Intriguing doorways and forgotten brick walls.

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.

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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.

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An old brick, dug from the soil in my Dad’s garden, made at the nearby brickworks in Leamington. It’s probable that the same bricks make up the perimeter wall for Barford House.

 

The inspiration for this post came from the WordPress weekly photo challenge theme this week: Wall.

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16 thoughts on “Intriguing doorways and forgotten brick walls.

    1. jenny Post author

      I totally agree with your comment in your own post – brick walls have such depth of character. If only we could see through them sometimes – I’d love to know what hides behind this one!

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  1. Singbetterenglish

    Hi Jenny – does the door lead into the nursery garden? Or is it impossible to tell where it led when it was first built? It’s an intriguing mystery. Maybe the original owner was inspired by the Japanese doorways to tea-houses that everyone has to crawl through http://bit.ly/18sBsb5 Oriental things were an inspiration in Regency times. Or maybe the owner had a sense of humour and was thinking of the devil’s doors in churches http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil%27s_door. Do you know the H G Wells story ‘The Door in the Wall’?

    Isn’t it marvellous how the architecture that surrounds us makes us wonder? Whoever built that wall and that doorway would have been amazed to see it being written about and thought about so far into the future!

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    1. jenny Post author

      Yes, it’s funny isn’t it, thinking about how long that door and wall have been there and all the things that have happened since they were put there. From what I’ve read I believe the door leads into what was the nursery garden but – forgive my ignorance – I still don’t know why the low door…for getting wheelbarrows in and out of easily? For coal deliveries?
      Thank you for the link. I love the ‘mouse-wicket’ concept! Very interesting stuff.
      I know of but haven’t read The Door in the Wall, but of course there are other novels too with doorways into other enchanted worlds, like The Secret Garden and also the Narnia Chronicles. There’s something so fascinating about the hidden isn’t there?

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      1. Singbetterenglish

        I suppose it could be an entrance for servants to use. The ‘lower’ ones weren’t supposed to walk up and down the drive to get into the house, in case the owners caught sight of them! http://bit.ly/1GcKjcm And there’s a real psychological reinforcement of your lowly status when you have to bend down to get in or out of your place of work!

        Lots of the social housing being tacked onto posh developments in London nowadays suffers from the same ‘poor door’ syndrome http://bit.ly/1pUWfa9

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        1. jenny Post author

          Wow – that Guardian article is really something! Thank you for sharing. I hadn’t realised the modern take on the poor door was quite so starkly obvious. Also, on a separate note, £500,000 for a studio flat?! Insanity.
          When at university, many of my seminars and tutorials were in an old stately home at the heart of the campus, so I saw the public face of the building, but I also had my fair share of the servants quarters, corridors and attics too! I’d like to say how times have changed, but perhaps we’ve not moved so far after all.

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    1. jenny Post author

      Thank you. Yes, so would I! I think if anything, finding out a little about the place and it’s history has made me more curious, not less!

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  2. Pingback: Photo Challenge: Wall | The Bohemian Rock Star's "Untitled Project"

  3. ohtogoawandering

    This is why I love history: even something as simple as a brick wall and an unusually small door suddenly become fascinatingly mysterious… And of course Oxford has a special place in my heart so your references make me very nostalgic 🙂

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    1. jenny Post author

      It’s amazing isn’t it, these tiny little insights into life gone by. I’m so glad you liked the little walk down memory lane. 🙂

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  4. Osyth

    Leaving my enduring obsession with walls on the back burners for a second or too … thank you for this. I too, have a deep and lasting love for Waugh and reading this brought him a teeny bit closer. Your comments about covertly pursuing a homosexual relationship in that epoque are particularly evocative … to be able to be free to be yourself for a moment – isn’t that what we all crave?

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    1. jenny Post author

      Absolutely. I think many of us are very blessed with the freedoms we have, but I think sometimes we take them a bit for granted. Reminders like this from history make me feel more gratitude for them.

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