`LEAVING HOME` Article written for the `Mail on Sunday` September 2003, when we sold up and left our house in Cheshire
'For thirteen and a half years we exited and entered our beloved Old Rectory passing under the Latin inscription above the front door , `Deus nobis haec otia fecit` (`God made for us this life of ease`).
Our own lives there have sometimes belied this sentiment but any grim memories of besieging media outside, or an over-eager trustee-in-bankruptcy salivating on the door mat at the prospect of getting his hands on Neil`s possessions, are totally eclipsed by wonderfully happy memories of love, friendship and the gales of laughter which always reverberated around then rooms - no matter how fierce the storms outside. The house has seen us through good times and bad, always our refuge and strength in times of stress and we both had a lump in our throats as we drove away for the final time last week.
Ever since Neil lost his libel action against the Egyptian Grocer, Mohamed Fayed, and was declared bankrupt in 2001, facing legal bills of over £2million, we knew that the house would have to go. Some may feel we have done rather well to stay for as long as we have. Fayed, who has since decamped to Switzerland, had wanted us out for the last three years, and so had our own long suffering and unpaid lawyers.
Several sales fell through over the years because the Trustee in Bankruptcy decreed that the offers were too low, and so we have happily stayed in situ. In fact, as the solvent family bread-winner, I could have arranged to buy Neil`s half had we wanted to stay, but the time has come to move on as the balance of our lives has shifted southwards.
The Old Rectory has been a source of great joy and happiness for us, our friends and our families. We bought in 1990 directly from the diocese of Chester, so Neil was delightedly able to claim he had personally privatised part of the Church of England. The Parsonages Act of 1774 exempts from Stamp Duty such direct purchases from the Church - an agreeable anomaly which has still, happily, escaped Blair-Brown Stealth Taxes. This saved us £8,200 (2% of the purchase price of £410,000), which we were able to spend on conservation and improvements. Unfortunately for our successors, Neil and I are not an ecclesiastical corporation, and Stamp Duty has doubled in this price range, so they must hand the Chancellor £60,000. The new owners are a delightful family, with three children and a dog, who fell in love with the house, just as we did.
The house reflects a more leisured and monied era for the clergy. In its heyday, it boasted 12 indoor servants and many more to tend the extensive kitchen garden and pleasure grounds. Built modestly in the early 1600s, the house we left last week was vastly enlarged by Edward Stanley, rector from 1805 to 1837, who left to become Bishop of Norwich. The Stanleys had been large landowners in Cheshire for 500 years and Edward`s older brother became the first Lord Stanley of Alderley. Money not being an issue, the house was quadrupled in size. When less spacious days arrived in the 1940`s the servants` wing was demolished - as Neil discovered when he started to dig over the garden wilderness prior to re-planting. With his bare hands, he disinterred 150 tons of brick rubble.
By 1990 the house had suffered half a century of neglect. Saplings were growing from brickwork and rainwater gushed from broken guttering. The largest of five chimneys leant perilously above the main bedroom and it was only the Rector`s close relationship with the Almighty that prevented him and his wife being and sent prematurely heaven-wards, crushed beneath 14 tons of masonry! Unconfident of our own credentials in that quarter, we set about re- building them all immediately.
Nether Alderley is an ancient hamlet. Unfortunately, it has no pub because the Lord Stanley of 100 years ago, a devout Muslim, closed it down. He lies buried upright and facing Mecca in the neighbouring wood! The ancient church rises like a magnificent galleon from the garden, the East Window being just yards from the house. Within a few hundred yards lie a moated manor house and a medieval water-mill still working after 500 years. Our bedroom and drawing room windows over-looked, not only the church, but also rolling fields whose park-like aspect was preserved forever by covenants imposed by Lord Stanley on selling his estate in 1938
Many old photographs and paintings survive and we had high ambitions of restoring verandahs and balconies which became dilapidated and lost in the 1930`s. Fortunately, since then, the period charm and architectural integrity of the house has been preserved by the notorious parsimony of the Church of England towards the needs of its parsons. It spent only the bare minimum to keep out the rain (well, most of it). Nearly every room revealed its original 18th or 19th century cast-iron fireplace, concealed under hardboard in the philistine 1950s. All the original window shutters, presumably nailed up by the same hand, patiently waited for their freedom - to provide us with perfect privacy, security and insulation.
Its Georgian rooms are large, ceilings high and doorways wide - all in excellent proportion. A handsome cantilevered stone staircase sweeps up to spacious landings and six capacious bedrooms, whilst the cellar steps wind down to cavernous subterranean rooms and the all-important wine cellar with brick wine bins and stillage, which once accommodated the rector`s casks of home-brewed ale.
Importantly for me, the kitchen had been virtually untouched since the 1940s. In this virgin territory, I planned a Gothic phantasmagoria in English oak - a flight of fancy to be executed by the admirable Ken Dutton, a specialist in medieval wood carving, who drew up designs inspired by my 26 years living with Pugin in the Palace of Westminster. These dreams were rudely shattered in 1994 as our pennies were diverted to lawyers to defend us against the onslaught from Fayed. So the 1940s units survived and we never did succeed in bringing the kitchen into the 15th century.
The house has welcomed many famous guests - Edward Lear (celebrated water-colourist and author of the "Book of Nonsense"), Bishop Christopher Wordsworth (author of many favourite hymns) and Sir Winston Churchill. I used to gain strength and inspiration every morning from sliding up and down the bath which he had used - an enormous tub with a special groove to hold your brandy glass - or, more prosaically, soap!
More recently, Margaret Thatcher arrived with her entourage during the 1992 General Election. The drawing-room was laid up for tea and, as a mischievous joke, Neil placed on the chair next to hers the life-size cardboard replica of her which I had bought in Carnaby Street in 1975 when she became Leader of the Party. Earlier in the day she had been hit on the head with a bunch of daffodils whilst on a walkabout, a breach of security which gave heart failure to her minders but left her unconcerned.
She bustled in, demanding to know the trade figures which had come out earlier that day, sat down, enjoyed a large whisky, and moved into the dining room for early supper before the rally that evening. She made absolutely no mention, or even slight acknowledgement, of the cardboard icon to her right, perhaps assuming every home should have one. It subsequently sat in our hall until the very moment of our departure, having been 100% successful in warding off burglars.
The house has frequently been immortalised on television, notably just over two years ago `When Louis met the Hamiltons`. Louis Theroux was making a documentary about us when, incredibly, Neil and I were falsely accused of vile sexual crimes and arrested by the Metropolitan Police. Immediately afterwards, Louis came to stay with us in Cheshire and some memorable scenes ensued on our drawing room floor and in his bathroom when I did my Mrs Robinson act - tongue, of course, firmly in cheek!
People ask if we are upset about leaving the house and if the move has been a traumatic experience. The answer is emphatically not. Emotionally, we left the house some time ago. We have known for several years it would have to be sold and have had ample time to prepare."