THE MITFORD SISTERS IN SWINBROOK

The Swan SwinbrookThe Cotswolds, The Mitfords

Archie Orr-Ewing and The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire – ‘Debo’

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire – ‘Debo’ was the last surviving Mitford sister. The family lived and grew up in Swinbrook.

Debo loved her Cotswold childhood and had very deep attachments to this magical Windrush enclave. She still owned The Swan Inn at Swinbrook and The Mill Cottage next door.

In September 2010 whilst attending a book signing at The Swan Inn at Swinbrook for her memoirs ‘Wait For Me’ we had the privilege of conducting an informal interview, with The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire – ‘Debo’ as we knew her – who was the last surviving Mitford sister.

She led such an extraordinary life that we could have talked for hours but we wanted to focus mainly on her deep attachments, fond childhood memories and love of living and growing up in the idyllic Cotswold village of Swinbrook, The Swan Inn and the surrounding area.

The following is a rare opportunity to read the transcript of the original fascinating and indeed witty interview which was also filmed and can be viewed HERE.

Archie

 

Archie Orr-Ewing
Good morning Duchess. We were so happy to be able to welcome you here back to Swinbrook. But I hardly feel I have to welcome you to Swinbrook because it is so much part of your Mitford heritage. It’s great to have you here at The Swan and one of the reasons why you’re here is we have a grand book signing today for your new book which is your memoirs and it’s called ‘Wait For Me’. Would you just like to describe to us what a project this has been for you?

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire – ‘Debo’
Well it has been, but I’ve had some wonderful help because I can’t see very well to read or write and the secretary at home, well she’s a latter day Saint I consider as she can read my writing, but that’s beside the point. This book has been tremendous fun to do because it’s brought back so many memories and there’s a few engagement books and things still going which has been tremendous help. But Asthall followed by Swinbrook had been such a part of my life that I still feel it’s home here so it’s wonderful to come and perhaps see some old friends and and do the signing here Archie, it’s great for me.

Archie
Yes, absolutely. Well I know we have an absolutely full house booked today. Every single table is booked. We’re having to turn people away.

I’m glad the books give you such pleasure to write and it has been a great exercise for you to go back to categorise your life.

Debo
Yes, it was hard to know when to stop, it got longer and longer. But it was great fun to do and I had this wonderful support from home and from Charlotte Mosley who has been the editor for books, for ages, what I’ve been doing and the letters etc etc.

Archie
Now, your Father Lord Redesdale who many people know as Uncle Matthew sounded like one of life’s marvellous characters and I can’t help laughing out loud at his description in ‘The Pursuit Of Love’ and you and him had a great connection didn’t you.

Debo
What with the Chubb Fuddler? Wasn’t it amazing, my sister Nancy was so clever the the way she remembered exactly what had happened. She was 16 years older than me, so she was able to write all that down and did at some point with all the books to do with my father.

Archie
The Chubb Fuddler’s job was to come along and wipe out all the Chubb wasn’t it?

Debo
Yes that was the idea, exactly. He sprinkled magic stuff over the water and up came the Chubb, fuddling, fuddled and gasping for breath poor things, or whatever they gasped for, not exactly breath.

Archie
The other thing that made me laugh, was in Swinbrook Church because you had to go to church once a week didn’t you and you all dragged animals along – goats and guinea pigs.

Debo
Yes we did and he used to take the collection and my penniless aunt, maiden aunt use to put her might in, which was jolly little because she hadn’t got any money and then my Father use to go around to her again and push it right up to her and she use to go like that (slap) to him and say ‘go away, I’ve done it already’. It made us laugh, you can imagine.

Archie
And of course all that kneeling there in front of the pews you couldn’t help as a child but lick the pews.

Debo
Oh licking the pews, I said to Paddy Leigh Fermor (Patrick Leigh Fermor) when he were were in England as a little child, ‘did you lick the pews?’ ‘Yes of course’ he said, but a lot of people were absolutely amazed.

Archie
I definitely licked the pews.

Debo
Did you Archie, oh hooray.

Archie
Because you sat there, kneeling there for so long, it’s the natural instinct wasn’t it.

Debo
I can taste it still.

Archie
I can definitely relate to that. One of the stories I loved was when the Duchess of Marlborough came to visit you at Asthall Leigh. Can you remember the occasion?

Debo
No it was at Swinbrook. Well I certainly can, talk about engraved on memory. We hardly ever had anybody to meals except Uncles and Aunts. I don’t know why they asked the Duchess of Marlborough but they did and she blew her nose on what to us was a completely new invention which was a paper handkerchief and stuck it my dads yew hedge of which he was very proud of – he was furious.

Archie
Yes of course, well she was American wasn’t she, so this new fangled invention had come from America hadn’t it.

Debo
Oh yes I see, I suppose it had, but that was lost on me at that age.

Archie
So he immediately took a dislike to her after that?

Debo
He couldn’t bare her and then she said to him ‘Lord Redesdale have you read Three Weeks?’ which was the great book going around at that moment by Elinor Glyn and he glared at her and he said ‘I haven’t read a book for three years’…and so she retreated after that.

Archie
And of course legend has it your Dad only read one book in his lifetime and that was White Fang.

Debo
That’s true. It was so good he didn’t want to read another, until my Mother thought it was really awful he didn’t know anything, this was when they were very first married so she chose Tess of the d’Urbervilles, so when he got to the sad bits my Father started to cry and my Mother said ‘don’t cry darling it’s only a story’ and my Father was furious and stood up and said ‘what, do you mean to say the damn fellow made it up’.

Archie
There was also that funny story about when, didn’t he go and see Romeo and Juliet. Wasn’t he in tears on the way home?

Debo
Yes floods of tears. ‘That stupid boy, that Romeo’. Then there was that nurse ‘dismal old bitch’ I bet she was an R.C.

Archie
A papist…so of course your Father Lord Redesdale was left Batsford which is a huge pile in Moreton-In-Marsh and after three years of living there he realised he couldn’t afford to keep it up. So he sold that and bought Asthall Manor, because he had some farm land in Swinbrook already. You lived in Asthall Manor for?…

Debo
… for six years from 1919 to 1926.

Archie
Which is famous for lots of things but of course that’s where the Hon’s Cupboard was, that was in Asthall Manor wasn’t it?

Debo
Yes it was and also in Swinbrook it was a linen cupboard – but where ever we lived turned into the Hon’s cupboard.

Archie
Yes, where all sorts of secrets got past. Then Asthall Manor became too expensive to run?

Debo
I think he wanted to move up a hill and not be right down by the river (Windrush) which he actually adored it but I think he found it a bit constricted.

Archie
Yes, So he built from scratch Swinbrook House?

Debo
Yes, it’s actually on the site of an old farmhouse which I supposed was pulled down. But I was too young to take in any of those things and then he built it to his own specifications that’s why there are so many windows in the attics, which are for all of us and nanny.

Archie
Okay, so you all moved into Swinbrook House en famille in about 1926? Okay and that’s really where your early memories of Swinbrook start.

Debo
Yes that’s true, excepting even from there, you know we use to come down here a lot because my Father loved the fishing and we use to come and bring him a picnic and that kind of thing.

Archie
Yes, at that stage how much of the village did your Father own, I mean the farmland around it?

Debo
I think all of it really. I remember the rents were a shilling a week or a month, I can’t remember which.

Archie
So we’re talking most of the cottages in the village, the houses and the farmland surrounding it and gradually as money ran out he had to sell parts of it off until you were left with just The Mill Cottage here next door to the pub. It’s rather amazing to think that your Dad in probably the space of what thirty years went from Batsford House, Asthall Manor, Swinbrook House, Mill Cottage, I mean he did the full circle in what was about thirty years wasn’t it?

Debo
Yes, that’s all and he banged his head on the wall between the sitting room and the kitchen every time he went down those steps and he used to say ‘oh I’ve done it again’.

Archie
Yes, and then of course he escaped it all and moved up to Inch Kenneth didn’t he from here.

Debo
He did, which is an island of the west coast of the Isle of Mull.

Archie
I’ve been there.

Debo
Have you Archie.

Archie
It’s an extraordinary, tiny little island with this one castle like house in the middle of it and you just must be living totally on your own.

Debo
Well yes, but you could live on lobster if you wish, mussels, all those things, but the coal only comes once every two years.

Archie
By boat.

Debo
Yes and it’s shovelled onto shore and you have to look sharp to get it before the tide gets it.

Archie
Very different to life in Swinbrook I should imagine.

Debo
Oh, completely different, but a very fascinating place.

Archie
One thing you have have talked about is how deeply sad you were with what you described as an amputation when you had to leave Swinbrook – can you describe why you were so sad?

Debo
Why was I so sad, because I loved all the people who lived and worked there for my Father and I loved being with him for the shoot and the fishing and all those things but none of my sisters liked any of that.

Archie
So they felt caged and meanwhile you felt at home.

Debo
I felt not only at home but completely free. I was allowed to go hunting alone when I was twelve.

Archie
So Swinbrook was the basis for the deep love and knowledge of the country which has stayed with you for the whole of your life.

Debo
That’s perfectly true, it certainly was. I know exactly where the primroses were, where the other wild flowers were. It’s funny how at a certain age things are absolutely ingrained on your memory, those were the things I loved.

 

 

Archie
And of course your Mother and Father are buried in the churchyard.

Debo
And how many sisters Nancy, Pam, Diana and Unity – four.

Archie
Four sisters, and is Tom buried here as well?.

Debo
No, he was killed in Burma, there was no returning of bodies in those days. There is a very nice memorial to my brother put in by my parents in the pew they sat in.

Archie
Obviously Swinbrook is very much part of your Mitford heritage and of course you’re the youngest of six Mitford sisters and one brother Tom but the other thing that comes out in the book so much is your sisters didn’t like Swinbrook so much in fact they called it ‘Swinebrook’ and just couldn’t wait to get away.

Debo
That’s perfectly true. London was the great thing. But you see you must remember it was 70 years ago and in those days girls were not allowed to have flats on their own unless, well they didn’t have flats on their own, they nearly all worked at home no matter what their profession, but we weren’t trained for anything – any of us, so we were just hoping, the great hope creates hope and somebody would like to marry us and then perhaps, luckily enough some people did.

Archie
So you we’re going to find somebody in Swinbrook, everyone had to go up to London.

Debo
But they were longing for London and for all the things to do with London and the theatres and museums, but two of them were real intellectuals; Nancy and Diana and my sister Pam of course wasn’t, she was more of a farmer and my sister Jessica was a rebel and became a communist but would have been so interesting to know if she and Esmond who sadly was killed, her adored husband would have been turned a little bit less violently read… they might have.

Archie
Yes they might have. But such an extreme bunch, that you all were. But you beneath it all love Swinbrook so much and are always happy to return here.

Debo
Oh I did yes and the hunting, what I adored was the fox hunting, I lived for it, nothing else until I lost my nerve when I was about nineteen, completely, then its no good once you’ve done that you stop.

Archie
Yes and of course your Father loved hunting as well.

Debo
He did but he broke his pelvis, a young horse, reared and fell on him in the stable yard at Ascot and he was never really able to ride again because he couldn’t get his leg over the horse.

Archie
One of the stories that people always talk about and I never know whether it’s true or not is the legendary story of your Father hunting his children with blood hounds.

Debo
Oh yes that’s absolutely true, absolutely true, but sadly I was too young to be hunted, so I never had that experience. But of course it wasn’t like what it sounds like, because the blood hounds were his pets really and they were delighted to see the children when they got there. But people think it was wicked, wicked they felt.

Archie
Very funny, then of course Swinbrook fell out of your Mitford hands because after The Mill Cottage that got sold up eventually, you went off to be married and you no longer had a foothold in Swinbrook as a family and then by some twist of fate years later – would you like to just tell us the story of how the pub and The Mill Cottage came back into your hands.

Debo
That was absolutely incredible. There was a very nice old lady, a spinster lady living in The Mill Cottage and I always use to come and see her every time I came down here because it was so full of memories beside she was so charming and hospitable and all that and became a great friend and one day she said to me I haven’t got any near relations, you’re the person that likes this place best I’m going to leave it to you. Well can you imagine, of course I didn’t believe it and then when she died and up came the will and she had left it to me.

Archie
So she left you The Mill Cottage and the pub, The Swan?

Debo
Not quite, like that – the pub at a very advantageous price, so I did in fact pay for it but peanuts compared to what it was worth.

Archie
Yes and what year was this in?

Debo
I’m afraid when you’re very old you forget years but it was a long time ago because there were several people looking after this pub after that.

Archie
So there again you got a foothold back into Swinbrook which has given you the opportunity to come back here to visit and see your old home which you must love.

Debo
Which I do love beyond anything, I love the wisteria outside and all of the things that remind me of childhood of which there’s so many. There was a fierce landlady called Mrs Bunce who was dressed in black from head to foot except when she was feeding her turkeys before Christmas when she got covered in meal, oh she was frightening.

Archie
And she was quite strict, on Saturday nights she kept the locals in order I hear.

Debo
She certainly did and all of us of course ‘get out of this pub, you’re not meant to be in here’ and all that.

Archie
And of course one of the things you mention is the box hedge outside which must be two hundred years old.

Debo
No box tree, it’s a real tree isn’t it right up to the top. I don’t know how old it is but it was just like that when I was a child.

Archie
The other thing is the ancient settle next door.

Debo
Yes the curved settle and it really belongs in here or that’s where it used to be. It was so good when their was a lot of old pipe smoking men sitting around here, but of course I wasn’t allowed in because children we’re allowed.

Archie
No they weren’t – and of course here we are today at The Swan and it’s so nice to have you here, thank you so much for talking to us.

Debo
Thank you for asking me, but if it wasn’t for you Archie and Nicola it wouldn’t be what it is today.

Archie
Well it’s been a great partnership and thank you very much for giving us the opportunity.

Debo
Thank you.