Standing now in the actual drive of Eye Manor, that house I loved so much at one time and to which I now can not return, it strikes me that many of the things I remember best are not the grand public things, the splendour of the panelling or the richness of the ceilings but other smaller things, the old accoutrements that went to provide the vital services in houses of this sort. I remember now as I look at its gracious façade, how there was a panelled door in one of the attics, that you’d think gave onto some cupboard or useful place to hide in when playing hide and seek. However when you swung the tall door open there was no floor, but dark water constrained in a lead-clad tank, level with its sill and stretching away into murky darkness under the tiles. That water tank was for the soft rain water that was caught from the roof.
Above these attics there were more attics, twice as tall as a man in the middle, with the huge oak timbers that supported the tiles and in wild weather would creak in the high winds like a ship, but only accessible through trapdoors.
Another tank, as big as a room, had a door in its top as if for folk to climb into and swim in its dark waters.
Outside, thirty feet above ground, a couple of huge wooden garage doors opened onto a flat leaded roof and behind these was another huge tank also filled with water. You could tell how much water was in this tank from a gauge hanging on a bit of cord on a vertical board on the wall outside the bathroom below, graded from full to empty.
Down in the gloomy stone cellars there was another murky water tank and there was also another, said to be of great depth, under the jerry-built ‘servants hall’ tacked on in the thirties at the back of the house and yet another lay beneath oak planks across a path in the garden, into whose darkness I once climbed, causing no end of commotion to newts and frogs and other subterranean aquatic creatures, one hot summer day.
Why all these tanks? Mains water hadn’t yet arrived in our valley. Our water came from a wood across the fields on Lord Cawley’s land, called Shuttock’s Wood. No-one knew the route that the water followed, all we knew was that the rusty pipe emerged and it was used in milking, by Harry Conod’s Dad at the old vicarage farm in front of the house, and in the medieval barns where Mr Lewis milked his cows at the back. And we also knew that year by year the water was getting less, hence these huge tanks to store it.
Often when I rode through a gateway in the valley my horse’s legs would sink deep in mud. Year after year the mud got deeper. None of us made the connection until one day the muddy patch turned into a lake, and at the same time our water trickled, and ran out.
Then people dug in the foetid nettle and dock fringed pool and at length discovered the rusty severed pipe. It was repaired and then for a while we all had water again.
Other places, like Hatfield Court where I live now, had other aquatic arrangements. There is a small stream running through the red mud behind this house, and across it a stone built weir that feeds into a subterranean chamber approached down steep stone steps hung over with dripping, shining ivy and holly, and a huge water wheel. The stream drove the wheel round which in turn pumped water into a tower at the top of the house.
Berrington Hall had, and still has, under the delicate ironwork of the lights in the stable yard, a deep eerie well, beautifully sculpted with circular steps going down the cylindrical stone and disappearing under the subterranean water.
These old country mansions were the first to have plumbing and the most advanced metal for plumbing in those days was lead, so a lot of these houses, including Croft Castle and Eye, still had their lead plumbing. Lead can send you mad so one theory is that our privileged classes finally lost their grip because of the very high lead content in the water in their castles, halls, manors and mansions.
Far ahead, who could foresee it then? would come the day when much of this would come to an end with the arrival of mains water.
Another stretch of water was a lake behind the house. The railway ran nearby. In a Boy Scout manual I discovered a way of building a coracle by making a huge circle of brushwood, like a bird’s nest the height of a boy across, and wrapping it like a parcel in tarpaulin. Juliet and I went out on the sunlit water below whose gold dust topped surface where dragonflies lurked were murky depths.
Reluctantly we left our boat when it got dark and the next morning we went down excitedly early to find our raft again. It wasn’t there, it had floated out to the middle of the lake. How on earth to get it back?
My father came to help. We threw string with a stone on the end to try to capture it. No go. The stone escaped from the string. My Dad took off his clothes and strode naked into the water which surged and washed round his thighs, almost got caught in the mud, swam, got into the boat and triumphantly climbed on and stood upright, nude like Michaelangelo’s David.
There came a slowly approaching thundering noise from behind myself and sisters as we watched. Mainly they were slow chugging trains on our line but at one or two moments in the day, and this was one of them, the express from Penzance to Glasgow went surging past, carriage after carriage, the windows as it seemed packed with sight-seers, all gazing out, some taking snapshots of my Dad as naked, triumphant, but now bashful, he stood on the low brushwood boat stock still as carriage after carriage went by.
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