Myles Hildyard

'Lord Merlin' of Flintham and author of a vivid account of the Second World War

After displaying conspicuous bravery in the Second World War - he won the Military Cross for his escape from a prisoner-of-war camp following the Battle of Crete - Myles Hildyard devoted his energies and considerable talents to Flintham Hall, his ancestral home in Nottinghamshire, which has been described as "perhaps the most gloriously romantic Victorian house in England".

Flintham's tour de force is a remarkable and probably now unique conservatory, a fantasy of stone, glass and cast-iron nearly 50 feet high which is attached at the end of the great library. The house, originally Jacobean, was rebuilt by the Hildyard family in a classical style in 1820, adding an extension by Lewis Wyatt in 1829; it was then faced in stone and remodelled and again extended in the Italian palatial style by the Nottinghamshire architect Thomas Hine in 1852.

The park is beautifully landscaped on Humphry Repton lines, with long horizons to far-off woods over an 11-acre lake with two islands (on one of which stands a brick folly designed for breakfast parties), while the gardens are on three levels, one of which is walled in soft red brick, the next a rose and shrub wilderness and arboretum wholly created by Hildyard over the course of 40 years, and the third an aviary designed by Lewis Wyatt. Hildyard's innovative and adventurous planting has created a magical garden, much admired.

Myles Thoroton Hildyard was born on the last day of 1914, the eldest son of Gerard Hildyard KC. He was 13 when in 1928 his father inherited Flintham and its estate from his uncle and he had never been there; his mother had only occasionally visited it. Surrounded by cedars and sequoia trees, its floors all brown linoleum, its water from the lake, the lamps all gas-fired and the original hypocaust heating in disrepair, it was hardly welcoming. The young Myles, however, loved the house from the start. By the beginning of the war, he had only lived there a short time, during much of which he had been away at Eton (where he was a good athlete, becoming victor ludorum) and then Magdalene College, Cambridge (where he somewhat reluctantly read Law). But its influence on him was already immense.

Hildyard had a brilliant war. Shortly before its outbreak - and, to his relief, before his Bar finals - he was recruited to the Nottinghamshire (Sherwood Rangers) Yeomanry, a cavalry regiment, by the adjutant, Gerald Grosvenor (later Duke of Westminster). The regiment was first shipped to France and then on to Palestine to join the British cavalry division posted there to deter the Germans pushing down from Syria towards the Suez Canal. Here they were largely cut off from the real war, and Hildyard contented himself with visits to the archaeological sites and the pyramids at Giza, sending vivid descriptions of them and his life home to his parents and brother Toby (later Sir David Hildyard, British Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva).

In early 1941 the Sherwood Rangers were sent to Crete. This was a much sterner test, and became the more so for Hildyard when, after the successful German invasion, he was held prisoner. With a friend, Michael Parish, he escaped into the mountains, where he endured a difficult trek with lacerated feet and severely cut legs, and then hid for months, helped by Cretan peasants at considerable risk both to themselves and their villages. Eventually, Hildyard and Parish (who had broken his arm) managed to hire a boat and made their escape via Turkey. Both were awarded the MC. Hildyard's telegram to his parents is the stuff of a Boy's Own adventure: "Aunt Geraldine's hospitality unsatisfactory. Will cable more from Alexandria."

After recuperation leave he joined HQ 10th Armoured Division as an intelligence officer and proved extremely competent. Through the battles of Alam Halfa and El Alamein in the summer of 1942 he continued a stream of correspondence, written in an endearingly off-hand, unmilitary style, mixing graphic accounts of tank squadrons going into battle (their shells exploding like sunflowers) and musings about his fellow soldiers, his own personality and God. In his letters his deepest thoughts return to Flintham, showing less fear and indignation about the Germans than about the wartime requisitioning of land and its effect on the park.

Towards the end of the North Africa campaign he rejoined the Sherwood Rangers as adjutant, and he was mentioned in despatches. He then served in Italy, now as intelligence officer with the 7th Armoured Division, and after that returned to England in January 1944 to prepare for the Normandy invasion. In the thick of fighting through north-western Europe he was, as brigade intelligence officer, required to write notes of what he knew of the opposing forces and the terrain. Peppering these with descriptions of the architecture and notable sites in the area, he became known as the "Baedeker of the brigade".

His letters chronicle the sad re-conquest of Holland, cheering Belgium and devastated Germany, the surrender of Hamburg on the orders of Admiral Doenitz and the looting of Goering's palace in Berlin, his own successes - he was mentioned again in despatches and appointed MBE - barely noted. Accounts of the course of the campaign are interspersed with droll portraits of Montgomery ("a very odd little man with a terrific histrionic sense, and a great soldier") and revelations of anxiety about his own homosexuality and his misgivings about what England might be like after the war. He need not have worried. England turned out a more benign and sympathetic place than he envisaged.

Hildyard returned to Flintham, which he formally inherited on the death of his father in 1956. "Flintham," he wrote, "is material to my feeling for family, for beauty, continuity, instinct to improve, and I believe that is life as God intended it." He retrieved the original Holland furniture made especially for the house, which was abandoned in the stables. With the help of David Rowbotham, he restored the main rooms to their Victorian splendour. He transformed the gardens and woods and took immense care to preserve the village. Nobody built a garage, or put in a window, that was not in keeping. His determination caused difficulty at the time - conservation was not fashionable - but its results are greatly appreciated now.

Outside Flintham, as well as being active in the National Trust and the Historic Buildings Trust, he was a founding member in 1949 and for many years chairman of the Nottinghamshire branch of the Council (now Campaign) for the Preservation of Rural England. Rufford Abbey, Newark Market Square (Georgian and very fine), Holme Pierrepont and the Vale of Belvoir, all would have been destroyed or blighted but for the vision and perseverance of the early members of the Notts CPRE.

Hildyard was also a keen and accomplished local historian; for more than 40 years he was President of the Thoroton Society founded in honour of his ancestor Robert Thoroton, author of The Antiquities of Nottinghamshire (1677), and he wrote detailed histories of both the Hildyard and the Thoroton families, as well as a history of Flintham village. In 1975 he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

But his greatest literary achievement was his wartime letters and the diary he kept of his escape from Crete, a compilation of which is to be published next month, as It is Bliss Here: letters home 1939-1945. Archbishop William Temple, a relation with whom he also corresponded regularly during the war, wrote in 1942 that he considered Hildyard the best letter-writer he had ever known, while in September of that year James Lees-Milne recorded in his diary:

Read in the train a fascinating diary written by Myles Hildyard . . . It is written in a straightforward, not unpoetic way, and is thrilling and charming. I would love to meet Hildyard who seems an angelic person, sensitive, sympathetic and of lion courage.

Flintham was, for the years Myles Hildyard was its guardian, a most remarkable place to visit. Not just because of the beauty and richness of its physical surroundings, but also because he himself was so remarkable a person. "He was, in a way," writes Antony Beevor, "the local equivalent of Nancy Mitford's Lord Merlin." At Flintham he encouraged and received a stream of visitors young and old, who brought lively conversation, stimulation and enjoyment to a house which, when his father inherited, had been a rather forbidding and lifeless place.

David Rowbotham and Robert Harrison made it possible for him to live there happily until the end. He died at home, 77 years after he had first arrived.

Robert Hildyard and Marianna Hildyard

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