Archive Treasures: Nicholson’s Guide to British WaterwaysStories
Visitors entering the Red House are met by one of our volunteers, who will explain how they should safely make their way around the house and equip them with the protective footwear that protects the historic floor-coverings. All the visitors’ focus is forwards, towards the person greeting them, and it is very easy not to notice the two shelves of maps and guidebooks behind them, next to the front door. Like everything in the Red House, however, these are a rich testimony of the lives lived there, a crystallisation of the travels that Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears took together during their nearly forty years of partnership.
Each of these often creased or well-thumbed documents tells a story. One, selected from many, tells a story from near the end of Britten’s life: a copy of Nicholson’s Guide to British Waterways (volume 1, South-East). Nicholson’s Guide gives detailed information for people cruising on Britain’s canals and navigable rivers: the location of locks, bridges, turning points and necessary services such as shops, pubs and places to empty chemical toilets. This is not how one normally envisages Britten and Pears on their travels: good hotels and Britten’s Rolls Royce are the more usual picture. But this is evidence of a canal holiday that they did actually take: picking the book off the shelf, it falls open on a particular page and out comes a piece of Red House notepaper with pencil notes in Britten’s hand, recording a journey on the Oxford Canal.
In 1975, with Britten frail after his heart operation, long distance travel to exotic destinations may have seemed too much: instead, the two men borrowed the narrow boat “Emilia di Liverpool” from its owner (and their frequent collaborator), the bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk (1931-2014). The boat’s name nods to Shirley-Quirk’s origins on Merseyside, as well as to Donizetti’s opera of that name. With them came Pears’ great-niece Polly Phipps, and the vital third member of their household at this time, Britten’s nurse Rita Thomson. Britten’s notes, still inside their guidebook, relate only one day’s travel, but tell us that it was the end of a week’s holiday, ending at Napton in Warwickshire. They approached it from the south, and had apparently travelled down the Oxford Canal into the Cherwell valley before returning, though the details of how far the voyage took them are lost. What is not lost is the sit-com ending to the voyage, Britten’s notes recording that ‘Rita’s final gallant leap with the rope for the shore ended in total immersion.’ Photographs taken earlier in the week by Rita show Pears cheerfully steering the narrowboat into a lock, Polly Phipps moving into position with a lock-key to operate the machinery, and Britten sitting in the bow, swathed in a coat and bobble-hat to stay warm, sitting in a chair that had been brought from the Red House and that can still be seen today in the drawing room.
It’s a charming, domestic vignette of the Aldeburgh household: an indication of how Britten and Pears’ life together had the down-to-earth experiences with which we can all identify (up to and including the slapstick moment when someone falls into the canal) and how each object in the Red House tells a story about those shared lives.
- Dr Christopher Hilton, Head of Archive and Library