In 1956 the writer Evelyn Waugh bought a handsome house in the shadow of the Quantock hills for £7,500. Made of red sandstone, like the red earth which surrounds it, looking down over what we grandly called “parkland” but many would call a field, it is again for sale, this time for a staggering £5.5 million.
That house is part of the warp and weft of my life, and it is strange to see the estate agent’s purple prose wound around what is, after all, just a house until it is a home.
My grandfather bought the house, Combe Florey, because his wife Laura Herbert’s family came from the area. Both her sisters and her brother lived within 20 miles and the vast cousinship of the Herberts became part of Waugh life. Laura had seven much-loved cows and a cart horse called Dinah, and later turned the two walled kitchen gardens into a market garden. I remember the great treat of going to stay with her after my grandfather’s death and accompanying her to market with her metal tubs of daffodils. We would wander round the cattle market considering the merits of cows neither of us had any intention of buying.
This, of course, is not the image of the house that has been passed to the outside world. It has been painted as a sort of permanent literary festival, before literary festivals became part of middle-class life. In fact, by the time my grandfather moved there his output was slowing down. While there he wrote his biography (A Little Learning), also Unconditional Surrender and his life of Ronnie Knox, probably none of which have caught the attention of the hyperventilating estate agents.
It would be disingenuous though not to admit that the house has entertained the famous, but the famous rather than “celebs”. Again, the kind of person willing to splurge £5.5 million on the house would not be at all impressed by its past visitors “Willy Rushton? Who he? Peter Cook?” I hear a murmur of envy when I say that Louis Theroux visited, so I don’t admit that I don’t remember Louis at all, only that I thought his father rather handsome.
When my parents bought the house in the 1970s and we moved in, what had been the servants’ wing was turned into a separate house for my grandmother. The house, which had perhaps been rather gloomy in her widowhood, became alive again. Set in over 30 acres of fields and woodland (as well as the magical kitchen garden, hidden behind a door like that in The Secret Garden), we ran pretty wild. The fields were let out to a sheep farmer, and while my mother made a beautiful garden, there was nothing cultivated or manicured about the place. We walked through the fields to the village hall to celebrate Tridentine Mass, and if the dog sometimes came too and settled down at my feet no one looked twice. Like the Mitfords, we had a secret cupboard in the attic where some of us would gather with friends to write books and gossip. When my mother sold the house in 2008, I took a last walk around and visited the cupboard for the first time in years. Abandoned on the floor was a notebook with a story. It wasn’t very good.
My father, the journalist Auberon Waugh, was very proud of his house and to him its improvement was an important part of his legacy: the cellars were beautiful architecturally and filled with delicious wine; he gradually replaced all the pane glass windows with sash windows; he even (and I think the credit here is more my mother’s than his) removed the Indian restaurant-style red flock wallpaper from the hall. There was a sense of continuity, too; he worked in the same library in which his father had written (although all the shelves and furnishings from Evelyn’s library had been sold to Texas, where they still sit in storage in a basement). The kitchen at the back of the house which, in my childhood, was heated by a coal Aga, was turned into a playroom which we all ignored (ungrateful as we were) and the new kitchen moved nearer into the heart of the house. That kitchen is now a hideous modern monstrosity of curved steel in which I doubt a decent meal has ever been cooked.
It is not so much that my grandfather and father would not recognise the “décor” of the house, as that the essence of the house seems to have been so bastardised that is saddening. Of course, the owners did much good and necessary work to the house – wiring and pipes etc were all pretty ancient – but if the house was anything between 1956 and 2008, it was a family house, and that it seems to be no longer. The agent talks of an “enjoyable roll top bath” in the second guest bedroom – I don’t think Evelyn or Auberon would be enjoying that much.
I wonder if, next time the house is sold, it will still be linked with the Waughs. That link seems ever more tenuous. The brass plate on the bedroom door saying “Miss Waugh” – first my aunt’s and then mine – will one day be unscrewed and thrown away. A house which was once full of good books and good food is now a showpiece, with a “servants’ village” built on the field, a “party barn” and poolhouse where there were once sheep and cows. The beautiful view of the hills is today obscured by an enormous fountain. My uncle remembers people walking from church past the house and across the fields to the pub. He says it was a house full of people and surrounded by others. The place is now guarded by staff who call it an “estate”, the windows are never lit. It’s Great Gatsby’s house without the parties, a Waugh house without family.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” wrote LP Hartley in The Go-Between. I don’t know if it’s the past or the present that is foreign. But Combe Florey House has certainly become so to me.
Sophia Waugh is a journalist and author
This article first appeared in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.