Endsleigh House was House and Home for me for nearly 2 years. My mother had been hired to manage the hotel side of the Endsleigh House Fishing Club and we had moved down from London in early 1974. I stayed there for two years, until I had finished my secondary school education at Tavistock Comprehensive school, at which point I moved to Plymouth to study Catering at Plymouth college, before ultimately before going to Munich Germany to embark on a totally new life.
In retrospect, I liked it at Endsleigh House. During the Ī2 years I was at Endsleigh, we lived in one of the cottages across the courtyard from the main house. The cottage was next to the stables-turned garages and the arched clock tower, complete with bats.
I liked that cottage. For the first time in my life I was, I felt, almost independent. I had my own quarters, a bedroom and a sitting room, plus a spare room. I installed myself in my quarters and peacefully got up to what any 16-year-old got up to before the invention of smartphones and such things.
All that was missing were wheels, my driving license had to wait a few more years, so it was down to walking, taking the bus or lifts in a friend's CitroŽn "Diane". I eventually bought myself a little Yamaha motorbike but not until I was almost on the point of leaving for Plymouth and in the meantime life was being lived, as the poet would have said.
When I was wasn't at school in Tavistock I worked in the House, mainly in the dining room, where I served the visitors breakfast, lunch and dinner under the "Hawkeyed" direction of Hilda the head-waitress, inhabitant of nearby Milton Abbot, who, like the cooks and gillies, had worked at Endsleigh for time immemorial.
Apart from working in the dining room and the bar I also did a variety of handyman jobs about the place and in the course of which I got to wander around, inside and out,and have a look at this exceptional House.
However the best of all, in the way of work at Endsleigh, was when I was enrolled by the Gilly, Mr Adams, to help certain visitors when they went fishing, carrying their luncheon baskets, fishing rods, nets and so on.
I generally spent most of my time either thigh high in the water, helping the clients land their fish (when they did manage to catch one, that is) or lounging around on the river bank, eating the sandwiches the visitors didn't want and contemplating the approaching weekend and the inevitable Saturday evening in Tavistock at the Bedford. Yes, all in all, it was a good job!
One day I actually got to do a bit of fishing, myself. The ultimate reward took a while coming but I finally landed up by catching a trout. I was so excited I didn't realise I was stomping around on my own rod and getting bawled out in the process by Gilly Adams, but it was worth it. In view of my exaltations, Gilly Adams didn't insist and that made my day, because after all, he said, anyone could catch a salmon but trout were treacherous.
NB. Trout hide or run but never rise to obvious bait, such as I'd cast, unless they're riled and I must have riled one. Whatever, I had caught my one and only trout at Endsleigh and that's a memory to write about.
Meanwhile back up at the House. As I said, I got to wander around the place, occasionally accompanied by our one-eyed Pekinese dog, Freddie (bless him) and I went visiting the rooms and bedrooms, the wine cellar, the outhouses and the gardens getting the feeling of the place. I was mentally registering images, such as the glazed- painted toilets(they were glazed-painted inside!) and the hand painted wallpapers or the petrified tree stumps, the bonsais, the rhododendrons and a giant Wellingtonia - Sequoiadendron giganteum - of over 40 metres (over 130 feet )in the gardens.
But it was the overall atmosphere of Endsleigh House that was remarkable. History books tell that Endsleigh House, or rather Endsleigh Cottage as it was originally known, wasn't all that old, as country houses or manors go. It was only built in circa 1810, for the 04th duke of Bedford but it was remarkable all the same.
Nestled into the side of the hill, that runs down to the Tamar, Endsleigh House has an atmosphere, a presence about it, the sort that lends itself to tales of mystery and legends. The outside walls of the house were blocks of local grey stone topped by a grey slated roofing and surrounded by trees (of all sorts, shapes and sizes) so that the house seemed to melt into the surroundings, you were upon it before you realised it.
And Endsleigh was damp. The back cottages were literally hewn out of the side of the grey coloured stone hill so that house and hill looked as one. The humidity rose from the river and, because of the trees, swirled in clouds around Endsleigh and couldn't escape over the hill. There was lichen all over the place and when the wood fires were lit, notably the one in the big front entrance fireplace, the smell of scented wood-fire smoke hung in the air.
But most of all, I can very definitely say that on a Winter's evening, with the wind howling through some of the tallest Wellingtonia trees in the British Isles, Endsleigh House really did have a rather distinct atmosphere. Not quite something out of Stephen King's "Red Rose" but almost and I loved it.
Walking down the gloomy corridors of the main house and annexe at night was fuel for a fertile adolescent mind, especially when the house, closed for the Winter season, was absolutely empty, with not a client in the house, and the wind howling outside causing the windows to rattle and thick wooden doors to slam shut!
Needless to say the death of the 12th Duke of Bedford in 1953 helped the atmosphere. Local legends said that he ended his life with the help of his hunting gun and as certain of the workers, cooks and Gillies were already in the service of the Duke of Bedford years before, these legends were very much alive in the local culture.
A Ghost's Tale
It was with such stories in mind that I set out one evening accompanied by Freddie, our lovable one-eyed Pekingese dog, to go and check the floors and rooms, as requested by my mother. Freddie was well acquainted with the house and in spite of only having one eye he went about with ease, having got the measure of all possible obstacles and picked up a fair speed when trotting down the middle of the long corridors of Endsleigh House.
It was evening and we had finished dinner. Mother had asked me to go and check something so I left her office, I think it was, with Freddie tailing. I turned right, out of the office, and went along the flagstone floored corridor down to the front entrance hall, where the log fire in the enormous fireplace was dying down. Checking that the windows were all tightly shut I left the entrance hall I turned left and climbed up the main stairs to the first-floor landing, where the "Master" bedroom, the Duke's bedroom, was situated.
Once on the first floor and after having checked the Duke's room I then turned right. From the initial landing in front of the duke's high-ceilinged and spacious bedroom, the corridor then narrowed considerably. With Freddie following, all this time, I had gone about my business and was advancing down the corridor when all of a sudden the air went icy cold and I felt as though something brushed passed me. As I turned to follow the sensation I saw Freddie let out a yelp and scamper from the middle of the corridor to cower against the wall. I managed to collect Freddie and I finished my round by going down the 02nd flight of stairs, along to the annexe then back to the office where I told my Mother about what happened.
Apart from the fact that Freddie was, ever after, always reluctant to go along the 01st-floor corridor and when he did it always to the one side, the episode was not talked about again until one day at the start of the following season.
A client, a woman of a certain age and character, who happened to be staying in one of the rooms in the annexe, came into the dining room one day. My mother approached the client and exchanged the usual courtesies. As she turned to go the client asked my mother who the gentleman was staying in the annexe as the client thought that she was alone there, her husband having not yet arrived at Endsleigh. Her curiosity aroused my mother turned and asked what man the client was referring to. My mother told the client that there was no else staying in the annexe and there were no outsiders in the house, for meals or coffee either . My mother thought that it might have been me until she remembered I was at school at the time so who was it?
We never found out who it was nor saw the man ourselves but we were absolutely sure of one thing. No one had entered the main house or the annexe from outside, neither from the gardens nor from the courtyard side. All the other doors had been locked from the inside and my mother made regular rounds to check that this remained the case.
Anyone wanting to enter the house would have had to have done so by using the front entrance and be thus be seen by my mother in her office. So for the Cooks and the Gillies, Endsleigh's living memory, this episode was just another in a series to be remembered.
This experience was an episode in a chapter which in turn made up a period that was relatively speaking Halcyon. When I wasn't working and I wasn't at school or in Town or roaming around the moors, I was up in my rooms listening to a lot of Alternative Rock, notably the group "Yes" with "Yessongs" or their complex concept album "Tales from Topographic Oceans" plus George Harrison and many, many more like that.
I was also reading a lot at the time. I had been reading a lot in London, mostly Asimov, Clarke and Moorcock and when I arrived at Tavistock, entered the lower 6th form, and made friends with the some of the Upper 6th, I got initiated into a new style of reading and ultimately discovered Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings".
The mixture of "The Lord of the Rings" and Alternative rock music such as "Yessongs" and "Tales from Topographic Oceans" had an enormous influence on me at the time and ever since... but that's another story.
I know one is not supposed to go back to past haunts but I was recently reading an article about Endsleigh on Internet and I learnt a couple of interesting facts that raised an eyebrow or two.
Apart from the fact the estate is/was (at the time of writing) up for sale, I found out that the house had actually undergone important restoration. The article went on to say, and here I was rather surpised to learn, that the House had been on the decline since the eighties. It had all really started with the death of the 12th Duke of Bedford in 1953, and the subsequent ceding of the estate by the Duke's family to a fishing association, but it would seem that conflicting interests, lack of foresight or planning and possibly less than rigorous management since the 80's had accelerated the decline.
Even at the time we were there, in the early to middle 70's, conflicting interests were at work. The so-called established members of the fishing club would not willingly accept fresh capital into the club if it was thought to come from less than noteworthy sources. I remember my mother telling me at the time that certain new clients came down from London or the North, with their sports cars and pretty wives and were virtually ostracized as "Nouveau Riche" by the club members, those same club members who awkwardly re-patched their own clothes because they could not or would not, for whatever reason, buy new ones.
I remember my mother's frustration at the members' attitude. The members politic of maintaining the Status Quo and only allowing new members if their pedigree survived a serious vetting was a handicap. Unfortunately for the future of the club, the vetting didn't necessarily take into account an applicant financial solvability but rather his social standing and the more this social standing resembled the members' the better chance the applicant had of joining the club.
Irony of Ironies. Not only did the members' selection criteria eliminate a certain category of potential member, ex: the so-called "Nouveau Riche". It apparently also had the perverse effect of shying away the visitors who frequented Endsleigh at the time of the Bedfords, the nobility, who, it would seem, had their own opinion of the caste of club members, mostly middle-class magistrates, country doctors, notaries, well-to-do but socially accepted shopkeepers and the inevitable ruddy-faced major or colonel.
It was a shame to read that such a remarkable place had suffered such a slight of fortune. The Bedford family had had to part with the estate to acquit themselves of the 12th Duke's death duties in 1953 and looking back, after a certain period of time in various managerial posts, my first reaction, on reading the article, was to ask why the Fishing Club didn't do anything to stem this decline. But as one would say Hindsight is 20/20 and one shouldn't go back but I did enjoy a happy time while I was there.
© Nicholas Richards 2004