Sunday, 31 May 2015

In Siegfried's Library

One of the most important rooms, if not the most important room, in Heytesbury House during Siegfried Sassoon's tenure was the Library.  Yesterday I, along with other members of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, was lucky enough to be in that room - although it is no longer the library.  

After Siegfried's death, his son George lived in the house for a time before selling it.  Then began a period of neglect, when parts of the house were badly damaged by fire, and it was some years before it was habitable again.   When residents moved in who appreciated the house and its history, it was gradually restored to its former glory, but some things naturally changed, and another room is now used as the library, while the huge and interestingly-shaped room in which Siegfried kept his books now houses a snooker table.  The view of the gardens and grounds remains intact, and is possibly enhanced by not having the windows lined with bookshelves.

Interest in the printed book also continues at Heytesbury, which was a highlight for the bibliophiles among our members, several of whom own first editions and other curiosities about which they shared information during our tea.  We were supplied with drinks and a choice of cakes (not, of course, while handling books) while we chatted about the house.  We also listened to Dennis Silk's memorable Radio 4 programme - now, unbelievably, more than ten years old - which gave us a wonderful mental picture of what the house was like when Siegfried sat recording his poems on a reel-to-reel tape recorder while occasionally tapping out his pipe on the grate.

Successive owners of the apartment that contains the rooms where Siegfried spent most of his time have been very kind in allowing Sassoon enthusiasts entry from time to time.  Last time I visited, it was pouring with rain and we only ventured into the garden for a few moments to look at "Blunden's Beech".  On this occasion, the weather was kind, and we spent some time outside, looking at the changes made to the grounds over the decades since the poet died at his Georgian mansion in 1967. Most upsetting for Sassoon was the news that a new road, the A36, was to be constructed across part of his estate.  Although he did not live to see it as it is now, with the house cut off from the village by the highway, he would not have approved of this development any more than he would have liked seeing the modern houses that now take up a large section of the grounds.

I am sure he would have loved the garden, though.  Now that the house is divided into apartments, the individual residents have their own private areas as well as sharing the wider grounds, and the garden one sees from the library window contains statues, an ornamental pond, and a striking stone obelisk installed by previous owners.  There is still plenty of unspoilt greenery around too, with many mature trees as well as a weedy little cedar that has been planted in an unsuitable location and as yet refuses to thrive.  Perhaps one day it will be rival to its massive relation that grows close by.

As we passed up the drive towards the house, Diana Silk shared with us her memories of the walled garden and stables, both now converted for other uses.  After becoming engaged to, and subsequently marrying, Dennis, she spent many happy hours at Heytesbury House, sometimes with her children. Siegfried's own marriage, to Hester Gatty, with whom he moved into the house in 1934, did not last, but it is evident from some of the photographs we looked at that Siegfried and Hester did enjoy great happiness in their early years at Heytesbury.  Had that not been the case, why would Siegfried have remained there after the Second World War (in the course of which the house was also occupied, first by evacuees and later by American troops)? 

One of the attractions of the Heytesbury estate for Sassoon must have been the cricket pitch, now separated from the house by the road.  Siegfried played, or attempted to play, cricket into his seventies, and also made frequent visits to Downside Abbey, about 25 miles away, where he had joined the "Ravens" cricket team, recruiting his long-standing friend, the poet Edmund Blunden, as well as Dennis Silk (at one time captain of MCC), to play alongside him.

Visitors to Heytesbury House in the latter years who wrote down their memories of visits included Anthony Powell, Margaret Keynes, Muriel Galsworthy and Charles Causley.  Edmund Blunden, Siegfried's most enduring friend, was of course a visitor, and Dennis also recalls Hester returning from Scotland to see her estranged husband.  Dennis has often told us how Siegfried used to complain about "never seeing anyone" - whereas in fact the house welcomed regular visitors of all shapes and sizes.  The wheel has turned full circle, with the SSF now having members all around the world, all of whom would love to have had the experience a few of us were able to enjoy yesterday at Heytesbury.
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