Saturday, November 26, 2005

BELFIELD 1945-56. (1)

I cannot remember much about my first summer at Belfield in any detail other than exploring the house and garden, happy in my own world of make-believe. My companion was still, for a while, Molly: my imaginary "friend", who had come with me from Cerne. I found her a home under a beech tree, and soon after celebrated her "wedding" with lots of rose-petals from the climbing rose on the verandah, which I used for confetti. She then left my life.

My bedroom was the first room on the right at the top of the elegant curving staircase. My parents had the first on the left, but my room was the sunnier with one window facing east, to the front of the house, and the other south with a view of Portland harbour. It felt safe and cosy to lie in bed on wild stormy nights, listening to the wind and rain pounding against the windows and more wind whistling in the chimney.

One winter, when I had been kept in bed with a bad cold, a fire was lit in my fireplace which was protected by my old nursery fire-guard with its polished brass rim. I remember feeling very secure as I watched the glowing embers as I drifted off to sleep. On foggy nights, I could hear the mournful sound of the foghorn on the Shambles lightship out at sea, and on clear nights I could see the flash of its beacon light.

After five years of occupation by the Army, both the house and garden were looking the worse for wear. The tapestry panels in the dining-room were in excellent condition, having been well protected by horsehair pads attached to battens - but elsewhere all the decorations were in a poor state, with chipped paintwork on doors and skirting boards.

The War Department was obliged to pay out compensation, but it was not until October 1946 that, following a thorough survey, a Schedule of Dilapidations was agreed upon of £902.8.8 plus £50.17.0 for a rehabilitation allowance, plus interest. This included a revised claim for electrical work of £102.19.9.

One cold dark winter's evening I had lost my temper over something forgotten when, in my anger, I gave the drawing-room skirting board a hefty kick, whereupon there was a blue flash as all the lights in the house went out and apart from the firelight, we were left in darkness. Thus complete re-wiring had to be added to the bill.

Outside in the neglected garden where statues had been used for target practice, the Army had left behind two Nissen huts which my father, fearing squatters, insisted on being dismantled as soon as possible. I was rather sorry as I enjoyed playing in them, unlike the remains of an air-raid shelter in another part of the garden which I found a bit scary. The Nissen hut bases stayed though, one of them forming the base of an Italian garden which my parents designed, and the other used for a dumping place for grass-cuttings.

Nearby stood an ancient yew tree, the largest I have ever seen, in which I spent many happy hours climbing. A swing was fixed for me from one of its branches, using the For Sale board for the seat.

Today the garden consists of just over an acre, but when we lived there, there was, in addition, about another acre of woodland to the north of the house, up the hill and bordered by Belfield Park Avenue. To the east, opposite the house and across the road, was another acre. This was all that remained of the Park which had once surrounded the house and had stretched from Wyke Road, where the main entrance and lodge had been, to Buxton Road and the Stables to the south, and as far east as Cross Lane.

Before the War, Belfield had been owned by a Mrs Patterson who, although she claimed to have spent a lot of money restoring the house, had unfortunately sold most of the Park for building land. The old Drive down to the house from Wyke Road had been abandoned and an entirely new road, named Belfield Park Avenue, had been made and lots of small houses built along it. Until the 1960's this remained an "unadopted" road, very rough and stoney, especially where it wound up the hill to join Wyke Road. During heavy rain it would become a river, dislodging yet more of its surface into deep ruts.

The War had interrupted the building process and an acre of land across the road from the front of the house was still undeveloped. This my father was quick to buy back. The part nearest the road was already well wooded with young elm trees which even then were prone to Dutch Elm Disease, but this was kept under control by pruning out diseased branches which also helped to keep up stocks of firewood for the house. My father extended this plantation in 1947 by planting a further ten trees, including Spanish poplar, maple, lime and pine as far as the southern boundary, along which was planted a screen of thirty-six macrocarpa to make a quick growing screen to hide the rather utilitarian house called "Trees" which was being built in a corner of land he had not been in time to re-purchase.

The remaining land, left to rough grass, was kept under control with a fearsome looking mechanical "Allen Scythe". There was also a mature walnut tree, and my father went on to plant a hazel "nuttery" and further mixed woodland trees along the eastern boundary to a neighbouring farmer's field.

A low stone wall was built in front of the house between the house and the road, with a Cupressus Fletcheri planted at either end, and a line of further trees continuing each side as far as the drive gates, of cherries, crab apples, almonds, thorn and prunus as well as poplar and maple.

Together with more tree planting added to the north of the house, Belfield became well screened from encroaching suburbia and one could almost imagine it still being part of a park - if rather more wooded than the original shown in early 19th century engravings when the house stood in its then idyllic setting on an "acclivity" and commanding "a fine prospect".

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