Saturday 19 October 2019

Adventure enough for two

Sarah Caden

ONLY their occasional bursts of laughter betray that even the Blunden twins themselves find extraordinary their apparently endless list of adventures. Without the odd giggle and incredulous shake of their identical salt-and-pepper tresses, one would easily believe Caroline and Jane imagine their lives ordinary.

Instead, it's clear they find reflection on their mostly shared escapades as fantastic as any listener. Together and separately, they have lived lives that have been relatively rootless, but underlying it all, lending an essential rootedness, is their tremendous closeness as twins.

The sunny summer's day we meet, in the Sandymount back garden of their friend Charles Lysaght, the sisters are in reflective mood. "It's that view out past Dun Laoghaire and Killiney Hill," says Caroline, the softer-spoken of the two. "The silhouette of Howth . . . it makes me revert to childhood."

It's been decades since either Caroline or Jane has lived in Ireland, but their formative years, at home in Blunden Castle, Kilkenny, or at school in South County Dublin, remain fresh in their memories and crucial to their sense of Irish identity. In fact, however, the Blunden twins were born in Malta, the second and third of six daughters: "The Six Blunders, they were known as," Lysaght later jokes, referring to the lack of a son and heir.

At birth, Jane and Caroline explain, they were handed to aMaltese nanny with "23 children of her own, and it was marvellous". Returning to Ireland as toddlers, they returned to the sole care of their mother.

The sisters paint an idyllic picture of the "Anglo-Irish farming" life in the Kilkenny of theirchildhood. "It was marvellous," recalls Jane. "All the Butlers came from close by, and we were very close friends with the Smithwicks. We had dancing classes with a woman called Lady Bellew, who had no children of her own but took an interest in all of us. There was us, the little Smithwicksesand the Ponsonbys and the St Georges. All sweet little things, learning to enter a room correctly and walk properly."

For secondary school, the twins attended the now-closed Glengara Park School in Dublin. They were a clever, feisty pair: fiercely competitive with their classmates, though not with one another.

"We would get up early in the mornings to hear each other," says Caroline, explaining the way they had of chanting their lessons back and forth between them. "It was us against everyone else, and we were like two old chattering birds in the early mornings." Despite the competition, however, they also had lots of friends, but they were always shared friends. Never did either have a best friend aside from their twin, and the pattern of those days has endured: central, still, to both their lives is the stability of having each other.

Caroline and Jane were busy girls, drawn to the world outside Ireland, and straight after school, they got the chance to spread their wings. The Kilkenny Design Centre - for which both had worked during school holidays - asked them to look after its boutique in New York. Keen to travel, the two 18-year olds jumped at the chance.

"New York was wonderful," says Caroline. "But after a while, we cashed in our return tickets and set off to spend five years travelling the world. We travelled by land from New York to Buenos Aires, right down through Mexico, through Central and South America, across to Africa and South Africa, up as far as Mombasa; then we hopped on a boat to the Seychelles and Bombay. Then we went all the way across the north of India by train and down through Malaysia, travelled the Indonesian islands by boat and then hopped acrossto Australia." "We worked there - and all over, really," Jane says. "It wasn't a case of rich girls spoilt with world travels. We started out with £50 in our pockets and we worked our way around the world."

In their early 20s, on returning to Ireland, the twins went their separate ways. It was time, they say; eventually, with much laughter, they admit boyfriends had a lot to do with it. After a short spell at home, Jane went to France and Caroline to London: Jane set up a hotel and restaurant with her boyfriend, and Caroline went to study. For several years, they lived very different lives, and yet, there remained so much shared.

During her studies in London, Caroline Blunden became very interested in China. "It was still a closed country then," she says. "And I thought that when it opened up, it would be valuable to know something about it, so I jumped in with two feet." She applied to the British Council, won a scholarship to study painting in the Chinese manner in Beijing, and headed off, alone. Meanwhile, in France, Jane was involved in baking and selling Irish soda bread in Paris (successful) and peddling Irish tweed to the French fashion houses (not so successful). During college holidays and in between writing a book, a Cultural Atlas of China, Caroline would visit.

During a visit to Caroline in China, however, Jane also became fascinated by the place and its culture. "I went to Douglas Gageby in the Irish Times," says Jane, "and I said, 'China is starting to open up, we must write something about it.' He put £200 in my hand and said, 'Go!' I was writing articles for an Irish paper, from China, before the American embassy had even opened there."

During their Chinese adventure, Jane discovered Mongolia. She set out on a quest to find rare Mongolian wild horses - unsuccessful, but she was instrumental in reintroducing captivity-bred horses back into the wild, a project the twins explain as if it was everso ordinary.

Over the last two decades, Mongolia became Jane Blunden's passion as Caroline remained immersed in China, running The Gallery, in London, which specialises in importing Chinese art, and continuing her writing. Several years ago, Jane decided to write a definitive guide to Mongolia, and while we sit in the Sandymount sunshine, the twins laugh over a photo taken of her in the desert. "That's me filing copy for the Times in London," Jane laughs, "from my laptop, by satellite phone, in the middle of the Gobi. I had to turn my camel in the direction of the Indian Ocean to get a connection."

Before posing for photographs in their Mongolian hats and costumes, Jane and Caroline explain that the key to their closeness is not living in each other's pockets. "We like to come together, to help each other out and then go our own ways again," says Caroline, who lives in London, while Jane is in Gloucester, with her partner, Robin Kindersley. Neither married - and men would make many more chapters, they laugh, ones they'd rather not get into. That neither had children, they confess, is something of a regret, however.

"Sadly," says Caroline, "we left it too late. Maybe being twins had something to do with it. We both already had a close relationship with each other, so didn't really need anything else as close."What that closeness gave them, however, was a sense of security that allowed them take other risks, embrace the rest of the world and live a life of adventure. And all of it, essentially, together. Like two chattering birds.

Jane Blunden's 'Mongolia' is published by Bradt and her further adventures can be traced on www.camel.com

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