When my mother graduated from the Poles Convent School at the age of sixteen, she was invited to spend the second summer in a row in Yorkshire with her best friend, Bee. Bee’s mother, Lady Mowbray, knew it would be a comfort to my grandmother to have Tish out of wartime London. Even though the bombing had lessened in June of 1942, and it was never as bad as the months of the Blitz in 1940, London was still a grim and dangerous place. So off my mother went to keep Bee company in what she later described as “a ghastly pile” near Knaresborough in Yorkshire. Allerton Park, (now known as Allerton Castle) looked like this…and these days, taken from another angle, it doesn’t look much different.
Here’s the way my mother described the place to me.
Allerton Park (pronounced Ollerton) was a ghastly pile up in Yorkshire, North England. It had something like 24 major bedrooms, a minstrel’s gallery and masses of other rooms. The great hall was 80 feet high. It was an extraordinary place. I spent two summers there.
By 1942, all the regular servants had enlisted so there was very little staff. Bee and I used to be given the job of vacuuming. It was called Hoovering. You’d go up one way and down the other. You never repeated. It took us at least a day to do two floors.
Lady Mowbray had no idea how to cook so there was a kitchen maid, and a cook with a wooden leg who came part time, and then a series of schoolgirls who would come after work to clean the kitchen. For parties, they hired a retired butler who was about 85 and very feeble.
We must have eaten, but I don’t have vivid memories of eating. I remember sitting at the dining room table but I don’t remember eating. Bee and I were always hungry. The kitchen was downstairs about half a mile away from the dining room. Breakfast we had up in the nursery where we slept.
We collected vegetables from the garden and other things from the hothouses. Bee and I went down to the hothouses wheeling our way through the herd of Highland cattle who lived in the park. Gilly Rue was the bull, and he didn’t like us going through his territory so we spent our time dodging behind enormous trees. Bee was terrified of the bull so I’d hide behind the tree and Bee would hide behind me. We picked peaches and grapes and figs and pears.
Charles was educated at Ampleforth College (where my uncle Ian went to school and which I’ll be writing about in another post) and served as a lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards in the Second World War. Not long after the D-Day invasion, he lost his right eye near Caen.
In late August of 1942, the Royal Canadian Air Force requisitions Allerton as a barracks. Lord and Lady Mowbray are to remove themselves to what is known as the Priest’s House on the property, and they decide to have one last bang-up party. They engage the feeble butler, Lord Mowbray brings up all the best wines and Bee and Tish drag an enormous, filthy, silver epergne up from the basement and fill it with fruit and flowers for the center of the dining room table. Lady Mowbray is distressed to note that the two girls, in their enthusiasm, haven’t really bothered to clean the object before they filled it, but the whole event is a bit “hunker-munker” as my mother described it.
Lady Mowbray’s brother-in-law, St. John (pronounced Synjin) Whitehead, is stationed in nearby York with the Kings Royal Rifle Corps (known as the Green Jackets) and he rings up to ask if he can bring along two Americans who have enlisted the regiment. “Certainly,” says Lady Mowbray. “The more the merrier.”
The afternoon of the party, St. John calls again. “Harry Fowler was supposed to come,” he tells Lady Mowbray. “But he’s gotten sick, so might I bring Stewart Alsop instead.”
“I don’t know any of them,” Lady Mowbray says, “As long you’ve got petrol, you can bring anyone you want.”
And so the stage is set. Sixteen-year-old Tish’s life is about to take a major turn.