I always take particular pleasure in people’s stories about how they discover books.
For me, the process is quite conventional, more often than not the result of a trip to the London Library, through word of mouth, via Slightly Foxed, or a profitable hour or two spent in a favourite
second-hand bookshop. There is one exception in my experience, though: a discovery made thanks to a devastating fire at a country house.
Around 3.30 p.m. on 30 August 1989, alarms sounded at Uppark, the imposing National Trust property perched high up on the South Downs in West Sussex.
The house, dating back to 1690, was being extensively repaired. Workers welding lead on the roof failed to notice that wooden beams underneath had caught fire. The result was devastating – the blaze ripped through the ancient fabric, destroying the upper floors and everything in them.
Thanks to the quick thinking of shocked National Trust staff and firefighters, a great deal of furniture and other items were saved from the flames. Then debate raged as to whether or not Uppark should be restored to its former glory. In the end the Trust went ahead with the restoration, and the house was reopened to the public in 1995.
Those horrendous images on the television news stayed with me, and, having known the house as it was before the fire, I was determined to see its restoration for myself. On that visit (and I have to say the Trust has done a wonderful job), I bought a copy of Uppark Restored by Christopher Rowell and John Martin Robinson. It carries a foreword by the then Director-General of the National Trust, Martin Drury, which recalls another, fictional house destroyed by fire:
‘Next there came a low rumble, sparks flying like fireworks . . . and the whole of Uptake was roaring and crackling.’ These words described the climax of a story published in 1942, strangely prefiguring the fire that ravaged Uppark forty-five years later. The Last of U
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