Growing up at Wrango - Kate Ashbrook, guest contributor
In this the second of our guest contributor stories, Kate Ashbrook, now General Secretary of the Open Spaces Society, recalls her childhood in Denham Village
It is 70 years since my parents, Jay and Margaret Ashbrook, moved in to Wrango, the Queen Anne house in the heart of Denham village.
When they bought Wrango my parents had been married for four years. They met during the war. My Dad, from Madison, Wisconsin, USA, was stationed here. His friend Jane Priestley was Mum’s cousin; Jane asked Mum to look out for Dad—which she did, to good effect. Mum was a landgirl living in Northiam, East Sussex, and had difficulty getting the time off to meet Dad, but fortunately she managed it.
After the war they married and settled here, first in London. My sister Sue was born in 1950 and no doubt they felt they would like somewhere larger and in the country.
They bought Wrango in 1952. The sale catalogue advertises an auction on 19 April, but whether my parents bought it at the auction or whether they bought it direct from the previous owners, the Templetons, I do not know. They paid £11,000. They knew the Sturches who had owned Wrango from about 1918-33, so perhaps the Sturches tipped them off. Although formally Wrango Hall my parents always called it just Wrango.
The interior looks a bit different in the 1952 sale catalogue because of the furnishings, but otherwise it was much the same when I grew up there (I was born in 1955), and indeed when we sold it.
The main change we made was to revamp the kitchen and install new bathrooms, in the 1960s, visible in the photos from the back.
Mum was there on her own quite a lot in the early days. Dad was selling food to US bases in this country and his work took him abroad. I am not aware that Mum was worried about being alone in a big house with two small children.
It was a fun house in which to grow up, with passages, back stairs, walk-in cupboards, an extensive basement, and many places to hide. There were steps up from what we called the big kitchen to our playroom so we could use this as a stage and perform plays there.
The garden was wonderful too. Mum took a great pride in it and maintained the Queen Anne style of paths fringed with box hedges. In the 1952 sale catalogue it was called ‘the pleasure gardens’ and it hasn’t changed much. The main path leads to the top lawn, and beyond there is the wilder spinney where I played for hours. The horse chestnuts at the back marked our boundary. Beyond was farmland until it was converted into a golf course. On the left of the main path was the ‘red tree’ which we eventually had to replace. The horseshoe lawn with sundial, and summer house and yew tree (not visible on the right) remained.
The front garden was largely unchanged too, though we had to remove two horse-chestnuts. We preserved the ‘two central beds surrounded by box hedges’ described in the catalogue. In 2018 we buried our parents’ ashes in the right-hand (eastern) rose-bed.
We had a succession of excellent gardeners. I believe that the first one, Mr Shillabeer, came with the house. He made a doll’s house modelled on Wrango, which I have passed on (somewhat warped) to our successors. Ted and Lily Howard were with us the longest, for 32 years and were brilliant. Graham Milstead was a rock in Mum’s final years.
When we moved in the Barclay family lived at Hills House, and my sister played with the two elder boys, Robert and James, who were always up to some mischief. They would poke their heads through the hedge which bordered our two gardens, much to Mum’s annoyance. Their father, Sir Colville (Collie) Barclay was the son of Lady Vansittart who lived at Denham Place.
My father was involved in many local organisations. He was a church sidesman (dapper and smiling as he helped people to their seats) and he gave a hand with the youth club. With Hugh Stewart he cared for the village green and arranged for it to become a charity in 1992, protected for all time as intended by Herbert Ward, Lady Vansittart’s brother, who bought it in 1952.
Mum did meals-on-wheels, and sewing and embroidery for the National Trust, restoring old fabrics at Hughenden (referred to by Dad in jest as ‘stitch and chatter’).
Lady Vansittart lived at Denham Place until about 1974 and we visited her there. She had an aroma of lily of the valley, and that smell takes me right back to my childhood and tea at Denham Place in the Chinese room.
When I was young there were five shops in the village: the bow-windowed Sidney Williams grocery store with post office; the butcher, Mr Ash (with sawdust on the floor); the newsagent Valerie Evans; a fruit and veg shop at the gates of Denham Place; and Walter Baker’s garage (formerly a forge) by the bridge. Valerie’s shop survived much longer than the others.
My first school was Mrs Thomas’s at Denham Green, and then I went to High March in Beaconsfield from 1962-67. That meant biking down the Pyghtle for the train and leaving my bike below the station, just inside the gate on the right. I chained it to the railings with a pathetic padlock and put a shower cap over the seat in case it rained. Amazingly it was never stolen.
I look back on my childhood as idyllic and care free. I was lucky to have a big garden and the spinney, and behind were fields rented by the Weeks family at Denham Court Farm. I played there with their boys Robert and Jonathan, in the field behind Wrango, or in their barn. There were also the water meadows, the canal and the gravel pits beyond where we could roam.
In 1959 we bought the land opposite Wrango, which we called the meadow. It runs down to the River Misbourne. In about 1961 we built Wrango Cottage there, which housed our gardeners.
When I was about eight I met Mr (George) James, who had worked for the Gas Light and Coke Company. He swept the roads using a green tip-up cart towed by Jack the donkey. One day I saw Mr James in the village street and joined him to take the rubbish to a tip on the other side of the North Orbital road. He let me drive Jack. I hadn’t told my parents and I remember returning to find them very worried. After that I often went with Mr James. He rescued decrepit ponies and donkeys from Southall market and kept them at the pigsties behind Winton House, or in Denham Place (I loved going in there, and passing a racehorse’s grave on the way to the piggery). We let Mr James use our meadow for grazing, and sometimes I would ride the occupants. A donkey Henrietta was born there in 1965, and later he had a roan donkey, Romeo, which I also rode.
I met Sally Forster who lived in Pebble Cottage, Cheapside Lane. She bought a rescued donkey from Mr James, who rather grandly called her Sasparilla (or some such). She was pathetic and thin, but Sally shaved off her coat and fattened her up, and she grew into a beautiful little dark brown donkey, renamed Chica. Sally and I became good friends, she would walk Chica round the village while I rode Romeo.
Then Sally bought the butcher’s shop and made it into an antique shop. Sidney Williams had been taken over by Margaret Elmes’ antiques (of higher quality than Sally’s). I helped Sally in the shop and went with her to sales where she bought junk and did it up for selling. She was resourceful and fun to be with, and she had a regular clientele which included Cilla Black. I also helped Margaret Elmes and enjoyed going to antique fairs with her where she would have a stand.
The village cocktail-parties were entertaining. Dad always accepted an invitation; he loved a party. Mum was less keen. Once she came in her orange wellies to winkle us out of a party hosted by the Gregorys at Dickfield (now Summerfield) because lunch was ready. Sometimes Dad would come back from church and announce he had invited a few people in for drinks, and shortly after they were on the doorstep with Mum displeased because it had thrown her timing for lunch.
In my teens I became interested in environmental issues, and in May 1971 joined a lobby at county hall protesting about gravel pits, led by Margaret Tindall, parish and county councillor. Later I helped Denham Parish Council to claim footpaths at Denham Court when the golf club was challenging people’s rights. I had walked there all my life and been pushed in my pram around ‘the loop’. It was a great victory when the paths were added to the definitive map.
Wrango was always a central part of my life. I lived in Devon from 1976-84, but returned to Wrango for a time until I bought a cottage in the Chilterns. I continued to visit regularly.
My father died in 2002 and we installed a seat on the village green in his memory in 2004. Mum went on living at Wrango, latterly with carers, until she died in 2018. We were so pleased she was able to remain at home all that time, and are immensely grateful to the many Denham friends who looked out for her.
It took me 18 months to empty Wrango and sort everything out, and I was fortunate to have the time to do this properly. I was pleased that ITV decided to use the house as Charles Ingram’s home in the programme Quiz (the story about the man who allegedly cheated in ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’). Quiz was shown in April 2020. You can read my blog about it here.
On 29 January 2020 we sold Wrango after it had been in the family for nearly 68 years. It was a very sad day for Sue and me, but Wrango continues in good hands, has been sensitively renovated, and is loved by another family.