The walls which surround us: we make them what they are today.
But we do not know what may happen to them tomorrow. We can just do what we do, and try to make them the happiest walls possible.
Once upon a time, in the rolling fields just outside High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, someone built a farmhouse.
It is recorded in the Domesday Book, William the Conqueror’s survey for tax purposes. But as a guide put it to me recently: if it was a few logs tacked together with a bit of cow dung, William would feel at liberty to tax it. It cost the son of the Bishop of Bayeux ten hides in tax.
However: by the time we encounter it on history’s path, it was a nice Tudor farmhouse. Right up until the moment that a gentleman bought the place to use as a hunting lodge. It had no mod cons: not water, or even bathrooms. It was just a basic crash pad for a bachelor and his mates. Georgian in style, it was covered in white plaster.
He did not trouble with covering the place’s humble roots down in the cellar, though. And I stood on the stairs and gazed starry-eyed at what was left of the Domesday Farmhouse.
Anyhow, the Georgian gentleman used the place for some time, and it was not until 1848 that a most happy turn of events ensured it was well fitted out from that moment onwards.
Because when it came up for sale, it just happened that Benjamin Disraeli’s parents lived just next door. And though he had no money, yet rich and influential friends lent him the £25,000 – a king’s ransom in today’s money – to buy the place.
Before long, Disraeli was a-changing things. What a man he was. If ever I could be persuaded to like a Tory prime minister, it would be him. In thrall to Lord Byron as a young man, with an eye for the ladies and they for him, he had his flamboyant side. And while he was putting the world to rights at Westminster he was busy improving his four walls. His choice of architect was controversial and the results most odd. Edward Buckton Lamb was said to be “one of the most perverse and original of mid-Victorian architects” and Nickolas Pevsner branded Hughenden’s attempt at emulating the gothic ‘excruciating’.
It did make me grin, as I stepped round. Widely. Baronial gothic, I think the style is called. And Disraeli took advantage of glazing technology and glassed in the entrance hall and wide back windows so it has something of the shop front about it.
But it is a happy shop front. Disraeli and his wife were a perfect, clever love match and the walls still proclaim their mutual regard today. As eccentric as Walpole’s Twickenham folly, Strawberry Hill, in its own way, you walk from room to room gazing at ceilings like cake icing and gargoyles straight out of a Victorian gothic novel. Somehow, though it is mock-gothic, it sits well. And for the strangest reason: its occupants were likeable.
They died, eventually. And could not have imagined in their wildest dreams what the 1940s would have in store for their four walls.
To be continued……