I mentioned back in the autumn that I’d been back to Milton Manor, where I started my career. Here’s my finished interview with its owner, Anthony Mockler, which has finally come out in this year’s Hudson’s Historic Houses. Plus a few bonus images too, from an amusing photo shoot with Nigel Gibson and Linda Croose-Smith.
In the summer of 1995, I’d just finished my history degree, and it was time to face the daunting world of work.
I knew I wanted to become the curator of a historic house. So I rang round all the properties listed in Hudson’s Historic Houses that were reachable by bus from my college in Oxford, and asked for a job.
I was delighted to be invited to an interview at Milton Manor. As I walked up the drive, though, I was surprised and a little disturbed to see a black boat up-ended in the lake, a swastika painted on its stern. I didn’t then realise that historical re-enactments were a large part of life at Milton, and that VE Day had just taken place. That day was my first encounter with Anthony Mockler Barrett, who still lives in and runs the house today with his consort Gwenda Marsh.
Over the next few years I became an enthusiastic tour guide, hunter for pieces of paper lost in Anthony’s idiosyncratic filing system, and washer-up of tea-cups. I enjoyed looking after Sooty, the black lamb, and helping with the re-enactments: the highlight was playing the Queen in a recreation of the 1953 coronation. I had a wonderful time and loved being at Milton so much that I sometimes even failed to leave after work, and ended up sleeping there. However, with hindsight, I can see that my eager-beaver ideas for improvement much have caused much annoyance and inconvenience.
Seventeen years later, Hudson’s Historic Houses sent me back to Milton once again, to turn the tables on my old boss. This time I would be asking the questions.
My first impression was that Anthony had not changed one bit: his hair still snowy, his face still baby-pink. His ancestor Bryant Barrett, lace-maker to George III, added Milton’s most notable rooms in the 1760s: a ‘pointed Gothic’ library and chapel slapped onto the side of the main seventeenth-century body of the house.
As we sat down to our interview, Anthony characteristically tried to take over, suggesting that he ‘adopt a persona of Evelyn Waugh-type irascibility’.
‘No need to adopt’, I secretly thought to myself, ‘you’ve got one already’.
His answer to my first question plunged me straight back into the world of Milton. I asked him why he’d taken down the website which had briefly existed to announce the house’s existence to potential visitors. ‘Because of the Water Board’ was the unexpected answer.
It would take me too long to explain why the Water Board have scuppered the Milton Manor website, but rest assured that they’re not in good odour. Indeed, as we talked, a well was being dug right outside the front door, apparently in an attempt to become self-sufficient and to avoid the interfering finger of officialdom. Anthony has similarly strong views on English Heritage. ‘Ah – they mean well’, he said. ‘They try hard. They’re on the surface very polite. But by God they’re a pain in the neck.’
The independent principality of Milton Manor has been open to visitors for about sixty years. ‘It was first opened by my mother in about 1951’, Anthony explained. Marjorie Mockler Barrett had ‘always wanted to be an actress – absolutely loved it’. She satisfied her dramatic yearnings by giving guided tours.
I asked Anthony about his own motivation for opening the house. ‘It was just a feeling’, he said, ‘that one had to go on doing what Mama did – I still really feel it’s her house, even now over 20 years after her death. If I wear gumboots in the house I feel guilty because she made us take them off. As for putting the central heating and spoiling the furniture – never.’
We talked for a bit about the atmosphere of Milton, which Anthony defines as ‘relaxed, informal and shabby-genteel’. I took issue with this, pointing out that it really is pretty zany: most historic houses don’t have an underwater bridge, or a tree-house with a sign saying ‘no adults’, or communal loos for the visitors. I think one of Milton’s defining features is its air of eccentricity. But this didn’t go down well.
‘Eccentric? How dare you!’
I also received a telling-off for referring to Milton as a ‘minor’ stately home. But for me its off-beat, low-key, minor charm is exactly what makes it special.
I asked Anthony about his best wheezes for bringing in new visitors, recalling from my own day the Wigwam Wiggly Walk and the Wild West Weekend. ‘Gwenda’s Murder Mysteries on August Bank Holiday weekends’, he said, decisively. ‘There’s always a murder in one of the rooms, and it’s usually solved in the library’.
Before inheriting Milton, Anthony had been a barrister, a breeder of Shetland ponies, the proprietor of a failed package holiday company, and an author. It turns out that his latest writing project is a book to be called How to Run a Stately Home in Twelve Not-So-Easy Lessons. The ‘lessons’ include ‘encourage romance among the staff’ and ‘choose a hard-working consort’. (Poor Gwenda!) The last of them is ‘don’t get too attached to the furniture, you might have to sell some of it’. He also recommends having animals: ‘the ones that cause least trouble are the llamas. They look interesting, eat grass and hay, and are useless for any practical purpose.’
During my days as a Milton tour guide, I learned an awful lot from Gwenda, a trained actress, about projecting your voice and trying to engage your audience. I asked Anthony why he never led tours himself.
‘I tried to do one once and Gwenda interrupted me, saying ‘You’re telling it all wrong, you’re saying ‘ooh’ and ‘um’, and I’d afraid I’ve got to take over’. I prefer hovering in the background and being mistaken for the gardener’.
I don’t think he’ll get away with that trick any more once his photo has appeared in Hudson’s Historic Houses. But visitors beware! Despite the official denial, I can safely say that they’re genuine, if loveable, eccentrics at Milton Manor.