WHEN American military bigwigs arrived in Swindon to prepare for D-Day they were no doubt as happy as clams to learn they would be billeted in nothing less than a genuine, historic mansion that many an English toff had called home for the best part of 500 years.
They had perhaps imagined palatial interiors, a sweeping marble staircase, several grand, comfortable apartments, a welcoming fireplace the size of your average hunting lodge and maybe some of those comfy four-poster beds so beloved by swanky, well-heeled Limeys.
Something to write the folks back home, for sure. It is amusing to imagine their consternation when confronted with the reality.
Angrily surveying the proposed accommodation earmarked for top brass, the commander in charge of troops about to be based at Lydiard Park is reported to have spluttered something along the lines of: “You must be joking – this joint is not fit for human habitation.”
His exasperation and disappointment were understandable. Earlier an indignant Lord Bolingbroke had been turfed out of his ancestral home by the War Department to make way for the Yanks.
But by that time the impoverished peer had been reduced to living in a state of what was politely referred to as “reduced circumstances.”
The family treasures sold, its fortune squandered, he and until her recent death, his mother had survived in a couple of small coal-fire heated rooms to the rear of the rambling mansion, leaving the once sumptuous Lydiard House to further rot around them.
This is how Sarah Finch-Crisp – as Keeper of Lydiard House a few years ago – described to me the parlous state of the once luxurious mansion when the first wave of GIs hit Swindon in the early 1940s: “It was in a ruinous condition. There was dry rot, wet rot, woodworm, death-watch beetle, all manner of structural problems festering away. Water was pouring through big holes in the roof, the ceiling was unstable.
“The Bolingbrokes had hit on such bad times that they never maintained the house or installed electricity, heating or a water supply.”
No wonder US Army chiefs preferred to rough it in their huts. As a military base of canvas and wood sprang up on 80 acres of adjoining parkland, Lydiard House was left to further deteriorate.
With its ornate plasterwork, plush, gilt-wood original furnishings, grand portraits of former lords and ladies of the manor and undeniable air of opulence and history, the same structure today stands as a magnificent testament to those who re-built and re-furnished it.
In all likelihood it is the finest building, secular or otherwise, in the Borough of Swindon. It is certainly Swindon’s biggest council house.
One man in particular, with the vision and nous to recognise its value to Swindon and its people is especially responsible for the salvation and subsequent resurrection of Lydiard House and Park.
Despite the crippling shortage of finances during the war, Swindon’s town clerk David Murray John in 1943 scraped £4,500 from the civic coffers to acquire the derelict property and 147 acres of rundown parkland.
Murray John knew he wasn’t just investing in a ramshackle heap of masonry and overgrown, bramble-infested countryside – he was buying a genuine slice of English history where drama, tragedy and controversy echoed down the centuries.
Lydiard was first recorded in 1086 when the estate was owned by Alfred of Marlborough. For around half a millennium, up until Bolingbroke’s ignoble departure in the 1940s, the lords of the manor were the illustrious, royally-connected St John family.
Margaret Beauchamp, owner of Lydiard in the 15th Century, became the grandmother of the first Tudor King Henry VII, and thus the great grandmother of Henry VIII. Her great, great granddaughter Elizabeth I was regally entertained at Lydiard by lady of the house Lucy St John in 1592.
Tragedy, however, engulfed its elegant halls during the Civil War in the 1640s when Sir John St John, a committed Royalist, despatched his three sons to fight for Charles I.
William died at Cirencester, John at Newark and Edward limped home mortally wounded from Newbury. Sir John, effectively, died with them.
John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, brought shame crashing onto Lydiard House. A notorious rake, he led his pal Charles II “the merry monarch” on many a foray through London’s bawdiest taverns and brothels before succumbing to syphilis at 33.
He was portrayed by Johnny Depp in The Libertine (2005) and a fine portrait of the swaggering debauchee hangs in the house, as does that of fellow family member Barbara Villiers, one of Charles II’s most curvaceous mistresses.
The ageing medieval pile was in 1743 fashionably re-modelled into the classically styled mansion we see today.
Perhaps Lydiard’s most famous – or infamous – resident was Lady Diana Spencer. No, not that one, although they were distant relatives. Princess Diana’s 18th Century namesake was publicly branded “a whore” by Samuel Johnson, the foremost figure of the age.
Her crime? To leave her husband for a dashing young lover with whom she had an illegitimate child. Good on you, girl. Her bad tempered, abusive spouse Frederick St John was not known as Viscount “Bully” Bolingbroke for nothing.
It was inveterate gambler Bully who sparked the demise of the St Johns, creating a culture of flogging off the family heirlooms – from cherished works of art to ornate furnishings – to pay mounting debts.
It was the bookies and the booze that did them in. By the early 20th Century the family was virtually destitute and there was a real possibility of their once splendid home imploding into a cloud of Bath stone dust.
When the Americans hit the beaches of Normandy Lydiard Park became a military hospital, then a prisoner of war camp. It also doubled as a training ground for a local dad’s army battalion to fire their guns.
Sadly, Murray John did not live to see the restoration of Lydiard, dying at 66 in 1974 as the first buds of its rebirth began to sprout.
Over the years millions in grants has been channelled into the meticulous rejuvenation of Lydiard via an army of stonemasons, architects, plasterers and carpenters.
Even Lydiard’s “lost lake,” last seen about 100 years ago before vanishing into a pit of sludge, is back in its watery splendour.
Original furnishings, ancestral portraits and other household objets d’art have been tenaciously tracked down and returned to their rightful place.
Much was bequeathed by Henry St John, last of the beleaguered Bolingbrokes, on his death in 1975. So, should we be alarmed at claims by some local politicians that Swindon council is considering off-loading one of its (our) most prized assets?
A Russian oligarch, perhaps, might fancy himself as the new squire.
Let us hope it is merely the usual bluff and bluster of politicians during the build-up to an election.
Otherwise a Great Swindonian’s legacy will be unforgivably soured and its people left with a gaping hole in their heritage – just like the one in the roof that the Yanks gazed up at in horror all those years ago.
- Lydiard House and Park at Lydiard Tregoze, SN5 3PA is open all year round. For information about admission prices, times and events contact 01793-466664 or visit: www.lydiardpark.org.uk
WILD NIGHT BEFORE INVASION
Before invading France on D-Day on June 6, 1944 some American soldiers invaded Lydiard House on the night of November 3, 1943.
Rampaging through its shadowy interior, they did some damage and carved their names in the roofing and walls, leaving some interesting historical graffiti.
Severely reprimanded by their CO they were also required to attend an extended local church service where further lectures were administered.
Sounds like high spirits to me; understandable in the face of the forthcoming horrors of Omaha Beach.
Every month dances were held at US Camp Lydiard and “a fine collection of girls” were always invited.
On one occasion it was recorded that 30 arrived from the United Dairies in Wootton Bassett while 50 were bussed in from the Great Western Railway works – all foaming with excitement, no doubt, at the prospect of booze, nylons and jiving.