Sunday, May 04, 2008

At Moreton Hall

Here I am in 1952, a passenger in a sturdy coach-built pram, restrained by reins of soft blue leather which are embellished at the front with a gaily skipping lambkin.
My father has obviously been sent out to 'walk me' while mother sparks up a Woodbine and idly flicks through her recipes at home. He has been sent out with the dog too - a Sealyham terrier named Tessa - I see her lead is attached to the pram handle. On flat ground she would be given the job of pulling the pram - a party trick which amused my father's colleagues no end, and one of which I have no memory whatsoever.

It's wintery - as the bare tree which appears to rise from my father's head indicates - and we have fetched up on the terrace of gravel and lawn behind Moreton Hall, the mansion around which Warwickshire's new centre for agricultural education had been recently created. I'm quite interested to know how we actually got there because as far as I recall the only access to this once elegant space was via flights of stone steps - not easy to negotiate with a pram and a dog - but just the thing for grand and sweeping entrances by the Edwardian family who built this Palladian-style country mansion. These gentrified folk were long gone by the time I came on the scene but their buildings, gardens and landscape remained, every stone evoking the glory of a former age. The new Warwickshire Institute of Agriculture re shaped the estate in the 1950s and it's 'squire-archical' past gave way to mechanisation, new farming techniques and a herd of Dairy Shorthorn cows.

Don't for one moment think that when I write - 'I grew up here' - that this magnificent building was the ancestral home. We lived in a series of modest houses on what was euphemistically called 'the Back Drive'. The utilitarian back drive was lined by a straight avenue of Elms while the front drive curved gracefully beneath elegant Wellingtonias and led to the front of the Hall - the place which was to be the backdrop to the first 18 years of my life. So in a way I feel I have some sort of claim on it almost as much as if it had been my home.

It wasn't a hum-drum existence by any means, although in mother's eyes it would never live up to that proffered by her county of birth - the 'California of England' - Yorkshire. She persisted in describing Warwickshire's bosky landscape as a 'sea of mud'; a description accompanied by much histrionic tutting and a growing belief on my part that sometimes parents said things that Were Just Not True.

It was here I learned to walk and talk, and with my brothers learned the names of wild flowers, 'scrumped' fruits in season, climbed trees and built dens in dense undergrowth. In summer we swam like little fishes in the College's 'pool', sat on tractors, fed calves and maybe even learned, by osmosis, some of the rudiments of agriculture. When it snowed we hurtled downhill on sheets of corrugated iron steered with reins of baler twine. And contrary to maternal opinion, I swear it never rained. You get the picture.

Fast forward far-too-many-years and this is a photo taken from the same spot yesterday.

The fire which swept through the building at the end of March has taken its toll - and what it didn't destroy has been damaged by collapse and the firefighters' watery deluge. The roof is gone, windows hang at crazy angles, glass splintered and shattered. The beautiful interiors have suffered too; I see bare brick through the windows of what was the Drawing Room - the carved oak paneling has gone up in smoke. I wonder if the door furniture - unbelievably made of silver - remains? Estimates of the extent of the destruction varied but it looks pretty wrecked to me.

The fabric of the building must have been dry as tinder, and whilst I am sure that sprinklers were installed and working, once the fire took hold there would be no stopping it. I don't want to watch this video again.A short detour on a cross country journey has brought me here. I hang onto a shaky security fence at the Hall's front, feeling the prick of tears behind my eyes, conjuring up the ghastliness of that March evening. The thoughts 'it's only a building' and 'that's my childhood' jostle in my head. Neither really gets the upper hand though, and I just feel overwhelmingly sad.

Somebody has put a flag back on the shattered roof and it flies optimistically over charred timbers. It is a bold symbolic gesture. I've read somewhere that a re-building project is already underway. It will get put back together again and probably in a way more suited to its modern purpose. However, I can't see silver locks and handles finding their way onto massive doors again - and how to recreate the patina and smell of old waxed wood?

Memory though, that's the thing - locked in my head's ghostly corridors it's all still there - and if I want to, my inner child and I can run and whoop and slither through corridors, halls, gardens and bowers to our hearts' content. And I expect we will.


Anonymous said...

Oh how sad ,but at least the outside is still there and they can rebuild them so sympathetically now.Funny how we were only saying a few weeks ago how important buildings are to us but memories can never be destroyed. you should record them somewhere for posterity.

snailbeachshepherdess said...

What a crying shame did the fire start?

LittleBrownDog said...

V much enjoyed your blog, but for some reason couldn't see the pictures (something to do with the new moon?). Will pop back tomorrow to see whether they've materialised.

LittleBrownDog said...

Just sorted pictures out - so tragic about the fire - can understand your feelings totally. Lovely blog.

elizabethm said...

Like lbd I cant see the pictures but dont need to - what a vivid and evocative blog. I see your mother too in what you say and don't say. I will remember this one.

Pam said...

Very sad about te fire - I couldn't bring myself to watch the video yet either but I will.

Mopsa said...

Did you grow up in Wellesbourne? I know that area very well.

The Country Craft Angel said...

That was a wonderful blog-ditto Elizabeth's comments.

Such a shame about the hall.

Lovely photos

Milla said...

very sad when the past is burnt away like that. On a jauntier note, I loved your treasure hunt, laughed at "is she blonde?" seemed an incongruous thing to ask.

Anonymous said...

What a small world -

I was brought up in Kenilworth, not very far away. My sister worked at Moreton College until her death in 2006, organising the short course programme. After her funeral, the wake was held in Moreton Hall as it was somewhere she loved so much, & where so many friends shared her life.

And here I am too, no longer living in Warwickshire but now also living in Wales, not so very far away.

Where life takes us, eh?