‘The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped nor ever was sown!’ Do these words, by Henry Traherne the Hereford cobbler poet, more than any other capture for me the true essence of this county? So I mused when, returning to live in North Herefordshire after many years in Wales, I sought to re-engage with the spirit of this county.
Eye Manor is now gone, sold, no longer in the family or open to the public, its windows largely blank, but there still remains the house where I live now, 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.
I’m playing the eighteenth century tracker-action organ in the gallery of the chapel at Croft Castle. I’m going out of its ancient creaking door now, the mellow façade of Croft Castle to my right and now I look down across the valley to where I can distantly see Eye Manor with, at this distance, the church tower next door giving it the look of a castle.
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 others in the neighbourhood, for example in playing a prominent part in village activities, or in nipping down to the church as often as possible to sit, stand, sing and pray in those athletic combinations allegedly so pleasing to Almighty God.
Economically unimportant though they might be, my parents still believed themselves privileged compared to their neighbours. In their view social status was arrived at not at all by how much money you had but through habits and signs that were more esoteric, by the pronunciation or use or non-use of certain trick words such as kid, costume, corset, phone, garage, alarm clock (which my grandmother pronounded ‘allarum clock’), or whether you ate peas with a knife or fish with a fish knife (if you did the latter it showed you up as a parvenue, since fish knives had only been invented in Victorian times), a secret code which enabled members of this once privileged society to recognise each other without making any overt public statement.
Hopes of true love and marriage or getting a job or promotion or being elected to chair a committee hung not on suitability but more on such recherché criteria as whether you wore your shirt collar outside your coat or brown shoes with black trousers, or gloves without an overcoat, or used the words mirror or mantelpiece (I think it was felt that the latter revealed you as parvenue because mantelpieces did not exist in Medieval times).
And where you lived. My parents and their like clung to their gentry mansion status even though their houses were falling down around them.
The families who farmed the land all around us, whom my father described as yeoman farmers (in Ireland, so he told me, they were known as ‘strong’ farmers) subscribed to none of this mumbo-jumbo, and were, I believe, far more comfortable; less rigorously the victims of academic education and often more inventive and intelligent. Their houses 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 or bath on cold winter mornings. To so great a degree had comfort been sacrificed for status.
A similar set of priorities governed the way we children were brought up. The music box played its pretty ditty again and again in our nursery. This, accompanied by the reassuring creaking of a rocking horse, was the theme tune for my childhood.
All too soon, however, from the age of seven and upwards, we’d be away for months at a time at boarding school where the unspoken scenario was that we should be brutalised, have unreasonable and excessive degrees of affection stifled, be turned into stern administrators, fit to go to far places and pinion an empire that we didn’t notice at that time was going, or gone.
Even though there were few servants left (they’d gone off at the start of the war to work in the local munitions factories), our lives were still conducted as if in the presence of other folk who ‘must not be told too much’ since it ‘might give them ideas’.
Eye was approached down a drive that swept in past an orchard, there was a rather basic stable yard and then the house raised on a mound, beside its church, lawn, weeping ash and ha-ha.
In appearance it 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 father by a Turkish sultan when he was the President of the Ottoman Bank.
Overhead the ceilings rampaged with the turbulence of very exotic swathes and curlicues modelled by Italian plasterers who later went on to do the same sort of thing at Holyrood Palace. There was a long polished 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.
I suppose my parents might be classified as ‘minor gentry’, although I think of them more as arts and crafts folk. There were some grand ancestors, some even royal, albeit without exception, I think, conceived on the wrong side of the blanket. Others, less often recalled, were of ‘low estate’.
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, fifty years earlier, my Grandmother driving her carriage drawn by six horses could also shade her face from the sun; and 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 and 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!’
The house had little land. In the old days, before the Lugg drainage scheme had reclaimed the marshes, it had been on an island, hence its name, Eye, the same thing as Eyot or Island.
A snobbish friend said, ‘It’s a nice enough house but it hasn’t got a park.’
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