From Aristocratic playground to American Hospital and Beyond – Lydiard House

2 May
Sarah Finch-Crisp

Sarah Finch-Crisp with Festival Director Matt Holland ©Calyx Picture Agency

Today was not the first time I’ve got soaked en route to a Swindon Festival of Literature event. I’m soooo glad I bought those new flip flips in the most recent Debenham’s Blue Cross Sale. Sigh.

So when my sodden self staggered into the room in the Lydiard House conference centre where the talk on the story of Lydiard House and Park was being held it was already pretty full. By the time the talk commenced it was standing room only.

Such a level of interest is unsurprising of course. In a town full of treasures of every kind Lydiard House and Park has to be Swindon’s equivalent to the Koh-i-Noor diamond. Both are much loved and the latter is much used. And, given the recent hullabaloo around SBC’s suggestion that management of it all go out to private tender, and everything around that, (to simplify the story somewhat) there was ever likely to be a big turnout.

The 260 acres of parkland we have today is what’s left of several thousand acres. Its survival is little short of miraculous. It’s extraordinary. And even better it’s in Swindon.

The fact that we’ve got it at all is largely down to the visionary town clerk David Murray John – he of the tower in the town centre. Facilitated by the philanthropy of Councillor Francis Akers who used his own money to temporarily buy the house and park in 1943, DMJ ensured the safety and preservation of Lydiard. And all at a time of graver national concerns. So thank goodness for them.

So what did I get from Ms Finch-Crisp to make my soaking worthwhile?

As it happens a nice bit of pictorial wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff via the miracle of PowerPoint accompanied by oodles of information from the presenter. I should have taken my sonic screwdriver.

I rather suspect that Ms Finch-Crisp could talk for hours about the house and park. Her passion, her long experience with the estate and her knowledge gained over the years oozed out. I doubt there were any Lydiard Park ‘doubters’ in the room. But had there been I’ve no doubt they’d have been converts by the end.

There was so much information covered I can’t begin to convey it all here. Well not without writing the virtual equivalent of War & Peace at least. So I’ll bulletize some of it to give you a flavour.

The earliest building on the estate is St Mary’s church. The church was not built as a family chapel for exclusive use by the folk at the big house. Rather it was built as a parish church for the community of Lydiard Tregoze  – a function it still fulfils. It just happens to be one of England’s finest small churches dating back to the 12th/13th century.

It also happens that it’s stuffed to the gills with monuments to the St. John family – pronounced ‘Sinjin/Sinjun’. It’s astonishing.

One of these monuments is the St. John polyptych. Nationally famous, the polyptych is a staggeringly detailed record of the heraldry of the St. John clan as well as being a wonderful work of art.

Apparently, it was common practice on such things for the faces of sibling sets and other groups of people to be identical. Not so with this one. The artist went to great lengths to paint the people in the painting as they were.

The house has been sold only once: in 1943 when Councillor Akers bought it. It’s only passed through three families in its entire history, ending its time as a private house with the St. John’s.

The garden/park hasn’t always looked as it does today. Back in the day there were formal gardens in front of a different looking house to what we see now. Then came the English landscape garden and a remodelling of the grounds took place with the formal canal turned into an artificial lake.

There was another Lady Diana Spencer. This earlier Lady Di, the 2nd Viscountess of Bolingbroke, shared a common ancestry with the late Lady Diana Spencer, mother of William and Harry. Sarah showed a photo of the painting of Viscountess Bolingbroke that hangs in the house – it’s not difficult to see in it the uplifted eyes and the tilt of the head we’re so familiar with. It does seem that whoever and whatever one thinks of it manages to have a connection with Swindon somewhere.

There’s been more than a whiff of scandal about the house. Not least with the 5th Viscount. He sired two illegitimate sons with the housekeeper before marrying her in secret and siring another: Vernon. It’s this Viscount who tried to stop the GWR hooter because it was disturbing both his sleep and his pheasants.  He was briefly successful in this until, to cut short a long story, people power prevailed and the hooter was reinstated.

During the war years, the 101st American Airborne Division had a hospital camp in the grounds. How fab is that?

Phew!  And there was so much more than that listeners. I’ve barely scratched the surface here.

So, to bring you up to date I’ll mention the Lydiard Park Heritage Trust and the future of the Lydiard Estate. This group of splendid individuals is now the preferred bidder for taking on stewardship of the estate. Now entering a phase of ‘due diligence’ it appears that SBC are working closely with them. For this I’m glad – but sad too that the same cannot be said elsewhere.

Sarah Finch-Crisp is one of nine trustees of the Lydiard Park Heritage Trust. After listening to her today I’m more convinced than ever that this glorious country park will be in the safest of hands and will live on for future generations to enjoy.

Chronicle written by Angela Atkinson of Born Again Swindonian and AA Editorial Services

Sarah Finch-Crisp gave a talk at Swindon Festival of Literature, 1st May 2017.

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