Rooksnest


This is an account by EM Forster of his childhood home, Rooksnest, which appeared as the appendix in my copy of Howards End (Penguin edition). The original name of Rooksnest, before EM Forster lived there, was .... Howards.


Rooksnest

I have, or think I have, a clear impression of my arrival at Rooksnest. I certainly remember coming in the train and asking the names of the stations as we passed, and pronouncing Welwyn as it is spelled instead of calling it 'Wellin' in the approved fashion. I think I remember too coming in the fly and seeing the church and the farm as we passed and also seeing Rooksnest itself but I do not remember entering the house and my next impression is playing with bricks on the drawing-room floor, my next having neuralgia when the doctor called, and my next playing a musical box to the charwoman while she cleaned out the nursery cupboard. I was about four when we arrived which was in March 1883. We came for three years but soon after we arrived mother said we could never stop so long. However we stopped till September 1893 and then only went because we had to.

I suppose I had better begin by a description of the house. It was about one mile from Stevenage walking and one and a half driving and was on a particular bad piece of road which led from Stevenage to Weston, a small village about three miles further on and naturally had very little traffic. Stevenage is on the G.N.R. [Great Northern Railway] and is the highest point on the line between London and York and Rooksnest is a good deal higher than Stevenage so we had a very fine view to the west and north-west over Hertfordshire and part of Cambridgeshire. People who were accustomed to call Herts and ugly county were astonished at this view and the surroundings of the house were altogether very pretty, first and foremost the fine view, and to the north a peep of the park with its little woods of firs and oaks. We could not see beyond the road as there was a high hedge and there were no windows looking out that way. The house faced south-west but it professed to face south. I have made a sketch plan of it and the garden opposite from memory the chief fault of which is that the house is too big for the garden and the back garden should be bigger than it is.

I don't know what to speak about first but will perhaps tell about the house. The name Rooksnest was not an ordinary name of a house but the name of a hamlet consisting of us and the farm below. Mother when she cam heard that the house was to be called 'Chisfield Villa' and nearly had a fit. It was very old. Some said 200 years and some 500, and I should not be surprised if the former statement was right. It was oblong in shape and built of red brick that had long lost its crudeness of colour. The front was covered with two rose trees and part of a vine. The east side was covered by the same vine. When we came there was only one rose tree and the vine but they grew immensely and with the other rose tree covered two sides of the house. The vine was always a source of debate. Should it be grown this year for grapes or foliage? Sometimes we had the grapes and made wine which people liked very much when they were thirsty but this made the house so bare, for there were no windows on the east side, that we generally had the leafage. The other two sides had no creepers but the roof of the back side was very odd. Two large gables first containing the little spare room and landing windows, then below the back porch and then till the end of the house the roof stretched down from the very top to within six feet of the ground. I was very fond of throwing balls up this roof trying to send them into the front garden but when I broke two windows this was discouraged. The west side of the house was rather bare and only relieved by the larder window and the store-cupboard window from above it.

Inside the house was peculiar. You entered through the porch into a tiny ante-room and then into the hall, the pride of the house. It was the kitchen when the house was a farm and sad to say once had an open fireplace with a great chimney but before we came the landlord, Colonel Wilkinson, closed it up, put a wretched little grate instead and made the chimney corner into the cupboard I have marked. Five doors opened out of the hall, the dining room, the drawing room, the door to the lobby leading to the kitchen, the door leading to the porch and the door to the staircase which was thus quite shut in and could not be found by new people who wondered how ever we got up. Though the big fireplace was blocked up the big chimney still remained and once the sweep brought a little boy who went up it to mother's great alarm, but came down safe. There were signs of a trapdoor in the ceiling. At the end of the chimney cupboard was a little door which mother once got open and found an old basin which we still have. The ceiling had a beam across as had most of the rooms.

The dining-room and drawing-room were nice rooms but had nothing peculiar about them. On going through the lobby door you came to a door on the left which opened onto a flight of stairs leading to the cellar, which was under the drawing-room. Then from the lobby opened three doors to the pantry, larder, and kitchen. The pantry was a little room but the larder was big and had a yellow brick floor and nice large shelves on which the eatables were put. It was always very cool. In one corner were large red vessels one of which held the bread and the others, at first, our drinking water. The kitchen was rather warm and paved under the stairs. It had a porch with two doors which were useful when parleying with a tramp. All the windows at the back had bars whether they were upstairs or down and all in the front had shutters so we were pretty safe from tramps or burglars.

Upstairs there was the landing which had a window over the back porch and in front three large rooms, the big spare room, the nursery, and mother's room over the dining-room, hall and drawing room respectively. Mother's was large and cold but she like it. The nursery was delightful. It had a large cupboard shaped in an L in which my toys were and had also the large wardrobe which took up one side of the room. The big spare room was nice but I did not often go in. Then opposite was the little spare room over the scullery, a later addition which was very nice in winter because of the kitchen chimney. In the passage between it and the big spare room was a trapdoor to the rafters where was a cistern which was filled everyday, till we had a regular water supply from the scullery pump. Here was a little window which commanded a view of the back garden. The only other room on this landing was the store-cupboard by mother's bedroom over the larder. Hence always came a mingled odour of apples, mice and jam.

Above were three attics, a bedroom on each side and a boxroom in the middle. This was a curious part of the house, for at the entrance of each room was a beam of wood perhaps 18 inches high by 12 wide on the top of which the door swung. New maids were always much aggrieved at having to stride to bed over these logs. In the attic over the spare room was an L-shaped passage leading nowhere round the chimney-stack. When I arrived I am told I ran to the top of the house and then down this passage. The mice had eaten away all the rafters and I nearly came down quicker than I had come up.

So much for the house. Now for the neighbours. The only houses near us were the farm about 200 yards nearer the village and the lodge of Chisfield about as far the other way. When we arrived the lodge was inhabited by the gamekeeper Mr Plum his wife and two children. Mrs P. paved the way to an acquaintance by leaving some sticks at the back door for us to light the fire the morning we arrived. The little boy she called 'Sizzle', but we called him Baby Plum or Baby Plumbun. From what I remember of him he must have been a truly hateful child. He generally wanted what he had not got. This propensity brought to light delinquencies of the maids who had evidently let the Plum family have the run of our house while we were away. Baby Plum one day kept on saying something we could not understand. At last it resolved itself into:- 'I warnt ter see Maaster Morgin's little gla-a-ass b-a-a-alls' ending in a wail. These were marbles which we had never shown him so he must have poked in our drawers to find them. The other child was called Annie. How often have I heard Mrs Plum say in loud tones 'Sizzle, you naughty boy how dare you hit "littleannie" I'll smack you that I will.' While Mrs Plum talked she always pinched pieces out of a box hedge by the lodge. Whether this hurt it I know not but when they left it was cut down.

The people at the farm we got to know much better. They consisted of Mr and Mrs Franklin, two daughters very fat, a son Tom who afterwards married and a grandson Frankie. The farm was bigger rather than our house and had three 'reception rooms' denoting different degrees of respectability. There was the 'drawing room' where were stored up antimacassars of vivid awfulness worked by the family in crewel and all the presents mother gave, also 'curios' and frightful tablecloths. This room, as may be imagined, we all shunned like wildfire, and generally sat in another room with horsehair chairs a large sideboard and a rocking chair where old Mr Franklin sat. There was also a piano. The other room I don't think I ever went in all the years I was there, it being reserved for very intimate friends, but when I came back to see them afterwards I was taken to sit there. It was hung round with oak-apples, had an open chimney, and was light and warm and very nice, but etiquette had forbidden our entrance till we had left and were old friends.

Mr Franklin was very 'near'. He rented the meadow off us, and one of his farewell speeches to mother was 'Well, well, it's been a dear maidy'. 'Well,' said mother 'you wouldn't give it up when I wanted it for the pony.' 'That he wouldn't,' said Mrs Franklin, 'and glad enough he's been to have it too.' However the cunning old man got it from the next tenant for less. Mrs Franklin was very amusing indeed. She wore a very odd kind of cap - very high and imposing in front with ribbons hanging over her shoulders, but behind it fell down flat and looked very mean. The rest of the family were very dull. Tom was generally supposed to be very difficult to get on with but we always got on very well with him as we did with the whole family - not a very easy task as they were touchy. They were Baptists, and did not deliberately give short measure of water the milk but were not sorry when it happened. Gran always said we had the worst milk and butter of any place she knew. Still it was all we could get as the Chisfield farm about a mile away had often to buy from the Franklins'. Mr Franklin quite grumbled when Frankie had some little rabbits that wanted new milk.

The farm buildings were always in a state of chaos and dirt but Mr Franklin was very successful. He always refused to sell his wool, saying the price was not high enough. One year there was I suppose a bad lot of wool and the price was high and then all the great bags were brought down and sent away. Dirty as the farm was I liked it very much. There was a large farm yard, the side of the house formin gone side and barns and stables the other three. It was full of mud and manure in the midst of which wallowed enormous pigs. I was very frightened of them though I did not mind cows and horses, and used to steal across in great fear and trembling. Once however across there were great mysterious barns, some full of grain in which I ran about and got my boots and clothes full of, others full of straw, though not often as it was mostly in stacks, and others with curious farm instruments in. Among these was an old winnowing machine that used to be used before the time of threshing engines, and also machines for cutting oilcake and hay. They had large wheels which turned the knives inside, and Frankie used to spread himself out on them like Ixion and whirl round while I stood by wishing I dare do it too. The barns were always full of 'dim religious light' but sometimes the great doors were flung open and the whole place lighted up. I was never tired of poking about in the barns for eggs of which I used to find several. The farm had a very nice front garden always bright with flowers but we always went in the back way. There was a large kind of scullery with a big open fireplace and also a dairy where the milk was set to rise. Alas! I fear most of our milk underwent this process before we drank it.

The Franklins were an odd mixture. Though they were mean they never refused a beggar. Mrs Franklin said 'Well, well, I've done my part and if they go to the public-house I can't help it.' They were also very kind in letting us play among the ricks, and to my certain knowledge we spoiled one little stack of straw through continually throwing one another down from the top which must have been a great blow to people like the Franklins though they never mentioned it. I will leave them now though I shall have heaps more to say about them later on when I come to Ansell, and indeed I could fill the whole book with tales of the farm.

We made the garden almost entirely ourselves but had plenty of apple trees when we came. Mr Franklin's farm-hands used to steal the apples dreadfully. They used to come long before we were up and shake the trees. We had only one pear tree which however was large and bore splendidly. We had two cherry trees one of which was a morello and the other nearer the house an eating tree. The birds like them too and we put a bell in the tree which was by a string that came out of the landing window. This did very well for a time till the birds got used to it and a blackbird was discovered perched on the bell eating cherries. We had a lot of gooseberries and red and blackcurrants as well as a few raspberries so were well off for fruit. One of the trees was a Ribstone pippin and in the front garden were two greengages.

The map I have drawn of the garden gives a better idea of it than anything else. It was mostly grass but as we had a pony we did not mind. It was level on the whole but in the front garden was a dell known as the 'dellole' which was a pond when we came but mother had it drained and filled up, a thing I have always regretted when I saw how pretty the Clarkes' pond looked with bulrushes and flags. There was just such another hole at the other end of the garden but it was full of water. The most interesting thing in the garden was the wych-elm tree. It was of great height and had a very thick stem, but the curious part in it was this. About four feet from the ground were three or four fangs stuck deep into the rugged bark. As far as I can make out these were votive offerings of people who had their toothache cured by chewing pieces of the bark, but whether they were their own teeth I don't know and certainly it does not seem likely that they should sacrifice one sound tooth as the price of having one aching one cured.

All one side of the garden stretched the meadow. It was our meadow but we let it to Mr Franklin on the condition that no obnoxious animals should be allowed to be there. By 'obnoxious' I suppose we meant animals that would not [sic] hurt the garden if they got in, but the result was we had every animal but a horse. The boundary line between the two was a fence of four wires which we had not to spoil the view, but by the 'dellole' it was for some reason very weak and tottery and always had to be supplemented by faggots. The garden was always overrun with animals. There were always hen and guinea-fowls. Those we were used to, but also there was always a sample of whatever animal happened to be in the meadow. If it was large it crashed through by the dell, if small it crawled under the bottom wire of the fence. To the former class belonged cows, calves and sheep, to the latter pigs, lambs, hens, ducks and guinea-fowls. Add to these the occasional animals that strayed in from the road and the keeper's puppies that played in the back garden and you have a good idea what its appearance was. Once a donkey got in, and Mr Stewart suggested that we should tie horns on and have it as a stag. We were very fond of the meadow. It had three fine greengage trees, which we were allowed to have, and a large oak on which was hung a swing. It was of very odd shape, something like this:-[diagram] and was all downhill. It had hedges full of clematis, primroses, bluebells, dog-roses, may, bryony and nuts, with many trees which were nearly all in the hedges. In it was a little dell which communicated with our pond in the back garden to prevent it getting too full. From it were most lovely views of the surrounding country. It was generally used for hay in the summer.

The next thing that occurs to me are the disadvantages. If anyone else had written about Rooksnest they would have begun with them, for our friends were never tired of telling us them. In the first place we lived for six years without water. We were to have had a well but Colonel Wilkinson got out of it by saying that waterworks would soon be made in the valley and that he would then pay to have water pumped up to our house. At length the waterworks were made, but lo! Colonel Wilkinson said we had got on all right for six years and could go on for longer! 'Getting on all right' meant that we entirely depended on the rainwater we caught from the roof and on two pails a day of well water from the farm for which we paid a fabulous price. He was at last persuaded to fulfill his promise and the waterworks people built a wonderful erection, a cross between a Noah's ark and a sardine-box perched up on four water-pipes of great height. This in some odd manner supplied us with water, but also spoiled the views for miles round being of an aggressive sea-green hue. When we had our water we had not done, for in the winter it froze. Well I remember one Christmas morning when we woke up to find ourselves waterless. Fortunately we had had hot-bottles, and the kettle had been left on the fire, and with this the Christmas dinner was cooked.

Secondly we had a great number of mice. They swarmed in the outhouses and from time to time invaded the house. And this brings me to the cats. We always had two or three going, generally descendants of Winkey. Winkey was given to us in London and was described as 'a lovely little kitten', but her appearance was that of an ancient bony cat. Gran called her 'the mother of all evil' for she had kittens innumerable. She began by ascending the chimney, and the delight of this exercise continued into her later years, and in the dead of night she came down Gran's chimney and startled her dreadfully. Winkey's first kitten was Sandy, of a gravel-path hue. She died early, caught in a trap I suppose. But her most famous family was born on Jubilee Day in the stable. Two alone were allowed to live, and named Juby and Lee. Soon after their birth their mother was dissatisfied with her quarters and moved onto the roof with her children and we could not think where they were. But one day Lee fell off the roof onto the back scraper, and this I am inclined to think was the cause of her weak intellect. She was always unfortunate, for afterwards I was playing hide-and-seek with her and put her in the cupboard, but before I could shut the door she got out, all but the end of her tail which was caught in. Poor thing yelled with pain, but recovered and used to walk about with the broken bit waggling like a pendulum, till mother bravely cut it off. Later on Lee had a kitten called Pinkey, because its pink skin showed through its white-grey fur.

The cats used to sleep in the woodshed, and the only way they could get out was by getting over the door which did not fill up the doorway. Lee used to take Pinkey up to the top of the high door and drop her over onto the stones. She was a silly cat, but very loveable. Puppy naturally thought that Lee could not be trusted to take care of the kitten and so one day he took it and hid it. But the deed done his conscience was uneasy, and all the evening he whined about the house, and at last conducted mother to a large tea-tray leaning against the wall, and behold! there was Pinkey sitting behind it. His next attempt to carry her off was disastrous to himself. The cats were sitting in conclave on the stone on the top of the tank, and what did Puppy do but burst in and seize Pinkey from their midst. The cats rose like one man (there were four of them) and battered poor Puppy so that he fled away.

The first dog we had at Rooksnest was a collie called Rod. He had a dreadful temper, and that is about all I remember about him. We had to get rid of him because he nipped Tom Franklin's leg. Puppy was a fox-terrier, also bad-tempered. We had him a long time. We also had two ponies. The first was a black, called Gyp. He was a terrible animal - not a pony at all, we used to say, but a large sheep. He would not go and he would not stand still, and when we tried to go further than the village he used to back and back, and sometimes used to get his body crossways under the shafts.

And that reminds me I have never said anything about the village so I will leave the pony, and go to it now. It consisted of one long straggling street built down the London Road. We entered it at the higher end, where the houses each side receded a great deal. The space between them formed what was politely called the Bowling Green, though it would have been a curious ball that could have rolled over it without stopping. However the grass was nice enough to make the village look pretty, and was useful for the fair or for bonfires. The houses gradually got nearer together and the green came off to nothing about halfway down where some cottages jutted out, and blocked up the road still further. Beyond it widened, and the village went on to Trinity Church, where the houses were no longer touching each other, but began to stand in their own gardens. These ugly new houses much disfigured the road, and one did not get rid of them till more than a mile further. The buildings in the high street were either houses or shops, the poorer part king contained in several short roads running to the right and in the districts known as Back Lane and Latchmore Green.

I go on writing this after about seven years interval - in 1901. I have forgotten a good deal and probably shall put down things I shouldn't have before, and vice versa. I'm also more discreet. Ansell however will never see this book, and I can speak of him. He was the third/fourth? of our garden boys - Ray, William, Bible, Ansell [those two names later transposed], Field, Chalkely were their order, and was the only boy I knew. Wednesday afternoon was given up to me, and there were many extras beside. We were not particularly mischievous, but managed to do some damage. Our time was spent on the straw stacks, near the house, and our shrill shrieks constantly penetrated there, to the great annoyance of Mr H., my tutor, who said it was childish and undignified. One year the stack was close to the hedge, and we - he, that is - made a straw penthouse between them, with a tiny opening through which we could crawl. It was very dark inside and very stuffy. "'Ow 'ot it is in 'ere! I've got the 'eerd ache already" was an immortal speech of A.'s. The farm-boys found out the house, but never meddled with it. We stored apples in it, and always wondered where they went. Our attitude to Frankie was not consistent, and not always kind. Sometimes we played with him, but often teased him so that he went away saying that 'he should tell his father that we were spoiling the ricks'. Nothing ever happened. Sometimes A. and I quarrelled. He used to hide, and leave his billycock as a [MS breaks off].

I go on writing this after about forty-six years interval - in 1947. Most of the people connected with my Rooksnest are now dead, including my mother, but I still go to the house to see Mrs Poston, the second wife of our old friend, and her daughter Elizabeth; and William Taylor, the garden boy who has now 'made good', is shortly coming to see me at King's. He will also see the Rooksnest mantelpiece, which has followed us to Tonbridge, to Tunbridge Wells, has been stored, followed us to Weybridge and West Hackhurst, and now stands, more effective than ever, in its last home. For the College will keep it after my death, I hope. Mrs Stewart died last year, by the way. Neil lives. So does Frankie. My aunts Nelly and Rosalie are alive, and my uncle Philip, and my cousin Percy, and May Poston (Mrs Mead) and Miss Giles.

My aim in resuming this book, though, is to copy in extracts, relating to the house, from letters. I am getting a little mixed over dates, but know I went to school at Eastbourne in the autumn of 1890. Mr Hervey, my dubious tutor, left England about then. He had overlapped my beloved Ansell, and I doubt whether the order of garden boys given on the previous page is correct. She went to France 91 [i.e. in 1891].

Mother to self, November 189 [last figure left blank] The maids wish you were here to play games tonight. I have been teaching them 'Happy Families' the last two nights, and I never laughed more. Jane would insist on asking for what she had and then was always surprised when we did not give it to her. She kept saying 'Well ma'am I can't get anything I ask for.' In vain I explained the reason. Well after that she got a little better and would ask for Mr Chip the Carpenter's daughter and Emma kept saying solemnly 'Really Jane'. Jane grinned the whole time. Last night she played a little better. She has written all the names of the families down and is learning them by heart. She means to win tonight. The wren came into my room again, and ran all up the curtain.

Mother to self, 19 March 1891 A bear came with two men to call upon Ellen when I was out. Fortunately she saw them and did not open the door. They retired to a haystack near Puppy's bath pond and spent that awful blizzard night. Franklin's shepherd was frightened nearly out of his wits and ran back saying a wild animal had run after him. Soon F. and the keeper went with guns. Bible was called but did not hear. When they got back, they found the men trying to catch their bear. They were all taken to the Police Station and escorted from the town.

Mother to self, 189 I went to the dance and enjoyed it fairly well.... My frock was very pretty and I had a lovely yellow spray May made me and Mrs Stewart sent me a lovely spray of roses but I could not wear it as May's came first. We did not have Pas de Quatre. I believe some people do not like it. Mr Stewart was very kind to me and danced the lancers with me and took me to the supper. He was a dreadful 'Jack' at times.... I went round the District with Mrs Jowett. It did not take long, but I did not like any of the women I saw.

Grandmother to mother What a tiresome beast your pony is. I wish it had hurt itself where it would not show any injury - or rather frightened itself - a little fool! - I am glad you are making a raid on the animals, particularly of the female kind. Do get rid of Lee and Winkie. They are the beginning and no end of the mischief.

Mother to self, 189 You must not mind about moving because you will be sure to like a new place and I shall always be there [refers to abortive attempt to leave. She got turned out a few years later, and not unreasonably, I now realise].

To see a picture of the house, follow this link.

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