Rockingdown Revisitedby Sally Neary
PART 1: New Ventures – September 1986
"Lucy, I'm home!" Snubby Lynton closed the front door and placed down his briefcase in the hall. He called once again up the stairs, "Lucy!" but there was no reply. I bet I know where she is, he thought, smiling to himself.
He walked through the hall into the kitchen and looked through the window down the garden. He could see a wheelbarrow on the lawn next to the herbaceous bed and a figure moving inside the greenhouse. He opened the kitchen door and walked onto the terrace.
It was a lovely mid September evening and the sun was gradually sinking in the west. The breeze was still warm and he could smell the scent from the second flush of roses climbing up the rear walls of the house and along the terrace. An auburn head appeared through the door of the greenhouse. "I won't be long," she called. He waved and walked back into the house, through the kitchen and into the conservatory. He poured a gin and tonic, added ice from the ice-bucket and sat down to relax.
He heard the kitchen door open and close, and his wife soon appeared at the door. "You're early!" she smiled, and walked over to him in her bare feet and hugged him warmly.
"I had a meeting in north London which finished at just before five," he replied, kissing her, "and I thought I'd come straight home." He looked at her. "You look frightful," he said affectionately, wiping a dirty mark from her cheek with his handkerchief.
"I'm sure I do," she replied, laughing. "I've been in the garden all afternoon – it's been such a lovely day, and I wanted to try and tidy up the borders while the weather is so good. I'd planned to have a shower and get changed before you came home."
"You go ahead – I can catch up with the newspaper while you're getting ready." Lucy-Ann disappeared upstairs, and Snubby fetched his briefcase from the hall. He took out his newspaper, placed it on the coffee table and sat back with his drink.
This was his favourite time of day – coming home to his wife, Lucy-Ann, at the end of his working day. He loved the rough and tumble of it all, the freedom of running his own business and going his own way. He wasn't motivated by greed – his achievements had already been beyond his wildest dreams – he loved the challenges of the property business for their own sake, the responsibility of employing people and taking care of them and creating decent homes for people to live in. And of course his purpose had always been to provide Lucy-Ann and their children with security.
His business activities, in fact, filtered into all aspects of his life. He gave a substantial amount of his time and money to his favourite charities, all in support of homeless and disadvantaged children, and Lucy-Ann supported him regularly in this. He often spoke to groups of young people in schools in the east end of London, trying to provide some inspiration and self-belief, and describing his own path to success. He hoped that in some small way he could make a difference, and felt he was at least trying to give something back.
The conservatory of their Georgian home, a former rectory on the outskirts of St Albans in Hertfordshire, overlooked the rose-garden which Lucy-Ann had so lovingly created, and they always liked to start the evening together there with a drink and to talk about their day.
When their four children were small, he had invariably tried to get home when he could to help with bath-time, and once they were all in bed, he and Lucy-Ann would sink down together on the sofa for some time to themselves. It was so important, he thought, to find time for each other, despite the pressures of work and family.
He still adored her. They had married when they were both twenty-two, a year after they met, and had just celebrated a few days ago their twenty-sixth wedding anniversary. He knew that meeting her by chance that day in Devon on the beach in the summer of '59 had been the singularly most important thing that had ever happened to him. Loony had found her, of course – he had run out from the sea and shaken himself all over her, soaking her, and Snubby had done the gentlemany thing and found her a towel and bought her tea at the café nearby.
They had sat and talked for about three hours over endless cups of tea, exchanging life stories, and he had found himself telling her things he had never shared with anyone – the difficulties of having no parents, of being shunted from one relative to another and his hopes and dreams for the future. Looking into those lovely green eyes and sweet face covered in freckles he had known that she understood everything he had felt and experienced – ironically, her own life had not been dissimilar, having been parentless herself, although she had of course an older brother and ultimately an adopted family.
He had known even then that with her by his side he could be anything and do anything, and he would never feel insecure again. In that afternoon, Snubby grew up. It had never occurred to him that Lucy-Ann might feel differently, because if something was really right, it was right for both of you, wasn't it? And of course Loony had approved. As they talked, Loony had lain across Lucy-Ann's feet, which he rarely did with strangers. He had looked up at his master as if to say, don't worry, I am not letting this wonderful girl go anywhere. Loony and he had always understood each other, and his seal of approval had been good enough for him.
And despite her sweetness and gentleness, she had an inner strength that he had seen so often and that always amazed him. Philip had told him many years ago the story when they as children had got mixed up with some half-mad scientist and his henchmen in the Welsh mountains. Philip, Dinah, Jack and Lucy-Ann had been imprisoned inside a mountain where experiments were being undertaken to create gravity-defying wings that had been tested by paratroopers who had never returned to tell their tale. It had sounded like something out of a Bond movie, and Philip had been selected to test the wings and had been expected to jump from a helicopter with nothing but the wings to allow him to fly and return gradually to earth. At the last minute, Lucy-Ann had offered to take Philip's place, as she was so much smaller and lighter.
Neither Philip nor Jack would have let her do it, of course, and thankfully Bill had arrived at the eleventh hour to rescue them all. But the idea of some brute trying to force his darling Lucy-Ann at thirteen to jump out of a helicopter wearing only wings to protect her always made him want to weep. He knew Lucy-Ann loved Philip as a brother, and she was capable of being completely selfless and do anything for those she loved. And he also knew that as a child he would never have had that kind of courage. Sweet and gentle but courageous and inwardly strong – and he loved her even more now than he had when he first met her.
The second most important thing that had happened to him was meeting Barney, he reflected. He and his cousins, Roger and Diana had met him in Rockingdown in Dorset in the summer of '49 when they were on holiday. He had liked Barney immensely on sight but hadn't really understood why. He had known there was something different about him – this tall blond youth with such unusual wide-set blue eyes, obviously partly of some European origin and with a monkey as his companion – and discovered that he appeared not only to be parentless as well, but didn't even have a home.
His mother had died and he was searching for a father who may not even exist. He lived from day to day, often not knowing where he would be sleeping that night and where the next job or meal was coming from. And yet, he was so cheerful, good natured and strong – completely fearless, it seemed. Well, almost. Snubby smiled to himself. He had discovered much later on that Barney did indeed have one great fear – rejection by Diana.
Throughout their teenage years, the four of them had shared many adventures and he and his two cousins had formed a very strong friendship with Barney. Once Barney had eventually found his father, a Shakespearian actor, Barney's life had been transformed. He had eventually gone to boarding school and then onto drama-school, as they had all guessed he would.
As the years passed by, Snubby had always wondered why Barney and Diana remained just platonic friends. He knew that Barney had enjoyed himself at drama-school and had been subject to a lot of female attention. Both he and Diana were very attractive people, and obviously close, and he simply couldn't imagine either of them ending up with anyone else but each other.
He decided to broach the subject with Barney when the opportunity arose. It was the Autumn of '56, he recalled. He had been almost 19 and had stayed on at school, at his Uncle Richard's insistence, to retake his higher school cert. exams. Barney had just left drama-school a few months previously, and was working at a theatre in London. Roger was still at medical school in Leeds and Diana had just entered her last year at university in Bath, reading English and journalism. It was half-term, and he and Barney had met up for a drink to celebrate somewhat belatedly Barney's 22nd birthday. We met at the Dog and Whistle, recalled Snubby, during one of Barney's evenings off. Looking through the conservatory window from the sofa, Snubby didn't see the garden beyond – he could only see Barney and himself sitting at the bar with their drinks. He could in fact recall that evening as if it had been just yesterday...
* * *
"Barney, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?" asked Snubby cautiously.
"I don't know, I might mind!" replied Barney, looking at Snubby warningly. "It depends how personal."
"Ok – I'll take the risk," Snubby grinned cheerfully. "Tell me, there have obviously been quite a few girls – in fact women seem to throw themselves at your feet. Why is it never Diana?"
Barney looked into his beer-glass and said nothing for a moment. "It's always Diana," he said quietly. "Diana means more to me than any of the others put together – of course she does."
"Then what's the problem?" asked Snubby, looking directly at him.
"Well, we've been friends for a long time, and obviously our friendship means a lot to me, as it does with all of you. Once you change a friendship into something else, you can never go back to being just friends. It doesn't work. I would hate to lose her completely," he added.
"Why should it go back and why should you lose her?" asked Snubby, reasonably.
"Well, I don't know how things are going to work out," Barney replied awkwardly, "and I am sure Richard Lynton has far greater ambitions for his daughter than for her to end up with some tuppenny bit actor who grew up in a circus."
So that's it! thought Snubby.
He leaned over the bar and looked Barney firmly in the eye. "Now, listen to me. You are no tuppenny bit anything. I have been telling you for years that you are worth at least ten of both Roger and me put together, and by the way Diana thinks so as well. You have coped with things I never have – I've had it easy compared with you. You have only just left drama-school, and you're hugely talented – you have looks, you can act, sing and do practically anything acrobatically. You just have to start believing in yourself."
"You're a real sport, Snubby," Barney smiled.
"And as far as Uncle Richard is concerned, he has liked you since the first time he met you when you came to supper when we were kids. He has always admired you. Me, on the other hand, he has always regarded as a complete idiot, and still does," he added sadly. "He doesn't seem to realise that the reason I keep failing my exams is that I'm bored stiff and want to get out there and try out some of my ideas."
"Anyway, Diana still has another year to go at university and will be away in Bath until next summer," said Barney.
"Indeed she does, and I expect the guys down in Bath are a lot less cautious than you are," continued Snubby, artfully. "After all, you have to admit she is a very attractive girl."
"She's beautiful – I've always thought so. She reminds me of Elizabeth Taylor."
"And you must have noticed your cousin Dick has definitely set his cap at Diana, and you know what he's like with women," continued Snubby, watching Barney closely. "I expect when we all meet up at Rat-a-Tat at New Year he will be all over her again like a rash. And if she thinks you are not interested, well, who knows what might happen there? If you are not careful, my friend, you could wake up one morning and find that Diana is married to your cousin rather than to you. How would you feel about that?"
"I would hate it," said Barney miserably. He looked up. "In fact – I don't think I could stand it."
"Well, then," said Snubby, quietly, "maybe its time to move things along a little when the opportunity arises." He smiled to himself. He had found out what he wanted to know. He knew perfectly well that his cousin wasn't remotely interested in Dick Martin, and only had eyes for Barney, but he had wanted to put Barney in touch with himself.
Snubby looked directly at his friend, his green eyes frank and sincere. "Barney, none of us knows how things are going to work out and how successful we are going to be. God knows what I'll ever be able to offer any woman and whether any of my ideas will come to anything. But I know one thing. When I meet the right girl I'll know immediately, and I'll never let her go, because if we really love each other, what else matters?"
* * *
And Barney had listened, thought Snubby to himself, drinking his gin and tonic. He recalled that winter had been a hard one, and there had been snow between Christmas and New Year. By the time all the cousins had met at Rat-a-Tat House, it was freezing hard, and the lake at Rat-a-Tat was solidly frozen. He had been aware that Barney was trying to find some time alone with Diana, and when he heard him suggesting to her that they went tobogganing, Snubby had immediately organised a skating competition for the remainder of the party so that they could be alone.
Barney and Diana had disappeared off together and had returned mid-afternoon. One glance at Diana's happy, glowing face had told him everything he needed to know. They were on the right track at last, he thought happily. When they announced their engagement six months later, the whole family had been thrilled, but no-one more than he. Snubby always liked to see everything work out right, and of course Barney would now be family.
"And what are you smiling to yourself about?" Lucy-Ann stood in the doorway. She had washed and blow-dried her dark auburn wavy hair, applied some light make-up and was wearing a soft brown sweater and oatmeal coloured trousers.
"Oh, just reminiscing about some of life's pivotal moments," smiled Snubby. "You look lovely."
"Supper will be ready in about thirty minutes."
"What are we having?"
"Steak and kidney pie."
"Terrific," drooled Snubby, "always one of my favourites, and I'm starving."
"You won't forget you are trying to lose a few pounds, will you, darling?"
"I do try, but what can I do? Not only is my wife the most gorgeous woman in the world, she is also the best cook in England! What hope do I have of being slim?" he asked comically.
"Well, you could try eating just a little less, of course," she said laughing. She still enjoyed Snubby's banter and the way he flirted with her.
"Well, as we have some time, come and sit next to me, because I want to talk to you," he said. He poured her a gin and tonic, added ice and passed it to her as she sat down on the sofa. He sat down next to her put his arm round her.
"Yes, and I have some news for you too – but you go first," she said.
"I have had our provisional end of year accounts today for the financial year to the end of September," began Snubby, "and they are very good. In fact, the business is in very good shape, not only in the UK but also in Australia."
"Good, because I know that makes you happy," said Lucy-Ann. She had complete faith in Snubby's business ability.
"I've been thinking for some time of branching out into something new," continued Snubby. "Property inflation almost reached 10% in both '84 and '85, and is likely to be as much as 16% by the end of this year. I think the trend will continue and therefore it's time to invest more."
"Do you mean here or overseas?"
"Here – but in a different type of business. I am thinking of moving into the hotel market."
"Do you mean building hotels?" asked Lucy-Ann in surprise.
"No – specifically the country house hotel market. I've been considering looking for a suitable old property ripe for development and obviously in a suitable location. There's a strong market for country house hotels – as people are becoming more affluent, their tastes are changing and there is also a lot of potential for business conferencing there."
"But we don't have any experience in running hotels, do we?" said Lucy-Ann.
"No, but I would get in professional management to do that, of course," said Snubby.
"It sounds exciting, but expensive," said Lucy-Ann. "It would involve a huge investment wouldn't it?"
"Yes, but as I've said, we are in good shape, and it's the time to do it. And then today, I saw this in the Times." He handed her his newspaper which showed a large circle around an advertisement in the property section.
Rockingdown, nr Dorchester
An impressive Grade II listed Queen Anne residence in grounds of ten acres in need of complete renovation including coach-house suitable for conversion.
Formerly a private school and with planning permission renewable – potential for other possible commercial purposes.
Substantial accommodation divided into three wings on three floors, offering ten/twelve bedrooms, substantial loft area, five receptions, extensive kitchen and utility area, cellars, ballroom/conference hall.
Auction 12 October 1986
At the Horse & Hounds Hotel, Dorchester at 11.00 a.m.
Guide price £400,000.
Contact agent – Slater Andrews & Co, Dorchester.
"Snubby – I can hardly believe it," said Lucy-Ann, reading the advertisement. "That is surely where you all first met Barney and where you solved your first mystery?"
"It is indeed," said Snubby. "We were staying on holiday at Rockingdown Cottage, which used to belong to Rockingdown Hall years ago, and Barney actually gained entry to Rockingdown Hall which was unoccupied and slept up in the nurseries when it rained. We discovered a smuggling racket going on beneath the cellars. Barney was caught down there one night, and very nearly didn't escape with his life."
"I know – I remember you telling me all about it, years ago," said Lucy-Ann. "Do you think Rockingdown Hall would make an ideal country house hotel?
"It's worth exploring, isn't it?" replied Snubby. "I think it may work, but would need a lot of investment. Someone must have bought it years ago and turned it into a school and it's been allowed to deteriorate again in recent years."
"The guide price is very high," said Lucy-Ann, "and it will probably need as much spending on it."
"Yes, but beautifully renovated – it would be a fabulous investment," said Snubby quietly, "and somehow, I feel this is a twist of fate."
"Have you thought of consulting Alastair about your ideas?" asked Lucy-Ann. "After all, he's a very experienced architect and now heads up all the hotel business for the firm in London."
"I have indeed – we had a chat some months ago before his and Dinah's wedding. I would like him to have a look at this."
"Well, why don't we look at it at the weekend? If he and Dinah are both free, we could drive down to Rockingdown on Saturday and make a day of it – arrange an appointment with the agent and then have a pub lunch. Roger and Isabelle may also want to come, depending on whether Roger is off duty, of course."
"Good idea," said Snubby. "The auction is only three weeks away, and if we are going to look at this seriously, we have to move fast. I will have to get Don Lapsley onto it and get it completely surveyed, as well as look at the commercial aspect of it and talk to the local planning authority." He rubbed his hands gleefully. "I have a feeling about this – and anyway, it would be lovely to go back and see it again for old time's sake."
"It's a pity Barney and Diana are still in Spain," said Lucy-Ann. "They won't be back until late October, after the auction. They will have been there almost eight weeks by the time they get back."
"Have we heard from them this week?" asked Snubby.
"Not since Di's last card. She said they were having a wonderful time, and really getting to know Barney's Spanish relatives. They have now met Neta's two sons and daughter and grandchildren, and have spent quite a lot of time with them. The house which they're renting in Andalusia sounds lovely – they have a pool and seem to be hosting a lot of family suppers and barbeques."
"Is Barno out there with them?"
"Yes – Hugo and Tess went with them in late August for two weeks, and Barno and Susan went out there last week. Di was particularly keen for Hugo and Tess to meet their cousins and to have a family holiday."
"Of course. Tell me, has Di ever said anything to you about Barney's mother and if they discovered why she left Barney's father all those years ago when they met Neta in the spring?"
"No, not really. She simply said they wanted to get to know the family better, having met them briefly during their visit to Seville. In fact, she seemed quite reticent about it," added Lucy-Ann thoughtfully, "and I felt there was something she didn't want to discuss. I didn't pursue it, obviously," she added. "After all, it is their private business."
"Yes, of course," agreed Snubby. "You said earlier, you had some news for me?"
"Oh yes – good news – Philip and Caro are coming home."
"Already? They were only here in the summer for Dinah's wedding and Phil's 50th birthday."
"I mean permanently. They are leaving Newfoundland at the end of the year – Phil has a new assignment as chief vet at a nature reserve in north-west Scotland. They are coming home for Chistmas and will be taking up their new appointment in January." Lucy-Ann smiled happily. "Jack called earlier to tell me. He is thrilled obviously. Both Phil and Caro want to be closer to home now that Bill and Aunt Allie and Caro's parents are getting older."
" Well, Scotland is still a long way from Cornwall and Surrey but a lot nearer than Newfoundland. They can of course always fly down I suppose."
"Yes, that's what Jack said. And we will be able to fly up there, of course, to see them."
"Well – it looks like it's a time for new ventures," Snubby leant back on the sofa. "A new venture for Phil and Caro and possibly one for us." He squeezed Lucy-Ann's shoulder. "We'll head off to Rockingdown on Saturday – and let's see where it leads us."
* * *
"Well, here we are, Roger, thirty seven years on from when we were here last time," said Snubby. "Can you believe it?"
"After all these years of hearing about this place, I can't wait to see it, can you Di?" Lucy-Ann peered through the window of the car and looked round at Dinah, seated in the back with Roger and her husband, Alastair.
"Yes, I'm looking forward to it as well," Dinah laughed. "It feels like an adventure."
"Maybe," answered Snubby. "It may prove to be a very disappointing visit to an old neglected mansion which is an impossible commercial prospect, but it will be fun having a look, anyway," he added.
Snubby brought the car to a halt at the top of the drive, and they all got out. "Well, it looks just about as run-down as it was all those years ago," said Roger. "It may have been a prep school at one time, but it has certainly been neglected ever since." The spacious grounds around the property were mainly lawns and quite rough in places. Ivy was climbing up the walls of the house, and there was a general air of desolation and decay.
"In poor condition, but a terrific example of a Queen Anne mansion is my first impression," said Alastair, standing back and looking at the house. "It has three separate wings, and the windows are beautifully proportioned, as was typical of such properties at that time."
"And here comes the agent, I would guess," said Dinah. A small car could be seen coming up the drive. It came to a halt, and a man in his early forties got out. "Mr Lynton?" he asked.
"Yes, that's me – you must be Mr Andrews, the agent," said Snubby. He held out his hand and shook hands.
"Yes indeed. I have brought with me a further copy of the sales particulars if you need them," said the agent. "Right, I will open up."
He walked up the stone steps to the double-doors and opened them. The party followed him into the hall.
"There is no electricity connected at the moment, but there should be sufficient light for you to see everything."
"I also have a torch with me, should we need it," said Snubby.
They stood in the vast hall and looked round.
"What an incredible staircase," said Lucy-Ann, looking at the grand staircase which swept up in a huge curve and divided at the top to each side of the landing.
"It's exactly as it was almost forty years ago, apart from the decorations," said Roger in surprise. "Somehow, I expected it to be different."
"I think you will find much of it has changed, but many of the original character features are still in tact," said the agent. "I believe you know some of the history, from my conversations with Mr Lynton," he added politely. "The Rockingdown family ceased occupation in 1941, and the property was used by the British Government at some stage during the war. It remained empty after that until 1952 when it was purchased by a former head teacher and turned into a private prep school. The school then closed in the late seventies following the owner's retirement and has been empty ever since. She has since died, and the property is now being sold by her executors."
"I can't believe how high the ceiling is," said Dinah, looking at the tall dome-shaped ceiling. Three small balconies lay high up on the walls to the rear of the hall, each having a small doorway.
"I suppose those small doorways lead to the loft-areas, don't they, Al?" Dinah looked at her husband. "Yes, the particulars suggest so," he said.
"What is the purpose of that enormous metal loop at the top of the domed area?" asked Lucy-Ann, looking up.
"That was used for hanging the chandelier," said Alastair, smiling at her. "Believe me, in those days the chandeliers were substantial and very heavy. The size of the chandelier in the hallway was an indication of how affluent the family was."
"I can just imagine how this must have looked when the property was lived in by the Rockingdown family," said Lucy-Ann. "I can imagine this hallway superbly decorated and carpeted, and Lady Rockingdown walking elegantly down the staircase to receive her guests, and a beautiful, gleaming chandelier hanging from the ceiling. How lovely it must have looked," she added.
"Would you like me to leave you to look round alone?" asked the agent, sensing this was going to be a long visit. "I will unlock the rear kitchen door for you so that you can look at the outbuildings, if you wish, and open up the cellar trap-door. If you have any questions, I will be waiting outside."
"Thank you – yes, we will be quite happy to look round alone," said Snubby politely. "My brother-in-law here is an architect, and we want to have a close look at the property today, if we can."
"I wonder if the veranda is still there," said Roger. "It lay to the south side, if you remember." They walked through the main part of the house through a large square room. "The veranda lay to the rear of this room, didn't it Snubby?" Roger walked across and looked through the window. "It has obviously been taken down, or rotted I would think," he added.
"Yes, it led from this room," agreed Snubby. "This was where Barney used to let us in through the veranda."
"They key character features are still in tact which is very important," said Alastair. "The skirtings, architraves and ceiling cornicing are in need of repair, but haven't been ripped out, thank goodness. Some will need to be replaced of course."
"I recall the ballroom was in this direction to the east of the building," said Snubby. He walked back into the hall through a passageway to the east-side. "Yes, here are the double-doors," he called. He opened two dilapidated double French doors.
"Yes, it's the original ball-room," said Roger, "but it looks as if the beautiful floor has been removed. I remember it particularly."
"It may be covered up," said Alastair. "If it was used as a school, this would probably have been the main meeting hall, and this old wooden floor was probably laid on top."
They continued to walk from room to room. They eventually walked through the vast kitchen and utility area.
"This was obviously refitted during the fifties, but certainly needs another refurb now," said Snubby. "Al, can you see the ballroom as the main restaurant," he asked.
"No," said Alastair. "This is where the restaurant should be." He led them back into the room which had once led to the veranda. "This faces south and would be warm and light for lunch-time and evening dining. I would envisage this," he said, "with a conservatory style extension, obviously built in keeping with the period of the house, which hopefully the planners would agree to. It would look terrific," he added, excitedly.
"Al is getting excited about this, I can tell," smiled Dinah, squeezing his arm.
"It's an impressive house but very neglected," he said quietly. "And that means, the project, if it comes off, will be expensive."
"I know that, but the house deserves some love and attention after all these years," said Snubby firmly. "Tell me, how would you use the ballroom then, Al?"
"For conference facilities, primarily" said Alastair. "It should have, say, three dividing sections, so that it can be sectioned off, and could then be used for large functions, such as weddings, as and when needed. Any design should be aimed at the business market, because that is where your main business would come from," he added, looking at Snubby.
"Let's explore the bedrooms," said Snubby.
"I do wish Barney and Diana were with us to see all this," said Lucy-Ann, "and of course Isabelle," she added hurriedly.
"Yes, well Isabelle will be in Paris with her parents until next Thursday," said Roger somewhat shortly. "She prefers Paris to London."
No-one answered, and they walked up the main staircase onto the main landing and began exploring the bedrooms. "I seem to recall the nursery wing was quite separate, wasn't it?" said Snubby.
"Yes, in the separate middle wing on the second floor," said Roger. "Shall we go and have a look at the nurseries while Alastair is checking out the bedrooms?"
"Yes, let's," said Snubby. He and Roger continued to climb up to the second floor and walked along the passage towards the nursery area. Snubby opened the door at the end of the passage and walked in.
"Here they are, the three rooms, but completely empty," he said. They both walked from room to room. "This was the nurse's room where Barney slept," said Roger. "And here is the small bedroom leading off the main nursery room. It would make a nice suite," he added, "a large bedroom with dressing-room and en suite bathroom. And look at the view!"
They both looked out at the view beyond. "Do you remember, Di spent the best part of a morning cleaning the place to try and make it decent for Barney to sleep here?" murmured Snubby, as they looked out at the countryside beyond. "She was covered in dirt and dust by the time she'd finished, but she was determined to clean it up. She sorted rugs and cushions for him as well. Gosh it seems a long time ago," he mused.
"She adored him even then," said Roger quietly, still looking through the window.
"Yep," agreed Snubby, "and she still does."
"How lucky they are to have something so solid and perennial, and of course you and Lucy-Ann are just as lucky," Roger added, looking round at Snubby.
Snubby looked up and didn't answer for a moment. He knew that his cousin was troubled, and he didn't want to say anything to make things worse.
"Yes, we are, but marriage has to be nurtured and involves a lot of compromise sometimes," he said, "and it's always the women who make it work."
"It's difficult for me to do much nurturing when my wife seems to spend a majority of her time in France," said Roger quietly, "and Isabelle has never been able to compromise on anything very much. It's just not in her nature."
"Well, when she gets back, we will bring her over here and show her round. I would value her opinion," said Snubby tactfully. "Barney and Diana won't be back from Spain until after the auction, which is a shame."
"We won't be able to come down again next weekend because I will be on duty, and that won't please Isabelle," said Roger with a sigh.
At that moment, Alastair, Dinah and Lucy-Ann came into the room and began to look round. "How about this as the Nursery Suite, Al?" asked Snubby.
"Absolutely," agreed Alastair, walking from room to room. "There are a number of possible configurations of the bedroom arrangement, and you would need to maximise the number, without compromising on the size too much. Plumbing for bathrooms will be a challenge," he added, smiling. "Yes, this would make a very good suite – it has space and privacy and of course a marvellous view."
"Well, I suggest we now head for the cellars," said Snubby. "I can't wait to see them."
They all trooped down the stairs, through the kitchen and utility area and outside to the outbuildings.
"The agent said he would leave open the trap-door to the cellars," said Snubby. "Yes, here we are!" They entered one of the outhouses and could see the entrance to the cellars, from which a small set of steps led down underground.
"I would rather not go down, if you don't mind," said Dinah. "I expect there are all kinds of spiders and creepy crawlies down there," she said shuddering.
"No, you stay up here, darling," said Alastair. "No need for you to come down."
"I'll stay as well," said Lucy-Ann.
Snubby, Roger and Alastair all climbed down the steps to the cellar. Snubby switched on his torch. "Gosh, its filthy down here," he called. "I had forgotten how huge this area was!"
The cellars housed a few old wooden boxes, but little else. "This would be a very good storage area, Snubby," said Alastair. "It seems quite dry, and probably a good area for wine storage."
"We must remember that Rocking Stream runs underneath these cellars," said Snubby. "Hopefully, that will not be a problem."
"Snubby – look. Here is the stone with the ringed handle which Barney used to gain entry underground," said Roger, chuckling. "I remember the mechanism for opening the stone was destroyed, but let's try, just in case." He turned the ring round in both directions, and also pulled it, but nothing happened.
"No – that mechanism doesn't work any more – that's for sure," said Snubby. "I bet Barney would love to see this again," he said.
"Nothing much more to see here," said Alastair, "but your surveyors will need to have a good look at it, Snubby."
They all climbed up again to meet the girls.
"Well, I'll have a brief chat with the agent," said Snubby, "and there's then just one more thing I want to do for now."
"What's that?" asked Lucy-Ann.
"I want to go and take a look at Rockingdown Cottage," said Snubby. "I want to see it for old time's sake."
* * *
"The cottage lies just along the road here, about half a mile from the entrance to the drive," said Snubby. The car turned the bend, and a substantial old property, more of an old house than a cottage, came into sight on the left hand side.
"There it is," said Roger. "There's someone in the garden!"
Snubby drew up on the side of the road, jut past the property, and they all got out.
Unlike Rockingdown Hall, the cottage looked beautifully kept, and a wheelbarrow lay on the lawn next to one of the borders. A woman, probably in her late seventies, was kneeling beside the wheelbarrow, weeding. As they drew up, she looked up and smiled. What a lovely face she has, thought Lucy-Ann, as they stood on the pavement looking at the garden,
"Good afternoon," the old lady smiled. "And isn't it a lovely one for September?"
"It is indeed," said Snubby, politely. "I hope you don't mind. We had to stop by, as my cousin and I stayed here as children on holiday, many years ago, in 1949 in fact. We were just looking over the old mansion."
"How extraordinary," said the old lady, getting up. "That was when my husband and I were in India. We owned the cottage then – we bought it in the mid thirties, shortly after we were married, but my husband was in the forces and posted overseas for some years, and so we let it then."
"We very much enjoyed our holiday here," said Snubby. "We spent a lot of time playing in the grounds of Rockingdown Hall then. We were fascinated by the property's history, although it seemed it had a tragic past, as far as the Rockingdown family were concerned."
"Oh, yes it did," recalled the old lady. "My husband and I knew Lord and Lady Rockingdown very well during the first few years here. We were often invited to their wonderful parties, and I often had tea with Lady Rockingdown."
She looked sad. "If you know the history, you know what happened. Lady Rockingdown lost both her children – little Arabella fell out of the nursery window one dreadful day, and then her son, Bob, contracted scarlet fever and died. And then of course, shortly after that, Lord Rockingdown was killed in Egypt in 1940. He was stationed out there for some months – very few of the British forces were actually left in Egypt – just those protecting the Suez canal and the Arabian oil fields. The Italians attacked, and he was killed." She looked up and her face was full of sadness. "It was just too much for Lady Rockingdown," she said quietly. "She had lost everything – and she died of consumption about six months later. She simply didn't have the strength to fight it,"
"Please don't upset yourself," said Lucy-Ann softly.
"It's all right," said the old lady. "It was a long time ago. My sadness now is that my daughter is insisting I sell this old place now, as it's just too big for me. She wants me to sell it now that Rockingdown Hall is going up for sale. It is going to be sold at auction next month, as you probably know. I know she's right, but it is going to be such a wrench after all these years."
"The garden is charming, and I am sure you will be sad to leave it" said Lucy-Ann. "I am very fond of gardening myself, and I can appreciate the work you do here."
"Yes, well it keeps me going," laughed the old lady. "Are you thinking of buying Rockingdown Hall?" she asked, half in jest.
"Oh, I don't know," said Snubby, cautiously. He didn't want to discuss his plans. "We heard it was for sale, and wanted to look it over out of interest. It certainly needs a lot of investment."
"It does," said the old lady. "It has always needed love and attention, and it hasn't had it since the Rockingdowns were there. After Lady Rockingdown died, it passed to Lord Rockingdown's cousin, but he never lived there. It was used by the British Government during the war, and then sold as a prep school in the 50s. It's been empty now for seven years. I just hope someone makes a real go of it, this time," she added.
"Well, we won't keep you," said Snubby, "but may I just say that if you do decide to sell, my wife and I may just be interested. We love this part of Dorset. May I give you my card?" He handed her his business card.
"Certainly," said the old lady, smiling at him. What a delightful family, she thought. "My name is Miriam Downes. Do drop by again, if you are in the area," she said.
They said goodbye and climbed back into the car. "Well, well, well," said Snubby. "What a charming lady, and what an opportunity." He looked at Alastair. "Rockingdown Cottage as well as Rockingdown Hall is a very tempting proposition, wouldn't you agree?"
"Well, if you make a successful bid for the mansion, it would make sense to buy the cottage as well," replied Alastair. "It would provide extra letting accommodation or accommodation for staff."
"My thoughts exactly," said Snubby. "Well, what's the verdict, Alastair?"
Alastair smiled. "Snubby – whatever I say, you have already made up your mind. Go for it."
To be continued...