My parents both had Clumber spaniels, some as house pets, but some kept as working retrievers. One day, in the dining room, my mother was fondling two of these dogs, which were facing each other across her knees as she was sitting by the table. She playfully bumped their noses together, and at once they flew at each other furiously round the dining room. I was terrified, of course, with the dogs (both bitches) growling and snarling fiercely and my mother shouting at them and trying to grab them and force them apart. Fortunately someone heard this terrible row and rushed in and separated the dogs. But ever since that day I have had a horror of dogs sniffing round each other and looking a bit fierce!
Another episode in the dining room was of a peaceful nature, namely a tea party for my birthday. I chiefly remember a great many grown ups and not so many children round the large table. But the birthday was ruined for me. Someone had given me a wonderful bear that walked about when it was wound up. I was not allowed to have this bear, as it was presumed I would not look after it properly and would break its winding apparatus. Why be so unkind to a child, who was not even a violent one!
My great pleasure was in music. When I was very small, living at the time at Newton, my grandmother noticed how I would go over to their grand piano and try to pick out tunes. A friend of theirs also living at Newton just then happened to be a music teacher, and she offered to give me lessons. So it was that, at the age of 5, I began what was to be my life long love of the piano and its music. There was a piano in the school room at Hauxley, so although I was not able to have any lessons, I kept on with my practising. Luckily, my mother took my piano playing seriously, so I began lessons at school straight away.
I have mentioned that my brother Joe’s health prevented him from going to Osborne and in the summer of 1914, my mother decided to take him to the South of France, for a complete change and so that he could be treated for his trouble. A governess, Dora Waller, was living with us at the time, and my mother decided to take her and my sister, Diana, down to a place mother knew well from many previous visits.
But I must explain how it was that my mother was able to take Joe to the South of France. My father set up his establishment in London with Rosemary to live with him in his London flat (where John and Joe also were) and Nana was housekeeper to them all. At that time, my parents’ marriage was in a very bad state. It was decided to have a separation; neither wanted a divorce. The two boys had lived with their father in London, during their holidays, as by now they were at prep school, ¬Lockers Park, Hemel Hempstead. As I was considered to be too troublesome, I was left behind at Newton with my grandparents and Ida Shotton to look after me.
This was a wonderful arrangement as far as I was concerned. Newton was synonymous with happiness and peace for me. Troublesome or not, it was decided that I should go for my lessons down to the village school, whose headmaster was a Mr. Charlton, where all the estate children went. As to my lessons, the children sitting beside me helped with them all, and I joined them in their games after lessons. The school was on the edge of the woods which went round up to the gardens surrounding the Hall. And here with these other children I really learned true playing. They would bring odd bits of broken china and pieces of torn lace curtains with which we made “houses”. I remember so well how I envied these children all these marvellous bits of treasure. I look back to this time at the village school as one of the highlights of my childhood.
The coachman, Shotton, had been with the Widdringtons for very many years and, when I knew him, was like a member of the family. So his daughter Ida (called after my mother) was like a friend coming into the nursery to look after my sister and me. The Widdringtons never owned a car, but had instead a wonderful variety of carriages filling the spacious coach houses. Carriage and riding horses were in the stables, and in a harness room all the different sets of harness with their brass and highly polished leather shone with the pride of the grooms in charge of them. This life with horses created a wonderful atmosphere in the large stable yard, pervaded with the friendly sort of smell that surrounds stables, so different from what usually surrounds garages.
We always went to Newton for Christmas, which, because we were near the border with Scotland, was a double festival. In Scotland the important festival was New Year, Hogmany, with Christmas a very minor affair. So at Newton we had the traditional Christmas, with a large Christmas tree set up in the laundry, which provided the spaciousness needed for all the estate workers and their children to gather in celebration. This was their big day, too, with all the children getting presents from a wonderful Father Christmas. Our family had its Christmas party in the dining room with, again, Father Christmas giving us all our presents. One year for New Year’s Day, we were once more in our best dresses and the present was a lovely fluffy grey kitten, a toy which I very dearly treasured. I had never wanted a live one.
But I must now go back to the time the family went to France, and I was left at Newton with my grandmother and Ida Shotton to look after me. I don’t think this can have been a very easy time for my grandmother, who must have been over 80 years old. Although I enjoyed going to the village school and playing with the village children, my grandmother thought I needed a change of air and took me to visit her sister and her sister’s husband at their estate in North Wales. Great Aunt Evelyn was married to Richard Lloyd Price (Uncle Dick) of Rhiwlas, Bala, in Meirionethshire. This had been one of the largest estates in North Wales, stretching at one point down to the coast. But those North Wales landowners were incorrigible gamblers, and an earlier Price had gambled away large areas of his estate. Even so, what remained comprised a very considerable property, although quite a lot of it was just heather clad hills and mountains. But a river, good for trout and sometimes salmon fishing ran for some miles through the estate.
I have no idea how long we stayed at Rhiwlas, but for me, aged 10, it was memorable for one episode. My grandmother and her sister were really very good friends, but they had a habit of getting into fierce arguments. Well, one of these got going, and the fierceness of their expressions and gestures frightened me. But then they suddenly stopped, looked at each other and burst out laughing. “There you are”, said Uncle Dick, “I told you they enjoy these battles”. Uncle Dick was a very large man, with a large beard, and twinkling eyes. I remember him usually with a pipe, which he now waved at them, shaking with laughter himself. How remarkable to see grandmother in such a situation!
For me being with the Shottons and my grandmother was one of the happiest times of my life, free from all scoldings and punishments and with Ida as a wonderful companion.