A Vigorous Voice from the Past

I hurried to visit Tyntesfield within a year or two of its opening to the public.  The house was only partially open, and work was going on all over the estate.  During my visit, I stood with a tour group in the Billiard Room, admiring the vaulted ceiling and the light from the high windows.  The billiard table, custom-made for the family, connected to an electronic scoreboard.  Pressing a button on the side of the table recorded the score–quite an innovation, for Victorian times.

William Gibbs was 75 when his dream home was completed, and he had four sons.  Three of them were still teenagers, so presumably the room was built and furnished for them.  It was not, however, a smoking room–Mr. Gibbs allowed only smoking in the very highest room of the house, a tower on the third floor.  (I’m sure the teenagers found ways around the various house rules–they always do).

We had all just looked at a rather ornate urinal in an adjoining room–another modern innovation. The guide was talking about how the room was built for and used by men.  Suddenly an elderly lady in the back of the group thumped her cane on the floor and interrupted the guide.  She was a family member and had spent a good deal of time in the house.  One of the 19 heirs!  (I hoped she had collected a cool million and not blown it all at the casino).  She proceeded to set us all straight.  Did women use the billiard room?  Yes, they did!  Trust me, you would not have argued with her.

The lady went on with a story about the bats that had infested the former men’s servants quarters nearby.  Later, I read that the colony of protected lesser horseshoe bats had to given another suitable home on the estate before restoration could begin in those rooms.

The tour guide wisely let the lady keep talking.  I’d have listened to her all day.  At the time, I didn’t know about the Great Kidnapping Incident, or I’d have asked her about it for sure.  In 1988, the late Lord Wraxall had been kidnapped at his home. The ruffians knocked him to the ground and demanded his house keys and the combination to his safe.  But the burglar alarm went off–I don’t know whether he was inside or outside the house at the time.  So they threw him into the boot (the trunk, to Americans) of his own car, which they drove about 2 miles away and abandoned.  He was left there for 7 hours until someone found him. According to some reports, all he had to say was, “Good grief, there’s more room in there than I ever thought.”

The National Trust is going to great lengths to collect stories about life in the house.  There is an interactive website where people can contribute their own memories.  It is at http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/history/stories/. Personal stories are placed in a timeline. Family, servants and friends have contributed their memories.

Recently, the house has been featured on the wildly popular BBC TV series Dr. Who–very appropriately, since Dr. Who is a Time Lord.  Not only can he travel through time, but he is able to regenerate his body in a different form when near death–very handy for showrunners who have to cope with new actors taking over the part.

At Tyntesfield, and at many other National Trust Properties, enchanting doorways continue to lead us into the past, carefully preserved for future generations.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

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