Author: Philippa Cochrane

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Monday, September 29th, 2008 at 3:09 pm
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Gosford

I was supposed to be racing that day, at Scotland’s national championships.  Rowing had been the biggest part of my life for the last six years.  But, the day before, I had finally had to concede that my knees didn’t work any more, having been lifted out of the boat after my last race and suddenly I had nothing to do.

Instead, we had a family outing.  Mum, Dad, me and the dog.  The kind of outing we were always going on when I was a kid, visiting a stately home to troop round and admire.  This time we went to Gosford House.  You can just snatch a glimpse of it on the road between Longniddry and Aberlady, through the screen of wind-sculpted trees.

The house is vast, sprawling across its coastal gardens.  All I had ever seen before was the same flash of roof and window every time we drove to the beach which had left me guessing about the place for years.

Seen in full, Gosford is intimidating.  My father parked the car and shook out his newspaper, creasing it around the crossword.  The dog, who by this point was elderly and not very well, harrumphed in the boot and settled himself in for a snooze and Mum and I made our way up the steps and paid our fee to walk around someone else’s home and nosey at their treasures.

To be honest, I always enjoyed these outings more than I would ever have admitted to my friends at the time – not a cool way for a teenager to spend time – but I always loved libraries of dark wood, and big leather chairs, houses that were dark with spiral staircases and hidden nooks.  Gosford wasn’t like that.

The public were allowed into one wing which was mostly filled with a huge alabaster staircase and more pictures than I had ever seen outside the galleries on the Mound. It was light, soaring and impressive, and not the kind of place that hooked a bookish teenager who was feeling somewhat sorry for herself.  Mum and I were the only people there that afternoon, apart from the lone tour guide, resplendent in a navy uniform with a peaked cap – he looked a bit like a bus conductor.  He greeted us enthusiastically as we wandered round, told us all about the paintings, and then having led us back to the broad landing at the top of the huge staircase, he looked over his shoulder and did an extraordinary thing.  There was a door directly facing the top of the stairs.  It was obvious that the public weren’t supposed to notice it, let alone open it.  And yet the tour guide, having checked that the coast was clear, opened the door and steered us through.

It was obvious why no-one came through that door.  It was also obvious that the house was much, much bigger than we had realised.  We were stood at one of a long corridor.  The walls and ceiling were completely bare, right back to the exposed brick.  The floor was dusty with disrepair.  Although the corridor was reasonably broad, the bit we stood in was narrowed, with yet more paintings stacked, backs out, against the wall.

Our amiable guide explained.  We were now in the original Adam designed part of the house, the bit which hadn’t been torn down by one of the Earls.  It was however the bit that had been burnt out at the end of World War II.  Gosford had been requisitioned by the army and had been used as officers’ barracks.  The night that they left, the officers had had a party, and at some time during the night, the building had caught  fire.  Here was my dark, nook filled house.  Suddenly I was fascinated.  It was somehow like standing inside the skeleton of a long dead dinosaur, marvelling at the awesome creature it had once been – it left me feeling small, a little sad and yet bewitched at the same time.

Our guide showed us around, his incongruous hat bouncing on his head as he became more and more animated with his enthusiasm for this ruined mansion.  We emerged, covered in grime and brick dust into a summer afternoon, got back in the car and drove home.

The dog died that afternoon.  His name was Sam and he had been part of our family since I was six years old.  We spent the evening crying over our dead pet, arguing over what was to be done with his body and watching a film about the second world war and fighter pilots struggling to coax their planes home and faithful dogs waiting for them. It is all fixed in my mind as the day that marked the start of adulthood somehow, although I could never really explain why.

I have been back to Gosford on a few occasions since then and have always had a slightly weird, slightly unsettling, oddly magical experience – although it has been for very different reasons every time.  But the image of an elderly tour guide in a peaked cap who understood that the ruin had more life in it than the perfectly preserved treasures we were supposed to see is the one that will always stay with me.

Philippa’s story is just one of those submitted under the Days Like This project.

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