It’s not everybody who can say their drunken grandfather led a horse up the stairs of a respectable hotel, before mounting it bareback and jumping over a large dining table. Colonel Michael Bell can. The story of his grandfather James Allgood – pictured on these pages – is one of many he happily recounts from his 16th century home at Staward Manor.
IT was, according to the Illustrated London News, an “extraordinary and daring feat of horsemanship.” The soon-to-be Right Reverend James Allgood had managed to persuade a grey horse up the stairs of the White Hart Hotel in Aylesbury, mount it bareback and jump over the heavily laden table.
“Champagne glasses rattled, plates quivered and candlesticks shook but nothing was displaced,” reported the newspaper in 1850. “Drunk on champagne and the bravado of youth,” James had the forethought to persuade the reporter to use the pseudonym of Captain Barlowe in the article – he was heading for the church and didn’t want his disgraceful behaviour to put a stop to his future career.
But, for many readers, it was very clear who had led the grey mare clattering up the old, oak staircase; the landlord’s strong objections falling on deaf ears.
The story still makes Colonel Michael Bell chuckle. For the undoubtedly charismatic, thrill-seeking James Allgood was his grandfather and the story part of family legend. A framed copy of the article hangs pride of place in Col Bell’s dining room at Staward Manor, Langley-on-Tyne.
“Remarkably, James made it into the church, against all the odds,” said Col Bell. “He was rector at Ingram where he filled the church every Sunday. I don’t know how holy he was but he was certainly popular! His parishioners hung on his every word – or so I am told.
“Sadly, he died before I was born but I have heard so much about him. Apparently the real problem on that infamous day at the White Hart was getting the gallant grey back down the stairs which had been polished and were very slippy. They had to blindfold the poor horse to get it out in the end.
“The tabloids would have a field day today with such a story. Imagine – local aristocrat in drunken scandal at local pub! But back then his stunt was celebrated as a daring feat of bravery. The gentry could do no wrong in those days!”
Col Bell, who turned 101 this summer, moved to Staward Manor in 1954 with his wife Pat and sons Timothy and Patrick. “I was away with the army in Egypt at the time so it was all left to Pat,” said Col Bell. “She did a marvellous job making this old house a family home. And there was quite a bit to do. Burst pipes had flooded the house and we had to lay a new water main to bring the fresh water off the fell. We have lovely water here.
“There was electricity, but the toilet facilities were very basic and needed updating. There was, however, a fully equipped bar in the sitting room. Clearly, the previous residents had their priorities sorted.”
“I am extremely proud to report that I caught a salmon soon after my 100th birthday. I had it smoked and ate it for supper. It was delicious.”
The family initially rented the house from Sir Percy Loraine who had inherited it from the Bacon family. George Bacon bought the house for the princely sum of £450 on April 26, 1664, and, almost immediately, began work to transform it into a comfortable family home.
Staward Manor was once two bastle houses, set end to end and thought to date from the late 16th century. Indeed there are still signs of an old staircase and door, two feet off the ground.
Bacon converted the two dwellings into one home in 1668. The date and Bacon’s initials are commemorated in stone on the front of the house. The house was further enlarged in the second quarter of the 18th century by the addition of the north west wing which was followed by major remodelling in 1830s when the main block was virtually rebuilt and extended to the east. Only the thick north wall of the original eastern bastle survives.
Steeped in history, legend has it that the Earl of Derwentwater hid in the cellar at Staward Manor, during the first Jacobite uprising in 1715, after a writ had been issued for his arrest as a suspect in the rebellion.
The Bacons leased lead mines owned by the earl so there was an undoubted strong connection and it is known that several of the lead miners of Allendale did join the rebel forces. Indeed, the earl’s wife boasted to the Jacobite nobles from Scotland that her husband’s miners would join up in their hundreds.
Col Bell became the proud owner of this historic home in 1962 and today he still treasures it as the family home. Every room, indeed every nook and cranny, is alive with memories for the colonel who only has to glance out of the window to see the majestic old oak tree at the front of the house and remember his sons swinging from the branches, playing cricket on the wide sweep of lawn and laughing with their friends.
A wide shelf in the cosy, fire-lit living room is stacked with photographs of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, helping to keep those memories alive.
“The family threw me a party here, on the front lawn, for my 100th birthday,” said Col Bell. “It was a brilliantly sunny day and there were 54 of us altogether including a handful of close friends. It was wonderful to have the house full of love and laughter once again. This house has always been a home and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
Wellington boots in an assortment of sizes, old, thick winter coats and fishing rods are still stacked high in the gun room, reminding Col Bell of days gone by, out with his sons on the fells. There are more fishing rods on the wall above the stone flags at the entrance to the house. “The boys loved to fish, hunt and shoot. We also had ponies and they were always out and about, having fun. It was an idyllic childhood.”
Today, the indomitable Col Bell still enjoys a spot of fishing. “I am extremely proud to report that I caught a salmon soon after my 100th birthday. I had it smoked and ate it for supper. It was delicious.”
Memories of Christmas over the years are particularly vivid for the colonel. “That was a time when the house really came alive. I rarely use the dining room now but, back then, it was full of people laughing and chatting. And Pat made sure the house was warm and welcoming.”
Lined with family portraits the dining room provides a snapshot of family history. There are steeplechase scenes aplenty, mainly featuring grandfather James Allgood, who was clearly an accomplished horseman, as well as a charismatic preacher.
Next door, the elegant drawing room, with its pretty, floral prints and soft pastel colours still reminds Col Bell of his late wife, Pat. “She had lovely taste. I can still see her in this room, sitting by the fire or gazing out at the garden from the window seat. One of her favourite ornaments was this lump of coloured glass. We found it in the garden and christened it the Staward Diamond. It’s pretty but completely worthless of course. But to us, it was a treasure.”
Another prized possession in this room is a portrait of the colonel painted by his talented granddaughter Frances.
There are six bedrooms and three reception rooms including a large, light kitchen warmed by an Aga in this grand, rather impressive, country house but the cosiest room by far is the sitting room at the front of the house. It is Col Bell’s favourite room – his haven – with an armchair pulled up close to the permanently smouldering fire and views over the front lawn and moorland beyond through glass French doors.
The view, here, has been transformed over the years. Back in Sir Percy’s days, no moorland was visible through a thick barrier of trees but Col Bell decided to open it up, chopping down most of the trees bar a beautiful oak and copper beech. He also planted two, thick, beech hedges to provide much needed shelter for the wide expanse of lawn.
An ancient Roman altar makes an unusual and distinctive feature just beyond the patio. It has a carving of a bull’s face and the inscription: “The Fourth Cohort of Gaul,” which was stationed at Vindolanda from 200-300 AD.
“We found it under the copper beech and asked some of our strongest friends to help us move it to a more prominent position in the garden,” said the colonel. “Our friend, Jane Torday, helped us design an altar garden to help set it off.”
Upstairs, a cot in the spare bedroom has certainly stood the test of time. It was used for the colonel when he was a baby, as well as his sons. “My mother used to tell the story of how she found me once in the cot with the Labrador on top of me. Apparently I wasn’t scared, I was smiling, quite contentedly. I was more than happy with this big, warm, teddy bear.”
The west wing of the house is the oldest part and there’s a definite change in the temperature with cool, draughty corridors, despite the thickness of the ancient walls.
Today, the laughter of children and the sounds of family life may be absent from this ancient, home but the curlews are still a constant presence, wheeling overhead and their haunting cry will always evoke an emotional response from the Colonel.
“There were hundreds of curlews when we moved here,” said Col Bell. “There aren’t so many now but their cry will always remind me that I’m home.”