The lady fourth from left in the photo (click to enlarge) is someone I had always known simply as my Auntie Mary. Her mother is the austere looking lady on the far right. The photo was taken on 14th May 1948, at the opening of a piece of land that had been reopened for the benefit of the public after the war, a piece of land known as The Dell - a public garden that is still there for those of you who have a mind to visit Leamington Spa. Apparently my Auntie Mary’s father had died a couple of days before this photo was taken hence all the black apparel.
My connection with Mary Moore (wife of one of Leamington’s Mayors and owner of Moore’s Sweet Shop famed for its Spa water toffee) is via my grandfather’s sister, Maud Olorenshaw. Maud started off as a maidservant of Mary Moore at her residence, Comber House (apologies for not having any photos of the house).
Comber House is still there and lies on the corner of Union Road and Warwick Place and is now, regrettably, a B&B. I daresay it has been gutted, renovated, rearranged, liposuctioned, nipped & tucked to the point where its original grandeur has been lost. Its original wood panelling ripped out in favour of en suite bathrooms and laundry lifts.
But back when I was a kid the whole house was pretty much as it had been in the 1930’s: a ballroom (which we used as the dining room), wine cellar, at least 6 bedrooms, servant’s quarters in the attic and an amazing stained glass atrium above the main staircase. We’d visit on a number of occasions throughout the year and as a boy I never guessed that my Auntie Maud had started out her life at Comber House as Mary’s maidservant.
At some point way before my birth they’d obviously become friends. Boon companions. They’d formed a crotchety partnership that I, as a child, never questioned or thought odd. They were rarely crotchety with us but would often snipe at each other. All vestiges of Mistress and servant had gone. Instead they had developed “a friendship of equals” where each considered herself the more equal of the two. Kind of like Hinge and Brackett but without the piano.
Maud, although a mere slip of a girl when she had started her working life had become rotund and wheezy by the time I was running around but Mary, despite being the older of the two, still resembled the young woman you see in the photo above. She had deportment in spades. She was always immaculately turned out, always regal and always distantly kind but would occasionally ruffle the calm of a room with a rather wicked joke – she had a very sharp sense of humour. She was a great lady and it is to my regret I didn’t learn more about her until after her death 20 or so years ago when, speed walking as usual (despite being in her eighties) she walked out into the path of a fast moving car.
The house – Comber – was a great feature of my childhood. On our days there my sisters and I would sit impatiently in the dining room, our legs swinging beneath the huge wooden table, waiting for the words that would release us from the boring adult chatter.
“Why don’t you children go and have a wander...?”
We’d be off like a shot. Huge old houses and children go together like lions, witches and wardrobes. Given the sheer amount of loot in every room I’m always amazed that we weren’t held more in check. Auntie Mary would normally stipulate that we had to be careful in her drawing room but other than that we had the freedom of the house. Amazingly a natural reverence kept our grubby little hands away from all the delicate treasures. We’d look but never touch. The house, being old and smelling of its age, was slightly creepy and part of our desire to roam so wide was that childhood need to confront and enjoy this slight feeling of fear. We’d confront it by daring ourselves to go up to the attic. This small box room was the scariest room in the house – just a weird atmosphere – but the cats seemed to like it and we’d always find Mary and Maud’s cats curled up on the windowsill regarding our hullabaloo with seething objection in their eyes.
The bedrooms formed the hub around a vast landing and we’d go into each room in turn and marvel at how untouched everything looked. Majestic beds and décor that looked like it had been time-capsuled from a pre-war age. And all so spotlessly clean. They must have employed a cleaner – there is no way my Auntie Maud could have (or would have) dusted and hoovered all those rooms.
The only room we wouldn’t go into would be the cellar. That was genuinely scary. In fact I only went into it once – with my grandfather – and shot straight out of it again as soon as I could. It smelt of damp and of earth. Not perfumes that appeal to a child’s sensitive nose.
The afternoons were spent in the huge garden, running off the vast Sunday lunch we’d just eaten and again keeping us out of the hair of the grown-ups. The focal point of the garden for us kids was a large stone bird bath in the shape of a frog holding a bowl. I think we christened it rather unimaginatively Kermit and we’d always go and say hello to it whenever we visited.
Sadly after Mary died (some years after the death of my Auntie Maud) the house passed to her son and he in turn sold off a huge chunk of the land to local developers (a large rudely modern townhouse now stands in place of the stone frog) and then eventually, some years later, sold off the house itself. It is now, as I said, a B&B and I doubt it resembles the house of my memories at all. I am occasionally tempted to hire a room for the night just to see inside it... just to see, if the light is right and the planets properly aligned, myself as a small boy creeping up to the attic with my sister’s in tow, or hovering at the top of the cellar steps, not quite daring myself to venture down into the darkness.
Unlike the other houses that I have loved and lost, I never dream about Comber House. But it is a house that, nevertheless, electrifies me with a lot of happy memories whenever I think of it.