If I could return to the past, I’d have no desire to be a great lady…
After bouncing round the country like a yo-yo for ten days, penetrating some of the less glamorous outer reaches of bookselling (Don’t ask: it’s nothing you’d ever see on the high street!), on Saturday we spent another wonderful day with Priscilla and Rupert in Lancashire. This time our walk – with two frisky dogs – entailed walking across fields and along a canal bank to Rufford Old Hall, a fine Tudor building.
This in itself was a great treat. An Elizabethan manor-house, it made me realise that, if I could return to the past, I’d have no desire to be a great lady (fat chance – I’m sure all my ancestors were peasants, probably of the most primitive kind; my family name actually means ‘sheep-shearer’ and we are all squat, blue-eyed Saxons, not tall, interesting Normans, fiery, red-haired Danes or exotic, white-blond Flemings).
But I digress. I’d have no desire to be a great lady, at the mercy of political fortune, likely to have a husband who would either leave me for long periods while he fought in wars (expecting me on occasion to raise militia to protect our estate), or be obliged to entertain the monarch on a tour of ‘progress’ and therefore invite my own financial ruin. It would have been much pleasanter and more settled to have been one of the fortunate Hesketh family, who owned Rufford for many generations, and lady of the manor of a substantial but not pretentious house like theirs.
When we visited, the upstairs of the house (which is now owned by the National Trust) was being renovated and therefore out of bounds, but the downstairs, including the wonderful Great Hall (which is not too ‘great’ to be cosy when lit by an open fire) and various rooms of later dates, was open to the public. I was especially fascinated by the screen at the entrance to the Hall, the only survivor of its kind, which acted as a joint draught-excluder and obscurer of servants bearing away unsightly dirty dishes. It is a beautiful piece of carved oak, complete with quirks that say so much about the early Heskeths who commissioned it: for example, one of its panels is upside down and one of the angels it depicts has a supernumerary finger: A tribute to Anne Boleyn, also supposed to have had this ‘blemish’ (which was later produced as evidence that she was a witch)? Or, more probably, an observance of the mediaeval belief that no work of art should be perfect, lest it offend God? Also intriguing was the signature carved in the original Elizabethan glass of the bay window of the Hall, dated 1513 (so it was five centuries old this year). I’d love to have met its author!
The National Trust guardians of the Hall were sympathetic, cheerful folk, not at all forbidding or restrictive, as some of their counterparts at other NT houses have been. They’d decked the Hall to celebrate Dickens. Placards with quotations from A Christmas Carol were everywhere, and the guides themselves had dressed up in mid-Victorian garb.
And so back to Priscilla and Rupert’s, to sample their sloe gin and blackberry brandy: the good life, indeed, and the best foretaste of Christmas we could ever have dreamt of! Not forgetting a trip to see the huge willow tree that the weather had part tumbled and Rupert had finished off, at great risk to his life, while Priscilla was in bed with ‘flu. What is it about men and trees? Never mind OK lumberjacks in high heels: it seems to me that every man contains within his soul a death-wish – not just a desire to perish in any old way, but by having a tree fall on him, or (to me) worse horror, by means of a chain-saw or axe. Fortunately, although Rupert fell fifteen feet, he survived with a few scratches… and suffered more from the (just) excoriation of Priscilla’s wrath.
I feel I haven’t done full justice to male folly and trees in this post: I’ll come back to it again. Remind me to tell you of a monster ‘useful piece of hardboard’; of Fred (of bird impersonation fame), thirty feet up a ladder, his grasp firmly around the top of a tree he was in the act of chopping off; of Ken, who made our dining-room table, almost sawing off his index finger ‘by mistake’!