There are some places and spaces that become inexplicably and inextricably part of the fabric of your life. A favourite riverside walk, a building you walk past every single day, a moss-covered, crumbling collection of headstones that always draws your eyes through the railings round the local cemetery. They are places that you think about, ponder the history of, have your own memories interwoven with. A quaint little rural Warwickshire village has just such a place for me.
Walking along the main road through Barford, you can’t help but notice the high boundary wall that runs the considerable length of the grounds surrounding the grand Regency-period private home, Barford House. Made of old red bricks, softening and crumbling along the bottom rows, the wall itself is quite an arresting sight, but it is the very low, almost hatch-like door at its furthest end which always makes me wonder.
What is it there for? Who used it? Why would you make a door that at best is child-height, or chest-height for an adult?
I have tried to find out a little bit more about the property and the interesting little door in the wall. I got a genuine thrill when I realised that an all-time favourite author of mine, Evelyn Waugh, may perhaps have passed through that very door.
The rather grand country house, hidden behind the brick wall, was once the home of Alastair Graham. Alastair was one of Evelyn Waugh’s first loves, studying at Oxford University in the early 1920s, alongside Waugh. Just a short ride from Oxford, they often visited Barford House together.
The author of one website I looked at for information – http://www.evelynwaugh.org.uk – mused about that little hatch in the brick wall…‘When Alastair and Evelyn came back from the village pubs, in particular the Red Lion [today known as the Joseph Arch], did they walk all that way to the front drive? Or did they slip into the property via the arched door that you can see at the corner?’.
It would have been an ungainly entrance that’s for sure, but I like the escapist fantasy of the idea. The necessity to scramble through, almost childlike, on hands and knees. It could well have felt like they were stepping back into the carefree days of younger years, and an enchanted world beyond the wall. Indeed, for a covertly homosexual couple in the 1920s, it may well have been. A private refuge and sanctuary, where they could be themselves.
Even long after any romantic relationship between them had ended, and Evelyn had followed convention and married a woman called Evelyn Gardner, visits to Alastair Graham at Barford House continued. Part of Decline and Fall was written there, and there are references in Brideshead Revisited that make me wonder if Waugh was taking inspiration from the house and that little door in the wall. The moment when Charles Ryder ponders over lunching with Sebastian Flyte is a good example:
“But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognised apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.”
(Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, 1945).
And later in the book, when the golden days between Charles and Sebastian are over, Charles comments:
“A door had shut, the low door in the wall I had sought and found in Oxford; open it now and I should find no enchanted garden.”
(Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, 1945).
Of course, it is equally possible, as an Oxfordian himself, that Waugh took that particular inspiration from the low door leading into the Dean’s Garden of Christ Church College, to which the fictional character Sebastian Flyte also belonged. But I prefer to think that a little village, tucked away and off the beaten tourist track, may just have a hidden literary piece of treasure. Entirely overlooked by the hoards of Shakespeare fans just a short drive away in Stratford-upon-Avon, and even the most committed of Evelyn Waugh admirers.
My Dad has lived in the village for a few years now, and I have strolled past that high wall more times than I can count, pushing a baby pram, heading to the village pub or shop, or just out for a walk down one of the nearby country lanes. Each time I visit I feel a great sadness, tingeing my curiosity, about the wall and the house it protects. The whole place seems in decline. Peeling paint, cracked plaster work, wood and brickwork rotting and eroding under the strain of nearly 200 years of exposure to the weather.
Barford House was assigned Grade II listed property status in the late 1960s. When a property is listed there suddenly comes considerably comes greater regulation of, and responsibility for, permitted work. English Heritage, which oversees listed buildings, is an organisation which is incredibly particular about restoration and renovation work. Nothing can be done cheaply, hurriedly, or unsympathetically. It is an admirable approach, laudable in principle. But it does mean that owners of such properties have to have very deep pockets, as well as huge commitment, drive and passion for the future safeguarding of the building that they have become a guardian for as much as an owner.
There are so many great buildings and architectural treasures in England slowly disintegrating because their upkeep is an almost impossible and financially ruinous task. I hope Barford House does not become one of them. From the road, although elegantly impressive, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the place. Neither does it promote the association with Evelyn Waugh as an income generating stream, which in my opinion is a pity.
But whether or not it is a famous landmark or simply another brick in the wall of Evelyn Waugh’s life and loves, it would be sad to see Barford House, it’s wall and little hatch door, forgotten and entirely fallen.