Pte BERTIE HIBBETT: Letter to Ida on her Birthday, Mon. 28th Dec. 1914 (on back of letter to Mother Dec 27th.)
My Dear Sister,
Your Christmas Card too was very appropriate and neat as well.
I can’t help feeling sorry that I did not send you a real Birthday Letter, but I will try now.
I went a walk yesterday, Sunday afternoon, and it was just like a Christmas Walk, in spite of the mud and dullness of the weather for I felt peculiarly at Home. I think it was because my thoughts were at that dear old place. Yes the walk will just provide plenty of data for a ‘Better Late than Never’ letter.
I wanted to get my appetite up for tea, so I braced my belt round me and trotted out to see this Park that the landlady wished me to see.
I passed the Alms Houses & espied the misty tower of St Mary the Virgin peeping over the old buildings making the scene very much like York City (1). I walked through the Park, which was not like Walsall Arboretum but more like a deer forest – as a matter of fact great numbers of deer did once inhabit this beautiful place.
On coming out of the Park I came onto a lovely road & could see most superb scenery, tall stately trees rising up in blackness in the distance & the sinking sun. A farm with a few haystacks could clearly be discerned shading off among the misty background. I turned to the right and went down the middle of the even sandy road, a footpath rising above it on the right & a high wall surrounding the park with ivy growing over it.
I walked up to a white limestone bridge, beautifully carved & going up to it I passed the gate of the stately Country Mansion at Audley End.
Just before coming to the gate I heard the Mansion clock bells strike four, giving an introductory chime. The effect was – I can only say that much used word – ‘lovely’. Everything – the scenery, was most Christmassy.
On looking through the gate I saw the old Country House, which was once a palace fit for Kings and Queens, so history tells us. It just reminded me of Irving’s ‘Old Christmas’ (2) to see the stately windows and porches with the spacious lawn in front. The sight looked far better than the postcards depict. I strongly wished that some of the caretakers would favour me by taking me into the place, for I read that there is a grand stately hall, 90ft in length ,with beautifully woven tapestry and pictures of Rembrandt & Holbein & large carved fireplaces.
A. H. Hibbett’s Pen & Ink Copies (6 x 9cm) of ‘Old Christmas’ Illustrations.
Oh! I must not miss The Thing which puts the final touch! Certainly this old Christmassy Mansion has a mysterious tale of tradition.
Over the large entrance gateway, shadowed by tall poplars & weeping willows & the Lodge, but with the moon shining through & casting a ghostly glimmer upon the jutting carved stone work, especially upon a Lion – which is the object of the legend – supposed to be true – there stands, erect, a most exquisite, carved figure of the King of Beasts, with its tail straight out & its eyes peering earnestly towards the river which flows and winds in front of the lawn.
I remembered the old story in connection with this Lion as I looked up at it.
The story goes that when the Mansion bells chime 12 on New Year’s Eve the Lion, in dignified mien, crawls down the carved gate & ambles over the spacious lawn, making a most striking, ghostly appearance; it keeps at the run as though it were ravenously hungry and thirsty after being on watch over the gate during the Old Year.
As soon as the kingly beast reaches the water’s brink it drinks the waters of the river & then peers in the darkness of the middle of the night for any tender deer that may be seeking to quench its thirst. But – as if magic – the lion seems to be persuaded by unseen forces to turn about & return to its watch upon the top of the old stone gate.
There the proud animal must needs stand and watch for another year, no matter how it so longed for a dainty meal.
I could very well imagine the story as the clock struck four.
Perhaps sometimes the unseen forces would allow its august majesty to visit the Mansion – to see if any intruder had cunningly got over the high walls surrounding the grounds & made an attempt to steal the precious treasures in the spacious hall – or perhaps the Lion was allowed to guard the porches when the Lord of the Manor had as guest His Majesty the King and Queen. Well now it has been turned to stone for refusing to return after five minutes’ drink on New Year’s Eve, when it once could not resist the temptation of killing a beautiful white doe that the Lord of the Manor hunted during that same season – – –
After having a good look at the old edifice & the river, on which swam wild ducks and swans, & glancing at the stables belonging to the Manor, I walked back to billets through the pretty village of Audley End & through the farm I mentioned at first. When I opened the door of the billet I saw Syd & the rest all round the fire & cozily seated.
A very becoming end to my afternoon walk – – –
Syd and I will have to write as many letters of thanks as parcels received. Miss May* (3) sent us a box of chocolate caramels and Miss Foster* (4) kindly sent Syd & me a parcel containing a letter for each – & 3 packets of Cadbury’s Mexican Choc. reached us on Sunday morning in time for me to eat a bit on my walk.
Syd and I liked the cake so much that Syd had 3 slices today at teatime & I had two. We cut into it for the first time this teatime, as we saved it to eat on your Birthday today (Mon) – & also because we had shared in with V. Evans’ luxuries the day before. We had some of his bird for dinner today. He had a brace of pheasants sent him.
You can let Mother choose one of the enclosed photos. You may think that I have been attending too much to home & personal matters – but Ida, it only cost me a farthing a photo & the paper came to less than a ¼d for the mounts. A poor present for you I’m sorry, but I will remember you later. Rumours are about that we might come Home soon.
NB A strong rumour has been about & even on the lips of the officers, that we are going to Dunstable or Luton to fire a second course. I do hope we shall not go to the old place No 52 Tavistock St. Luton!
A Happy New Year to all & I hope you have Syd and me with you next Birthday (5).
You affectionate brother,
Bertie’s describes the Audley End landscape as if he intends to make a sketch or painting of it .
(1) Grandparents’ Family Home: Henry & Anne Hibbett. (2) Washington Irving.19th Cent. description of Christmas traditions in Derbyshire & Yorkshire (Illustrated by Chas Penry). (3) Mary Overend*, Walsall nurse who trained with Ida. (4) Bertie’s Godmother, Mary Foster*, lived in Nottingham, his birthplace. (5) See NEXT POST: Christmas Truce 1915.