Thank you so much, Victoria, for allowing me to share a couple of extracts from my book, Fat Dogs and Welsh Estates.
Picture the scene. Not quite teenagers, we’re in our friends’ home, a ramshackle medieval manor house with ghoulish goings-on. It was full of surprises.
Floorboards sometimes creaked without being trodden on, which was odd. Some rooms felt dank and prickly, while others were warm and cloying. Lights didn’t always behave properly and sporadically flickered. Doors occasionally slammed all by themselves. The upstairs bathroom was for emergencies only.
We usually played in the kitchen or Clare and Jane’s rooms, but not Mark’s. In his bedroom, now and then, the books in his bookcase were mysteriously reshuffled during the night. Never tipped out, just badly rearranged. Even the animals didn’t linger in there. The setting outside was just as intriguing, or creepy, depending on how one felt.
The manor’s chapel stood opposite the main entrance. I only have fleeting memories of it as a dark, sombre place with a level of gravitas even children instinctively respected. Halfway down the drive, a yew tree hedge screened a sunken garden from view. Di [my big sister] had an opinion about these.
“See these yews, Beth?”
“Yes, they’re just trees.”
“Ah, but they’re not ordinary trees.”
“What d’you mean?”
“They’ve been planted on top of dead people.”
“Yeah, I read about it. In the olden days, every time they killed someone, you know, horridly, they stuck them in the ground and planted a yew tree on top.”
I’ve never felt the same way about yews since then.
Steep granite steps led to a lawn with a pond, which had a fountain in the middle. Apart from the yews, this was a great place. We splashed around in the watery base, chasing damselflies and counting frogs leaping over lilies. As they bounded, their croaks echoed around the high walls protecting the garden. It was said that the apparition of a lady in Elizabethan dress appeared here. I was happier spotting tadpoles.
A flight of terraced gardens on the far side of the gravel drive had a different spectre. It was the only one I wouldn’t have minded seeing. Among the Tudor formal flower borders, a ghostly greyhound padded. The story goes that he was lost during a hunt and had returned to look for his master.
I suppose it isn’t every family that gets to chat about their favourite ghoul, but that’s what happened. Sounding like a bunch of mini ghostbusters, debates took place about the merits of each one. Mark was underwhelmed with the greyhound, declaring his poltergeist and floating books to be far more interesting.
Exploring the endless manor buildings was always an adventure. Probably my favourite part was its disused stable block. Our first innocent exploration was a thrilling revelation. We had no idea that it housed a fantastic secret.
A splendid doorway off the courtyard led to a series of magnificent stables. Tremulous, we crept over the herringbone brick floor and shoved open the first heavy stable door. Wood panels seated vertically in the base formed half the interior. Above were railings with metal balls on top. A horse could peep through these. Even the back wall, with its green and white tiles, looked smart.
There were iron mangers and hayracks and tethering rings fixed to the back walls. Someone had evidently designed the stables to house much-valued animals. Mark returned to the passage and started poking around pieces of furniture.
“Wow! Quick, everyone, come here.”
We rushed out to join him. And stopped dead. We stared at the substantial glass case propped against the wall, astonished. Clare started brushing away years of dust, and gasped.
“It is. It really is a horse’s head!”
Half appalled, half fascinated, we joined in. The more we cleared, the more the form took shape. Inside, it was still pristine. Nothing could possibly detract from the noble air of what was once a magnificent animal. I was overwhelmed.
“Gosh, he looks so…alive.”
“True. Not scary at all,” said Di, wiping the wood frame with her hanky.
“What’s his name?”
Mark rubbed the brass nameplate at the base, and gulped.
“You’re never going to guess what. His name was Brigadoon, and he won the Grand National! I can’t read the date properly, but it looks like eighteen something or other.”
We gazed at Brigadoon for ages. Amazed, not frightened. It felt strangely humbling to be in the presence of this tribute to such an outstanding steeplechaser. It wasn’t until much later that I learnt more about the history of the grand stable block and the cherished racehorses nurtured there. Brigadoon was its prize.
Still pre-teenagers, we delighted in rummaging around for old saddlery, records, more evidence of racing and interesting horsey stuff. And dream about what it was like to ride from those stables into the splendid courtyard on a world-famous racehorse. Our mounts weren’t quite the same.
This second snippet appears later in the book. I was a teenager and had been given a 50cc motorbike. My mother, a very proper lady who had never been near a motorcycle in her life, fancied a go. With growing concerns, Pa and I watched her try out my pride and joy.
“You do realise your mother hasn’t ever ridden a motorcycle, don’t you?”
“Yes, Pa, but I couldn’t say no. She seemed so keen.”
Ma whizzed past us looking thrilled, or hysterical. It was hard to say.
“See how the bike’s weaving?”
“Ah, yes, I do, Pa.”
“I’m afraid she has never had a good sense of balance.”
“Strange that, since she’s such a good horsewoman. Mind you, the helmet seems to have slipped over one of her eyes, so perhaps she can’t see very well.”
“Possibly. Your mother does have rather a small head.”
Ma zoomed past us a couple more times, less wobbly now. By the fourth-ish lap, she was looking somewhat strained. She flapped a hand as she zipped by, so we waved back. This generated a rictus grin and then a shriek.
“Any ideas what she’s trying to say, Pa?”
“None at all.”
“I wonder if there’s a spider in the helmet?” [Ma had a spider phobia.]
“The entire county would know if that were the case. Did you tell her how to operate the brakes?”
“Ooh, no, I forgot about that.”
“That was an oversight, Beth.”
“Sorry. It took a while to explain the gears. I didn’t get around to the brakes bit.”
“Is there much petrol left in the tank?”