Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Life between the Wars

Life at Sockburn Hall, (on the River Tees, in County Durham) between the wars was somewhat different to many houses. The lady of the house had multiple sclerosis and was in a wheelchair. Her husband was in shipping and his office was in London, so he commuted to London, going down on Monday morning and returning to Darlington Station on Friday evening.

Also this account is as remembered by a child who was only 9 when WW2 broke out.

Inside the house the head of the staff was the Butler, who's headquarters was the Butler's Pantry. Here lived the glass and the silver and the washing and cleaning of these were his responsibility. He would answer the front door bell and the telephone - a contraption attached to the wall with a bell and the bit you spoke into, while the hearing bit was taken off and held to the ear. I think that you turned a handle to call up the local exchange to make a call. This exchange was in Neasham, the nearest village. Also on the wall was the precursor of the soda stream. It fizzed up water in a special bottle which I seem to remember was wrapped in raffia-like material. Making the soda water was also his job. He was, of course, in charge of the cellar and all the alcoholic drink. The dining table was also his to care for. Did he polish it too? I do not know. (This table, or part of it, is now in my dining room.) When a meal was ready he would ring the gong. This was not a straightforward job of hitting the thing. No, you had to hit round and round the gong with gradually increasing strength.

Also at the top of the pecking order was the Lady's Maid. In many houses there was a Housekeeper and a Lady's Maid but at Sockburn, I do not remember a Housekeeper. The Lady's Maid outlived my Grandmother, so I knew her very well. She had the Sewing Room as her centre. (It was in this room that I was bitten by a Scottie, I remember. I expect that I blew in its face so it bit me on the nose! I have disliked Scotties ever since!) She was at the continual beck and call of my Grandmother and there was a special bell which was used to call her. Most of the time that I remember my Grandmother she needed a lot of help, so going to the loo, picking up things or getting things that were out of reach, getting in and out of her wheel chair were among the reasons why the bell was rung. She did the mending and took care of the sheets etc. I expect that she washed the articles of my grandmother's clothing that were too good to go to the laundry.

The Cook ruled the kitchen. I remember spending quite a lot of time with her. There was a scullery-maid who had to do all the washing up - pots and pans, plates etc. This would have been done using kettle water and washing soda. This was very nasty stuff that did ones hands no good at all. There were no rubber gloves in those days. Also no non-stick pans, so the whole thing was a nightmare.

I do not remember what the rest of the indoor staff consisted of. There will have been a Parlour Maid and probably a "Tweeny" who did the dirty jobs. There may have been a second man servant but I have no recollection of one. From a list of tasks, found by the present owners in a maid's bedroom, it would seem that there was not. The Tweeny had to get up about 5.00 and clean the shoes and then light the fires, which would have been done by a man-servant if there had been one. Did she bring in the coal and the logs? I do not know. I am afraid that my memories of this level of servant is non-existent.

Outside, there were three departments. I imagine that the chauffeur was the most important. He looked after the car and drove it always. It was always sparkling clean. The car that I remember was a Humber but more I cannot tell you. He was also responsible for my Grandmothers outside chair. This was electric, even in those days. There was space, by her feet for a child to stand on it - what a joy! One that I remember to this day. Also the jealousy if there was another child there who was allowed a ride!

There was a Groom and presumably a stable boy. My Grandfather hunted, as did my Mother. I should think that he would have 2 horses a day. Whether Ma did, I don't know. If the meet was nearby, they would hack to it and probably home again. If it was further away, the groom would take the horses. If Grandfather had a second horse, the groom would ride it quietly, judging where he would be when he needed it. This must have required a very good knowledge of the country and the ways of the fox. My brother has Ma's hunting diaries which would tell us much of what went on. The Sockburn hunting I only know about by what I have heard. I remember my parents hunting quite well in the 1930's though. I do know that my mother would exercise her horse during the hunting season. It was one of the activities she really enjoyed. She hunted riding side-saddle but may well have exercised riding astride.

The head gardener had a very big job. I do just remember the one in the 30's, but not how much help he had. In the summer there was a great deal of grass to cut. There was the very large area to the south of the house, running right down to the edge of the field - much further than the current lawn area. Ma talked of the pony who pulled the mower, wearing leather boots to stop it damaging the lawn. There were also two grass tennis courts and all sorts of other bits and pieces of grass. There were many rose beds, which had to be pruned, dead-headed and weeded. Hedges to trim. A large herbaceous border to care for. A great sweep of gravel to rake. Not to mention a large walled vegetable garden. The approach to the house was down an avenue and that grass had to be cut too. Then there were various paths to keep weeded. It is not surprising that when the war came and younger men were called up and the tennis courts were ploughed up for potatoes, that the deterioration started.

Life then must have been quite quiet during the week. My Mother would keep herself occupied with her various hobbies and her riding, when she was home for the holidays. After she left school and had spent a year in Paris, she helped with Girl Guides in Hurworth. More I cannot say. At the weekend, it would be all go! In the winter there was hunting, shooting and dinner parties. In the summer tennis parties, fishing and no doubt dinner parties too. In those days, there were plenty of trout in the river. (I believe they are back again now)

So that is a rather bitty and vague account of life between the wars at Sockburn. There will be inaccuracies, I am sure, and much that I have left but I hope it will be of interest to some.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Sockburn Garden

For any one who did not read the previous blog, I would advise that you do so now. It will put this blog in contest.

The 18th Century house, Sockburn Hall, is built just above the Tees. Its East side is parallel with the river. The Billiard Room runs much of the length, and the side of the drawing room. There is a reasonable width between the house and the beginning of the slope down to the river. The next level had a track made for my Grandmother's wheel chair. After that the slope is fairly steep down to the water.

To the South, there was/is a large lawn/grass area sloping down to the field beyond. There was a path that took the wheel chair fairly near the house and then the lawn I think, though there may have been rose beds. My Mother remembered a pony pulling the lawn mower here, with special boots on its hooves to prevent it from damaging the lawn. The Drawing Room and the Library look out that way.
Round on the West side, we have the sweep of the drive - a gravelled area, now grass covered mostly. It is out on this side that the "lost garden" was to be found.

Standing at the front door (picture in the last blog), you looked down the lime avenue. The volunteers, saving the gardens, have cleaned up the avenue, It was blocked by both the suckers from the base of the elms and all the "weeds" - brambles nettles etc - that were growing everywhere in the old garden.

As you came down the drive to the front door there was a lawn area on your right, with a lovely herbaceous border (full of magnificent delphiniums) and a yew hedge behind. There is a little of the hedge left. Much of it had died but there are some large yews that were originally part of the hedge.

Behind that was the beautiful rose garden and water feature. There is nothing left of the rose garden apart from the odd picture. The volunteer workers have found most of the water feature. This consisted of a series of small round ponds (really small), with a narrow stream joining them and ending in a larger pond, with a raised stone structure in the middle, which was the drain. There was a pump in the bottom pond which raised the water to the top. As the household water was extremely hard, I think there may have been some sort of catchment for rain water, but I have no recollection of this and they have found no sign. the current recovery stops at the top at a mini bridge. There has been a seedling tree above this, which I think may have distracted them from the signs of the top bowl. I could see a slight depression with two stones proud of the ground. I am absolutely certain that this was the top bowl, which I remember. Having pointed it out, I look forward to hearing that they have unearthed it.

Beyond the rose garden and the water feature, there were two tennis courts. It is still possible to see where the path went along the top (at a higher level) in front of the summer house. It was broad and allowed for tea to be taken if the weather was good enough. And guess what! In my memory it was sunny and warm! As I stood in that semi desert, I heard the sound of tennis balls, and voices calling. I came nearer to the past in that sad place, than anywhere else.

There was a gate, the posts are still there, which ends the path past the summer house. You can see it, with the gates in place, in the old picture above.

Sadly, I could go no further. The property stops there and the owner of the farm, where Wordsworth met his wife, owns the wall garden. It is in a field in front of the farm that there is a stone that is said to cover the grave of the Sockburn worm - but that is a different story!

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Sockburn Hall

Today I went back to the house where my mother lived from about 12 years old to 22 when she was married and my Grandparents lived until 1952. My grandfather died in 1947 and my Grandmother moved in 1952. I used to stay there when my parents went off fishing before the War, so remember it mostly as an under 9, but the house downstairs till I was 22. The garden was going backwards fast from the beginning of the war. The double tennis courts were ploughed up to plant potatoes and the rest was too much for the elderly gardener who was left after the 'call up'.

The first purchasers in 1952 were known as the Forty Thieves and they sold off the timber. Then it was bought by a man who really did want to live there but his wife didn't. During those years pigs were kept in the down-stairs rooms. the next purchasers were the parents of the present owners. As can happen to anyone, things moved against them. The mother died young of breast cancer and the house had been her dream. It was a house designed to be lived in by a family with quite a large domestic and outside staff and the post-war situation did not support that. The place gradually went backwards, the house as well as the garden.

Many years later, a member of the next generation came to see the place for the first time and fell in love with it. She offered her Aunt help to try to improve the situation. Once given permission, with all the enthusiasm of youth, she ran with it. She raised all sorts of funds, not to restore it but to do some preliminary work. What was the task?

Probably the most important was the Conyers Chapel - All Saints. It was "a sacred place of coronation and consecration, where Higbald was crowned Bishop of Lindisfarne in 781, followed, in 796, by Eanbald as Archbishop of York." (The Legend of the Sockburn Worm, the Dragon of the Tees by Paul Telfer.) It contains the most incredible collection of ancient decorated stones. There is also the effigy of Sir John Conyers, from the 13th Century. He "lies recumbent, his legs crossed, as though resting after his heroic duel with the 'monstrous and poisonous worm'. But while good Sir John takes his well-earned rest, the battle between Good and Evil, continues at his feet, where a winged serpent, or wyvern, and a dog, or lion, are locked in perpetual mortal combat." Sadly, I did not take a picture today. I grew up with him as a very important item in my consciousness. This building is Grade 1.
Apart from clearing the brambles, thistles and nettles from around it, there was little to do. It is now easy to approach.

The site of the old medieaval manor is in a field to the south of the current house. This is a registered site and is preserved because the field is grazed, not ploughed. It remains in the ownership of the owners of the house. All the rest of the Estate has passed into other hands.

The house itself is listed 2* It was built in the 19th Century by the Conyers, I think, though it may have been the Blackets, who followed them. It was not lived in for a number of years after my Grandparents left and by the time the current family bought it, there was already some deteriortation. Gradually since then things have gone from bad to worse and now it is uninhabitable, though the entrance hall (a large room) is still mostly usable and today, we had a picnic lunch in there with a roaring wood fire in the grate. I also went into the library. Sadly the drawing room, the dining room and the billiard room were out of bounds. There are patches of rot in the floors and in the hall a large area has collapsed into the cellar, so is fenced off. This prevents entrance to the bottom of the stairs and also the back quarters.

Coming in from the double back door, the roof has fallen in over the passage which leads straight to the hall door. I was able to see the kitchen. In Granny's day, the windows were all at a great height but the current owners altered that so that you can see out. (Not at all proper that the servants might possibly see the owners in their garden!) I also saw the Butler's pantry where he cleaned the silver and washed the glass. I was not able to see into the Servant's Hall - a fairly small room where they ate and where the parrot Joey lived or the sewing room beyond. I saw the bottom of the stairs that led to the butlers room and the lady's maid's room. Further along there was staircase that led up to the second story where the rest of the domestic staff had their rooms.
Tomorrow I shall talk about the gardens.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Three days in the life of..........

Up till a few days ago, there were two Bird Cherries outside our back gate, that looked like magpie's nests and came to the ground. They were dying back and we feared that we would lose them. A man from the Council came to see them and decided that if they were given a thorough hair-cut, they might get a new lease of life. The picture shows them as they are now. The one on the left is still rather a birds nest and only a couple of feet have been trimmed off the bottom, though the hight has been considerably reduced as well as the diameter. The one on the right is the faintest shaddow of its former self. They formed a solid barrier before!

Yesterday, I walked round the garden early and found this violet out. It is so tiny I did not think I would manage to take its picture, but the macro setting worked its magic. And then I found the first of the Cellandines. We are inundated with them but have to admit that they have a lovely flower. Also the very first of the Aubretia is showing colour.
I know that those who live in the South will be bored by these flowers by now - only 60 miles south of here today, all sorts of things are blooming - daffodils fully out and such like. But, hey-ho, we have to be happy with what we get and enjoy them regardless.

And so we reach today. I drove down to my old home and had lunch with my brother who lives there. Later I walked up the village to the brand new Village Hall, which was to be opened by Tanni Gray-Thompson. It is a very handsome building and very green. It is heated by a borehole - brother explained how it works but I am not a lot wiser! I can just tell you that there are 2, (or was it 3?), bore holes over 300ft deep, in which a liquid is heated. It circulates up and down and heats the water that heats the building.

The hall was opened by Tanni Gray-Thompson, who lives in the neighbourhood and knows people in the village. What a lovely person she is! I had a long chat with her, which was a great pleasure for me.

I can't show a picture of the main room in the Hall as it was full of people who are recognisable in pictures I took. I will put up this one though. It is of two old things who used to play together, with others, in the village 70 years ago! We had not met for many years, even though Mary has lived in the same house all these years. What a time we had with "Do you remember........?" Oh, so nostalgic! And now she is 79 and I am 78

Monday, 2 March 2009

The Camelia

Having failed abysmally to put these two pictures up in the Common Room of Purple Coo, I am putting them here.
I went to visit a lovely old lady of 94, whose grape vine I have been looking after. She has a large Camilia which she brought to Northumberland about 20 years ago. It was then in a fairly small pot and she planted it in a hole in the ground in her Conservatory. As you can see, it is now a good sized shrub. The macro picture of the 2 flowers give an excellent idea of the colour. She had rung me to say it was just about at its best and that I should go and look at it - hence the visit.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

March 1st flowers

Here are the plants that are in flower on March 1st.

This is one whose name has escaped me -

And this is Viburnam Bodnantense New Down, in flower since September

A Polyanthus

Mahonia aquifolia.

Iris sibirica, outside

The pan that I have put up before is still in flower with the Iris.
Helibore - of the 'Purple' colour

This Hebe goes on and on.

Erica carnea and snowdrops make a good combination

Garrya eliptica is still going strong, though it will soon be very 'hung-over'

Hamamelis mollis is also still going but showing signs of ageing.

These Daffodils have just crept in!

The Aconites are the last bastions of early spring and the Crocus is a harbinger of later spring.