Finding Overbrook

Rear of Overbrook farmhouse @1950s. L to R: Syd Davies (my Grandad), Auntie Lil (his sister) Sid Harris (Uncle Ern's brother), Uncle Ern , Auntie Min (Grandad's sister), Jackie Davies' mother
Rear of Overbrook farmhouse @ early1960s. L to R: Syd Davies (my Grandad), Auntie Lil (his sister) Sid Harris (Uncle Ern’s brother), Uncle Ern , Auntie Min (Grandad’s sister), Jackie Davies’ mother

For years I couldn’t remember its name – the farmhouse that featured strongly in my childhood memories.

What I did recall – and vividly – were the Sunday afternoon trips to ‘the country’ in Grandad’s old Morris Minor car, a whirlwind round of visiting ageing relatives before arriving at our final destination for late afternoon tea.

Auntie Min’s farmhouse, with its impressive if slightly incongruous peacock topiary out front, was the best part of the day.

We’d march through an impossibly large (or so it seemed to us), stone-floored kitchen to cram around a huge table in the tiny back room. Here we’d eat our tea, our backs facing the fireplace with its cast iron range. Next door was a much grander ‘parlour’ but we were never allowed into it.

These regular visits to ‘the country’ opened our young eyes to a world that was very different to our own – and at the time, we didn’t always appreciate our good fortune.

Visiting ‘the country’ meant having to eat fatty ham, butter, fruit salad – all things the childish me hated – it also meant close contact with stingy nettles and cows, but worst of all, it meant having to put up with rather primitive toilet arrangements.

The ‘toilet’ was located on land across the brook (presumably to minimise unpleasant odours in warm weather) and comprised a tin bucket placed underneath a plank of wood sporting a bottom-sized hole. That was it; no water, no flush, no bolt.

 

More hands make for lighter work on the farm
More hands make for lighter work on the farm (date unknown)

We lived in a two-up, two-down terraced house which itself didn’t have a fully functioning bathroom until around 1971, but, we consoled ourselves, at least our outside toilet had a chain. Understandably, we did our very best to avoid spending a penny at Overbrook!

Of course, there were many things about the countryside that we did enjoy. For starters, a detached farmhouse in a large garden just screams ‘running track’ to lively kids. Having to cross the planks over the brook just added to our belief that Overbrook was an adventure playing ground rather than a boring old house.

And that peacock… it was more stately home than modest farmhouse, yet was apparently kept in good order with a once-a-year trim (on Good Friday) by my mother’s cousin, Tim (who spent his teenage years living at Overbrook).

 

Overbrook's distinctive peacock topiary was cut once a year
Overbrook’s distinctive topiary was cut once a year

Then there were the leisurely walks through the fields and up into the woods with Grannie and Auntie Min. There we learned to identify wild flowers and gathered hazelnuts. I remember being shown yellow sap inside the stem of one flower and told it would heal cuts and grazes– for years I fondly imagined it was iodine.

Grandad died suddenly when I was 17; by then, several of his brothers and sisters were also dead. When Uncle Ern died, Auntie Min and her unmarried sister, Lil, sold the farm and moved to Usk.

Suddenly we had no country relatives left and there was no reason to venture through the myriad of lanes on the other side of Usk on Sunday afternoons.

Paradoxically, that was exactly when I started getting really interested in my family’s history (my mother was adopted by her real father’s brother – the man I knew as Grandad was really my great-uncle).

 

Towards the end of  the 1980s Overbrook was looking decidedly neglected
Towards the end of the 1980s Overbrook was looking decidedly neglected

In the late 1980s, my ex-husband and I spent ages driving around looking for Auntie Min’s old farmhouse, which by then was owned by a man called Brian who had rather neglected its upkeep. In the days before Google Earth and online mapping all we had at our disposal was a road map and my fading memories.  But quite by chance we stumbled upon Overbrook and I took a photograph. Unfortunately, we’d got so lost in the process, we never could pinpoint exactly which lane we’d taken… or from which direction.

Over the years, I’ve often thought of Auntie Min’s farmhouse near Usk but I just couldn’t remember its name. Then Dad surprised me by saying he thought it was called Overbrook.  Harri perused his OS maps; Overbrook was not marked on the map, but he suggested we looked for the farmhouse towards the end of our Usk Castle walk when we’d be walking in the Gwehelog area.

So that’s what we did, but this time with a much better idea of where we were looking (thanks to a chat with my mum’s cousin Chris’s wife, Jackie).

 

The stone wall is still there but the house looks very different
The stone wall is still there but today the house I remember looks very different

And amazingly this week, after an absence of more than 35 years, I once again stepped into Overbrook, thanks to the kindness of the current owner, Sylvia.

The house has changed (almost) beyond recognition, but both exterior and interior have been modernised sympathetically.  Sylvia, who estimates the house to be early eighteenth century, told us she was keen to preserve whatever original features she could.

Alas, the tiny back room is no more, but it feels so much nicer now it’s been knocked through to the parlour. Happily, the old fireplace remains and in another room, the old bread oven takes pride of place.

Thankfully, there’s no trace of the outdoor toilet and the planks that crossed the brook have been replaced with a much nicer stone bridge. The gardens are stunning and the old farmyard/field boundary, where the cows mooched around watching us, is now a large rock garden. Sadly, the peacock topiary met a tragic ending when Brian accidentally set fire to the tree.

Seeing Overbrook again was a bitter-sweet experience; discovering it is no longer how I remembered it – perhaps it never was – means nostalgia will now always be tainted by truth.

 

Harri and me in Overbrook's now beautiful garden
Harri and me in Overbrook’s now beautiful garden

Still, on the whole, I’m pleased we were successful in finding Overbrook – the place where my lifelong love of the countryside and the great outdoors was first ignited.

3 Responses

  1. joanfrankham

    it was nice to finally find the house, and it looks lovely. we all look back with fondness at old houses we remember, they looked huge to us when we were little, but probably were not so big in reality.

  2. thewalkerswife

    Definitely Joan. What’s been so lovely about this research is that I’ve spent so much times reminiscing with my cousin, Christine, via Facebook. She actually spent her summer holidays at Overbrook with her little brother Andrew, who sadly died when he was 15. So happy, if very poignant, memories for both of us.

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