Holton Park, Chapter Four

When I wrote the ‘Meadowvale’ books and ‘A Time to Mend’, I intentionally left some loose ends to develop into plot lines for future novels.

One of those ‘loose ends’ was the story of Beth Robinson (who is mentioned a few times in passing in ‘A Time to Mend’, but makes many appearances in the ‘Meadowvale’ books.

Beth’s story, and the story of her great-grandmother, Joanna Robinson, might appear somewhat tangential to the main plot of the ‘Meadowvale’ books and ‘ATTM’, but I always knew I would develop them and take them further.

I have now begun to work on that project, and I am going to post a few chapters here as a teaser. Not the whole book, you understand (it probably won’t be done for a year or so); just a teaser to get you interested.

Chapter 4

MEADOWVALE, SASKATCHEWAN.

The funeral of Rachel Robinson was arranged for Saturday July 12, a full week after her death; the delay was mainly to accommodate the timetable of her grandson Joel, who was working for an oil company in Dubai and needed a few days to arrange a trip home. Amy’s husband Luke Bernard drove from Calgary to Meadowvale the day before the funeral. As for Amy and Beth, they spent the intervening time visiting with the relatives who were slowly gathering, taking their children to play with family members and friends, and helping their father and their aunt clean out their grandmother’s room at the special care home. Beth was also still working, so she left Claire with Amy and her children a few times when she went up to the hospital for her shifts.

The two sisters continued to skim through Joanna Rowley’s journals, looking for references to the unfolding story of her relationship with Will Robinson. By the time the day of the funeral arrived they had already reached the point where Will and Joanna were married, had been ostracized by their respective families, and were beginning to make plans to move to Canada. To get this far they had skipped a lot of the story, but each night in bed Beth had begun to read the journals slowly, word for word, savouring every little detail of the daily life Joanna recorded. Mindful of her father’s interest, Beth talked to him regularly about the things she had discovered in her reading, and she knew he was sharing the stories with other family members, especially his sister Ruth.

Three days after Rachel’s death, while Amy and Beth were having coffee with their parents, Don put his hand on Beth’s. “I had a phone call from Tom,” he said.

She looked at him nervously. “Oh yeah?”

“We talked for a long time. He told me the whole story, Bethie.”

She shook her head. “I’m so sorry, Dad,” she whispered.

“No, no—you’ve got nothing to apologize for. I knew Tom and Grandma had been close, and he explained to me that she really wanted to protect us all from being hurt like she’d been hurt. I don’t understand her logic, but when Tom was done explaining it to me, I told him I thought it was an amazing thing that he’d honoured her wishes and kept the secret for eighteen years.”

“I know.”

“He told me an interesting story. He and Kelly and Emma went on a trip to England the summer Grandma died. He told me Kelly asked him about looking for Holton Park while they were there, and he told her he didn’t want to. Do you know why?”

“I think I can guess, but go on, anyway.”

“He told Kelly he was uncomfortable that he knew more about our family history than Ruth and I did, and he was already finding that a hard load to carry. He said he didn’t want to make it even harder, so he’d prefer not to learn any more than he already knew.”

“Tom’s a good man, Dad.”

“I know; he’s been my friend for over twenty-five years.”

“I was worried this might cause a rift between you.”

He shook his head. “I was upset at first, but he talked me out of it.”

“I’m glad.”

“Me too.”

***

One night after the three children had all gone to bed, Beth and Amy huddled around the laptop on the kitchen table while Beth introduced her sister to the website of Holton Park. The main page showed a front view of the three-storey grey stone manor house, with its tall, latticed windows and imposing Tudor chimneys. An aerial shot showed a large ornamental walled garden on one side of the manor, a little stream running at the far end of a large lawn space behind the house, and farm buildings nearby. Beside the walled garden they could see what looked like a stable block.

“So that’s where it all began!” Amy observed with a smile.

The website bore the title ‘Holton Park: A Stately Home for All Occasions’, and had obviously been designed to advertise the house to prospective users; it mentioned weddings, conferences, banquet halls, musical recordings, and filming. But one paragraph was of particular interest to Beth and Amy, and Beth read it aloud:

“Holton Park was built by Sir Philip Rowley between fifteen forty-two and fifteen fifty-eight, and the house has been in the Rowley family ever since. The current owner, Robert Rowley, is a direct descendant of Sir Philip, and lives in the family apartment at Holton Park. His son Edwin Rowley is the current manager of Holton Park Estates.”

“So the family’s still there,” said Amy.

“That’s what I told you.”

“You didn’t mention the son, though.”

Beth shrugged. “I didn’t think it was important, I guess.”

Amy was scrolling through the photo gallery. “Look at these rooms!” she exclaimed.

They browsed through a series of pictures of the Tudor-style great hall with tall windows, a fireplace, rich wood paneling and many paintings on the walls. There were also shots of a formal library, a drawing room with luxurious carpeting and antique furniture, and several ornate looking bedrooms, including one called ‘The Queen’s Room’ in which, it was claimed, Queen Elizabeth the First had once slept.

“Imagine moving from that to a homestead outside Meadowvale in nineteen twenty-nine,” said Beth in a hushed voice.

“The things we do for love,” Amy replied.

“I guess she must have really loved him to have been willing to part with all that.”

“I wonder what he parted with. Is there anything about Steeple Farm on the Net?”

“I haven’t looked.”

“Well, now’s a good time.”

Beth googled ‘Steeple Farm, Bramthorpe, Lincolnshire,’ and the first reference that came up was ‘Steeple Farm Riding School and Stables, Bramthorpe.’ She followed the link and found a website describing a fairly new establishment, offering basic riding instruction as well as stabling for horses. The website included several photographs, including one of a white two-story Tudor-style farmhouse with black beams and latticed windows, with stables just visible behind.

Amy raised her eyebrows. “That’s bigger than I thought it would be—if it’s the same place, that is. Does it say anything about who the owner is?”

Beth searched the website for a moment and then read out loud:

“Steeple Farm Riding School and Stables is jointly owned and operated by Justin Berry and Alan Peterson. The farm has been in Justin’s family for over forty years, as his great-uncle bought it from the Holton Park estate in the early nineteen-sixties. It was converted into a riding school and stables in twenty-oh-four.”

“I wonder if his great-uncle was a Robinson?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“See if you can get it on Google Maps.”

Beth clicked on the ‘maps’ link on Google, and after a moment a map came up showing a location north of Stamford, on the western side of the village of Bramthorpe, just two miles south of the Holton Park estate.

“Well, now we know how to get there!” said Amy. “Are you going to go?”

Beth clicked the back button on her browser until she found the Holton Park webpage again. She followed a few links for a moment. “The house and grounds seem to be open to the public five days a week,” she said, “from May to September, from one to five in the afternoon. Admission to the house is by guided tour only. There are several contact email addresses, and a mailing address too.” She laughed. “The mailing address is just ‘Holton Park, Bramthorpe, Lincolnshire,’ with the postal code!”

“I guess it’s big enough that the postal workers know where to find it!”

“I guess so.”

“Are you going to try to contact them?”

Beth hesitated. “I don’t know,” she replied.

***

Meadowvale Mennonite Church was full for Rachel’s funeral; along with immediate descendants, nieces and nephews and their children and grandchildren, there were many friends from the community and many members of the church Rachel had attended for most of her life. She had always been a lover of choral music, and the church choir sang a couple of pieces, one in English and one in German. Beth’s father read the eulogy, and Pastor Ron Bergen preached.

Rachel’s will had specified that she was to be buried at the Meadowvale Cemetery four miles south of town. All the members of her family of origin were buried at the cemetery at Spruce Creek, twelve miles north of Meadowvale, where the Mennonites had settled when they first arrived in the 1920s. However, Rachel’s husband Mike was buried at Meadowvale Cemetery, and she had stated her wish to be interred beside him.

Beth and Claire rode out to the cemetery with her parents. With the family gathered in a circle around the grave, Rachel was laid to rest beside her husband while the church choir sang another hymn in four-part harmony. The big prairie sky was a clear blue, the weather a warm twenty-four degrees, with just a light breeze rustling the leaves on the branches of the trees around the cemetery.

As the family members were dispersing and making their way slowly back to their cars, Beth wandered away to look for the place where her great-grandmother Joanna was buried; she had not visited the grave in many years, but she knew approximately where it was. After a few minutes’ searching she found it, a simple grey headstone marked ‘Joanna Elizabeth Robinson, May 25 1905 – June 2 1990.’ Someone had set fresh flowers on the grave, red and white carnations in a glass vase. Beside it was another grave with a similar headstone, marked ‘William Alfred Robinson, February 13 1904 – May 21 1975.’

“I thought you might be looking for these.”

Beth turned to see her father standing beside her, with Claire at his side in her best white dress, holding onto his hand. He had worn a dark grey suit and blue tie for the service, but for the interment he had added a straw hat to protect his bald head from the summer sun. She reached up and kissed him on the cheek; “Nice hat!” she said.

“Thanks.”

“Did you put the flowers on the grave?”

“Ruth and I did. By the way, are you going to Ruth’s place for coffee after the reception?”

“Probably. Are there going to be a few people there?”

“Most of the family are going, I think. But if you and Claire are tired out after the reception at the hall, that’s fine too.”

“I think we’ll be okay”. She held out her arms to Claire; “Want to come up?”

“Okay!” the little girl replied with a bright smile. Beth picked her up, kissed her on the cheek, and walked slowly back toward the cars with her father. “Anything new from the journals?” he asked.

“Not really. We’ve got to the point where they’re making plans to move to Canada.”

“Any information about how they were able to afford it?”

“No, but I wasn’t expecting any. Grandma read them all the way through, and she told me Joanna never mentioned it.”

“What do you think?”

“I don’t know. Grandma thought it had to be one of the Rowleys who gave them the money, but as far as I can tell, Joanna had absolutely no contact with them after her dad fired Will.”

“Some members of the family are quite interested in the journals.”

“Yeah, Auntie Ruth keeps asking about them—and Kathy.”

“Your Uncle Steve’s asked me a few questions. I think he wants to know if there’s any money in it!”

Beth laughed softly; “Not as far as I know!”

“That’s what I keep telling him.” Don was quiet for a moment, and then he added, “I think Steve and Jean have some questions for you, if you’re willing to answer them.”

“Today?”

“Steve’s going back to Alberta tomorrow.”

“It was nice he could make the time.”

“You’re singing from my songbook, Bethie.”

“I know.” She shrugged; “I’ll do whatever you think is best, Dad.”

“People have been getting little snippets of information. It might not hurt to give everyone an opportunity to get on the same page.”

“Is there going to be trouble?”

“I don’t think so. If there is, you let me handle it, okay?”

“Okay—thanks.”

As they approached the cars Beth saw the Janzen family standing together. Her Aunt Ruth was the second oldest of the Robinson siblings. Beth had seen photographs of Ruth when she was in her late teens, and her basic look had never changed: long dark hair pulled back into a thick braid, with jeans and a tee-shirt in summer and a fisherman’s sweater in winter. She had put on a dark summer dress for the funeral, but Beth smiled to see the open sandals on her feet. She was standing beside her son Joel, two years Beth’s junior, who had arrived home from Dubai the day before. Beth walked up to him with a grin; “Hey, you!” she said.

“Hey yourself! Holy crap, is that Claire? It can’t possibly be you, little girl; aren’t you still a baby?”

“I’m not a baby—I’m turning four years old next month!”

“I bet you don’t remember the date of your birthday, though!”

“Oh yes I do – August Ninth!”

“Wow—I’m impressed! Last question: do you remember who I am?”

“You’re Joel, silly! You’re my mom’s cousin!”

“‘Joel silly’—yeah, that sounds about right!”

They all laughed, and Joel leaned over to kiss Beth on the cheek. “Sorry, Bethie,” he said in a voice that was suddenly serious; “I know you and Grandma…”

“Thanks. Are you staying long?”

“I’m afraid not—I’ve only got a couple of days and then I have to head back.”

Ruth’s husband John grinned at Beth. “I guess he’s an important man on the other side of the world!”

“Well, it’s good to see you anyway,” Beth said to Joel; “We miss you around here. Are you going to be at your mom and dad’s place after the reception?”

“I think so.”

“Great—let’s catch up then.”

***

John and Ruth lived in a large house on an acreage just south of Meadowvale. After the official reception at the community hall, many family members went back there for coffee, including Beth’s father and his siblings Ruth, Steve, and Jean, along with their spouses and children.

It was a hot afternoon, but John and Ruth’s back yard had several large poplar trees for shade. As the afternoon wore into the evening some people gravitated out there, and Beth found herself sitting in a circle under one of the trees, keeping one eye on Claire who was running around the yard with her cousin Chelsey and a couple of other children. Ruth was there with her three children Kathy, Joel, and Rhonda; she had changed into jeans and tee-shirt almost as soon as she got home from the reception. Amy and Luke were there too, and one-year old Nicholas was sound asleep on Amy’s lap.

After a while Don came out into the yard; he had removed his jacket and tie and put his straw hat back on. “Not a bad evening,” he said to no one in particular.

“Are you joining the back yarders,” asked Ruth, “or just taking a break from the lawyer and the oilman?”

“Well, the lawyer and the oilman and a few others in there are curious to hear more about Grandma’s journals—if you’re willing, Beth?”

Ruth gave him a cautious frown; “They’re not going to gang up on her, are they?”

“Not if I have anything to do with it.”

“I’m good, Dad,” said Beth. “Inside or out?”

“They appear to be sitting around the living room.”

Beth glanced at Claire and Chelsey, and Kathy Janzen said, “I’ll stay out here and watch them, Beth; you go ahead.”

***

In the spacious living room most people were drinking coffee, although Beth’s Uncle Steve was on his second beer, his collar undone, and the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up to the elbow. He had worked in the oil patch as a heavy-duty mechanic for nearly thirty years. He had two children from his first marriage, Darren and Ryan, both in their late teens, who had not come back to the house for coffee. His second wife Deb was sitting across the room from him; her eight-year-old daughter Alicia was playing down in the basement. Jean, the youngest of Rachel’s children, was sitting on the couch beside her husband Martin McDonald; she had been practicing law in Saskatoon for over twenty years. Some of the more distant Robinson relatives were also in the room, including Don’s youngest cousin Erin and her husband Darren Peterson, who was one of Don’s teaching colleagues at the high school.

Beth sat down on a stool in the corner of the room; the others who had been sitting out in the yard gradually found seats or spots on the rug, and Ruth took her place beside Beth, folding her arms and resting her back against the wall.

“Okay,” said Beth. “I’m here to fill everyone in on the story of Great-Grandma Robinson, so that we’re all on the same page. What would you like to know?”

Jean was the first to speak. “We hear you have Grandma’s journals,” she said.

“I do. They cover the period from January nineteen-eighteen up to a year or so before she died; I think the last entry is August nineteen eighty-nine. The box also contained some letters from Will Robinson’s father; they’re dated in the early thirties. Grandma didn’t say anything about leaving them to me, so as far as I know they’re common family property.”

“But why did Mom leave the journals to you?” asked Steve. “Why didn’t she leave them to the whole family—or your dad, as the oldest son.”

Don shook his head slowly. “That’s not a matter of discussion today. Mom’s will is very clear: the journals are to go to Beth. Everyone knows Beth was very close to Mom, and Mom trusted her to take care of the journals and share them with the whole family.”

“But surely if there’s any benefit to be gained, the whole family should know about it.”

“Steve, I keep telling you—there’s no secret treasure trove in Grandma’s journals. If there was, Mom would have told Beth ahead of time.”

“What’s in them, then?” Steve asked suspiciously.

Ruth put her hand on Beth’s shoulder. “Why don’t you tell us about it right from the start, Bethie?”

So once again, Beth found herself telling the story she had become so familiar with over the past three months, sticking mainly to the outline her grandmother had originally given her, and adding only a few details from her own reading of the journals. When she was done there was silence in the room for a moment, and then Jean spoke up. “So we could have both rich and poor relatives in the old country?”

“I don’t know about rich or poor,” Beth replied. “I know for sure that the Rowley family still lives at Holton Park, because there’s a Holton Park website on the Internet. You should all take a look at it. It’s not an enormous house, like Buckingham Palace or anything like that, but it’s big and it’s very old. It was built in the fifteen-hundreds, and it’s been in the Rowley family ever since. The current owner is Robert Rowley—the same name as Joanna’s father—but the website says his son Edwin is the current manager. I don’t know how they’re descended from Joanna’s family; her brother Edward was killed in the First World War in nineteen-seventeen, so the estate would probably have gone to his younger brother James. Perhaps Robert’s his son or grandson; I really don’t know.”

“Are they part of the aristocracy?” asked Steve.

“I don’t know enough to know if that’s the right word. They aren’t dukes or earls or counts or anything like that. It’s true that Joanna’s father was a knight, but that’s not a hereditary title in the British system—so I’ve discovered. But we do know that Joanna’s mother came from a titled family; her father—Joanna’s grandfather—was the Earl of Devonshire, and members of that family are mentioned frequently in the journals.”

“What about the Robinsons?” asked Joel.

“Will’s father Sam was the tenant of Steeple Farm on the Holton Park Estate. We know the farm’s still there because there’s a picture of it on the Internet. It’s now a riding school and stables, and one of the owners apparently bought it from a great-uncle, who bought it himself from the estate back in the nineteen-sixties. But we don’t know if that great-uncle was a Robinson or not.  Personally, I think it’ll be a lot harder to track the Robinsons than the Rowleys.”

Luke Bernard spoke up. “Are you going to track them down, Beth? Is that your plan?”

“I don’t really have a plan, Luke. If Holton Park is still a very rich estate—and it’s hard to tell whether it is or not—it looks grand, but for all we know it could be mortgaged to the hilt—but if it is rich, I think it would be hard to make contact with the current owners without appearing to be after some money.”

Heads nodded around the circle, and Steve added, “I’ll say; if Grandma was one of three surviving kids, wouldn’t she have been due a third of the estate when her father died?”

“That’s not the way it worked,” Beth replied. “If they’d followed that system, none of the old landed estates would ever have survived in viable form, because they’d have been split up into smaller and smaller portions with every generation. In the old days the custom was that the property and the bulk of the money went to the oldest son; the other children got some inheritance money, but nothing like an equal share. I’m not sure how it works today, though.”

“I’ve heard inheritance taxes have really killed a lot of those old stately homes in England,” said Ruth. “Lots of families have had to sell their houses, or turn them over to the state, so they can afford to pay the taxes when the owner dies. I’ve read quite a bit about it. There’s an organisation over there called the National Trust that owns a lot of these stately homes and opens them to the public. A lot of their properties were given to them by the owners to avoid paying massive inheritance taxes.”

“It looks as if Holton Park is open to the public for at least part of the year,” Beth replied, “and it’s also used for weddings and conferences and movies and that sort of thing.”

“They’d have to do something like that to make ends meet,” Don observed. “If farming over there is as bad these days as it is here, you’d never run an estate like that on farming profits.”

“I’ve heard it’s really bad,” said John Janzen. “They’ve got a lot of farm subsidies, but since the mad cow disease crisis a few years ago, thousands of families have lost their farms and left the land for good.”

“What do you think of Grandma, Beth?” asked Ruth softly. “I mean, I knew her well when she was old—I was the one who lived closest to her and kept an eye on her, just like you did for our mom—but you’re getting a completely different picture of her now, from her younger years. What was she like?”

“I think she was very idealistic. There’s a very strong religious element in the journals; she seems to have been very devout, and her faith took her in some unusual directions.”

“What do you mean by unusual directions?” asked Joel.

“Her parents gave her a copy of the Bible as a confirmation present; I don’t know if they really expected her to read it, but she was a voracious reader and she devoured the whole thing. In the later parts of the nineteen-nineteen journal she comments regularly on bits of the Bible she’s reading and what she thinks about them; I could tell she was really captivated by the gospel stories about Jesus. Later on, when she met Will, she’d already started to develop an unusual social conscience—unusual for a member of her class at that time, I mean—and I think a lot of it came from things she’d read in the New Testament. She and Will were both quite high-minded and they’d really come to believe that the social class system in England was an evil that needed to be fixed. For Joanna, like I said, I think that started with her reading of the New Testament after she was confirmed. Will seems to have been quite religious too.”

“He was,” said Don. “They went to the Anglican Church in town all their lives, and I know it wasn’t just a social custom to them; they used to have family prayers in their home as well. I remember Dad telling me about that.”

Beth nodded. “But when they were young, I think they were quite naïve about it. I think they genuinely believed they’d be able to persuade their parents that a marriage between them would help break down the divisions between social classes in England—and that their parents would see this as a good and Christian thing. Joanna seems to have genuinely loved her parents; I think it was inconceivable to her that it would be impossible to bring them around to the point of being happy she’d married the man she loved—even if he was only the son of a tenant farmer.”

“It’s amazing that she gave up all that wealth and prestige and everything,” said Jean. “I can’t imagine going from being the daughter of an aristocrat to being a farmer’s wife in Saskatchewan in the dirty thirties.”

“Beth hasn’t got that far in the journals yet,” said Don, glancing at his daughter. “You told me you’re still at the point where they’re planning to move to Canada, right?”

“That’s right. If I get any more insights, I’ll let you know.”

Don smiled at her. “I’m really looking forward to reading those journals for myself before too long.”

“That’s another thing; I want the journals to be available for anyone to read, but I think if I start letting them out in ones and twos, I’ll pretty soon lose track of where each individual book is. So I think what I’ll do is photocopy them as I go through them, and then scan the copies and make them available as PDF files. I can send them to anyone who wants them; just email me and I’ll put you on the mailing list. Is that okay with everyone?”

Heads nodded around the circle, and then Joel said; “So what are you going to do, Beth?”

“Like I said earlier, I haven’t really decided yet.”

“I know—you don’t want to show up at the door of Holton Park like some fortune hunter. But I’m assuming you’d be interested in establishing some sort of contact?”

She shrugged; “I guess I’d need to know if everyone’s okay with that.”

“I’d be okay with it,” Don replied, “but I do think it should be you that makes the contact. You’re the one who’s reading the journals, and Mom kind of made you responsible for all this.”

“Yeah, I know. What does everyone else think?”

Heads nodded around the circle. Don glanced across at his brother; “Steve?”

Steve shrugged; “Makes sense to me, as long as we’re all in the loop.”

Ruth put her hand on Beth’s shoulder; “Are you okay with this, Bethie?”

“I’m a little nervous, but I think my curiosity will probably get the better of my nerves.”

“You’re going over to England in a few days, right? For Emma’s wedding?”

“Yes.”

“Why don’t you go have a look while you’re there? You might not be ready to try to make contact with the people, but you could have a look at the house and get a sense of what it’s like, and the area around it and all. Maybe after you do that you could decide how you feel about initiating some sort of contact.”

Beth smiled. “I like that idea. I’ve been worrying about how I should try to contact them; this seems like a slower and more gradual way of going about it. Also, I’d like to talk to Tom some more.”

Ruth nodded. “There are probably things Grandma told Tom that she never told any of her kids or grandkids—not just about Holton Park, but other stuff too.”

“Okay,” said Beth, “that’s what I’ll do.”

“When are you going over?” asked John Janzen.

“On Thursday, and I’m coming back August Ninth. Emma’s wedding’s next Saturday, and after that Tom and Wendy are going to take me touring.”

Ruth grinned. “Now we know where one of the tours is going!”

“I guess we do!” Beth replied.

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