The Ghosts of Happy Valley by Juliet Barnes – a real insight into ‘Happy Valley’

Posted on June 21st, 2013
Categories: News

ghosts of happy valley


“Happy Valley” came to be a byword for hedonistic excess. The nickname given to the Wanjohi Valley in the Kenya Highlands, it commemorated the small community of affluent white expatriates who settled there between the wars. Happy Valley became infamous under the influence of troubled socialite Lady Idina Sackville, whose life was told in France Osborne’s bestselling The Bolter. The era culminated in the notorious murder of the Earl of Erroll in 1941, the investigation of which laid bare the Happy Valley set’s decadence and irresponsibility, chronicled in another bestseller, James Fox’s White Mischief.  But what is left now? Juliet Barnes, who has lived in Kenya all her life and whose grandparents knew some of the Happy Valley set, decided to find out. So she set off in her battered Land Rover and drove hundreds of miles on bad roads to find the former homes and haunts of this extraordinary and transient group of people. With the held of a remarkable African guide, and the reminiscences of elderly settlers tracked down to nursing homes in Nairobi, she came upon the remains of imposing houses and farms tucked away beneath the mountains, and local elders with first-hand memories of this bygone time.

These days, she found, grand residences like Clouds or Slains, where Idina or Alice de Janze once partied in style, have become delapidated dwellings for many African families, eerily deserted school buildings, or ruins almost vanished without trace – reclaimed by modern Africa and encroaching nature with a speed that makes the gilded apogee of Happy Valley seem even more fantastic.  A book to set alongside such singular evocations of Africa’s strange colonial history as The Africa House and The Zanzibar Chest, The Ghosts of Happy Valley is a mesmerising blend of travel narrative, social history and personal quest.

The book is now available at The Souk Bookshop, 30 Dagoretti Road, Karen.