Gerald Durrell died in 1995, at the age of 70. Shortly before his death, he asked British writer Douglas Botting, whose life story of Gavin Maxwell (of "Ring of Bright Water" fame) he had so much admired, to write his official biography; and this will be published in September 1997.
Gerald was born in 1925 in British-ruled India, where his father was employed. At the age of three his father died, and his mother found herself back in England, a widow with four young children all under the age of eighteen: Lawrence, Leslie, Margaret, and Gerald, who was the youngest by some years.
In 1933 the family decided to move to Corfu. Corfu in the 1930s was still a society of peasant farmers. Here the pension paid to Mrs Durrell in British pounds once again made the Durrell family comparatively rich. Lawrence, who arrived first, set up home with his young wife, Nancy in a seaside villa in Kalami Bay in NE Corfu. The rest of the family soon followed, and they lived in a succession of villas within reach of Corfu Town, in the regions of Perama, Kontokali, and Criseda.
In Gerald Durrell's subsequent books on Corfu, these villas became the Strawberry-Pink Villa, the Daffodil-Yellow Villa, and the Snow-White Villa. As he was a child aged between eight and thirteen during these years, he naturally spent most of his time in and around his homes, and the landscapes drawn in his three Corfu books ("My Family and Other Animals"; "Birds, Beasts and Relatives"; and "The Garden of the Gods") remain recognisable to this day, sixty years later, when one visits their locations.
The Strawberry-Pink Villa sits on a hill-top in Perama, just above the Aegli Hotel. It has been so enlarged since the 1930s that it no longer resembles the descriptions in the books, and its Victorian-style garden and fucshia hedges have been replaced by concrete fences and a terrace with a swimming pool. The old pathways still remain, and slope in one direction down to Lake Halikiopoulou, and in the other down to the coast opposite Kanoni and Pondikonissi. Although subsequent developments along the Perama coastline have done away with the silent olive groves that Gerald describes as lying between his home and the sea, it is still an area of great natural beauty. Its small beaches, however, now attract an increasing number of people where once Gerald played alone, or had outdoor lessons with his tutors.
From Perama, the family moved to a huge Venetian villa at Kontokali. Sitting on the hillside overlooking the bay where the road turns right into Kontokali village, this villa and its grounds seem almost unchanged from the days the Durrells lived there. Reached through an old stone gateway, a long drive winds through groves of olive and of orange and lemon trees, passes the cottage where Lugaretzia the maid lived, and finally sweeps to a halt in front of a large terrace. Standing four-stories high, and resplendent in its surroundings, the villa so closely mirrors, even today, the descriptions Gerald gives in the various stories set there that one can almost imagine Theo, or Donald and Max, clopping their way to the front door in their horse-drawn carriages, or Spiro honking his way up in his ancient dodge.
The shore-line below is now lined by the main roadway heading northwards from Corfu Town. The wooden jetty used by the Durrells is gone, as are, of course, those good ships the Sea Cow and Bootle-Bumtrinket which tied up there. But the sea remains the same, and the islands off-shore still form an "enchanted" area of crystal-clear waters in which to swim, sail, and explore.
From Kontokali, the family returned to the Perama region, south of Corfu Town, Here stands a villa called Criseda; the Snow-White Villa which was probably the most distinguished of their three semi-permanent homes on the Island between 1933 and 1939. A most beautiful Georgian building that was once a weekend retreat for the British High Commissioners during the years Britain ruled Corfu (1817-1864), it stands on a prominent rise overlooking Lake Halikiopoulou, with its own acres of olive trees, and its own small church. Still owned by the Palatiano family, who rented it to Mrs Durrell (and to the British High Commissioners), its current tenant deliberately keeps the grounds in a state of nature, where the concerns of wildlife are pre-eminent.
All of these "Durrell" villas are now, of course, privately owned, well-guarded, and closed to the public. Only Lawrence Durrell's villa at Kalami may be approached, as that has become a taverna and hotel. If, however, anyone wishes to be immersed in the Corfu landscapes of Gerald Durrell, outside these villas, then they should stay in the Perama region, swim and sail along its coastline, visit Pondikonissi, and view, from a vantage point on the Kanoni Peninsular, Lake Halikiopoulou, which was Gerald's main childhood playing area.
Although Corfu's airport now crosses one side of the lake, the "chessboard fields" he so often describes still fringe its banks. Here the Venetians dug a network of ditches originally intended to funnel the salty waters (of what is actually a lagoon) into salt pans; and the same ditches now remain a haven for marine life and a shield for nesting birds. On the landward side, where the salt is kept at bay by winter rains, a patchwork of fields still yield their owners vegetables, grapes and figs every summer; and these owners were also, in many cases, children running about the same fields when Gerald Durrell foraged there and chatted to their parents sixty years ago.
Further afield lies Lake Scottini. Inland from Kontokali, it is an area of shallow reedy waters several acres in extent. Now a major freshwater habitat in Corfu, it was here that Gerald and Theo spent many long days observing and collecting its wildlife.
Never visit any of these areas, however, expecting to see and to experience exactly what Gerald Durrell describes in his books, The physical landscapes may be largely unchanged, although much built over, and two of the villas might still be, outwardly, identical. However, the essential element in all of Gerald Durrell's landscapes is that they describe what was seen by a child. Indeed, his brilliance as a writer was his capacity to retain these childhood images and to reproduce them with all of the magic with which a child invests his surroundings.