diamond geezer

 Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Prime Minister who led Britain into Europe was Edward Heath. Never the most popular of Prime Ministers, his reputation was shaped by various crises in the early 1970s, of which the Three Day Week and Northern Irish Troubles are perhaps best remembered. But it's our entry into the Common Market that has been his longest lasting legacy, both for all the benefits it has brought the country, and for all the discord it has sown.

So it's perhaps a surprise that Ted Heath is the only Prime Minister from the last half-century whose home you can visit. Margaret Thatcher as yet has no domestic legacy, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair never will, indeed you have to go back as far as Winston Churchill to find any other PM's abode with an open door. But Heath left his final home in trust so that members of the public could enjoy the building, the garden and his art collection, just as he had. It's Arundells, overlooking the Cathedral Close in Salisbury, and perhaps the ultimate in post-war political bachelor pads. [8 photos]

Arundells started out in the 13th century as a residence for the canons at Salisbury Cathedral, later leased out by the diocese to secular tenants and a school. In 1718 it was rebuilt in classical style, all symmetrical at the front and slightly less regular round the back, and earned its name when the daughter of the house married Lord Arundel, a local peer. By the mid 20th century it had fallen into disrepair, which is how it came to enter private ownership, and went up for sale in 1985 just as Edward Heath was planning on moving out of London. Initially he'd been intending to go to the Isle of Wight, but Arundells was more convenient for visitors, and still close enough to the Solent for easy yachting. Ted's security detail were pleased too, as the house was in a gated close behind medieval stone walls, which made it hard for any potential enemies to gain access.

Gaining access these days, a decade after the ex-PM passed on, costs a tenner. Come at the weekend or on a Monday and you can wander round inside at your leisure. Come on Thursday or Friday, or in the winter, and the place is closed. But come on Tuesday or Wednesday and you get an hour-long guided tour, and these are great, particularly if nobody else turns up. I know, it's Ted Heath's house, what are the chances of that?

What this isn't is a museum, nor just a listed building. Instead the trustees have gone to great effort to preserve the place as it was when Sir Edward was living here, which he did for twenty years until his death in 2005. And that's why the entrance hall comes as a little bit of a surprise. It's rammed with sailing memorabilia, as a reminder to guests of their host's great interest and prowess, and includes several paintings and models of his most famous yacht, Morning Cloud. There were five of these, two of which sank, and one of which Heath used to steer the UK to victory in the Admiral's Cup in 1971. It's hard to imagine any serving Prime Minister being given leave to do something so risky today, nor indeed to have world-beating talent outside the political arena.

Across the way in the drawing room is Heath's Steinway, as once installed at Downing Street, with a forest of signed photos on top of VIPs and statespeople that he encountered. Four years as PM provides a certain gravitas on the world stage, and there were plenty of big figures around at the time like Nixon, Gandhi and Chairman Mao. The Chinese leader gifted two ming vases, afforded prominent position beside the fireplace, while on the other side is the chair Heath sat on at the Coronation (when he was merely Deputy Chief Whip).

I liked the dining room, a narrow high-ceilinged red space with walnut table seating eight. In later years Sunday lunch was Heath's main social event, and the chairs would often be filled by musicians, sportspeople and occasionally politicians... Harold Wilson came once, and local resident Sting more often. The shelves behind are stacked with collectable ceramics, from widely different provenance, while the walls are hung with a set of John Pipers. It's clear that Heath really loved his art, as the selection hung down the main hallway (and elsewhere) attests, including a John Singer Sargent, a Walter Sickert, a Lowry seascape and even a couple of Sir Winston Churchills.

But for a true insight into Heath's personality, you need to step into the Library at the rear of the house. Here he would have spent the majority of his time, especially in his later years, surrounded by a lot of books on art and music and a few slightly less highbrow novels too. The collection of pristine classical CDs ranged from jazz to symphonies to opera and looked very much of its time, as did the chunky push-button CD player. Heath was an organ scholar while at Oxford, as well as an acclaimed conductor, and the Father Willis Organ in the cathedral was another reason why he moved to Salisbury.

Interestingly it's the photo of himself smiling at the Order of the Garter ceremony that Heath chose to place immediately alongside where he sat, plus the official parchment By The Sovereign's Command - not bad for a grammar school boy from Kent. Meanwhile upstairs in the study is a desk that belonged to Lloyd George, from which there's an excellent view straight down the garden, which visitors are free to take a look round once they're done inside. It's long, narrow and green, with space for croquet, and part of the hull of Morning Cloud 3 by the shed as a memorial. And it leads all the way down to the river, specifically the confluence of the rivers Avon and Nadder, where I stopped to watch a family of swans, and a flock of sheep grazing on the water meadows beyond.

Back in the house, one rear corridor is given over to a selection of original newspaper cartoons featuring Heath and the politicians of his day, that characteristic nose a gift to the artists, and his rivalry with Margaret Thatcher often a subtext. The upstairs landing is surrounded on all sides by a wholly unexpected mural depicting the tale of the Monkey King, massive and very colourful, but by no means the only Oriental theme in the house. And nobody gets to go in the bedroom, which is where Heath spent most of the last two years of his life, before passing away in 2005 at the pretty decent age of eighty-nine.

If you were any doubt where his passion for Europe came from, the answer is in the guest bedroom. A display here tells the story of Heath the soldier, an artilleryman who saw service in the Normandy landings, rose to the rank of major and was awarded the MBE. The devastation he saw stayed with him, as did an undergraduate trip to pre-war Germany where he heard Hitler speak at a Nuremberg rally. With such first-hand understanding of how Europe fell apart, his drive to lead the country into the Common Market was unshakeable, even if it took several attempts. His eventual success is the only decision the British public have ever been asked to reconsider twice.

I think Edward Heath would be aghast to see the hatred and misinformation today's referendum has whipped up. An organisation set up to bring nations together is being vilified for global issues, and used as a scapegoat for the decisions of national government, seemingly purely for personal gain. Heath saw how the masses can be persuaded to follow unwise saviours, and the destruction that misguided nationalism can bring. Will we reach the centenary of his birth next month with our membership of Europe intact, or will Heath's turbulent early Seventies be the model for our uncertain future?

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