A curious change
Very busy day in the House today.
There has been a curious change today, which feels coincidental rather than having any particular meaning. It’s been a rainy (not very, but mizzly enough to ‘feel’ rainy) day, and it’s the middle of the school holidays so the house has been very busy with family groups and other holidaymakers (what a curiously old-fashioned ring that word has). However curiouser and curiouser the crowd that has come through today has felt much more engaged in the house than on many other days: children genuinely intrigued and interested, people asking sensible questions, people studying the furniture and the design and fabric of the house, engaging with the artists.
It is as though the high summer has brought a different kind of visitor to Devon – but that seems odd and doesn’t really correlate with the past couple of weeks which has equally been ‘high summer’. It’s as though the still, heavy damp air has brought about a stillness, a seriousness in people that is usually rather absent. As a rather serious person myself (having lived a life not so much well-examined as tediously and tortuously over-examined) I tend to find the general frivolity and unwillingness to engage frustrating and puzzling.
God, how pretentious that sounds.
Had a wonderful chat with Mike Ormerod at the end of the afternoon. Mike grew up in the house – or at least, spent the ‘magic years’ of his childhood from the age of 10 or so. We wandered around the outside of the house chatting about that time, as the house itself was too busy to attempt to do a sound recording. Mike conjured a time of an idyllic rural childhood, flavoured with the artiness and cosmopolitan additions of the Dartington School and the Dartington ethos. Most of the stories and reminiscences are simply of playing, of fully inhabiting both the house and the estate at large with a freedom that as a society we left behind long ago. I grew up in much the same era in suburban (what might now be called ‘semi-urban’ as there was a large farm at the end of the road and many green fields to escape into) northern England and in many ways enjoyed much of the freedom that Mike talks about. But not in the house. The house was a much more controlled space, and of course as a 1930s semi, a much more confined space. So much of the magic of living in High Cross House in the mid-sixties as a child was the freedom of a large house, children of other families living in the house, cats, pet rats, and trees and cars and tractors to play on. This was a community full of curious, intelligent, engaged people who got up to things like building radios and stringing wires everywhere just to try and pick up Radio Caroline. This was not the rural life that many youngsters growing up not so far away on Dartmoor might be experiencing.
I asked Mike whether, with hindsight, he thought the design of the house itself influenced this sense of freedom. His immediate response was that it was both the size of the house, the sense of freedom brought about by the consciousness both of the times and of the people living there, the atmosphere created by his mother, and the fact that the house was ‘unimproved’ (in other words, presumably, little had been done to it since the 1930s). His implication is that there is now a sense of preciousness brought about partly by the restoration in the 1990s and then by the slightly corporate feel that comes with National Trust dressing. As we talked, we watched young children launching a teddy bear dressed in commando gear from a zip wire on the top balcony into the side garden. At one time it would have been the kids themselves who were sailing down any convenient wires or ropes.