Part Two of the Major Tom’s War April 2019 book tour blog, in which we visit Hartlebury Castle, Bewdley, Ribbesford House and Hagley Hall. Can you smell something burning..?
After all the excitement of the London leg of the book tour it was good to arrive in the Welsh Borders and then, with my friend and fellow author Eleanor Bird, meander up through the familiarly-named and yet unknown villages and towns in England where my family once lived.
We began with what my mother would have called a ‘spiffing’ afternoon tea at Hartlebury Castle, once the seat of the Bishops of Worcester. Hartlebury is connected to the ancestors of those you will encounter in Major Tom’s War. It is an ancient building, more of a sprawling, comfortable manor house than a fairy-tale castle. Its pretty arched windows give it a slightly curious expression, as though it is peering at its visitors as if to say ‘Now. Who do we have here?’
It feels much more castle-like around the back where there is quite a drop to a proper moat, although I am not sure whether or not it ever surrounded the building completely.
It was lovely to be drinking tea from delicate tea-cups in a room where 250 years ago or so my family would have done so. Our hosts, Trustees Mary Arden-Davis and Paul West, encouraged us to explore the house which we did, albeit very quickly. As my ‘day job’ is in heritage interpretation I keep an eager eye out for innovations in the field. Imagine my disbelief and delight to be greeted by various members of my family as I made my way around the house. The Pepys family has been chosen as the interpretive medium, and they make a fine job of it. First, Maria Sullivan (3 x great grandmother) greeted me from a portrait in the entrance hall. She was a good fit for the family, dark hair, beautiful diction and a slightly disapproving expression. Then her husband, the affable Bishop Henry Pepys welcomed me from one in the drawing room next door. These talking portraits and the clever diorama further on were quite an experience for a genealogist!
I was especially touched to learn that these parents did not send their children away to school, not even Herbert their son, but had them educated with tutors at home instead. Perhaps as a Bishop Henry had concerns about the morality and harsh discipline of schools at the time.
The family is indirectly related to the London diarist Samuel Pepys (who had no children) but pronounces its name Pepiz not Peeps, allegedly because maiden ladies of the family did not like to be called Miss Peeps. Both parents are sorely tried (and frequently interrupted) by their younger daughter Emily, who left a delightful if brief diary of her life in the house in 1844 which has recently been republished. The original is on display upstairs in Emily’s bed-chamber.
I loved this juxtaposition of digital and historical storytelling. There is a wonderful upstairs room with a magic wardrobe which leads into Emily’s bedroom. I could have spent hours longer exploring.
One room had more impact than any other. The Great Hall with its vaulted roof smelled strongly of smoke, so much so that I wondered if I would be able to speak in there if that were the location (it wasn’t – I was in cosier premises next door). My eyes and throat prickled with it. I also had a strong feeling that it should be much darker in colour with some kind of wooden panelling on the walls. It was all very odd but it was only later that I realised that this was the scene of the fire witnessed by Maria, Henry, Emily and my own 2 x great grandmother Maria Louisa Pepys. It could have killed them all and although Emily’s account is that of a gleeful ten year old, for older Louisa and her parents it must have been terrifying. Genetic memory or an over-fertile imagination? I certainly felt a lot easier when I was out of the Great Hall!
From lovely Hartlebury we travelled on to Bewdley, where the main street also provided an element of deja vu. In Major Tom’s War there is a sad chapter called ‘Losing Bessie’, where I visualise a seven-year-old Evie (my grandmother) peeping through the door of the rectory and looking out – at a slight angle – down a short driveway to the cobbled street, which had straw spread over it to cushion the wheels of the carriages and reduce noise. There was the rectory and there was the driveway and the gate, with a yew tree beside it to boot, all exactly as imagined.
The church nearby had beautiful pastel stained glass and again it all felt strangely familiar, although I suspected it might have felt a good deal warmer than it had been in the days of my grandma.
Onwards to Ribbesford House this time, where we peeped through the barriers at what had once been the family stately home.
A kind groundsman took some quick photographs around the exterior for us. Ribbesford was never much enjoyed by the Winnington-Ingrams: it was let in the late 1800s which is how Bessie came to meet her end at Bewdley Rectory, and not at Ribbesford itself. They were still the ‘squiresons’ – a strange combination of parson and squire.
Ribbesford was sold with little regret in 1900.
Hats off to the young entrepreneurs with deep pockets who have taken it on the house, who are converting it into luxury apartments while keeping the grounds intact. I wish them luck with their courageous investment!
Almost more interesting than the house, for all its turrets and 20 bedrooms, was the walled garden, now privately owned and in the process of being lovingly restored. There were espaliered fruit trees and Simon Gooding the owner is busily tracing the trees (old varieties like Fragonelle pear) and putting them back. I suspect it will be a labour of more than one lifetime but a restored walled garden like that could become a wonderful place to visit. I have sent Simon one of the remaining few copies of the 1810 Cookbook which I printed a reproduction of few years back. Jane Onslow, daughter of the Dean of Worcester, loved her food and collected recipes and remedies in a leather-bound notebook. This proves that the gardens grew apricots and peaches, melons and cucumbers: costly to grow, delicious to consume, all of which may be useful information for Simon.
Jane would soon become the redoubtable mother-in-law of Maria Louisa Pepys, who married one of the succession of Edward W-Is and who in turn gave birth to Edward Winnington-Ingram (the Arch-Deacon) who appears in Major Tom’s War.
I wonder what the relationship between Jane and Maria Louisa was like!
Ribbesford Church, tucked around the corner from the big house, revealed some poignant corners, including stained glass windows commemorating both Bessie (knowing her story, her weeping angel was desperately moving) and Edward Winnington-Ingram, Evie’s parents. The windows were installed by all five children, a loving and respectful gesture.
Against the back wall there was also an unexpected mediaeval fleur-de-lys stepped cross dating from about 1430, exactly the kind which are displayed in the restored mausoleum I worked on at Kirkmichael hundreds of miles to the north. No wonder they have always felt rather familiar!
Eleanor identified the carving over the Norman entrance doorway as Herefordshire School Romanesque. How did these designs in carving spread? We think of people staying put in the past but many clearly did not.
We ended this exploration with a flying visit to Hagley Hall, as Lady Lyttleton contributed one the the 1810 Cookbook recipes. We realised later that Emily marries her son and is buried in the church there, so that is why there is a connection. It was common for second or later sons to enter the church, and all these ecclesiastical families intermarried, understandably so, when the church for them was a seven day a week, 24 hour commitment. They can seldom have met anyone else.
At least it was a slight improvement on the intermarriage of cousins, also something of a habit in the family tree.
Imagine walking through this room and feeling that it was home. I touched the nose of the friendly plaster lion over the fireplace and wondered if one of my forebears had done the same…
Next – Part Three, With Evie in WWI – in Ross on Wye and Bridstow