Monday, 2 June 2008
Port Eliot: a house of secrets and magic, and a very elegant dog...
I've always loved Oriel Malet's description of her visit to Menabilly -- which is why I used it as an epigraph to 'Daphne', and included it in the readings last weekend -- and it seems to me to be evocative of Port Eliot, as well:
"... one of those houses, in which layers of time seemed to have worn thin in places, so that the past now and then showed through. There were rooms in which a lot seemed to have been going on before you entered them, and would probably do so again once you, the intruder, had left... There, even at midday, one sometimes had the distinct impression of being watched. In winter, I always tried to spend as little time as possible getting ready for bed, although the watchers were in no sense malevolent; they were just there."
But there is a difference between Menabilly and Port Eliot, in that the latter feels a more benign place. True, one feels the veil between the living and the dead to be gossamer-fine in Port Eliot, and you cannot walk along its many corridors or staircases without sensing all those who have walked there before. But it is a kindly house; and as its current chatelaine, Catherine St Germans, said to me at the weekend, 'it always seems to offer its help whenever I need it'. Listening to Catherine and her husband, Lord St Germans, talk about Port Eliot, I was reminded of Daphne du Maurier's description of her first encounter with Menabilly:
"... she had a grace and charm that made me hers upon the instant. She was, or so it seemed to me, bathed in a strange mystery. She held a secret -- not one, not two, but many -- that she withheld from most people but would give to one who loved her well.
One family only had lived within her walls. One family who had given her life. They had been born there, they had loved, they had quarreled, they had suffered, they had died. And out of these emotions she had woven a personality for herself, she had become what their thoughts and desires had made her.
And now the story was ended. She lay there in her last sleep..."
But of course, just as Menabilly's story had not ended -- for du Maurier brought her to life again, and it is a house now inhabited by a new generation of the Rashleigh family -- Port Eliot is entirely alive. It welcomes visitors, as well as the family who have always lived there, and remains a home, rather than a airless museum. Thus its current inhabitants include Roo (who you can see in the picture above), a whippet who trots through the rooms and out into the gardens, and down to the estuary, gathering speed, breaking into a run, swifter than the passage of the years...