Caught inside a Kikuyu garden: a memorial to Karen Blixen’s lover, Denys Finch Hatton

Denys Finch Hatton obelisk Ngong Hills

This was not supposed to happen. In fact you could say it adds insult to irony:  that a man so steadfastly dedicated to an unfettered life in the wilds should, in death, end up hemmed in, and so very domesticated within this small Kikuyu shamba. Yet here it is, the mournful stone obelisk, marking  the grave of Denys Finch Hatton,  son and heir of the 13th Earl of Winchilsea, Great White Hunter, and lover of two women far more famous than he is: writer Karen Blixen (Out of Africa) and aviator  and race horse trainer Beryl Markham (West with the Night). 

Finch Hatton's grave on the Ngong farm

Yet another woman, the one whose shamba this is, shows him a new kind of love, taking care of the garden around the obelisk.  If you want to visit the place it is not easy to find – either her little smallholding on the Ngong Hills, or the grave within. When we visited years ago we found only a hand-painted signpost nailed to a tree. We parked in a paddock outside the farmhouse door and were charged a few shillings. We could have bought a soda too, if we’d wanted. We could not see the grave though, and soon found that it was deliberately hidden from view by an enclosure of  old wooden doors. More irony here of course. More symbols of shut-in-ness. 

Denys spent most of his life in Africa avoiding any kind of confinement – out  in the Tsavo wilderness, running shooting safaris for the rich and aristocratic. His clients included the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) . In fact it was during the safaris for the Prince in 1928 and 1930 that Finch Hatton began to promote shooting on film rather than with a gun.

His lover, Karen (Tanne), Baroness von Finecke-Blixen lived in a small house below the Ngong Hills, some twelve miles outside Nairobi. By the time she started her affair with Denys she was divorced from her charming, but philandering husband, Bror, although they always remained friends. Her family had invested a great deal in the couple’s coffee farm, and Karen struggled to make a success of it. But the location was entirely wrong, and in the end she was forced to sell up and leave Kenya. It was during the period of selling the farm that she heard news of Denys’s death.

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Looking towards the  Ngong Hills from inside the veranda at Karen Blixen’s house. The house now belongs to Kenya’s National Museums.

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Denys Finch Hatton’s untimely end may be put down to his passion for flying. For those of you who remember Sydney Pollack’s 1985 film Out of Africa, some of the most elegiac moments of the film are when the celluloid version of Finch Hatton  (Robert Redford)  takes Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep)  into the skies above the Rift Valley.  Denys died in his Gypsy Moth in 1931, and in unexplained circumstances. He was taking off from the airstrip down in Voi in southern Kenya when his craft exploded. He and his Kikuyu co-pilot were killed. Denys was forty four.

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View towards Nairobi from Denys Finch Hatton’s Grave, and overlooking another Kikuyu smallholding.

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By the time of his death, his relationship with Karen was  well on the wane, and he had already started an affair with the younger Beryl Markham. His biographer,  Sara Wheeler says in Too Close to the Sun, that there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that Beryl was pregnant with Denys’s child, but that she then had an abortion. To have known this would have truly broken Karen Blixen’s heart: her letters show that she had longed to have a child with Denys.

With yet another twist of irony, it was with his death, that Karen somehow reclaimed him, remembering that he had told her of his wish to be buried in the Ngong Hills. The spot he had chosen was one that Karen had decided on for her own grave.

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Denys Finch Hatton

Karen Blixen with her deerhound Dusk

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There was a place in the hills, on the first ridge of the Game Reserve, that I…had pointed out to Denys as my future burial-place. In the evening, while we sat and looked at the hills from my house, he remarked that then he would like to be buried there himself as well. Since then, sometimes when we drove out in the hills, Denys had said: ‘Let us drive as far as our graves.’ Once when we were camped in the hills to look for buffalo, we had in the afternoon walked over to the slope to have a closer look. There was an infinitely great view from there; the light of the sunset we saw both Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro. Denys had been eating an orange, lying in the grass, and had said that he would like to stay there.

Out of Africa

The obelisk was only put up later by Denys’s brother. During Karen’s last days in Kenya she had the site marked with white stones from her own garden, and as the grass grew up after the long rains, she and Farah, her Somali house steward, erected a pennant of white calico so she could see the spot from her house, some five miles away.

Sometime after she had returned to Denmark she received a letter with some strange news about the grave:

The Masai have reported to the District Commissioner at Ngong, that many times, at sunrise and sunset, they have seen lions on Finch Hatton’s grave in the the Hills. A lion and lioness have come there, and stood, or lain, on the grave for a long time…After you went away, the ground round the grave was levelled out, into a sort of big terrace. I suppose that the level place makes a good site for the lions, from there thy can have a view over the plain, the cattle and game on it.

Out of Africa

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copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

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Tish Farrell is an award winning writer for young people. Her latest novella is on Amazon Kindle (5 star review):

Secrets, conspiracies, tragedy, dark comedy – a fast-paced novella of interwoven tales set somewhere in East Africa. For young adults and adults alike.

121 thoughts on “Caught inside a Kikuyu garden: a memorial to Karen Blixen’s lover, Denys Finch Hatton

  1. This is a touching story, Tish. And I believe that sometimes it’s better to go out in the midst of the action, and not fade away slowly. He sounds like he had an intensive life, loved and was loved… and probably there’s no gesture more noble than having lions roll on the ground where one is buried. May he rest in peace.

    1. Those are moving observations, Shimon. And yes, though very much the English aristocrat, Finch Hatton was much loved, especially by the Africans he worked with. After he died many would come to Karen Blixen’s house and sit with their backs against her wall, saying nothing, but looking towards the Ngong Hills. The obelisk has a simple plaque that says: Denys George Finch Hatton 1887-1931 ‘He prayeth well who liveth well both man and bird and beast’ (from one of his favourite poems The Ancient Mariner.)

    2. She never had the chance to go back…to be buried in her grave also…alonga with her loved one!!!!

  2. I love your stories Tish – this one is so close to my heart – how I wish I had been born then! How exciting to be such pioneers and leading such daredevil lives. I am now going to re-read my copy of Out of Africa …

  3. I really love ‘Out of Africa’ (the book, I haven’t seen the movie, since it feels more outdated than the book by now). Thanks for sharing the pictures.

  4. Oh, heavens! Your words gave me chills, reading about the lions visiting this gravesite. What an interesting story. I have always heard of Kenya’s beauty, but never saw photos until now – it must be incredibly beautiful, because your photos are gorgeous! Warm greetings from Egypt!

  5. Tish once again you tell just enough of a story to draw the reader in, wanting more. A fascinating story, larger than life characters and a life of adventure in more ways than one. I know from experience of colonial West Africa that ex-pats live a life where conventions are suspended, anything is possible, everything’s achievable, above the law of social respectability. Heros and heroins live and die
    with film sound tracks as companions; alcohol a frequent companion. The exotic becomes ordinary and some participants fall apart and bring down the status-quo while others pretend nothing has happened. Carry on regardless.

    I saw Out of Africa some time ago. I Loved the landscape of East Africa from the air and still listen to John Bary’s soundtrack when I feel nostalgic.

    Thanks striking a spark revealing a glimpse of another world, often copied.

  6. Life in nature is rich. The richest, indeed. I wonder why we had to run away from it to put up cities we can no longer stand. Now we wish we had more trees, more wild regions, when there are but few left. Thanks for sharing, Tish.

      1. Tish, there is a meeting for bloggers at Storymoja Publishers this Saturday, 12th April, 2014, between 10am and 12pm. It is about a program for their Hay Festival called Ideagasm. I think you know about it. You can come to the meeting. Write to Juliet at juliet@storymojaafrica.co.ke to confirm your attendance. Thanks, and have an excellent week.

      2. Peter, thanks so much for telling me about this. Sadly, I’m not in Kenya these days. I only lived there as an expat during most of the ’90s. I live in the UK [where I think and write about Kenya, or my version of it :)]. Wouldn’t it have been nice to meet up at Storymoja. All best wishes, T

  7. A touching and romantic story. Certainly Denys was a handsome man and no wonder he had two, nay three women all loving him so. I would too. 🙂 Thanks for these lovely historic posts, Tish. I love coming here. 🙂

  8. Such a beautiful country Kenya. I am tempted to label your subject ‘of the idle reach’, but it is so romantic that such thoughts are restrained when even I can contemplate my resting place in the hills of our own picturesque county.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it B to B. And yes, the romance gets you every time, doesn’t it. Makes one overlook all sorts of things that are otherwise ‘against one’s principles’. And yes too, a place of quiet repose in our ‘blue remembered hills’.

    1. Thank you. It is good movie though, isn’t it. The changes in detail weren’t too drastic, though Robert Redford was definitely a different kettle of fish to Denys! 🙂

  9. Enchanting stuff.. My personal fascination is with ‘White Mischief.’. The Happy Valley gang. I was hugely privileged to know (and love) someone who was there at the time, and got quoted in the book.

  10. Thank you Tish. I loved her and Finch’s story. I loved how they both were with the Kikuyus. I fell for a man once. He flew. We had planned to go to Africa and see the house Karen lived in and get closer to her stories, from the sheer love of “Out of Africa”. The pilot went, I stayed back. He married a nurse there, in Africa. Twenty seven years later, (recently) he returned and got into my life briefly. What he offered, I did not accept. So, I still have not been to Karen Blixen’s house. 🙂 I will discover more on your blog I guess.

      1. I once worked with flying doctors and their pilots in Kenya. They were the days of decent men and women who kept promises. There were one or two odd ones out. You live with a promise broken. One day you will sit on a balcony on Ngong Hills and savor their magic. Good luck and God Bless.

    1. Am so glad you enjoyed the post, Pippa. I’ve just been over to your blog. Lots of fascinating posts and pictures. In fact I think you’ve hooked a new follower 😀

  11. when I visited the grave in 1990 the explanation about this grave being there was totally different from what it is. i was told that a plan crushed on the site killing Denys.

    1. Oh well, that’s what happens, Moses. Stories grow. But Denys’s plane definitely exploded at Voi, on take off. No one knows why this happened either. I read recently that John Hunter (the white hunter) of Hunter’s Lodge, Kiboko was in Voi at the time, and had been with Denys the night before. He brought the remains back to Karen Blixen for burial.

      1. Karen Blixen’s works … especially “Out of Africa” … and, even more, Beryl Markham’s “West With the Night” are touchstone books for me, for many reasons. I think Markham’s life was even more remarkable than Blixen’s, and her writing is magical, the more so because she was not considered a “writer”, as was Blixen. Markham’s account of the plane crash in “West With the Night” is that she had been invited to fly with DFH and had accepted the offer, planning to fly with him to Voi and back. Tom asked her to wait a day. When she responded that she didn’t see why she should he responded that he didn’t know either, but “there it is” . Denys flew the next day with a Kikuyu boy and, in landing at Voi chipped his propeller. He send for a new one which was sent to him by Tom. Tom also sent someone to help install it, although Denys had indicated he did not need help. Once the the propeller was installed Denys took off with the Kikuyu boy, circled the field twice and then dived down, crashed and burned. No one knew why. I encourage any and all to read “West With The Night” and to also listen to the audio version … Markham’s accounts of her childhood in Africa, her days training race horses, her solo flights across the darkest reaches of Africa at night, landing in remote encampments lit only by a few kerosene lamps, her transatlantic flight, etc. are remarkable for their poetry and it’s restraint.

      2. I do agree. West With The Night is a very fine book, and perhaps in many ways has greater resonance than Out of Africa. Thank you for you comments, Bonnie.

      3. I should have added that Tom Campbell Black was the well respected British pilot who first taught Markham to fly. Also, Beryl Markham writes briefly, but eloquently, about Denys FH. in “West With The Night”. There are an ever increasing number of images and accounts of Markham, as with Blixen, Denys and the others within their charmed circle on the Internet. They are all well worth researching.

  12. What a post, especially the view of the Ngong Hills from Kan Blixen’s house, and your sense of ironies. I watched “Out of Africa” twice end on end, and I loved the book. Now you’ve expanded it all for me. Devout thanks.

    1. That’s lovely to hear, that my post added to your enjoyment of book and film. We carried both around in our heads when we lived in Kenya. Too romantic in some ways, and certainly from the colonial perspective.

      1. Too romantic in many ways, especially in light of their complete lack of concern about the decimation of wild life. While Blixen’s account of the lions circling Denys grave is very romantic, he would no doubt have shot them dead had he been alive and found them there. The slaughter of the elephants was particularly brutal, but nothing was sacred or protected when it came to hunting “game”. Denys’ trip to Voi, ironically, was to check out his new idea of scouting for elephants from the air to make it easier to guide hunters to herds with the largest bulls. Unfortunately, after his death, Beryl Markham actually employed the tactic, improving her income at the expense of the elephants tracked and slaughtered more easily because of her aerial scouting.

      2. Denys wasn’t always concerned with shooting animals. He in fact was in the forefront of developing photographic safaris. But like many settlers, at times, he also saw ivory hunting as a means of making a living. Also, much as I disapprove of the Great White Hunters, they did not go in for wholesale slaughter. They had businesses to run, so shooting out the game would have been counter-productive. Also hunters’ licences were strictly limited to specific numbers and types of animals. On the other hand, if a safari leader could find the best trophies for a client, they would save themselves a lot of effort, and gain kudos. The worst decimation of game was probably caused by the colonial game department that engaged white hunters to clear out whole areas of their elephant and rhino populations because they threatened both settler and African farms. It is certainly not a pretty story however you look at it.

  13. i think you will find that Out of Africa, the movie is a classic and is not dated as it is a very well done period piece of the life and times of the British expats living in Kenya. i have watched it many times and have never found fault with this production. If you do not see this movie you have missed one of the great ones.

  14. I quite agree, Tommi. Out of Africa gives a pretty sharp picture of how aristocratic settlers viewed themselves, and the lives they led. It is one of my favourite films, and as you say, does not date. Both Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen were romantics, each in their own way. Both had a certain sense of entitlement typical of their class. Although the film tweaks a few actual historical events to suit its narrative, it is always true to Blixen’s view of East Africa and of herself on that continent. Thanks for commenting.

  15. It is a story I can identify with. As a boy I lived on a ridge just opposite Karen and overlooking the beautiful Ngong Hills. I attended the famous ‘Duke of York’ School and new how much the English loved Kenya. I used to stare at Ngong Hills and say to my self: One day I will build a beautiful big house on Ngong Hills and live in it. Well I did.Today as an academic and adventurer, I sit in the verandah of my home and stare at the wonder and awe of the Hills each day. Monkeys, birds and honey burgers visit my lawn each day. It is a different experience looking at the Hills at close quarters. On the far right of my home is the Finch memorial. If you come to Kenya one day, welcome to my home. I will offer you a warm cup of Kenya coffee and hot raising scones as you sit at my balcony and savor the Ngong Hills. It will not cost you a penny. Welcome

    1. What a lovely invitation, and how wonderful that you achieved your dream. It is a very special place, and I miss very much seeing the Ngong Hills. And so if ever I return I might well take you up on your offer to eat hot scones on your lawn. I can’t think of anything nicer.

      1. Oh how I envy you, Prof. Gatara! How fortunate your are. Because of finances and age I am only a mental traveller, and have lived vicariously through books and good stories. It is good to find out someone who had the same dream as I is fuklfilled.

    1. Oh yes, Carl. I’ve done loads since then. I post all the time, but that particular post on Karen Blixen gets a lot of repeat viewing so may keep coming to the top of any recent viewing lists.

  16. The magic of Ngong Hills remains. The Hills are changing rapidly with modernization. But for those who have known and lived on the Hills for a lifetime, I built a home that preserves this beauty. I will try to put a photo for admirers of the Hills. I get occasional visitors and they enjoy it thoroughly and its free. Feel the Ngong Hills and have an affinity with nature. Tish keep the blogs going. For the magic and beauty of Ngong Hills shall never fade away.

    1. It’s so good to know that you have your own lovely corner of the Ngongs, Prof. Timothy. I imagine that in time it will be a very tempting place for large-scale housing development. Greetings to you, over in Kenya.

  17. Hi. Enjoying your blog and pics and other many different articles/books about DFH, BC, BM, and KB. I watched OOA yesterday after so many years with renewed interest as I am reading about these people. In the movie, at funeral of DFH, any idea if that woman standing beside D is supposed to be Beryl?

    1. It will not be for long! Ngong Hills is becoming a preserve of the rich and famous. Finch may soon be surrounded by such and perhaps class. Come and see the homes for yourself.

  18. It seems fairly obvious from this distance that Deny’s death in the plane crash of “unexplained” cause ought to be reopened and investigated for foul play. It certainly has the appearance of sabotage. With the love triangle in place, and other, perhaps more political enemies, it would not be far-fetched to say Denys may have been murdered. His aviator lover certainly had means and motive. Any number of others could easily had arranged for sabotage of his plane. The circumstances are very fishy and it is amazing this death has not been re-examined. Were something like this to happen today, it would certainly have been investigated by local authorities in aviation and perhaps other, foreign authorities as well. Denys would have been meticulous about the maintenance on his plane and was a skilled flyer. For these bizarre circumstances, it almost certainly was foul play.

  19. Always late is my motto I guess. I just stumbled upon your great blog. Out of Africa is my favorite book and Karen Blixen and Denys’s ill fated romance has always been fascinating. I am disappointed that Denys’s grave is not smooth like the mound depicted in the film. He’d hate being under all that cement and inside a fence. Hope your blog is still going Tish.

  20. hello tish it happens that my dad inherited the land from his father where the grave is and i want to give a better look hoping i will have more foreign and local visitors interest in Deny’s story
    ken

    1. Good luck to you, Ken. There is a huge amount of interest in Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, and their stories as individuals and together. I think it would help if the grave were not quite so enclosed. People would still pay to go in, I’m sure. But otherwise, keeping it simple would be good. It’s such a lovely spot. Your family did well to have a farm just there. I wonder if you might get some help/advice from the Kenya Museums. After all, the site ties in so well with Karen Blixen’s house

  21. My brother was born in Kenya (Kendu Bay, on lake Victoria) in 1947. We lived there for 5 years and went to boarding school in Nairobi. I have a great love for that country and stories from Africa. Am right now reading, Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain, and found your blog. LOVE it…..Asante sana!

  22. Asante sana Memsahib for a unique post. I have never been to Finch-Hatton’s grave tough I used to ride in Karen (neighbourhood) all the way to the Ngong hills. We would ride past the shambas, and the Kikyuyu women carrying their load of wood for the fires with a headband. A lifetime ago. 🙂 Kwaheri sassa. Brian

      1. Actually it’s the other half who speaks kiswahili. I just pretend, though I am ashamed that 7 yrs in Kenya did not see me beyond a few passing phrases. It’s such a lyrical language. What were you doing there? Or did you grow up there?

      2. It is very lyrical. Though very rusty in my case. Some of my cousins were born there (family was very “British Empire” and all that) 🙂 I grew up there, partly. When I was a “kijana”. From ’67 to ’71. When and where were you there? (I think it amazing to criss-cross steps in space and time with “rafiki” bloggers.) My regards to “Mzee mkubwa”.

      3. We were there in ’92-2000. The bwana was working for DfID on a farmers’ agricultural research project, but also in Tanzania in the late ’80s. I employed myself writing fiction for various African children’s publishers. And yes, it is nice to meet fellow East Africa sojourners.

      4. That was much closer in time than mine. Though I have returned twice and Kenya manages to… remain true to itself. I had to look up DfID. Impressive. Mzuri sana. Those places leave a mark on us don’t they? 😉 Take care Trish.

  23. I happened to have really enjoyed Circling the Sun recently, the historical fiction about Beryl. Intrigued with Karen and his love of the two women, I moved on to Out of Africa and while I appreciated the passages you quote here, was sorely disappointed with the writing; I could not believe all the acclaim. I’m about to pick up West with the Night from the library. Really so tragic, Denys’ early death. How in the world did you take the shot of that lion?

    1. Hello, Diana. I take your point about Out of Africa. I often think it a rather ‘slight’ work, particularly in the sense of several sections stitched together. There is no overarching structure. West with the Night, by contrast, is a much better read. It takes you flying. Though there is great controversy as to whether Beryl wrote it, or her script-writer husband. Certainly the crystal-sharp impressions are all hers though, and couldn’t really be anyone else’s. What a woman! As to the lion, he obligingly walked up the track by our Land Rover and was photo’ed out the side-window. It was taken in the Maasai Mara.

      1. Yes, I was aware of the controversy surrounding West. I do think it a bit suspicious to ascribe to her the authorship of such a well-written book given the little schooling she had. But you’re right on the impressions and I was interested in the content. If it reads nearly as well as Circling the Sun, even better.

  24. Hi Tish
    I really enjoyed reading your article today. I was on holiday in Kenya on this day 27 years ago! At times it feels like only yesterday ~ such a happy memory. My mum passed away four years later and today would have been her birthday ~ so memories of Kenya have been on my mind.
    I visited the Ngong Hills ~ our driver got lost looking for Karen’s house but we got there and what a memorable day it was for me.
    I have watched the movie ‘Out of Africa’ so many times i have lost count ~ my favourite movie. I remember watching it the night before i left for Kenya ~ and two days later i was at Karen’s house ~ it all seemed so surreal for me.
    Anyway, i am starting to ramble … i love the following quote Karen wrote … it always gives me goosebumps and is so beautiful 🙂

    ” If i know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back,of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers,does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a colour that i have had on,or the children invent a game in which my name is,or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me,or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me? ”

    Keep up the lovely writing Tish ~ i have enjoyed my visit and reading all the lovely posts. Thank You 🙂

      1. Thanks Tish ~ in finding your post it has been lovely reading all the comments and has inspired me to visit the library to source some of the books that others have read. I was only in Kenya on safari for such a short time ~ but it was magical and the memories will stay with me always. 🙂

  25. Hey Tish. That you for your post. I have a question? Do you know where exact Finch Hattons plane crashed? I believe it was in Tsavo, but where in Tsavo? East / West? and the areas are quite big….
    Do you know if there is something left from the plane? Did it all burn? I think the plane crashed shortly after take off… But im not sure. Best regards Tomas

    1. Hi Tomas. I believe the plane crashed near Voi, just on the edge of Tsavo East near the Mombasa highway. The plane then exploded, so no remains of it as far as I know.

  26. As I thought I’d read that post already. I think it may be how we met. 🙂
    How are you weathering the english winter?
    (It is one thing I don’t believe I would be able to stand: european winters…)
    (But Spring will come soon)
    🙂

  27. Simply lovely, Tish. I’m a big fan of this film, I find Sidney Pollack was extremely skillful when recording this film.
    This love story is one my favourite ones, very deep, subtle, suggestive, and not cheesy at all. Makes me feel very curious about the real story.
    Thanks for sharing! Excellent post.

    1. One of my favourite films too, Eleazar. By and large, Pollack did a pretty good job at sticking to the facts, and where he deviated for film narrative reasons, he kept to the spirit of the real story.

  28. Found your blog and all the responses after watching OOA for the first time since 1985 and it was wonderful. I enjoyed it when I first saw it but this time after having lived life a whole lot more, I really appreciated it on a totally different level.This time when I cried I was crying with so much more understanding and appreciation. One query that I have after ready your blog is related to your saying that Robert Redford was nothing like the real Denys- so could you explain what you mean ? Thank you for the information and photos.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Janet. What I meant was that for the film’s box office purposes Robert Redford is perfect as a romantic hero, but not as a realistic representation of Denys who was a very English aristocrat despite his vagabond life. More a Prince Charles type. Robert Redford anyway was far too good looking and approachably American. Denys, by contrast, was a bit obsessed by his thinning hair, and always wore fairly unappealing hats 🙂 http://www.thetweedpig.com/2014/11/the-life-and-times-of-denys-finch-hatton.html

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