Wyndham Lodge - 12th March 2014
Ominously girdled by a very twenty-first century, green spiked security fence in the manner of a gestapo camp of days gone by, the lovely old former dwelling once known as Wyndham Lodge stands at the end of a short driveway leading to the bottom of Ankle Hill in Melton Mowbray, defying onlookers and visitors any closer inspection of its virtues. At this time of year as spring announces the arrival of much new growth to come, it is still possible to breach the undergrowth of life-threatening brambles which will soon again bear their new batch of fruit for the new year. In a couple of months it would only be the foolhardy who would attempt to penetrate the masses of thorns which they regularly produce. Through this fence can still be seen and admired, the large and now abandoned Victorian dwelling which until quite recently had served the town for several decades as a cottage hospital, better known to locals as the War Memorial. Many of today's townspeople have at some time or other passed through its welcoming doors to be tended to by the caring doctors and nurses in the wards and treatment rooms therein.
The message could not be clearer!
My constant guide and mentor in all things historical about Melton Mowbray, the late Jack Brownlow, attests to the fact that the first property to be built on the gently sloping site was known as Hill House and that this was also reputed to be the first house built south of the river Eye. Built during the reign of the legendary King George III at the behest of a Mr Hind, a retired dealer in leather, it was later, in 1828, leased to the Earl and Countess of Chesterfield, a man alleged to be an inveterate gambler who was notoriously accustomed to playing for very large stakes. A great fan of coaching, he was responsible for reviving the local 'Four-in-hand Club'. Around 1840, Colonel Charles Wyndham took up the residency and was soon to rename the house Wyndham Lodge. His military career boasted of service with distinction in the Peninsular War whilst a Major with the Scots Greys and also of involvement in the skirmishes at Waterloo. It followed that as an inveterate equestrian he would neccesarily become involved in local equestrian pursuits which he did with a passion. In his book, 'Melton Mowbray Queen of the Shires', Jack Brownlow tells us that:
'... George IV had termed him the handsomest man in the army. He was a very powerful man weighing over 16 stones and when he could not get over a fence, he went though it. Horsemen would cry, 'Where's Wyndham' when faced with a seemingly impenetrable fence. He would quickly make a gap big enough for the whole field to pass through. Whyte Melville, in Riding Recollections, gives an account of this intrepid hunter's feats, 'I've seen him burst across Leicestershire pastures, go for twenty minutes with the best lightweights, occasionally relieving the horse by throwing himself off, leaping a fence alongside of it and vaulting on again, without checking the animal sufficient to break its stride.'
In 1852, Colonel Wyndham was appointed to the handsomely remunerative and prestigious position of Governor of the Tower of London, at the same time gaining promotion to the heady rank of General. It was at this time that he gave up his local residence and took his final leave of Melton Mowbray, though his name is today immortalised in nearby Wyndham Avenue.
Following a period of residence at the Lodge by Mr Bromley Davenport, M.P. for North Warwickshire, Wyndham Lodge was next leased to Mr William Augustus Chaplin, a carrier. In 1872 he would purchase the property outright, together with an initial three acres of land for £2,600, but within a very short time of taking possession he set about demolishing the whole building. Mr Winter Johnson, a local architect, drew up plans for a new residence and stables with an added bonus being that much of the redundant material removed was successfully utilised in the construction of other large buildings in the town. The firm of Master mason Mr Neal constructed the building that we know today of stone quarried from the nearby village of Wartnaby and when ready for occupation in 1874, the Lodge was situated attractively on a hill slope overlooking the River Eye within its beautifully designed and manicured gardens complete with tennis courts, at which time its total curtilage south from the river stretched uphill to be bordered by the roads we now know as Ankle Hill, Warwick Road and Dalby Road. For the ensuing three decades Mr Chaplin and his family were to grace the Lodge with their presence during each winter season and they were spoken of fondly as yet another family who were always ready to alleviate distress in the town and assist charitable organisations.
A succession of prominent tenants were to continue to grace the halls and rooms of Wyndham Lodge over the last years of the 19th Century until an important period of its history was to occur at the end of the devastating World War of 1914-18 and which was to shape contention in the town some one hundred years later. I refer to the current debate as to the now controversial ownership of the former War Memorial Hospital property which seems to have never been successfully concluded. In 1980, when historian and businessman Jack Brownlow produced his invaluable history of our old market town, he was to record the following passage which recorded the series of events relating to the genesis of the doubts and confusions of today.
'After the First World War, Wexford House at the corner of Craven Street and Burton Road was acquired for a temporary cottage hospital, until a permanent War Memorial Hospital could be built. At a meeting held in the Town Hall, King Street, in August 1920 Colonel Richard Dalgleish said that he had offered to build a permanent hospital on the Wexford House site, but on reflection did not consider the site suitable for the purpose. He had, therefore, agreed to buy Wyndham Lodge and 15 acres of land for £5,000, subject to the approval of the hospital committee. He was prepared to pay for the necessary alterations and hand over to the town a completed Cottage Hospital. He wished to stipulate that the hospital should be available both for Melton Mowbray and the surrounding district. These alterations cost about £2,000 and the War Memorial Hospital was opened by His Royal Highness Prince Henry on 19th January 1922.'
Sadly today, it remains 'verboten' to enter upon the grounds of this once public idyll of specimen trees and grassed areas and the remaining buildings stand safeguarded only by uniformed security staff who lodge in the gatehouse. Sad are the times such that all visitors must now be initially be suspected as being either a thief or a vandal intent on causing mischief, thus making one more of the town's little treasures and pleasant distractions unavailable to those of us who care. As I write, negotiations are mooted to be continuing over the fate of the land in question and the buildings remain as they were on the day that they were closed down some five years hence. Financial problems in the world markets - known colloquially as the 'credit crunch' - was to thwart grandiose, yet sympathetic plans to regenerate and rescue the area as residential parkland which at one point had reached an advanced stage. The miracle which saw the salvation and rebirth of Craven Lodge for the Town, despite the lack of available finance and just along the road from this crumbling edifice, gave us local hopefuls the sniff of a taste of the same.
There apparently exists an 'elite' group of furtive urban discoverers who wander the countryside and whose avowed intention is to create clandestine entries to prohibited sites such as our beloved War Memorial. Indeed they brag that they they have cracked this forbidden place at Melton Mowbray and wandered about, without incident to report the situation to the outside world. Whether 'Polski' is one of its ranks I have no current intelligence, but it is a fact that he has produced an excellently illustrated web page - Midlands Heritage, which depicts the run-down property in 2012.
The red box shows the way.
To learn much more of the interesting history of the old hospital and indeed, of the present-day political struggle to repossess use of the buildings for the community, a visit to the website posted by the action group Melton First, should prove most rewarding.