It was a source of amusement to EF Benson, the author of the Mapp & Lucia novels, that Cardinal Bourne
being a small English squire and that he was enabled to do so at Hare Street House, in Hertfordshire, the modest country house bequeathed by Mgr Robert Hugh Benson for the use of the archbishops of Westminster. It diverted Benson even more that because it was his brother's wish that the house should be kept as it had been in his life-time, the Cardinal ate his dinner under a portrait of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson. "In all the history of the high prelates of the two churches," he recalled, "such a conjunction can hardly have occurred before." Paradox was at the heart of Mgr Benson's character because, like his brothers, he had an infectious sense of fun and he would not have been unaware of the irony.
Benson, an Anglican monk, was received into the Church in 1903 and, after completing a short period of study in Rome, was ordained under his own patrimony in 1905. After three years at the splendid Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Cambridge, he became restless and wanted to pursue an independent life of preaching, spiritual direction, lecturing and writing. Hare Street House was found for him by another brother, AC Benson, Fellow of Magdalen College, Cambridge, a writer and editor of Queen Victoria's letters. It was there that Benson continued to write highly successful novels, poetry and his autobiographical Confessions of a Convert, before his early death at the age of 43 in 1914.
Hare Street, near Buntingford, is a long, irregular, straggling Hertfordshire village that seems to consist of only one street. In 1907, when Benson first saw it, it would have had a ragged charm, but, even then, Fr Cyril Martindale SJ felt: "Frankly, the neighbourhood needs helping out, I think, by glamour of some sort or other." The late 20th century was not kind to it and it now offers an even less appealing prelude to what remains an enchanting surprise. The surprise is a curious house with tall, moulded Tudor chimneys picturesquely rising above a gable, with a long, low Georgian facade of mellow brick with a solid cornice and parapet, a door in the centre, with two windows on each side and five windows above.— just the sort of house, AC Benson thought, "that you would find in a cathedral close".
It was there that Benson romantically created his own world, but it was a world at the service of the Church. He was, I suspect, locked in adolescence, which was expressed in the contrasts of elation and depression, idealism, generosity, spontaneity, naivete, stammering enthusiasm, tempers, simple humour and the quest for holiness.
Hare Street was a timeworn house, reputedly haunted, and over the next six years Benson restored and furnished it and made it an expression of his own personality. He loved the old English style and invented a nostalgic reconstruction of the recusant interior made popular by Dom Bede Canun's Forgotten Shrines, appointed with objects of
"bigotry and virtue". He filled the house with panelling, much of which he carved himself with the monograms of his friends or religious symbolism. With Gabriel Pippet, he designed the Parlour of the Grail hung with a tapestry on which the procession to the shrine passed round the room and included portraits of his family, friends and retainers. Benson and his secretary, Dr Sessions, laboriously stitched it together crawling on the floor and exulted, when finished, that "no woman's finger had contributed so much as a single stitch".
Another piece of appliqué work was a danse macabre on black canvas, with a border the colour of unbleached wax, that skipped round a guest room reserved for Anglican clergymen. The dining room was hung with green arras and lit by candles in brass sconces; he made a long library and even found what he thought was a priest's hole. The garden was planted with yew hedges, lawns and rosebeds giving way to meadows.
But these were only a prelude to the dark chapel, which was the old brewhouse, linked to the house by a roofed passage called the cloister. Fr Martindale described it as: "Medieval and modern, Tudor and contemporary; you need to be assured that it is not the work of an antiquarian or even of a dilettante; in short you have to know Hugh and get his atmosphere, before you can understand his chapel." The plaster walls between the heavy oak were stained a greyish lilac. A Jacobean chest, with gilded emblems of the Passion, was used as the altar. The sanctuary was divided off by a high open screen of old oak, reaching nearly to the roof.
It was crowded with statues, carved and painted, embroidered hangings, stained glass, pendent lamps, emblems and there was a gallery over the sacristy, with an organ, and a fine piece of old embroidery hung over the gallery front. Hung with jewels on the east wall was Notre Dame des Diables, so named because her bracket was supported "by a mass of demons and heresies and serpents of all kinds ... tied and twisted in with the Great Serpent, on whose head Our Lady's foot rests". A great candle stood on the floor by Benson's stall, casting enough light for him to read by, "and to set the rats scurrying, and the birds stirring in the rafters, and to glint upon the Passion emblems of the altar, and the five crimson jewels.and the silver door of the Tabernacle". Today the chapel only exists as a shell, but Fr Benedict Williamson built a fme stone memorial church in the grounds in which Benson is buried and some of the furniture is incorporated. The house remained much as he left it until Cardinal Heenan made 'diminishing alterations. Cardinal Hume greatly appreciated it and opened it to the priests of the diocese and it is good news that Cardinal MurphyO'Connor has given Hare Street a new lease of life. Long may it survive.