Friday, May 20, 2011

Mercia’s Mansion of Marvels

Charlecote Park, near Stratford, its front garden tumbling down to the Avon, tries hard not to be the average National Trust house. The deer park is marked by a wooden fence built to a mediæval design (left). The varying verticals make it impossible for deer to judge the true height of the fence and so whether it is safe to jump. Simple but effective. The deer have a special place in Charlecote’s history; young Will Shakespeare is alleged to have been caught poaching one and to have been tried on the premises by the unsympathetic owner, Sir Thomas Lucy, J.P. It's a plausible tale. Who else could be the inspiration for Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor? And for the words of King Lear, ‘change places; and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?’

The Lucy ancestry marches round the ground floor windows in heraldic stained glass, tracing the family’s descent from the Royal House of Wessex. The glass is 19th century, as is much of the Tudor-looking house. Yes, it’s a fake but it looks great. Rather better in fact than today’s warmed-up neo-Modernism, pretending to be a 1960’s copy of a 1920’s idea but still somehow ‘contemporary’. The best fakers are honest about it. Charlecote does indeed have its Victorian date stones set in the mellow red brickwork. Stables and coach houses (below) have the look of engine sheds on the railways. And which inspired which?

At the foot of the stairs, a case displays the summons of Richard Lucy to Barebone's Parliament in 1653. It is signed by Oliver Cromwell. Of anything so vulgar and unnecessary as an election there is no mention. In the antlered Great Hall, one of the genuinely Tudor rooms, stands the vast pietre dure table that once graced King Edward’s Gallery in Fonthill Abbey, William Beckford’s jerry-built jewel box in Wiltshire. Beckford commissioned the wooden base for the table top, which he acquired in France, brought there from the Borghese Palace in Rome by Napoleon Bonaparte. Other furniture and objets d’art from Beckford’s collection are to be found in other rooms. Whose taste today, I wonder, will set the standard for houses that come to the Trust in 200 years time? The ageing rock star, or the footballer’s wife? Obviously not the business tycoon, not in the first generation. Too busy making the money to buy any posh tat.

Almost the only purchase I made was in the second-hand bookshop. Here I could pick up a copy of The Birmingham Post Year Book and Who’s Who 1958-59. I have been collecting almanacks of various kinds for over 30 years, with back issues reaching into Queen Vic’s reign. Each is a treasure trove of information on how things really were. Not the smooth generalisations of journalists and agenda-pushing historians. Just the unself-conscious nuts and bolts of who did what and what was essential to know.

A year book like Birmingham’s reveals a world poised to leap from 50’s austerity into the environmental exterminism of the 60’s. In a special article, Sir Herbert Manzoni, City Engineer & Surveyor, enthuses over plans for comprehensive redevelopment of 2½ square miles of property as the inner and middle ring roads are rolled-out. His authority, Birmingham Corporation, proudly listing in detail its civic plate, is organised into over 30 committees of aldermen and councillors, managing everything from its smallholdings in Staffordshire to its waterworks in Wales. Birmingham was the only municipality to run its own savings bank. About the only thing it didn’t run was the telephone network. Hull Corporation even managed that, with cream-coloured kiosks in place of Post Office red.

It may have been a world still grinding along in the grooves of war, unquestioning in its obedience, armed to the teeth for Armageddon. And as predictable as clockwork, with big cogs and little cogs allotted their turns. But a dip into how it used to be done, this interlocking, self-supporting sense of community, rooted in local identity, can reveal just how far we have allowed our collective mainspring to unwind.

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