Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
Abide with me, Henry Francis Lyte
The train muttered and grunted to a halt, and the doors hissed open. I stepped out onto the deserted platform- none of my fellow-passengers were inspired to alight. I walked through an archway, leaning to even out the weight of the laptop case and suitcase, past spare mail trolleys queued for an unexpected pre-Christmas rush. A bus timetable yellowed behind a cracked glass display, ready to be sold to some transport museum as a bygone. I began to wonder how I'd get to the Hall, but luckily the taxi rank outside wasn't completely empty. There was a beat-up car sporting a TAXI rooflight. The driver was reading a tabloid paper, or at least staring at the three-inch-high headlines with an uncomprehending frown. He looked up at my approach, and told me to jump in. I aimed for the back seat, rather than the front passenger's seat, because I'm told this discourages conversation. It didn't work, though.
After his questioning quickly established that I was visiting on business and that the weather was fine and that I had come by train, he launched into an ill-digested re-run of the paper's views. Since we weren't in London, he didn't need the Knowledge to be a cabbie- he had the lesser, more general, requirements, though: the Ignorance, the Bigotry, and the Stupidity. Perhaps, to be fair to taxi drivers across the world, their views are coloured by the people they have to deal with, the lack of respect they enjoy, the constant wheedling needed to turn a starvation wage into a living one. It reminded me of my Marxist days at university- my disbelief when I was told that the petit bourgeoisie promoted and defended the system which enslaved them. It had taken a little longer to realise that much the same was true of the proletariat; it is a sad truth that the common factor between all hard-socialist revolutionary workers parties is that their memberships belie their title as "Popular" and that the few they can muster are students, not workers.
My reverie was interrupted as the car turned off into a grand gateway, and crunched along the gravel track. The drive was lined with trees; sheep lurked in the shadows. The view opened out and we arrived in front of a large Georgian house.
The taxi turned round in the turning circle and sped off in a cloud of dust- there as clearly some urgent sitting next to the station to be done. I admired the main facade, cleanly elegant and Classical inspiration, apart from the bow window, which lent a suburban air to the whole. Off to the left was a stable block, now a car park and junk yard. I looked back at the facade to determine which entrance to approach: the large, multi-paned door with a portico in the centre, or the small door off to the side. The main door looked unused, so I went to the other. I tried the doorbell, with no audible effect, and then knocked on the door. I heard the sound of barking approach, interspersed with shouts, and before long there were a pair of dogs swirling around in the doorway, leaping and barking in excitement. "Oh shut up, Bugger! Shut up, Rugger!", the approaching woman scolded, pausing for breath after every few steps. She was middle-aged, dressed in a faded brown housecoat and Wellington boots. She peered out at me and then started to unlock and unlatch the door.
"Hallo there! You're the archive chap?"
I said I was, and asked if the Sheldons were home. She snorted and shrugged.
"Sorry, forgot to say- I'm Margaret Sheldon. Follow me through- we're just having tea".
I stepped in, pushing the door to behind me, and fended the dogs away from my legs with my bags. We shuffled down a stone-flagged passage and into a high-ceilinged room at the back of the house. An electric fire singed the air. Margaret called out.
"Charles- here's that fellow- move the dogs".
Charles, sat in a decrepit winged chair, turned and rose, kicked a dog from his feet.
"Ah, Mr Williams, Derek, is it?"
We shook hands and he looked around for a chair.
"Good to see you. The Trust grant came through, then?"
"Yes, Mr Sheldon- I believe they wrote to you?"
Charles' vague denial was countermanded by Margaret, who told him clearly that the letter had arrived, and that indeed it was a result of it that I was expected.
"Sorry about the mess- in the winter, we more or less live in here. The other rooms get too cold. You would have thought it might have crossed someone's mind that translating a building style from southern Italy to England might have had some serious disadvantages!"
Margaret sorted out the tea things on a tray, much interrupted by the need to toss snacks to the digs.
"There's just us here today- the children are out and about- you'll meet them soon enough. But I suppose you'll want to get on with looking at the papers?"
I said I did, but ended up listening anyway to a long and disjointed discussion of forthcoming social events, not helped by the participants' use of nicknames and poor grasp of dates and places. But eventually Margaret broke off to show me up to the bedroom they'd sorted out for me, at the top of the house.
I woke the next morning to the scraping and chattering of birds on the roof-ridge above the skylight. The thin curtain muted rather than blocked the sunlight, and it shivered in the draught. My back ached. The bed had proved to be old, damp, and broken; the blankets, starched, rough and dubiously scented. I dressed and crossed the landing to the bathroom, and then made my way downstairs. The house was scattered with furniture in that strange aristocratic manner, where a writing desk is placed in the hallway in case a visitor needs to compose a letter before removing their coat, and where chairs are placed around the rooms for the comfort of those who wish to pause on the journey from one door to the next. As I descended, I passed shabby cupboards, brass instruments of obscure and ill-omened purpose, landscape paintings of brown fields under khaki skies.
The kitchen was empty. Margaret had said that she usually rose early, taking the dogs around the grounds; Charles seldom stirred until 11. I cut an uneven slice of bread from the loaf and jammed it into the toaster. In contrast to the rest of the house, the room was clean and modern, apart from the heavily-muddied floor. The instant coffee proved to be cheap and bland. I didn't linger; it was time to get started.
I opened the door and breathed in slowly. This was the bit of my job I loved. Archivists have the reputation of being fussy or authoritarian, protecting their collections from users. But this is just a product of their role – they are responsible for the safety of the archives. If somebody damages a document, then to them it is an accident; to the archivist it is a failure. Not surprisingly, archivists end up being cautious: everything is done according to the rules, documented, carefully; this makes it hard to go wrong. Except now. Before anything had been listed, counted, described – here I could devalue the collection in minutes by rearranging things. As it stood now, the records room’s organisation reflected the process of managing the estate: documents were field together because they were used together. So, before moving any of the bundles, piles, boxes, and (in the corner) heaps of paper that filled very flat or near-flat surface in the room, I walked along, mentally classifying them into types: legal documents, business letters, accounts, and, most common of all, general miscellaneous. All administrators seem to grasp the first principle of record management: keep all the papers you might need. The second, keeping them organised, was usually beyond them.
I started to work along the shelves, applying numbered Post-It notes to the piles of papers, when I heard the door open behind me.
‘Ah- you must be the archivist.’
I turned round to see a girl in her twenties, gracefully leaning on the doorpost, a quizzical smile on her face.
‘That’s right,’ I replied, ‘Pleased to meet you.’
‘I’m Helen – didn’t Ma and Pa say? Have you started yet?’
‘Just now, actually – it’ll take a while.’
‘Found any treasures?’ Helen asked, with a glint in her eye.
‘Well, they are all important, in their way.’
‘Even the rubbish?’ Helen laughed, ‘Are you sure?’
I laughed too. ‘We prefer the term “ephemera”, but yes, for now.’
She walked into the room, trailing her hand along the shelf. She walked with a flat-footed gait; I noticed she was wearing frayed ballet pumps. She stared at me for a second.
‘I was expecting someone older, when they said you were coming.’
‘Archivists come in all shapes and sizes, I suppose.’
She shrugged. ‘I hope you don’t find any family secrets.’
She turned to leave with an offhand ‘See you’. I watched her go, and then went back to work.
The papers of most landowning families are testimony to their two great passions: the accumulation of land, to generate income, and litigation, to expend it upon. The Sheldons were, it appeared, more interested in the former than the latter- certainly the correspondence with the family lawyers was mainly about property rather than law. It was no surprise to me, then, that the majority of the records filling the room were legal papers, neatly tied with fading pink ribbon, sealed with cracked red wax, grubby to the touch.
A librarianship student once told me that the ‘dirty bits’ in library books can easily be found because in much-borrowed copies they become physically dirty, begrimed by hundreds of sweaty thumbs, or worse. Old title deeds are similar; the bundles of documents fall open at passages of particular interest (usually financial).
It was clear that the Sheldons were free from any snobbishness about trade: following the Emperor Vespasian’s dictum that ‘money does not smell’. As well as running their park and home farm, and leasing out neighbouring farms, they had a hand in the local ironworks, railways, brickmaking kilns and shops.
Chapter 7 : Selections from the Littleworth Estate Papers
[Letterhead: Littleworth Estate Telephone Littleworth 102 Telex LITTLEWORTH]
21st April 1937
Dear Herr Goering
Further to your enquiry concerning availability of aluminium and magnesium for your Ministry, I am pleased to confirm that we hold substantial stocks of these materials.
It is our understanding that under the recent international agreements restricting the trading of munitions and related raw materials to Spain, it would be advantageous to both parties to handle delivery via Eire, since it is not a signatory and remains open as an entrepot.
We await your instructions
I remain, Sir, your obedient servant
[manuscript] P.S. You must visit us again for the grouse season!
[Letterhead: Littleworth Estate Telephone Littleworth 2]
Lt H. Eldon
2nd King’s Rifles
10th March 1902
My dear Harry
I’m pleased to hear that you are now back ‘in the field’. I trust you are fully recovered – one hears such terrible things of military hospitals. The newspapers here report nothing but victories. You should watch for the arrival of a shipment of barbed wire in the Province, from our mills – we have been contracted to supply 88 tons to the War Dept for use in civilian detention camps. This was most opportune, since we had been contemplating selling the works – there has been much agitation amongst the men over pay and hours of late, and it has been all the police could do to break up their protests. I have sent a parcel of food which no doubt will arrive in a few weeks.
You are much in our thoughts
[manuscript; copy letter in letterbook]
T. Osprey, esquire
Deptmt of Supply
10th January 1863
We are obliged for your letter of 1st ultimo and beg to tender these prices for your consideration:
Swords, forged and tempered £1 per dozen
Daggers, 6” blade 6 shillings per dozen
Bayonets, 8” blade 10 shillings per dozen
We can supply leatherwork, scabbards, & cetera, at little additional cost, but believe that these may be more readily obtained by yourselves locally.
Our company does not manufacture rifles; we would be willing to act as agents on your behalf in securing the same, tho’ our govt’s intransigence would entail some difficulties on our part.
I beg to remain your most obedient servant
From: Tom Eldon
Cold Harbour Hall
To: Miss Frances Eldon
1st October 1803
Dearest Cousin Frances
You inquired after our situation here. You may have read in the Gazette that the Negro rebels have been defeated and captured at last. The ringleader, styling himself “Captain Moses”, was an escapee from Mr Jones’ estate, just over the creek from us. Jones tells us that he had been making an experiment in educating the savages, but has resolved to desist in such efforts. Captain Moses was hanged by the militia in the Town Square this last week, although our niggers mutter that it was another man and that Moses lives. We have whipped them and keep them locked up at night, yet they do not apply themselves to their work.
We anticipate the arrival of a new shipment within the month, wch will be sorely needed, so many of our current complement having died from malarial contagion. Alas, prices are rising now that supplies are short, the Navy’s patrols having dislocated the traffic.
You should soon receive at the Hall a delivery of Wedgwood’s porcelain – I would be obliged if you would inspect it as to condition, since the factory disclaims any control of its carters. I am as yet undecided where it is best to place; if you let me know it has arrived I shall be put upon to chuse!
I trust that you will not find me importunate in allotting you such a task
Your loving cousin
For the next few days, I was left largely to myself, disturbed only by the occasional visit from the dogs as they snuffled around myopically. I glimpsed the Sheldons as they followed their individual orbits- Margaret's from kitchen to conservatory, Charles' from study to dining room. Helen, in spite of her comment, was nowhere in evidence. Why did I mind that?
On Wednesday, my usually-solitary breakfast in the kitchen was varied by the presence of Margaret, assembling crockery and cutlery on a large tray.
"It's the estate meeting today," she explained, unbidden, "the family go through all the business matters- and you'll get to meet everyone, unless you'd rather not be disturbed?"
"Not at all", I replied emphatically, unsure of how to communicate my lack of enthusiasm for meeting new people politely. I remembered the time my careers master at school had asked if I'd like working with people, and his shock at the eloquent negative the question triggered.
I finished my coffee, washed my hands to clean off any grease or breadcrumbs, and went down the passage to the records store, closing the door on the bustle of arrivals in the distance. I worked through a bundle of letters, trying to establish a date: 19th century from the handwriting, but hard to pin down, because their authors had indicated only day and month. Soon enough, or perhaps only quite soon, a reference in the body of a letter to 'our new queen' fixed the timescale to the early 1840s. The correspondence was an indiscriminate mixture of family news and business, similar in all probability to the meeting running on next door. I refolded the letter, replaced it in the envelope, and re-tied the ribbon around the bundle, pausing to lightly pencil the date on the top. I rose to get a drink, as much from a desire to stretch and become mobile as from thirst.
To my surprise, the kitchen wasn't empty: a woman sat at the table, laboriously urging two small children to eat.
She said "Hello" brightly but with an interrogative inflexion.
"Hi - I'm Derek - looking at the archives."
"Yeah, Jeremy said you'd be around - have you seen him?"
"No, he's the son, isn't he?"
She grinned. "Son and heir, you mean."
"What about Helen?"
This time she smiled broadly and tutted. "Wrong sex, I'm afraid. It took me a while to realise how it worked. I met Jeremy at uni- I was doing History of Art, he was doing Land Economy, whatever that is. I still don't know - I don't think he knows, either."
Penny paused, retrieving a juice cup from the floor and handing it back to its owner.
"I come from Yorkshire, from a big family. We're always doing things together- parties, outings, shopping. But this is different, more dynastic. You wouldn't believe just how interested Ma and Pa were in Jon and Emma here. They'd have come to the ultrasound scans if I'd let them. Now they're not too bothered about Emma - she can do what she likes. But Jon, he's the future: one day this will all be his. Won't it?"
She directed this last remark at the presumptive heir, who was currently reaching for a handful of dog biscuits from a bowl on the floor.
"I suppose they might say it's a responsibility, keeping the estate together", I suggested, without much conviction.
"Yes, that's just what they say. It's quite a handy argument, you know. When you want something new. Like this house- smart kitchen units, expensive, modern - that's investment. But everything else is what they had already". She sighed.
I smiled at her eloquence. She glanced at the door.
"Not that I'm complaining, of course. But, Christ, it's nice to talk to someone who isn't on their side - you're not, are you?"
I shook my head. "It's not for me to judge - they seem nice enough, but that might just be politeness".
This earned a snort from Penny.
"Manners aren't everything, you know. I had a hard time when Jeremy first brought me here. The Spanish Inquisition has nothing on the treatment a prospective family member gets".
Emma methodically licked jam off her fingers.
"And that first Christmas - it's funny now to think of it. I thought - you know - grand house, owns half a county, posh car, swish clothes. What can I buy them as presents? Jeremy kept saying not to worry, but I did, of course. In the end, he just told me he'd deal with it. Thirty minutes, it took him: a scarf each for the women, a tie each for the men."
"The difference between capital and revenue, I suppose."
"That's what he says. What they all say. You can't keep an estate together over the centuries unless you're careful about your balance. Not that it works these days. No matter how little they spend, it doesn't make enough. There's only so much money in farm rents. Every time we have a crisis, tax or whatever, it's something else sold off, which means less income." She sighed again. "But now I'm sounding like them."
Jon looked up at his mother. "Can we see Gramps now?"
"Not yet," she replied, tutting. "Little creeps. To be fair, they do like the kids."
Emma asked about Auntie Helen, echoing my thoughts.
"I don't think she's here today."
So it wasn't until a couple of day later that I met Helen again. She breezed into the room at mid-morning, wearing a quilted jacket and jodphurs.
"Do you want to tour the estate?" she asked.
"Yes, that would be interesting - I've been reading about the various properties."
"OK - do you ride?"
She seemed neither surprised nor disappointed by my negative response, and went off to secure some spare boots and to gather the dogs.
* * *
It was a crisp Spring morning; the grass was heavy with dew. Plumes of vapour marked our breaths. As we crunched our way down the drive, Helen pointed out buildings near and far, with the complacency of ownership.
"That's Park Farm - the tenants there are the Edwards brothers. You can tell by the state of the fences that they're not very good caretakers. We keep telling them that binder twine isn't a fencing material, but it doesn't do any good."
Rugger waddled ahead of us, pausing to sniff occasionally. Birds chattered warnings of our approach from the trees. We reached the lodge at the end of the drive, where it met the public road. The small garden behind the lodge was largely filled by a rusting car beneath a tarpaulin.
"Disgraceful- we've asked them to get rid of it," Helen said crossly. "It's rented out now - it used to be for one of the servants from the house."
"I know," I replied, glad to have something to contribute, "in the 1860s it's listed in the land terriers."
"At least when it was under our control we could insist on how it was looked after."
"I'd have thought the terms of the lease would still give you that?"
"Yes, in theory. But try evicting people- you'll end up paying a fortune in legal fees. It's hardly worth it. It beats me why the nouveau riche are so keen on buy-to-let: they must be mad or stupid."
She walked up the short slabbed path and rang the doorbell twice. I stood back, noting the architectural details: Victorian Gothic, with elaborate decorative ridge tiles and terracotta brickwork. After half a minute's silence, Helen turned.
"They must be at work: both the Johnsons have jobs in the town."
"I suppose it must be strange now that so few people work on the estate?"
"I'm used to it - it was in Gramps' time that we lost them all - went to war and never came back."
I must have looked perplexed, since she went on to explain.
"Not dead - just never came back. They found other jobs, shorter hours, better pay. That's gratitude for you!"
I had always had some doubts whether noblesse does indeed oblige, and I wondered now why it obliged such arrogance. But equally, I could not deny the attraction I felt for her despite the horrible views she expressed with such conviction.
* * *
We reached the junction and turned to the right, the main road dropping to stone bridge over a stream. I knew a lot about this.
"This bridge is quite famous - or at least, well-represented in the records. In the 1820s there was a long legal dispute about who should pay for its repair. Thomas Sheldon argued that it was a county road, to be maintained from taxes, but the Court of Quarter Sessions said it was a parish road, so the rates should pay. Sheldon kicked up quite a fuss- he wrote letters all over the place."
Helen didn't know this; nor, to be honest, did she show much interest in the information now that she did. I peered at the weathered inscription on the parapet: "This bridge erected by Littleworth parish, 1831". "So Sheldon must have lost," I said.
Helen frowned. "Didn't you know?"
"Not for sure," I explained, "The papers I saw were the initial negotiations and the proofs in evidence taken to court. The final judgment would be recorded in the Court Rolls, by the Clerk of the Peace, and there need have been little documentation sent to the parties."
Helen stopped and looked at me. "You are funny, you know. You've got all these little lectures in your head." I was unsure how to respond to her bantering tone.
We crossed the stream and followed the road up the valley side, then climbed over a stile in a thorn hedge. I was about to start talking about the Enclosure Act and its effect on field boundaries, but stopped myself when I recognised that this would constitute another lecture. I decided to take the offensive.
"Penny was telling me about the estate office - do you work there full-time?"
"Not as such - although for tax purposes I do. I help out when it gets busy- like next week, when we're having a party for objectors to a planning application."
"So, what - stuffing envelopes? That doesn't sound like much of a job."
"I don't know - I get a lot of free time to ride and so on. I did work in London last year, but didn't enjoy it. It's no fun living there unless you can afford to go out and can time off for holidays. Anyway, there isn't anything in particular I want to do."
"Did you go to university?"
"No, that was Jeremy- he's the one with the brains. My school focused on personal development, sports and life skills, rather than exams, and I didn't really fancy it."
"Don't you get bored, staying here all the time?"
"Not at all- you underestimate the value of being able to please yourself what you do every day."
"I suppose so. I find archives so interesting I'd probably work on them for free if I won the Lottery."
"Yes, I think you would."
* * *
We passed a patch of bloodstained fur on the path.
"Foxes are such nice animals," Helen sneered. "I used to love hunting - riding at will, as fast as I could, following the pack wherever it went."
"I thought the hunt still met?"
"Yes, but it's not the same. They have to be so careful about keeping the hounds in hand that you never get that wild feeling - it was so natural - you, the horse, the dogs, the fox - all running across the fields. That's the tradition that has gone."
"I'm not sure how ancient that tradition is: most of the trappings were invented by the Victorians. I suppose these days that counts as ancient. But at least you are arguing from experience- you enjoyed it. The rational arguments for hunting always seemed the weakest- that this was the most efficient and humane way to control the fox population, that it employed thousands of people, that people would get rid of their horses, that the foxes enjoyed it. It's never hard to come up with good reasons to preserve a situation that serves your own interests!"
"But we were sincere."
"I don't think that makes much difference."
An awkward silence fell and we walked on.
* * *
We crossed another stile and entered an ash copse.
"We had a den here, in a ruin."
"The gamekeeper's cottage?"
"How did you know that?" Helen asked, surprised.
"It's in the archives - the gamekeeper used to be listed as the occupier here."
Helen pointed out the site, overgrown with brambles. She shook herself.
"We used to scare each other silly with ghost stories. Supposedly the house was cursed by the last gamekeeper, Old Will. He had been injured in a shooting accident, and then one day just vanished. Jem would say he could hear him limping through the undergrowth while we hid."
A little further along the path, the trees opened out and we could the Hall, a couple of fields away. We climbed the slope, panting.
* * *
After washing and changing, I return to the archives, keen to check the personnel files. It didn't take long to find the one I wanted. Williams Jenkins had been born in 1892; in 1906 he wrote a letter of application for a job on the estate, and in 1908 he countersigned a tenancy agreement for the cottage. The final document was a doctor's bill from 1938, recording treatment for a gunshot wound to his leg. Then Old Will vanished from the paper trail just as he had from his home.
By now, the records room was looking much more ordered. Piles of papers were arranged neatly on the table, spotted with fluorescent Post-It notes. Each pile had been skimmed and quickly characterised by date and content. Some gaps remained: documents which must once have existed but had since been lost, discarded or transferred elsewhere. But it consitituted a good representation if several centuries of estate management and industrial enterprise.
I had seen Jeremy passing the doorway a couple of times that morning, and now took the opportunity to introduce myself.
"I've nearly finished in here now- do you think I could see the current records?"
"Of course," he replied, "but I'm not sure they'll be worth your trouble."
"Some of the properties seem to be missing: I suppose your system is that the deeds bundles are kept with your working files."
"I'm not sure you'd call it a system as such," he said, laughing, "but come across now."
* * *
I followed him outside and into the stable yard; the estate office was based in an old tack room, supplied with telephone and power connections by a fragile tracery of overhead cables from the main house. Jeremy unlocked the door and lit a gas heater, clapping his hands for warmth.
"It's a bit basic, I'm afraid- not much better that the records store."
He lifted a stack of letters from an old wooden chair, adding it to a pile on top of the filing cabinet in the corner, its drawers rendered unclosable by excess files.
"We're a bit disorganised, so you'll have to wade through things. We used to put stuff away but these days we have to manage without a secretary."
"I thought Helen helped out?"
"Is that what she told you? I don't really count gossiping on the office phone with her friends and playing solitaire on the computer as helping. She doesn't understand the business side of the estate at all. I keep telling them there's no money, but they can't bring themselves to believe it. Not that we can afford outside staff either. Penny, my wife - you've met her, haven't you? - she had to do all the documentation when we sold some paintings last year. The research took her ages, trying to find evidence of ownership. Well, you've seen the paperwork!"
I was pleased to find that Jeremy had circled around closer to my professional interests. But before I could interrupt, he sat back and stared out of the window into the yard.
"It's a dispiriting task, trying to keep it all together. It was easier in the past, when your land was on long leases and you just had to collect the rent each quarter-day. But you can't make enough money that way anymore- not with farming the way it is."
"I'm not sure your ancestors would agree: they certainly complained enough in their letters."
"Oh yes - I suppose you'll have seen all that. But anyway, whatever they used to say, these days land is pretty much worthless - farmland is, at least. That's why we need to diversify. I'm always trying to find ways to raise cash. But it's a long process- you can't do a thing without planning permission, and that process is a nightmare. I don't think our cities would ever have been built if they'd had the same system." Jeremy snorted.
"I suppose councils have to be careful about their decisions." I wasn't quite sure how I had ended up defending local government.
"Not if it's their own project. We're having a big row at the moment- have you heard? They're proposing to allow housing development on the New Mill fields."
"Didn't that used to be part of the Littleworth estate?"
"We sold it forty years ago, when the council was building up its land bank. We never thought they'd build on it, though - it'll ruin the character of the area. We're organising the opposition at the moment - a lot of people round here are very concerned. That's the file." He pointed at a large cardboard box, its sides bulging with the weight of paper.
"Oh, I was looking for the New Mill deeds: could I check through them?"
* * *
The papers were stratified chronologically, like a geological sequence. The top layer comprised recent Council feasibility studies, consultation letters, notes of telephone calls. Halfway down there was a more ordered sequence of legal correspondence about the purchase of the land; below that there were two thick bundles of deeds and leases.
To my surprise, the papers showed that the sale had been an amicable process, from an initial inquiry from the Clerk's Department whether the estate owned any land it might be willing to relinquish suitable for the Council's long-term plans to enlarge its housing stock. I wondered whether Jeremy was aware of this, and concluded he must have been. The actual negotiation of prices was also smooth enough: an independent valuation had been obtained, calculating the rate for prime farmland and multiplying by the area. The offer was accepted by the estate without a quibble, earning £800, a very substantial sum for the 1950s.
I expected little more than a simple sequence of earlier tenancies from the remaining bundles, but grew increasingly confused, and eventually leafed through to the earliest deed.
The New Mill was not, in fact, very new. In 1760, John Sheldon had exchanged 'the field next the stream' for another in the adjacent parish, and then commissioned a local builder to 'make a new mill with all necessary equipments and facilities'. After 50 years of silence, presumably reflecting work under the estate's control, the family lost interest in metalworking, and the site was leased to a succession of companies with closely-similar names and personnel. These were obviously unstable financially, since default on rents and references to 'the works, now idle' formed a recurrent theme. By 1890 the mill was almost worthless, and the land was rented to the Durston Gas and Light Company. They gave up the lease in 1908, and the land returned to the control of the estate.
This sounded innocuous enough, if reflecting a depressing story of failed ventures. But I had encountered the early gas industry before, when I was working on another archive. The creation of Town Gas, as the predecessor to natural gas was called, was a hazardous and toxic process, generating large quantities of cyanide and arsenic waste.
I was shocked at Jeremy's reaction when I told him this. He laughed.
"That'll scupper their houses, won't it? Who wants to live on a chemical dump? You've made my day."
When I suggested that the estate might have acted in poor faith when selling the property as farmland suitable for development, he waved it away.
"Not our problem, not our problem."
It was only now, because of the warmth with which I was greeted by the family as news of my discovery spread, that I realised how unwelcome I had been previously. When they heard that I was planning to leave shortly, I was urged to stay for their party- suddenly I was the guest of honour.
Whether as a result, or because she was involved in the party planning, I saw a lot more of Helen. It could not be said that she responded well to stress. The effort with which she shouted down the phone at recalcitrant suppliers might have been better directed at cleaning the house, since the casual staff they had hired in failed to meet her standards.
"God!" she said to me, as if I were a fellow-conspirator, "to think you used to be able to sack your staff!"
But it had to be said, whatever the cost in nervous energy, and indeed in money, the Hall was efficiently transformed. The public rooms were gleaming and elegant: the clutter had been transferred, and the dogs were rigorously excluded. Industrial heaters ran through the night, the warmth even working all the way up to the attic.
* * *
It took little time to pack in the morning - my main concern was to ensure that my notes were complete. I stripped the sheets from the bed and left them crumpled on the floor. Already I could hear the urgent whine of vacuum cleaners from below, accompanied by the chink of arriving crockery. I laboured in the bathroom, soaping and shaving twice, knowing I would be on display. 'Smart enough for an archivist' wouldn't be smart enough today: I didn't want to feel like a crumpled yokel.
As noon approached and the family gathered, my fears were borne out. Margaret and Charles were not just clean, they were almost chic, and completely free of dog hairs. Jeremy, Penny and the children looked like a model family from an upmarket catalogue. And Helen was stunning, in a short white dress, with her hair up in a bun and a black velvet choker around her neck. She looked me up and down and nodded: "Yes, you'll do", patting me lightly on the arm.
* * *
Gravel crunched; car doors slammed; greetings were shouted; hands shaken; drinks offered. Within minutes, the Hall was filled with well-dressed couples talking very loudly. I hung back, having little to contribute to discussions of milk quotas, EU subsidies, set-aside grants, tax, tax avoidance, tax evasion, and fraud.
To my surprise, those present varied in accent, occupation, and even ethnicity. Those in the Sheldons' sphere of influence were united solely by wealth and prestige, a sort of meritocracy, albeit with a debatable definition of merit.
Food followed drink, accompanied by more drink. Eventually, Charles started rapping steadily on the tabletop, and the conversations slowly wound down. After a single final laugh from the corner, silence fell.
"I'm glad to see so many of our friends here today," Charles said genially. "You would sometimes think that the forces of so-called progress were in the ascendant, in this precious country of ours. It seems as if every time we look around, some great tradition or landscape has succumbed."
He paused dramatically; he was exactly halfway between being a ham and a good actor. "Well, we suffer these losses, and I suppose we must accept them. But we need not accept them silently, without a fight!"
There were murmurs of assent.
"And so, when we heard that Dursford Council has, in its wisdom, decided that it needs room for another estate to house its workshy, its criminals, its gypsies, its . . ." he glanced at the Indian couple in the audience and paused, "its undesirables of all sorts, we decided to put all our efforts into opposing them."
Applause rippled around the room.
"We have written letters; we have attended meetings; we have lobbied and protested without pause." He sighed, perhaps enervated by the extravagance of his exaggeration.
"Even so, we expected to lose- proudly, but inevitably. I'm glad to say, though, that we have a secret weapon- History. Perhaps our archivist here will explain?"
I stepped forward and haltingly summarised the New Mill saga. As I tailed off, Charles clapped and assured everyone that the proposal was now dead.
More drinks were brought, and with the serious business successfully concluded, the working lunch turned first into simple lunch and then into a party. Ties were removed, collars loosened, jackets discarded; talk moved from money to sex.
Helen, drink in hand, swayed towards me with a crooked grin on her face.
"You can't go without seeing the stone- you'll like it."
Puzzled, I followed her out to the corridor. She stood in the doorway and beckoned, pausing to swap her high heeled shoes for trainers. She held my arm and, weaving slightly, led me around the side of the house. She seemed tipsy rather than drunk. Her face, its features softened by drink, was less forbidding. She refused to elaborate about the stone. We reached a stout wooden door built into the park wall. Helen took out a large bronze key and unlocked it.
We entered what proved to be a small stone room; the air was cool and still. The sounds of the party were blocked out completely. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could make out a rough stone cross, 2m high, standing in the centre of the flagged floor. Helen stepped forward and turned to face me.
"This is Saint Michael's cross," she recited. "It was found when the house was built. It's supposed to be quite old: the inscription's Celtic or something."
I went up to the cross, bending close to see the detail of the carving. Helen, her supply of information exhausted, rested back against the stone, shivering as her bare shoulders touched the cold surface. I couldn't make out the weathered letters, and reached out to trace them with my fingers.
"This is amazing-" I started to say, but was interrupted by Helen's laugh.
"I didn't think you'd really do it - prefer to touch an old stone than a warm girl."
She took my hand in hers and placed it firmly on her breast. Through the thin cloth of the dress I could feel her flesh yield to my touch, and an answering pressure on my palm from her nipple. I stood up and kissed her. Her lips were surprisingly hard and dry: I had expected drunken slobber. I ran my hands over her arms, waist, thighs; she responded in kind, systematically tugging my shirt free at the waist. My pose was uncomfortable and awkward, but I didn't want to break the mood by speaking to suggest a rearrangement. Instead, I crouched down to kiss her throat, while reaching up under her dress to remove her pants. After a short, hectic coupling, we stood there, panting. Helen pushed me gently backwards, and stooped to retrieve her underwear.
"We'd better get back," she said brightly; I nodded in the gloom.
As we walked towards the house, she shook away my proffered hand. That was evidently that, whatever that was, or had been.
In what seemed like no time, and was in fact relatively little time, I was on the train heading away from Durston. Parts of me were sore; my head was pounding; I felt as if I'd been at Littleworth for years. I couldn't resolve my emotions; all I could do was smile as I remembered what Bruce Dawkins, my boss, had told me when I started the project: it would be a mundane task with no surprises. He had been right, though, when he had gone on to say that tact would be needed.
Back at the archives, after a few days leave, I started to prepare my report on the Littleworth Papers. The factual part was straightforward - I listed the groups of material and date ranges; but I found it hard to determine its value for research. I checked through the Durston Council Records for possible overlaps and duplication, since uniqueness is a critical indicator. The catalogue highlighted a series of Public Assistance Committee files covering Littleworth parish, so I retrieved the relevant box from the shelves in the strongroom. It was a relief to be working with clean, labelled, sorted material; and it was a relief to keep busy.
The Committee was part of the Council that bridged the period between the Poor Law Unions and the welfare state: in the 1930s, it ran the workhouses and children's homes in the area. In this collection, as was typical, the records survived patchily, but there were admissions books for the workhouse and some related letters. The name William Jenkins on one of the bundles caught my eye. I unfolded it and laid the letters out flat on the desk.
The first was a standard printed form:
Application for indoor relief
I, William Jenkins, do hereby request assistance from Durston District Council, being without means or livelihood on account of my infirmity.
Signed William Jenkins 10th June 1939
Another hand had appended beneath the signature:
"Inquired of Sheldon - J's former residence was provided as a staff member; he is no longer employable having lost his leg in a shooting accident. No pension payable by the estate. Ben Davies, Overseer of the Poor, Littleworth parish."
And finally it had been annotated:
"Approved to enter workhouse, 17th June 1939."
The second was a small square of paper, not, it turned out, a letter, but rather a receipt, dated December 13th 1942, acknowledging the payment of £1 10s by Durston District Council to the Revd George Williams for "officiating at the pauper's funeral of William Jenkins".
I sent my draft report to Bruce, and the next day went to his office. I always felt that the chaos and clutter he permitted here reflected poorly on his claim to professional standing, but perhaps this was unfair; perhaps there are many dentists who don't clean their teeth, or plumbers with dripping taps at home. It would have to be admitted, though, that Bruce was exactly the sort of archivist the Sheldons had expected - old, shabby, and cheerfully disorganised. Our working relationship had taken some time to settle down; eventually we had reached the implicit understanding that he was willing to let me follow best modern practice in collection management, as long as it didn't apply to him or his favourite collections, the fastidious cataloguing of which had occupied the majority of his working life. His knowledge of these was intimate, and it was topped up with half a century's gossip with the gentry families of the area.
"I know that you and I differ on the question of relevance,' he said, but on this occasion I see that we agree. I would say that the Littleworth collection is important because of the light it sheds on the Sheldon family's stewardship of their lands - and you would say it's important too, but because of the evidence they contain of the family's faults."
"I suppose you're right," I replied. "Historians these days usually have strong political interests, and they will have a field day with this."
"Here's the report back- you'll see I've marked a few points." He handed me a printout obscured by neat emendations in pencil. "How did you find the Sheldons?"
I gave a noncommittal answer.
Three months later, I was rattling through the puddles, left by fitful September showers, in a draughty hired van. The Sheldons had been flattered to hear how significant their papers were, and had agreed to deposit them with the County Archives for the benefit of researchers. Unable to devise a convincing excuse not to renew my acquaintance with the family, I had been deputed to drive over to collect them. I was alone; my absence from the office had required careful juggling of staff leave and meetings to ensure that the search room could stay open. Knowing the conditions of the storeroom at the Hall, I was dressed in overalls.
As I slowed the van and turned off into the drive, I was overwhelmed by memory- not long ago the place had been unknown to me, its secrets safely buried. My heart sank as I saw the cars lined up in the stable yard, suggesting that the family was present in force today.
My knock was answered, as before, by distant barking, but Margaret's subsequent appearance at the door was heralded by a lone dog this time. She explained briefly that Rugger's legs had failed, not that this prevented him from eating or barking. Her manner was slightly confused, as if my arrival were unexpected; but she led me through to Charles' lair. Charles also seemed uneasy.
"I'm afraid we've brought you here on a wild goose chase - I had meant to write to explain, but you know how it is. You did a great job with our stuff, you know - we never realised how valuable it all was! If we had, we might have looked after it better."
"It'll be safe enough in our strongroom," I said.
"That's the thing, you see. The estate has a hard time breaking even these days - I don't have to tell you, you've heard about all this before. But I mentioned to Lord Durston that the papers were on their way to you, and he put me in touch with Crevitts - the dealers, you know."
Indeed I did know; they were renowned for splitting up archives into saleable chunks and auctioning them piecemeal. Archivists shared grim stories of wax seals being snipped off; postage stamps removed; unmarketable manuscripts thrown away.
"Robert Crevitt came up personally last week. He seemed most impressed. Made me an offer on the spot - took the whole lot. He said the Americans would lap it up."
There was little I could say. I toyed with the prospect of hinting at the difficulty of obtaining export licences, but I knew that unless we were prepared to match the price obtained by Clevitts this would delay the sale, not reverse it.
"Still," Charles continued, cheering up markedly now the awkwardness was out of the way, "I see it as a good turn from my ancestors - helping us out once more."
* * *
As I unlocked the van, Jeremy emerged from the estate office. He seemed to be in a good mood.
"Thanks for your help with the New Mill land- I've just been submitting the planning proposal."
My confusion must have shown, since he went on to explain.
"My big worry about the Council's housing plan was the infrastructure. They keep saying that the roads and sewers here couldn't cope with many more dwellings. If they'd gone ahead, there's no way we'd ever get permission for our prestige houses in Coppice Wood- and they're going to go for half a million pounds each, easy. And the beauty of it is that they're down by the road, so we won't even see them from the Hall."
He insisted on taking me into the office to show me the architect's drawings. The houses looked like brick shoeboxes, embellished with generic rusticana, indistinguishable from any other 'luxury' development. I was giving them some unenthusiastic praise when a tap on the door announced the arrival of Helen. She told Jeremy that he was wanted in the house, and then stood in the doorway, frowning.
"You don't like us much, do you? You're always judging us, measuring us up. What you don't understand is that a family like this does whatever it has to do to survive - we can't just sit there saying we're caring for the heritage. We have to make money - simple as that."
"But what is it for? Surely you do all that to keep things together, to preserve something? Otherwise you're no better than car salesmen or market traders."
"What you don't seem to get is that we don't care about what you think. You can turn your nose up at use because we sell our archives - but you haven't got anything to sell. Nobody wants what you've got; nobody wants you."
She paused; we stared at each other.
"You did", I said bitterly.
Her face reddened.
"Forget it," she said, "just forget it."
The people, places, events and archives described above are entirely fictional.