A HAWARDEN grandmother went back to her ‘Downton Abbey’ style childhood at a stately manor house after she responded to a history appeal from its new owners.
Eve Taylor, 72, was invited by new Soughton Hall Hotel owner James Ramsbottom to a private tea at the former Bishop’s Palace which was revamped in the 1800s by the famous Sir Charles Barry whose iconic work includes the Houses of Parliament and Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey fame.
Eve saw an appeal by James in the local press for people to come forward with memories, photos and artefacts which will help him to preserve and share the story of the great hall near Northop in Flintshire which was built in 1714 by Edward Conway.
Eve’s ancestors have a long history of serving the Bankes family who took over the striking Grade II* listed building in 1815 and continued to live in it with a team of servants until it was sold and turned into a hotel in the 1980s.
It all started with Eve’s great grandfather, John William Brookes, of Shropshire who arrived at Soughton Hall from a nearby Nannerch estate in 1901 when he took up the role of gamekeeper.
Eve said: “He later became the gardener when he retired and I am told he had the gardens always looking immaculate, that’s what people remembered, and he also looked after the kitchen garden too which served the Hall with fresh produce.
“When he became too old to carry on with his duties at Soughton Hall, he moved in with one of his younger sons who was the gamekeeper to Mr Bevan at Halkyn Castle.
“This is when my grandfather, his eldest son, Thomas Llewelyn Brookes, came from the Mostyn estate, to take over as gamekeeper.”
Eve’s mother Aida Mary Brookes, known as Molly, carried on the family tradition and became a maid at Soughton Hall and the family, including her father Eric Bebbington, lived in a flat above the Stables restaurant long before it was an eaterie and when there were carriages still in the garages.
Eve, who has a daughter and two granddaughters, said: “We had the flat above the stables and Mr Gaimer the chauffeur had the room at the end. I was three or four when we first came to live there in 1948 and I remember going from Soughton Hall to school and back every day. I also remember the big Austin car they had which had the registration FDM 852.
“There were still horse carriages in the garages when I was there as a child. They weren’t used and I remember looking at them and thinking they looked quite forlorn and a bit ghostly.
“I was very close to my grandparents. They were lovely people and I loved living there. It was idyllic. I was known as my grandfather’s shadow because I was always following him round the place.”
Eve was frequently invited to play with the young members of the Bankes family and struck up a strong friendship with Nicholas and Frances who were the grandchildren of Wynne and Elizabeth Bankes and the children of their youngest son David. Elizabeth, known to her family as ‘Te Te’ was the last member of the Bankes family to live at Soughton Hall before it was sold as a hotel.
“Te Te would invite me for tea with Nicholas and Frances. We would have green tea, cucumber sandwiches and caraway seed cake. The difficulty was that although I had received a formal invitation from the lady of the house, it was very much frowned upon by my mother and the housekeeper Miss Williams for me to sit there and have tea with them and I often ended up with a scolding so I soon learnt to make excuses not to go.
“But it was a wonderful place to spend your childhood. I was living on a landed owner’s estate, everybody knew each other, so it seemed like you were all part of this family somehow.
“I am a huge fan of Downton Abbey and watching it really did bring back many memories for me of my life at Soughton Hall. I remember the bells along the passageway at the back of the house, which are still there. They were always ringing and there was a Butler there too at one time but I don’t remember him too well because I was only young and he was quite a stern-type character. You didn’t talk to him.
“There was more scrubbing of floors went on at Soughton than you saw in Downton Abbey though. There always seemed to be someone on hands and knees cleaning the floor. The wood staircase at the back of the house, leading up to the second floor was always done by hand.
“The Bankes family were kind people and are well known throughout the area for their philanthropy. When I was a little baby, I fell very ill with pneumonia and I believe it was Sir John, Wynne’s father, who paid for the tablets I needed to get better. They had to be shipped over from America. I suppose my grandfather must have told him about it because I wasn’t living there then.”
James Ramsbottom is Managing Director of Elle R Leisure which took over Soughton Hall earlier this year and has already spent £150,000 refurbishing the great hall.
The company is well known for its successful Dukes 92 and Albert’s restaurants in Manchester and also owns a luxury Leeds boutique hotel specialising in weddings called Woodlands, which was built in 1871 for a local textile mill owner.
James said: “It has been a pleasure to hear from people like Eve who have responded to our appeal and are sharing their own personal memories and information about the story of this great house.
“One of my main aims over the coming months is to inject more of the history back into the Hall so we can share it with the many people who visit. It’s important to me and all the team here that the fantastic tales wrapped up in the fabric of the building are preserved for the future.
“When you take on a beautiful and unique building such as Soughton Hall, you feel a responsibility to not only preserve it as a building but also as a treasure within the community.
“It is people like Eve who will be able to help us shed light on all the great life which the hall has seen and ensure they are there for people to enjoy learning about for many more hundreds of years to come.”
Eve’s connection with Soughton Hall didn’t end with her childhood. At the beginning of her married life, from 1971 to 73, she returned with her first husband Rodney Smith who was a carpenter. The couple were given free accommodation back at the Stables flat where she had lived as a child in return for Eve cooking for the Bankes family every weekend from Friday night through to Sunday lunch.
Eve, who enjoyed a 20-year career herself in the hospitality and catering industry including running her own private catering business, said: “I used to cook them things like spaghetti Bolognese, egg custards, loins of lamb and things like that. They often had guests and Mr Wynne Bankes would tell them how good my Welsh rarebit was!”
She has kept many mementoes of her time spent at Soughton Hall including photos, a postcard of the Hall given to all the staff by the Bankes family one Christmas and a delicate cup and saucer which was given to Eve’s grandmother by ‘Te Te’ as an apology.
Eve said: “My grandmother plucked peasants for them long into her 80s and one day ‘Te Te’ arrived with several birds ready for my Grandma to pluck, flinging them down onto the kitchen table. Their heads rolled round and sent some of my Grandmother’s china flying where is smashed onto the ground.
“’Te Te’ returned later with some fine china of her own which my grandmother never used and I still have one of the cups and saucers to this day. It’s in immaculate condition and very pretty. My grandmother can never have used it and I remember it tucked away in a little cabinet.”
For more information about Soughton Hall Hotel, go to www.soughtonhallhotel.co.uk