Goodbye to Eye Manor
"Welcome to Eye Manor!" My Father this month will greet with these words the one hundred and tenth thousand visitor to our family home so far.
Later this year he will use the words for the last time. It is his and my mother's decision that they will not open the house to the public next year. Indeed, they will not be there next year. The Carolean house, a richly panelled, exotically ceilinged Grade One listed building in Herefordshire, standing among its rosebeds, lawns, and orchards, is to be sold.
The kitchen quarters represent in architectural form the various heirarchies of servants who used them; the pantry, where silver, china and glass are kept, presided over formerly by the parlour maid or butler; the larder with its wire mesh window perpetually open to the outside air; the scullery for the keeping and washing up of cooking pots and clothes washing, the domain of the scullery maid; the kitchen itself where the cooking was done and the servants hall where the servants ate and spent their leisure and the passages which separate them from the privileged end of the house and from each other.
I can just remember the time when it all worked as intended. Now only the shells of their various kingdoms remain, my parents live there alone, and visitors learn with mounting amazement that there is no water supply in the kitchen and that no less than five rooms and the steps and passages that separate them can be involved in the fetching, cooking, and eating of an egg.
Rewiring cost œ3,500. Mowing the lawns costs œ100 a month. Painting the windows cost œ3,000. And it is freezing. The huge windows are not good fits and the vast fireplaces hungry for gargantuan feasts of timber from a time when firewood was more liberally available than now.
Their predicament is shared by the owners of many of the less large stately homes. The Historic Houses Association is soon to publish a report which reveals that any house attracting less than 15,000 visitors a year is likely to be a loss maker. They estimate that 15% of the smaller houses are in imminent danger of foundering, with a rise of 30-40% over the next few years.
The stately home owners running costs are higher because of the sheer size of many of their houses, and the specialised equipment and craftsmanship required in repairs. They can't double glaze because of the dangers of condensation, rot, and vermin. Insurance cover will be higher, and all alterations and repairs must be done to the immensely high standards of the original.
There are other things to spend money on; a greater range of ways in which people can express their notions of status, success, or the romantic; the Mediterranean villa, the car, la vie boheme, the cottage 'away from it all', voluntary simplicity, all these can vie with stately home life as a possible goal.
Parents often now divide their property equally, rather than following the old custom of primo geniture. This is fairer, but means that no one son or daughter is likely to have the ready cash to keep the old place up.
And, even if children can take them on, are our Stately Homes really worth preserving? Is not inequality built into the very bricks and stones of the poky dark servant's attics and cellars and the grand rooms of these houses?
But, they are in fact very beautiful, and those which are open to the public are now available to everyone, as they always should have been. And - less easy to pin down - that they seem to belong to that world of fairytales so rich in archetype, so poor in fair shares.
Paradoxically, it is true that the cheapest way for a nation, even a socialist nation, to look after its old houses, is to subsidise squire figures who will live in them and care for them. My parents running costs are far less than those of similar places run by institutions because they give the most costly item - their labour and their love - for free.
My father began the operation twenty five years ago when he was still running his Golden Cockerel Private Press. He'd enjoyed visiting some of the smaller stately homes which were being opened, and thought that he'd like to share his own.
He says that he's loved the wide range of people that this has brought him into contact with. And he's learned quite a lot, too, about people's preconceptions. Once, when clipping topiary yew hedges at the top of a ladder, he overheard two visitors asking each other, 'I wonder how much they pay that old man? I bet it isn't much.' Their world view did not include the idea that someone living in a Manor House actually does his own odd jobs.
He has had some odd requests from people in search of the loo, including one from a lady who asked, 'May I disappear?' And an American approached him and asked, 'Say, would you be the Squire or the Lord?' My Father replied that people often called him 'Squire'. 'So,' asked the American, 'Would the Squire be the servant of the Lord?'
Having a Stately Home in one's background is something like the knowledge that, however different one's own lifestyle, one's long lost father is really, secretly, a King. It is to be the tramp with the gold coin sewn into his shabby raincoat.
And now my parents, my children, myself and my sisters, will be ordinary people. Our Christmasses, no longer spreading to feasts and family theatricals in the Great Parlour, will be crowded into small rooms like everyone else's.
No longer will conversations take the form of soniferous shouting across three stories or communication via long distance bell.
No longer will students at my Mother's corn dolly making school congregate in the woodshed.
No longer will urgent messages be passed from lower to upper floors claiming that running or jumping sounds have been heard and please must cease because of fear of dislodging the priceless ceilings.
No longer, as the season begins, will visiting children creep up the back stairs, away from the public rooms, to find private nooks in attics of wondrous slope roofed dimensions with floors so steep that there are eight inch props at the end of beds to make them level.
No longer will we be wakened at dawn by jackdaws concealed in internal water conduits where they have nests and emit their challenging cries of 'jak!'
No longer, as Autumn approaches, will my Mother begin the routine of tying up my Grandmother's touring Gypsy caravan into a huge parcel with rope and black polythene. Her priceless collection of corndollies will be on its way to Hereford Museum along with other treasures.
It will be easier in many ways to have a background less extraordinary. A half Uncle of mine gave up his title and became by deed poll just 'Mr' because he wanted to be liked for himself, not his attributes. And we too will be ordinary people at last, loved (hopefully) for ourselves.
There will be deep regret for my parents, the regret of all old people leaving their home. And in myself when the last rational decision has been made there will also be an unfathomable regret - in that side of me that was reared in the world of fairytales, there in that never never land where all is fete and pageantry, where the squire is still the servant of the Lord, and where every frog is really a princess in disguise.
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