. Like Penelope, I’d like my epitaph to read: “she died in these hills that she’d loved so long.”

  5. I have a copy of the Cornhill Magazine which was given to my late father Mr.John Banon by Lady Penelope Chetwode

    • Hello Thomas, I would love to get hold of a copy of Lady Chetwodes article in Cornhill magazine. I wrote the above article. Is there anyway I can contact you? Do you reside at Bannons hotel in Manali? I’ve stayed at Sunshine G/H just above Bannons many times.

      • Hello Kullukid,
        Just went through of last year. Yes I stay John Banons G/H Manali orchards Manali and if u email your add to me at atbanon@bsnl.in I can photostat a copy of the article in the Cornhill Magazine and send it to u

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  7. This article relating to the death of Penelope Betjeman is as written in Imogen Lycett Green’s book, but it is not correct. I was on that Trek and one on three that were near her when she died.
    The night before the day in question, we learned from Lady B that she planned to see a special brass knocker on a door in a small village en route. Two of us decided that we would too and photograph it. We, walking, arranged to meet Lady B who would be on a pony at a village before the knocker village. Reaching that point we let all the others go on and waited. Myself and female treker tried to visit a temple but locals did not seem too happy. She then got out photos etc and entertained local villagers like a school teacher, which I think she was. I have a picture of her surrounded by about 40 .After some time Lady B arrived and locals surrounded her (Have photo) We told her about the temple and so Lady B immediately took us back to it which suddenly had flowers on the roof and shoes off (Have photo of Lady B with shoes off and this temple) and we were in a service with a hand full of dal to eat. Lady B said to me “Don’t blame me if you don’t wake up tomorrow”. I already had had my 24 hours of food trouble ! I think I was first to go down, the day we crossed the Jaroli pass
    We then headed on towards the “knocker” village. At one point Lady B had to dismount to climb over fallen trees while pony was taken round (Have photo of this) Along the way we came across one of the two German girls of the group having a rest. She incidentally was a pharmacist and she joined us. At the village I photographed the special door and a local family group. The route leaving the village was as usual upwards and across a field of crops,which we walkers could do diagonally but Lady B on her pony had to skirt horizontally at the bottom and then head up the side on a very steep rocky track as her pony would probably eat some of the crop. Whilst we were in the field Lady B was out of our sight but we heard a shout from the lad with her and we ran to the spot .Apparently Lady B had dismounted was was climbing the track on foot holding on to the pony’s tail. She had collapsed and was unconscious. The German girl put a tablet under her tongue and did her best but Lady B had passed on. The pony lad ran on to fetch Paddy (leader) and Moira (doctor) who were way ahead at the front of the group and after a long time they joined us and some villagers. One local produced a charpoy (bed) and Lady B was placed on it a little further up the track as it was very steep where she fell and she was covered. I have a photo of the scene which is certainly not on any temple steps as in the article nor was there any nurse although there were two in the group who were great later the next day
    This is not the end of the story which I will gladly share but having attended Lady B’s mass later in Oxford and told her family everything, I am puzzled why the story in the book is so in error

    • Hi David, I now live in Salisbury. Have lost my little book where all of you put your addresses and telephone numbers – we never knew email was about to follow. Would love to get in touch.

      • Hi Paddy, So good to see you still around. When I met you many years ago at the Span, you told me I should visit Zing Zing Bar just below Bharalacha La. I did many years later and spent almost a week there. Found it very desolate but quiet mindless. I am still living in Kullu.

    • Dear Mr Parker

      I am currently researching the life of Penelope Betjeman, and would very much appreciate talking to you. Do you have contact details?

      Best wishes

      D Mackenzie.

      • I was with the group when Penelope passed away’ in an area she so loved’. The ideal person who could tell you all about her is her friend Christina Noble through whom and her husband Kranti Sing I met Penelope a decadee before she died. Unfortunately another good friend of ours was John Banon unfortunately deceased. Penelope loved spending time with him as I did too. Do mail me when you have time if you need to – paddy@hindoostantours.com

    • Dear Mr, David,

      An enthusiast who follows this story about. Would like to share the same with me.
      My mail id dharmendra43@live.in

      Looking forward hear from you soon.

      Warm regards.

      Dharmendra
      Manali.
      +919816-EDITED-
      (Moderator’s Note: Pls do not post your mobile numbers in your messages)

    • Dear David My father in law who sadly has now passed on told me once he was also on this trip where Lady B as you call her died. Do you have any memories of him. His name was Colin McFadyean and I think he would have been travelling with his wife Mary, formerly Mary Malcolm one of the first BBC television presenters. I find your story facinating.
      All the best
      Malcolm Blair
      Husband to Melanie McFadyean

      • Dear Malcolm, Really very sorry that I have not responded before for various reasons that I am not proud of. Certainly Colin was on the trip but on his own. There were no Marys with us.
        I remember Colin as a proper gentleman and believe that he had been a lawyer and was retired. One thing may be of interest to you. When we were in Simla (April 8th 1986) staying at Chapslee House getting used to the altitude before the start of the trek, Colin when off on his own to find the grave of an uncle. He found it eventually in the Protestant Cemetery very overgrown with only a wooden cross as gravestone.I Colin and I would sometimes walk and talk together but don’t think he told me of his famous wife. I was divorced and perhaps he was too much of a gentleman to raise the subject. Best wishes to you and family, David

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  9. Sorry to read that reports are sometimes not correctly checked. I know the story first hand and saw the pictures later on. Glad to see Mr Parker could tell the real story which will now for ever be on the internet…!

    • I have a copy of a diary kept by Judith Watson who was on the trip and with her when Penelope passed away. Would be happy to send you a copy, if you told me where. It make fascinating reading especially as I was also on trek with her but walking ahead with two big members of the group climbing to a little pass and with the young doctor on trek

      • I would love a copy of Judith Watson’s diary. I love reading any writings of this area and as you have said I will probably recognize the old trails as well as the space experienced while being out there. It is rather difficult to convey that space to someone who has not experienced it first hand as I know you have. My address is
        Krishna Kaant
        c/o I.M.I.
        Kullu, H.P.
        175101
        India

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  11. Craig Harris / Krishna Kaant July 29, 2013 at 12:30 AM
    I retired to Kullu from Canada at the very young age of forty, some twenty seven years ago. I have walked and cycled Penelope’s paths and route so many times. When I finally did read her book ” Kullu the End of the Inbabitable World” it all seemed so familuar. I remember looking back on smoke rising from early morning breakfast fires as I climbed the short route to Chandrikani Pass from Malana in the 80s. I also crossed Bashleo Pass with all the Sarahan Village men carrying the local Deity to visit another Diety in Bhatarad. I suspect I have seen more changes in the last twenty years in Kullu and Northern India than my parents saw in their whole life! Thank you Penelope for inspiring me to take a short trek into time and history.

      • Hi Paddy, Dan is still here and still driving Swamiji wherever he wants to go which is a lot less now. At 90 yrs old Swamiji still comes out six days a week for between 2-3 hours to give teachings. In his company I aspire to greatness. So nice to hear from you. I have also slowed down but feel very grateful to have explored the Himalayas where they were young and so was I!

  12. This is a wonderful article, Nityin! I am writing an article about the Brahma Temples of Kullu Valley and I came across the name Penelope Chetwode and eventually stumbled upon your blog. A heartwarming read! :) Keep Writing

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