Friday, 7 January 2011

Conjecture in black and woite (1)

When I was quite little, five or so, we moved from the Gloucestershire/Warwickshire borders to Hampshire. My mother was anxious to start a new life, as happens to quite a lot of us one way or another, and with some money that had come her way she bought an extraordinary house, the one pictured above, on a wooded ridge overlooking a village about halfway between Portsmouth and Southampton. It was called St Margaret's, sometimes St Margaret's Priory, although any ecclesiastical connections it ever had are lost - but not beyond conjecture - in the fog of medieval history.

It was one of those properties you read of sometimes where nothing has been touched for many years, and even the dust is antique and the spiders' webs themselves are museum pieces. My first memories of this house are connected with the antiquated lighting system: somewhere in the outbuildings was an apparatus - I can still smell it - that converted calcium carbide into acetylene, which was piped into gas-brackets in the house to light it at night. Once having given up its acetylene the whitish calcium carbide waste was dumped by the wheelbarrow-load in a forgotten laurel-screened corner which I called the 'woite' (I had a West Midlands accent then) where a little girl called Anne and I used to go to see which of us could pee the most and make rivers in the chalky deposit.

Having bought St Margaret's from a Miss Parry, who had lived there alone like a latter-day Miss Havisham for the previous quarter of a century, my mother set about modernising it, at least to some extent. Water and electricity were brought in, but sewage and waste water (apart from a few trace elements on the woite) were still piped to an enormous brick-lined cess-pit, also surrounded by laurels. Alas, the money fairly soon ran out, the business idea of selling antique furniture in period surroundings never took off, and in less than five years my mother was obliged to sell and move to a more modest house elsewhere. The developer who bought it divided it into three separate properties, which is how it is today. So we were the last people to inhabit St Margaret's in its totality.

It was only after leaving St Margaret's that I slowly began to realise what an amazing property it was. Parts of it were very, very old. Some years ago the rather catchpenny BBC TV series House Detectives featured it, but I think the presenters were too busy promoting themselves as 'characters' to make much of a fist of it. They dated some of the beams, by drilling holes into them, at around 1620, but they seemed to be blind to the architectural style of the earliest part, the tower and the premises at its foot, which scream Henry VII (1485-1510) at the very latest.

It was an extraordinary hotch-potch of a house to have the run of, a template and sampler of English architectural history. The tower, so exciting for a small child to climb, but so frustrating when reaching the top to discover that I was too little to see over the parapet, came from the mid to late 15th Century. The principal rooms were Tudor, very probably on much earlier foundations. In about 1780 a Georgian wing was added, and maybe 100 years after that a range of Victorian kitchens, pantries, sculleries as extensive as anything below stairs in Downton Abbey was added.

House Detectives had invented for themselves a mission: could Shakespeare possibly have written Romeo and Juliet at St Margaret's?

(to be continued)

18 comments:

Charlene said...

Sounds like a delightful place to be a child in. All that space to be creative and run amuck!

moreidlethoughts said...

What a fantastic place to be a small kid!
And what a nightmare to heat! (But kids give no thought to such things)

I can imagine the Time Team going over this...ol' Phil, with the feather in his hat and the enthusiasm of a troop of scoutmasters...

Dave said...

As I said to my daughter yesterday, I am frustrated that the housing association insisted on buying a house less than 10 years old. I would love to live in an older property.

1920's, say.

andrea said...

Let's hope Phil and Kirsty never get hold of it and want to 'knock down a few walls' :) ... though it's probably far too late since it was divvied up. Not preserving the character of historic properties makes me crazy. (Was gratified to learn that a local train station my great grandfather designed has just been given $5mil for renos.)

Dave said...

Surely the very character of historic houses is that walls have been knocked down over the years, new bits added, old bits demolished?

Christopher said...

Charlene: Hi. Happy New Year. Haven't heard from you for a long time. Imagined you'd been abducted by Barbary corsairs disguised as Tibetan monks, held to ransom for Madovian sums, fought your way out their clutches in an epic battle with light sabres and a home-made catapult, made your way back to the USA by tramp steamer and camel and were now selling your memoirs to Hollywood for more Madovian sums. I'm right, aren't I?

Mig: It certainly was. But I was a very destructive small child, or was too easily egged on by others to smash and burn, so it was probably as well that we left when we did.

Andrea: Good of you to drop in. The door's always open...
I've just been over to your place and have been as much impressed with your blog as with your great-grandfather's creation in Vancouver. You must be very proud. Of both.

Dave (x2): Yes, 20s houses had a certain style lacking in the 30s, 40s and 50s. But I do like double glazing and underfloor heating, etc. Quite agree about the character of a house residing in the changes that have been made to it. (Could you say the same about people?) St Margaret's is a case in point.

Vicus Scurra said...

I don't like old stuff. I just don't get it. It is just old stuff.

Just thought the Philistines needed a voice.

Scurra (old stuff).

Christopher said...

Sorry, Vicus. In the circumstances it's very good of you to drop in, especially as there may be more to come...

Rog said...

It looks like St Mary Mead.

I normally find those presenters far too self-effacing and diffident to be on TV

Christopher said...

The village certainly was, Rog. Probably still is. I sometimes think I'd like to retire there. I don't think John McCririck lives there.

Tim Footman said...

I always enjoy telling Americans that the school I went to is older than their country. And my house in London is older than the State of California.

Could you not have taken some stilts, or maybe just a stool, up the tower?

Christopher said...

Tim: Good to see you, as always. In fact the stairs opened on to the parapeted tower roof via a little flat-roofed hut in one corner. A flagpole was fastened in the angle between the stairhead hut and the parapet wall. Greatly daring, I once scrambled up on to the stairhead roof with the aid of the flagpole brackets as footholds, but despite clutching the flagpole the ensuing vertigo ruined my enjoyment of the view. I would have been about 7.

Rosie said...

How amazing. What a story. This probably shaped your entire life.

Christopher said...

Yes, I think probably that's true, Rosie. I've never written this story down before and I'm glad to have the opportunity. And this is just the beginning...

letouttoplay said...

What a wonderful place. That tower looks as if it might have been added as a sentry tower. For tall people.
Hmm, 15th Century - not for tall people then.

Christopher said...

Ah, that tower. I don't know what it was for. Some say to watch shipping in the Solent/Spithead, but there are much better places for that, e.g. Portsdown Hill. Others - like House Detectives - reckoned it was to watch for deer etc. so as to direct the hunt. This has to be rubbish. I think it was just for prestige.

Earlier on I muddled you, MIG, with MIT, our Australian friend now in New York. Sorry to both.

Eco said...

I was intrigued to come across your reminiscence about your childhood home - my great-great grandfather, Sir Richard England, lived at St Margaret's, Titchfield with his second wife and family (he had married Theodosia Fountayne Wilson in Bath in 1844 following the death of his first wife in India in 1839). Sir Richard had an eventful military career (becoming a General like his father, Lieutenant-General Richard England), and died at St Margaret's in 1883 at the age of 89. I have a copy of a faded family photograph of St Margaret's with a different view of the tower and the garden as it was in the late 19th century, which I would be happy to send you if it was of interest. I am not sure of the exact date when the England family left St Margarets, as my great grandfather settled in Australia after continuing the family military tradition and serving with the Army in India. I visited St Margaret's about 20 years ago with an aunt from Australia who had previously visited the house in the late 1940s with her English cousins. I found the entry about St Margaret's on your blog by chance when I was renewing my research about an artist who was married to your uncle - I visited him in Scotland many years ago when I had initially become interested in her work. I came across your reference to your aunt on your blog and would be pleased to exchange information about her and her work.

Christopher said...

Thank you, Eco. All most interesting! Perhaps you would be kind enough to get in touch with me privately? My e-mail address is

christophercampbell@wanadoo.fr

I very much look forward to hearing from you!