I first climbed over the wall of Dyrham Park as a trespasser – about sixty years ago. I think the Blathwayt family or their descendants had long since gone and the place had been sold on to the Ministry of Works. It was in a bad way, that’s for sure, and I’ve never quite lost the sense of not belonging there. As a teenager I thought it was one of the most beautiful green spaces I’d ever seen – although I never dared approach the house for fear of being caught and getting into trouble. I could cycle there in an hour and hide my bike in the bushes before I climbed over the wall, and I could see the whole of my life in a landscape from the top of the escarpment, right at the end of the Cotswolds. .
Sometimes I would lie there in the grass, just watching the clouds pass over – it was hard to find any peace and solitude at home as a teenager. Once the park passed into the hands of the National Trust it got easier and Madame and me have even ridden horses in the grounds, galloping across the wide open spaces a few times, but I was never going to make a confident rider. Nowadays we’re National Trust members and so we can wave our cards and walk freely in the grounds knowing that no-one is going to ask us what we’re up to.
I’ve never been inside the house. It’s the open spaces, the deer, Whitefield meadow in July, the autumn fungi the gardens and an occcasion tea and cheese scone in the cafe that we go for. More often than not we take the long walk around the boundary, just passing by the house and the gift shop – always crowded. Today the car parks were packed with hundreds of cars and yet by taking our favourite route we hardly saw a soul for most of the time. There wasn’t much to see in the wildflower department except for some encouraging signs of new leaves at the edges of Whitefield meadow and a solitary oxeye daisy. The gardens were a different matter and the gardeners should be proud of the colour and variety they’ve achieved in November.
These extraordinary Clerodendrum trichotomum – harlequin glorybower or peanut butter tree – are both exotic and thoroughly odd. Elsewhere in the formal gardens there is masses of colour, with the dogwoods just approaching their best. I’ve never been much of an enthusiast for very formal gardens, I’m more of a cottage garden, Gertrude Jekyll sort of fan but all the same we wandered around, I took a few photos and wished that someone would start a medicinal herb garden there – it would be yet another touch of authenticity for a house soaked in history. So I had history on my mind as we wandered to the end of the formal garden, thinking about Culpeper whose 1653 herbal would have been a staple around the time the house was being restored betwen 1692 and 1704 . It was all very romantic until we turned around.
Looking back towards the house it’s impossible not to be impressed at the beautiful baroque building while being simultaeously appalled at the source of the wealth that built it. William Blathwayt made his fortune as an MP and civil servant administering the slave plantations of America. In fact I wonder how much of Bath was built on the backs of numberless slaves. The Beckford Tower, the Georgian crescents, the Sidney Gardens. Hugely important architecturally and historically; generating millions in revenue from tourism every year and yet fatally compromised for me by the suffering that made them possible. And that’s why I’ve never been inside the house, because all that architectural beauty came at a price. The beauty and ecological richness of the surrounding parkland is still uplifting even as the environment is under threat but it never truly belonged to us.
“There’s no such thing as clean money” I used to say glibly to anyone who criticised St Mary Redcliffe where I worked, for being built on slave money. I was wrong. The issue as to whether slavery was evil is settled, but the issue of how we live with its fruits is not. British taxpayers didn’t finish paying off the debt incurred by compensating slave owners for the loss of their “property” until four years ago. Yes four years ago. It’s Remembrance Sunday today. Remembering is, or ought to be, more than a sentimental costume drama. Remembering is radical, dangerous and challenging, it makes demands on us. Even a simple walk on a sunny day can get swept into its vortex.