I love – but sometimes hate - the processes of chance in research. Going up one path and finding you are on another, in a different place, or perhaps at a slight angle to the one you were treading along. You find yourself drawn in, getting hooked, starting to live vicariously the lives of other families, who yet lived themselves many years ago. Can't escape. Decide to forgo or forsake the archival path you were on for the seductive charms of the new one. Too tempting to resist. The internet and its never-ending possibilities of virtual reality of course makes this process more likely and frequent. It's not so easy to be diverted in the spaces of library archival depositories, so ‘happenstance’ didn’t happen quite the same with traditional book-focused research.
This time it began with a TV programme – Country House Rescue - featuring Tapeley near Instow and a chance remark by the present owner of the estate about his great grandmother, Rosamond Christie. A few googles, several clicks and one fragment of information leading to another zingy tit-bit and half an hour later I am deep into my Devonshire past; deeper still, into historical stratas encompassing names, identities, texts, gardens; uncovering new paths; even further down, into the cellars and crypts of long forgotten dusty facts and fragments of other people’s lives. Soon, I catch their elusive scents, see them sweep along a drive in a horse-driven carriage, hear their laughter, their high voices. Within the mirage I am living their lives again, virtually, for them.
I am split into two selves; at one and the same time: child-out-for-a-drive with my parents, staring up the slope at the tumbling- down mansion to the left, high up above the Taw valley. My Father tells me:
‘That was Eggesford, the home of the Earls of Portsmouth, a long long time ago. It’s all derelict now’.
There is the rambling ruin – did we dream, or did we play amongst its grass hillocks? Rooks and jackdaws there - up on the tower-shell, even higher in the elms and firs - scratch out the raucous pains of its loss.
Child sensing that there was once rich-life here, intuiting the ghosts of the lost children who once themselves also played, hiding and seeking in the rhododendrons, the camellias, rose-bushes. Child, longing to know.
One and the same time, I am adult-self/objective researcher, seeking out that which is lost in the seeds of time: names; places; writings; hidden links in a hidden chain or series of chains with missing links that you can sift and link together, re-connect, re-assimilate.
… Rosamond Christie. Great grandmother of the now owner of Tapeley, (as well as mother of the founder of Glyndebourne) she was responsible for the original magical ambiance of that estate; she created its formal and terraced Italian gardens, with its ‘lawns, palm trees, terraces, statues and lily pond’; her gardens were known for their beautiful ‘red and pink Camellias, Heaths, Pernettyas , Daturas, and Forsythias;’ she contributed to C19 garden magazines and collected rare seeds.
Who was Rosamond? A double-click, double-take and I find that her childhood was spent within the local landscapes of my own exterior and interior past. Born Alicia Rosamond Wallop, at Eggesford House, she was one of the six daughters/eleven children of the 5th Earl of Portsmouth, builder of the C19 mansion. Perhaps it is not much wonder that his daughter grew up gifted with such exquisite imaginative scope; her swirl of childhood was spent engulfed within the folds of secret hidden rooms encased inside the mansion, which was set within the forest laden ‘magnificently timbered’ landscape of ancient Eggesford. Visitors to the mansion commented on the ‘infantine sons and daughters [of the Earl] who live in some mysterious part of the house and are never seen’. One of the rooms held an extensive library and there were visits from famous literary guests, including Thomas Hardy, a close friend of the Earl of Portsmouth, who on one visit found the ‘young ladies very attractive’ and noted that Rosamund now married, seemed a ‘particularly sensible woman’
The magnificent gothic house set on a hill in the park, looked down into the serpentine Taw valley, over a panoramic view which took in the meadows by the river in which an older mansion, lived in and built by family ancestors once stood. Now early C21, the field where that house stood is back, behind and below the popular Eggesford Garden Centre, once site of the walled kitchen gardens of the estate. It’s only a hunch, but I believe that Rosamond Christie’s vision for her garden at Tapeley was somehow implicitly connected with her childhood garden; for if nothing else both of them were designed in such a way that they shared marvellous views down over the river Taw.
|River Taw at Eggesford Bridge|
‘wide carriage drives with their Lodge entrances, [which] wind their way through charming woodlands possessing every variety of ornamental shrub and forest tree of exceptional height and dimensions, avenues of Chestnuts and ... Pleasure gardens attractively laid out in lawns, flower garden and terraces ... clumps of fine rhododendron and azaleas walled kitchen gardens of 8 acres’.
|Eggesford House 2011 seen from near the garden centre|
Rosamond’s presence at Eggesford is recollected in several documented sources. She was at 17 ‘a pretty little pink and white creature’ . Later in her married life Lady Christie kept diaries of her life at Tapeley, but her link with her childhood home at Eggesford must have remained strong; her son John Christie was born there and she apparently returned home after the breakdown of her short-lived marriage. There are textual snippets preserved in archives, which catch a trace of her life in days at the estate within the context of her extended familial network. Occasionally these fragments leave a visual impression of the young woman’s presence in the external landscape itself as well as her existence within the home and glimpses of the problems that she must have had with her husband. One of these vignettes was written by a female friend and correspondent of Rosamond: in 1884 Florence Glynn wrote to her husband that
‘Rosamond ran to the door to meet me and seemed so glad to see me. She carried me off straight to my room and after a little talk she took me (having taken off my things) to her Mother's room to tea. … oh dear, it is a funny place and a funny family. They all speak in the same rather high key as little Rosamond. I can't describe it [at] all. I had a very cosy tea just with Lady Portsmouth and Rosamond and afterwards Rosamond took me to a tiny sitting room which her mother had fitted up for her and we had a long talk - poor little thing, it is very sad to hear her speak so wearily and hopelessly at times and sorry now and then, and then she is so bright. She seems now to have a terrible horror of her husband - it appears his temper is something too terrible … The sun was delicious. We were rather like a school at luncheon - 18 of us. Directly after Rosamond and I went out for a walk in what are called The Walks, thro' great plantations - some splendid Douglases (I think they called them) two bigger than any in England, I should fancy. We did not go to Glynn Wood, but we are to go one day. When we came back from the walk, we sat in her tiny sitting room having tea there, which was very cosy - till dressing time … Rosamond and I have just walked to Wembworthy Church and back. I hope I shall get to "Glynn Wood", but it is some way off ...There are rich and tantalising documentary sources, many available on the web, which gradually help the avid researcher to re-vivify a forgotten mid-Devonian matrilineal literary and gardening network. Reading at a tangent and between the archival lines one can begin to piece together what is lost - both of women as gardeners and women. Rosamund Wallop-Christie had at least one literary-inclined sister, Lady Camilla Wallop, who composed poetry, whilst their mother Lady Portsmouth, born Eveline Herbert, who was widely known for her management of the estates, was a trained teacher, who like her daughter maintained not only wonderful gardens, but also richly detailed diaries. These are minefields yet to be quarried for the rich material no doubt hidden between their closed pages, which in turn could enhance understanding of the women from Eggesford and their extensive cultural networks. Never mind that the individuals who have left these dual Devon legacies - wonderful gardens as well as fragments of written-life – wouldn’t be considered, or labelled ‘writer’. What is here in words is evocatively rich; the legacy the women have left consists of detailed documentary evidence of what happened, their life-narrative; who can say they are not ‘writer/s’?
Rosamund Christie and her mother’s active initiatory involvement in these Devonian gardens is reminiscent of the fate of so many of the women writers who I have researched. Innovators and visionaries, their legacies have all but disappeared. The garden-scapes of the past tend to be considered in archival records as a masculine prerogative; women’s presence in the garden is as passive observer of the aesthetic, or help-mate in the accomplishment of menial garden tasks. Such belittling of talents has often been the fate of the female writer. And there are other close parallels between female gardeners and women writers; through the centuries there has been an inherent bond between the language of gardening and that of written texts. Embroidery is made up of stitches and colours; floral-gardens, in beds are created from colour, shape, pattern. There is a story; a mood; a tempo; movement and flow. Writing is all of these – stitches or words joining together … But I am digressing, veering towards another path, away from the track of this piece … I have much ground to retrace ….
As I gather more and more material for the project (or rather multiple projects) I am involved with, I begin to widen the parameters of what skills and talents and qualities make ‘writer’ a (real) writer. I know I have no right to judge, or make evaluative assessments. All I know is that these lost writing women make me feel alive, make my past come alive within the layered and historical contexts of theirs – and most tellingly, have the ability to take my mind away from any pursuit of a single academic goal. Instead, they guide me towards an open-minded attitude, take me into challenging adventures along unexpected avenues and paths into multi-layered, unknown textual treasures, which are foraged away within the hinterlands of cyberspace.
‘I took the one less travelled by/ and that has made all the difference’ (The Road not Taken, Robert Frost)
quotations from various online sources
copyright Julie Sampson