Monday, January 18, 2010

The Haunting Mystery of Lanhydrock

I saw his face in clips on Antiques Roadshow while dressing for school one morning. A shadowed picture, misty with years and a time long since forgotten. He was Tommy Agar Robartes, the 36 year old heir to Lanhydrock, an estate at the zenith of Victorian and Edwardian splendor. The eldest of 10 children, Robartes was popular, athletic, the ultimate hope for future generations. He was an MP for Cornwall, a catalyst for change, for improvements for the working class. When war broke out in 1914, Tommy Agar Robartes enlisted, although he was the titled heir of his family. Men like Robartes with responsibilities of Lordship were, by and large, given desk jobs and remained safe on English soil. This wasn't good enough for Tommy who demanded that he be sent to the frontline with his men. Once there, he was a brilliant strategist who once was so outraged at what he considered a cheap shot attack by the Germans that he had his family send over all of his instruments, taught his men to play well enough to be considered a band and advertised a concert of German music all over the French Valley where both sides sat, day after day in stalemate. He knew the Germans would not be able to resist the music and once the concert had begun and the Germans were singing in the nearby brush, Tommy's men threw aside their instruments and opened fire. Once they'd inflicted the losses they felt they were owed, Robartes posted another concert for the Germans and promised that no further attack would ensue.

He was a favorite of his men one of whom remembered that Captain Robartes was "always extremely kind and gentle. He treated us all as friends. There were many little actions which we appreciated... when he returned from leave he would immediately visit us in billets, or wherever we were, asking kindly after our welfare. Not only that but he never returned empty-handed; a present from the homeland would be issued out to each one of us."
Tommy Agar-Robartes was the beloved son, the golden standard of a world that was turning to mist around them and on September 30th at the Battle of the Loos, Captain Robartes was shot while rescuing a private from certain death. The private, a common man of no rank, survived the war, Tommy Agar Robartes, like thousands and thousands of others was buried in a mass grave in a place that would later be called "the Wasteland". The army sent his preparation kit of toilettries back to his mother who put it away, never to open it. And just like that, Lanhydrock disappeared forever. Only one of the ten Robartes children married and had children and in the 1950s, their empire was over, the house turned over to the National Trust.

Today, if you choose to venture out on the misty Bodmin moors of Cornwall, you will find the house immaculate, ready and waiting for a family who will never come. On the morning I finally made my pilgrimage, it was rainy and haunting... and packed! Every school in the south of England was there to see a REAL Upstairs Downstairs house. But it was still lonely, still wistful, the children's nursery, Tommy's room where his letters were still out, the dirt of his knee pads still intact, his favorite painting of a deer stag still hung as it ever was. The grounds were like a fairies wood, endless and magical. Being at Lanhydrock, one is immediately aware that nearly all English 1920's inspired literature must have been inspired by this last standing relic to that forgotten time. Gosford Park, House at Riverton, Brideshead Revisited, Upstairs Downstairs, Atonement, Remains of the Day... all of them have touched these waters. Moving through the archways, through the roses and the libraries, it is at once everything that we had and everything we lost in the graveyards of our own wastelands.