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A dash of Wooster sauce
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The Daily Telegraph 21 April 2001

A dash of Wooster sauce

Ross Clark

REAL life, insisted P. G. Wodehouse, was something he ignored when penning the antics of Bertie Wooster, Aunt Agatha and Gussie Fink-Nottle. But it seems he was not quite telling the truth.

Last ditch: the old moat still surrounds Hunstanton Hall, which has been divided up into separate homes

There was one place in the country where Woosterish behaviour was all too real. In 1926, while Wodehouse was staying with Charles Le Strange at Hunstanton Hall in Norfolk, a guest, delayed after his car had broken down, finally limped into the drive at three in the morning. Not wishing to let him down, the Le Stranges roused their servants and told them to serve him a full, five-course dinner.

Wodehouse was greatly amused, although he regretted that he could not use such a tale in his books "because no one would believe it".

Hunstanton Hall itself was to feature large, however. Its rambling form, part built from local carrstone and part from pebble, and its overgrown grounds were the inspiraton for Rudge Hall, Aunt Agatha's house at Woollam Chertsey, and parts of Blandings. But it was the moat, in which Wodehouse regretted not being able to swim because of the abundance of weeds, that fired his imagination most.

Its ivy-clad topography can still be traced in the pages of Very Good, Jeeves, when Bertie saved A. B. Fillmer from drowning. The moat, wrote Wooster, "stood to the east of the house, beyond the rose garden, and covered several acres. In the middle of it was an island. In the middle of the island was a building known as the Octagon. And in the middle of the Octagon, seated on the roof and spouting water like a public fountain, was the Right Hon A. B. Fillmer."

Are there perhaps traces, too, of Jeeves in the butler at Hunstanton Hall who had a row with his employer there while Wodehouse was staying in 1931? "The butler is a cheery soul who used to be the life and soul of the party, joining in the conversation at meals and laughing appreciatively if one made a joke," wrote Wodehouse in a letter. "But now he hovers like a spectre, very strong and silent. I'm hoping peace will be declared soon."

The genteel poverty of Hunstanton Hall fascinated Wodehouse. "It's one of those enormous houses, about two thirds of which are derelict," he wrote in a letter to his friend William Townend. "There is a whole wing which has not been lived in for half a century. You know the sort of thing - it's happening all over the country now - thousands of acres, parks, gardens, moat etc, and priceless heirlooms, but precious little ready money. The income from farms and so on just about balances expenses."

At least one novel, Money for Nothing, was written at Hunstanton Hall - in a somewhat precarious fashion. "I spend most of my time on the moat, which is really a sizeable lake," wrote Wodehouse. "I'm writing this in a punt with my typewriter on a bed-table wobbling on one of the seats. There is a duck close by which utters occasional quacks that sound like a man with an unpleasant voice saying nasty things in an undertone."

Sadly, guffawing aristocrats and stiff-upper-lipped butlers are noticeably absent from Hunstanton Hall these days. The Le Stranges, unable to afford the upkeep, moved to a smaller home. After a fire, the hall was restored and divided into separate dwellings. The gardens, though, are still the tangled backwater they were in Wodehouse's day, and remain insulated from the unsubtle pleasures of Hunstanton seafront, a mile to the west.

Moat Cottage, 15 miles from King's Lynn, is a two-bedroom property carved out of a former outbuilding attached to the hall, and faces directly onto the moat where Wodehouse used to glide by, typewriting on his punt. While times have changed, one institution that hasn't died out in this part of the world is the country house weekend; in the past five years, prices have soared as Londoners and Midlanders have piled into weekend homes.

All of which explains why the 220,000 price tag of Moat Cottage would have been enough to send Bertie's monocle plunging into the brown windsor. By Gad, Jeeves - enough to buy half of Market Snodsbury.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2023. Established 04/04/1996.