Memories of The Manor by Sheila Terry (21st February 2002)

I was born in the village of Charney Bassett and have never moved away. Charney Manor has always been part of my life.

My earliest recollections of the manor are of looking out of the bedroom window of our thatched cottage and watching the most terrifying sight that a small child of about four could possibly imagine. The whole of the sky was lit up with flames and we all watched while the tithe barn at Charney Manor burned to the ground [c1946/1947]. At that young age I had no idea what that fire was and it was not until years later that the manor and that night of fire were linked.

The Manor was still a private house at the time of the fire and I can just remember being taken to Nativity plays put on by Ursula Waterhouse, the owner.

When the Manor was sold and then given to the Friends, we would watch (as young children) strangers walking around the village and always knew they came from the Manor.

The Manor has always been part of village life. The first W.I. meetings were held there and I remember at one of the early garden parties doing country dancing on the lawns. The Church Fete has always been held in the Manor grounds and I can remember being part of a tour given by the wardens of the day. When no-one was looking a few of us would tap the walls to see if we could find the secret passage believed to lead to Lyford Grange.

When I was 14 my father arranged for me to have a summer job at the Manor, during the summer holidays. A whole new world opened up before me.

I worked a split shift 8.30am-2.30pm and 4.00pm-7.00pm. All the other staff apart from the village staff were resident German girls. There was very little for them to do in their free time, so my parents invited them to our house. We would take them out or they would come to watch T.V. a very new addition to village life.

Work at the Manor was very hard: no dishwashers plus the rooms had to be cleaned every day. The job I hated most was emptying the chamber pots. It filled me with dread and embarrassment. I was terrified I would meet someone as I was carrying the chamber pot to empty in the nearest toilet. If the coast was clear and I was on my own I would tip it down the basin in the room and then have a terrible dread that someone might see the wrong coloured water coming out the drain below.

The pay was very low and I remember being very disappointed receiving only 17/6. My mother gave me half a crown to make it up to £1. Even in those days that amount was very little.

During the summer after my work experience the Manor played a different role in my life. Two evenings a week we went to the Manor to play tennis. It cost 6d per evening and we were given some instruction by the warden of the time. However the main attraction of the tennis court was the local boys. Some of the girls were quite good but I could not hit the ball over the net having very weak wrists. I also never felt good in shorts, so usually wore my best dress and sat and watched. That way I did not look foolish on the court.

The following years passed with little contact with the Manor. My Father was always friendly with the various wardens keeping an eye on the trees.

In 1967 my sister had her wedding reception in the grounds with non alcoholic champagne. One or two of the local girls were allowed to use the Manor grounds for their weddings. I have some good photos of myself as a Matron of Honour and my children Caroline only 14 months and David 3 as bridesmaid and page boy. My own wedding reception had been held in the school.

In the mid seventies I joined the village W.I. and as secretary I had to arrange the annual Dinner. We approached the wardens and arrangements were made to have the meal at the Manor.

The wardens had a small child and in talking to them I understood that they had difficulty in arranging anyone to look after their little boy when they held committee meetings. Being a Nursery Nurse I offered to have him, and did so on several occasions sometimes at the Manor and sometimes in my home. At this time the Manor had gained a reputation of being the place to visit if you could not obtain a job elsewhere, much to the dismay of the loyal cleaning and cooking staff, causing friction between them and the wardens, all this unknown to me. When the cook left I was asked if I could give a hand with the cooking and agreed to do so.

A hand with the cooking I discovered meant preparing a meal for 30 enquirers, including lemon meringue pie. I had no idea who enquirers were but met for the first time George Gorman who complimented me on the pie. I don’t think I have made a lemon meringue since that day.

After about three weeks a student cook was found and I moved into the office to help out there as the deputy warden was also leaving. He showed me how to do mysterious office jobs such as petty cash, and conference bookings.

I agreed to help out one Sunday while the wardens were away. They owned a boat and as many weekends as possible abandoned their duties and spent long weekends sailing.

On this Sunday the deputy warden went off to a local show and here was I left in charge. In those days during the summer months (this was July) the Manor took private guests and passers by tended to drop in to look around. On this day I was in my element clutching the Manor Guide. I was taking two such people on a tour of the building when the front door bell went. Abandoning my guests I answered the door to be confronted by a young couple, the girl holding a bouquet of flowers. They told me they had been booked in after their wedding. I consulted the booking diary and noted they had been given room 1. I had never been shown a bedroom and had no idea which room this was but made them tea and left them in the sitting room while I went to find out. Accompanied by the student cook the only other person on the premises who had never been shown the bedrooms either. We went to find the room. It was very easy, the first room at the top of the stairs. We opened the door and this is when horror set in. The honeymoon couple had been given the largest room but it contained four single beds which were all unmade with dirty sheets from the last guests. We had no idea where the airing cupboard was but when we found it the young cook collapsed with laughter while I in panic staggered off to make up the beds and speak to the couple.

The deputy returned soon after and a double room was found but I have never forgotten my first afternoon in charge and how pride comes before a fall as my mother would say.

I continued helping in the office and deputising for the wardens over the following three years. During this time I slowly learnt the job from the bottom. Things however were going from bad to worse as the wardens continued to take time off and were unable to manage staff or finances.

After an emergency management committee in September 1979 it was agreed that all the staff be made redundant at the end of the year and the wardens were to manage the Manor as a conference centre only with very limited help. All the staff gave in their notice and left. All the groups which had booked into the Manor were sent letters informing them that the Manor was closing and their bookings were cancelled.

After the Wardens left in early 1980 I was given the task of “caretaking“ the Manor until a decision was made as to what the future use of the Manor might be. Various groups were invited to put forward ideas as to what role the Manor might play in the future and Richard Allen was asked to write a report on these and other ideas. I spent many hours with Richard and he became a very dear friend.

While plans were being put forward as to how the Manor might be used several of the previous cancelled groups approached me to see if they could use the Manor as they were unable to find anywhere else to hold their meetings at short notice. These included the Anglican Consultative Council. Bishops from all over the world came to this and I remember well the beautiful weather and the huge car belonging to the then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie who asked me where he should put his sheets after he had stripped his bed. We got to know a few of them and had chats with Terry Waite before he was kidnapped.

George Gorman asked if he could bring the Enquirers Gatherings and various other groups approached me. I re-employed a few of the staff. There were four of us: a cook, two cleaners and myself with help from a schoolgirl on Sundays. I did every kind of job but as staff were only employed when groups were in we began to make ends meet. If people telephoned I took the booking knowing that if the Manor once closed it would take a huge effort to get it on its feet again.

I was supported in this work by a dear Friend and our treasurer of the time Gordon Rudlin, George Gorman and Richard Allan, so that by 1982 when the report was completed the Manor bookings were still there and the way forward was a new fairly local management committee appointed by QHS and I was appointed manager.

Looking back I cannot imagine taking on such a responsibility as I had no training in management only my housekeeping skills other than having done every possible job including some of the book keeping.