The post that follows is based on the memories of Jenny and her husband, Tony, as they cast their minds back three decades and more to a past when village life was not quite the same as it is now.
Jenny married Tony Fell in 1966 in her home town of Coventry, honeymooned in the Scillies, and then settled in the village of Hellidon in Northants with its population of around 140 and fifty or so houses. They had two children. In 1974, Jenny determined to take on the role of village postmistress when the matter of the vacancy was raised at a parish council meeting. By the time of the millennium in 2000 she had researched, written and published ‘Three Ells in Hellidon’, a rather fine history of the village. Today, in 2017, she and Tony are members of that small group – half a dozen or so - who have been resident in Hellidon for around half a century. There is not much that escapes the eyes or the ears of a key villager such as the postmistress. Jenny and Tony remember Jago very well.
|The English Village - Jago Stone (1986)|
Jenny’s story begins with the man who in the late 1970s became the licensee of the only surviving public house in Hellidon. His name? Rowland Thomas, the village squire whom Mark, my anonymous source, first met in 1974. Rowland was the only child of wealthy parents who had bought Hellidon’s Leam Farm and its estate in 1948, having lived there as tenants since the early 1930s. Rowland’s parents had had a commitment to Hellidon. Their son was born in the village in 1936. When Rowland married, his
parents had a small house built for themselves on the estate and moved in, leaving the main Georgian house for their son and his new bride to occupy. Their marriage produced two daughters but ended – as the swinging sixties melded into the seventies – in divorce.
Rowland was, as Jenny says, ’a bit of a rebel’. ‘A one-off, certainly’. No one, however, could doubt his generous nature. By the 1970s, new pond areas had been blasted and created on the estate. There, villagers could fish for trout. A tennis court was built, also with access for locals. Most summer evenings the lawn was laid out for croquet. All who were interested were invited to play. Rowland had charisma as well as money and played the flamboyant country squire with aplomb. The story of Rowland at the wheel of a plough, clad in a velvet jacket, will have had its origin in truth.
The scene is set in Jenny’s account for the entrance, stage left, of the artist, jester, and general master of ceremonies at the court of Rowland - Mr Jago Stone.
|Detail from The English Village - Jago Stone (1986)|
Rowland Thomas and Jago Stone were two of a kind. They were both rebels, thriving on being different and non-conforming. They shared a sense of mischief. Both were hedonists making the most of the sexual licence that each man lay claim to in their social circle. The two of them cooked up a cunning wheeze – a summer art school, no less. Rowland owned one other cottage in the village having previously sold a row of Hellidon cottages to a builder for development. This single cottage was to provide the accommodation for those attending the art school. Jago by now was resident at Leam Farm.
Cue the village gossip that puts the seamy and sexual gloss on the word all my sources use to characterise the artist and the squire: ‘flamboyant’. Jago was flamboyant. Rowland was flamboyant. The social life of the court-circle was flamboyant. The gossip, as reported, takes us into a mythic world where Jago was ‘brushing up his technique’, the art school becomes an excuse ‘for a bit on the side’, and Jago’s reputation as a hedonistic artist flourished. A man whose paintings could be ‘paid for in the bedroom’. Could but not necessarily. The art-school experiment was short-lived, possibly only one or two summer-times.
Jago talked in his 1983 Sunday Express interview with Denis Pitts about his rejection of the London art world. ‘I belong in the villages’, he claimed. ‘That’s where I’m going to spend the rest of my life and do you blame me?’ Jago gave that Sunday Express interview, five years before he died, sitting on a bar-stool in a public house called ‘Up the Garden Path’ in the Wiltshire village of Manton, near Marlborough. The pub is now closed and converted into half-a-million pounds of private residential property. Times change. But Jago always knew where he felt most at home. His love-affair with the English village outlasted any other. And the English village inn was a key part of this mythic world.
|Detail from The English Village - Jago Stone (1986)|
Ever since the Napoleonic Wars ended with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, there had been two inns in Hellidon. One – the Barley Mow – was shut in the early 1970s; the other – the Red Lion - remained. Much to the concern of his accountant, Rowland bought the Red Lion from Hunt Edmunds Brewery of Banbury in the late 1970s. For at least seven years, up till its sale by auction in the summer of 1986, Rowland ran it at a loss as a free house. He not only rescued the pub but also converted an attached barn into a well-appointed dining and function room. Rowland’s acquisition added another location to his inventory of residences for playing out his role as village squire. He rarely set foot behind the bar – he left that to a list of volunteers – but Rowland presided, surrounded by friends. Jago, of course, was one those volunteers.
For Rowland, financial realities determined that he closed the doors on his village inn idyll in 1986, a decade before he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone disease aged 60. He died two years later in 1998. Motor Neurone disease is degenerative and after his initial diagnosis he went once more to his Swiss ski resort, Kitzbuhel, where some years previously he had been given the ‘Freedom of the Town’. By the end of the illness, paralysed in body but still with his sense of hearing, he could communicate meaning only through a blink of an eye.
For Jago, the final last orders call in the Red Lion came just two years before his own death in 1988. I suspect that he too shared with Rowland the constrained grace of sensing he was terminally ill for a year or two before the end. Rowland went back to his beloved Switzerland. Jago fell in love again and this time found peace.
---------------To be continued next week ...