First of all, thank you to PacificParatrooper. Your comments on a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago made me realise that living at Gayhurst House when Tom was a baby represents one of those times when private and public histories collide. For that reason, I think it’s worth writing about – a twig on my family’s tree.
I’m four months pregnant and the baby-daddy has a new job in Milton Keynes – about an hour away from where we’re living in the countryside near Bishop’s Stortford. Industrial strength commuting isn’t new for the big T, who knows the M25 way better than the back of his hand. But hey, we’re starting to think ahead and an hour is a long time if I go into labour while he’s at work, etc.
I work from home anyway, and we don’t love the cottage we’re living in (especially in winter), so it makes sense to move closer to T’s work. Note that I said closer to … anyone who knows Milton Keynes will understand that we’re not too keen to actually live there.
We check out a few places and are beginning to get pretty depressed about our prospects of finding somewhere cool to raise the first-born. Then T. comes home one day with a letting agent’s leaflet for a flat in some old manor house called Gayhurst. It sounds crazy, but we go and look anyway …
… and promptly fall in love.
The place rocks.
The flat itself has an enormous (and not just by UK standards) living room with a really high ceiling. It has a big bedroom with a weirdly open-plan but thankfully unplumbed ensuite, a proper bathroom with a decent sized bath and a shower, an ok kitchen and a little room I can use as an office – at least until the baby arrives.
The flat is a kind of annex to this huge, beautiful – in fact totally amazing – old house of the kind built to accommodate ancient aristocratic families. I can’t help feeling, even as we pull up on the gravel drive, that somewhere upstairs, Sebastian Flyte is probably getting drunk and chastising Alysious with a hairbrush. On the other side of “our” flat is a row of the kind of mews cottages you only expect to see on postcards and in episodes of Midsomer Murders. It’s all totally gorgeous.
Ramping the wow factor up a whole notch, the house is about a half mile up a private road with a rather dilapidated, though originally quite grand, gate lodge (which has in its life also been a pub), fields of grazing cows, a lake (private of course), woodlands (also private) tennis courts (yeah, they’re just for residents too), amazing gardens including a parterre, or knot garden (tended by our own private gardeners), a manicured lawn the size of a football field outside our living room window – and a church in the front yard.
Did I mention the church in the front yard?
The church of St Peter is a working parish church; used for worship on a monthly roster with other small local parish churches. It’s also rather beautiful; built in the 1720s, possibly to a design by Sir Christopher Wren, though not actually by him.
Oh – and the gate house; at one time it was used as a pub, called the Francis Drake. That’s because Sir Francis Drake (think Queen Elizabeth I, Spanish Armada, the Americas, tobacco) was once – briefly – the owner of Gayhurst.
With all that, we can hardly wait to sign the lease.
Our first few months at Gayhurst are totally idyllic. The flat’s owner is an elderly widower who has moved to a retirement village and the letting agent is a lovely woman who gets that I’m nesting. She’s recognised that a few things around the place are a bit faded, and has organised for a general spruce-up ahead of baby’s arrival. Within a couple of weeks we are really comfortable in our new home and enjoying everything that Gayhurst and the “green and pleasant land” surrounding it, has to offer.
We quickly find out a bit more of the history of the place and are really excited to learn about the house’s connection with the Gunpowder Plot.
It seems that in 1601 Gayhurst House came into the hands of Everard Digby, by virtue of his wife inheriting it from her father. Everard Digby was executed – hung, drawn and quartered – in 1606, for his part in the infamous plot to assassinate King James I by blowing up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605. The aim was apparently to replace the Protestant King James with his eleven year old daughter, thereby (somehow) re-establishing a Catholic monarchy. The plot failed when the explosives planted by one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, were discovered.
This date, November 5th, is still “celebrated” – certainly in the UK and here in New Zealand. In the UK it’s often called bonfire night, with fireworks and effigies of Guy Fawkes – the “guy” – burned on a bonfire. In New Zealand we don’t do the effigies, although we do refer to it as “Guy Fawkes” night. But it’s also the only time of year fireworks are on sale here, and so we tend to buy up large and let em rip.
Sadly I don’t think all that many people (certainly in NZ) actually know what Guy Fawkes is about, and (fast-forward a few years of the boy-child’s life) I think my son’s attempt to explain to people that he once lived in the same house as one of the Guy Fawkes characters tends to be met with either disbelief, or more often, total indifference. Pass the sparklers!
Anyway, back to Gayhurst.
The Christmas T. and I spend there is probably one of our best. That’s partly because it coincides with us both being gainfully and quite lucratively employed, and so able to indulge our festive nesting instincts with multiple trips to John Lewis. But I think it’s also because spending Christmas in such beautiful surroundings kind of rubbed some seasonal spirit off on us.
It also helps that the Gayhurst Residents’ Association organise a Carol Service in the Great Hall (of course we have a Great Hall – complete with a fireplace big enough to stand up in). Despite not being able to enjoy any of the mulled wine (no in-utero alcohol for my baby) and the fact that the bell-ringers are cringe-makingly awful – it’s a lovely event. It’s also a great way to meet our neighbours – some of whom it seems, are nearly as excited by my pregnancy as me; apparently there haven’t been any babies at Gayhurst for quite a while.
In the last months before Tom’s birth, we entertain a lot. That includes playing host to quite a few of T.’s American colleagues, who are naturally impressed by our living arrangements. It’s nice to be able to walk our guests across the lawn for a tour of the church (signing the Guest Book of course) before a stroll around the Knot Garden, then a quick wander around the main house, and perhaps a pootle down to the lake. No grand tour is complete without checking out the circular building at the back of the main house – apparently built in the 1840s by a past tenant, Lord Carrington. Somewhat eccentric, Carrington was apparently obsessed with plumbing. This led to the installation of an unexpectedly large (for the time) number of toilets around the house including a highly unusual one for his male servants. A History of Gayhurst describes it thus:… the male servants were provided with a remarkable five-seater lavatory in a circular building which still stands behind the house, surmounted by a carved figure of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hades.
This building is now fully attached to the main house and serves – I think – as the living room of one of the apartments – the one we looked out on from our bedroom window as it happens.
Like most English stately homes – including, I suspect, those are have been converted to schools, management training facilities, flats and over-priced health farms – Gayhurst is reputed to have a ghost. I’m not particularly a believer in such things, but I have to say that walking though Gayhurst’s Great Hall at night is a fairly creepy experience – and the Big T is adamant he feels her presence on more than one occasion.
During World War II, Gayhurst and its grounds were used as accommodation for two hundred WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) personnel who worked at Bletchley Park; the British government’s code-breaking centre. One day, when Tom is a baby, a busload of these wonderful women – now in their seventies – arrives at Gayhurst to be filmed for a documentary about their wartime experiences.
So much history, but I have neglected to emphasise that Gayhurst House is also our son’s first home; the place we bring him to when – after three awful nights in the maternity ward at Milton Keynes Hospital – we are finally liberated. Tom’s birth at the end of February is the beginning of the end for us at Gayhurst. The grand, isolated country house that was so romantic for a couple is hopelessly impractical once the boy-child arrives, and we began house-hunting almost immediately.
We buy and move into a house in nearby Olney; a highly practical three bedroom Edwardian semi in one of the town’s lovely old streets. I am glad to abandon Gayhurst with all its foibles for this infinitely less glamorous abode. While I no longer have a knot garden to walk around – I can at least get the baby buggy further than the front path without it catching in the gravel or cattle stops, so instead I walk around the town that was once home to William Cowper (who, coincidentally was born in Berkhamsted – another lovely English town we have lived in). I join the National Childbirth Trust, become the local branch’s publicity officer, write columns for the local magazine and make friends with other mothers.
It was the right thing for us as a family to leave Gayhurst, but with the perspective of time, I have come to appreciate our time there – not only for its “cool” factor – but because it brought us so much closer to a tiny part of the history of the country we chose to live in for so long.