I dreamt I dwelt in great halls

Country Life Every Week - - My Week -

CRIKEY. I’m 60. Be­cause I spend my evenings singing in mar­quees to mark such mile­stone pas­sages, do­ing the same for my own would have felt like a bus­man’s hol­i­day—i asked, in­stead, for an In­dian take­away with the fam­ily around the kitchen ta­ble.

The Grand Dhur­bar that Kate laid on in the nave of the church I own was rather stretch­ing the brief, but I’m lucky to have a large fam­ily and it did look mag­nif­i­cent. Matthew Rice ar­gued re­cently in this mag­a­zine for the re-sec­u­lar­is­ing of naves (Diary of a church mouse, April 12). Pro­vided that, as here, the chan­cel is re­tained as a sep­a­rately de­fined chapel serv­ing to­day’s smaller con­gre­ga­tions, naves can be use­fully re­turned to their ini­tial con­cep­tion as me­dieval great halls.

Next week, I’m the cabaret at another 60th, in the Balearics—pri­vate jets out of Farn­bor­ough, cater­ing by the is­land’s grand­est ho­tel and a cel­e­brated rock band to dance to. I’m not en­vi­ous. My an­niver­sary was marked by the hang­ing of a stag­ger­ingly beau­ti­ful chan­de­lier from the high ham­mer­beams of my chapel and the paint­ing of a thou­sand golden stars on the indigo ground of its walls. Reckon I win.

And be­ing 60 is hardly any­thing to worry about— Ni­cholas Par­sons, af­ter all, is well over 90 and on crack­ing form he was, too, as we played Just a Minute as part of Ox­ford’s Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val. We feasted in Ke­ble Col­lege’s great hall next to Lady Carey, wife of the re­cent arch­bishop. That of Lam­beth Palace has just had a ter­rific facelift, but it was in the great hall of the Old Palace at Can­ter­bury that I re­called play­ing games of cha­rades with Lady Carey’s pre­de­ces­sor, Mrs Ram­sey, while I was a cho­ris­ter at the cathe­dral there.

Alex Ren­ton’s re­cently pub­lished Stiff Up­per Lip (Book re­view, April 19) takes the cudgel to board­ing-school education and per­haps send­ing an eight year old away is in­de­fen­si­ble nowa­days, but… oh, to be a cho­ris­ter, which is to be­come a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian by the age of 12. To know by os­mo­sis Latin, ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal ar­chi­tec­ture, Plan­ta­genet history, med­i­ta­tion, the po­etry of Donne, the im­por­tance of re­hearsal, Greek sym­bol­ism, Thack­eray, the mean­ing of char­ity and the func­tion of great halls. Put sim­ply, it’s worth the can­dle. It’s ev­er­thing that is civilised.

Maybe it comes across as prig­gish at 12, but at 60, be­lieve me, I’m thor­oughly grate­ful for it. Lib­eral ed­u­ca­tion­al­ists may wring their hands, but this is one baby never to throw out with the bath­wa­ter.

Fin­cham Hall, nearby in Nor­folk, has for too long rot­ted away, unloved. Pevs­ner raves about its early-16th-cen­tury tower, its vaulted and heraldically bossed lobby-room, its bat­tle­ments and Tu­dor brick­work, its listed sta­ble block, its screens pas­sage and the fire­place in its—yes—great hall. Min­utes from the main­line rail­way to Cam­bridge and Lon­don, why has its sale price dropped again, to £600,000?

This is what I think: a supine King’s Lynn Coun­cil is, al­legedly, go­ing to al­low 24-hour din-mak­ing, corn-dry­ing be­he­moths to be built mere yards away from its El­iz­a­bethan door- way (with Ionic pi­lasters). I’m the first to ad­vo­cate that the needs of agri-busi­ness must be served, but, heck, it’s not as though Nor­folk is short of sen­si­ble al­ter­na­tive space.

The coun­cil’s ap­par­ent gut­less­ness can be mea­sured by vis­it­ing Fin­cham’s neigh­bour­ing vil­lage of Stoke Ferry, where a vis­ually hor­ri­fy­ing chick­en­feed mill has, for th­ese 60 years, belched dust, stench, noise, lor­ries and dis­con­tent from its hulk at the very cen­tre of a con­ser­va­tion area, de­stroy­ing the peace of the com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing a me­dieval church in which— you’ve guessed—i write this.

Be­ing 60 is hardly any­thing to worry about– Ni­cholas Par­sons is well over 90’

Would that 2Agri­cul­ture’s Ran­jit Bo­po­ran, lat­est owner of the mill and now of the Bernard Matthews em­pire, might grant my birth­day wish: to sell it off as brown­field land and move the an­ti­quated brute some­where else.

Enough. When I was in Ox­ford, Tim Rice in­structed me on how to deal with cold call­ers. When in­ter­rupted while in the bath, or serv­ing souf­flé, or up a lad­der in your great hall, and asked whether you are the owner-oc­cu­pier, re­ply in a Fenella Field­ing whis­per: ‘Yes I am. What are you wear­ing?’ Re­peat, in­creas­ingly lu­bri­ciously, at ev­ery fol­low-up ques­tion un­til they slam the phone down on you. I’ve tried it and it’s such fun that you’ll wel­come the in­tru­sions.

Kit Hes­keth-har­vey is a so­ci­ety cabaret en­ter­tainer and reg­u­lar broad­caster for the BBC. He lives in Nor­folk

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