Country Matters: Guardians of the haunted house

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AN ERA is drawing quietly to an end at the house generally known as The Cottage, perched on the lip of the deep and mysterious Woodchester valley near Stroud. After more than 40 years as a school and field study centre, the property is to be sold by Miriam Kelly, who with her late husband, Reg, lived and taught in this magical setting.

Now 86, but sharp in memory, and still showing flashes of the mettle that made her an outstanding schoolmistress, Mrs Kelly looks back with modest satisfaction over a life devoted to faintly esoteric educational projects.

She and her husband were both scientists - he a physicist, she an organic chemist. They graduated from London University early in the Thirties, only to find that no jobs were available. Their response was to set up a hostel for postgraduate students in a house in Gower Street, where they offered accommodation to young people of all races and colours - a move so advanced that it earned them a reprimand from the authorities.

During the war they lived in Hampstead, where they took in German refugees; but then, realising that they would be in trouble if the Nazis invaded Britain, their community scattered, and the Kellys themselves moved out to Hertfordshire.

After the war they headed west into Gloucestershire, and set up their first nursery school in Stinchcombe, a few miles from Woodchester. In 1950, needing bigger premises, they moved to The Cottage.

The name is something of a misnomer, for the long, rambling house contains 16 bedrooms, a warren of ground- floor rooms, a kitchen 20ft high, and has grounds of nearly 30 acres. What gives it special interest is its proximity to, and connection with, Woodchester Park Mansion, the colossal Gothic edifice begun in 1854 and abandoned unfinished 14 years later.

If you stand on the drive outside The Cottage, you can look down through trees several hundred feet on to the grey stone hulk of the Mansion - with its bell-tower, buttresses and gargoyles - hunched against the foot of the far face, almost directly below. The great pile was commissioned by William Leigh, a philanthropist with strong religious inclinations, and he meant it to be his own home; but during its construction he lived in The Cottage, and indeed had the upper dwelling extended by his architect, Benjamin Bucknall, so that some of its details - shallow stone arches and carved stone fireplaces - strongly echo those of the Mansion. After suddenly and mysteriously instructing his builder to abandon the big house in 1868, Leigh remained in The Cottage until his death in 1873, when it passed to his descendants.

The place was in a bad way when the Kellys found it - three or four buckets on the landing during rainstorms - but its spaciousness appealed to them, so they took it on, first renting, later buying. Down below, the huge shell of the Mansion stood mouldering, but Reg Kelly set up chemistry and physics laboratories in its nether regions - its great advantage being that it was made entirely of stone. As Miriam puts it: 'Not even our people could set fire to a place like that.'

When the Kellys' junior school faltered, their establishment evolved into a centre for overseas students learning English. Some were sent by the Colonial Office, others recruited by word of mouth. William Leigh's old home became a polyglot community, housing Indians, Arabs, Africans, Siamese, as well as sundry Europeans.

Many bizarre incidents took place - as when, on hearing of the death of the King of Jordan, a Bedouin went into a trance and for six hours lay rigid on the floor. French students displayed a penchant for rolling in the snow in their swimming trunks, and a crisis once threatened when a member of the Krupp steel family and a Greek girl were about to arrive simultaneously. Luckily the girl's mother proved magnanimous, and declared that although the Germans had destroyed her country in the war, she would accept the Krupp boy's presence.

Soon the Kellys developed a proprietary attitude to the Mansion, doing all they could to protect it from vandals and thieves. Miriam admits that even to people who knew it well it was a spooky place, especially during the reign of a white cat left there by a lodger. The Kellys deiberately fostered stories about the house and valley being haunted - in one version by a headless man, who was to be seen walking up and down the track beside the four artificial lakes in the valley bottom.

Later their son Roger installed a warning system of all-but-invisible wires, which sounded an alarm up in The Cottage. Many would-be vandals were flushed out by Reg and his cohorts (often multi-coloured and sometimes cloaked in black) hurtling downhill with banshee yells: Miriam particularly recalls terrified youths being dragged up by 'two great Persians' and herded to the police station.

Reg is remembered locally as an irascible man who prowled the valley, driving out intruders. Miriam concedes that 'he could say nasty things, and appear very aggressive', but she points out that he was Irish, and that his flashes of temper were soon over.

The important fact about him was that for many years he made herculean personal efforts to keep the stone gutters and rain-chutes of the Mansion clear. Anyone who has seen the place will realise that the operation required both skill and nerve - and it is largely due to Reg that the building has survived (it is now being conserved by a trust of local volunteers).

The third and most far-reaching educational phase of The Cottage was as a field study centre. The earliest groups were children from Leicester, but word went out that the enclosed Woodchester valley was exceptionally rich in flora and fauna, and universities began to send parties. For the past 20 years countless students from Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and elsewhere have stayed in the house, up to 60 at a time, and done their field work in the steep woods and pastures below. With deer, foxes, badgers, rare bats in the Mansion, nearly 90 species of birds and several hundred of plants, the area is a naturalist's paradise.

Of course, Mrs Kelly would like The Cottage to remain a study centre, whoever its new owners may be; but her dearest hope is that the National Trust, which recently bought most of the valley, will value the biodiversity of Woodchester and not allow hordes of visitors to destroy the delicate balance which she and her husband helped to preserve for nearly half a century.