The collection continues to grow: I was able to get my copy of Lewis F. McIntyre‘s The Eagle and the Dragon inscribed at the 2019 Maryland Writers’ …Inscribed #4
Howard Royston Potts (a writer and active member of the twitter writing community) kindly offered to produce a reflective blog post for me and I was pleased he did. In his usual style of writing about his own memories, warts and all, he has come up with a piece about country homes in England. Enjoy the article and please comment your own thoughts, if you can.
The TV programme ‘Through the Keyhole’ is where a person is sent to rummage around a famous person or celebrity’s home and give clues as to whom it is, for a panel of four people to try to guess the name of the person who lives there.
I was born in the Hardwick Hall in Sedgefield, a great big country house, in June 1955. The place had been requisitioned as a Maternity Home after the war and these days it is rather a nice hotel. Whether this was the reason for me being given the rather grand title of Howard Royston Potts, I will never know, but the first ten years of my life was spent in a northern mining village, attending the local village school with what can be only described as a feral life.
It wasn’t until we moved to a small town a short way away that I realised we were being brought up in the midst of country estates and landed gentry. In fact, my uncle lived in the stud farm of Streatlam Castle for years. Unfortunately, they blew up the castle after the war and the footings were still visible at the side of the drive. To the left of that was The Orangerie, albeit with no glass remaining. The Stud Farm was at the back of the woods behind where the castle had been. We loved to go as kids and play in the woods, as long as we didn’t upset the gamekeepers. We would go and collect hundreds of mushrooms in the vast parkland. We’d also catch mice in the magnificent stable block. It was a boys’ wonderland, much better than a theme park and I was so jealous of my cousin Peter who lived there. Never knowing in those days that this was the Bowes Lyon Estate where the Queen’s mother was brought up.
I used to cycle for five miles to spend my free days with the local blacksmith and visit quite a number of other large country estates to help shoe the horses. I would pump the bellows to heat up the shoes, or hold the horses and ponies whilst they were shod. The Zetland Hunt was my favourite as they had the smartest horses and their own brazier to heat the shoes up with. Very posh in my eyes at age 14 (ish).
I eventually started working on farms and decided that horses would always be my hobby but would never be my job. So I started working on local farms and eventually went to Durham Agricultural College where I got my professional diploma. Then I started work big time and I also started partying BIG TIME!! I would think that back in the 70’s we all knew every farmer and horsey person within at least a 30 mile radius. Some were landed gentry and others weren’t, but nobody cared. Even out hunting, the Royals would show up from time to time and we all just mucked in together.
I had a great work life and a brilliant social life, but it all came to a sudden stop when family tragedies were thrust upon us. Two years that I would never ever want to repeat again, and my answer to it all was to run away abroad to get out of the heat.
11 years later, so around 1994, when I moved back up north, my friend Johnny was the groom at Wycliffe Hall, which wasn’t far away from Streatlam. Wycliffe is a huge place like a French Chateau, set in parkland next to the River Tees. Johnny lived in a wooden cottage set in the woods behind the stable block. I called in to see him one day after work and he invited me to stay for tea. I had our mutual friend Shirley living with me at the time, so I phoned her and she came for tea too. Johnny used to be her groom when she was married. After tea, Shirley decided she wanted to put some make-up on Johnny. Now dear reader, Johnny is a robust farmer’s son, so dressed in Wellies, wax jacket and ‘blue eye shadow’, it was a hilarious sight to see. We all decided to go for a walk around the estate as the owners were away on holiday and Johnny was there alone and had all the keys. We made a bee line to the house and went in for a good snoop!
We called it ‘Through the Keyhole!’ We slid down the banisters, went in the bedside tables, just like they did in the TV programme. We were so bad. Then we headed for the Stable Block where there were 4 double garages where we found every mode of transport imaginable. A horse drawn carriage, A Sinclair C5 car, A Jeep with the split windscreen, a butcher’s bike with basket on the front. It was amazing. Then we headed for the stone building in the woods, close to Johnny’s wooden shack. Inside was like a 1950’s hospital, tubular steel tables and chairs and hospital screens, really more like a film set. Shirley decided that it was a set from M.A.S.H and she was Hot Lips. Well it was hilarious. Johnny locked us in because he was getting bored. And the biggest thing afterwards was that we couldn’t say a thing to anyone, or Johnny would get the sack.
Not long afterwards the owners of Wycliffe moved away south and Johnny went to work at another country house near Bedale, North Yorkshire. We didn’t do a full ‘Through the keyhole’ when the owners were away but Johnny and I did have a bloody good snoop around.
Years later at Streatlam, I went to see Uncle Alan along with an Irish friend of mine, Ella. Uncle Alan was divorced and living alone, knew we were coming but was not at home when we got there. I called him on his mobile to say we were there. He was on his way, so to hurry him up and to have a laugh, I said, “You had better hurry up because Ella is in your underpants drawer and having a good rummage around”. There was a stone silence at the other end of the phone! It was hilarious. Uncle Alan is a staunch farmer through and through and lives in his small minded world where everything is black and white. His poor brain could not decipher what I had said to him, so making it ten times funnier for us.
One of my best friends these days is Simon Snowdon, or as I sometimes call him, “Lord Snooty”. I have known him since the 70’s but we became better friends when I got back from abroad. Back in the 70’s he had a lot of very tight blonde curls and looked for all the world like Shirley Temple. Nowadays he has matured and looks like Joe 90 with his specs on. Simon went to the same school as Prince Charles, and has a very clipped English, speaking voice, but he is so not that type. He and I like to push the boundaries as we say, and have a good laugh, much to his South African wife’s disdain.
Thank you so much to Howard for this fascinating and humorous post. He has also written a brilliant book about his life experiences, which is available on Amazon, called A Mile In My Shoes: A Travel Rep’s Tale. If you want to find Howard on Twitter, click here.
As September begins, I am excited to finally introduce my first YA novel, which is published at the end of this month. I wrote this story two years ago and have waited patiently for its arrival, hoping that the narrative will grab your interest and intrigue you enough to consider checking it out.
This segment is a few chapters in and after the two main characters, Drew and Siobhan, have come across a mysterious old country house. The two of them have had a feeling of ‘being watched’ ever since that peculiar night. Some weird blackbirds, which dwell in large numbers close to that disheveled house, have also been haunting their lives.
Sunday came and I went down to the Hub to meet Siobhan for lunch. She was already settled in and listening to music on her iPod when I sauntered in and plonked myself opposite her in one of the quaint wooden booths.
“Shall I order the usual?” she asked as she yanked one earphone out of her ear.
“Yes, two roasts please,” I said noticing the waiter looming over us.
“Great! I need a feast today.”
I smiled at Siobhan and then decided to breach the subject and get it out of the way before our dinner came.
“So why have you not mentioned going into that garden again? Bonita was fuming about that.”
I could see that I had caught her by surprise. She thought for a moment and then began.
“I was going to tell you. But then I decided it was better to keep it to myself.”
“Right,” I said, “but we always tell each other everything.”
She turned red a little and looked away.
“This was different. I didn’t know anyone had seen me and I just wanted to try and forget about it,” she gulped, in much the same way as I usually would gulp.
“You know it’s no good keeping these things bottled up,” I said.
“Well I tried to ring you. You were working for your mum that night. I had just been totally freaked out by that dead bird and my mind was whirling. I found myself cleaning my bike and going for a ride. Before I knew it I was slowing down and staring at that bloody house. Something told me I needed to check it out again. I heard some noises, like feint bird noises.”
“You rang me to go with you?” I said awkwardly.
“Yes. But by this time I was already outside. I just had a strange feeling and decided to take the track by the side of the property. I thought I might get a different picture.”
“You wanted to take pictures?”
“No. You know what I mean. I wanted to see it from a different perspective. And when I got half way down the track I could hear the cawing of birds getting louder. Through the fence I spotted a little shed and just in front of it there must have been about a hundred black birds all making strange noises and pecking away at something littered across the grass.”
I could see that she was uncomfortable discussing this and she lowered her voice as the waiter was walking over.
He presented us with some piled high plates of chicken, Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, green beans, parsnips and carrots. It was really smelling good and momentarily distracted us from the story but soon he was gone and we were back to chatting about it, almost under a cover of mystery, like two detectives quietly sharing information about a big operation.
“What was it then? What were they eating?” I said, looking at my own food and salivating.
I just filled my mouth with lush roasted potatoes when she said, “Just lots of pieces of flesh. Pink flesh.”
I spat my food out again into the napkin. I could see that she was repulsed by the recollection.
“That is why you freaked out.”