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Early school days


Family Christmas at Belvoir Castle
John Julius Norwich Writer
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[Q] What an extraordinary upbringing...

Yes, I mean it was very extraordinary, and it was punctuated every Christmas by going to stay with my uncle at Belvoir Castle. And Belvoir Castle is one of the most spectacular, not one of the most beautiful by any means, but one of the most spectacular great country houses of England standing on a hill. It's not a real castle, it's a mock castle. It was built in the early 19th century, but it is hugely imposing. And there we went every year from the ages of, in my case, from the ages of nought to 10 every Christmas.

So... and that was a great excitement, too. I mean, I start remembering it, I suppose, when I was 5 or 6. But I remember very, very well two days, three days in advance, enormous quantities of packing in these huge, heavy suitcases, everything wrapped up separately in tissue paper, you know, and these enormous cabin trunks like you never see today which had to be manhandled down flights of staircases and loaded onto taxis and got taken somehow to King's Cross where, in those days, regiments of porters – it took about four of them to carry some of these trunks, you know, we were only going for 10 days, a week. And arriving at Grantham Station, which was gas-lit, in the dark and these two enormous Rolls-Royces lurking behind it into which all this luggage was loaded. And then, I think, in 20 minutes, half an hour of driving through the night. Oh, when you're 5, 6 years old that, in the country, is very exciting in itself; you see all the rabbits in the headlights and all that. And then suddenly this huge castle on its hill. And you go in and you would go down a little passage and there's the main central hall, which is called the gun room, bristling with arms and armaments and spears and blunderbusses sticking out all over it, and this enormous Christmas tree in the middle, 20 feet high, superbly decorated and lit with a couple of hundred real candles, and two or three footmen in livery with long poles with sponges on the end patrolling them and keeping an eye if any candle looks as if it's not doing quite well, snuffing it out. And that was the excitement and then going to bed with a blazing fire, no central heating in that part of the castle, it was bitterly cold. It had, I remember, in order... I mean it was sometimes 3 or 4 minutes' walk from your bedroom to the main living room, and at strategic places all over the castle it had black woollen cloaks hanging on pegs. And you sort of went out of your bedroom and you put on a cloak to walk to the dining room or wherever it was. And when you got there, you took off your cloak and hung it on another peg. And I think there was one man who did nothing but rearrange cloaks all day.

It's very, very... the whole of that life, it's so completely gone and vanished, but my uncle would invite all his friends, all his family, I mean, not his friends, his family and including elderly maiden aunts and bachelor uncles and God knows what, and lots of children because he had lots of siblings and they all had lots of children except me – I was the only only child. The others all had lots and lots of brothers and sisters and I was much the youngest of them all, but that didn't seem to matter. I suppose he... my uncle must have been feeding... because they all brought their ladies' maids and valets in those days, and the children brought their nannies and their governesses, possibly even their tutors. So I think my uncle must have been feeding, I don't know, 40 or 50 extra mouths for 10 days, because it went over New Year. It was quite a thing and it happened every year and that was the main punctuation of my life.

John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) was an English popular historian, travel writer and television personality. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer. He is the author of histories of Norman Sicily, the Republic of Venice, the Byzantine Empire and, most recently, 'The Popes: A History'. He also wrote on architecture, music and the history plays of Shakespeare, and presented some thirty historical documentaries on BBC Television.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Belvoir Castle

Duration: 4 minutes, 34 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018