Friday, 9 August 2013

Return to Heytesbury

I think it is time to start talking about our intentions for 2014.  Last year the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship was invited to participate in an event in Heytesbury, Wiltshire (the village where Siegfried Sassoon spent the last 33 years of his life), which was being planned by local people to commemorate the start of the First World War.  Naturally we agreed immediately, and arrangements for this event are now beginning in earnest.

Siegfried and his new wife, Hester, moved into Heytesbury House in 1934; he could afford to buy it only because of a legacy from his aunt, the fabulously wealthy Rachel Beer, who had died in 1927 after a lingering illness.  He loved the village, and remained there after his marriage broke up.  Its proximity to Downside Abbey and to Mells, the home of the Asquiths, was an additional attraction that greatly affected his social activities during the latter years of his life.  Siegfried's pastimes while he was there included playing cricket with the monks of Downside.  During the Second World War, however, much of the residential accommodation was given over to American soldiers.

It was at Heytesbury that Siegfried Sassoon died, and he left the house to his son George, who eventually and reluctantly sold it, unable to afford the upkeep of such an enormous property.  Our President, Dennis Silk, visited Siegfried at Heytesbury many times and has fond memories of the house, as does Dom Sebastian Moore of nearby Downside Abbey, who instructed the poet in the Catholic faith in the late 1950s. Another of the monks, Dom Philip Jebb (coincidentally the grandson of Hilaire Belloc), was one of the last people to see Siegfried and officiated at his funeral.

After some years of near-dereliction as the result of a fire in the late 1980s, the house was converted into the lovely apartments that can be seen today.  Although not open to the public, it has been well cared-for, but Siegfried would have found it disconcerting to see the amount of additional building that has taken up much of the original estate.  The house is, sadly, separated from the main part of the village by the A36 trunk road, which cuts through the surrounding countryside at this point.

The parish church of St Peter and St Paul is a medieval building with substantial 19th century alterations. Although it has undergone some restoration, it is costly to maintain, and the local community hopes to raise money for its upkeep as a result of the poetry reading planned for 2 August 2014, in which the SSF hopes to play a very active role.  In fact, we are in the process of devising a programme of readings and negotiating with a list of potential readers and actors who will be performing it.

Siegfried was not, of course, at Heytesbury when he enlisted in the army at the beginning of August 2014. He travelled to Sussex's county town of Lewes to join up, becoming a Trooper in the Sussex Yeomanry, a role in which he was never called up for active service.  Although we cannot be in two places at once, it is our hope that the event at Heytesbury will directly reflect his experiences as well as exposing the audience to some of the lesser-known poetry of the First World War as well as some of the best-known.
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