What technique do you use to get a duchess to offer you tea and biscuits? In this travel account, this will be revealed as we follow the Choir of the College of William & Mary in its European tour of May and June 1993 as part of the celebration of the College’s tercentenary. I will focus on the parts of the tour around England, with the help of a journal I kept during the trip, carefully noting our visits to various sites connected to King William III, Queen Mary II, their celebrated architect Sir Christopher Wren, the city of Williamsburg, or the Commonwealth of Virginia more generally. On this tour we met two duchesses (Beaufort and Roxburghe) which makes this journey pertinent to this website. And we did visit two ducal residences, Badminton and Knole. Oh, and we met the Queen of England, naturally, plus Baroness Thatcher, Lord Avebury, two German counts and a countess, the son of ‘Desert Fox’ Rommel and the son of Vita Sackville-West. All in all, a pretty average vacation.
The College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, was founded in 1693 by the British crown for two main purposes: to allow sons of the colony to obtain theological training without having to cross the Atlantic, and to bring European education to the native population of the New World. It is the oldest properly founded (dismiss those claims by damn yankees at Harvard) university in the United States, with certainly one of the oldest buildings of higher education, named for Christopher Wren who may or may not have had a direct hand in its design. Sometimes known as ‘the Alma Mater of the Nation’, its alumni include three US presidents (Jefferson, Monroe, Tyler), four Supreme Court justices, and more recently, former CIA Director Robert Gates and film and television stars Glenn Close, Steven Culp, Jon Stewart and Patton Oswalt. In 1993, the College celebrated its 300th anniversary with several large-scale commemorative events, capped off with a commemorative rekindling of the historic ties between William & Mary and the United Kingdom through the appointment of recently retired British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, as Chancellor of the College (the last British chancellor being unceremoniously dumped in 1776), and with a reception and concert in London for Queen Elizabeth II.
I was lucky to be graduating from the College at precisely the right moment. The speakers at graduation ceremonies in 1992 had been completely forgettable, whereas our graduation in May 1993 featured Thatcher, Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder, and main speaker Bill Cosby (long before any hints of scandal). I sometimes used to wonder what some of the Virginia good ole boys in the audience might have thought about a woman chancellor, an African-American governor and a comedian (who was also an African-American) as the three featured guests that day. Anyway, if this wasn’t exciting enough, only a few days later, members of the college choir reconvened at Dulles Airport and flew off on the greatest adventure any of us had ever experienced. We were led by our cherished and well-beloved choir director, Frank Lendrim (known affectionately as ‘Doc’) and his tireless and exceptionally witty wife, Bettye-Jean. Dr Lendrim had spent time earlier in his career in England, and somehow knew everyone, which would benefit us all, as you shall see as you read on. As an academic, Lendrim was a specialist of Brahms and the Romantics, and I will never forget the thrill of being in his class on nineteenth-century music where he would lecture from behind the piano, and play excerpts of symphonies or operas from memory to make a specific point. He loved that I was a French horn player, and would often shout in the middle of class, “the horns, Jonathan, the horns!” when they featured, as they often did, in key moments of Brahms, Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’, or Richard Strauss.
[have a listen to this. ‘Four Last Songs’ with the amazing Jessye Norman—the entrance of the French horn at minute 8, moves my soul, every time, deeply, utterly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDoqnjB7Um4 ]
Anyway, let’s get on with it. As with my previous tour blog, I am fortunate in that my parents trained me to never throw anything away, so I still have a little brown journal in which I recording my experiences of this trip (the notebook is itself an oddity as a recycled object my mother gave me, dating not from the early 90s, but I think from the 1940s?).
I also still have the printed roster of names and the full itinerary, with dates, times, even addresses of the hotels we stayed in and hosts all across England.
My little brown notebook is full of details about places I went, people I met, friends I did things with, how much I paid for food and so on.
I even noted down a game we played while riding around on the bus that was a combination of ‘telephone’ and ‘tongue-twisters’ (‘Larilyn likes limey lemons’). We had two tour buses: one was always known as the ‘quiet bus’, while on the other, we regularly danced to a disco soundtrack (ABBA was the favourite).
Some comments in the notebook are truly precious as I experienced English culture for only the second time in my life: “mango pickle is good but very hot”; Church of England services are full of “lots of memorized, ancient, cultic words”; the toilet in one of our hotels made “violent exploding sounds”; a woman cautioned me from going up an ancient church tower because it had “wooky stairs” (or at least that’s what I thought she said—certainly she said “wonky”); and the most enigmatic, as we drove through Rye, I commented “very stupid”. I marvelled that McDonalds in England served strawberry trifle.
The first few weeks of the Choir Tour were in France, Switzerland Germany and the Netherlands, but I will skim over these fairly quickly, and focus mainly here on the English part of the tour. We landed in Paris on 18 May—already I see how dated my travel log is, since one of the chief complaints about the flight was how several of us were accidentally seated in the ‘smoking section’. A bunch of groggy young people then sat waiting for our coaches to pick us up and take us into Paris.
We spent about five days in Paris, visited all the major sites (including my first experience of the Palace of Versailles!), and gave short concerts at Chartres Cathedral and the Church of La Madeleine. Our concerts were mostly made up of American choral music, modern and traditional songs, but not entirely American, as we also included some of Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor. We also explored Paris and enjoyed many of its famous sights…
After Paris, we made short stops and concerts in Geneva and Lucerne, where we ascended to the top of an Alpine peak.
We then crossed into Germany and spend a few days in Stuttgart, where we did a concert in the old Ducal Palace, in its beautiful ‘Weißer Saal’ (‘White Hall’).
Afterwards there was a reception where I met some interesting people. Our host was the Mayor of the City, Manfred Rommel, whose father had been the famous ‘Desert Fox’ commander of German forces in North Africa in the Second World War. Much more interesting to me, however, was a man we had met earlier in the day at the Mercedes-Benz museum, Count Schweinitz, about whom I knew absolutely nothing (and still don’t), but was the very first genuine titled person I had ever met. Given my fascination with noble history that had absorbed me throughout my university studies, this felt like I was seeing a real live manifestation of that history for the first time. (I see now looking online that his family has an ancient pedigree in Silesia). A few moments later, my historical interest was raised several notches when I met the Count and Countess von Stauffenberg. He was the son of the famous Claus von Stauffenberg who led the attempted assassination plot against Hitler in July 1944. According to my notes, the Count was not very thrilled to be chatting with a 21-year-old American, but his wife, a Countess in her own right (von Bentzel-Sturmfeder-Horneck, of Schloss Thurn in Bavaria) was very engaging, talked to me about politics and life in Germany following reunification, and even gave me her card and invited me to visit when I came back through Germany, as I was planning to do later that summer. I didn’t visit her—for boring reasons mostly involving fighting with my travel partner; we are no longer friends—and I wonder what it would have been like if I had.
After Stuttgart, the Choir took a leisurely boat cruise down the Rhine, then re-joined our buses the next morning for a short drive across the border into the Netherlands.
In the Netherlands, we spent the morning at Het Loo Palace. This was the favourite residence of William and Mary as Dutch stadtholders before they became king and queen of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1689. It’s a beautiful building, and especially its gardens, though the scale really drove home the point to me of what it meant to be a prince in a Calvinist republic versus an Anglican monarchy (which was itself of course a lot more restrained than what we had seen in absolutist France at Versailles the week before).
On a previous European tour, the William & Mary Choir had famously sang at Het Loo for Princess Margriet, sister of the then Queen of the Netherlands, as part of the ongoing theme of re-connecting with our William & Mary past. But on this trip we did not—I guess it was felt that meeting the Queen of England in a few weeks would be ample royal contact. Another outstanding anecdote emerges from my notebook at this point: in the gift shop, none of us had any guilders, since we were not even staying one night in the Netherlands, and this was before many people had a credit card. Our friend Kate did have one, but there was a spend minimum, so a bunch of us tried to pool our purchases, and “the shop ladies were so slow and funny and it took nearly a half an hour. So we were quite late for lunch!” In the back of the notebook where I kept track of my spending, there is a note that says I owe Kate 18.75 guilders—I wonder if I ever paid her back?
That evening we took the ferry from Hoek van Holland to Harwich, then in the grey mist of a London morning we had a tour on a boat up and down the Thames. It was my second time in London, so I felt like an old hand. There’s a fun picture of me (and the same Kate) with Barbara and Larilyn who all considered ourselves to be devoted Gilbert and Sullivan fans (and we had performed in several operettas together in the previous four years).
We stayed in a warm and friendly hotel run by Italians very near the British Museum, St. Margaret’s—I’ve often walked down these streets more recently trying to remember which one it was, and now, looking at the itinerary, I see the address is on Bedford Place, and it looks like the hotel is still there but is now called the Beauchamp. In my diary I noted how strange it was to have to walk up and down stairs to get to our room (it was three old houses connected together), and how nice it was of the owner “Mrs Marazzi” to let us put things in the refrigerator, and even lent us plates and cutlery one night when we ordered dinner from an Indian takeaway. When we left London a week later, we serenaded the hotel staff from the street—such was our way when we were on tour. While in London we visited many, many sights, as a group, in pairs, or me by myself. Often they were connected to William, Mary or Christopher Wren. For example, we visited the Wren Chapel at the Royal Hospital Chelsea (which looks amazingly like the Wren Chapel back in Williamsburg, but larger), and the Wren Chapel at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. We also visited the Tradescant Museum in Lambeth where we learned about two collectors who went to Virginia in the early 17th century to learn all they could about plants and native cultures in the new colony. We visited the graves of William & Mary in Westminster Abbey, where we ceremoniously placed flowers: orange and blue for the Orange-Nassau dynasty, light blue for Mary’s love of Delftware porcelain, and some small yellow buds “because I like them”, said Bettye-Jean Lendrim with a twinkle in her eye. We sang some concerts and church services where I struggled with “weird Anglican hymns” and their asymmetrical structure, and where I was amused by the way chaplains said “will you please sit down”.
While in London, we also visited the College of Arms, where one of the heralds showed us the original patent granting a coat-of-arms to the new college in the colony of Virginia. I noted in the journal that I had no idea such a career as ‘herald’ existed, and determined that one day I would become one.
There were also some great adventures in London, such as meeting up with some of my high school friends and going clubbing at the Hippodrome (which was not such a good thing given that it made my ears ring at a steady pitch for several days, making singing a bit difficult); and, probably the oddest experience of the whole trip, encountering “Mike” in a pub near Covent Garden with Adam and Andrea (‘Dob’). Mike, a fairly rotund man with a mop of white hair, said he was a managing editor at TimeOut magazine, and entertained us for hours by quoting old American movies and singing songs. I noted that “We were sort of afraid he might turn out to be dangerous”. He kept buying us drinks, and then took the three of us round the corner for dinner (it was 11 PM), where he bought us “chips, 2 bottles of great wine [how would I know?], cheeses and deserts”. “Was he going to stick us with the bill?”, I wrote. “Nope, he paid, said he loved meeting Americans, and left. We laughed all the way home.” Mike, whoever you are, thank you for a hilarious encounter!
Then came the big day, June 3, where we gathered at Drapers’ Hall on Throgmorton Street in the City to perform for Elizabeth II. The Worshipful Company of Drapers, a survivor of the ancient London guilds of the Middle Ages (and of which William, Prince of Orange, had been a member), was now a philanthropic charity and had recently established a scheme to support William & Mary students who wished to study in the UK. As we sat in the anteroom waiting for the evening concert to start, the new Chancellor of the College, Baroness Thatcher, came and sat next to me on a bench and said she’d been trying to learn the words to the alma mater—she added that she once had a good singing voice, but was now mostly a “smoky baritone”. Not at all into politics then (or now), I had very little to say in my notebook about the encounter other than “Seems very nice”. A few days earlier we had voted on who would be presented to the Queen, and I was selected to be one of the four, alongside the choir president, Kate, plus Kim and James. We sang half the concert for Her Majesty (and I noted carefully, her lady-in-waiting, the Duchess of Grafton, so actually this blog could be about three duchesses, but never mind), then Doc was presented to her, and he in turn presented us four, but in his nervousness he introduced me as Kate. I noted in the journal that “The Queen looked great. Not her typical same-ole, same-ole dress. What a rush”. I also noted how odd it felt to sing “God save the Queen” to the Queen. She asked us in her teeny-tiny voice how long we had been on tour (“So long—how do you do it?”).
Then she left and we performed the rest of the concert. There were more speeches, by the Master of the Drapers’ Company (‘not very original but obviously well educated”), and by Thatcher (“Great Speech—she’s really got it together!”). Then there was another reception (we were getting good at those) and I met Lord and Lady Avebury—he introduced himself by saying “I’m the chap who owns those rocks”, meaning the Stone Circle at Avebury, not far from Stonehenge. His wife was an alumna of William & Mary and they both seemed pretty excited about making the connection. Again, I had no idea who was at the time, but I see now in looking him up that he had been a fairly prominent politician, a Liberal Democrat peer in the House of Lords and respected human rights campaigner.
On June 7 we left London to begin the last portion of the tour, in the English countryside. Again there were two coaches, driven by a friendly couple, John and Naomi, both Welsh and both only about 5 feet tall. We first headed south into Sussex, where we sang at the Hurstpierpoint School, and had a brief stop in Brighton, which is now one of my favourite spots in Britain. Of course I went to visit the Royal Pavilion with its extravagant interiors and sculpted serpents and dragons, and I made a note in my journal about how bizarre it was to see people on the beach “wearing so little” (European men not sporting the huge bathing trunks we were accustomed to at home) and yet wearing shoes, since the pebble beach is otherwise impossible to walk on. That night I and my two roommates for the tour, Seth and Steven, stayed in an amazing old house—old, from the 15th century, to be precise! My comment was that our wing, the older part of the house, was ‘sagging a bit’, but I was very excited to see a peacock on the lawn in the morning. I think I was very lucky in my host accommodations because I was in a group of three, while most were in pairs, so we tended to get the hosts with bigger houses.
We then proceeded east, into Kent, and over the next few days visited Hever Castle (home of Anne Boleyn), Churchill’s country retreat at Chartwell, Bodiam Castle, Ightham Mote and Canterbury Cathedral. While in Kent we were once again amazingly lucky to have the best host family, in Cranbook, where we stayed in a 16th-century house. One evening our hosts drove Seth and me across the Thames Estuary to Cambridge University where we watched their daughter Suzie perform in what was called a ‘Scratch Annie’—a tradition they did during exams where they started working on a play, in this case ‘Annie Get Your Gun’, on Tuesday, then performed it on Friday. We were invited to the afterparty in St. Catherine’s College and both fell in love. It was especially fun to return with the rest of the Choir to Cambridge a few days later and introduce people to our new friends, Suzie and Steve, and in particular participate in a rehearsal of an a capella singing group (then a phenomenon newly arrived in the UK from the States) called ‘Something for the Weekend’, who performed creative arrangements of songs like ‘Summertime’ and ‘Like a Virgin’. Suzie, is now a fairly well known actress on the British stage; and I wonder what ever became of Steve.
Back in Kent, the Choir enjoyed one of the most special days of the whole tour. We visited Sissinghurst Castle and its amazing gardens, each with a different theme, either in type of flower or in colour. One of the concerts I remember giving most was in the rose garden. Doctor Lendrim was clearly in his element.
The gardens were designed by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, in my mind two of the most intriguing people of the 20th century, leaders of the Bloomsbury Set. They had purchased the dilapidated Tudor manorhouse at Sissinghurst and restored its main tower and some of the outbuildings, converted into a modern home, in the 1930s. While we were there, Harold and Vita’s son, Nigel Nicolson, personally showed us around the gardens and even let us into the house—then off-limits to tourists—and in particular into the library, where, as I recorded in the journal, I was fairly overwhelmed to think of a library stocked almost entirely with books written by either your famous mother or your famous father. I wrote: “Vita Sackville-West was his mom—a real person”. I think it was my first real physical connection with a historical figure.
Later that day, Nicolson accompanied us to his mother’s ancestral home, Knole, one of the largest country houses in England, and one of the few Tudor mansions to survive mostly unmodified by later generations. Knole, today managed by the National Trust is also noted as having one of the largest collections of 17th-century furniture, and one of the largest deer parks.
Knole fits neatly into the category of dukes’ houses for this website, as seat of the dukes of Dorset in the 18th century. Built in the 1450s, it was at first the residence of successive archbishops of Canterbury. Acquired by Henry VIII in the 1530s, it was later granted by Elizabeth I to one of her cousins, Thomas Sackville, who largely rebuilt the house. The Sackvilles were subsequently earls of Dorset (1604), then dukes of Dorset (1720). The 3rd Duke was one of the great collectors of the late 18th century, but when his son died unmarried in 1815, the dukedom became extinct. The house and its contents passed via a niece to the West family, who became the double-barrelled Sackville-Wests, and barons Sackville in 1876. Vita was the daughter of the 3rd Baron, and always lamented that, being female, she could not inherit the title or the house. She spent much of her time there, however, and it is said that her most-famous lover, Virginia Woolf, based her characters in her novel Orlando on the Sackville portraits at Knole.
It was perhaps fitting, then, that I bought a book of letters between Vita and Virginia and read them with rapt interest on the bus, in the melancholic rain, with Kim. It’s one of my most cherished memories of the entire trip, and we cried together over Virginia’s growing despair at the end of their relationship. To add to the sombre mood, the very next day several of us witnessed the sudden death of the porter of the King’s School in Canterbury, where we were staying for the night. We had been amiably chatting with him only moments before. I think it was a transformative moment for many of us, to have come so close to death in our still very young lives.
On a happier note, the sunshine returned and we visited the romantically situated Leeds Castle, and took part in the traditional William & Mary Choir scone-eating contest. There was also a fascinating link (once more on this trip) with the history of Virginia, and we were proud to maintain the connection. Leeds Castle—in Kent, nowhere near the city of Leeds in Yorkshire—was built on an island in a lake in the early 12th century. It was later a favoured residence of King Edward I, and then of several Plantagenet and Tudor queens. What we see today, however, is a mostly 19th-century Tudor fantasy built by later owners. The Virginia connection comes from the castle’s 17th-century owners, the Culpepers, who were one of the original grantees of the Northern Neck proprietary colony given by Charles II in 1649 (confirmed in 1660 when he actually had the power to make such a grant). One of the Culpeper daughters married one of the other grantees, Lord Fairfax, and both families gave their names to counties in northern Virginia. The Fairfaxes owned Leeds Castle in the 18th century, then sold it following the American Revolution as they assimilated into a new life in a republic (one of the only English aristocratic families to do so). In the 1980s, the Governor of Virginia (and future presidential hopeful) Chuck Robb ceremoniously opened the newly redesigned Culpeper Gardens. I thought this connection with my home state was fascinating, but I was less impressed with the interiors, redesigned in the 1930s to look like what they at that time thought medieval interiors should look like—pretty kitsch. Also inside, we were served an inordinately huge amount of scones and jam and clotted cream (and of course tea), and one of the basses, Chris, won the contest with 12 scones.
The next few days were spent in East Anglia, where my normal roommates, plus a few others, stayed in a large farmhouse near the deliciously named Woolpit, not far from Bury St Edmunds. In a slightly odd moment of re-connecting to current US culture, here we watched the final episode of ‘Cheers’ together with our host family. In my notebook I enjoyed making notes on how the broad East Anglia accent sounded…which I continued in the next few days as we shifted our base of operations to the West Country. In the small Somerset village of Bruton—which gave its name to Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia—we stayed on another farm, possibly my favourite host family of the trip. They had such heavy accents that I wrote in the journal that sometimes the father in particular ‘speaks to us as if we are talking in a foreign language. And we reciprocate!’ They gave us Wellington boots and we trudged around the farm, watching the cows being milked by great automated machines, and accompanying their son to the local pub for another night of singing (mostly Beatles songs, but we apparently taught them our favourite: “Down Among the Dead Men” and “Shenandoah”). We were also quite happy for nearly the first time in England to have a proper cooked meal, not just cold salads and sandwich meat, which is what I think the hosts all thought we wanted (they all said “surely you’ve eaten so much on this tour, and don’t want to load up just before [or just after] a concert, so we’ll just give you something light”).
Have a listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-k5-zZmqhdo This version is by the Penn Glee Club—with a very cheesy intro…but the other versions I found on Youtube are quite dreary. This captures well the spirit in which we sang it.
In the West Country our coaches drove up and down the countryside, it seems, back and forth. Following the itinerary is a bit dizzying, and we visited so many cathedrals (Worcester, Exeter, Wells) that at one point I noted “Too many cathedrals too quickly!”, and a day or so later, “On to Salisbury Cathedral which I don’t remember at all.” There was a quick jaunt to the south coast, and the town of Budleigh Salterton, where, due to a mix up, we were asked to perform as the chorus for both ‘Pirates of Penzance’ and ‘Trial by Jury’ in a Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, though only a handful of us knew the music, having put on ‘Pirates’ the year before. Somehow we managed. We went north again into the Cotswolds where we stayed in Cheltenham—where I would later live for three years in 2006-09—as guests of the Dean Close School. We also visited a girls school at Westonbirt House, a fantastic neo-Tudor monstrosity built in the 19th century by “a wealthy sheep merchant”. I tremendously enjoyed having tea in the gardens there, though I admitted to the diary, “I don’t have a clue where we are”.
We visited Stratford-on-Avon, sang at the Sexey School (which of course elicited great titters), visited Stourhead Gardens and Glastonbury Abbey (on the Solstice!) and even met (completely randomly) the actor Bob Sagett at nearby Stonehenge. We had a British music appreciation day, visiting both Down Ampney, the birthplace of Vaughan Williams—and singing the (to us) very oddly metred hymn he wrote with that name—and the Malvern Hills, the beloved landscape of Elgar. Here we hiked up hills (and enjoyed a sign ordering us not to ‘worry the sheep’) and met even more friendly English hosts.
Down Ampney: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgUFay0th9A
And here, sadly, is where the journal stops. I know there is another notebook somewhere in my boxes of ‘old stuff’, and someday I will find it, and perhaps add more details to this account, but for now, we can wrap up the tour by finally attending to the title of this post, the Double Duchesses.
On Friday June 25th, we drove to South Gloucestershire and Badminton House, where we were extremely fortunate to be greeted and given a tour by its owner, the Duchess of Beaufort.
As usual, there was a connection with Virginia and a connection with William & Mary: as noted in the printed itinerary, “Lord Botetourt’s sister married the Duke of Beaufort and there are two portraits of Lord Botetourt in the House which the Duchess will show the choir”. Norborne Berkeley, 4th Baron Botetourt, was one of the last royal governors of Virginia (dying in Williamsburg in 1770), who was also Rector of the College, and is duly commemorated with a statue in a place of honour in front of the Wren Building. He gave his name to the small chamber group within the William & Mary Choir, as well as to a county in southwest Virginia (pronounced ‘bot-a-tot’)—some of my childhood church friends will certainly know the song ‘The Great Botetourt Bus-Truck Race’, but that’s not really part of this story. More pertinently, the barony of Botetourt passed to the family of the dukes of Beaufort, of Badminton House, in 1803.
Badminton was an ancient manorhouse in Gloucestershire which the Somerset family acquired in the early 17th century, then renovated to become their main residence after the family seat, Raglan Castle, was destroyed in the Civil War. They were created Dukes of Beaufort in 1682 by Charles II, and remained loyal to James II even during the Glorious Revolution. Nevertheless they reconciled with William & Mary, and flourished as one of the great court dynasties of the 18th century. An interesting fact is that the dukes of Beaufort are the only family descended in direct male line (though illegitimate) from the Plantagenet kings of England. In 2015, during the excitement over the reburial of Richard III, a scientist examined the DNA of the current Duke and said with regret that there had been a ‘genetic disconnect’ at some unspecified point in the past—ie, someone had lied about a child’s paternity, I am guessing in the wild and unruly days of the 18th century. In the 19th century, as the story goes, the children of the 8th Duke of Beaufort, finding themselves unable to play outside during a snowstorm, invented a new game in the Great Hall, with a shuttlecock light enough to not damage the walls or the priceless statuary in the hall, which took on the name badminton.
Badminton is also famous in the 20th century as organiser of one of the two largest fox hunts in Britain, the setting for the Badminton Horse Trials since the 1940s, and for hosting Queen Mary during the Second World War.
Most of the family stories were told to us by the Duchess herself, who turned out to be one of the funniest raconteurs I would ever meet. Born Lady Caroline Thynne, she was the daughter of the 6th Marquess of Bath and Daphne Fielding (a later married name)—both considered amongst the ‘Bright Young Things’ of the 1920s (her mother became a well-known author, and her brother would much later become the more famously eccentric Lord Bath, the one with the ‘wifelets’, who just died in April this year). We never saw the Duke, but the Duchess took us all over the house—a real treat, since it is one of the few great country houses in the UK that remains closed to visitors except as private tours—and kept us in stitches with her stories. There were always dogs with us on the tour. Lots of dogs. On the priceless Queen Anne furniture. Oh well. We were shown a secret door in the magnificent library, which I think amused us greatly.
The story I remember the most (sadly without the details from the journal) was about her mother-in-law, the Dowager Duchess, who one day, at quite an advanced age, fell all the way down the main staircase of the house, only to comment upon reaching the bottom, that she was so happy to finally be able to notice—in mid-fall—how the intricate carving on the Jacobean wooden stairs continued onto the underside of each step as well! She also told us how her mother-in-law (the former Lady Mary Cambridge, who lived in the house until 1987) had suffered during the War as she had been called upon to host her aunt, the Dowager Queen, Mary of Teck, who arrived with over a hundred suitcases and dozens of staff, but, more worryingly, was famously a kleptomaniac. The Duchess wondered how many Beaufort pieces might still be lurking somewhere in the Royal Collection. It was in the small museum where the family relics were kept where I earned my Choir Tour prize (we all got one, traditionally, on the last day of the tour): as the Duchess showed us the coronation robes last used in 1953, I asked (being sure to remember to address her as ‘Your Grace’) if they would be the same robes in the event of the next coronation. I of course meant that they looked a bit ‘worn’, but she laughed and said that “fortunately, the waistline IS expandable”. I was mortified, but the Choir’s prize-givers immortalised the moment at the end of the tour by naming me ‘Miss Manners’. We ended our visit to Badminton by giving a short concert for an audience of one in the Beaufort Chapel.
I was saddened to hear of our delightful tourguide’s death only two years later, but in another interesting twist of fate, I was really pleased to host her daughter, the popular historian Anne Somerset, as the guest speaker at conference I organised in 2013.
According to the itinerary we then spent three days in that well-known tourist destination, West Horsley. We even apparently had two free days there. What on earth we did for two days in West Horsley I haven’t the foggiest idea. What I do remember is our short visit to another Duchess (two duchesses in two days!), and learning how to manipulate etiquette to obtain favours (no wonder I became a court historian!). We arrived in our coaches at West Horsley Place, a large 15th-century red brick manorhouse near Guildford in Surrey, and were greeted by its long-term resident, the Duchess of Roxburghe. Again relying on my now fairly patchy memory, she had apparently been told that the Duchess of Beaufort had given us lunch (which she hadn’t), and so, not to be outdone socially, she put on a nice spread of biscuits (the English usage) and cakes. Why we met the Duchess is a mystery, and the itinerary this time fails to enlighten. The only clue is that we were there to do a benefit concert to raise money for a new organ in the local church of St. Mary’s. I welcome suggestions from former Choir members in the comments box! As the tour’s resident Miss Manners, I do recall checking the etiquette books and noting that she should be referred to not as the Duchess of Roxburghe, but as Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe, since she had divorced the Duke and he had remarried.
The house itself, West Horsley Place, I remember as being pretty dilapidated, and it wasn’t until many years later, on the Duchess’s death in 2014, that I discovered what a fascinating person she had been. Lady Anne Milnes was the daughter of the 1st Marquess of Crewe, a lord lieutenant of Ireland, secretary of state for India and ambassador to France, and grand-daughter of the Earl of Rosebery, briefly Liberal Prime Minister, and his wife, the richest heiress in Britain, Hannah de Rothschild. She married the 9th Duke of Roxburghe, in 1935, and was described in her obituary, as one of the last great army hostesses of the waning days of the Empire, setting up for tea each afternoon in the tents of her husband’s military headquarters in the deserts of the Middle East, as if a war wasn’t going on. Civility must be maintained! The couple received more notoriety, however, after the war, when the Duke attempted to force the Duchess into divorce by evicting her from their enormous castle, Floors, on the River Tweed in Scotland. She maintained a life for several months under siege in one wing of the castle, though he cut off the, phone, the electricity and running water, until she conceded to a divorce late in 1953.
After her death, her nephew, the broadcaster Bamber Gascoigne discovered unanticipated treasures under the cobwebs of West Horsley Place. Check out this delightful short video made by Sotheby’s:
On June 28th we had one last great tour, of undoubtedly the best of all British palaces, Hampton Court, then one last concert at St. Peter’s Church in Staines. Staines does not have a reputation amongst English people as ‘beautiful’, but that golden evening in mid-summer, on the banks of the Thames, with swans in attendance, I do remember it as a beautiful setting, as we all said farewell to each other, amidst great tears, as we sang our choir’s signature song, ‘Shenandoah’, together one last time.
The printed itinerary says the Choir departed the next morning for United flight #921 at Heathrow, but I wasn’t with them, having set out on my own by train for Cologne, where I would meet my friend Miriam, for the next few weeks of high adventure. But that is a different journey.
(images either my own photos, those of fellow choir members shared over the years, or taken from Wikimedia Commons)
The William & Mary alma mater
A link to the William & Mary News story from 21 July 1993 (may require an alumni login):