‘We were convinced he was coming to Holkham’ - Lady Glenconner on why she and her sister plotted to kill Hitler
PUBLISHED: 19:13 10 November 2019 | UPDATED: 09:29 11 November 2019
Copyright: Archant 2016
Norfolk’s Lady Glenconner reveals why she and her sister plotted to kill Hitler, how she still slips into Holkham Hall to see the public walking around the rooms she used to play in and why she isn’t bitter about losing her family’s inheritance to an employee.
The success of her memoirs: A Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown, subsequent media attention, stints on the sofa with Graham Norton, another outing for her character in Netflix's The Crown - it's been a far from average year for Norfolk's Lady Glenconner.
"I'm having a lovely time!" Lady Glenconner tells me, from her house close to her childhood home at Holkham Hall, "it was a little bit like going to see a psychiatrist, writing the book, so it's a lovely surprise that people are enjoying it so much."
Lady Anne tells me that Prince Charles was aware she was writing her memoirs and that she had spoken to Princess Margaret's children before publication but that the book had not been 'vetted' by the Royal family, despite sharing many Royal stories.
"When it comes to writing about the Royal family, I have been nothing but positive, because I have nothing but respect and love for them," she said.
"If there are extraordinary stories in the book, they are all my stories."
She explains that people are surprised to read of the hardship she has lived through over nearly nine decades.
"People say to me that I was incredibly privileged as a child to grow up at Holkham - they don't know I was hungry at boarding school and so cold at home that I still suffer from the chilblains I had then…" she tells me.
Lady Anne is perfectly aware how lucky she is to be associated with one of the country's biggest historic estates but disputes the idea that she lived a life of luxury as a child growing up at Holkham.
"I was brought up to get on with things, not to complain or moan, to accept your lot. I was often cold, hungry and lonely, we had a terrible Nanny at one point who was very cruel and of course we were terrified during the war because we'd been sent away," she said.
"We were convinced that Hitler was coming to Holkham so my sister Carey and I formulated all these grand plans to kill him. We were convinced we'd be able to do it and save Holkham and Britain!"
Until Lady Anne was nine, her great-grandfather was the Earl of Leicester and lived at Holkham with her grandfather, who occupied one of the four wings of the house. She and her sister would stay at Holkham during the holidays when there would be four generations of the family living under one roof, although to be fair, it's quite some roof: she recalls a hall so vast that footmen could put raw eggs in a bain-marie full of hot water and by the time they made the long walk to the nursery, the eggs would be cooked.
Her family finally moved into the family wing of the hall when she was around 10-years-old - her father was with the Scots Guards, her mother was head of North Norfolk's Land Girls and the estate housed a prisoner-of-war camp. Her sister Sarah was born when she was 12.
"When my father's sister Aunt Silvia rang us at school to tell us the news, we burst into tears. We knew how desperately my father had wanted a son and heir and with my mother almost dying in childbirth, there was no chance of them having any more children, marking the end of my father's particular line of Cokes," she writes in her book, Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown, which has catapulted her into the limelight at the age of 87.
The book ties in with the latest series of Netflix's The Crown, which will see Helena Bonham-Carter take the role of Princess Margaret with Nancy Carroll playing Lady Anne, the Princess's lady-in-waiting. Both actresses came to see Lady Anne for advice.
Princess Margaret and Lady Anne met each other as children.
Holkham was virtually next door to the Sandringham estate (it's actually 10 miles away, but in terms of vast country piles, the Cokes and Windsors were neighbours) and the two households were inextricably linked.
Lady Anne's father shot with the present Queen's father, King George VI and her great-grandfather and grandfather with King George V, there had been a liaison between King Edward III when he was Prince of Wales with her grandmother Marion and her father was Equerry to the Duke of York.
Her mother Elizabeth was a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Elizabeth II on her Coronation, her aunt was Lady in Waiting to the Duchess of York after she became Queen.
But for little Anne, the young visitors who came to see her at Holkham were just playmates - Princess Elizabeth was five years older than her, Princess Margaret three years older and the two younger girls struck up a firm friendship.
"Princess Margaret…was naughty, fun and imaginative - the very best sort of friend to have," she writes, "we used to rush around Holkham, past the grand pictures, whirling through the labyrinth of corridors on our trikes or jumping out at the nursery footmen as they carried huge silver trays from the kitchen.
"Princess Elizabeth was much better behaved. 'Please don't do that, Margaret', or 'you shouldn't do that, Anne,' she would scold us."
In the summer, the girls would play on the beach at Holkham making sandcastles and digging holes, eating sandy sandwiches and paddling, at Christmas she and sister Carey would be invited to a lavish party at Buckingham Palace where they could choose a present each from the table where Queen Mary stood watching.
Prince Charles also became a regular visitor and would stay for weeks if he was ill with a contagious disease like chickenpox: the Queen, who did not go to school, had never contracted any childhood diseases and had to be protected.
"I was at Holkham the other day and when I came down the long avenue towards the house I nearly cried - it reminded me of my coming out dance when the hall was all lit up like a Christmas tree. It took me right back," said Lady Anne.
"There was the fountain that I used to jump in when it was hot so that I could cool down, the park where I rode my pony Kitty - so many of my memories are bound up with Holkham, it is just part of me and it always will be.
"I love slipping in when the hall is open to the public and seeing them look at the place with such reverence when I remember zooming around those same passages on my tricycle.
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"When I was a child, Holkham felt like the biggest playground in the world. At the top of one of the wings we used to play in the attics. Lots of the pictures owned by Holkham were stored there when they were out of fashion.
"The Victorians had thought these particular paintings rather louche for the saloon and, because we didn't realise how valuable they were, we'd use them for all sorts of games - pushed together to make a house, I dread to think of it now, especially as those same pictures are now hanging back in the hall!"
In the book we also learn how growing up in wartime Norfolk on an estate which was impossible to heat was great training for the day her husband, the eccentric Colin Tennant, bought an island in the Grenadines called Mustique, the French word for 'mosquito' (surely an alarm bell would have rung?).
He bought it without setting foot on it: it had no running water, no electricity, bucket showers, no telephone line and feral cows roamed freely - and Colin loved it. Lady Anne, however, was not so sure.
"Although the sound of having your very own desert island was wonderful, the reality was far less attractive," she writes, "growing up in freezing Norfolk, in a house with footmen and maids didn't prepare me for weeks of eating tinned beans and sweating, rather than sleeping, at night."
But her time in Norfolk did help her in some ways: growing up in wartime had made her resilient and used to levels of hardship, she had inherited her mother's practicality and she had grown tough when she was a travelling saleswoman before she married, selling Holkham's famous pottery.
Mustique did, of course, evolve from being a Robinson Crusoe-esque island to the playground of the rich and famous that it became, a place where dowagers danced with pop stars, where Princess Margaret - who was given a home on Mustique by Colin - could be seen dining next to members of Led Zeppelin, eating banana and Mars Bar sandwiches, a far cry from the sandy sandwiches from Holkham Beach.
The island was also the place where her husband met servant Kent Adonai and, 30 years later, made a surprise amendment to his will and left everything to him on his death.
But Lady Anne is pragmatic about the loss of the money: she has borne far greater losses, far closer to home, tragedies which befel each of her three sons: eldest son Charlie, a former heroin addict, died of hepatitis in 1996 after turning his life around and second son Henry died of an Aids-related illness in 1990. Her third and youngest son, Christopher, was badly injured in a motorcycle acciden in 1987 and she fought like a tiger to bring him round from a coma.
"It was difficult, writing about the boys," she tells me, "when I narrated the audiobook my throat swelled up and at the points where I talked about the boys I welled up, You have to get on with life, so you tend to bury some memories, but of course if you are writing about your life, then those memories have to resurface and they are hard to revisit.
"When these kind of things happen to your family, everything else is put into perspective."
She added: "The book starts in Norfolk and ends in Norfolk and I hope that it will encourage more people to come here, because it is simply wonderful. People have loved the book - it's such a surprise! They say to me 'I'm going to buy it for my mother!' and I say to them 'I hope your mother is broad-minded…!'
* Jarrold will be hosting an evening in the company of Lady Glenconner at The Assembly House in Norwich on November 27 at 6.30pm. Lady in Waiting: My Extraordinary Life in the Shadow of the Crown is published by Hodder and Stoughton and costs £20.