Before the last meeting, there was time to wander around the gardens of Dunham Massey Hall near Altrincham. The sun was, as usual, playing hide and seek and the overnight rain had accentuated the contrasting colours as spring turns to summer.
While stately homes and castles are not really my area of interest, I recognise their place both within the nation’s history and as a window on a vanished world. As such, they help put history in perspective. It is hard not to appreciate the artistry and technologies used in their creation…and harder still, when you have looked at, say, the ruin of a Norman castle a mere thousand years old, not to feel a sense of awe at places like Avebury or Stonehenge.
Sometimes these mellow, old buildings give history a human face, by telling the stories of their people or a particular moment in time. Sometimes they serve only to highlight the disparity between the layers of society. Always they hold memories and treasures, artistic or insubstantial, that can bring history to life. Many of them are no longer owned by the families that built them, but, like Dunham Massey, are in the care of the National Trust or English Heritage and are thus now part of the nation’s story.
The area has a long history. The Roman road from Chester to York, two important centres during the Roman occupation, runs close by. Before the Norman conquest, the manor of Dunham… a manor being an area, rather than a house… belonged to a Saxon thegn named Aelfward. When the newly installed Norman regime appropriated and apportioned the manors to their own people, after the conquest of 1066, the land passed to Hamo de Masci… and his name continues as Massey to this day.
The Masseys remained lords of the manor until the male line died out and the land passed to the Booth family in 1409. It was Sir George Booth who began work on the Hall that now stands in 1616. There was a previous castle at Dunham, but the current house took the place of the medieval building, of which no trace now remains save the deer park, though there is an echo of older times in the moat around the manor.
Work continued on the estate, changing, updating and rendering the building fashionable until the early years of the 20th century, when Penelope, Countess of Stamford, offered the house to the Red Cross, to serve as a military hospital during the Great War.
The Countess’ daughter, Lady Jane Grey, trained as a nurse there, caring for those who had been injured. A hundred and eighty-two patients passed through its doors, recovering from all manner of injuries, from poisoned gas attacks to bullets between 1917 and 1919. The grounds and gardens must have been a peaceful haven for those young men brought home from the battlefield.
You can imagine them, looking out at the silence of the green landscape, watching the clouds reflected in the silver surface of the moat or taking a first hesitant stroll the old mill that still stands by the sluice-gates.
You can see them too, considering the fragility and impermanence of human life as they sat beneath the scarred trunk of the ancient oak. The tree looks completely dead at first glance, but one limb is still raised, green and full of life, to the heavens. For those young men who had seen so much horror and defeat, it must have seemed as if the ancient oak was holding out a hand as a promise of hope.
Within the house there is a collection of silver, beautiful artwork and paintings by artists like Reynolds and Romney. We did not go in. A house, no matter how great or small, is all about the people who have sheltered within its walls… and curiously, here, it was outside the walls, beneath the boughs of an indomitable oak, that I found the human spirit of the place.