The Wartime Home of Winifred Fortescue
‘And I heard
a voice from heaven as the voice of many waters.’
by Maureen Emerson from her book 'Escape to Provence' published by Chapter & Verse 2008 and 2009
So did Winifred Fortescue choose the name of the little gamekeeper's cottage that stood beside the three small lakes and their tumbling waterfalls in the valley of the Stonehurst Estate on the Ardingly Road close to Wakehurst Place in Sussex.
In 1930 Winifred & John settled happily in an old house on a hillside in Provence. But the advent of war nine years later changed everything and Winifred, now a widow, suddenly felt that ‘every bit of me was English’ and made the tortured decision to ﬂee to England with another escapee and Dominie, her adored and neurotic black spaniel. As the Battle of France raged, and enduring the typically fraught adventures of such a journey, the small party raced across France to the port of St Malo eventually arriving at Portsmouth in June 1940.
Now Winifred had to find a new home. Staying with her sister in Hertfordshire, she came across an advertisement in The Times which read: ‘Weekend cottage, unfurnished, without electricity, wonderfully situated, hidden by woods, surrounded by streams. Low rent suitable tenant.’ It sounded perfect and, although it was not, it became her English home. It was, in fact, a run-down building ‘abandoned to the jackdaws’ which she rented from the owner of Stonehurst, Robert Strauss – ‘for five years or the duration of the war, whichever is the longer’. They had it just about right. Everything about it was a challenge. Needing restoration, the little tile-hung house stood beside its lakes and waterfalls in the bottom of a deep valley. Surrounded by an expanse of rough grass, on one side were woods of pine and broad-leaf trees rising to the rolling fields above. On the other a steep slope of thick shrubberies climbed up to the lawns of the big house. Rhododendron and azalea bushes were everywhere, dotted around the cottage and lakes, and brushing against the huge sandstone outcrops which ran through the estate. The only motor access was a steep and narrow right-of-way to the west of the valley with a one in three gradient which her little grey Austin car could just about climb in low gear to the road above - provided the ground wasn't too wet. Needless to say Winifred loved, or determined to love, it all. This in spite of the constant fear of carelessly jettisoned bombs and the sight of Spitfires fighting to the death in the skies above Sussex.
Such was her energy and charm, Winifred was able to persuade the manager of Woolworths in Haywards Heath to set up a credit account, and bought a set of green saucepans and wooden handled cutlery to complete the woodland theme of her new home, which she quickly made as comfortable as possible. In spite of being in the south of England and therefore in the front line of any attack from Germany, the evacuation programme ’Operation Pied Piper’ had nearly doubled the population of Mid-Sussex at the beginning of the war. The county was full of evacuees from London and Stonehurst itself was no exception. When her dog Dominie was released from quarantine Winifred could begin to relax and plan how she could best aid the war effort. She began by helping to resettle the victims of the Blitz but her heart lay in supporting the cause of France so, when she was sent for by the embryo Free French organisation in London she was overjoyed. Enrolled in a newly-formed project called the ‘Friends of French Volunteers’ she was asked to be a propaganda speaker and fund-raiser for the ‘Fighting French’. A rather thankless task at that stage in the war when the British had small sympathy with France, its government or its army. Across the platforms of Sussex her exalted, actress's voice rang out, explaining the plight of the ordinary French man and woman in the face of their defeatist politicians and praising the courage of those few who had joined De Gaulle’s Free French in London, and of the emerging resistance in France.
It was at Many Waters that Winifred would give sanctuary to Richard Hillary, the handsome Spitﬁre pilot so badly burned on his face and hands in September of 1940 when his aircraft crashed into the Channel. A patient of Archibald Mclndoe at the Burns Unit of The Victoria Hospital at East Grinstead, his terrible injuries seemed to make little difference to the allure he held for women, and Winifred was no exception. Introduced to him by Kathleen Dewar of Dutton Homestall in Ashurst Wood, which had become a convalescent home for injured officers, Winifred took Richard Hillary to her heart. She nurtured his ambition to become a writer, giving him the key to her cottage and encouraging him to record his experiences and his very personal thoughts on combat and the war. Here he declared he had found ‘his circles of peace’. As Winifred wrote: ‘It was with joy in the weeks which followed that sometimes, as I returned from my walk in the woods, I did see smoke rising from my chimney from a fire lit by Richard Hillary.’ So it was at Many Waters that Hillary wrote the beginning of the draft for his immensely popular book The Last Enemy.
After a period fund-raising in Devon, Winifred returned to Many Waters. She now became Chairwoman of the Sussex Branch of the Friends of French Volunteers and ﬂung herself into the task ‘with the driven ferocity of the over-tired and unhappy’, until the war ended and Europe was liberated. In October 1945 she began to make her preparations to leave Many Waters and return to France. Following her would be 108 cases of donated necessities, a project she had organised to help the bereft people of Provence. One small object would not accompany her. Dominie, her precious spaniel suddenly became very ill. He had contacted jaundice and, although she did everything to save him, sitting for three days by his side giving him tiny sips of water, he lost the ﬁght and now lies buried at Many Waters. He was her last link with her old life in Provence and she tried hard to understand, calling on her faith to support her: ‘Perhaps He means His crusaders to stand alone and be of single mind and heart’.
©From: Escape to Provence by Maureen Emerson
Pictures - P.Riley & Maureen Emerson, Main Text - Maureen Emerson