A visit to the Georgian House in Bristol

the georgian house

The Georgian House, just off Park Street in Bristol

I had a lovely morning yesterday, which was the perfect distraction from all of the suspense of waiting to see if the two agents who are currently considering my manuscript like it enough to work with me.  Every term, the Bristol chapter of the Teachers as Writers group, run in conjunction with the National Writing Project, meets at the Graduate School of Bristol University to spend three hours writing, talking, talking writing, and drinking lots of coffee. We’ve had some fab jaunts in the time I’ve been a member of the group, including a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of Bristol Central Library and, today, a trip around the Georgian House.

The house in question belonged to a plantation owner, John Pinney, in the 1780s, and was built on the proceeds from the sugar plantations he and his family ran on the island of Nevis. Needless to say, anyone who has a passing knowledge of Bristol will be aware of its links with the slave trade, and yes, this was a house built off the backs of slavery. It’s now funded by Bristol City Council, and is free to visit. The museum inside manages to run a pretty tricky gauntlet between the two worlds of Georgian opulence and the unsettling origins of the money that allowed that opulence, and at the top of the house is an affecting potted history of the real extent of the Pinneys’ involvement in the slave trade.

Our assignment for this session was to find inspiration from a room in the house. At first I was quite wary of this – I’m not great at thinking on my feet in terms of my creative writing, as things just tend to hit me at random, but, even if I didn’t manage to write something, I figured the house would be a really interesting place to visit. When Lorna, our group leader, gave us the floor plans of the house, a seed of something began to germinate in my mind, and, as it turned out, that was the idea that I then went on to explore in more detail.

The whole house is a treasure, but the basement is particularly interesting. It houses the kitchen, a gloriously light and sunny space with huge rectangular windows overlooking College Green, the laundry, the Housekeeper’s quarters and the plunge pool, which is a slightly surreal addition to the house. It was the pool that got me thinking, when I saw it on the plans.

I didn’t write anything while I was in the house, but after I’d had a cup of coffee and a slice of cake with another writerly teacher, we headed back to the Graduate School to discuss the visit, and share any thoughts and words. It was then that an idea began to form. In the tranquil, scholarly environment of the meeting room, I wrote my response to the Georgian House. I did google something that occurred to me; I wondered if the Pinneys had had any dealings with the Wilberforces, and, to my surprise, they did, indeed, have a close connection. This blog entry was particularly enlightening on the closeness of their ties.This was the piece that I wrote, and some of the pictures I took…

Response to a visit to The Georgian House, Bristol 16.5.15

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NB: I have played with the historical timeline a bit, and written this from Charles Pinney’s perspective, as he had a very close link with the Wilberforce family (he was briefly engaged to Elizabeth Wilberforce, William’s daughter, until pressures came to bear on the courtship and it was broken off). I wondered if Charles might have felt the need to atone for his anti-abolitionist stance, and his treatment of Elizabeth. He subsequently went on to marry the daughter of a Wiltshire land owner. For the purposes of this, I have imagined that Charles recommissions his father’s plunge pool in the basement of the Georgian House, after it has lain unused for many years.

*

When he first spoke to his wife of his desire to use the long disregarded plunge pool in the basement, she laughed. ‘Is not the weather in this part of the world damp and cold enough for you already?’ It had been late October, and the dull tap-tapping of the rain against the windows was gradually turning to more pronounced whip lashes as autumn died and winter crept in around the brickwork.

He’d told her it was for the good of his health; he’d read of such benefits as speeding up the heart rate, tightening the skin, clearing the lungs. In truth, it was a desire for a different kind of cleansing that he craved.

His wife had also questioned the location of the proposed pool. It was, for her liking, rather too close to the Housekeeper’s quarters, and certainly too close to the kitchen. What if the scullery maids were to catch sight of her husband’s naked form betwixt robe and bath? He’d laughed out loud at that; a man such as he, somewhat past his prime and grown fat on the advantages of a plantation owner’s life, would have held limited appeal for the lithe young things below stairs.

In truth, the state of his physical being was of tangential concern to Charles Pinney. Advancing years, changing public perceptions and increasing pressure to reform had left their mark on him. His marriage had been the start; but there was much for which to atone, both publicly and in his personal life.

The pool provided a refuge; a sharp, breath-stealing period of physical privation for emotional wellbeing. In those few moments he was able to put aside the turmoil and focus on the sensation of the ice-cold water closing over his head, forcing the air from his lungs with its chill. Elizabeth had once said to him, in an unguarded comment after the fact of their estrangement, that her heart had drowned. Charles, every morning in the pool, felt a brief sensation of what this was like.

His wife, of course, knew nothing of this. Nor did she know of his desire to, at last, attempt to bring some sort of equilibrium to the facts of his family’s wealth. He’d pretended, at the time, to brush off Elizabeth’s father’s zeal for reform. Now, in middle age, he wished he’d listened more closely.

If you are in Bristol, I highly recommend a trip to the Georgian House – it’s been beautifully restored, and is one of those rare free treasures that’s definitely worth a look.

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