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The Warp

Change and Decay

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 Foxley with an army camp in its park, were squatted by soldiers returning from the war. Those that were not destroyed by the families who owned them were often 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 and sold the story to the tabloids.

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 on my horse 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 demolished, the other given over to bingo, and its Georgian Town Hall.

My father believed that I must be taught the skills of a country gentleman, but our attempts to join the local hunt were not 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.

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.


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