What to Do With the Great House and Garden?

Godinton House circa 1985 – N.Toke.C at the English-language Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Great Houses in New Hands

There are many great houses and gardens in this country. Over 400 properties are now owned by the National Trust, and can be visited by the public. Others have been converted into boarding schools or hotels. Some run extra business ventures such as weddings or conferences. Not very many are still in the ownership of families who lived there before World War II. 

The harsh historic fact is that the type of aristocratic lifestyle portrayed in the Jeeves books – with weekends in the great houses – became obsolete by the 1950s. One of the reasons is that servants became scarce as more workers found they could earn better money in towns or factories. Another is that architecture and the utilities of most houses were challenging.

No House Could Run Itself

Coal or log fires in every room demanded much labour. A bath, as depicted in Downton Abbey, meant someone heaving hot water upstairs to the bedroom. Electrical wiring and plumbing were primitive. But the houses were capacious, with huge halls and reception rooms, a library, a main staircase and one or two for the servants, attic rooms, also for the live-in servants, and huge kitchens to provide food for the family, staff and guests, often from the produce of “the estate.”

What to Do?

Almost every village in England had its manor house, and every county had its aristocrats, gradually enlarging and improving the ancestral great house. Sometimes, when the family line petered out, new money saved the house, as Jane Austen depicts when a young man of fortune comes to Netherfield. In the industrial areas of the North, rich industrialists built their own huge houses, Victorian style. So what to do with such a house once it becomes too much for a family in reduced circumstances?

Here are some descriptions of childhood in such houses in the 1950s:

Converted into flats

We lived in a very large black and white gabled house that had been converted into six flats. These flats were owned by Manchester University and each flat was occupied/rented by a Manchester University lecturer (invariably a man) and his family. The gardens surrounding this house were extensive and beautiful. There was a full time gardener employed by the university and he ensured that there was an abundance of flowers and plants growing all year round.

I remember well the tall lupins of every hue; the lofty delphiniums (most tall plants are ‘lofty’ when we’re five); the numerous clumps of “London Pride” with their minute and exquisite flowers.

I remember the wooden trellises festooned and often overwhelmed with pink roses of every shade (my favourite was “New Dawn”); I remember the orchards full of apple and pear trees; the huge areas of raspberry canes, netted to deter the foraging birds; the extensive field next to the house and the clear brook running through the paddock that we used to paddle in with our wellingtons on… 

A Boarding School

The school was located in what had been the great house of the Master of the Hunt. A portrait of him still hung in the panelled dining room. The stables and kennels had been converted to class-rooms in the late 1930s.

There was no central heating. The large playroom was heated by a huge log-fire. The ex-stables used oil radiators. There was no heating at all in the dormitories, and in winter we had to breathe on the window glass to melt the ice in order to see outside. Our hands always got chilblains. The warmest room was a large glasshouse next to the terrace that had been converted into the art and craft room.

Fields and Meadows

But the best thing about that school were the large grounds. Besides a mown sports field, there was a large field of rough grass which would now be called a wildflower meadow, and where I first learnt the names of wildflowers, and which ones were edible.

There was a thicket of mature rhododendrons, excellent for doing somersaults on the branches. There were huge chestnut trees, and a field of bracken leading up to a rocky outcrop which we clambered up and slid down.

Fresh Vegetables In Season

The school kept a large vegetable garden, which supplied much of the fresh produce for our diet, potatoes, cabbage, carrots in winter, and in summer the peas we helped to shell, and the soft fruit of strawberries and raspberries. We saw the birds trying to get at the netted fruit, and the odd little maggot in a pea-pod. The fresh produce was cleaned and processed in the kitchen. It came unpackaged.

The expert gardener was probably carrying on the same way as in former times, making the estate as self-sufficient in food as possible, which would have been essential during the recent war. We children were being fed through a manor-house type of economy that had prevailed at least since the Normans, and that scarcely exists today.

New Homes For Old

Many of these Great Estates have been sold off for housing – the Godinton estate fields became the Godinton housing estate here in Ashford, with row upon row of suburban plots with small back gardens.

Although some residents may have allotments and some may be showing their children how to grow vegetables, for most the vegetables come from shops, in season or out of season.  For exercise, there are the Council-managed parks and playgrounds.

Today’s Children Missing Out

But what is missing for many children is roving in nature by ourselves. There were probably watchful adults somewhere around, but they did not interfere as we pushed through the bracken or rolled in the meadow grass.

I can recall lying in that field in the summer sun, with the humming and buzzing of insects all around, looking at cuckoo spit on one plant and a ladybird climbing up a long stalk… just little me, in a world full of other beings.

I don’t think there are many places even in Kent where children from the towns can go and roll in meadows of long grass. The big gardens and estates of former times at least provided for some that childhood experience of nature which is more difficult to get in these days of ever increasing “housing development”.