I went on a school trip yesterday, accompanying Ilse’s class on a visit to Fairfax House and a walking tour of the centre of York. It’s a Georgian town house, built by the Viscount Fairfax for his daughter Anne. Sumptuous and elegant, the upper floors of the house hold clues to the family’s Catholicism in dangerous times: scrolls of parchment in the plaster, ironwork roses in the balustrade, and, in the privacy of the four poster beds, crucifixes watching over the family as they slept.
Of all its treasures I love the textiles most of all. There are chintz hangings on the beds, and damask ‘papers’ on the walls. The conservators found fragments of Chinoiserie birds and plants adorning the walls of the lady’s bedroom, and had the company, which still exists, hand block the same design so that, standing in that space, you can see what she did, all those years ago.
The salon, with its crimson silks on walls and furniture, reminds me of Jane Eyre’s Red Room more than anything, even though it is a place for cards and socialising instead of sleep. On such a hot day the stuffiness seemed to concentrate itself in there, and although the keyboards and stucco were truly fascinating, I did wonder whether I, like Jane, might find it all a bit too much. It is a house built for winter warmth, with very little in the way of friendly draughts, and it was with some relief that we headed out into the fresh air of the pavements, in search of a patch of shade.
In a city like York, inhabited by Vikings and Romans, capital of England for one short season, home to the chocolate empires of the Quaker elite, you expect there to be history under your feet, but I wasn’t prepared for quite how much the area around the castle had changed since Georgian times. Who knew that Clifford’s Tower, the site of such anguish, once masqueraded as a folly in a wealthy gentleman’s garden? Or that the courts, so imposing, are a vestige of a fortress built by the Victorians to keep undesirables under lock and key? I certainly didn’t. I imagined that the ancient parts of town had always looked like that, just with the rest of the castle complex where the modern tea shops stand. I learned a huge amount, despite the heat, about the assumptions that I make.
We were all rather hot and sticky when we arrived home, pedalling in from our disparate starting points. Tea was a simple affair: bread and butter and gooseberry jam. No scones or anything I’d need to light the stove for. It was during this meal, on a rug in a shady patch of lawn, that I decided that supper would be of the same, cold, variety, so once the plates were cleared I took my basket to the shops for some cheese and ham and other simple things. Waiting my turn to be served, I had to wonder what this little building was before it became a grocers, and what the Georgians might have popped out for if they were too hot to cook. Oysters, perhaps, or pies. And I wondered what the choices might be in a hundred years time – foods not even dreamt of yet: the marmite and cocoa of future generations. History isn’t just in books, especially in a city like this. It’s under our feet, and in the empty spaces where buildings used to stand, and in the foods we eat.— June 20, 1932