Many years ago – sometime back in the Middle Bronze Age – I used to be a Morris dancer. I know it’s hard to credit, given my almost total lack of bodily poise, grace or presence, but it happened, largely, I suspect, because of the people involved: the men and women of the Kesteven Morris, who must have taken pity on me. I think it took me the best part of 18 months to master the basic steps: 1, 2, 3, hop; 1, 2, 3, hop; etc. etc., but eventually I got there. And throughout my time with the Morris men I had a wonderful time, whether it was in the Scout Hut behind the pub in Sleaford, in the pub itself – and of course many pints of one of my favourite beers, the locally brewed ambrosial Bateman’s bitter and XXXB at the end of the evening (and providing Maisie was coming to collect me). We did gigs on most weekends, usually outside pubs, or at parish fetes, flower festivals or country shows. Last year I wasn’t doing as much filming as other years, so was able to get to a Kesteven gig and meet up with lads, none of whom looked a day older than when we’d met regularly twenty, or was it thirty years ago. They brought back many fond, warm memories.
Anyhow, the reason I mention Kesteven Morris was that we’d once done a memorable gig at Belton House, a magnificent stately home, now in the care of the National Trust, just outside Grantham, which is famous, of course, for being the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher. For my money this fine Lincolnshire town’s true fame lies in its five-star Parish Church of St. Wulfram, without doubt one of the finest in Britain (Simon Jenkins puts it in the top 18 in his excellent Penguin book: England’s Thousand Best Churches). And as for famous locals, I’d personally opt for perhaps the world’s greatest-ever scientist, Sir Isaac Newton. But again, I digress.
Our morris gig at Belton had been more than usually memorable: a fabulous house and garden and lots of beer on a warm summer’s afternoon. Could one ask for anything more? Then, quite recently, I happened to be working there when one of the ladies helping the Trust approached me. She had a piece of paper in her hand. On it she’d drawn-up a family tree. Now Belton House was built between 1685 and 1688 by members of the Cust and Brownlow families. One of the most famous of Belton’s early owners was Sir John Cust, Speaker of the House of Commons. Sir John was born in 1718 and the grand-daughter of his daughter, one Elizabeth Birch, married my great-grand-father Marlborough Pryor. So Speaker Cust is my five ‘greats’ grand-father!
I am determined not to let this affect my life, but I have requested the National Trust to return this fine house to me, its rightful owner. I shall probably use it from time to time as a second home. But, oh dear, I’m digressing yet again…
On Saturday night we went to Belton for their annual Spitfire Prom, which I graciously allowed them to take place. Ideally I feel the Trust should have provided me and my party with accommodation in a first floor state room. But it was not to be. Nevertheless, despite this minor disappointment, it was a wonderful event, complete with The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, Jesus Leon, the superb tenor and of course a hair-raising aerobatic display by the Blades (all ex-Red Arrows pilots). The evening began with the Parade Band of the RAF Regiment marching around the audience. At that point Maisie couldn’t resist buying an RAF Music teddy bear. I’ve just introduced him to the two friends he’ll be with in my office: a musician brought back from Nepal by my brother Felix, and a very friendly green woodpecker, who calls out when squeezed (as indeed I would, if given half a chance). Sadly fierce cross-winds prevented the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight doing their regular fly-past (they’re based at nearby RAF Coningsby), but that and a sharp shower or two aside, the event was a huge success. Do go there next year: I certainly will. I loved it for its sheer Englishness: loads of jollity, chicken drumsticks, Cava and fizz, waterproofs and thousands of Union Flags, but not the slightest hint of nationalism nor jingoism. It was that, that was so English – and long may it continue.