This visit was actually overbooked but in the event not everyone was able to turn up and so a couple of cream teas went begging!
The Larmer Grounds, as they were originally called were unique in the late 19th century. They were a facility provided by General Pitt-Rivers to further his educational ideas and included bicycle sheds, free crockery and cutlery, and thatched arbours dotted around in case of inclement weather – not to mention the free music, dancing, theatre and poetry readings. A band was trained up from estate workers in specially designed uniforms. For those of the 40,000 annual visitors who were not exhausted by just getting there, there was a golf course, bowling green and lawn tennis courts.
The original Larmer tree, probably a Wych elm, did not survive into the 21st century, though the site is well marked. It was only in the 1990s that inroads were made into the vegetation which had invaded the site. The Nepalese and Indian buildings, purchased by the general at the closure of the 1898 Empire Exhibition, have survived the ravages of time and are worth the visit in their own right. The general’s interests clearly extended from buildings down to the smallest artefact.
More than one of the general’s descendants were anthropologists but, a little like the Mitfords, the Pitt-Rivers family was polarised politically in the thirties. George Pitt Rivers, held in the Tower of London during WWII, was a racist ethnologist and local memories include the use of a building in the Larmer Grounds, burnt down (possibly deliberately), for Fascist meetings, some even attended by a party of Germans who had landed in the nearby fields. Unlike everyone else who donated park railings to the war effort, George apparently hoarded them around farms on the estate. These local stories complement those heard at the Berwick St John fair the week before and highlight the fact that although the general has several biographers, there is a good deal still to be learnt about him and his family.
Thanks to Andy Rampton the Head Gardner for the informative tour.