Sometimes, I ache for the shadows of what we have lost.
In the prosperous market town of Henley on Thames, renowned for its regatta, one can walk past the town hall and up Gravel Hill, away from the hurly burly and designer outlets, away from the churches and the River Thames.
And you will become aware, after a little while, that you are walking next to a cobblestone wall.
It is extremely high, and affords those on the other side unparalleled privacy. It has a small arched gate at one point, leading down a little path. It is quite old – 18th century – and it is a grade II listed wall. Yet on the other side, there is no monastery garden; no great country house. Rather, there is a housing estate dating from the 1970s. Great, worthy old Paradise House was demolished in the 1960s.
Incongruously, the wall culminates in a grand pair of iron gates which now open onto a small and most modern, convenient house.
The wall continues in its mind’s eye to enclose what it has lost, hugging its loss to itself, a grizzled old reminder of an age gone forever.But behind that wall began a story which became infamous; a story whose shadows continue to play on the walls of the town to this day.
The walls were the unforgiving boundaries of Paradise House.
A son is a son till he takes a wife, but a daughter’s a daughter for the rest of her life. And Francis Blandy, a well-off Oxfordshire lawyer and the town clerk of Henley in the 1740s, had a daughter who could not, it seemed, be married off.
And so, as was often the way, he settled a fat dowry on Mary. Her husband would receive £10,000 on marrying her.
Lo and behold, behind the walls of Paradise House, a suitor appeared out of the ether. It was at a garden party that Mary met Captain the Honourable William Henry Cranstoun. A dashing partner with all the charm and wit a woman could wish for. They hit it off instantly and it seemed a perfect match had been made. Mary’s father was overjoyed.
Right until the moment the Captain’s uncle, owner of Paradise House, Lord Mark Ker, took Francis aside.
It seemed the captain was already married.
Francis was horrified. Immediately he ordered that Cranstoun never contact Mary again.
But £10,000 in the 18th Century was a mighty powerful incentive. And the Captain had Mary’s heart already; they continued to correspond, and presently a small package arrived in the post at Mary’s home.
It was from the Captain; and it contained a ‘love-philtre’. It was, he said, a set of powders which would change Francis’s mind; and then Mary, the Captain and the £10,000 could be together. Forever.
Mary administered the potion in high hopes: but three days later, Francis was found stone dead.
The story does not end there. But today, we shall pause at the walls of Paradise House, an ancient old boundary wall, complete with doors and entrance gates, which yearns for the good old days of Lord Ker, his garden parties, and his dissolute nephews.
To Be Continued.
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