Starved, I have been, of places to go and things to see for the past six weeks. I managed to slope into Reading Museum, in Berkshire’s County Town, at some point, I recall; but my camera has lain glum in its case, and I have become shorter and more morose with every day that passed.
One must take one’s pleasures where one can.
Today, I had a task which could have been most onerous: driving to the other side of our county town down twisty-turny lanes to collect my daughter from a residential stay. She has been camping next the Thames for some three days in wigwams, and today it was time to come home.
I set out to drive the 40 uncharted minutes into deepest Oxfordshire, and arrived without too much fuss.
My daughter, a literary spirit, had spent three frustrating days trying to bring the gravity of her location home to her teenage compatriots. They didn’t get it, so that by the time I arrived to collect her she was almost exploding with her news.
For she was camped right next to Toad Hall.
This is Hardwick House, parked on the Hardwick Estate, near Whitchurch-On Thames, past which the sweet Thames flows softly. It is mentioned in Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat: “A little above Mapledurham Lock you pass Hardwick House, where Charles I played bowls.”
Which he did, though he was under escort at the time, a prisoner from Oxford.
But by far the most colourful resident of this rather wonderful red-brick dwelling is important because he inspired a writer to create one of the most charming fantasies in British literature: a make-believe world which takes us down n scale to the lives of Mole, and Rat, and Badger.
Mr Toad, he of the obsession with motor cars, the soft ‘Poop poop!”, is said to be modelled on the man who lived here, and his house styled very like this one. What you see before you is Kenneth Graham’s Toad Hall.
The villagers of Whitchurch knew Toad as the Baronet of Hardwick House, Charles Day Rose.
Playboy incarnate, father-of-five, his father was the Canadian Solicitor-General. Young Charles went into the Montreal Garrison Artillery and foiled the Fenian Revolt at the Battle of Eccles.
Later, his entry into banking drew him to be part of the syndicate which backed the Canadian Pacific Railway. He bred racehorses with some considerable success; became enamoured of yachting, and was a member of the Royal Victoria Yacht Club; and was created a Baronet in 1909, moving to Hardwick House shortly afterwards. He delved into Liberal politics with just as much vigour, and became Newmarket MP at a by-election in 1903.
His final obsession was to so much poop-poop as vroom vroom: aeroplanes and aviation. He was President of the Royal Aero Club. And it was returning from Hendon Aerodrome, in a motor car, that Toad died of a heart attack, and never did his restless feet return home to Hardwick again.
Charles Day Rose certainly lived life in the fast lane: yet this spot is the calm at the centre of what must have been a maelstrom of a character. A solid, immoveable, unchanging little homely fortress next the Thames: what a backdrop, for that Technicolor life.