Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Ghosts of Ashdown Past!

The beautiful, warm sunny day today has drawn scores of visitors to Ashdown House and Park. The woods are at their best with rich autumn colours and although the house is open for a final time on Saturday October 31st, the park and estate will remain open all through the winter.

Saturday is, of course, Halloween, and if you are planning to visit I recommend the 4.15pm tour. By then the light will be starting to fade and as you walk through the woods at dusk and see the shadow of the house creeping across the lawns it will be all to easy to believe the stories of hauntings at Ashdown. The wind in the trees and the birds calling in the twilight can sound like the plaintive cries of the child who is said to haunt the woods. The long shadows of the stable hide the beams where a groom is said to have hanged himself in Victorian times.
I've had a number of paranormal experiences in my life but two of the nicest (in the sense that they weren't frightening!) happened to me at Ashdown. They were also two of the most convincing since they were witnessed by other people too, amongst them my ever-sceptical husband!

The first occasion was when we were taking the photograph that appears at the top of this blog, the partial eclipse of the moon one night over the roof of Ashdown House. We were standing on Alfred's Castle, in itself a compellingly atmospheric site. There was no one in the house and no lights were on. All the windows were shuttered. And yet as we stood there watching the full moon rise and the eclipse take a bite out of it, we both thought that we saw the figure of a woman standing in an upstairs window watching us.

The second time that the ghosts of Ashdown past sent a shiver down my spine, we were on a bat walk in the woods at night. About ten of us had gone out to look for bats and listen to their high-pitched calls as they hunted through the woods. We had seen the barn owls as well, hunting their prey along the rides, and as we walked back down the North Avenue the house was ahead of us. Again, there was no one there, no lights on and it was locked up for the night. Yet as we walked towards it we saw a soft golden light like candle or lamplight shining behind the windows of the first floor, and as we all watched, the light moved up the stairs to the next landing and we saw the shadow of a woman. As we drew near the house the light faded away and we were all taken aback to see that again the windows were all closed with the shutters, so how could it have been possible for us to see a light inside?

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

A Dollar Princess at Ashdown House!

As Professor Kathleen Burke puts it in her excellent book "Old World, New World": "Beginning about 1870, the union of American money and the British aristocracy was a continuing theme in the Anglo-American relationship... there was something special about the earlier period: perhaps it was the number of such unions, or the amount of cash involved. Perhaps it was the sheer hard-headedness of many of the transactions. For whatever reasons, these fairy tales - or horror stories - provided the plot for many a newspaper article, novel and play."

One such marriage saved the Craven family fortunes in the late nineteenth century. Whilst the story of Cornelia Bradley Martin isn't as well known as some other "dollar princesses" such as Jennie Jerome or Consuelo Vanderbilt, it was every bit as glamorous. This picture shows Cornelia as a child and this link connects to a vintage bromide print of her in the National Portrait Gallery, dated between 1910 - 1914 when she was in her thirties.

Miss Bradley Martin was a mere fifteen years old when she first met the 4th Earl of Craven on her parents' Scottish shooting estate at Balmacaan. They married in 1893 in New York after a brief engagement. The bride was sixteen and had not "come out;" it was felt that the 24 year old Earl had stolen a march on other potential suitors by marrying Cornelia straight out of the schoolroom. The wedding took place in New York's fashionable Grace Church with acres of white satin and much exotic floral decoration including 40 foot high palm trees. An over-excited crowd thronged the street outside for a glimpse of the bride and at one point there was a near-riot when the public invaded the church and the police took an hour to clear it.

Cornelia Craven was herself descended from a notable American lineage. Her mother was the daughter of Isaac Sherman, who had made his fortune in the railroads. Her father, Bradley Martin, was descended from an old Albany family. Her parents had met at the wedding of Miss Emily Vanderbilt. The balls and parties that they gave featured prominently in the gossip pages of the New York Times although after some stern criticism of their opulent lifestyle in the early 20th century, they moved to Britain.

It was no co-incidence that in the same year as his marriage, the 4th Earl began a series of renovations at his main home, Coombe Abbey, which included the restoration of the fabric of the building, a partial re-roofing and improvements to the servants' quarters. Improvements at Coombe continued to draw on the Countess's wealth. In 1907, electric lighting was installed and given the vast size and expensive running costs of such a house it seems inevitable that without Cornelia's money, the Craven family would have had to sell Coombe Abbey much sooner.

The earl and countess adopted a classically wealthy aristocratic lifestyle at Coombe and also moved between fashionable watering holes and glittering society events. In a rather neat example of the Cravens' sense of style, it was reported that Lord Craven sported the longest cigarette holder in London! Quite a claim to fame!

The 4th earl died in 1921 in a mysterious yachting accident during Cowes Week, one of the events of The Season. He fell overboard from his yacht and drowned, a particularly odd end given that he was a good swimmer and was only 55 years old. His body was washed ashore two days after his disappearance. The police report noted, amongst other things, that he had the Craven family crest tattooed on his chest. Tattoes had become increasingly fashionable with the aristocracy during the Victorian period, popularised by the Prince of Wales and later by his son Prince George.

The death of the 4th earl dealt a powerful financial blow to the Craven family fortunes and Cornelia was obliged to sell off the contents of both the Bradley Martin house in Mayfair and of Coombe Abbey. Before Coombe Abbey was sold in 1923 she removed the fireplaces for her home at Hamstead Lodge in Berkshire. She was later to do the same with Ashdown House, removing fireplaces and panelling. Despite these economies, however, the Dowager Countess's establishment at Hamstead Lodge was very grand. She had a staff of 17 inside servants and 8 outside servants plus 19 gardeners. Gardening was her passion and she created "The Dreamland," a garden inspired by a dream she had in the early 1930s.

Visitors to Hamstead Lodge were very eminent; they included Queen Mary, Princess Marie Louise and continental royalty. The Churchill family were regular guests and entertainment was often sporting-themed, including racing weekend house parties and shooting parties. The Dowager Countess was also renowned for her stunning collections, including emeralds and china that had belonged to Marie Antoinette and jewellery that had belonged to the Empress Eugenie. Her staff included two "night-watchmen" who were effectively security staff to ensure that her jewellery and the Craven portrait collection were safe.

It was Cornelia Craven who gave Ashdown House to the National Trust in 1956. She died in 1961. The opulent style in which she and her husband the 4th earl had lived was emblematic of the Edwardian period and very reminiscent of the time a hundred years earlier when the first Earl of Craven of the 2nd Creation and his Countess had lived a life of Regency glamour. The injection of her fortune into the family coffers was of particular benefit to Coombe but also to the remainer of the Craven estates. Hit hard by death duties and the decline of the country estate after the first world war, Coombe, Ashdown and eventually Hamstead Lodge itself were sold off and the glittering years of the Craven's "dollar princess" were gone forever.

The Ashdown Blog will be back on Halloween with a suitably spooky tale of ghostly goings on at Ashdown House!