The Chairman Looks Back: Part 1
Saturday, 17th July 2021
I have been thinking about what we have missed over the past year: our visits to places of interest. That prompted me to look back over our programmes since 2010 (I wish I had kept the earlier ones, from the mid-1990s when I joined the Society). It triggered many happy memories; it also made me reflect on what makes a good visit and a good visit programme.
Trips, excursions, to places near or far have always been the most visible part of our activity as a society – and for many members, the most important part. This is not surprising when you consider our remit. In our ‘Rules’ (as amended 1959) our overall purpose is stated as ‘To preserve ancient buildings, especially Georgian, in the East Riding of Yorkshire and to arouse interest in them’. The visits programme is certainly a way of carrying out the second part of this purpose.
The early days
The social programme has been a part of the Society’s activity since 1946. In those early days members of the Society included several owners of interesting country houses and visits were organized to private houses by personal contact. A house would be open for an afternoon with members invited to come individually or as a pair, for a personal tour. Refreshments were not at first provided (‘in these days of stringency’). In 1977 our founder, Rupert Alec-Smith calculated that in 31 years the Society had visited over 500 historic properties on 250 days. And lots since, of course. Access to private houses is now not as easy – partly for insurance reasons, partly because owners of fine houses can earn more money from, for example, opening for weddings. But each year we manage at least one such trip.
Some of the organisers
My own recollections go back to the 15 years of Jennifer Rowley’s service as visits’ organizer. Happy memories of Jennifer’s friendliness, enthusiasm, and capacity to put together varied and interesting days out. Joan Dewson’s eight years in the role was mentioned in the 2012 report; Joan was supported by Olwyn Hirst. They were followed by Sue and Keith Wade until the premature and sudden death of Keith, after which a team drawn from the executive committee shared the work of planning where to go, making contacts with house owners and persuading them to allow people to look around, organizing guides and speakers and making sure refreshments are available at the right times, thus paying attention to the various needs of our members – physical as well as cultural, for relaxed company as well as for intellectual stimulation, for food and drink as well as for knowledge.
In my report to the AGM in 2016, the death of John Markham stimulated memories of occasional visits he had organized – often to unknown places, often out in the fens: Sunk Island, Holderness, around the Humber. At one small but interesting house in Howdenshire the owner’s breakfast remained on the table; at another house (in Patrington) I came upon a man seeking peace and quiet in a small study, out of the way. He said: ‘Who are all these people?’. I deduced that the visit had been arranged by John with the owner’s wife, who for whatever reason had not informed her husband of the impending invasion!
We have had some special events during the ten-year period. In 2014 we were one of the lead organisations planning the Beverley Georgian Festival. We sponsored two lectures (one given by Austen Redman of our own committee and the other by Peter Brown of the York Civic Trust) and Austen Redman designed a brochure to accompany guided tours of the ‘Georgian Minster’ led by John Wilton Ely. Another memorable event was held in November 2017 at Sledmere. Here several strands came together: we wanted to celebrate own 80th birthday as a society. The suggestion that we might invite John Wilton-Ely to speak led us to discover that John’s own 80th birthday was also due. Then, out of the blue, came an approach from the London Georgian Group, wishing to make a presentation to John for his service to its committee. Its own 80th birthday was also imminent! Hence we ran an event in a splendid and appropriately Georgian house set in its 18th century landscape, with excellent food and hospitality and convivial company; John gave his talk and we could wander around the house and gardens.
In my next piece I shall look at our visits to private houses and our special guided tours of towns and places of interest.