Billa Harrod

Writer on her native county Norfolk and founder of the Norfolk Churches Trust
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The Independent Online

Wilhelmine Margaret Eve Cresswell, writer and conservationist: born Hunstanton, Norfolk 1 December 1911; OBE 1992; married 1938 Roy Harrod (Kt 1959, died 1978; two sons); died Holt, Norfolk 9 May 2005.

She was born in 1911 and given the old-fashioned and unlikely Christian name of Wilhelmine, after her maternal grandmother; but it was as Billa that she, with her sister Puffin, emerged from the chrysalis in the late 1930s, as two plump, ebullient and rebellious teenagers, livening up army circles in Egypt, and at constant odds with their stepfather, General Sir Peter Strickland, Commander-in-Chief of British forces there. Her background was solid Norfolk on both sides; her father, Captain Joe Cresswell, who was killed in action in 1914, was part of a huge Gurney cousinhood, of banking and originally of Quaker stock; her delightful and formidable mother, born Barbara ffolkes of a long-established county family, was a pillar of the Red Cross in Norfolk for many year, was made a Dame in 1923 and like daughter lived into her nineties.

Billa Harrod's life ran in two overlapping circles: Norfolk, where her roots were, and which she loved passionately all her life; and the world which developed from London, where she set up in a Holborn flat with her sister in the 1930s and worked for the Georgian Group in its earliest days - moving in 1938 to Oxford when she married Roy Harrod, a brilliant and handsome economics don at Christ Church. London and Oxford gave her an expanding network of friends, including John and Penelope Betjeman (she was briefly and not seriously engaged to John), Osbert Lancaster, Nancy Mitford, Robert ("Mad Boy") Heber-Percy, the Lygon sisters, Jim Lees-Milne, Paddy and Joan Leigh Fermor, Freda and Lennox Berkeley, Joan and Solly Zuckerman and very many others.

Her house in St Aldate's, looking over to Christ Church through the windows of her pretty first-floor drawing room (a view that was painted for her by her friend Paul Nash) was exactly Fanny's house in Love in a Cold Climate (1949). Billa herself bore no resemblance to Fanny, but I suspect she gave Nancy Mitford the material from which to describe the horrors of north Oxford dinner parties; Fanny's husband Alfred was clearly drawn from Roy, although Roy was by no means as completely detached from human interests as the portrait suggests. Their own Oxford friends included the Frank Pakenhams, the David Cecils, Enid Starkey, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Robert Blake and John Sparrow; and a stream of undergraduates crossed the road from Christ Church, or came down St Aldate's, to enjoy the fun and pleasure of her company.

But Norfolk always drew her; in 1946 she and Roy rented Bayfield Brecks, a Dutch-gabled doll's house out in the fields near Holt, and in 1963 they bought the old Rectory at Holt. After Roy (who had been knighted in 1959) died in 1978, she lived on there until her death. She filled the 18th-century house, with its romantic early Victorian garden, stream and wood famous for snowdrops, with her own tastes and personality, and mementoes of her life, friends and many Norfolk connections.

Billa was an omnivorous and wide-ranging reader, though neither academic, nor intellectual. She had a razor-sharp mind, a warm heart, a great sense of fun, enormous energy, and an exceedingly strong character. Economics meant nothing to her at Oxford, nor did hunting, shooting and fishing in Norfolk: her loves were for buildings, especially churches; gardens, including her own; food, cooked by her out of her large kitchen garden (looked after in her last years by her much-loved grandson); anything to do with Norfolk; and, above all, people of all kinds and ages. She loved filling the house with family and friends, or the friends of her two sons, or the children or grandchildren of her friends, especially for memorable long weekends or more of croquet, picnics, sight-seeing, walks and talk in the hot Norfolk summers.

With Wyndham Ketton-Cremer of Felbrigg as her mentor she was for many years a member of the Regional Committee of the National Trust and with her friend Charles Linnell she wrote the Shell Guide to Norfolk (first published in 1957, reaching a fifth edition, as The Norfolk Guide, in 1988).

She was a devout, old-fashioned Anglican, with a lively sympathy for other religions, loved clergymen, if they loved their churches, but did battle with them if they did not. Norfolk contains some 650 churches outside Norwich, many unforgettable for their architecture and fittings, and often out in the fields on the site of vanished villages. In 1972 she was the author of Norfolk Country Churches and the Future, a pamphlet published under the auspices of the Norfolk Society Committee for Country Churches, out of which emerged, at her instigation, the Norfolk Churches Trust. As founding Chairman and later President, she built it up into an organisation with an income in six figures, owning a dozen or more churches and giving grants to many hundreds more; it became a model for similar trusts all over the country. The work brought her the friendship of the Prince of Wales, which meant a great deal to her in the last 15 years or so of her life.

Billa Harrod was not sweet. Her temper was unpredictable; a storm could blow up (and die down) very quickly, and she would lash out at whoever had the misfortune to annoy her. On occasions she could, and did, reduce her daughters-in-law to tears. Her friendship was more than worth the occasional risks. Perhaps her most attractive feature was her enthusiasm, which remained undimmed until the end of her life. Meeting new people, going to new places, discovering new books, never ceased to fill her with interest and excitement.

She had never spent a day in hospital, complained bitterly of the unpleasantness of being in her nineties, but remained alert and vital until she went up to bed last Sunday night, and died in her sleep.

Mark Girouard