This month we have a very special “Friend of the Month” piece from Anne Barr, who recalls her memories of first meeting Vernon, 6th Viscount Bolingbroke when she was a child, and her visits to his house at Moorhayes in the New Forest.
It gave me great pleasure to attend the meeting of the Friends of Lydiard Park in April 2023 and on the next day to be shown round St Mary’s Church and Lydiard House by Sarah-Finch Crisp, and Anthony and Sonia St John. Sitting in the former stable block, I shared some of the memories I am detailing below, as well as gifting a few personal items belonging to the Viscount, and handing over photos and letters for the Lydiard Archives.
Lydiard House and Vernon, 6th Viscount Bolingbroke have held a personal significance for me for over 60 years since my aunt, Catherine McLean, left Glasgow in 1960 to take up a post in Ringwood, Hampshire, as companion to the Viscount. The early focus of her employment was to assist him in ordering his nature notes into what he hoped could be developed and published as a book.
Viscount Bolingbroke and I began corresponding in September 1961. My first trip to visit and stay at his home, Moorhayes, on Crow Hill in the New Forest, was with my mother, my uncle and his wife. This was in 1962 when I was just ten years old. In his letter to me of March 1962, the Viscount wrote “A little bird has whispered that you and I may meet here soon. Are you excited?”
As a family we were all filled with trepidation about the thought of meeting a real live Viscount! Aunt Catherine re-assured us in her letter to my mother that “He is rather a shy man and I don’t think ever used to much social life. I know he is looking forward to meeting Anne, and last night said that he is sure they will get on together…. Has not said anything about the rest of you!” The Viscount was correct, he and I did get on very well and kept in communication in a loving and informative way through letters, greeting cards and my family’s occasional visits to Moorhayes. He and my aunt had wished to attend my wedding in 1975 in Glasgow University Chapel, but his health did not allow them to plan for this family event, and in the event, he died in 1974. Given his love of music and the violin, Vernon had been delighted that I was engaged to marry a musician who was a violinist.
My aunt’s letter prior to that first visit is full of housekeeping details as well as the following unusual advice which I have clearly remembered to this day: “You should get out of the habit of saying “Pardon” It really is quite easy to drop, provided everyone screws up their face in the most awful contortions when THE word is said! That’s how Vernon got me out of it. He’d screw up his face, put his hand to his ear and say “what did you say?” Apparently, this was a family tradition since a royal Pardon was given to the 1st Viscount Bolingbroke in 1723. As I have no memory of screwed up faces during our visit, we must have avoided using the dreaded word.
I still have clear memories of wonderful times, both then and on subsequent visits with my family to stay at Moorhayes. My special memories are of the occasions I spent in the company of the Viscount as he talked about the New Forest, his love of nature and his butterfly collection. However, he did not talk about his family history, any information about that was only forthcoming from my aunt. An example of his limited interest in his family links is demonstrated by a comment in one of his later letters to me, telling me that “your aunt assures me that I am related through my maternal line to Winston Churchill, sharing Marlborough family ancestry!”
There were wonderful family artefacts to be admired in Moorhayes; coronation robes worn by previous Viscounts, French clocks, quality furniture, valuable ornaments and, in particular, the precious eighteenth century book of drawings by Lady Diana Spencer, who was married to the 3rd Viscount Bolingbroke. I was told by my aunt that I was very privileged to be allowed to see this, and marvelled at her gifted designs for Wedgwood’s innovative pottery.
I was fascinated (during daylight hours) to be able to study family portraits hung on the walls or stacked together along the walls in an upstairs room called “The Museum”. However, by night-fall Moorhayes had a decidedly creepy feeling for a ten-year-old as I tried to sleep, thankful that my mum was beside me. In particular, I tried to forget that the grandfather of the 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, Oliver St John, could see me from whichever direction I looked up at his portrait. Every time I opened my eyes, he was looking down at me and his gaze did not feel very friendly. It was no solace that Aunt Catherine told me he resemble my recently deceased grandfather!
I loved best of all to be with the Viscount, as I called him during earlier visits, although as the years went by Catherine told me he was happy for me to call him Vernon. He always called me his “dearie”. I still remember the feelings of being special to him. I was thrilled when he let me view his butterfly, moth and beetle collection. I had never seen such natural beauty before as he pulled out drawers in the special cabinets containing both common and unusual species, from tiny British butterflies to enormous, iridescent moths from South America. I didn’t really like the beetles, but he said he had only ever known one child who did!
One of many highlights of my visits was a trip in his ancient two-seater green van with butterfly nets and equipment stacked in the back, jostling around behind us as we bumped across New Forest paths and grasslands, regularly going “off piste” with abandon! I loved seeing the ponies and listening to the birds as the Viscount explained all that I was seeing and hearing. Much of our future correspondence focused on our “Nature Notes” for one another. I wasn’t successful in catching any butterflies with the net he gave me, despite his patient instructions. To be honest, I was relieved that I did not have to follow the procedure required if I had caught any worthwhile specimens.
Vernon and I corresponded regularly from September 1961 until his failing health reduced his letter writing to simple comments on a greeting card. We exchanged information about our lives, including his outings to catch butterflies and observe wild life in general. I told him of my holidays, school work, ballet dancing, stamp collection, and sightings of birds, animals, and butterflies. He talked about coming to Scotland one day to catch the Mountain Ringlet, but he never did travel north of the border. I often looked for this butterfly on family holidays and outings amongst the Scottish hills. I even sent one dead butterfly I had found, but he told me it wasn’t the Mountain Ringlet. He was also interested in the toad I tried to keep as a pet!
As my main interest was in birds, his letters are full of information and answers to my questions, including one where his sense of humour shines through as he says, “Professor Bolingbroke of the Crow Hill Academy of Natural Science has kindly dealt with your chaffinch bill query. Here is his official description…”
Vernon always commented fondly on the gifts I sent him, including birthday cakes I had baked for him. He even appreciated my drawings of my toad, my pet mice, and birds that I had seen, occasionally adding tiny, humorous drawings of his own on the back of his letters.
His own interest in music was evident in one letter understanding the challenges for me of playing a Mozart sonata on the piano, but encouraging me to keep practising. He told me he had played the same piece on the violin.
For my 21st birthday on April 1973, Vernon arranged for a bottle of perfume called Wild Rose to be sent to me, although, after April 1969, his letters to me had ceased because he was in poor health. Nevertheless, we were always sending our best wishes via weekly telephone calls with my aunt. I would definitely have written thanking him for the perfume which, along with his letters, I have kept in memory of our friendship. Sadly, I have no photos taken of Vernon with me or my family; he was a shy man who did not wish to be photographed and this was 50 years before taking group “selfies” with a phone camera had become a social norm.
Vernon generally ended his letters with comments like “Bye Bye dearie, With love from Lord Bolingbroke xxxx”. His final brief letter to me in April 1969 is very difficult to read. He finished it: “Good bye dearie, will write you soon. All best of luck. Yours with love, Vernon xxxxxxxxxx”.