a strange journey

I had an invitation to attend a conference at Ditchley, a Georgian mansion in Oxfordshire, early last December. On my way to Dulles Airport, I learned that my father was in some danger; a cancer that we thought had been removed might have spread to his lungs. But the lab results were not expected for several days, my trip was short, and I decided to proceed. I arrived at Heathrow early the next morning, worried but not in panic.

The journey from the airport to Oxfordshire was familiar; I had taken the same early-morning ride every time I arrived for terms of graduate school at Oxford. That morning, the views from the van were exceptionally beautiful: the landscape miraculously green compared to Maryland in late fall, and perfectly trimmed and manicured. Some of the villages northwest of Oxford–clusters of limestone buildings behind ancient walls–are so picturesque that they have been purchased by international billionaires as vacation homes. One that we drove through apparently belongs to a Saudi prince.

And then there was Ditchley. Some sentences from Brideshead Revisited just happen to describe it, down to the details: “We came to our destination: wrought-iron gates and twin, classical lodges on a village green, an avenue, more gates, open parkland, a turn in the drive; and suddenly a new and secret landscape opened up before us. … The woods were all of oak and beech, the oak grey and bare, the beech faintly dusted with green … ; they made a simple, carefully designed pattern with the green glades and the wide-open green spaces … and, lest the eye wander aimlessly, a Doric temple stood by the water’s edge, and an ivy-grown arch spanned the lowest of the connecting weirs.”

The house itself (the real Ditchley, not the imaginary Brideshead) was a great stone rectangle, its stern lines broken by cheerful statuary on the roof and curved symmetrical glass passageways leading to the wings. We sat, still dressed in clothes worn overnight, in a Louis Quinze “saloon” beneath an elaborate ceiling of plaster and fresco. There were antlers on the walls among the stucco pilasters and a misty view of the folly through the grand French doors.

It was hard to communicate with the States: no cell phone coverage and only two cranky computers in the basement. But news of my Dad was beginning to trickle in and it was looking very worrisome. Still, there didn’t seem to be anything to do but participate in the reception, the first “debate” (as the English call a plenary discussion), and a fine dinner.

The next morning, there was still no definitive information from home. After the morning sessions, I went along for a visit to Broughton Castle in the afternoon. Broughton was four centuries older than Ditchley. Apparently, Henry James called it “perfection, what with moat, gatehouse, church, and gorgeous orange and buff stone.” We drove over the moat and into the front court to park beneath the gothic windows of the great hall. The door was opened by none other than Lord Say and Sele, resident of the house, as all his ancestors have been since 1306. He and Lady Say and Sele collected small admissions charges from each of us and then took us on a tour of their home. (Broughton has a castle blog, by the way.)

They were a completely charming elderly couple, unpretentious, humorous, and apparently interested in the opinions and backgrounds of their visitors. Lord Say and Sele took particular delight in the fake stones and synthetic carpeting that Hollywood film crews had left behind after using his house as a set. The moat, he told us, had no military purpose; it was just one of those things you had to have (in the fourteenth century) to impress your neighbors. One fireplace upstairs was carved by the same continental artisans who decorated Henry VIII’s palace of Nonesuch, which later burned to the ground. Thus the Broughton fireplace is one of a tiny number of truly sophisticated Mannerist works that survive in England, where it looks two centuries ahead of its time. The kitchen, built in the middle ages beneath Gothic arches, is still the best place to prepare food, so now it has a refrigerator with art by grandchildren, hanging cabinets, and a range.

Not long after we had returned to Ditchley, I spoke to my mother and learned that my father’s cancer was aggressive and untreatable. He had only a short time to live. I made arrangements for an early return but could not get out of Oxfordshire until the next day at the earliest. So there was nothing to do but attend another reception and then the formal dinner. It was a black-tie affair, although I had forgotten to pack mine. We spoke of the differences between US and British social policy. A countess sat opposite me and a retired British Army officer to my right.

I like to think I am blasé about stately homes. Not only did I grow up partly in England, but my father was an authority on some aspects of English historical culture. He wrote, for instance, a whole book about neoclassicism; and Ditchley is a neoclassical house. I was not to the manner born, but I was to many manors dragged from a tender age, and I know a thing or two about places like Ditchley–even a bit about its architect, James Gibbs. But it was hard not to be impressed by the candle-lit dinner scene.

Not too many hours later, I was sitting with my father in his hospital room, showing him brochures of Broughton that he managed to enjoy. He was being quite amazingly brave. Less than two months later, he was dead.

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