On Easter morning 55 years ago, Evelyn Waugh said his last Deo gratias. After assisting his priest at a Latin mass in the Somerset town of Wiveliscombe, Waugh returned to his home in Combe Florey, seven miles away, for a family lunch in a rare jolly mood. At some point before the lamb was served, he went to his library and was never seen alive again.
The greatest novelist of his generation, as Graham Greene described him in The Times — or “the nastiest-tempered man in England” according to the architectural historian James Lees-Milne — was found dead in the downstairs toilet. Biffed while on the thunder-box, as Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook, the one-eyed maverick in his Sword of Honour trilogy, would have put it.
Waugh is buried nearby. The location, in a former ha-ha on the edge of the 35-acre estate where he spent his last decade and the adjacent churchyard, chimes with his personality of awkwardly refusing to fit in anywhere.
Tools of the Trade
Would the author of Brideshead Revisited, Scoop and Vile Bodies have been more pleasant if he had exchanged the pen for the chisel? Catherine Waugh, his mother, once suggested that if Evelyn, who had done an apprenticeship in carpentry, hadn’t been lured into writing “he might have designed lovely furniture”.
Waugh was an apprentice carpenter in his youth and still had an interest in craftsmanship when he bought Combe Florey House in 1956 for $10,300, three quarters of his annual income. His grandson, Alexander Waugh, has written that the author “followed the carpenters and artisans from room to room, discussing dovetails and tools”. He “enjoyed making, decorating and improving houses”, Alexander wrote, “but once these things were done he lost interest”.
His architectural influence remains in the stone steps and porch he had added to the main entrance. A brass plaque declaring “no admittance on business” had come with Waugh from Piers Court, his previous home in Gloucestershire, where it turns out my grandmother was evacuated to during the Second World War with her convent school class. She later recalled with amused horror the leopard-skin seat cover on his toilet.
This seems in keeping with Waugh’s taste for “eccentric and lugubrious” decoration. Combe Florey featured red flock wallpaper in the hall, skirting boards that were painted black, a life-size wooden lion and what Daisy Waugh, Alexander’s sister, called a “garish and mythically expensive carpet” on the fine 18th-century central staircase.
She later recalled with amused horror the leopard-skin seat cover on his toilet.
Potential purchasers may be relieved that these odd touches have been removed following a restoration by the present owners. The result is now far from Waugh’s gloomy fortress. It is invigorating how much light comes in through the Georgian windows and via the new orangery, a highlight at the heart of the building. The views in every direction, be it down the daffodil-spangled hill to the church or across to the Quantocks, are stunning.
The kitchen, with its two stainless-steel curved islands, may not be to everyone’s taste, but is enormous, as are most rooms. Among the curiosities are the hidden safe in the morning room, its door reassuringly heavy, and some family graffiti in the drawing room where you can see the name of Margaret and the date 1964 scratched into a pane of the bay window, perhaps with her engagement ring. She was killed in a traffic accident in 1986, aged 43.
Upstairs, the bedrooms, about a dozen depending how you count large dressing rooms, have been well decorated and include several majestic rolltop baths. Above two bedrooms remain plaques saying “Mrs Waugh” and “Miss Waugh”.
Disappointingly, nothing survives of Waugh’s library, where he wrote his autobiography and Unconditional Surrender, the final volume of Sword of Honour. The room remains a library with glass doors over new shelves, but you would never know that a literary great ever used it. Blame his widow, who sold the contents, shelves and all, to a Texan in 1968. Alexander suggests that in doing so she had “effectively extinguished the spirit of Evelyn’s personality”; his father, the journalist Auberon Waugh, believed she did it to annoy her children.
What’s That Smell?
Laura sounds quite eccentric. She ran an unsuccessful dairy farm from Combe Florey, which she had to abandon when the taxman said that Evelyn couldn’t offset her losses against his income, and had her closest friendship with the gardener, Coggins, to whom she bequeathed a chunk of woodland. Coggins disappeared around Evelyn’s death and Laura accused Auberon of killing him. He materialized a few days later, stinking of alcohol.
She put the house on the market, but didn’t seem eager to sell. Broken windows were left unmended, buckets were put in the middle of the floor to suggest leaks and she seldom cleaned up after her spaniel, Credit, who Auberon said was “famous for the size of his turds”.
Instead, Auberon moved his family into the house in 1971 and his mother into her own wing, where over the last two years of her life she developed what he called an arsenal of smells. “Bit of a pong in the widow’s pad,” Richard Ingrams, the editor of Private Eye, remarked on a visit.
The property, eight miles from Taunton, is approached through a gatehouse, originally 12th century and refurbished in the 16th, which remains owned by the Waugh family. The drive sweeps uphill past a lake to the house, made of a striking and warm pink sandstone. Beyond is a small cottage, almost 6,000 sq ft of garaging and a heated swimming pool, all built by the present owners. There is also a triple-walled garden that seems barely touched since Coggins’s time.
There is certainly plenty of property for entertaining. Daisy Waugh wrote about living in a house that was packed with “glamorous, clever people”, from Greene and John Betjeman to Muriel Spark, Peter Cook, Alec Guinness and Salman Rushdie. For her father, however, the main attraction was the spacious high-ceilinged cellars. Auberon wrote in 1990 that his ambition was to work flat out until he had filled all seven cellar rooms with wine “and then retire to write drivelling novels which nobody wants to read and drink it all”.
He died 11 years later, still enjoying the house he had loved since he was a boy. Auberon reflected in his memoir that his legacy, rather than his “millions of words of ephemeral journalism”, would be that he had “restored the windows of a minor country house to their former glory”.
Patrick Kidd is editor of the “Diary” column in The Times of London