A Magical Day at Mells: WPA 'Siegfried Sassoon at Mells' Event 28 May 2005
Despite a shaky start to the weather, 'a magical day' quickly became the most frequently-heard description of the Association's 'Siegfried Sassoon at Mells' Day Conference at Mells, Somerset on Saturday 28th May.
About 50 members and friends attended and, as it seems appropriate to use a cricketing metaphor, the list of players could not have been bettered.
Siegfried Sassoon is buried at Mells so the day started appropriately at St Andrew's Church, where the Vicar, the Revd. Martin Weymont, took his audience through a fascinating oral tour of the monuments and memorials inside the church. These include lettering by Eric Gill in memory of Raymond Asquith and the tomb and wooden grave marker of Edward Horner, sitting magnificently on his horse. Both of the last of these memorials stand on a plinth designed by Edwin Lutyens and in front of a window designed by William Nicholson, who (co-incidentally) was to become the father-in-law of the war poet and great wartime friend of Sassoon, Robert Graves.
Raymond Asquith and Edward Horner were, respectively, the husband and brother of Katharine Asquith, née Horner, who as a result of the deaths of both men in action in World War One inherited Mells Manor and its estate and, more significantly for our theme for the day, found solace by converting to Roman Catholicism. Raymond Asquith was, of course, the son of Herbert Asquith, Liberal Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1908 - 1916, who led Britain during the first two years of World War One. As the audience was later to hear from Dr Jean Moorcroft Wilson and others, it was perhaps Katharine's own conversion to Catholicism, as well as her preservation of the English rural life at Mells well into the Twentieth Century, that probably influenced Siegfried Sassoon's own conversion to that faith much later in both of their lives.
Jean Moorcroft Wilson's full and informative talk Siegfried Sassoon: The Longest Journey, about Sassoon after World War 1 and his growing connections with Mells after the Second World War, included a reading of one his unpublished and recently-discovered poems which has a strong connection to his experience of the village. Afterwards, WPA Board Member Helen McPhail's excellent skills as 'Master' of Ceremonies for the day allowed the group an unscheduled 15 minutes to look more closely at the monuments, memorials and art inside the church that had been described thus far; this was especially apprecited given that it might not have been possible to return to the church later due to a wedding taking place there in the afternoon.
The group then went on to the churchyard, to view the graves of Sassoon and Ronald Knox. In poignant ceremonies Jean Moorcroft Wilson read a second of the unpublished and recently-discovered poems by Sassoon over his grave and flowers were laid there by Dennis Silk, who went on to speak to us with Dom Philip Jebb so memorably during the afternoon, and by the President of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, Meg Crane. Viscount Raymond Asquith similarly laid flowers on the grave of Ronald Knox, the Catholic writer and broadcaster who had also lived in Mells and whom Sassoon had so greatly admired, and had turned to for advice on his conversion to Roman Catholicism.
Amidst improving weather, the group then walked back through the village for a buffet lunch at the nearby Tythe Barn, where the catering arrangements were not only laudable and excellent but also reminiscent of English village life as Sassoon would have known it. After lunch the audience was boosted by two or three more and remained in the Tythe Barn for a fascinating talk by Michael McGarvie, Honorary Archivist at Mells Manor and a local historian and author of many books, who has lived in Frome for nearly 40 years, on Ronald Knox and his connections with Mells and Siegfried Sassoon.
This was followed by a magical discussion that many of the audience would describe afterwards as the highlight of the whole day; words used to do so included 'memorable', 'poignant', 'captivating' 'magical' and 'unrepeatable'. The audience was held spellbound as Dom Phillip Jebb, former Headmaster and Prior at Downside Abbey and Dennis Silk, former Warden of Radley College, Chairman of the Test and County Cricket Board and a well-known cricketer, spoke about Sassoon. Both had known him well from the time of his conversion to Roman Catholicism, or before, until his death and, to continue the cricketing theme, 'on and off the cricket pitch'. They used a witty and informal discussion to relate many interesting, informative - and often very serious - points about Siegfried Sassoon, the man they had known, and his reasons for converting to Catholicism including the influence of Katharine Asquith.
They also brought across very clearly the attraction to Sassoon of Mells, its Manor and cricket team as what Sassoon had seen as a perfect example of the English village life; a life that he had known before the World Wars and especially during an idyllic childhood; that he had later described in his books The Old Century and The Weald of Youth; and that he felt had been all but lost elsewhere. During this session and the earlier one the sound of bells from St Andrew's Church for the wedding now taking place very appropriately helped add to the atmosphere of an English village. And the descriptions of Sassoon were so good that at times it was easy to imagine that Siegfried himself was there on the stage with the two speakers....... It could not have been bettered!
The magic continued as the group walked back through the village to visit the gardens of Mells Manor, in what (very appropriately) had now become perfect English Summer weather. Many remarked that the sudden view of the tower of St Andrew's Church in the sunlight as the group walked through the Manor's gates, designed by Lutyens, was particularly striking. In the presence of Lord Oxford (who had also been with us throughout the day), his son Viscount Raymond Asquith and Michael McGarvie described the history of the Manor and its gardens and the village more generally. The group then returned to the Tythe Barn via a 'short historical walk' through the village, led again by Michael McGarvie.
Over tea and ginger cake Professor Paul O'Prey, Chairman of the War Poets Association, concluded the day with closing remarks and well-deserved thanks to the Asquith family, the speakers, the caterers and everyone else who had helped create the conference. He remarked on the irony of the fact that as someone familiar with the life and work of Sassoon's fellow war poet, Robert Graves, he had been used to hearing that people were not aware of Graves as a war poet (as Jean Moorcroft Wilson had also said in her lecture). In the case of Sassoon, we had learned from the day that he had suffered from the exact reverse of this in his life from 1918: of being known only as a First World War poet; despite the considerable amount of other writing and poems he had produced, so much of it related to an idyllic vision of the English countryside. A vision epitomised by Mells in Sassoon’s day. In fact, exactly as we saw it on that Saturday.
To join the War Poets Association, please click here.