Taking an organic literary path

Part-time SLO County resident Susan Branch goes in a new direction with a travel book about her beloved England

slinn@thetribunenews.comNovember 4, 2013 

'A FINE ROMANCE: FALLING IN LOVE WITH THE ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE' By Susan Branch, Vineyard Stories, $27

Susan Branch’s love affair with England began in 2004.

Together with her husband, Joe Hall, she spent two magical months rambling along rural back roads, exploring stately castles, cozy cottages and charming gardens.

“We just fell in love with the whole idea of (England),” the self-described Anglophile recalled. So the next time they visited the United Kingdom, Branch decided to bring along the readers she affectionately refers to as “my girls.”

Branch, 66, chronicles her 2012 return trip to England in “A Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside,” published by Vineyard Stories in August. Stuffed with anecdotes, snapshots and whimsical watercolor illustrations and sprinkled with inspiring quotes, the 260-page hand-lettered book is equal parts memoir and travel diary.

“What I really want to do is surprise people,” said the part-time San Luis Obispo County resident, who created an interactive appendix for “A Fine Romance” on her website, SusanBranch.com . Branch said. “Every time they open the book, I’d love it if they found something new.”

An organic journey

Born in Southern California as the oldest of eight children, Branch lived in San Luis Obispo for 11 years before heading east to Massachusetts in 1982.

“When I moved to Martha’s Vineyard … I was really running away from home,” she said, fleeing a broken marriage. She purchased a tiny one-room house, Hollyoak, and lived there alone for six years before meeting Hall.

It was there that Branch’s creative career blossomed. After receiving a box of Branch’s beautifully illustrated recipes as a wedding gift, her friend suggest she write a book.

Inspired by her experiences learning to cook with the help of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Branch penned her own cookbook — 1986’s “Heart of the Home: Notes From a Vineyard Kitchen” — while sitting at her dining room table.

“(Cooking) gave me a lot of self-esteem,” Branch explained. “I was really looking at my younger sisters going, ‘I want that success feeling for them.’ ”

“Heart of the Home,” which came out when Branch was 39, paved the way for a series of hand-lettered cookbooks and “keepsake books” about such homey subjects as food, friendship and the holidays.

She also has a blog, which she started two years ago, and a monthly newsletter, named “Willard” after her grandfather, that she has sent out since 1995.

“I always felt there was connection between me and my readers. We were girlfriends from day one,” Branch said. “There is this connection to home and to family that we have in common. It’s a common thread that overwhelms everything else.”

Over the years, the author has expanded her brand into several areas, including calendars, greeting cards, jewelry and quilting fabric. “It’s all been absolutely organic,” she said.

Locally, Branch and Hall owned and operated two businesses: the Heart of the Home retail store in Arroyo Grande, which closed in 2008 after two years, and The Club Car restaurant is San Luis Obispo, which shut its doors in 2009 after just under a year. (The couple lived in Arroyo Grande for almost a decade starting in 2004; they now divide their time between the Central Coast and Martha’s Vineyard.)

‘A real writing book’

Although Branch has published more than a dozen titles to date, she considers “A Fine Romance” “the first real writing book I’ve ever done.”

In the book, she opens up for the first time about how she met her future husband and traveling companion — and discovered that they shared a dream of taking a glamorous ocean voyage to Europe.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of their first date, the two traveled from New York City to Southhampton, England, aboard the Queen Mary 2 ocean liner. They spent May and June 2012 exploring some of the country’s most scenic spots, including the Cotswolds, the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, popping into pubs and teahouses along the way.

Branch and her husband spent much of the trip, which coincided with Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, visiting the homes of many of the authors and artists who have inspired her, including Jane Austen, William Morris, Beatrix Potter and Virginia Woolf.

Traveling in England is like “going back in time,” she said, or the next closest thing to it. “You go to Hever Castle where Anne Boleyn grew up and you stand in her bedroom and look out her window, and you kind of see (King) Henry VII coming up the path. And you want to yell ‘Run!’ ”

In addition to the English people’s attitude toward preserving historic places, artifacts and customs, Branch said she was struck by their appreciation of all things homemade and hand-crafted. It’s a love that she and her friends share.

“All of my friends, whatever they do, have always been hugely creative,” she said. “They want that home base and they want that connection to the earth. You have to do that to be a whole person.”

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