A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Back in the mid seventies, I was in the midst of an unhappy divorce. My ex husband was in the Air Force and we were stationed in Germany. To escape a sticky legal situation, I bolted to the UK for six weeks with a friend who had family in Southwest England. I lived on the lam alone, while she stayed with her kin.
Having been an anglophile all my life and not even knowing the meaning of the word, I embarked on a memorable trek around the country visiting great homes, abandoned monasteries, magnificent gardens and ‘charming villages’ from one end of the country to another, literally, using Anne’s 300 year old family farmhouse as my anchor for my mini budget visit.
I saw and did a lot of memorable things, including spending a night IN Stonehenge. But one place stands out to this day, more than 40 years later: Longleat House, in Wiltshire.
I’d marked this one down as one of my must-see places, along with Chatsworth, Blenheim, Highclere, Woburn, a few dozen castles like Warwick, Stirling, Edinburgh, Howard, and a few notable battlefields. Due to time and funds I sorta focused on the biggies. This one had a legendary library and I have always had a thing for books.
The reason started out to be a nightmare. I’d been on the road all day in my little red rental shoe box, stick shift, no radio, and no horse power, determined in my limited time left to get to Longleat to see the library. Wasn’t interested in the Safari Park or the maze or the magnificent gardens: it was that pile of BOOKS! I figured I’d make it with an hour or two to spare when I set out, but alas and alack, the best laid plans and all that. I was attacked by a pot hole; one that could have eaten my little red beastie. The tire (or should that be tyre?) went flat instantly and there I was on a hedgerowed country lane late in the afternoon a few miles away from Longleat. I didn’t have AAA … no cell phones, no nothing back then … but being younger, independent and more robust, I got my tools and spare from the boot and started changing that thing myself, in all the muck and mud of the morning rain. I worried those lug nuts for ages, trying to loosen them with little success, until two nice men came by and took pity on me. They had it changed in a half hour and told me a quicker way to Longleat.
It was late when I pulled into the car park and I was muddied from head to toe. But I tore into the ticket room and almost threw my money at the person behind the till. He was an older man, very polite and kind as he explained that I’d missed the last tour by some 30 minutes and that the house would be open again in the morning.
I burst into tears … yes, that’s the exact description … of despair. I wiped mud off my shirt and tried telling this man that I was really only here to see the library and that this was my ONLY chance, probably in my WHOLE LIFE to ever see such a collection again and I promised not to touch ANYTHING if he’d just let me walk in the door and stand there and smell them and see it! I must have been a drama queen, an obnoxious, desperate American, because he looked me up and down and pointed to a restroom and suggested I wash my (grubby) hands? I also took off my dirty sweater and rinsed some of the grime off my face and hair. Truthfully, I’d gotten a shock when I looked in the restroom mirror! I was a mess.
When I came back to the ticket desk, he was closing it down and placed the sign on it deliberately in front of me. My disappointment must have been clear, but he gave me a quirked eyebrow and told me to ‘come along’ with him. I dutifully fell in behind him.
I assumed we were going to catch up to that last tour group, which still had more than an hour to go on their walk through and I was more than happy with that thought. But the man began to loosen up, as did I, after a few questions and a brief explanation of my mud and late arrival. As we walked through rooms and corridors he pointed out special things of significance, little details and historical factoids that had me asking questions almost non stop.
He paused at one window and gazed out over the magnificent Capability Brown gardens and said “this is my favorite place to stop in the afternoon to watch the light change over the grounds” and we both stood silently enjoying the quiet late afternoon beauty.
We moved on thru more and more rooms, over 40 minutes of them, before we entered the family portrait gallery. He was telling me who they were and about these people’s lives with a great deal of detail and intimacy. He listed off all the Marquis of Bath and their years of life and wives and so forth. Walking down the room, we approached a more modern portrait and he was about to pass it by rather absently when I stopped in my tracks. I looked at the picture and stepped back a few feet. Then I looked at the man who stood beside me, back at the picture and back at the man. Several more times! I think I must have truly dropped my jaw, because my tour guide was the man in the picture, the Sixth Marquess of Bath, Viscount Weymouth himself. As we stood there looking at the portrait, me in speechless shock, he said “I think it’s a rather good likeness, eh?”
I know I stammered an agreement and began to apologize for imposing on him. He was extremely kind and said it wasn’t really a bother, he rather enjoyed showing his home to people with a keen interest, but since he rarely came thru this room wasn’t often recognized.
We talked on and he led me thru to the main library of the house, my mecca. He seated me in a butter soft leather chair and turned on some lamps to chase away the gloom and began pulling books from the shelves with a knowledge and familiarity that astounds me to this day. He pulled several pairs of white gloves from a drawer and sat down at a table and pulled a chair up close and began showing me first editions and one of a kind prayer books and papers that stunned me.
For more than an hour and a half, we sat in that library sharing a love of books and history and the written word. I have no doubt whatsoever in saying that you would have been as incredibly, indelibly and forever affected as I was if you’d held a genuine illuminated manuscript worth millions in your hands, or had a breviary used by Queen Elizabeth I and handwritten letters of King Charles and a first edition of Peter Rabbit, shown to you casually by a Marquess! My fingers still tingle when I think of that. I saw things I’ll never see again. I touched (gloved) an illuminated manuscript. I read Shakespeare folia, and diaries and letters that changed history. The signatures of kings and queens, deeds and documents like none I’ll see again except under glass in a museum. What word can describe this? We spent time in all the libraries, even the family one, at Longleat and never once rushed.
A night watchman showed up at the door and asked if everything was alright and only then did we realize the time that had passed! We stood up to part ways and I apologized profusely for taking up so much of this man’s time. I thanked him with tears in my eyes for his kindness and understanding of a young woman’s hunger to see things, even if only once in a lifetime. He walked with the watchman and I back to the ticket booth door and very properly shook my hand as I tried to thank him again…and again.
As I walked across the deserted car park in the drizzling rainy dark, I found I believed his last words to me. “Thank you for coming to my home, it’s been my pleasure to share it’s treasures with you…” No… the pleasure was truly mine, my lord. Even now, more than 40 years later.
Post script: The Sixth Marquess died in 1992. I sent a note of condolence to Longleat wishing I could have visited and met him again. Sadly, the family has been in turmoil ever since his passing. I think he may have been the last of his kind in that lineage. I only hope they continue to preserve and protect that collection of books and papers!
Stranger lives in the American South and loves squirrels and hockey. She recently retired and is looking forward to more adventures.
Photo of Longleat House by Iain A. Wanless, used under a Creative Commons license.