It is some time since I visited the great old house which was my workplace for about four years.
The house has quite a history.
Some time in the early 17th century, some bloke put up a fence round some land in Windsor Forest.
It was illegally done, but we all know the whole rights-of-way law is a tricky minefield, and that finders often, at least in British law, turn out to be keepers more often than you might think.
This finder -whose name has been lost in the mists of time – got to keep the land. A jolly nice house went up on it: there’s a lease dated 1683 according the tenancy to a William Samrooth. And a procession of notables followed each other residing there.
But one cannot help but note that tragedy dogged many of those associated with the place.
It housed the British prime minister who holds the record for the shortest period in office. Poor George Canning: appointed by George IV in preference to both the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel, he got short shrift from both and forming a working government was a thorny business. His health deteriorated and he died 119 days into his term.
And then there was the poor liberal politician and barrister who took the house after Canning. Sir William Hayter took over in 1858: it was at Christmas twenty years later that he was found after a bout of depression, drowned in the mansion’s grand lake.
His son took over as the state of mansions the country over began to decline, in that no-man’s-land between the inherited wealth of the aristocracy and the advent of heritage tourism. His widow lived on there until 1929 when her nephew, a military man, took over.
Eleven years later, the Major shot himself in the gun cupboard on the first floor.
A military hospital decamped there in the second world war; it enjoyed a brief post-war life in the smart set as converted flats; and then the local Bohemians set their hearts on it as a centre for those who loved to practice the arts.
My mother and father, folk singers, were among the first to witness its transformation in the seventies. They went with the first director to the attic rooms where he camped as it took shape.
And it was this place: this dark fated place filled with chandeliers and shadows – whose director offered me a job running the complex three nights a week.
I remember the night before I started, lying awake. I had never wanted to work anywhere as much as I did at this strange stagey place, which now boasted two theatres, cinemas, conference facilities and workshops, a grand open air theatre, acres of land and lakes.
But I couldn’t quite imagine locking it up, at midnight, when all the punters had gone home.
There were so many stories.
The reality was as spooky as the supposition had been. I collected a huge bunch of keys ancient and modern when I arrived on shift at four, and we’d have a short handover. I always carried a torch for those moments when lights were not an option.
And I would start locking up the far ends of the mansion as groups finished; yoga, stained glass, salsa or printmaking, they all had their finish times. I’d lock from the outer limits towards the core of the building, where the catering manager was my comrade in arms. Together, in the shadows, we’d take our leave of the mansion and step with a palpable exhalation of breath out, into the car park, and off home to unwind.
Today, Maddie and I pottered round the familiar galleries. They were flooded with sunlight and innocence. But Maddie led me to the room which fascinates her, though she doesn’t know the full story behind it.
It is a studio theatre, painted black, shuttered against the light, a small English heart of darkness.
The story goes that once it was the scene of a great fire – some time in the mid 19th century – and that, alas, it was the nursery. Young lives were lost and regrets prompted further tragic consequences.
We pushed the door to see if it would give. Usually it is locked fast: but today it opened.
And standing there, the wraith-like stories drifted out to meet me. I remembered vividly all the experiences I have lived through within those walls; explicable and inexplicable; and all the tales my friends experienced. Tragedy is no stranger, even now, to the place.
After about a half a minute of the strangest reverie, it was as if someone walked over my grave. I shuddered involuntarily and ushered my first-born out of that place.
And away to the dazzling light of an English Springtime .