My mother goes to Secretarial School.. in a castle…

A week  after my parents meet at Allerton, my mother

PHA Londonand her best friend, Bee, are off to Stanway House in that distant corner of England that my father mentioned in his letter home after the weekend party in Yorkshire. Although Cheltenham is quite a long way from York where he is in training with the Kings Royal Rifle Corps, the county of Gloucestershire is only a two-hour train ride from London where soldiers in the British Army take their frequent, generous leaves. So it is possible that their paths will cross again.

However, to my mother’s despair, she is once again ensconced in a rural setting behind stone walls.

house from distanceGranted as the website describes it, “Stanway House is noted for its mellow, peaceful atmosphere, created by its age (it was finished in the calm decade before the Civil War), by its stone (a delicious Cotswold stone known as Guiting Yellow), by its architecture (Jacobean mullions and gables and Cotswold slates).”

My mother described it this way. We were two to a room, but since my best friend was the daughter of Lord Mowbray, the Premier Baron of England, we were given the largest bedroom. Carr Saunders was the top secretarial school in London, but they’d been bombed out early in the war. So they rented Stanway House from the Earl of Wemyss and March. (The family name was Charteris.)  The house was built in about the 16th century. We walked up and down stone staircases that you felt had been worn down by the feet of time.  The students reported sightings of a ghost in the main part of the house, but I never had a visitation.

 Tish had barely settled in at Stanway when the news came of her brother Ian’s death

Ian's Gravestone

in the battle of Alam El Halfa in the Western Desert. Her parents traveled down from London to tell Granny Hankey at Whiteshoots the terrible news.

I went over to meet them. It had only been four weeks since I’d last seen my mother, but in that short space of time, her hair had gone completely white. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I wouldn’t have believed it was possible that grief could create that physical change in a person so quickly.

Tish returned to Stanway. People were dying, life could be hideously short. Ian’s life was over before it had even begun. Don’t let that happen to me, she thought. She was going stir crazy, trapped for nine full months just when she thought she’d finally gotten away from the rules and bells of her Catholic convent school.

Poles Convent So she decided to throw a party.   As usual, my mother was the instigator, and Bee went along, unable to resist the force of her friend’s personality.

I’d seen an ad in the Tatler for half kegs of hard cider, 20% alcohol, so I ordered one. The stationmaster phoned up one day and said, Miss Hankey, there’s a half keg of cider down here. How are you going to get it up to Stanway?  It was two miles from the station to the castle, but of course I hadn’t thought of that when I put in the order. So I accepted his offer of a wheelbarrow, and Bee and I rolled that keg up the hill and then we had to roll it up that long stone staircase. With some difficulty, we bunged” the keg which means to poke it and put the tap in. A good deal of cider escaped, but there was enough left over so we invited the other girls and the teachers.  It was a great success even though we all had awful hangovers the next day. Then, of course we had to get rid of the keg, but that was a good deal easier. We just rolled it down the hill, hanging on as best we could to the wheelbarrow.

Although we weren’t able to get into Stanway House because of scheduling, my husband and I spent a lovely hour circling the place. Like so many of these old estates, the house itself is surrounded by gardens, Kitchen gardenstatuary, temple alonestables and even sometimes, a brewhouse.

SONY DSCAt the entrance to the estate, a man was carefully clipping the grass around the gravestones with a pair of long-handled secateurs. man in graveyard

Although the place must have been incredibly cold that winter and she was trapped in a rural valley, miles away from the excitement of London, my mother found herself once again, in a spectacularly beautiful stately home.SONY DSC

In all of these places, I’m actually happier not to see the interiors of the modern rooms. I have an easier time imagining my mother’s life by gazing at centuries-old stone walls, at perennial beds that could  have been planted seventy years ago and at the remarkably unspoiled views across the valleys of rural England.

The full secretarial course at Stanway took ten months. But Tish got a phone call a week before her seventeenth birthday letting her know that she had a job in London if she wanted it. She kissed Bee goodbye and jumped on the train.

At last, her real life was going to start.

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Leave a Message for Elizabeth

  1. Dick Franklin :

    40 years ago your father died! oh, my. Too young.

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  1. […] So when we last saw my mother in early March of 1943, she’d just hopped on a train to London. […]