The brick barn at Keepers Cottage, sitting perpendicular to Footherley Lane was where my father, as an enterprising teenager, bred his succulent and unfortunate rabbits. There was money to be had supplying off-ration protein in the early years of the war, and he made regular deliveries to Shenstone school-teachers and to the back door of the Tudor Cafe in Lichfield.
On a Sunday morning visit to Grandad, my dear dad steadied me up the precarious wooden ladder to the dusty loft to show me the hand-made cages that were still ranged around the wall. There was a dry, mealy smell in there – Uncle Bill’s chicken fodder sat fatly in hessian sacks – but it was just a little bit rabbity, too, even after a quarter of a century. (Production had ceased when my dad donned his Welsh Guardsman’s uniform in 1942 for “the duration”. )
The stud buck had been a Belgian Blue of prodigious proportions, as my father, (a fisherman) indicated, holding those large, leathery, yet elegant hands of his well apart.
Through the barn door, wafted sugar fondant on the air, from the pastel blooms of of a rose called “The New Dawn”, which, with her ephemeral shell pink petals, and sweet scent, rambled from the garden from May to October to complete her yearly conquest of that old plum-red brick outbuilding. For colour, it was her perfect foil.
About the same time, poet (and one-time teacher at Shire Oak school) R.F. Langley, mooched the pretty lanes of Footherley, inspired by what he saw, and wrote in his journal of 17th October 1970:
A rose in Keeper’s Cottage garden pulls the barn wall and the cottage and all of the garden round it, where it catches the angled light, pink.
The scent of Grandad’s rose is with me still.
Because a rose is immortal.
Cuttings were struck back then for my mother’s colourful garden borders behind our home in Bosty Lane, where the lovely thing clothed the South-Easterly facing fence, later providing plentiful stems (pencil thick, semi-ripe) to create flourishing new plants to take root in the Staffordshire cottage garden at my own Keepers Cottage at Orgreave.
25 years later, a safely rooted cutting came here with me to North Wales: a precious, irreplaceable continuity. “New Dawn” now sulks, small, against a grey stone wall, but still throws out valiant sprays of glory at intervals during the summer, when weather permits.
Camelia japonica “Doctor King” would never reproach me for uprooting him and giving him this soil. In Orgreave he did flower, but summer drenchings, and cannibalistic applications of spent-tea leaves only just kept him from yellowing. Here, he is superbly glossy of leaf, as our temperate, damply wooded, peaty enclave strongly reminds him of original home.
In modest, as in grand and famous gardens throughout North Wales; at Bodnant, at Portmeirion, and at Plas Newydd on Anglesey – recently visited – the early Spring display of camellias is spectacular………. Some of Plas Newydd’s camellias were transplanted from Staffordshire too……….
From my bedroom window at Orgreave, (in what is now a past life of mine), in the leafless months that are only cheered by the anticipation of snowdrop and rose-like camellia, the lawns of Beaudesert Park were clearly visible. On Winter Sundays, as I was driven too-soon indoors at tea-time after a desultory scratch at the earth, the crest of Cannock Chase seemed to swallow the fiery sun.
Guy Fawkes night, “the glorious Fifth,” fell on a Friday in November of 1909, and outdoor parties took place around Lichfield district that foggy night. Had Lizzie Blake, the 28 year old gamekeeper’s wife at Orgreave, stood at the bedroom window where my own rose-patterned curtains later hung she must have wondered at the spectacular conflagration that burst into life on the Western horizon at around 10 o’clock that evening. What she could see was not the result of celebratory bonfire getting out of hand, but a devastating blaze which originated from an electrical short behind the skirting board in the servants’ quarters of Beaudesert Hall and wreaked havoc on one of the grandest and most beautifully situated mansion houses in the district. An eye-witness report in the Lichfield Mercury of the following week described a “spectacle….of awe-inspiring grandeur. Great tongues of flames shot heavenwards through the thick mist and the park was lighted for some considerable distance.”
In 1909 it had only been four years since Charles, the 6th Marquess of Anglesey had inherited his title and responsibility for his family’s estates of Plas Newydd, on Anglesey, and Beaudesert, in Staffordshire, amongst others. His predecessor, and much less steady cousin, Henry Cyril Paget, the 5th, the costumed, the bejewelled, the “dancing” Marquess, had amassed massive and reckless debts resulting in a 40 day sale of his possessions, which emptied Plas Newydd (the family residence he favoured) of its treasures. Charles. 6th Marquess, came to Beaudesert and had almost completed a renovation when the fire struck. In the words of the Lichfield Mercury’s editorial, “the whole district was looking forward with pleasure to the prospect of the family being once more in residence at Beaudesert.” Hopes were dashed that the fortunes of many ordinary local families, potential employees, tenants, and tradesmen would receive a welcome boost.
The Marquess redoubled his efforts to renovate, despite the cost of the damage wrought by the fire. Then came The War (in which he served), and, following that, the “increasing burden of taxation,” lack of staff and the temptation to consolidate his household at the beautifully situated and more convenient Plas Newydd on the Menai Straits.
Beaudesert was abandoned and its contents moved or sold.
Camellias from Beaudesert Park flourish still on the lawns at Plas Newydd. What a task it must have been to transport and transplant them. The best of the furniture and umpteen huge important paintings too, found a new home in Wales, replacing the items disposed of to meet the debts of the dancing Marquess. In a manner unbefitting to the dignity of its venerable age, Beaudesert’s gorgeous, golden, three hundred year old State Bed, made the journey from Staffordshire to Plas Newydd and is installed there now as if in its original home.
As I stared at the bed, and considered its journey, I thought of all that I had dragged from Orgreave to Cwm Pennant. The furniture that fit, and what didn’t: the old fashioned, valueless furniture from Bosty Lane that with breaking heart, I watched Ken burn, because no one wanted it. Precious plants and photographs, the non-negotiables. And attitudes and expectations that fit, and those that didn’t.