Back in the day (by Deborah Morrissey)

Back in the day (by Deborah Morrissey)

Trebarwith is nearly at the end of what used to be a small grassy track just before you got to the open moorland. When the house was built in 1932 the only person who drove down it was my grandfather in his Rolls Royce Phantom convertible – there are photographs of the car piled high with passengers and picnic baskets. Children are riding on the running boards and there is a dog or two panting alongside. The car was one of their wedding presents. It’s not that I’m ungrateful for the matching bath towels, table napkins and the like which we received but things were certainly different then. The track is now a road, which, on a sunny day, is a constant stream of traffic: notably caravans, speedboats and 4x4’s towing jet skis. Add to this an inordinate number of cars, which chose to ignore the dead end sign and have to turn round and go back again. The moorland where my father rode his pony is now an extensive caravan park, which at the height of summer looks like a Range Rover convention.

One change my grandmother would notice is that her house is warm, benefitting, as an estate agent would say, from central heating. As a child I would rush from the fireside in the drawing room to my bed. They were the only two warm places to be found in the winter months and you could not linger between the two as the cold, combined with the damp sea air, chilled you to the core.

The uninterrupted view of the Irish Sea is exactly the same as when she had the house built. As a woman of independent means she bought some land, which was dominated by a large rock overlooking the sea, with a little rocky bay at the bottom of what later became the garden. The top of the rock was blasted away and a very charming house was built on top of it. It is pebble dashed and painted white with green woodwork and a green Westmoreland slate roof.  It was perfectly symmetrical and finished to an extremely high standard. Not trusting the local building materials, many were imported from Lancashire. During the several occasions when a force ten gale is raging outside I am comforted to remember that this house has withstood many an onslaught, even when it was unoccupied.

For five years during the Second World War she couldn’t visit her beloved holiday house – petrol rationing made the journey prohibitive.


When she did return she wrote in her diary, in verse, about her anxiety of what awaited her:    


"After five years of war, once again
To Trearddur one weekend I came
Expecting changes there to find
Had told myself I must not mind
But I was wrong, for there were none
The same kind folk, the same good fun
Still do they argue about wind and tide
The boats they've sailed, waves defied
The sailing, bathing, fishing, walking
The teasing, laughing, shouting, talking
All went on in the same old way
As if the gap had been but a day"


So life quickly returned to normal with her three boys, two of them were still youngsters at the end of the war but the eldest had turned eighteen and was in The Royal Navy and his absence that summer wounded her. My grandfather had inherited a family business making sole leather, which was no longer in demand after the war as imported rubber soled shoes were available. The business was sold and he retired remarkably early. It was at this point that they decided to make their holiday home their permanent residence. Although I consider the house large, it is nothing compared to where they used to live. Some staff came with them but by no means all. The children no longer needed a nanny or nursery maid. The game-keeper and groom were surplus to requirements and the seamstress was bought a little terraced house in the village and we continued to visit her in Lancashire whenever any sewing was required.  Looking through the boxes of papers and inventories of this time I am rather surprised they didn’t keep on the full time handyman. How excellent that would be now with the daily maintenance projects that having a house by the sea involves. 

Something that would horrify my grandmother is to find me in areas of the house that she seldom ventured into. The kitchen was cook’s domain and the laundry room, where I now spend an inordinate amount of time, was the maid’s bedroom with four bunk beds. Add to that a butler and housekeeper who "lived in". There were also gardeners who came daily. I can remember the garden full of flowers but the salt and wind mean anything that I plant, fades like former glory.

With all the staff running around it must have been hard to find some peace and quiet, which is no doubt why her diary is full of the endless excursions they undertook. Regardless of the weather there seemed to be an expedition most days, no doubt to escape said staff. Every Sunday the main pre-occupation was walking along the cliffs to church and then she would comment in her diary on the effectiveness of the sermon. During the week there would be occasional forays to town for supplies but most things were delivered. Remarkably we have returned to daily deliveries. Not in brown packages on a bicycle from the village or from the butchers cart but by Tesco or Amazon.

Her diary details other daily activities – mainly bathing, which is what we call swimming, all the year round. In summer there were picnics, fishing trips in the boat, sailing, games of bridge, cocktail parties and dinner dances at the local hotel. Previously you would have occasionally seen a sailing boat or the boatman sculling his skiff and picking up lobster pots. Now The Irish Sea is dominated by speedboats and the eternal whining of jet skis. The cocktail parties and dinner dances are also thing of the past replaced by a bottle of wine and a box set but my grandmother would be thrilled to find me avidly playing bridge – but not for money like she did.

The maids would have been kept busy, as the house was always full. At times there were 24 people staying. Although all the bedrooms had washbasins there were very few bathrooms, which was maybe why they were encouraged to swim and let the Irish Sea wash their bodies. The addition of bathrooms and central heating are the huge changes to the house but also mains drains. The introduction of electricity means not just illumination but also dishwashers, washing machine, tumble dryer, food processors, toasters, steam iron, hairdryers, the internet, televisions. All these things we take for granted but even fifty years ago they did not exist in this house. Other changes are the lack of beautiful oil paintings and watercolours on the walls and the precious Georgian furniture was sold for peanuts as we were told ‘No one wants brown furniture now.’

The verandah has been replaced by a deck and there is a noticeable lack of a tea trolley at 4 o’clock laden with scones and cakes. Breakfast now is some yoghurt and fruit rather than a mahogany sideboard with several large silver domes covering platters of bacon, sausages, tomatoes, mushrooms and fried bread. A ship’s bell would be used to summon us off the beach for lunch (now it’s a call to someone’s mobile) and we would have to change out of beach clothes. My children rock off the beach in their sailing gear and sandy wetsuits, which they dump by the door before sitting down in soggy swimming things. There is no silver service at lunch and dinner and no sign of Baxter the butler brushing the crumbs off the starched white tablecloth between the main course and the pudding. He used a small curved soft brush to usher the crumbs into a wooden crescent shaped receptacle. Madeira was kept in a cut glass decanter on the side table and taken with pudding. Our lunch is usually bread, cheese, salad, fruit and off out for another race.

As children we all had to be in bed by 6pm regardless of whether we were one or eleven. I would sit on the bend in the stairs, in the summertime, hoping to catch my mother’s attention as she went from the drawing room through to the dining room. I invariably would fail and my grandfather would admonish me for being out of bed. My childhood bedroom gives me the shivers even today. It reminds me so clearly of the weeks I spent there one summer, very ill with chickenpox and shingles. My entire body was mummified by calamine lotion. My legs were alive with shingles and had to be raised from the bedding to try to ease the pain.

My grandparent’s lives continued very much in this vein for half a century. When the winter storms became too much they would take themselves off on cruises around the world. There are several trunks in the attic that now contain my children’s toys and they are covered with faded luggage stickers depicting all the exotic worldwide locations to which they travelled. They would always be back from their trip by Christmas and set off in January to spend several weeks in the Alps. Hopefully this meant that the staff had a well-earned rest. I wonder if they ever paused on a chair lift in the Alps to wonder if a life this good could last. Thankfully the lack of a crystal ball meant they never anticipated how their fortunes would change.

There were two things that dramatically changed the course of this wonderful life: Inflation and death. Despite judicious financial planning they had no idea that inflation would completely change their financial fortunes and the relatively early death of my grandfather meant that my grandmother was a widow for many years. I say early death, but he had cheated death a few times, notably in the trenches in the First World War for which he was awarded the MC for a particularly brave escapade and one bullet was left in his heel for the rest of his life. Not that we knew anything of this part of his life as we were always told never to ask him about the war and it was never, ever discussed.

My grandmother died alone in her big house overlooking the sea. It is a small miracle that the house didn’t burn to the ground given that she smoked eighty cigarettes a day. That could have been the reason that her skin looked like a very wrinkled lizard, or maybe it was the constant exposure to sunshine at home and abroad. Add to that vast quantities of gin that was consumed at the bridge table morning, noon and night and you would think that you had a recipe for an early death but in fact she lived well into her nineties.

The wooden box containing the names of all the rooms with corresponding bells is still in the kitchen high up on the wall where everyone can see it. However, the only person who would answer a call now, is me!  Nowadays I do the work of the cook, housekeeper, nanny, butler, driver, laundry maid, seamstress and four maids- and God has to take care of the gardening.

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  • what a wonderful “snippet” of life at trebarwith. Thank you for sharing it.
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