Friday, 25 September 2015

At the Hydro

Serendipity is perhaps not quite the word for it, but whenever I go on a “road trip”, I always seem to collide with some obscure fact about Siegfried Sassoon, some place where he has been or stayed or that is associated with one of his many friends and associates.  Sassoon himself was a great one for road trips.  He seems to have enjoyed travelling for the sake of it.  Thus, though he would usually make the journey specifically in order to visit a friend or see a specific sight, he would stop off en route to admire the countryside.  The list of hotels in the UK where he stayed for one or two nights is long, and I have often considered taking a little trip of my own to re-trace his steps.  Maybe when I retire…

At our recent Wrexham conference, a member suggested that we should consider holding a future event at the Longmynd Hotel in Church Stretton, where Siegfried spent a night in September 1924.  As it was on my way home, I called in the following morning to try to discover what might have appealed to him about this small town in Shropshire.  I could imagine that the centre of the town might not have changed that much since the 1920s, and old photographs would seem to confirm this.  Church Stretton still has many quaint old shops and buildings.  The hotel, which I finally located at the summit of a long and winding road, clearly dates from the early 20th century and was in fact built as a "Hydro".   In a previous blog post, I mistakenly said that the hotel where he stayed was no longer a hotel, but it is only the name that has changed.   In 1924, it still went by the name of the Hydropathic Hotel.  Siegfried's diary calls it simply "The Hotel".

Siegfried reached Church Stretton after driving from Ross-on-Wye, where he had spent the previous night. Earlier in the day he had been in Hereford listening to music at the cathedral, where he just missed Sir Adrian Boult. From there he went on to Ludlow.  At the famous 17th century Feathers Hotel, where he lunched, he found he had just missed Lady Ottoline Morrell. From Ludlow, it was a short journey of about 18 miles to Church Stretton, and he was there in time for tea.

He records in his diary that the hotel brought back bitter-sweet memories of happier times.  He had stayed there almost a decade earlier, when visiting the area with some companions from his regiment, the RWF. The diary claims that he cannot recollect whether one of these was David Thomas, or possibly Bobbie Hanmer.  At one time Siegfried felt tenderness towards Bobbie of the same sort he felt towards David, but it nevertheless seems odd that he would confuse the two.

There are several factors that may help to explain this episode of forgetfulness.  Siegfried had been mentally ill during the last stages of the First World War - not in the same way that Ivor Gurney (for example) was mentally ill, but nevertheless quite enough for it to have affected his memory.  His diary jogged his memory about a number of things, but perhaps he had never recorded the previous visit in writing.  In 1915 he had not long met "Tommy", the man who would become so important to him. As he comments, "Strange to think that on that day I knew so few of my present circle of friends."   On the surface, it seems more likely that it was indeed David Thomas who had been with him, rather than Bobbie Hanmer; he had been acquainted with the latter for longer, though more superficially, and one would think he would have remembered more clearly if he had been one of the party.  Of the two, however, it was David who was shipped out to France at the same time as Siegfried later in 1915, and who became much closer to him.  Could it be that David and Bobbie were both members of that earlier party?

Siegfried also records in his diary that he went for a walk up the hill after tea.  No doubt he went as far as the recently-erected war memorial towards the top of the hill, in the form of a Celtic cross, the sight of which would have opened up further sores, unpleasant memories from his military career.  On returning to the hotel, he had dinner, accompanied by half a bottle of German wine, and had a quiet evening alone.

From Church Stretton he would make an even shorter drive to his next stop, Shrewsbury, where he made a point of not visiting Wilfred Owen’s mother Susan.  He was feeling "unsociable" - a state not uncommon in Siegfried, despite the wide circle of friends he could boast.  That night he would bed down at the George Hotel in Lichfield, a city where I once spent a very pleasant literary weekend, courtesy of the Samuel Johnson Society.  Siegfried commented that "the Midlands feel friendly after the Welsh hills", a rather curious comment coming from a reserved Englishman.  Consistency was never his strong point.

Disappointingly, when I reached the entrance to the Longmynd Hotel, I found a notice on the door that pronounced, somewhat apologetically, that "The hotel is no longer open to non-residents".  I went inside anyway, and found no one in the reception area to tell me to get out, but there was nothing much to see.   Perhaps, like Siegfried, the present management were feeling unsociable.
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