Friday, 26 February 2021

Mount Stewart Memories

On the White Stag at Mount Stewart


I was a young man living in County Down near Greyabbey.

It was 1964 if I remember correctly, and on occasion I would meet a dark haired lady of middle years dressed as a ‘nanny’ - blue uniform and darker overcoat - and pushing a very smart ‘pram’ which contained a cherubic small boy of about 18 months with fair hair.

We got chatting on one occasion and we walked the long winding footpath together towards Mount Stewart where she explained that her charge was Lady Mairi Bury’s grandson, Charles Villiers.

Nanny Ellis holding Master Charles

Her name was Elizabeth Ellis - a Scottish lady - but I was asked to call her ‘Nanny’ like everyone else.

I was invited to her apartment in Mount Stewart to take tea and biscuits on several occasions, and it was during these visits that I met Charles’ mother, Elizabeth Villiers, and his very well known grandmother, Lady Mairi.

Lady Mairi had a rather disconcerting cool appraising stare, but she must have decided that I was suitable company as I was a welcome visitor, and got to attend a couple of her famous parties.

Billy in the Nursery

I cannot remember now at this remove most of their names, but they were the great and good of society and the arts.

The ladies were very glamorous and dripping with diamonds and the men suitably attired to match their companions.

I thought I might be very out of my depth, but I was very pleased to find them, with a few exceptions, easy to speak to and interesting to listen to.

Michael O’Duffy was a very well known Irish tenor at the time and he entertained the guests accompanied by the wonderful Duncan Morrison from Stornoway on the piano.

Duncan used to play for Rev Sydney MacEwan on many of his recordings.

I met Duncan on several different occasions at Mount Stewart and we exchanged Christmas Cards for several years after.

One character I remember from one of her parties was a gentleman of whom it was whispered had psychic powers, by name Clifford Frost.

I was in deep conversation with someone, I can’t remember who, when he weaved his way over and asked to see my hand.

He took my proffered palm and stared at it, weaving slightly all the while as a result of the bountiful liquid refreshment on offer by our hostess, then dropped it and walked off saying “You’ll get all you want out of life”.

You know, despite the odd knock-back, he wasn’t far wrong.

When Jessie Matthews - dancer, actress, star of stage and screen and latterly on radio as Mrs Dale in Mrs Dale’s Diary, came to open a garden fête for Lady Mairi, I had the pleasure of meeting her, and on giving her a donation for her charity, I was rewarded with a hug and a kiss, and told I was a darling.

I admit to blushing, but walked around on air for the rest of the afternoon.

Billy at the Swimming-pool

There was a well concealed private swimming-pool belonging to the family on the Strangford Lough side of the road which I was kindly offered the use of, and spent many a happy day there in the company of Nanny, Charles the baby and my dog Kim and sometimes just on my own.

On one of these solitary visits I daringly removed my swimming togs and for the first time swam in the nude.

Billy & Charles at the Swimming-pool in 1965

I found it to be a wonderful experience - no clinging togs and a great feeling of being at one with nature.

On many warm summer days we walked around the beautiful gardens enjoying the flowers and shrubs, the statues, and little concealed nooks and crannies - little worlds within the larger one.

The well known composer and pianist from Stornoway, Duncan Morrison (above), in green velvet Scottish evening attire, with his sister Bella Morrison in a black dress (with a rather curious third figure present, seemingly in fancy dress with a black fur hat and a blacked face - maybe having been cast as "the Black Man" who had brought in a New Year?).

Wonderful days with lasting memories for me, and I bless the day I struck up a conversation with Nanny Ellis, who continued to be a friend for many years after she had left the employ of the family.

The memories all come back when I occasionally return to Mount Stewart as one of the many visitors, and one of the few who remember this historic house as a wonderful family home.

First published in February, 2019.

1 comment :

Handelian said...

Nice looking lad. Seems very civil. I can see why Lady Mairi took a shine to him.