Back in May, I took a trip back to our old stomping ground in Brighton. It was planned mainly to catch up with friends and score a fix of my beloved Artists Open Houses Festival. However, in our rush to complete on buying Briarcourt before we hit the Christmas holidays last year there just wasn't time to pick up the house deeds. So here was a good opportunity.
Our solicitor questioned whether we'd actually want a bundle of dusty old documents gathering yet more dust; but I treasured the deeds to our last house as exotic, intriguing, and not least, beautiful shreds of past lives. They even ended up featuring on one of our 'wooden' stair treads when we needed a fix to disguise that it was actually a mutant MDF interloper. With history featuring so heavily in our life at Briarcourt, we needed the paperwork so as to see the actual signatures of the people we've been imagining, touch the same paper as them, and more prosaically, to check our facts.
Poring over the documents later into the evening than was sensible, new mysteries about the land, past ownership of the building, and peoples' complicated probate arrangements emerged and were earmarked for further less bleary-eyed thought.
Having already learned something of the lives of the Sykes and Berry families, I was particularly interested in beginning to build some kind of picture of Briarcourt's transition to Council ownership. The deeds revealed that Huddersfield Corporation as it was then bought the property in June 1946 for £6000 (~£225,000 in today's money). Sadly Joseph Norman Berry had died on Boxing Day 1940, so his wife Elsie May was moving on (not far, - just around the corner to Talbot Avenue).
Over the next 10 years, it appears, The Corporation sold a parcel of land to a colourful-sounding man called Conn Pollock who ran his family's worsted mill and raced Bugattis, light aircraft and horses; and they negotiated rights of way with various neighbours. But as useful as these nuggets are, they don't help us understand anything of day to day life in the new Corporation era for the house.
Amazingly, a route into learning more emerges. In running tours of Briarcourt in previous years, the Yorkshire Edgar Wood Heritage Group forged connections with a few of the now grown-up children who lived here when it was a children's home; some of whom, it turns out, are happy to share their precious memories.
First to visit are Dorelle and Eileen - sisters who were placed in care for a spell after being hospitalized for suspected smallpox. In spite of living here for only a few months before returning home, Dorelle tells me that Briarcourt has stayed in her mind's eye throughout her life.
Although both agree that they felt cared for here, it's clear that a tight ship was run - with the more formal rooms declared out of bounds, a uniform of red gingham dress and white apron for the girls, regular doses of raspberry vinegar, and allocated household jobs for all: Eileen and Dorelle were in charge of turning down the beds in the evenings. The play room at the back of the house served as the main living space with outdoor play in the garden beyond the kitchen door. The layout of the house has changed during the intervening 60 odd years and we spend time trying to piece together mysteries: Where was matron's office? Which stairs took us to bed? Where was the window seat where I curled up and read books? Where was my bedroom (where the light poured in and stoked my migraine)?...sadly, without very clear conclusions. However, the rounded stone kitchen steps score a massive tick in the memory bank and the play room floor seems familiar.
David's time at Briarcourt extended just over 3 years, finishing in 1952. On coming back, he shares with Dorelle and Eileen a keen sense of how much smaller the building seems through adult eyes. Indeed, as we walk around, it's sometimes difficult to imagine how 30 children and their carers fitted into the space, once you account for the forbidden zones and, as David recalls, the 2nd floor being dominated by a central clothing store and alterations hub for all of the local children's homes. The male equivalent of the red gingham dress, it transpires, was a boldly striped (and uncomfortably conspicuous) shirt worn both in the house and on the trips out to school, Sunday school, and a TV screening of the Queen's coronation at Fieldhead (another local children's home also housed, as it happens, in an ex-Sykes family property in Lindley).
Due to his longer stay, David's memories of the building are surprisingly vivid. He has no hesitation in ear-marking the corner of our living room as his bed space and recalls how the corridor light was left on throughout the night. And, as for the staircase mystery, it's very clear to him that the bedrooms were accessed via stairs that ran up next to the kitchen, where the lift now stands. How can he be so sure? Because the angle of the banister was perfect for sliding, and he ended up in trouble with the staff when his urge to make a swift and sweeping descent became irresistible!
So what has David (aka 'Archie' because of his enviable skill at impersonating Archie Andrews) taken with him from his days at Briarcourt? Amongst other things a love of books........
.....and an absolute hatred of two-tone striped shirts.