I’m returning to the North Herefordshire meadows, lakes and streams, humble cottages and noble though decaying mansions and castles amidst which I grew up. My home was Eye Manor, a William and Mary historic place, and I’m now returning to talk to traditional farmers and other Herefordshire people as well as those more privileged country gentry, and reviving my memories of the poetry, folklore and country ways of fifty years ago.
‘The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped nor ever was sown!’ These words, by Henry Traherne the Hereford cobbler poet, for me more than any other, capture the true nature of this county. So I mused when, returning to live at Hatfield Court near Leominster after many years in Wales, I sought to re-engage with the spirits of this county where I grew up.
Eye Manor, the renaissance mansion where I spent my childhood was gone, sold, no longer in the family or open to the public, its windows largely blank, but there still remained the house where I live now, historic Hatfield Court with its Jacobean panelling, Victorian plumbing and windows hard to look through owing to the rich tapestry that has wantonned over them over the years, an abundance of ivy, honeysuckle and roses.
Three great houses dominated my childhood – Croft Castle, Berrington Hall and Eye Manor. What did spending all this time in and around these places and their gardens and parks mean to me?
In no way were they splendid in those austere wartime or post wartime years. Rather they were at their lowest ebb for all of the hundreds of years they’d been there.
There were draughty winds blowing along their historic corridors, bitterly felt by my parents Christopher and Lettice, along with the rest of them.
Croft Castle organ
Jeremy: [That’s me] I’m playing the organ in the chapel at Croft Castle. Now many things come back to me. I’m going out the door now, the mellow façade of Croft Castle to my left and now I look down across the valley to Eye Manor (where I grew up).
The past is a different country. As the years go by I come to realise how much I both am the same as I was as a boy fifty years ago but also how different.
These are the days of consume, consume, go on, you know you deserve it. Those days were of austerity and scarcity, patch up, make do and keep it. ‘Is your journey really necessary?’ asked the notices on the stations.
Then I saw nothing unusual in the life I and my sisters led, growing up in the vast cold rooms at Eye Manor. Now I realise that it was in many ways very unusual.
My parents came from a social group that no longer had much economic importance but who nonetheless believed themselves, in some way that was never exactly defined, to be important, to be trend setters, to be those who must set a good example to other people [everyone else] in the neighbourhood, for example in playing a prominent part in village activities, or in nipping down to the church to kneel, sit, stand, sing and pray as often as possible in those athletic combinations allegedly so pleasing to Almighty God.
My parents and their like clung to their country house status even though their houses were falling down around them.
The houses of the local prosperous farmers were, I believe, far more comfortable than ours. Their homes were built organically rather than primped and pushed to fit behind a symmetrical façade. Traditionally in the great country mansions one would break the ice on one’s wash basin on cold winter mornings. In the gentry houses, comfort was sacrificed for status.
Creaking of wind up music box
This music box played its ditty again and again in our nursery. It was the theme tune for my childhood which was also accompanied by the creaking of the rocking horse.
Creaking of cranking up music box or horse
All too soon we’d be sent away to boarding school to be brutalised, to have unreasonable and excessive degrees of affection stifled, to be turned into stern machines, fit to go to far places and rule an empire that we didn’t notice at that time was going, or gone.
Croft Castle bell
This castle where I stand now was approached from Eye on horse or bicycle, longer on foot, shorter by car when there was petrol, up on the hill just visible from Eye, approached down a drive along the side of a ravine with lakes and through a Gothic archway.
The Crofts who lived here at Croft Castle had, with one short break, been here for 1,000 years, since before the conquest.
Diana Croft: Hush ...
Jeremy: That’s Diana (married name Uhlman), born one of the Crofts of Croft Castle, talking about the castle she still lived in.
Diana, born a Croft but something of a rebel, didn’t see eye to eye with her father. He had three hates; Jews, Germans and artists, so in the 1930s Diana, who was helping refugees escape from Hitler, and some said just to spite him, married Fred Uhlman, a Jewish German artist.
The Castle was important to me. I loved it for its towers and machicolations, ancient Gothic entrance archway, avenues of chestnut and beech.
Diana: Mother had a ladies maid ... no central heating.
Jeremy: This was the time when the postwar socialist government was branding castle and mansion owners as parasites and plurocrats living it up.
Certainly in North Herefordshire the extreme discomfort of life at Croft Castle or Eye Manor, or Berrington Hall further across the valley, would give the lie to such simplistic generalisations.
Occupied and ravaged by the schools, hospitals, evacuees or armies who had requisitioned them, these great houses echoed hollowly.
None of us, I think, were typical castle or mansion stereotypes – but then, who was? Or is?
Diana: (talks about the drives)
Jeremy: The castle doors creaked open, Diana led me on into the inside of the castle.
Diana: We go into the hall ... in death not divided. Rather nice.
Jeremy: Here’s how Caroline Compton, Diana’s daughter, remembers her mother and Freddie, her father.
Caroline: My father was very much against ... you must suffer you know.
My mother was very disorganised ... on certain subjects.
My mother didn’t go in for gentility ... floor lino to be used as a canvas.
Jeremy: Back to Diana. The departure of guests for a hunt ball was the cue for the ghost of someone she believed might have been Owen Glendower.
Diana: They were all ... wouldn’t have invented it.
Jeremy: I’m coming down through meadows and lanes till I stand in the drive of Eye Manor.
A drive that sweeps in past an orchard, a rather basic stable yard and the house raised on a mound, above the church above the lawn, a weeping ash and ha-ha.
Eye Manor, my childhood home, had all the warmth, intelligence and symmetry of a Georgian house from the age of reason, though actually it was earlier.
Light winked through the stone tracery of the tower windows of the church next door during bell-ringing, as the bells did their somersaults.
Once, at the top of this tower and trying to climb further to a smaller tower, I grasped a stone ballustrade and it was loose and lurched towards me, nearly crushing me and a friend – a terrifying experience!
There were box tombs and topiary in the churchyard and often bits of hymns could be heard from the church if one of the frequent services was in progress.
Entering the house was to be in the midst of dark panelling and standing on a huge rug given to my mother’s grandfather when he was President of the Ottoman Bank.
Overhead the swathes and curlicues put there by Italian plasterers who later went on to Holyrood Palace. A long table and green leather chairs whose backs were carved with the initials of William and Mary, and a picture of old galleons lumbering into battle. Here we’d sit for meals.
From beside a screen featuring a canal boat steered by a young woman through a romantic landscape my father used to address the tourists who paid to visit Eye Manor, often groups from local women’s institutes. He held up much valued curiosities – a pink china mug with a special china fitting so that mustached drinkers wouldn’t dunk their mustaches.
A parasol which extended itself into a whip so that my Grandmother driving her carriage drawn by six horses could also shade her face from the sun.
A leather-bound book with the title ‘Return of the Swallow’. This book could be unscrewed at its corner and was actually full of whiskey. My father would mime drinking a drop and then becoming suddenly instantly drunk.
He’d also tell how, as a child in Ireland, he came upon a neighbour who’d fallen with his head resting in a puddle. He asked if he could be of help. The reply came, ‘Don’t worry about me sir, but for God’s sake rescue the women and children!’
Lucy: It was the most magnificent ...
Jeremy: Lucy Philpotts, who worked at Eye as a maid, gives a below stairs view of the house as it was then ...
Lucy Philpotts (more)
I’m standing now in the actual drive of Eye Manor, that house I loved so much at one time and to which I now can not return.
Funnily enough, the things I remember best are not the splendour of the panelling or the richness of the ceilings but other smaller things, the old accoutrements that went to provide the services in houses of this sort. For example, I remember now as I look at its gracious façade, how there was a panelled door in one of the attics, that you’d think gave onto some cupboard or useful place to hide in when playing hide and seek. However when you swung the tall door open there was ...
dark water constrained in a lead-clad tank, level with its sill and stretching away into murky darkness under the tiles as far as you could see. That water tank was for the soft rain water that was caught from the roof.
Another tank nearby, as big as a room, had a trapdoor in its top as if for folk to climb into and swim in its dark waters.
(Above these attics there were more attics, twice as tall as a man in the middle, with the huge oak timbers that supported the tiles and in wild weather would creak in the high winds like a ship, but only accessible through trapdoors.)
Outside, thirty feet above ground, a couple of huge wooden garage doors opened onto a flat leaded roof and behind these was another huge tank also filled with water. You could tell how much water was in this tank from a gauge hanging on a bit of cord on a vertical board on the wall outside the bathroom below, graded from full to empty.
Down in the gloomy stone cellars there was another murky water tank and there was also another, said to be of great depth, under the jerry-built ‘servants hall’ tacked on in the thirties at the back of the house and yet another lay beneath oak planks across a path in the garden – into whose darkness I once climbed – causing no end of commotion to newts and frogs and other subterranean aquatic creatures – one hot summer day.
Why all these tanks? Mains water hadn’t yet arrived in our village. Our water came from a wood across the valley on Lord Cawley’s land, called Shuttock Wood. No-one knew the route that the rusty pipes followed, all we knew was that the rusty pipe emerged and it was used in milking – by Harry Conod’s Dad at the old vicarage farm in front of the house, and in the medieval barns where Mr Lewis milked his cows at the back. Both of these were tenants on the Cawley estate.
... and all that we also knew was that year by year the water was getting less, hence these huge tanks to store it.
Often when I rode through a gateway in the valley my pony’s legs would sink deep in mud. Year after year the mud got deeper. None of us made the connection until one day the muddy patch turned into a small lake, and at the same time our water trickled – and ran out.
Then people dug and wallowed in the fetid nettle and dock fringed pool and at length discovered the rusty severed pipe. It was repaired and then for a while we all had water again.
Other places – like Hatfield Court where I live now – had other aquatic arrangements. There is a small stream running through the red mud behind our house, and in the valley beyond the house there is a stone built weir that feeds into a subterranean chamber approached down steep stone steps hung over with dripping, shining ivy and holly, and a huge water wheel. The stream drove the wheel round which in turn pumped water into a tower at the top of the house.
Berrington Hall had - and still has - under the delicate ironwork of the lights in the stable yard, a deep eerie well, beautifully sculpted with circular steps going down the cylindrical stone and disappearing under the subterranean water.
Another stretch of water was a lake behind the house on Lewis the farmer’s land. The railway ran nearby. In a Boy Scout manual I had discovered a way of building a raft by making a huge circle of brushwood, like a bird’s nest the height of a boy and his sister across, and wrapping it like a parcel in tarpaulin. Juliet and I went out on the water sunlit below whose gold dust topped surface where dragonflies lurked were murky depths.
The second morning we went down to find our raft again. It wasn’t there – had floated out to the middle of the lake, how on earth to get it back!
My father came to help us. We threw string with a stone on the end to try to capture it. No go. The stone escaped from the string, so my Dad took off his clothes and strode naked into the water which surged and washed round his thighs, almost got caught in the mud, swam, got into the boat and triumphantly climbed on and stood upright, nude like Michaelangelo’s David.
There came a slowly approaching thundering noise from behind myself and sisters as we watched. Mainly they were slow chugging trains on our line but at one or two moments in the day – and this was one of them – the express from Penzance to Glasgow went surging past, carriage after carriage, the windows as it seemed absolutely packed with sight-seers, all gazing out, some taking snapshots of my Dad as naked, triumphant, but now very bashful, he stood on the low brushwood boat stock still as carriage after carriage went by.
These old country mansions were the first to have plumbing and the most advanced metal for plumbing in those days was lead, so a lot of these houses, including Croft Castle and Eye, still had their lead plumbing. Lead can send you mad so one theory is that how our privileged classes finally lost their grip is because of the very high lead content in the water in their castles, halls, manors and mansions. Far ahead – who could foresee it then? – would come the day when all this came to an end with the arrival of mains water.
I’m Burlington Bertie from Bow
Jeremy: The creaky stage of black wooden Eye Village Hall, the place to hear live music in my youth.
A neighbour performed wearing morning dress and spats. It wasn’t all burlesque. My father, who at one time had trained as an opera singer, gave a memorable performance of the Italian love song ‘O Sole Mio!’ which was more in earnest than not.
O Sole Mio!
Jeremy: On this same jangly piano I gave my first public performance. Here too, in this same village hall, my mother put on plays.
Tony and Harry Conod were important members of the Eye Drama Group.
Tony and Harry Conod: (village drama)
L’Apres Midi D’un Faun
Jeremy: In my panelled bedroom I used to play Debussy’s ‘L’Apres Midi D’Un Faun’ again and again on my clockwork gramophone.
In a more sacred vein I had already been appointed emergency organist amid the stone arches of Eye church.
Jeremy plays organ
Jeremy: I’d go down from the house to the church to practice, often by night. Practice was possible because Eye Church had been one of the first to install an electric pump in the organ, so I was spared the necessity of persuading one of my sisters to come out and stand in the vestry behind the organ and push the lever that controlled the bellows up and down.
The way from the house lay through the graveyard and on dark windy nights especially I went as fast as I could, feeling my way amongst the box tombs and topiary. I felt there were wild ghosts and spirits among the yew trees and old stone tombs, I’d be fumbling to open the church door as quickly as I could because I reckoned inside I’d be safe and God was inside and then feeling for the switches that would illuminate the one distant light by the organ whose keyboards and pedals were hidden behind a red curtain.
The organ’s action at that time was pneumatic, air was blown along lead tubes, you pressed an ivory key and had to wait for what seemed ages for it to speak. The bellows, weighted down by bricks, leaked. They were said to have been vulnerable to attack by rats.
Sometimes, an ancient and modern hymnbook, or ‘The Village Organist’ would fall from the music stand, activating the bass pedals with a sudden blast from one of the big ornamental gilt and green diapasion pipes at the front of the organ and sending clouds of dust up into the air above it.
Further into the church life-sized recumbent statues of crusaders slumbered in a special chapel used for services by Lord Cawley and his family.
The Cawleys walked across the fields to come to church, across a specially constructed wooden bridge over the stream. We thought them quite grand to have their own private chapel but they actually could see very little of the action, they couldn’t see the rest of the congregation singing or the vicar as he preached.
My father became quite well-known for the deep sighs he emitted during church services. He always said he was unaware of these.
In this same church some sheets were sometimes tacked together and hung across the chancel arch. The vicar, who lived in a damp Tudor-revival vicarage on the hillside, had borrowed a large brass magic lantern that spluttered and spat and projected large blurred images of the holy land onto the sheets. He pointed out significant items from these with a long stick.
Jeremy: More friends of my parents came and went. My father described how ‘Clifford Webb and his friendly dog drive up in a commodius car of an old vintage, the tonneau of which is stuffed with all the paraphernalia of an artist on safari. Tall, ruddy, grizzled and hail-fellow-well-met, Webb has the air of the old campaigner and back-woodsman which he is. Within a few minutes we are embarked on a conversation which roams delightfully through the byways of art and nature. The talk prolongs itself, meals come and go, night falls, the moon rises and the stars come out. The dog yawns. I press Webb to stay the night, but the wild calls to him. At sunrise he must be at work. He drives away to pitch his tent on a wooded hill above the River Lugg.
‘He sets up his easel before the triangular entrance to his tent, round which he has spread old bacon sacks. They keep the ground from getting muddy, and the maggots in them attract the woodland birds which he proceeds to draw and paint. In solitude, which means so much to the true artist, and without haste – that curse of modern times – with patient, minute observation, Webb records the natural life of fauna and flora in his chosen glade.’
There was something else, I could only just sense it, my mother was more in touch with the world of corn dollies, stone circles, ancient ritual than I was. She was introduced to these by another frequent visitor. Miss Philla Davis, a council craftworker who, travelling by motorcycle, passed a night at Eye once a week to give classes in the school or village hall. The motorcycle of this remarkable woman was hung round with whatever was needed for that week of craft work, vital bits of hessian, old legs for restored stools, rope and straw, bolts of cloth, men’s boots, goggles, rush for chair seats, dummy figures, half upholstered chairs.
Inspired by Philla, my mother was to play a major part in the regeneration of the ancient craft of corn dolly making. She travelled far and wide on tours of discovery to learn the secrets of traditional makers, and regional variations. The closest maker of corndollies she visited was in the Herefordshire hamlet of Stockton Hennor, the furthest lived in Exmouth.
She wrote, and co-wrote with Philla, pamphlets and books, and for more than a decade hosted a long series of over a hundred 3-day corn dolly making courses at Eye.
Among the most unusual of all her creations were two gigantic seven foot ‘corn maidens’ for the harvest celebrations in the opera Eugene Onegin at Covent Garden.
About his work with the Golden Cockerel Press, my father said this; ‘To do, to the best of his human ability, all that he is drawn to do, is the artist’s sole endeavour. At the Golden Cockerel Press we make books as well as our human bondage will allow. We try to choose literature worthy of typographic devotion and care. We meditate upon the form that the book should be made to assume. During the months, and sometimes years, of our labour before its ultimate delivery, we have always the image which we conceived for it before our eyes. Be that image to our thinking ever so beautiful, we believe that it can approach only distantly to perfect beauty, which would not be human but divine.
‘So the days come and go with their sum of attempt and achievement. After long waiting come the books in their slow train and interesting sequence. We ourselves have found it enlightening to read again through the list of books, studying the courses steered, the reefing process against treacherous squalls, the cramming of sail and more sail before a favouring wind.
‘And now, whither away, Golden Cockerel, with your gay colours and your brave crow? You must still be making books, risking your small means in great undertakings, trusting your patrons still to support you, still to buy your books, so that more and more may be achieved before Armageddon.’
My father liked his toast charred till it was black so a sign that breakfast was near was clouds of smoke floating up into the house.
We children sent letters to our parents and to each other constantly, dashing to post them in the house’s private letter box under a yew tree down the drive.
We sent not only letters but also home-made books which mimicked their operations.
My father was the director of the Golden Cockerel Press and the Boars Head Press. I had the Eye Pond Press, named after the cottage which my parents had given me to play in, and my sisters the Blue Shed Press, named after the corrugated iron shed which soldiers had built in the war to keep lorries and ammunition in.
So we wrote and drew and drew and wrote. My sister Antonia came up with this wonderful, though somewhat minimalist, play called ‘Roger’:
A book of drawings and pictures by Antonia is entitled ‘Stable Drawings’. The pictures, however, are not as one might have thought of horses, but are of some of Antonia’s fictional friends, of whom she had many, such Mr Poppy and Mrs Poppy. They were called stable drawings because she did them as she sat with the horses in the stables. Also published by the Blue Shed Press was a book called ‘Bong Bong the Horse’. A very good title, I still think.
Antonia also filled book after book with names, the names, categorised by form or age, of all the children and teachers at Porish School, or the inhabitants of Porish Village – places which existed, actually, only in her imagination.
We children, Jeremy, Antonia and Juliet, also put on parties – these days they might be called ‘happenings’ – in remote corners of Eye Manor and its grounds. The guests were usually just our parents and a few of their friends.
The floor of the Blue Shed was cinders so that guests, after half an hour or so of drama and games, even though they did these as gently as they possibly could, resulted in them all getting caked and choked with black dust.
There were white fantail pigeons who lived in a dovecot high on the walls of the house and, based on these, my mother wrote a children’s book called ‘Roocoo anfd Panessa’.
We invented a technique, which excited us immensely, of doing animated drawings on semi-transparent utility toilet paper which was very thin, one drawing on each sheet. These we wound onto the roll of a second toilet-roll and unwound in front of a bright light to our delight and the sounds of harmonium music and a commentary, in a darkened room.
We thought it terrific, however, when we saw a dramatic and fantasmagorical epic taking us all on an action-filled journey into fabled lands of hobgoblin and faerie. All that my father, understandably, saw was the public flaunting of an unmentionable object – a toilet roll – bringing to mind an unmentionable activity. He had grown up in a world where women’s knickers were still referred to as ‘unmentionables’ and a request to use the toilet might be phrased as ‘May I disappear?’
He spoke to me and my sisters separately and in turn and very severely. There would be no more epics on toilet paper.
Eye Manor (7) Two Elderly Ladies
In a cottage in the stable yard lived two elderly ladies. Both were deaf and they listened to each other through large hearing aids that were like two trumpets that they pointed at each other alternately, like the inverted bells of large black lilies.
The cottage, once a groom’s lodging, was austere with no carpet on the wooden or stone floors, or narrow wooden staircase up which we used to clatter for lessons in astronomy, arithmetic and bible studies. The women were my Grandmother Mary, and Sophie her companion, a social category now probably extinct. Sophie wore bone stays that creaked as she breathed. She owned few things but one of them was a mahogany harmonium which had been tuned very loud so she could hear it and on this she played hymns and psalms. She sang as she played.
Grandmother’s first husband had been Algernon Carbery who provided her with an Irish castle in County Cork. He died and my Grandfather Arthur Sandford, a very popular Corkman, was her second husband so that the children grew up in the seaside castle, Castle Freke, and also at Arthur’s place, now a golf course clubhouse on a hill above Cork.
Even though her life as a young woman had been in a far more exotic setting, Grandmother always slept, I don’t know why, in a large very high cast iron narrow black [hospital] bed.
When eating eggs, even at the height of food rationing, Grandmother ate only the whites and threw the yokes away.
Sometimes, when the rest of us were out for the night my sister Juliet would sleep on a mattress on the floor of Grandmother’s narrow living room, where a few priceless pieces of furniture saved from the castle when her eldest son sold it, stood on the stained wood uncarpeted floor.
Juliet would be provided with a very large silver metal torch to shine in case she got frightened.
One night she woke up suddenly, shivering because what felt like a mouse had run over her. She got out of bed immediately, feeling that it was really important to warn Grandmother or Sophie, sleeping in their small rooms next door, of this hazard; that there was a mouse at large in the house! So she strode across the landing and first she tried to wake the sleeping white-faced Sophie, but the old deaf woman continued to snore and creak, for she slept in her stays. No luck. Sophie continued to snore.
So she went next door in the darkness shouting ‘Grandmother, wake up! There’s a mouse!’ Grandmother too continued to sleep, breathing deeply on her high iron bed.
Not knowing what to do next but feeling it was essential Grandmother should be awakened, Juliet raised the torch and banged Grandmother on the head with it, rather heavier than she’d intended.
There followed pandemonium! Grandmother woke up shrieking, thinking she was being attacked by ruffians. She pressed the loud electric bell by her bed that sounded vociferously under Sophie’s pillow. Sophie leaped up and came running in her white nightdress, believing it must be burglars.
When everyone had at last had time to calm down a bit, Juliet explained about the mouse and both women, still extremely ruffled, told her she must be wrong, it couldn’t possibly be so – there were no mice or rats in their house.
‘Go back to bed!’ they told her firmly. Juliet did, and slept happily, contentedly and soundly, mouse-free for the rest of the night.
Next morning when it was light she was appalled at what she’d done. She decided to go in to Grandmother and apologise.
As she went through her door she noticed, squashed flat under its lower edge, a dead mouse!
In a glass-fronted cabinet stood a two-volume adition of the early nineteenth century rhymed epic, ‘Dr Syntax’s Tour in Search of the Picturesque’.
I wrote a sequel in which I fancied Dr Syntax, once again on his horse Grizzle, visited us at Eye:
‘Hail holt and heath,’ the doctor cries,
‘Hail hills whereon the rain cloud lies.
Hail lusty youth and bent age (both)
And amorous swain and maiden lothe.
Hail sultry LUG, seductive stream,
Hail wand’ring WYE and bubbling TEME.
Hail lofty CLEE, High Vinnals too
Hail other HILLS which frame the view’.
Jeremy: And a lot more in the same vein, until –
‘Not far distant through the trees
A mansion’s stately bulk he sees
‘Ah, noble bulk,’ he fervent cries,
‘Whose rooftops smile neath rural skies;
Whose HALLS and BOUDOIRS smile below;
Who lives therein I fain would know.’
‘That, sir, is squire SANDFORD’s seat,
Where guests shall never want for meat.
Nearby the church, with cloistered gloom
Summons our thoughts towards the tomb
With storied urn and boscaged tower.
An honest man and upright squire,
Long since he spurned the city’s hum
And here to country peace is come
Where cares nor cark nor sorrows press.
He runs the GOLDEN COCKEREL PRESS.’
‘The Cockerel Press? I’ll drop a hint.
My next tour, (sure) he’ll want to print.’
‘Ah no sir, TOURS are not his line,
But DAMSELS feat, and love and wine
And fauns and frolics, capricorns,
And revelries and wreathed horns.
Oft I have seen, at break of day
Athwart the glade him thread his way,
Peeping what time Cylene wakes
Or Neptune his proud trident shakes’.
‘With such my TOUR’s full to the brim
Haste, haste! Methinks I’ll visit him!’
‘Yet listen, carefully what I say,
For there are dangers on the way.’
Jeremy: What the rustic is obliquely referring to are three extremely uncontrollable corgis who, belonging to my parents, struck terror into almost everyone who was rash enough to visit us, or even those processing, for religious purposes, along the drive leading to the church.
Syntax does not as yet appreciate the danger he’s in. Instead:
‘HAIL NOBLE MANSION,’ Syntax cries,
‘Hail homestead set ‘neath kindly skies!’
But what is this? A headlong form
Comes fast to meet him o’er the lawn,
Another too, and yet a third,
And yet one more, unlike the rest,
Her flanks in deepest sable dress’d.
Good GRIZZLE rears, and then (alas)
The horse leaps upon the grass
And fast across the lawn doth shoot
With four wild mastiffs in pursuit.
Round and round the ASH they go
While SYNTAX cries out ‘Woah horse, woah!’
And GRIZZLE ever faster sprints,
Filling the lawn with muddy dints.
Squire SANDFORD now the babel hears
And furious at the door appears,
Cries ‘Kindly spare my precious turf!’
And joins the chase for all he’s worth.
Now others join the clam’rous throng
The rustic too, with pitchfork long,
And shouts ‘The moment we met in the wood
I could see, good sir, you were up to no good’.
Now at the gates appears a car,
A tough and stalwart Jaguar,
‘Tis squire’s wife, (back from the Women’s Institute),
And hastily she joins pursuit.
And now the folk for miles around
Have heard the sound of horse and hound
And run towards the curious noise,
Both dogs and cats and men and boys
Cry ‘tally ho!’ and join the chase
Some cry ‘Stop thief!’ and some ‘Well raced!’
While ever more around the trees
And ha-ha frantic SYNTAX flees.
The sons and daughters of the squire
Now join the chase – ‘What strange attire
the huntsman wears!’ cries Juliet;
And now the sun begins to set,
And darkness deepens o’er the vale
And in the ever rising gale
What frantic cries, what fearsome hounds,
What gruesome and macabre sounds!
Now BEAUTY and LADY, stalwart steeds
With pointed feet invade the meads.
Now gardenwards they lead the way
And cabbage beds with hoof essay.
But all good things must sometime cease.
A special detachment of the police
Now reach the scene, and all aghast,
Fair PEACE sees TURMOIL yield at last.
Only the dogs continual howl,
Standing round SYNTAX tooth to jowl.
It seems they’ll never cease, but now,
The PRESIDENT observes the row
And, raising that voice (which, seldom mute
Has oft-times quelled the institute)
Thus speaks ‘Now come here dogs, now STOP IT,
Come on or else you won’t half cop it’,
With whom the SQUIRE with equal voice
‘Now come on PUCKY stop that noise’,
And thus at length they quell the riot.
Drone of bombers
Jeremy: Punctuality does not seem to have been Lord Rodney’s strongest point.
Jeremy: My father kept up his position in the Home Guard as a cover for his more clandestine activities.
Now much was changing.
There was a feeling of terror tinged with excitement as we drove in crinkly clothes to dances in neighbouring mansions, the girls in dresses supported with non-sensuous whalebone, and males in white shirt-fronts hard as cardboard.
How permanent all these mansions, halls, courts and castles seemed, yet many would not last long. Armies, schools, hospitals, whatever groups had requisitioned them in the war, would leave them, often uninhabitable. There would be a few years, then the rumble of falling masonry would herald their destruction.
Many families, at their own behest, destroyed or sold their mansion homes. Others, like the camp in the park at Foxley, were squatted by soldiers returning from the war. Those that were not destroyed by the families who owned them were turned into institutions.
The most exalted in rank of our county nobility sold his mansion. Staying in his London club he ordered sex dolls and a series of other pornographic accessories, requesting that they be sent over in a taxi. The taxi driver hung onto the sex dolls, preferring to introduce them to the pleasures of his own bed, and sold the story to the tabloids. It was a nine days’ wonder.
At a famous North Herefordshire school, the headmistress was giving informal sex classes to the senior boys in her pink boudoir while her husband, the headmaster, was banished to the attic where he forlornly filled it with pollutive smoke from his pipe. Later the school fell heavily into debt; bills had not been paid. The school was closed at half term and many pupils were not able to take their exams.
At Kentchurch Court, always one of my favourite of all places, a great flood swept through leaving the Scudamore’s nanny islanded on a table amid a sea of mud.
While I was bicycling with my father one day along a straight stretch of road, he was surprised to see me veer and ride my bicycle into the ditch where I crashed and fell off.
‘Why did you do that?’ he asked.
‘I was experimenting if I could ride with my eyes shut,’ I replied.
I rode over sometimes to Downton Castle and persuaded my parents to go as far as Hafod in mid-Wales in honour of the three young men, Payne Knight, Uvedale Price and Thomas Johns, who had played an important part in the romantic revolution of two hundred years ago. I took one of the Gothic windows from Hafod, then lying in ruins. It was taken by a friend of Diana’s to restore in the workshops of the North Country university where he taught. Before this could be done, however, he underwent a sex change, becoming a woman, and the window never got repaired.
As more petrol became available, my parents’ social life stretched further afield. At one house to which they were invited, in the murky dining room as dinner was ending, their host produced a torch and shone it in turn on the pictures round the walls;
‘On your left you’ll see my great Uncle Charles, and here above the fireplace is my great Aunt Mabel.’
While looking for eggs in the farmyard that had been a moat, Antonia and I noticed a small bricked-up opening. We removed the bricks and discovered a dark passageway, damp and dripping, and leading under a cottage and herb garden into the heart of the manor. An army of armed men and women could be concealed there preparatory to leaping out onto the unsuspecting inmates of the manor.
Many long entrenched local families had left the county but still, at a lecture on the battle of Mortimer’s Cross, I was interested that most of the names of the protagonists belonged to families still living in the county. I was delighted to hear that my great friend John Scudamore now rode to the rescue.
Leominster slowly and apparently systematically was destroying its heritage, including the two cinemas, one destroyed, the other given over to bingo, and its Georgian Town Hall.
I was growing up. I wanted to make friends as I was lonely. I envied the children coming back from school in the village. I’d hover by the gate. They ignored me. I felt I must do something to impress them.
I launched a car made out of an old pram. It went down the hill, but I couldn’t stop it and it went headlong at them! They felt this was a hostile act and afterwards were even less friendly. I also experimented in aeroplane construction.
‘Come out into the garden after lunch and look up towards the roof of the house, you’ll see something unusual!’
Luckily my parents were able to deter me from launching my home-made aeroplane made from that same pram but now with wooden wings, with me on it, from the tiles.
My father believed that I must be taught the skills of a country gentleman, but our attempts to join the local hunt were never really very successful. Our horses were good after a fashion when, alone in our own locality, we’d be following quiet pursuits like ley-line hunting, a great passion of my father. They got quite uncontrollable once they found themselves in the company of all the other horses on the hunting field.
I remember Bridget Devereux, Milo, Viscount Hereford’s sister, looking magnificent wearing what I remember as orange lipstick, on a splendid horse, requesting that I get my pony under control.
Attempts to teach me the other pursuits of a young gentleman, shooting and fishing, also proved abortive, both my father and I, I think, actually had an aversion to killing.
As his family grew, my father phased out his silver Bullow half open backed tourer, half racing car. It had a huge leather belt around its bonnet, like a plump person. I always remember it with flames streaming out of the vents on its bonnet.
I suppose it can only actually have caught fire a few times, but in memory my heroic vision of my father supports a silver car like a rocket that seldom went out on the road without bright flames streaming out of its vents. My father replaced it with a green Jaguar saloon.
Traffic on the roads was increasing but for many years yet I would be able, at the start of the school holidays, to take my horse to be shod at the smithy in Ashton, standing fair and square on what is now the A49.
More about Eye (2) My room in the attic
My room in the attic had a dormer window you had to climb up to look out of. I’d climb up after being put to bed at seven on long white summer nights to watch trains carry their plumes of smoke across the valley. I worked out that my attic was perched over the huge void of the main staircase. What would happen if the floor gave way and I went plummeting down into the abyss?
Once, the attic room next to mine was filled with the buzzing of hundreds of flying bugs who had hatched out behind some wainscoting. The floors of this room of polished oak were the steepest of many sloping floors in the house, so that cupboards or beds had to have six inch logs put under the legs at one end to make them level.
Another attic room was notorious for a huge double bed whose mattress had a very steep camber towards the middle so that two people sleeping in it would inevitably be rolled down into each other’s company in the middle. If lust should then overtake them the bed, as if fitted with a small engine, would go into motion, sliding down the varnished floors until it ended up against the wall at the other side of the room.
Later, when I went into long trousers, no longer free-kneed, I moved out of the attics and my bedroom was now one of the grand, creaky warm wood rooms above the porch where chubby naked cherubs hung onto a plaster garland that was perpetually in motion above my bed. I was allowed down to candle-lit supper in the great hall.
Chugging of engine
Our electricity had a very gentle quality to it. It was half the strength of modern electrics, enough to light bulbs with a gentle but not strident bloom.
It was manufactured in a brick and galvanised tin building at the side of the stable yard. There lurked a large green generator the size of a pony, running on petrol and feeding a high wall clothed from floor to ceiling with huge dusty glass batteries.
Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, the engine primed by Mr Davis, our gardener, would chug all day with a gentle thudding sound. Hot water was a by-product which trickled out through a brick wall into a red muddy pool, good for floating model boats in, while nearby in dry weather our hens, Rhode Island Reds and Bantams, watched beady-eyed from dustbaths under the topiary yews.
At seven or eight on winter evenings the chugging would stop and then all the lights in the house would first dim and then go out.
That’s when Mr Davies was swinging a huge metal connector between terminals that took the current directly from the machine to others that transferred the energy from the glass batteries.
As he was an employee, my father always addressed Mr Davies as ‘Davies’.
Once as we strolled along the cut box hedges in the garden and we came upon him unexpectedly, ‘Good morning Mr Davies!’ I said.
When we were out of earshot my father said, ‘Jeremy, did you have to do that?’
Red-haired freckled Frances, one of the nannies who looked after us children, was attracted to the son of one of the local farmers. Increasingly our walks would end up in a huge thatched barn a few fields away where I suppose they had a cuddle as we played.
He went away to join the army and died of malaria in a ship.
After that our walks ended in his parents house. ‘I still can’t believe he’s not coming back,’ I remember red-haired Frances saying.
More about Eye (3) Walking along the tops of walls
One of the recreations of us children was walking along the tops of the tall walls that surrounded our huge gardens. Juliet and I were better at it than Antonia.
Sometimes if there was a door in the wall one would have to clamber across and sometimes the coping on the top of the wall was loose. It was quite a dangerous business.
A by-product was that sometimes we found nests where the bantams had laid and would take eggs back to general appreciation.
One day Antonia decided that she must get over her aversion to scaling the high walls. Armed with a basket to pick up any eggs that might lie along the way, she climbed up a ladder and gingerly began her progress along the top of the wall where it passed the kitchen.
Soon she was delighted to discover a nest of eggs. She filled her basket with eggs, took one step more, and fell headlong from the top of the wall into a huge pile of soot and crushing beneath her the basket of eggs.
It was a catastrophe for Antonia who was black with soot which stuck to her all the closer because she was covered from head to foot with sticky egg yolk and there was also the red of blood because she’d grazed herself in falling.
Our journey out
Our journey out at that time into the world was on the Leominster to Bromyard line and it was once travelling on that line that the dense undergrowth that grew along the track parted to show me what seemed a fabled place, Hatfield Court, the trim lawns and ordered flowerbeds up on its hill amid parkland and gardens at that time devoid of the blemish of any weed, lived in by Colonel Chambers.
Was there any premonition to tell me that this place would one day be my home?
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