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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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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