A BIT OF BACKGROUND:

It was the summer of 1970, Mungo Jerry was at the top of the hit parade and we were about to move house.  But not to any old house – to a 70 roomed mansion in 20 acres of grounds!  For years my dad had collected antiques, ever since he was a young boy of 12, and it was his dream to own a large house where he could put them on show to the general public.  In the 1970s he owned the largest private collection of arms and armour in the country and his dream was about to be realised; but little did we know what a nightmare would unfold before us.

Hoar Cross Hall was the home of the Meynell Ingram family who originated from Leicestershire.  Hugo Meynell of Quorndon was the High Sheriff of Staffordshire and Member of Parliament for Lichfield and the family owned considerable property in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Derbyshire.  He bought the Hoar Cross estate in 1793 and built a hunting lodge there known as Old Hall and founded the Meynell Hunt.  It seemed the family lived here for many years until Hugo’s grandson, also Hugo, got married in 1863 and decided to build the present Hall for him and his wife, Emily Charlotte. 

The house took nine years to build and was eventually finished in 1871.   Hugo and Emily had already moved in, but their new life together was soon to be cut short by a tragic accident.  Fourteen months earlier at Birch Wood on their estate Hugo had a horse riding accident and had been bed-ridden ever since – he died in May of that year.  They had no children and Emily built The Church of the Holy Angels in the grounds of the hall in memory of her husband.  This is the church that I got married in many years later.  On Hugo’s death Emily inherited many large estates and they say she was a double millionairess – which in those days was a huge amount of money!   And so we moved to this house with all its history and tragedies in the summer of 1970.

My family consisted of my dad and mum, William and Gwynyth, descendents of an old Derbyshire family and from the Prices of Meirionydd, and two younger brothers, Gavin and Piers and the five of us were about to take on a stately home in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed to me!  It was actually in the middle of Staffordshire but in an incredibly small village, more like a hamlet, with a church, a school, a few cottages and a village pub.  The local bus service had just come to an end the month we moved in so there was no public transport either or a village shop!  Of course, to us three kids it seemed really exciting moving to this huge house with all those rooms to play hide and seek in.  The gardens were vast and we couldn’t wait to climb trees and make dens in the yew hedges.  Pathways led to sunken gardens and ponds with stepping stones and a ha-ha wall bordered the grounds.

My parents were keen members of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings and Monuments and had decided to restore Hoar Cross Hall to some of its former grandeur.  The house had been empty for nearly 20 years as the Meynell family who owned it back then had moved out to a smaller house in the neighbouring village of Newborough.  A caretaker had been installed and he and his family lived in a couple of rooms on the first floor.  Their daughter was the same age as me and we soon became firm friends as we explored the house together. 

The main house had a Long Gallery, a Ballroom, a Drawing Room, a Chapel and a Library with secret doors!  How I loved it – I was a big fan of The Famous Five in those days and it really did feel like I was in the middle of one of their mysteries!  There were about 15 basement rooms some of which had had the floors removed due to damp rot but the main passageway was made of flagstones so you could still walk through it – this was where a lot of the male servants had slept and it was also where the wine cellars were along with linen storage space.

In the attic a similar number of rooms were bare and empty and had once housed all the female servants.  Two spiral staircases joined all the floors together, one at each end of the house.  All the bedrooms for the family were on the first floor and were named after whichever town they faced i.e. Derby, Lichfield, Needwood, etc.  It was fascinating stuff – there was also a West Wing and an East Wing to the house; the East Wing had been the nursery rooms for the younger members of the Meynell family and their nursemaids.  Back down in the basement were all the old kitchens including the Boot Boy’s room, laundry room, pantries and sculleries.  Along the wall of the passageway was a row of bells and the names of the rooms to which they belonged – these were here so that the servants could be summoned to do their master’s bidding – they were also used in a prank by myself and my brother when we were visited by a team of professional ghost hunters - but that’s another story which will be featured in a later blog!

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Here Comes the Bride (Part 2) #33

| 24 hours ago | Growing Up In a Stately Home

Here Comes the Bride (Part 2)  #33

HERE COMES THE BRIDE (Part 2):    And so our wedding day at Hoar Cross Hall arrived bright and clear, all thoughts of solicitors, legals, fights and arrests behind us! Myself and my bridesmaids went to get our hair done in the morning and Kev slapped a piece of steak on his jaw to bring the swelling down after the rather unfortunate fight at his stag do. Fortunately, the bruise didn’t show up too much on the photos! Gavin drove my dad’s Mercedes Benz car all the way down the drive and back up the road to the church – this was one of the drawbacks of having a church in the grounds; you don’t get to drive all through the town with everyone looking at you! Never mind, a small crowd of locals were gathered around the gate to the church and we got out, had a few photos taken and walked down the aisle to ‘Here comes the bride’. However, as Kev had not attended the rehearsal (remember, he was fixing someone’s shower!), he didn’t have a clue what was going on or where to stand or anything! When we came to say our vows, the vicar got his name wrong and so I nearly married a ‘Derek’. There was much whispering at the front as we told him the correct name. Again, when I put my ring on the Bible, the vicar thought it was two rings as I had a Russian wedding ring with three bands. He started to say ‘with these rings……’ and once again, there was much whispering at the front as we explained that it was only one ring! And then, just as we were on our knees to receive the blessing, Chris Meek (my dad’s old racing driver) walked in with a beautiful model on his arm. She was wearing a short cheesecloth dress and with the sun behind her it was completely see through! Anyone who remembers the Lady Di photo will know what I mean! We heard a sharp intake of breath as the whole congregation turned to face the door – talk about upstaging the bride! Finally, the ceremony was over and I was married to Kev (not Derek) and as we walked out into the sunlight I felt a huge relief that it was all over and no-one had been arrested! However, the day was slightly marred by the fact that my mum wasn’t there and because she had been asked not to come, she had retaliated by not letting my little brother Piers come either. When the photos were being taken, Gavin, my other brother, was turning the car round and missed being in any of the shots! So out of my whole family, there was just me and my dad in the photos! But more annoying was the fact that a lot of the guests were rushing to have their photos taken next to Chris Meek’s brand new Ferrari! The Ferrari that stole the show!   However, the party was great and the band a huge success. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves and drank the bar dry. My dad brought down the promised bottles of champagne that he had been saving for all those years and put them on our table. After a while he noticed that everyone was happily drinking the cheaper pomagne, which we had bought for the toast, so he took all the bottles back upstairs to his room! We didn’t even get one for ourselves! Later on we had the speeches and, as I have said before, our best man was in the entertainment industry and was a professional performing magician. As he did his speech, he incorporated some of his tricks into the talk and guests were treated to bunches of flowers being pulled from his sleeve and strings of hankies appearing from nowhere. Finally a dove magically appeared from a hat and flew around the room – good job Percy the parrot wasn’t around! He did such a professional job that all Kev’s relatives thought we’d hired him for the day and couldn’t believe that he was our friend!   Chris (the magician) and Kev    As the party continued on into the night people gradually went home until there was just us and our friends left at 5am. Bodies were everywhere – someone had fallen asleep on the Entrance Hall steps, another couple were flat out on a sofa in the Long Gallery. ...

See you in Court #31

| 11th January 2021 | Growing Up In a Stately Home

See you in Court  #31

SEE YOU IN COURT:     The saga of my parents’ split continued as we grew up in our stately home, although their behaviour was anything but stately for most of the time! Seven years of arguing and fighting were about to come to an end and the solicitors had finally agreed on a date to go to court. We carried on helping my dad to run the Hall and he still went to his boat in Caernarfon at weekends to get away from the house but we were all getting weary of it now. We were young adults and wanting to get on with our own lives. After five years together we were hoping to get married at some point so we were glad that it was finally going to be sorted out one way or another. Gavin was now involved with a band who regularly supported The Jam so he was often travelling around the country with them. Piers had been sent to a local boarding school so we saw even less of him than before. My mum continued to live in the West Wing Apartment and was now seeing the singer who sang at the banquets. My dad sat on his own most nights with only the parrot for company. When he found out about the singer it started a fresh load of outbursts from him as he now felt that the pair of them were trying to take his house and business off him! He constantly ranted on about it and often threatened to shoot the singer with his gun – I don’t think he would have done but then again, with his temper, who knows! This latest twist in the story did nothing for my dad’s sanity and my mum was still hoping to have him committed and kept making appointments for him with the psychiatrist. Once again, the Police were called every week informing them of the threats on the singer’s life and they eventually took my dad’s gun licence off him just in case anything did happen! We tried to keep out of the way as much as possible and stayed in Burton all week, where we worked, and came home at weekends where we would meet up with our friends and party in the apartments out of sight and sound of my parents. One morning we came home at 8am after being out all night and met my dad on the stairs as we were going to bed. He looked surprised and said “You’re up early today aren’t you?” to which we just nodded and carried on to our bedrooms! We consoled ourselves by spending a lot of time in the Meynell Arms, the local pub in the village. When we walked in of an evening, everyone was keen to know the latest updates on the divorce and we would spend half an hour telling them all the news – it was like a real life soap opera! On Tuesday nights a bunch of the local businessmen would all meet up for a drink. These men were all middle aged, respectable professionals but on a Tuesday night they turned into a bunch of mad men! We loved it of course, being young and wanting to forget our miserable home life – what better way than a bit of madness? And so, after quite a few drinks, these guys would decide to take sides and have a fight. They piled all the furniture up at each end of the pub to make a barricade then used fire extinguishers and soda syphons to squirt water at each other until one side ‘won’. As you can imagine, the mess was horrendous; water was everywhere! Every week the cleaner resigned and they would have to find another one. What a place! A typical night at the Meynell!   But all this jollity didn’t put off the inevitable day in court. Birmingham Crown Court was where we all met to finally sort out this miserable mess that my parents had got themselves into. On the one side was my dad with his solicitor and barrister plus Kev and I for moral support. On the other side was my mum with her solicitor and barrister and one or two of the banquet staff for moral support. And so, there we all stood, our two little groups waiting in the corridor outside the court room. The solicitors were both giving out last minute instructions and conferring with their barristers on this and that. And then it was time; they called us in and we sat on e...

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| 11th January 2021 | Growing Up In a Stately Home

Here Comes the Bride    (Part 1) #32

HERE COMES THE BRIDE (Part 1):   Now my dad was having to move out of the Hall we had decided to bring our wedding forward so that we could get married in the church in the grounds (the Church of the Holy Angels) and then have the reception afterwards in the Hall, which was after all our family home. The wedding preparations were going quite well and as we knew lots of musicians it wasn’t hard to find a local band and a DJ to do the disco. A friend of my dad’s offered to do the catering and the bar was set up with plenty of kegs from the local brewery in Burton on Trent. I had two bridesmaids and we all went to Birmingham one day to choose our dresses and shoes – it was all kept very simple really as I had no help or advice from my mum as most brides do. Kev’s parents had eloped after the war and got married in a register office with two witnesses dragged off the street, so they had no idea what you did to plan a wedding! I managed to find a church near to Kev’s house and sorted out the reading of the banns. Then we went to the vicarage across the road from my house and booked the date. The vicar told us in no uncertain terms that he would expect us to be there when the banns were read. However, as we never got up before lunch on a Sunday, try as we might, we never actually managed to hear our own banns being read! It was almost as bad at the wedding rehearsal. I went to the church with my dad and the two bridesmaids but Kev never managed to get there as he was fitting a shower for someone! I don’t think the vicar was very impressed with us! The nearer it got to our wedding date the more we worried about my mum turning up. It wasn’t that I didn’t want her there but that my dad told us we couldn’t possibly have her there as he would ‘see red’ and a row would ensue. We really didn’t want a huge argument on our wedding day but knowing my dad’s temper we weren’t sure that he would be able to control himself so he offered to see his solicitor to see if he had any suggestions. The solicitor suggested that we take out an injunction to stop my mum attending the wedding! Talk about extremes. It seemed to us that it was all getting out of hand – why couldn’t they just sit on each side of the church and ignore each other? They lived at each end of the house and ignored each other! A letter was sent to my mum threatening the injunction – looking back my poor mum must have been so upset. Her eldest daughter getting married and now their squabbles had spoilt what should have been a happy day. She must have visited the vicar to see what he could do as the next thing he was ringing us up and making an appointment to see him at the vicarage. We didn’t know what it was about until we got there and he gave us quite a talking to. He must have thought we were terrible people to try and ban my mother from our wedding but we tried to put our side of the story to him and told him of my dad’s terrible temper and how he might start an argument in the church. He then told us something that stunned us – he told us that vicars have the power of arrest in their church if anyone causes a disturbance; this is apparently from some ancient law. I wonder how many people know that? I think we just left it then and hoped that the solicitor’s letter would be enough. I did hear many years later on the grapevine that mum had crept in at the back of the church for a quick look before the ceremony ended – I hope she did.  She also sent a friend to take photos of us. But first we had to have our stag and hen dos. In those days it was always the night before the wedding, which seems ridiculous really considering all the excess drinking that usually goes on. How different to today’s brides and grooms who go off for whole weekends to some far flung place in the sun with a group of friends for fun and frolics a month before the Big Day. Much more sensible, if expensive! I decided to go out for a nice meal with my friend...

A New Year Calamity! #30

| 03rd January 2021 | Growing Up In a Stately Home

A New Year Calamity!  #30

A NEW YEAR CALAMITY!       The New Year’s Eve Balls at the Hall were usually the highlight of the year. After twelve months of hard work, especially running the Mediaeval Banquets twice a week through the winter, we were always ready to see out the year in style with a big new year party. In those days it was always black tie for the men and long dresses for the ladies – usually around 500 people bought tickets for an evening of entertainment with a dance band, disco and a meal. At midnight a man dressed in traditional Scottish regalia, including a kilt and sporran, would pipe in the new year with his bagpipes. Down the Long Gallery he would slowly walk and into the Ballroom with his pipes droning on. When midnight arrived a net full of balloons was dropped onto all the guests from the ceiling, out came the party poppers and hats and everyone joined hands to sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Once all the traditional stuff was done the band started up again and we all did the Hokey Cokey, the Conga and other silly dances that only happen on New Year’s Eve! It was always great fun and I loved to dress up in my long dress. My parents were having a trial separation around this time so my dad had to run the New Year’s Eve Ball on his own. I helped, as I had before, with the administration; posting out tickets and doing a bit of book-keeping. The week prior to the Ball was spent moving furniture about and cleaning the house up after all the banquet tables and benches were removed. We usually used some of the banquet tables for people to sit at but this particular year my mum had stored them all away in the basement and put a lock on the door – these were her property now! This left my dad in a bit of a quandary about what to do for tables and after a lot of ranting he decided that he would have to hire some. As my dad was well known for being ‘careful’ with his money, he didn’t want to spend too much and hired the cheapest tables and chairs he could. They arrived on the day of the Ball in a van with a man (or two) and they carried them into the Ballroom and left. Kev and I went to set them out later on – it was only then that we realised why they were so cheap. The tables folded out but the chairs were all joined together in rows of 10! So it meant that every time someone got up to leave the table, the other 9 people had to get up too as they all pushed back together! Eventually we got the house sorted out and hoped that people wouldn’t be too bothered about the chairs. Then my dad noticed that the Christmas tree lights weren’t working. In true dad style he went down to his basement workshop and found some old lights that weren’t really safe to use – however, he insisted that he could fix them with a bit of tape even though Kev (who was a trained electrician) told him they were unsafe and he would be willing to go to the next village to buy some new ones. But my dad wouldn’t have it and he certainly wouldn’t spend the few pounds required, so they were botched up much to Kev’s disgust and hung on the tree. Kev and I on New Year's Eve   As we went to switch the lights on just before people arrived, they blew the main fuse in the fuse box. My mum had locked the cupboard that contained the fuse boxes because she kept all the bar stock in there and as she had gone away for new year there was no way of getting the key. My dad was furious and asked Kev to break into the cupboard. Once again we were ‘breaking and entering’ at my dad’s command – at least we had a valid reason this time! An enormous crowbar was found in the workshop and Kev set to work on the door, wood splintering everywhere – these doors were incredibly well made! Eventually we got in and Kev managed to re-set the fuse box – the lights were thrown away. People were starting to arrive but they were a little late getting to us. One or two complained about the car parking facilities but we didn’t think anything of it as we ...