Down to Cheltenham Literary Festival to take part in a panel discussion on the Edwardian Country House with Lucinda Lambton and Dan Cruikshank. It is a most beautiful day and I am a little jealous of the race goers for the opening National Hunt event at Cheltenham race course, but am very well looked after by the Festival and given lunch in the writers room, one of a number of festive tents in Montpellier Gardens. We have a delightful audience of over a thousand, very enthusiastic with lots of good questions – how would these houses have smelt? was my favourite. I enjoy panels because you can’t prepare too hard and it is like a conversation between friends and creates interesting cross-currents. Dan talks about Marsh Court which is a wonderful Lutyens house and Lucinda Lambton about the extraordinary characters of this period – the eccentric millionaires, industrialists and dukes. I think the Edwardian country houses hold a special place in people’s imagination because it was the last era of luxury. On Saturday, up early for more novice rowing training, and arrive by the boathouse to see a glorious sun pouring through mist rising from the frost on Midsummer Common – what a sight!
Working hard on finishing one of my major current projects, a history of the 200-year-old gun making firm of Westley Richards & Co in Birmingham I come across a charming story in the memoirs of Stewart Granger the film star, who in the 1950s buys the guns first made by the firm for Count Potocki, a wealthy Polish landowner, who loses everything in the 1940s. Invited by an English Duke to go shooting in the 1950s, he goes to ask if he can borrow a pair of guns from Westley Richards to whom he had been a customer in the 1920s and 30s, and asks if he could possibly borrow a pair. The manager loans him the pair, and for no charge, adds the counts initials to the guns and his coat of arms to the gun case, so they don’t look like a loan. When the count is presented with his loan, he silently wept. It is one of many splendid stories associated with this august firm. I have thoroughly enjoyed delving deeply into this story over the past year.
I attend a drinks at Westminster Abbey hosted by the Dean, for the directors of the Royal Oak, an American charity which supports the English National Trust; the Dean’s speech reminds us of how many interesting events have passed in that room before. It was especially good to catch up with old US friends such as Ron Fleming and Anne Fairfax, and see National Trust folk as well. I also spend some time at Nymans where I am working with Oliver Caroe on a historical assessment of this most unusual building, especially interesting to me as the home of Oliver Messel’s parents, and quite an extraordinary and special garden. It is a place like no other, with wonderful plants and strong and colourful episodes of planting, after the fire in 47 only one wing of the house survived, the main south range is a ruined shell, and curiously evocative, especially in the early morning mist.