It could only happen in Britain. After buying a vintage headlamp on Ebay, I was issued with detailed instructions – from a somewhat clandestine third-party – on exactly how to retrieve it:
“Drive down St Pier’s Lane, past Lingfield Notre Dame, turn right on Racecourse, past Notre Dame Junior, then, just after Eden Brook, turn right on Station Road. Continue for about a quarter of a mile until you reach a left-hand bend – it’s the one with a large copper beech. You’ll see some black iron gates on the left-hand side. If you drive past Lingfield Station you’ve gone too far. He’ll leave the gates open for you; just park in front of the house.”
Of course, it would help if British houses had numbers, but that would be a bit naff, especially in the leafy lawyer-belt of Surrey where such things are frowned upon. As it turned out, my destination didn’t need one.
The ancient iron gates were something of a local landmark and impossible to miss, even at speed on a blind corner with one eye on a cryptic mud-map. They were generously proportioned with handsome features, intense pot-belly black in colour, and exceedingly well-hung. They were also reinforced with a muscular stone gatehouse that was big enough for an average family of four, or 16 if it was located in Bradford………….
The gates were open as promised, but the crunchy gravel driveway alerted an ageing gardener to my arrival. He nodded politely as I drove past and then he went back to manicuring his bright green lawn. I continued along the sweeping driveway, past beds of scented roses and finely sculptured shrubs, to the house itself which unfolded like a pop-up picture framed by ancient yew trees. And it was big, really big.
The old colonial may be a bit rough around the edges, but he scrubs up pretty well when required and he’s definitely not rattled by nobility. A clean shirt certainly helped, but the old diesel wagon was a bit of a handicap and it was one of those occasions where a stately carriage and a fleet of prancing white chargers would have come in handy.
I parked the handicap as instructed and waited for a doorman or butler, but no-one appeared. Still, times are tough and affordable serfs are in short supply these days. The front door would have consumed the best part of a mature oak tree, but it was dwarfed by an impressive stone facade complete with a coat of arms. The cast-iron knocker was similarly proportioned and operation required some effort. The heavy metal ring delivered a satisfying and resounding knock that echoed throughout the empty courtyard. A well-dressed man soon appeared and he studied the wind-blown offering on his door step with some suspicion.
“G’day” I said. “I’m here to collect the lamp.
His guard fell away like a wet blanket and a generous smile took its place.
“Lord Lingfield” he declared wringing my hand with considerable vigour. “Delighted to meet you; do come in.”
The good Lord led me through a richly panelled hallway to an expansive kitchen with a commanding view of the beautifully sculptured gardens.
“Tea?” he asked reaching for an oversized aluminium kettle that had obviously served a military campaign in its previous life. The poor man was clearly bereft of domestic staff.
“Bonza.” I said. ‘’Cow juice and no sugar thanks.”
From my experience, old-school aristocrats are unreservedly hospitable and impeccably mannered. Lord Lingfield was no exception and we spent the next hour chatting about vintage cars, life in Australia, the trials of maintaining old houses, and historic sailing ships – his consuming passion. To be truthful, I usually avoid any discussion of bobbing boats because they always make me sick, but I was fascinated to learn that the good Lord was a direct descendant of Sir John Balchen – an Admiral in the British Navy and commander of the first HMS Victory in 1744; impressive lineage indeed. Unfortunately, the heavily laden warship sank in a violent storm near the Channel Islands and Sir John went down with over 1000 men. But there was an Australian connection in the form of a beautifully crafted scale model in a large glass case. It was made downunder from red cedar and it sat proudly in the centre of an appropriately sized antique dining table.
We finally got around to the Ebay lamp after a towering grandfather clock struck for the second time. When I asked where the lamp came from the Lord confessed to selling off his fleet of cars. It was originally fitted to a vintage Rolls-Royce, but there was only one left now and it rarely saw the light of day. Pity.
I wasn’t allowed to depart without being presented with a copy of Oceans Odyssey – a beautifully illustrated book detailing deep-sea shipwrecks with a section dedicated to HMS Victory. If one good turn deserves another that was surely worth a dinkum Aussie calendar. Fortunately, the old colonial always carries a selection in his baggage and a glossy example showcasing Aboriginal art was forwarded the very next day. I expected nothing more, but when I returned to Brisbane two months later I received an official envelope from the House of Lords containing a beautifully scripted thank-you card from the good Lord himself.
“Dear David. How very kind of you to send a calendar which is on the wall in my office! Warm regards, Bob”
Sometimes, good old-fashioned courtesy goes a long way……
© David Fryer, the Blight in Blighty, September 2013. (925-words)