From Commonweal School and Cub Scout camp at Lydiard Park to commanding The 6th Queen Elizabeth’s Own Gurkha Rifles, Nigel Collett recalls his lifelong affection for Lydiard.
‘It is an honour, though something of a surprise, to be asked to be a Friend of the Month as I probably hold the worst attendance record of any member of the Friends. In what has now been a membership of just over thirty-six years, I have managed, to my shame, to be present at only one meeting! I have an excuse, as you’ll see further on, and my non-attendance has not been for any lack of love for the house and its park, which have been in my blood since my childhood.
I first came to Lydiard Tregoze in 1961, when I was a Cub Scout in the 11th Swindon (All Saints) Scout Group. In 1957, just before my day, our Group Leader, Ernest ‘Ernie’ Cann, then Swindon’s mayoral macebearer and secretary, had been the initiator of the use of the stable block as a scout hostel. In my first year’s ‘camp’ at Lydiard we slept in the servants’ quarters on the ground floor of the west wing. These were then very dilapidated, dusty, infested with woodlice and earwigs, and smelled badly of damp. The metal bell pulls to summon the servants were still on the walls, where the paint and plaster were slowly peeling downwards. We thought the place very spooky and were glad in the next two years to stay in the loft above the stables.
Even more spooky, we thought, was the icehouse, then almost hidden in brush and undergrowth, which we veered clear of when playing various sorts of glorious ‘wide games’ across the park. Also forbidding and to be avoided were the surviving prisoner of war camp huts at the back end of the Park. But elsewhere, in what seemed to us the enormous spaces of the park, we chased each other through stinging nettles and brambles in what was at the time largely untended woodlands.
Things were a bit primitive in the 1960s. We had to pump water for cooking and washing from the well in the courtyard then carry it in pails to the kitchen, which we’d set up in the coach house. On one occasion, though, I peered through the side door of the house and saw a different world. What I now imagine was a Council function was going on inside, and through the crack I had my first glimpse of both the riches of the past – pictures, sculptures, gilding – and the glamour of the present, men in dinner jackets and women in long dresses sipping cocktails. To my eight-year old self, it looked like paradise, and I knew then what I wanted in life!
My parents loved Lydiard, and when my father purchased our first car in the sixties we began a habit of visiting at least twice a year that has lasted until now. He was a trades unionist and shop steward in the Great Western Railway works but was proud of the fact that the Corporation had bought the house for the town. My mother, who gave me my love of history, was interested in the family and the church. In 1964, with my first camera, I took one of my first photographs of them in the park.
I carried on scouting throughout my teens and by the end was an Assistant Cub Scout Master. We were still ‘camping’ in the stable block, which had by then been better fitted out with mod cons. At the start of one of these weekends in about 1969, I walked with fellow cub leader Pete Leighfield, another railwayman, over the fields from Rodbourne Road to the park. The path led over the old Midland and South Western Junction Railway, then across the minor road that led to Shaw, ending in a walk over open pastureland, complete with bull, between Wick Farm and the old Rectory to the Lydiard road. All of the land we traversed is now, of course, covered in the housing of West Swindon, but then this was a little used path, and we had to force ourselves through hedgerows overgrown with brambles at each field boundary. The path brought us out opposite the park gate, from where we walked up the final half a mile beneath the magnificent avenue of elms that lined the road, and which sadly later succumbed to Dutch elm disease.
As a teenager, I attended the Commonweal School in the town. At the end of our seventh form, when we had taken A Levels, we were allowed a few weeks to do a summer project. With my closest friend, John Beswick, who was later to become a well-known London interior designer, I decided to study something about Lydiard. John took on the architecture of the house, and with him I clambered all over it, reaching the attic and the servants’ quarters that I’d once stayed in. We surveyed the park, rambling all over it as far as the stream that crosses the road to Hook and feeds what is now the lake, but was then a marsh covered in tall reeds. I found an oyster shell in the stream, and in the clear water we spotted a freshwater crayfish. We traced the line of the dam’s embankment and wall, which were then very overgrown.
For my project, I decided to copy the triptych, and every day for a fortnight was allowed to sit alone in the eerily dead quiet and gloom of St. Mary’s. The triptych was left open for me for the fortnight. I copied it all down and worked out what it meant. I am no artist, and when we showed our work in the school hall, the copy I produced looked very poor alongside John’s sketches of the house.
At the age of seventeen, I started what was to be a lifetime of roaming, joining the Army in 1974 and commissioned as an infantry officer in the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment. In 1980, after a wide variety of postings I was seconded to the Western Frontier Regiment of the Sultan of Oman’s Land Forces and for two years commanded a company of 120 Pakistani Baluch soldiers in the deserts of Dhofar.
When home from these travels, I would visit Lydiard with my parents. In 1984 I came to the house to my only meeting of the Friends, brought along by my Commonweal history teachers, Bill Slater and Margaret Anderson, and Margaret’s friend Diana North, all of whom, I think, were members. I recall a vivid address by Canon Brian Carne. At coffee afterwards, he and I amused the others by greeting each other in good Trollopian fashion, I with ‘Good afternoon, Canon’, and he replying ‘Good afternoon, Major’. I must have joined the Friends then.
That year, I transferred regiment to 6th Queen Elizabeth’s Own Gurkha Rifles, joining them in Hong Kong in 1985 ending up commanding the Battalion and taking it to Brunei, where I became Garrison Commander till 1993. I spent almost all this time blissfully soldiering in the East, not only in Hong Kong, but also in Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia, and, most importantly, going every year to Nepal to trek in the foothills where our soldiers live. I came home all too infrequently, and usually at Christmas, so never again made a meeting.
When I retired, I stayed in Hong Kong to set up and run a company named Gurkha International Manpower Services Limited, the purpose of which was to find work for Gurkhas, then later for Nepalese men and women, on board cruise liners across the world. This has kept me in and out of Nepal for the last twenty-six years. Before Covid-19 struck, we had nearly 1,000 crew, mostly security guards, on ships across the world; we shall do so again when we all recover.
I continue to visit Lydiard whenever I get the chance. Until my mother died in 2017, I would bring her and my father to visit. I was able to take my father, then aged ninety-five, to St. Mary’s during the renovations to its wall paintings in 2017.
Retirement will at some stage loom, after which I shall come home, and then I shall be able at last to give my apologies in person for all this absence to all the Friends whom I have been unable to meet. I am much looking forward to that and to meeting you all.’
Nigel Collet is also a respected author. Published works: –