Friday, January 23, 2015

Delirious for Ditton Manor

Writers, particularly historical writers, tend to have long bucket lists of things they hope to do one day.  High on mine is visiting a number of sites in England, and I think I've just added another:  Ditton Manor.

Nestled among quiet villages near Windsor Castle, the 200-acre estate dates back more than 1,000 years, though the current house is just shy of 200 years old.  Though the house itself is called Ditton Manor and was built in the Gothic Revival style, it resembles nothing so much as a castle, complete with turrets and its own moat.   In the early nineteenth century, you would have driven in your carriage along a circle of elms leading to an elegant iron-railed bridge over the east arm of the moat to pass through the crenelated gatehouse into a walled forecourt. Entering the house, you would have looked up at the Gothic cast-iron balustrade of the balcony that encircled the first floor.  The formal gardens outside even included a maze.

What surprised me most about Ditton Manor’s history, however, was the number of woman who loomed large in an era when estates generally passed from father to son.  Queen Mary I played here when she was a girl accompanied by her father King Henry VIII.  In 1709 John, Duke of Montagu, inherited the place, but he died leaving no male heirs.  Instead, his daughter Mary inherited the house. She also had no surviving male heirs, so the house transferred to her daughter Elizabeth. 

Elizabeth was a dowager, friend to Queen Caroline, in April 1812, when the original house burned down. Thankfully, no one was hurt, and many of the fine pieces inside the house were saved. Legend has it King George III traveled from nearby Windsor to watch the conflagration.  Elizabeth oversaw the work of architect William Atkinson to rebuild the house, making it much like the original.

In 1917, Ditton Park embarked upon a new way of life when the Manor House and moat were commandeered by the Admiralty during World War I for the tidy sum of 20,000 pounds.  The Admiralty purchased the rest of the park in 1919 for an additional 24,000 pounds.  More than 450 people worked on the grounds at the Compass Observatory, designing navigation equipment for the Royal Navy.  In 1997, the estate was purchased by high-tech firm Computer Associates for its European, Middle Eastern, and African Headquarters.  The company’s building stands separately from Ditton Manor.
But as fascinating as I found the story of Ditton Manor, it is nothing compared to The Secret of Pembrooke Park, the latest book by award-winning author Julie Klassen.  Be sure to come back next Friday when Julie will join us and tell us more about what she learned in researching the story of an old manor house and how the mysterious tragedies of the past affect the future of the young lady determined to discover the truth.

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