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The Orangery, Fairford Park - Jon Woolcott on John Harris, No Voice from the Hall

These Fragments

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‘Deepdene, The Grange, Little Ridge, Sturton Hall . . .’ Visitors to the V&A’s landmark 1974 exhibition ‘The Destruction of the Country House’ would have heard a recorded voice intoning the names of houses that had disappeared in previous decades. This voice belonged to John Harris, the architectural historian, and co-curator of the exhibition.

I’ve always loved ruins and vanished buildings. If you share that interest, and many don’t, finding a fellow obsessive is wonderful. My fascination had lasted decades before I came across Harris’s book No Voice from the Hall (1998) and found a kindred spirit. Subtitled Early Memories of a Country House Snooper, it describes his teenage expeditions hitch-hiking across England – mostly – in search of derelict great houses in the aftermath of the Second World War.

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A history class during my first year at grammar school in the late 1970s: a warm day in early autumn, the room hotter than it needed to be. Thirty or so boys, uncomfortable in prickly new uniforms, seated at old desks in a grey prefabricated ‘mobile’ classroom, which smelt fiercely of plastic and rubber. We were doing local history and weren’t especially interested, but the lesson was bearable because our school was in Salisbury and history there was palpable: the famous cathedral spire loomed over the school; Old Sarum, the hill fort to the north, was visible from everywhere in this valley town; and Stonehenge lay a few miles away.

Now our teacher, Mr Pemberton, was talking about Clarendon Palace. I had never heard of it. A retreat for monarchs, it boasted a Great Hall, wine cellars, chapel, courtyard, gardens. The Constitutions of Clarendon, introducing new legal practices, had been enacted there by Henry II. As an aside, in words I can remember precisely from that lesson forty years ago, we were told that the palace ‘now lay derelict in woods beyond Laverstock’. I

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‘Deepdene, The Grange, Little Ridge, Sturton Hall . . .’ Visitors to the V&A’s landmark 1974 exhibition ‘The Destruction of the Country House’ would have heard a recorded voice intoning the names of houses that had disappeared in previous decades. This voice belonged to John Harris, the architectural historian, and co-curator of the exhibition.

I’ve always loved ruins and vanished buildings. If you share that interest, and many don’t, finding a fellow obsessive is wonderful. My fascination had lasted decades before I came across Harris’s book No Voice from the Hall (1998) and found a kindred spirit. Subtitled Early Memories of a Country House Snooper, it describes his teenage expeditions hitch-hiking across England – mostly – in search of derelict great houses in the aftermath of the Second World War.

*

A history class during my first year at grammar school in the late 1970s: a warm day in early autumn, the room hotter than it needed to be. Thirty or so boys, uncomfortable in prickly new uniforms, seated at old desks in a grey prefabricated ‘mobile’ classroom, which smelt fiercely of plastic and rubber. We were doing local history and weren’t especially interested, but the lesson was bearable because our school was in Salisbury and history there was palpable: the famous cathedral spire loomed over the school; Old Sarum, the hill fort to the north, was visible from everywhere in this valley town; and Stonehenge lay a few miles away. Now our teacher, Mr Pemberton, was talking about Clarendon Palace. I had never heard of it. A retreat for monarchs, it boasted a Great Hall, wine cellars, chapel, courtyard, gardens. The Constitutions of Clarendon, introducing new legal practices, had been enacted there by Henry II. As an aside, in words I can remember precisely from that lesson forty years ago, we were told that the palace ‘now lay derelict in woods beyond Laverstock’. I looked around – my classmates were unmoved, the sportier ones gazing through smeary windows towards the cricket nets. But I was transfixed. I imagined a huge, ornate building, a wide frontage and steps up to a massive blank doorway, in near darkness under the thick canopy, secluded, undisturbed. The depth of my obsession has never diminished. On the other side of a poorly negotiated adolescence I took my mother, always a woman keen for adventure, on a walk to find the palace. An Ordinance Survey map led us up downland and along a chalky path to an isolated cottage. Just beyond, hidden in tall grass and brambles, I spotted a small square sign headed ‘Ministry of Works’ that announced an archaeological site. We pushed through the undergrowth; trees gathered overhead. Suddenly a section of thick flint wall loomed above us. This was it. In the green darkness my heart thumped. The find was confirmed by a nineteenth-century plaque commemorating the Constitutions of Clarendon – Mr Pemberton would have approved. We roamed around. Among tree roots we stumbled over massive bases of pillars – the Great Hall, surely. Beyond, the ground fell away steeply. Behind the high wall a set of crumbling steps led down to a roofless chamber with flint walls. It was unspeakably thrilling. I have since visited many ruins, follies and grottoes – all are wonderful, but few have produced that first pure rush of discovery. John Harris was born in 1931 and says, matter of factly, that his parents ‘couldn’t cope’ with him. They ended his schooling when he was 14 and found him employment at Heal’s on Tottenham Court Road. It did not last. A very long lunch break taken volunteering at the British Museum got him the sack. Escape from the mundane lay in spending days with his ‘Uncle’ Sid, whose huge red bulbous nose earned him the nickname Snozzle. Snozzle had been a shepherd, knew the works of the Victorian writer and nature-mystic Richard Jefferies intimately, and would lie on ancient earthworks to commune with the earth’s spirits. He was also an accomplished fisherman and Harris became one too. Angling in remote spots, sometimes in the lakes of large estates, gave the young man a taste for exploring the houses’ dereliction. Following his spell at Heal’s, the dole came to his rescue, giving him just enough money to fuel his interest, criss-crossing the country and staying at youth hostels, visiting abandoned houses. Later, with steadier employment, he travelled with friends and colleagues. Between 1946 and 1960 he visited more than 200 houses. The buildings were dangerous to poke about in, especially when alone, full of unstable staircases, collapsed roofs, and floors where a misstep could result in disaster. War had been unkind to them. No other country, says Harris, subjected its great houses to the ignominy of occupation by regiments, requisition for hospitals and schools, or temporary refuge for evacuees. This was a product of the Dunkirk Spirit – the complete mobilization of the country. Nissen huts, training courses and firing-ranges filled the parks. Rolls House in Essex had eighteen different regiments stationed there during the war – staircases were axed for firewood, a portrait of Emma Harvey was used as a dart-board and defaced with a moustache. The Nazis had a go there too – a V1 fell nearby, and the blast blew off part of the roof. Even after the depredations of occupation, many of these houses were not physically threatened but were ‘simply and sadly unwanted’. The rate of destruction was astonishing – in 1955 one great house vanished every two and a half days. Amid the ruination Harris was a prowler, a trespasser. He describes a typical approach to an abandoned house and gives some tips to the would-be uninvited visitor. Look casual, not furtive; broken windows and mild vandalism are ‘good signs’ that the house is probably unoccupied and unsecured. ‘There is blankness in its glassy stare,’ he says, conjuring brilliantly the atmosphere of ruins. Sometimes he employed ruses to gain access, assuming the identity of a fictitious aristocrat, or of a second cousin from abroad, on occasion coming close to being found out. Harris’s prose has an echo of Pevsner, but it’s warmer, less emphatic. The influence is not surprising – Harris worked for Pevsner, and while he regarded him as a mentor and a spur they disagreed over methods, and Harris was sacked again. But they remained in contact and during a second stint Harris worked on the Lincolnshire edition of the Buildings of England series. Despite his occasional briskness – in one sentence an aristo is summarily dispatched (‘he bloodily shot himself with a revolver in 1931’) – Harris always has feeling for his real subjects, the buildings themselves, and their pain.
The traveller through England after 1945 journeyed in a dreamlike landscape, so many empty houses standing forlornly in their parks, all in a vacuum, awaiting the return of their owners to decide their ultimate fate.
His concern is with the mansions and the ruling classes finally down on their luck, but among the decrepitude Harris found others who had taken possession, often coming across ‘old-school tramps’ living in portions of these vast abandoned houses. The book’s charm lies not only in its mournful subject but in its many idiosyncrasies. Harris is surprisingly saucy, and not just in his chapter headings (‘Clock Trouble or “Old Testicle”’, ‘Into the Arms of the Tart next door’). At one point he writes: ‘I will not comment upon the naked lady who met me at the door of a Wolds farmhouse, or the consequences’ and ‘rural places . . . seemed to retain certain of the primal passions found in characters from Hardy’s novels’. He is keenly aware of the oddity of his mission and the strangeness of what he finds – a room in a mansion filled with a potato harvest, a long dead dog in a bathtub. There are scenes of strange coincidence and at times he feels haunted by presences. A sense of the romantic or gothic is never far away. Climbing over a gate into the then dilapidated but now magnificently restored gardens at Painshill, Surrey, close to where traffic thunders by on the A3, he encounters a ruined tower, which puts him in mind of Transylvania and vampires. He is attuned to the mysterious atmosphere of these places, and delights in the improbable. This atmosphere, the indecipherable feeling of a ruin, is what attracts those of us who pick through their fragments. In the early years of this century, after years away, I returned to work in Salisbury. I fell in love, and on one of our early dates I took my future wife to find the ruins of Clarendon. It was an enormously promising sign that she took to the idea with something approaching enthusiasm. It was early summer. Starting from the village of Pitton we walked west towards Salisbury, across open fields and into the densely forested Clarendon Park. Not having approached the ruin from this direction before, I stopped frequently to peer into the woodland, looking for tell-tale signs – a low wall, a dark shadow. Unexpectedly the trees gave way to a huge clearing, and with a start I saw the palace standing alone in the open. It was inestimably reduced. We approached through the long grass. I found it difficult to reconcile it with my memory. Doubt and mystery had been banished; the palace’s skeleton was exposed to the July sky. The tall molar-shaped section of wall, its inscription intact, was impressive still, but less so than when shrouded in trees. A short section of narrow-gauge railway was now visible among the ruins, a relic of 1930s excavations. The steep slope my mother and I had encountered beyond the ruin was now revealed as the grassy remains of terraced gardens. We read the new information signs. We were not alone – an archaeologist working close to the large wall was happy to take a short break to chat. I learnt that the clearance had taken place just a few years before. I wondered then and wonder now about my reaction. Surely this was better, to expose the ruin, to tell its story, rather than hiding it away in the forest as my own snobbish conceit? Harris has done more than almost any other single person alive to halt the decline of these buildings. Among many projects he was instrumental in the rehabilitation of the gardens and follies at Painshill, with its vampiric tower. Here’s the rub for him, and for me: once restored, a place loses its romantic appeal. Maybe we’re no better than Grand Tourists on a budget, drawn by visions of ivy-covered ruins in Renaissance-style landscapes. But the feeling remains, nonetheless. When T. S. Eliot wrote ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’ he meant that the great works of world literature had given him strength and purpose: for me, and I suspect for Harris too, it is ruins themselves that give us a glimpse of deeper meaning. Knowing that time and nature take back our efforts is some comfort in difficult times: No Voice from the Hall is, above all, strangely optimistic.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 66 © Jon Woolcott 2020


About the contributor

Jon Woolcott works for the publisher Little Toller. He is writing a book about the hidden and radical histories of the south of England.

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