Erica Browitt (Newberry)

Erica Newbery I was born in the Gardener’s Cottage at Brook House. My father, Alf Newbery, was the estate’s Head Gardener. He was assisted by Jasper Morris who lived in the front lodge (known as Morey’s Lodge after a former lodge keeper) and, on a part-time basis, by my mother, formerly Daisy Pragnell. My father’s branch of the Newbery family lived at Bank Cottage, Hulverstone, whilst other family members lived in the village and surrounding areas.

Generations of Newbery men were either gardeners or carpenters although some escaped the mould. My mother lived at Hanover House and her father worked on Brook Farm. She hailed from a large family in the Merstone and Blackwater areas. Both families were musical. Soon after I was born we were given a flat in Brook House and the Gardener’s Cottage was eventually extended to become Sherwood Lodge and the home to Sir Hugh Seely, the Lord Sherwood of Calverton.

My father and mother (who worked full-time in the garden until her marriage) were both apprenticed to a former Head Gardener, Mr Tribbick, who was a very knowledgeable and respected man, a member of the Royal Horticultural Society and author of several published papers on the growing of fruit and vegetables. My mother specialised in fruit growing and worked endless hours on the vines along with more general duties. My father was an all-rounder who grew prize vegetables, created stunning herbaceous borders and took an immense pride in all he did.  

My mother was a clever needlewoman (it ran in her family) who made a lot of our clothes amongst other things. She encouraged my sisters and me to draw and paint, often joining us when she had the time. My father was a deep thinker and, despite having left school at 13 or 14, he could help me with my
homework right up to secondary stage, particularly with algebra where, knowing nothing about the subject, he could come up with the answer just by thinking about it. He could talk to us about all manner of things. My mother was an excellent cook and fed us well, often going without herself in order to do so. In winter evenings, often in the light of an oil lamp when the estate’s electricity was running low, she taught us to knit,
embroider and crochet.

Either my father or mother went to Newport on the Shotter’s bus on Saturday afternoons to buy our Sunday joint (unless someone in the village had killed a pig when the meat was shared around). Sometimes as a treat, one of us went with him or her. Bread was delivered twice a week by pony (Tom) and cart from Mr Warne’s bakery in Brighstone. Our groceries (ordered on a Monday from rep. Mr Downer) were delivered by Orchards of Freshwater on Wednesdays. The Morris family ran a very useful shop at Hanover where it was possible to buy almost anything. When a local fisherman had a good catch we had fish. My aunt, Louisa Newbery, ran the Post Office in Hulverstone for many years and my cousin, Joan Newbery was the local
hairdresser. A second cousin Hilda Barnes (nee Newbery) played the chapel organ for as long as I can remember and her father, Henry Newbery, was a chapel trustee.

During the summer, Rita Whitewood ran a sweet and beachware shop at Compton in one of the beach huts which have long since disappeared into the chine. A Mr Leal undertook cobbling in a little shed off Coastguard Lane.

Coastguards lived in the station and their lookout was on the cliff at Sudmoor. (A part-time coastguard saw ‘The Devil’ one dark and stormy night when a goat looked through the window at him, the terrified man retired on the spot). Their head man was a Mr Kennedy who later moved to Croyde Bay in North Devon where he found fame by being the first man to use a breeches buoy in a real rescue mission. The equipment consisted of a length of line fired to a ship in distress along which a man from the rescue unit was transported to the stricken vessel. The south west coast of the Island was always dangerous to shipping so it is no wonder that there were lifeboats at Brook and Brighstone. The Brook boat was drawn from the lifeboat house into the sea by horses from nearby farms and was crewed by men from the village. There are plaques in Brook Church commemorating its achievements.

As soon as I was old enough it became my daily job to collect our milk from Brook Farm and, when I grew a bit more, I also collected Mrs Dalbiac’s milk in return for which she taught me to play the piano on her concert grand at Little Brook. Sometimes she took me along to Pitt Place to demonstrate my progress to her sister, Mrs Sylvia Wykeham. (My mother planted thousands of snowdrops beside the drive at Pitt Place, a job she was glad to finish!).

I enjoyed many picnics and outings with Mrs Dalbiac’s grandchildren and other members of the Seely children when they were at Brook. At one stage, to my father’s utter horror, I started calling Sir Hugh ‘Uncle Hughie’ because his family did! All the children in Brook played together - we made our own amusement and were never bored. Those who were lucky enough to have bicycles, often constructed by a father and son team from scrap, went for bicycle rides and the long days of summer were spent on the beach.

I particularly remember that on the Saturday before Mothering Sunday, members of the church took us out to gather primroses which were then made into posies to give to our mothers in church next day. Bought presents were unheard of because we had no money. The church played a big part in all our lives and most people went to a service at sometime each Sunday - and they never, ever, missed Harvest Festival. Our Lenten services were held in the Chapel with the Methodists. Once a year my father took a break from his evening watering and shutting-up duties and we all went to a service (usually at Mottistone) and then walked home via the Longstone and back of Brook Hill House . My mother usually took us for a walk on Sunday afternoons and it was a treat when father could join us.

When Reverend Bowyer became our Rector, he set up a youth-cum-social club which met once a week in the Seely Hall. This was a big leap forward for the young people and for some of the adults, too, who came along to play billiards and table-tennis. There was a portable stage in the hall and Mrs Bowyer tried her hardest to turn us into actors - without much success! She did, however, manage to produce a highly successful passion play which she had written. It took place at Mottistone in the village; manor grounds and church and almost everyone in Brook and ‘Mott’ had a part to play - she was a forceful lady and I expect most people would have found it difficult to refuse to take part! She would have enjoyed the Brook Pageants which took place on a regular basis, unfortunately before my time. John Betjeman, a close friend of the Bowyers, made several visits and found ‘sheer delight’ in the two villages. He loved Mottistone Church.

Our lives were very different to the lives of children today; we didn’t have much in the way of material things but we had loving parents and we were happy and content with our lot. (I can hear some cynics - saying with some truth- that we didn’t know any other way). We did occasionally get shouted at by older members of the community and told to go and play elsewhere, but there was no spite or malice, and vandalism was unheard of. People went out leaving their houses open, nobody complained about being poor and there was no debt because you didn’t have what you could not afford. There was respect all round and everybody helped each other.

We didn’t always like school but I think it is true to say that, without exception, we all appreciated the opportunity to learn and took an interest in our education as did all our parents. We were well prepared for the life that lay ahead. Ah, happy days!

Brook House and Gardens
Apart from the flat in which we lived and in which my sisters were born, Brook House was empty from the time I first knew it, the Seely family having moved to Mottistone Manor or dispersed. Some notable events were still held there and the lawns were mown and the tennis courts and grounds kept tidy. Much of the historical data which follows was passed to me by my parents but the layout of the old house is still very familiar to me and, as children, my sisters and I knew every nook and cranny.

The original Brook House consisted only of the west end (later to become the servant’s quarters) and was owned by the Bowerman family. Georgian wings were added later but I don’t know when. The house stood in immaculate grounds consisting of formal and informal flower beds, lawns (mown by a horse-drawn mower, the horse wearing rubber boots to protect the turf), shrubberies, a sunken garden with a stone urn/fountain as its centrepiece, and wooded parkland including a large pond and waterfalls. The main lawn was raised to make it level with the house; it was surrounded by the lower level ‘Stone Walk’ with lovely, scented, old-fashioned roses and a magnificent Magnolia Grandiflora which, I am happy to say, is still there today. Tall, majestic trees such as are seen in many grand estates completed the picture.

At the bottom of the front drive was an oak tree planted by General Garibaldi during a visit to the Island. In its heyday, the house was visited on a regular basis by Royalty and other notable figures, some of whom, included Queen Mary, planted trees to commemorate their visits. The house was a mecca for the
partygoers of the day, particularly during Cowes Week.

Brook House itself was a large, Georgian property with 23 rooms. On the top (second) floor were the children’s nurseries and bedrooms, second bedrooms, sewing rooms and rooms for the storage of the linen etc. The middle (first) floor contained the main bedrooms and numerous bathrooms. The library was housed on this floor above the drawing room. The front porch consisted of doric columns under a glass roof. The front door led into a spacious hall to the left of which was the billiard room. Continuing in a clockwise direction was the morning room opposite the grand staircase (with pipe organ on the top landing, the bellows for which were driven by water. It was played by Miss Emmy (later Mrs Kindersley) on Sunday mornings when the family and servants gathered together at the foot of the stairs for a short service).

Next to the morning room was the drawing room with a pink marble fireplace by Robert Adam. Across the corridor (i.e. a right turn) was the anteroom with an ornate ceiling and attractive loggia, and this led into the dining-cum-ballroom which, again, had a beautiful ceiling and a large, Italian black marble fireplace. Across a short passage with an outside door was the schoolroom complete with toilet and bathroom. Moving right into the adjoining corridor then left and right again, you would pass the butler’s pantry and a further right took you by the housekeeper’s room next to the wine cellar, with gunroom opposite, leading back to the cloakrooms off the entrance hall.

The corridor fronting the butler’s pantry, that passing the housekeeper’s room, the exterior back wall of the main staircase and the corridor backing on to the dining room, looked out onto a quadrangle. Had you not taken the right turn leading to the butler’s pantry but kept straight on, you would have reached two large kitchens each with a big solid fuel kitchener. On a higher level at the back of the first kitchen were two windowless bedrooms presumably for the cook and kitchen maid(s). The second kitchen had a huge copper and a game safe on an outside wall which was shaped like a threepenny piece and had gauze windows. A similar meat safe was nearby. Across the yard from the kitchens were a number of outbuildings for the storage of coal, logs, etc. and these joined the three-storey building - the original house.

On the ground floor was the servant’s hall, a larder and a small kitchen/ scullery with access to the underground boiler room. There were three bedrooms on the first floor with a bathroom and toilet and, on the top floor, reached by a long, steep flight of stairs rising from ground level outside the housekeeper’s room, were the sewing rooms, linen stores, etc. Beyond the kitchen area were the wood-panelled loose boxes and a stable yard partially covered with a glass roof. Opposite the stables were the coach houses with the harness room in between. The roof space over the coach houses was used for the storage of fruit and vegetables for winter use.

The one-acre walled garden contained a comprehensive range of fruit trees, many cordoned to form ‘hedges’ alongside the concrete path which criss-cross the garden. Vegetables and flowers for the house were grown in the plots between the paths. Extending almost the entire length of the south east side was the Orchard House which was planted with peach and nectarine trees, and it was here that many of the young seedlings were brought on and some of the non-hardy flowers were grown. Along the north east wall were the vineries, one planted with Black Hamborough grapes and the other with Muscat of Alexandria. Between them was a tropical house where exotic fruits and vegetables were grown. Just beyond the Muscat House was a fig tree which each year bore an abundance of fruit. Baskets of grapes were regularly sent to the Royal Family in season. Outside the garden walls were potting  and storage sheds and, on the north west side, was the engine house where a large engine - I always thought it looked like a railway locomotive on its back, its wheels in the air- drove the generator to provide electricity for the main and surrounding houses. It was also used to power a saw for cutting logs for the numerous fires in winter. There was a battery house which smelled of acid where the electricity was stored. Water for the estate and cottages came from a private reservoir near the top of Brook Shute.

Between Bush Rew Copse and the Gardener’s Cottage was an apple and pear orchard. Many of the apples were unique to Brook having evolved from the grafting of favourite varieties. Running behind the walled garden was Stoke Hole Copse which, as its name suggests, is where household refuse was buried or burnt. Beside the back drive were fields bordering Bush Rew Copse where the horses grazed. At the lower end of these fields (adjoining Badger’s Lane) was the cricket field. (Brook had a team in those days). At one time there was a back lodge which was situated on the piece of land behind the now demolished Chapel.

A footpath led from the front drive to the Church but, when carriages were used, these turned out of the front gates and travelled up the road before turning into what is now the Church car park and graveyard extension. In this area there was also a shelter where the ‘passon’ having come over the downs from Freshwater, left his pony and trap during the services. A water tap was provided for the horses. Entry to the Church yard was via a ‘kissing gate’ in the wall and, in very rough weather, access to the Church was through the vestry door instead of the main door.

Horses formed a big part of life at Brook; as well as carriage horses there were riding horses used for riding to the hunt, point-to-point racing, etc. Two famous war horses, the first Lord Mottistone’s ‘Warrior’ and the Arab, ‘Akbar’ lived here for a while. During family holidays horses were brought to Brook long after the house was vacated. I got my first taste of riding on Miss Kitty’s ‘Sally’- she was a good teacher. Lord Sherwood’s shooting parties continued for many years and, on one occasion, there was much consternation when a very well-known gentleman guest sat on a gun which went off!

Rumour has it that the rather ornate entrance gates to Clock House were part of the estate. They were not - they were constructed by Gibson Cooper in the 1970s when he owned the plot of land behind. Apart from the front and back gates the only other access to the main road was through the ‘Little Door’ (now part of the garden of Dunbar House) which connected with a footpath running from the front of Brook House, through a shrubbery and skirting the sunken garden. Opposite the ‘Little Door’ in the field called Greenclose is the start of an avenue of trees which, had the avenue been completed, would have provided a walkway to Mottistone. The stone wall beside the main road originally ran the entire length from the front gate to the back gates.

Practically all of the land and farms in the West Wight belonged to the Seely family as did virtually all the cottages in Brook and Hulverstone, including the Sun Inn and school. They were great benefactors having provided, amongst other things, the main library in Newport and Reading Rooms in Brook and Brighstone. The building at Brook is now the village hall and known as the Seely Hall. They provided the impetus and financial support for the rebuilding of Brook Church after it was totally destroyed - with the exception of the tower - by a fire. The family also owned Gatcombe House and several members of the family are buried there and have memorials in the church.

During WWII Brook House and its grounds were commandeered by the Government; soldiers lived in the house and the wooded land was used for the storage of fuel, ammunition, guns, tanks and other vehicles.  It was said that the Germans would never bomb Brook because they used the orchard house and Brook Hill House as landmarks for their aircraft. There were, nevertheless, a couple of spies in the village (who were monitored very closely by the army). Most of the land round Brook House was sold off in one-acre building plots (protected by covenants which stipulated the plots should remain intact and only bungalows should be built with no property facing or overlooking another. Over the years, the covenants have been ignored in several instances and by today have probably lapsed).

The walled garden was taken over by an unsuccessful market gardener and then sold on as a building plot. Brook House was a sad sight by this time. Apart from the war years when it was occupied by the military, the house had stood empty and neglected for very many years. Dry rot and woodworm was rife and the roof leaked. A decision was made to leave the section which was the original house intact but to remove the top (second) floor in its entirety, together with the kitchens and all the rooms inside the north east facing front wall but to retain the wall (suitably buttressed) for aesthetic purposes. What was left was converted into flats and sold off. Much of the rubble from the demolition was buried in the former footings and the old boiler house and cellar; the affected timbers, to prevent contamination, were burnt in bonfires along the drive. Here I must emphasise that, contrary to stories put about by some people, the house was not destroyed by a fire!

Scenes of today
Brook is still Brook. The inhabitants and their ways of life have changed. The church is no longer the focal point for all but it is, nevertheless, quite well attended and is still important to those who go there. Poverty is a thing of the past but are people any happier? There are very few children and you rarely see them playing together in the great outdoors; they have more sophisticated forms of amusement often necessitating car
journeys out of the village. Thankfully, the village has not been ruined by too many new houses and, so far, it has not been overrun with holiday homes which stand empty for long periods as, for instance in Cornwall, where whole communities have been destroyed. We must not let it happen here.

The tides still break on the shore with age-old regularity but the cliffs are receding at an alarming rate. The Thimble remains on guard at Hanover Point and keeps an eye on the petrified forest. Rod-and-line fishermen are few, they mostly have boats these days. The Lifeboat House is roofless and the lifeboat has long gone. No longer is the Coastguard Station home to coastguards and there is no trace of the old lookout.

There are riding horses at Dunsbury and Hulverstone but where are the lovely shires, Clydesdales, Suffolk Punches and Percherons which used to grace our farms? Sheep and cattle still graze in the fields but free-range chickens and pigs are not often seen - I hope they are not all cooped up in battery houses.

Many trees have disappeared, some, sadly, due to the Great Storm and others have fallen foul to Dutch Elm disease but others, happily, have tree preservation orders on them, although I fear the lack of rain and this year’s hot weather may reduce their numbers still further.

With the loss of trees and modern farming methods, there is a noticeable loss of birds - ‘the woods would be very quiet places if no birds sang’ - but the rooks keep going regardless! And nothing, it seems, can keep a good rabbit and mole down! The downs still keep watch over us and protect us to a degree from north winds and the worst of the weather, but the Five Barrows are flatter than they used to be.  A noble band struggles to keep the village hall going and Kathleen is a gracious hostess at the Post Office in the caravan opposite Hanover (which no longer has a tea garden). The village cricket 11 has gone. Where are the pageants? What happened to our Christmas carol parties in the Seely Hall?

Whereas in the old days everyone knew everyone else, this is not the case today. Except in small pockets, the family atmosphere, which used to encompass the whole village, has gone and this, I think, is one of my biggest regrets. Let’s forget about young people and the lives they lead and see Brook for what it is. John Betjeman was looking beneath the veneer of wealth and material possessions (useful though they may be) when he referred to the ‘sheer delight’ of the place during one of his visits here. Think of his descriptive writings concerning his beloved Camel Estuary, Bodmin Moor and surrounding areas in Cornwall ( including the churches), and also his delight in the fields and meadows of Wiltshire. He sometimes included, tongue in cheek, humans but it was all aspects of nature, flora and fauna, and the seaside which attracted him. Brook has all these things for us to enjoy. Tennyson might well have written his poem, The Brook, whilst watching our brook meandering down to the sea from its source high on Brook Down. Robert Browning’s, Home Thoughts from Abroad, could have been written with our village in mind. In these days when life is lived in the fast lane, another poem springs to mind - ‘What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare... ‘

In the old days, men and women toiled (and I mean toiled) long and hard but they almost always found time, usually in the quiet of the evening before going to bed, to ‘stand and stare’ - often leaning on the garden gate - contemplating, appreciating the lovely place in which they lived, and thanking God for it. Fundamentally, Brook, the village, doesn’t change but, unfortunately, man does; get to know it while you can.

As far as old Brook House and its grounds are concerned, it all seems cared for once again albeit in sharp contrast to what used to be. The bungalows and their gardens have matured over the years and look as if they’ve always been there. The present owners of the House have established it as a house again (but on a smaller scale bearing in mind that a large part of the house was demolished). I was privileged to visit the gardens recently when they were open to the public and, although no longer on the grand scale, nevertheless exude an aura of peace and beauty, and I felt happy because it was all so obviously loved and the old house looked so wonderful.

 P. S.  I’m sorry, but I forgot to mention Brook Treacle Mines. If you have connections with the past you may already know about them and, if so you will understand that I cannot reveal their secrets. There is no doubt, however, that they existed and, maybe still do.