When we visited Audley End recently I was reminded very much of the marvellous Erddig, a house which is now National Trust property, but which in the late 1960s was inherited by my father’s old pal Philip Yorke. Phil and Dad were in rep together in the late 1920s and early 1930s, after Dad left RADA in 1926, and went off touring round Britain with small fit-up theatre companies. When Phil’s older brother died, leaving him with enormous death-duties, he moved back to Erddig with another old bachelor, Uncle Hoo-Ha (the erstwhile actor Bertram Heyhoe), using the old Servants’ Hall for meals and abstemious living.
Phil invited Dad to come up for holidays, so my parents, together with the ‘lower division’ of their eight children, motored up to Wrexham in the family charabanc (one of Dad’s many old bangers, in this case a Commer Camper). Erddig was heaven for children, especially ones like myself who had devoured CS Lewis’s Narnia stories, E Nesbit’s tales about the Bastable children, Enid Blyton’s adventure stories, George McDonald’s The Princess and Curdie, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, A Little Princess etc.
Simon Yorke, Philip’s brother, had also been unmarried and something of a recluse, and Erdigg Hall had barely altered since they were boys. There was no electricity, and all kinds of Heath Robinson contraptions that Phil had improvised - including a burglar alarm underneath a carpet on the stairs to entrap creeping burglars in the night.
There was a cabinet of curiosities in one of the ground-floor rooms - a huge museum-case filled with all kinds of exotic things brought back from foreign travels - skulls, weapons, natural history collections - but really the whole house was a giant cabinet of curiosities. We were allowed to roam freely, from the attic bedrooms where the servants had slept, the chapel with its pews and stained-glass windows, to the salons with their Gainsborough portraits. Down in the Butler’s Pantry, above the long wooden table where we ate, was a circle of Wilkinson’s swords, ready for the defence of the house. I once found an ornate invitation to Princess Victoria’s birthday party next to a pack of castrating rings for lambs. Phil had a passion for collecting things, until, he said, they got too expensive. These included horses (he had three ponies, all very naughty, who he allowed local children to ride), musical instruments (some marvellous contraptions involving handles, a wax cylinder on which we could hear the long-dead Caruso, a huge organ, and his own musical saw, on which, at a boy-scout bonfire in the garden, he played while Dad accompanied him on the ukulele) and bicycles (Phil would demonstrate the penny-farthing, at alaming speed, on the drive). In an upstairs gallery there was a huge doll’s house and rocking-horse. Part of the stables was home to a dusty, cobwebbed collection of old carriages, both horse-drawn and motorised.
Like I said, childhood heaven! I’ve been back to Erddig since, and I’m sure Phil must have been very happy before he died to have seen it so sympathetically restored, but I must confess to a twinge of nostalgia for the muddled, wild, dusty, unpeopled house we explored as children.
My own cabinet of curiosities has grown over the years - and I’m happy to say my son has one of his own! Throughout his childhood we would delight in finding things when we were out and about, and museums were always a source of wonder - we had many happy visits to the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, the Geffrye Museum, Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge in Epping Forest, the British Museum and many others. We never quite made it to a theme park!