A MATTER OF CONVENIENCE

There were 26 rooms in the old vicarage without counting dairy, outhouses, stables, pigscot, hen houses and the pumping house.

It has been tidied up now, bought by a developer, with the lead stripped from 19th century outbuildings and only the original early 18th century elegance remaining. But, way back, when we shared it, all its Victorian excrescence’s existed, so that it could accommodate a host of servants, large families, and plenty of space for the Master and Mistress.

Wartime years of furnished rooms, landladies and sharing a kitchen had led to our being cynical about “somewhere to live”. Packing, moving from one wind-swept aerodrome to the next, never knowing what the day would hold, but still holding on to the fact that each night brought us nearer to that magical day when the war would be over. It was startling when suddenly it happened.

All those weird rooms and rented dwellings would be a thing of the past. The tumble-down cottage with oil lamps and outside sanitation; the sophisticated all mod cons flat with three flights of stairs to hump up the pram; the bungalow shared with a landlady who went to bed at four on a November evening “to save the gas” and expected us to do the same; and the grandmother in Norfolk who took us to her ample bosom and loved us – all were just memories.

Now the only available rooms were in a rambling vicarage, miles from the nearest town, which we shared with the vicar, his wife and young family.

We were given the choice of the old nursery suite on the first floor and the attics. The latter consisted of four enormous rooms, divided by a long corridor. This was cupboarded on each side and, was so near the roof, icicles formed in winter while the temperature was in the 80s during the hot summer months. The rooms spilt over with bunting, spare hymn sheets, nativity scenes, trunks full of dressing up clothes, but-ton-up boots, broken furniture and newspapers dating back to the 1890s. The cupboards were labelled in fading copperplate: ‘Footmen’s Sleeves’,

‘Housekeeper’s Sheets’, ‘Young Ladies’ Curtains’ and ‘Preserves’. They still held the lingering scent of orris root and lavender.

Electricity was in the future; what lighting there was depended on a methane-run monstrosity of weights and a handle that had to be wound 90 times each day. The resultant gas lit the drawing room, the hall, the night nursery, butler’s pantry and housekeeper’s room for a few hours each evening. After the warning dimming, it was back to oil lamps and candles.

Our radio ran on the sort of batteries that had to be recharged, entailing much cycling to the small workshop a mile along the lane. If the light was at maximum, the hissing was so loud a programme was inaudible, which left the straight-forward choice between listening in to favourites, such as ‘Bedtime with Braden’, ‘Take it from Here’, ‘Much Binding in the Marsh’ or catching up with the endless mending and darning of socks.

The house had been empty for some time. The living was in the same family for over a century, until the First World War took all the young men. Only the daughters lived on.

The garden was overgrown, the sheds ramshackle and it took a while to discover the ramifications of store rooms, bedroom, the young ladies’ sitting room with the floor gnawed by rats, the priest-hole-
cum-wine cellar and the stone-shelved dairy and ice house -until exploration outside led us to the sixth lavatory!

The Master’s water closet was a throne of solid mahogany with an overhead tank filled with water pumped up from the river once a week. The lid, when lifted revealed Windsor Castle in faded red and white.

There were two steps up and, from that seated position, was a view of lush glebe land, the bend in the Wye and a corner of grey, peaceful gravestones.

Downstairs, senior servants were catered for in a small, elegantly appointed toilet by the butler’s pantry. Beyond the dairy, a plain door hid lino, curtains and white porcelain – deemed suitable for maids and footmen. Bootboy and grooms – hierarchy maintained – had their convenience across the yard, beyond stairs leading to the apple loft. This consisted of two planks of scrubbed deal, smelling still of straw, uneven walls whitewashed, and the rusty nail that had held squares of newspaper.

In the wilderness of the walled garden, it took some time to find the head gardener’s lavatory behind a brick partition built against the surrounding wall. It made use of the water laid on to nurture delicate early blooms, exotic vegetables, and was a cut above the sixth and last toilet.

We came across this by accident. Swathing through undergrowth, there were two poles over a deep, black pit. We hurriedly filled it in with years of rubble, broken glass, unwanted soil and nailed the door against wandering domestic animals and inquisitive small children.

There is no sign now of what used to be. Electricity, piped water, central heating, the main house looks as lovely as it was centuries ago. Most of the land has been sold off. Where espaliered fruit trees, nectarines and vines once held warmth within the wall of the garden, there is now an estate of small houses. Each is neat with a pocket handkerchief lawn. Only when a patch of aquilegia spoils the symmetry of a neat border or tenacious comfrey or wild strawberries emerge from a neglected corner is there a hint of what used to be.

Where the sixth loo stood, we worked out that there was now a garage. Its shelves were neat with cans of oil and spare parts But under the up-market car, dark and sinister was an inspection pit!

Jean Davis