Around the World in 50 Courts — Toad Hall
Would you like to be the role model for a fictional character? Unfortunately, it is not really your choice; much depends on whom the author would like to choose.
Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows in 1908, and created the famous Mr. Toad along with Mole, Ratty and Badger. The book is designed to be read to children but, like others of the genre, it is subtly aimed at the parents themselves. It was based on the bedtime tales of “messing about in boats” that Grahame told to his son. A. A. Milne adapted it into Toad of Toad Hall in 1929.
If you remember Mr. Toad careening about in his “motor car” and saying flibbertigibbet, there is more to him than that. The story invites parents to think about the disruption of the pastoral Edwardian order as represented by Mole, Ratty and Badger with Mr. Toad serving as the jovial, friendly, kindhearted but aimless and conceited disruptor. He would become wildly interested in something, pursue it intensely, then drop it equally quickly.
The model for the Mr. Toad character is widely believed – but not definitively proven – to be Sir Charles Day Rose, builder of not one, not two but three court tennis courts (1896, 1901 and 1907) two of which were within a few hundred yards of each other.
Like Greentree, Hardwick House gets its own chapter because it is a most unusual story that seems unlikely to happen again.
Rose was born in Canada in 1847. His father was in government and was quite a notable financier, especially as an investor in railroads both for the Civil War and in Canada. The family moved to England reversing the emigration of an earlier generation and continued to be wildly successful merchant bankers. Rose followed his father’s lead in both government and finance but retired from the latter in 1897 after 25 years.
Those who make guesses about such things might well have expected a successful man like Rose to be a Tory, but he stood for Parliament as a radical liberal from Newmarket, which is where he maintained a horse racing home (and where he built the 1901 court). The loss of two sons in the Boer War seems likely to have changed his political views.
Rose liked things that moved. He had a successful racing stable and challenged once for the America’s Cup (1896). He also chaired both the Royal Automobile Club and the Royal Aero Club.
Imagine how innovative that must have been at the time. The first automobiles appeared in the 1890s and the Wright brothers only flew the first plane in 1903. Rose would die after a flight in a biplane in 1913.
In 1907, he also helped to form the Tennis & Rackets Association, the governing body of the game.
I have placed Hardwick in the chronology at June 6-10, 2007 because it was the Centenary (centennial to Americans) of the founding of the court. The event was hosted by the Friends of Hardwick Tennis Court which, at the time, was headed by Adrian Snow, the Headmaster of nearby Oratory School, who spearheaded the effort to build the court at his school. Snow and David Weston were prime movers in restoring play at Hardwick. The Centenary Committee of seven included Tim Tomalin and Vaughan Williams, slayer of stoats. It was not the first time I’d been there, but it was the most festive.
It was a celebration of 100 years of the court built in 1907 to replace the one built in 1896. If Falkland Palace has lasted for more than 450 years, why replace a 13-year-old court built by Joseph Bickley, the best court builder of all time?
Now we begin to stray into the reasons Sir Charles Day Rose was the role model for Mr. Toad. The first court was about 500 yards down the driveway from the house. Clearly that was not near enough for a man who employed Peter Latham, one of the best players of the time, as his resident professional.
Lady Rose went off to Italy on vacation and, while she was away, Lord Rose built a new court in her prized rose garden. As it happens, the house was situated at the bottom of a hillside with a lovely view of the Thames. It overlooked the rose garden. If you build a four-story court tennis court, what do you expect might happen to the view? Right, the rose garden and the view: both gone.
The court is not even quite perpendicular to the house though it is in the same style on the outside. It is thought to be the pinnacle of the Bickley oeuvre. Many have speculated on Lady Rose’s reaction when she returned from Italy but, as far as I know, it is not precisely recorded. Does it really need to be?
The Centenary was celebrated with a handicap doubles tournament involving 45 teams. Temple Grassi and I played together and not very well as I recall. I haven’t the remotest idea who won, which is probably the case for the 44 pairs who did not.
It takes a long time to play that many matches on one court, so the event ran from Thursday through Sunday with festive picnic lunches each day. English picnic lunches bear no resemblance whatever to American ones. They are far more likely to include champagne than beer. Prawns are strongly favored over hamburgers and hotdogs.
On Saturday night there was a Centenary dinner. It might well have been black tie. They had set up a marquee on the low-lying land between the court and the Thames, and there was great anxiety about flooding, especially as the field was also used for parking cars.
Fortunately, that bullet was dodged, and Lord Sebastian Coe, MP, who headed the 2012 London Olympics served as master of ceremonies. Coe had won four Olympic medals in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, and at various times, held nine outdoor and three indoor world records in middle distance track events. If there are medals for humorous speeches while in danger of flooding, he deserves a gold one of those too.
Somebody asked Lord Coe why court tennis was not in the Olympics and he deferred the question to H.R.H. Prince Edward, a keen player and advocate for the game who met his wife, Sophie, while playing. His Royal Highness punted.
By the way, the easy answer to the question is that more than four countries have to play a game for it to be included. You know, like a break dancing which is set to be contested next go round. Who says the International Olympic Committee has its eye on television?
There was one key figure from an earlier visit who was not present at the Centenary. Phoebe Lady Rose, the widow of a grandson of Charles Day Rose had spent a day at the court with us on an earlier visit, but she had died in the interim.
During that visit, though well into her 90s, she sat in the center of the dedans throughout the day with her small purse hanging around her neck. She watched every match between Hardwick House (her side) and the upstarts from the colonies. It came down to the final game of the final set and the visitors pulled out the win.
The dejected Hardwick player who lost the last match paid his respects to Lady Rose and apologized for letting down the side. “If you’d but bent your knees,” she replied.