Guinnesses in Petersfield and Steep by David Jeffery

Guinnesses in Petersfield and Steep by David Jeffery

The opening picture shows Alec and Merula Guinness with their son Matthew, perhaps in 1950s.

The first of the following two articles by David Jeffery appeared in the Petersfield Area Historical Society Bulletin for Spring 2022. I am most grateful to David for allowing its publication on the History of Steep website, along with the second piece which gives additional information about Sir Alec and Merula Guinness. 

The Guinnesses in Petersfield

by David Jeffery

When Alec and Merula Guinness settled in Kettlebrook Meadows in Steep Marsh in the mid-1950s, they were clearly happy to escape from the London-centred film world.

Soon after their arrival, they began to explore the neighbourhood and walked down Harrow Lane to Petersfield or, in the case of Alec, cycled into town to the shops. Merula, who had taken on a small number of goats, used to walk them down to the Harrow Inn, much to the bemusement of the locals.

The couple’s connection with the Harrow deepened over the years and their gratitude towards the Dodd and McCutcheon family – who have run the pub since 1932 – for their friendship, and help was acknowledged by Merula who presented Claire McCutcheon with two of her naive-style paintings. In later years, when Matthew, the Guinnesses’ son, visited his parents, they met at the Harrow and the three of them would play darts there at six o’clock on a regular basis. Claire remembers Alec bringing the actress Peggy Ashcroft to the pub once and the conversation centred around cricket!

The Harrow Inn, Steep

 

Early on in their experience of Steep, the couple met Diana Parker, whose husband, Drake, had been in the Navy and he and Alec would spend much time reminiscing about their experiences at sea. The two couples became very good friends over many years. Merula was an excellent cook and the couple entertained their visitors – always just one person or a couple at a time – either indoors or in the garden. When they were invited back to a friend’s house, they would be collected from Kettlebrook Meadows because Alec never drove. Indeed, when he had work in London, he would be taken by taxi either to Liss station or directly to a London venue. Eventually, they arranged a room in the house for a permanent chauffeur on site.

When he was in Petersfield, Alec would stroll around with his trilby hat pulled down over part of his face and could spend most of his time unrecognised, something he earnestly wished for. There were some shopkeepers who knew him as a regular customer: Tim O’Kelly at One Tree Books in Lavant Street remembers him coming into the shop “impeccably dressed and scrupulously polite, but eternally in disguise”. On those occasions when his own books were published (his autobiography Blessings in Disguise came out in 1986), he would be more engaging and talked at length about book publication.  However, he refused to do any book signings – but did offer Tim a signature in his office – as he had no intention of going public on these matters. There was one occasion when Alec attended a booksellers’ conference in Eastbourne and he was the guest of honour at the dinner; because of Tim’s connection with him through Petersfield, the two were placed side by side at table. Their conversation was lengthy but a little strained as Alec found such occasions quite a struggle, especially as he was so well-known both nationally and internationally, something which he found difficult to live with.  

Frank Westwood of The Petersfield Bookshop, accompanied by his son John, used to be invited to call at Kettlebrook Meadows occasionally to collect books that Alec had been donated by various admirers. Frank was delighted to accept the books for sale at the shop; he found Alec and Merula a very charming, slightly shy, utterly unpretentious couple. 

Another close contact with Petersfield came, perhaps inevitably, with the theatre group known as the Hi-Lights. Alec regularly attended their productions – always their Saturday matinees – and sat two or three rows from the front of the auditorium. The Hi-Lights invited him to become their Honorary Vice-President, which he accepted and remained in that position from 1982 until 1994. He did not stay behind after the shows, but always sent a letter of thanks to Jackie Phillips, the group’s Chairman.

One memorable occasion, in 1989, when the Hi-Lights were celebrating their 21st “birthday”, Roger Wettone directed a children’s production of Bugsy Malone for Christmas, with Pat Wettone as musical director. Afterwards, and despite his reservations, Alec was introduced to the cast in the Green Room. The children at first looked puzzled by this gentleman as he was introduced as the famous film actor, but then, as his Star Wars role as Obi-Wan Kenobi was mentioned, there was a roar of recognition from the children. Alec spoke to them briefly, then left.

The villagers of Liss were also slightly acquainted with Alec and Merula: they shopped at Davey’s, the butchers, where John Lintott remembers their charming and courteous manner towards other customers.    

Ken Hick, Mayor of Petersfield in 1974, remembers Alec giving a recitation about London at Petersfield’s Festival Hall in aid of the town’s Catholic church, St. Laurence’s, which was the Guinness regular place of worship.        

In Blessings in Disguise, Alec spoke of the idyllic year of 1955, after the couple had moved to Steep and when, one Saturday afternoon, he had “aimlessly pedalled the two miles down to Petersfield and stopped outside the church of St. Laurence.  I had never been inside before and was surprised by the simplicity of its white interior and the absence of hideous plaster statues. Half formed at the back of my mind was the idea that if I caught a glimpse of the parish priest, and liked the look of him, I might ask for instruction in the faith. …Fr. Henry Clarke came round a corner, a tall gentle, civilised looking man.”      

In fact, St. Laurence’s Catholic Church had had its origin in the private chapel of Mr Laurence Trent Cave of Ditcham Park in the 1880s and, having bought the land in Station Road for its construction, he had had it consecrated in 1891 and given responsibility for it to the Benedictine Monastery of St. Laurence at Ampleforth Abbey in North Yorkshire. In 1946, it was the ex-Anglican, Fr. Henry Clarke, who replaced the (Benedictine) incumbent priest-in-charge, and he remained there until 1972.

In 1956, Fr. Clarke accepted Alec’s admission into the church and, as Alec says in his autobiography, “like countless converts before and after me, I felt I had come home”.  In fact, when they lived in London, Alec used to drop in at the Jesuit Church in Farm Street on his way home to Smith Square. He had always craved spiritual solitude as an antidote to his hectic career lifestyle and, when he and Merula moved to Steep, they admired All Saints’ “spiky wooden spire, unusual and elegant” and the solemnly quiet interior, its Whistler windows dedicated to Edward Thomas and its 150 hand-stitched hassocks. The latter gave some inspiration to Merula for her own needlework and she also painted the church and its lychgate – a painting which featured in the exhibition of her work at the Midhurst Gallery in 2000 shortly after her death.  Merula had in fact converted to Catholicism shortly before Alec did in the 1950s. 

Tapestry by Merula Guinness      

Despite the Guinnesses’ desire for anonymity and general self-deprecation, they did become friends with Fr. Clarke’s successor, Fr. Cyril Murtagh and he was invited to meals at Kettlebrook Meadows. Alec once performed a one-man show at St. Laurence’s as a fundraiser before he took it to London; he also helped St. Laurence’s readers by giving them lessons before they read at Mass. The Guinnesses always sat in the same seats on the far left-hand side in the middle of the nave, and regularly attended the 6 p.m. service.

The most contentious issue confronting Steep residents in the 1980s was the proposed construction of a new Petersfield by-pass through the village and passing directly across a field adjacent to Kettlebrook Meadows. In fact, Merula’s brother Euston, fearing that the Guinnesses would find the noise unbearable, bought another property for them: Ashford Cottage, in Ashford Lane immediately below the Hangers. However, despite the impact of the new A3 route upon their beloved and peaceful existence, Alec and Merula decided to stay put and the cottage was given to their son Matthew.  

In the meantime, Alec became a generous supporter of the official Steep objection to the by-pass. There was an unwritten understanding that his privacy should not be exploited, and this was, of course, respected. After the first public meeting in the Town Hall, when Rollo Wicksteed, the spokesman for the Steep residents’ campaign, made a passionate plea to respect Steep’s unspoilt rural character, he received a cheque in the post from Alec in support. In fact, the committee raised tens of thousands of pounds by a wide variety of activities which enabled them to put up a strong case at the subsequent Public Enquiry.  It was the Guinness cheque which had started the ball rolling. 

Another (later) example of the Guinnesses’ attachment to, and support for, their local village was their generosity towards the refurbishment and extension of the village hall.  Alec, in his familiarly unobtrusive way, also used to attend matches of the Steep Cricket Club.                

It was also in 1980 that Alec bought his mother a house in Petersfield. This was one of a new terrace of houses at the top end of Madeline Road. Much has been written about the uncertainty surrounding the identity of Alec’s father, but we do know that his mother, named Agnes de Cuffe, was born in 1887; she had kept her illegitimate son close to her in London during the war years of 1914-1918, but after the war, they moved house frequently and Alec was mostly away at boarding school. However, as his biographer Garry O’Connor has stated: “by the age of 18, he had severed all connection with his mother”. Barely three years later, and after undertaking various jobs and some small theatrical roles – thanks largely to the support of John Gielgud – he met Merula and their future together was assured. He often did not see his mother for long periods during his working life, but nevertheless felt some responsibility towards her and was probably not a little embarrassed at her (impoverished) circumstances, visibly contrasting with his fame and fortune.

In fact, Agnes survived remarkably well into her late nineties. Towards the end of her life, Alec responded sympathetically to her plight and, by bringing her to Petersfield for her last few years, he clearly compensated for the lack of affection on her part in his early life. She fell ill in her mid-nineties and was transferred to Bordean House in Langrish, a Catholic home belonging to an order of French nuns. She died in 1985 and, probably in keeping with the family’s general desire for privacy, was buried outside Petersfield, in the churchyard of St. John the Evangelist, Langrish in early 1986.

When, at the end of their lives (Alec died in August and Merula in October 2000), Petersfield had to take care to downplay the ceremonies, as would have been the couple’s wish. Only a limited number of people attended Alec’s brief Requiem Mass at St. Laurence’s, followed by the burial in Petersfield cemetery and about 50 close friends were invited to go back to Kettlebrook Meadows afterwards.  

The coffin itself was decorated – appropriately – with a simple arrangement of  fruit and wild flowers collected from the garden and fields around the couple’s home.   It was Claire McCutcheon from The Harrow who had prepared the floral tributes and decorated the coffin and bedecked the church entrance with elegant, but understated, garlands.

Floral Tribute for Sir Alec Guinness 2000 – by Claire McCutcheon

 

The whole ceremony had been kept a closely guarded secret but, in order to avoid the crowds who had inevitably gathered outside the church, Matthew and the rest of the family left St. Laurence’s by a rear door.

Barely two months later, Merula’s funeral was also a low-key affair at St. Laurence’s, with donations from parishioners and others being directed to King Edward VII hospital in Midhurst where Alec, suffering from cancer, had spent his last days. She joined Alec in their final resting place in Petersfield cemetery. Their adjacent graves are a fitting symbol of their close and loving ties which their decades-long stay in Steep and Petersfield helped to nurture.  

Graves of Sir Alec & Merula Guinness at Petersfield cemetery

 

My research into this subject has proved to be both informative and fascinating. It is quite clear, from reading Alec Guinness’s autobiographical works, that he was extremely well-read, appreciative of witticism and subtlety in other writers both ancient and modern, and that his own style of writing was, subsequently, naturally flowing and literate. In another life, he would have succeeded easily as an academic and literary researcher. As it happened, his worldwide travels enabled him to absorb other cultures and identities with ease, exploit their idiosyncrasies and import some of their features into his home life. While it is easy to appreciate Alec’s highly developed fear of recognition in any given circumstances, his and Merula’s natural diffidence was well accommodated in our community, and we should feel honoured to have had them living among us.       

Sources

Alec Guinness : Blessings in Disguise, Fontana Paperback, 1986

Alec Guinness : My Name Escapes Me, Penguin Books, 1998

Alec Guinness : A Positively Final Appearance, Hamish Hamilton, 1999

Catholics in Petersfield, a brief history, T.T. Concannon and Barbara Gower, 1990

Country Life, An Englishman’s Home, 4 January 2007, p. 65

David Jeffery : In conversation with Matthew Guinness, Tony Clear, Haden and Edna   Dodd, Claire McCutcheon,  Diana Parker, Fr. Cyril Murtagh, Sabine Stevenson, Roger Wettone, Tim O’Kelly, Ken Hick, Helen Spurdle, Rollo Wicksteed, John Lintott, Mick Triggs, Marsha Vincent, Barbara Pettegree, John Westwood, 2020-2021

Gary O’Connor : Alec Guinness, Master of Disguise, Hodder and Stoughton, 1994

London Review of Books, 25 January 2001

Piers Paul Read : Alec Guinness: the authorised biography, Simon & Schuster, 2002

Buildings, Gardens and Monuments in Steep, 2018 by Struthers, Box, Routh & Storey

Special thanks go to Matthew Guinness for his generous supply of reminiscences and observations on life in Petersfield in the postwar period. Also to Sabine Stevenson for allowing me to visit Kettlebrook Meadows and to Claire McCutcheon for showing me many documents and paintings relating to the couple.

The Guinnesses in Steep

by David Jeffery

Few people know that Alec and Merula (after 1959, Sir Alec and Lady Merula) Guinness lived in Steep Marsh for over forty years, residing at Kettlebrook Meadows from 1955 until their deaths, both at the age of 86, in 2000. The one single memorial to three local “worthies”, including Alec Guinness but not his wife, is to be found close to the Harrow Inn in Steep on the Shipwrights’ Way. 

They had met while performing at the Old Vic in 1935, become engaged during a rehearsal at the Queen’s Theatre in 1938 and married the same year. Their son Matthew was born in 1940. Alec served in the Royal Navy from 1941-1945 as a sub-lieutenant in command of various types of landing craft. During those years, Merula spent most of her time with Matthew, first at her elderly parents’ house at Ockley in Surrey, then moving with them to Lodsworth, near Midhurst. She had also been acting in Liverpool and taken employment as a land girl near Horsham.

Not long after Alec was demobbed, the young family moved back to west London and rented a house in St. Peter’s Square in Chiswick. The family’s move from London to Steep in 1955 was made possible by the design and construction of a new house for them by Euston Salaman, Merula’s brother, who lived in Lodsworth but had an architectural practice in Petersfield. He had clearly recommended this area for its natural beauty and its convenience for travel to London, essential for Alec’s work in the theatre and, subsequently more frequently, films.

 The house itself was said to defy architectural classification; for a 1950s construction, Dalton Clifford described it as “a welcome change. It displays no contemporary clichés and no period mannerisms. It is neither stark nor picturesque; it lacks precise symmetry, impressive vistas, dramatic contrasts.” Its seclusion within the rural community of Steep Marsh suited Alec and Merula perfectly: it had abundant light, space and opportunity for the couple to pursue their personal interests both indoors and outside.

Kettlebrook Meadows Steep, designed by Euston Salaman

 

For Merula in particular, a keen artist, the most attractive aspect of the house was the possibility of having a purpose-built studio with a large north-facing skylight.

Merula Guinness painting
Merula Guinness painting

 

Another property designed by Salaman in the early 1950s was Mill Corner, situated adjacent to the waterfall in Mill Lane, Steep. Interestingly, this also has an extensive balcony along the upper floor, similar to that at Kettlebrook Meadows, where Alec would often sleep outside in a featherdown sleeping bag, as their balcony was directly accessible from the bedroom.  Alec and Merula did not immediately move into Kettlebrook Meadows, but first used it as a weekend retreat after it was built in 1954, Alec still needing to be much of the time in London.

Meanwhile, Merula had given up her acting career and now took up painting again seriously. The fifth of six children, she came from a wealthy, well-established and highly cultured family, all with artistic leanings, who were brought up in a fine mansion at Ockley. Her mother, Chattie, was determined not to become a housebound housewife so she preoccupied herself with painting and gardening. Merula studied art at Chelsea Polytechnic and, like her mother, was also keen on horses for riding and hunting. Part of her childhood had been spent in Devon and when she and Alec eventually moved to Steep, it must have been like a homecoming for her, with all the possibilities of leading a semi-rural lifestyle among her family and animals. Two major factors in their lives at Kettlebrook Meadows were its extensive garden and surrounding countryside of the Hangers, and the facility, thanks to its innovative architecture, of “living outdoors” – they could just as easily eat, sleep and socialise outside as inside the house. They lived in interchangeable worlds, thanks to the generous balconies around the upper floor and several doorways o the garden on the ground floor.

View from Kettlebrook Meadows to the Hangers

 

The house itself was compact, the living areas allowed for writing and painting studios, with large picture windows in the open-plan sitting-cum-living room overlooking the garden at the rear of the property. The other space was devoted to a garage-cum-carport, a storeroom and, above, a flat which would become a room for future staff such as their chauffeur. A conservatory was added, known as “Percy’s parlour” because the family’s pet African grey parrot had his cage there; it also served as a second dining area. Externally, the lower half of house was flint-covered, with wooden cladding on breeze blocks above.

During their years spent at Kettlebrook Meadows, Merula had help in the garden from a close neighbour, Mr Knight, Helen Spurdle from Steep Marsh, and Tony Clear, the latter a landscape gardener from Steep who designed a large pool and planted many trees, including planes, limes and aspens around the perimeter of the lawn. They created a water garden with small ponds and filled it with a variety of fish including Alec’s favourite, koi carp. A larger pond was also sunk in another part of the garden where several trees had died. Here, Merula added a little rock garden.  To suit their outdoor proclivities, there were many areas for sitting or dining according to the position of the sun.  

Towards the end of his life, Alec used to spend time around the pond feeding his fish.

Sir Alec at his pond at Kettlebrook Meadows

 

Off the large sitting room there was a patio where he used to sit in the summer, dreaming that he was on the sundeck of an old Cunard liner in mid-Atlantic. Another garden feature was established at the front of the house: a croquet lawn. Sadly, and very irritating for Alec in particular, this was often marred by the emergence of moles! Matthew remembers his father attacking these by injecting carbide into the holes. Matthew once held a lighted match over the entrance, the flame dived down the hole and there was an enormous subterranean explosion! Luckily for him, his parents were not at home at the time.      

Over the years, what had originally been a three-bedroom house (a master bedroom for Alec and Merula, and two smaller rooms for Matthew and a spare one for guests) became a basic central home with a cluster of practical outbuildings. One source of pride and joy was their vine, planted at one corner of the house and which extended upwards to their bedroom balcony. In Blessings in Disguise, Alec talks of “standing upstairs for a long while, looking at the lovely line of gentle hills which surrounded us on three sides: the hangers to the north-west, Butser Hill to the south, and Harting Down in the east.”

The largely timber-built house with its balconies and verandas made for him a territory all of his own and he wrote about its beauty and serenity, silence and spiritual satisfactions: “not having a home as a child, I need my house….and what has been planted comes up in my soil”. Equally, he appreciated the scattered village of Steep itself, with its “inaccessible winding ways and yet its gentle mildness”. He also talked of the village church, All Saints’, and one of his and Merula’s summer pleasures when they sat down to dinner outside in the garden was to hear the gentle peal of its six bells wafting towards them over the fields.   

Kettlebrook Meadows clearly met a basic need for Alec in providing a serene rural idyll where he could hide away from the spotlight of the film industry.  Towards the end of his life and after a particularly difficult period, he wrote “with the sunlight on the treetops, I begin to throw off the jaded feelings of the past fortnight”.

Both Alec and Merula were very keen on the countryside and their love and knowledge of nature was very strong. They delighted in their six acres of fields and garden, part of which was formal. Helen Spurdle, who had originally gardened for them, also cared for them in the house in their later lives. Alec and Merula enjoyed the informality and ease with which they could entertain any guests – Alec described their life there as a “really tatty open-plan sort of life” and they revelled in the opportunity to simply potter around dressed scruffily and caring for their numerous animals, especially their many species of dogs.  

Animals played a central part in their lives: Alec’s Dandie Dinmont terrier used to sleep on their bed, and there were many other breeds, including “Gordon” and a Welsh cob named “Fluellen”. Merula thrived on looking after these members of the family, mucking out loose boxes or nursing sick dogs, goats or horses. At various times they also had cats, a parrot, and a donkey in a nearby field. “Fluellen” became very well known to visitors to The Harrow Inn and a Shetland pony named Gloria lived in a paddock in the garden. 

Merula was often to be seen in Steep with her half a dozen goats – there was a special shed for them in the garden too – and she would walk them across the fields to The Harrow Inn and stop for a drink with local friends. Like Alec, she was a very private person, however, and delighted in her existence in Kettlebrook Meadows, where she pursued her pastimes of painting and embroidery while Alec was away (often abroad).  

Merula’s home life was centred around her books, embroidery and paintings: her art reflected her deep love of nature and the local characters within it.  When Alec was away filming, she would set about a project of her own and her studio was a haven of tranquillity into which Alec never intruded. She said of herself: “I am not reclusive, but simply a quiet person who prefers to stay in the country”. Her favourite themes were local walks, her dogs, religious allegories and her family, represented in oil, pastel or gouache. Her needlework pictures are glowing with colour, intricate in texture, and medieval in their richness. Her early children’s books, written and published during the war, had a similarly naive style.

Book by Merula Guinness

 

As a couple, Alec and Merula were known to be unerringly and almost obsessively private. It was as if there was a tangible consciousness to lead a wholly different life in Steep to that of the London stage and screen personae from which they had both stemmed. 

As employers of “staff”, whether occasional or semi-permanent, they were considered to be highly charming if elusive, diffident but delightful to work for and, ultimately, totally committed and generous.   

Their beloved Kettlebrook Meadows can be seen to represent the ultimate expression of their Englishness – both warm and quirky, simple yet exotic in parts, a perfectly chosen idyll hidden from an outside world they probably longed to forget. Their inner world of books – Alec was an avid and extensive reader – of writing, of painting and of caring for their animals brought them a harmony which so many in their professionally artistic lives fail to find. “This England” in a nutshell.  

Sources

Alec Guinness: Blessings in Disguise, Fontana Paperback, 1986

Alec Guinness: My name escapes me, Penguin Books, 1998

Alec Guinness: A Positively Final Appearance, Hamish Hamilton, 1999

Country Life, An Englishman’s Home, 4 January 2007, p. 65

David Jeffery: In conversation with Tony Clear, Haden and Edna Dodd, Claire McCutcheon, Diana Parker, Sabine Stevenson, Helen Spurdle,  Oct – Nov 2020

Gary O’Connor: Alec Guinness, Master of Disguise, Hodder and Stoughton, 1994

London Review of Books, 25 January 2001

Piers Paul Read: Alec Guinness: the authorised biography, Simon & Schuster, 2002

Struthers, Box, Routh & Storey: Buildings, Gardens and Monuments in Steep, 2018

Special thanks go to Matthew Guinness for his generous supply of reminiscences relating to the period he spent at Kettlebrook Meadows. Also to Sabine Stevenson for allowing me to visit the house and to Claire McCutcheon for showing me many documents and paintings relating to the couple.