Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be

Horwood HouseWhen I graduated from University, and got a job (eventually!), big corporations weren’t as “lean” as they are today. It’s the fashion in business these days to “outsource” your “non-core” activities, such as training, or catering, or even pay and administration.

But in those days, it wasn’t uncommon for a big company to own and run its own residential training college. The one I was sent to was Horwood House, in the countryside near Milton Keynes.

It had been owned by British Rail and used as their college until being bought by BT. The railway heritage amounted to a short piece of track in the bar. It was very, very heavy. The house had originally been built in the early 20th century for Irish sausage millionaires the Dennys.

There was an accommodation annex in the grounds, but I was lucky enough to get one of the bedrooms in the main house. I loved it. I had always imagined being lord of the manor, and being a poor boy from North Belfast, this was probably as close as I was ever going to get. I remember getting up in the mornings and looking out from the mullioned windows at the close-cropped lawns, with peacocks strutting. One evening, watching a few of the chaps playing croquet while we were having a glass of wine on the terrace, a fleet of hot-air balloons drifted across the face of the setting sun. It was idyllic.

I mentioned the bar. There wasn’t much to do in the evenings, apart from walk the mile to the village pub. Then walk home and eat the fresh sandwiches so thoughtfully provided by the college staff. And have a few more drinks. And possibly a few more. There was no closing time.

I remember that for one course, the bar’s manager had acquired a stock of a Belgian beer, la Bière du Diable, which was “quite strong” at 13% alcohol, and came in half-litre bottles. Many hangovers ensued. (I’ve done a web search and the current beer of that name is only 5 or 6%.)

One night, as I was going up to bed, pulling myself up the stairs by the handrail, I noticed a steep set of steps. Well, I’d seen them before, and always wondered where they went. It was on the top floor, and there was a closed trapdoor at the top, so I assumed that it must be the attic.

In my drunken state, it seemed like a fine adventure to go poking around the attic of a country house at three in the morning, so I climbed up the steps, pushed open the trap door and went up to the top. It wasn’t the attic. It was the roof.

There was no guard rail or anything; just a little platform high up among the faux-elizabethan chimneys, with the slated roof sloping steeply down. I stood there for a minute or two, swaying gently in the cool breeze. One step more and I’d have ended up in a broken heap in the courtyard, but in my beatific state of mind I felt no danger.

I returned precariously down the steps and went to bed, convinced that Jeeves would come to wake me up in the morning.

When I had started work with BT, they had a policy of sending graduate recruits “into the field” for two 4-week periods to learn where the company really made its money, and each spell was preceded by a one-week course at Horwood House.

At Horwood we were given the list of available postings to choose from. I picked the East Anglia telephone area, which was within the Eastern Region. I can’t remember why. I think I just liked the sound of spending a few weeks in a part of England I’d vaguely heard of. And I’d read Arthur Ransome’s Coot Club as a child.

There was no Internet access at the college. Well, OK, the Internet hadn’t been invented yet. So I was faced with the problem of choosing a hotel in Norwich, on the basis of very scant information. I found the number for one called “The Station Hotel” and booked it on the basis that I’d be arriving at the station and therefore it would be easy to find.

In between the week at Horwood and the four weeks in Norwich, I had another one-week course at the Eastern Region’s head office in Colchester. The recruits who were to visit any of the Areas within that Region were sent there, and our hotels were booked for us. I had the double good luck to be put into a beautiful medieval inn right on the river, and to have a classmate — a beautiful physics graduate — also assigned there. The girl was married, but she was nice company. We went for walks along the river and had dinner together and so on.

Then, at the end of the week, I got on the train to Norwich. Confident of finding the Station Hotel near the station, I walked straight out the front door. And sure enough, about a hundred metres away, I saw the sign of the hotel: adjacent to the Yacht Station. Hence the name. I’d been lucky it was also near the train station.

Norwich was a pleasant, easy-going city. I quickly discovered that the correct pronunciation in the local dialect is “Naaarch”, and that the part of the company I was visiting had such a reputation for bucolic independence that people in the other Areas called it the “Norwich Telephone Company”.

By luck, both my stints there, a year apart, were in high Summer. (It was back in the days when we had Summers.) I did a lot of fun things, like learning to climb poles and going out in the van fixing customers’ telephones. My favourite day was out with a crew on a disused airfield, searching fruitlessly for an old cable that had been damaged at the other end by an excavator. The only information we had was a map headed “Air Ministry. 1929”

ExploitedOn my second visit, I chose a pleasant B&B instead of the hotel. The girls brought you tea or coffee in bed first thing in the mornings. There were some long-term residents: old ladies in print dresses and blue rinses – terribly genteel. Therefore it was a bit incongruous for top punk band The Exploited to choose it for their accommodation on their tour.

But it was beautifully surreal. The old ladies were tickled pink by the lads’ amazing mohican haircuts and bondage clothes; and the band were very well-behaved, chatting politely to them while eating tiny sandwiches and drinking tea with the little finger extended.

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