Decamot of the month

31 Mar 2020-Life Chances

Inspired by the following Decamot items:
Snowboarder, grave, Pendley Manor Hotel, satellite, sock, baton, microscope, Liam, colander, coral reef

Liam Chance made his first fortune fixing metal dishes to the sides of council houses, when the first wave of satellite TV hit Britain in the early eighties. His second family fortune arrived when his wife, Sharron, became a highly successful franchisee for Sock Shop. What’s more, the entrepreneurial gene seemed to pass seamlessly, a bit like Covid 19, to both of their children.

Son Eric developed a unique semi flexible skateboard and sold the design to an American company when skateboarding transferred from underground car parks around Waterloo Station to the ski slopes of Colorado and transitioned to the highly professional sport of snowboarding.

Their daughter Emmeline started the first online International magazine devoted to the sport of snowboarding which she promptly sold to Amazon after demand for snowboarder products exceeded her ability to keep pace.

When Chill Factore, the longest indoor ski slope in the world, opened in Manchester, Eric and Emmeline started an experiential event company specialising in group activities based around quirky locations like Chill Factore. These included surfing for beginners at Coral Reef leisure centre in Bracknell.

DOUBLE EE CORPS was eventually sold to Disney, who created a section in the Magic Kingdom dedicated to Experiential Experiences which soon rivalled Pirates of the Caribbean in popularity.

The Chance family could do no wrong. In the way that Hoover became synonymous with vacuum cleaners, Chance Enterprises, their group of family businesses, became synonymous with success.

If you were “taking a Chance”, you were embarking on a successful journey. Other bon mots swiftly entered the language such as …

“Chance would be a fine thing” in response to someone who was being encouraged against the odds to succeed and “Given half a Chance, I would ….” Which was usually an excuse for not having spotted the opportunity in the first place or an expression of frustration that someone had beaten you to it and needed taking down a peg or two.

As his reputation grew Liam Chance became a natural candidate to be one of the dragons on BBC’s Dragon’s Den programme in which budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas for novel start-up businesses to established businessmen like Liam, but he resisted all offers to participate after watching one episode in which a youthful looking candidate presented his idea for a multipurpose colander, which looked vaguely familiar to Liam.

It featured a contraption with multi layered steel plates operated by a lever which had six positions enabling the device to be used as a strainer, or a straightforward bowl or as a creator of five different shaped Italian pastas. The young candidate had given it the name ‘colanderscope’ which had some merit.

Liam thought that calling it a Chance colanderscope might be counterproductive, which is why he had sold the original basic design to someone else five years before. That person must have sold it on to this latest TV contestant when he also realised its limitations. Assessing risk is all part of growing a successful business. Sadly, Covid 19 spreads bad ideas just as fast as good ones.

The Chance family finally met their match when attending a national sales convention at Pendley Manor Hotel near Tring in Hertfordshire. They had been hired as keynote speakers. It was the first and only time they put themselves in the public spotlight in this way, but the fee involved plus the potential experience it offered them had been hard to resist; especially as Tring was the town where Liam and Sharron they had started married life nearly 40 years earlier.

Emmeline argued that it might open up opportunities for publishing popular business-to-business books packed with advice on how to run successful enterprises. A Chance business book might even rival international guru Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats” or his earlier best-seller “Lateral Thinking”; a phrase which found its way into the English language thus transforming the genre in the sixties and seventies. It is still used by management consultants to this day.

Sharron was equally enthusiastic about the Tring conference. Her retail experience had taught her a lot about human nature although she did have some reservations about the Chance family being seen as celebrities and the effect this might have on them as individuals. But Emmeline had encouraged her mother with the thought that she might write a book on social cohesion and the cult of celebrity.

Liam and Eric were more prosaic but thought that running seminars in the USA had great potential as typical US citizens, unlike their British counterparts, were more than happy to pay sizeable fees in return for discovering the secrets behind a winning formula for success. It was an integral part of the American Dream.

Liam had seen the original stage production of “How to succeed in business without really trying”, a very funny musical which ran in London and on Broadway and which spawned two highly successful films. What’s more, he had always harboured an ambition to try his luck in the USA.

The organiser of the Tring event was one Roger Harcourt-Williams who was a contemporary of Liam Chance, whom he had known of, without actually meeting, at Grove Road Primary School in Tring. Whereas Liam had gone on to the local comprehensive and left at 16 to set up Chance Squariels, Roger had been moved by his parents to a minor public school which he left at 18 for a career in the city armed with a smooth, well-modulated voice bolstering a bogus confidence which was completely unsupported by any natural talent.

He knew he was a distant cousin of the family that once owned Pendley Manor when it was an imposing Tudor style private mansion, before it was sold to a country house hotel group.

A satellite image of Pendley Manor Hotel, courtesy of google maps, only reminded Harcourt-Williams of the injustice done to him by his distant relatives. Sir William Harcourt had abandoned the original property in the 19th century, as a protest against the coming of the railway. It burnt down in 1835. What was he thinking?

Damn It! Pendley Manor had been recorded in the Doomesday Book! To make matters worse, one Joseph Grout Williams, a local landowner, had acquired the derelict property in its 35 acres for a pittance before commissioning John Lion to construct a Tudor Style mansion for his family’s private residence.

None of this would have had any relevance at all had Roger Harcourt-Williams not developed an obsessive interest in Ancestry when the internet really took hold. As a hyphenated personage he had grown used to jibes from his peers about ‘having two fathers’. Contemporaries can be very cruel, especially ten-year-old chums at primary school. But this ill-considered remark had taken root in Roger’s psyche and he longed for revenge.

His parents had done their best to fill in fragments of family history handed down to them which were more hearsay than fact. Roger’s father was a scientist who spent most of his time looking through a microscope and his mother became a successful fashion designer. Between them they had given Roger an exemplary upbringing, a private education and parental love at a distance, all commensurate with their perceived social class.

Roger understood there was a tenuous link somewhere to Dorian Williams, the famous broadcaster synonymous with show jumping on television, whose own family history was rumoured to have the odd 19th century scandal lurking in the records, but Roger’s parents really were not that interested. As far as they were concerned Roger had enjoyed an idyllic childhood and they had discharged their responsibilities to the human race by handing over the baton to their son in a winning position.

The hotel reception area was buzzing with people when the Chances arrived, as arranged, at 8.00 am to be greeted by Christabel Winthorpe Hayes, Roger Harcourt-Williams’s p.a. who greeted them like visiting royalty.

“Welcome to our modest gathering Mr Chance – may I call you Liam, Sharron, Emmeline and Eric as appropriate?” she gushed, giving each one the full-on welcoming Colgate smile, as she said their individual names.

All four Chances nodded, Emmeline a touch less enthusiastically than the others

“Roger’s putting the finishing touches to the conference arena and will join you in a minute – if you would like to follow me through to the Dorian room for a coffee?”

Emmeline was joined by her mother in feeling slightly uneasy, although neither shared their concerns with the other; both were rather embarrassed at the reaction of Eric and his father to the blatant charms of Christabel Winthorpe Hayes. If Christabel had suddenly thrown a stick on to the manicured lawns below, Sharron wouldn’t have wanted to place a bet on which of her menfolk would win the race to retrieve it.

“Ah! … Liam Chance as I live and breathe!” announced Roger Harcourt-Williams entering the room with a flourish “I see Christabel has weaved her magic – thank you for being on time! We can go through to the Harcourt Ballroom when you are ready. The delegates will not be down for another hour or so which will give you time to settle your nerves – if you ever suffer from them! As you will see it is set up theatre style”

“How many are you expecting?” asked Liam shaking hands with his host.

“Full house is 250 otherwise we have trouble with Health & Safety” replied Roger, smoothly “So, if you are ready, we can go through and get you all wired for sound”

The ballroom was an impressive sight with rows of seats either side of a central isle facing a raised stage in front of a huge screen with monitors around the room so that no delegate had an impeded view of their celebrity speakers. All four sat to one side of the stage ready to answer questions once they had made their formal PowerPoint presentations. There were to be two main ones – Liam & Sharron on their early experiences, followed by Emmeline and Eric on creating attractive memorabilia around popular games. Both presentations incorporated embedded videos to illustrate different points.

Although they had never done anything like this before, all four had rehearsed as though it were a Shakespeare play being put on in the grounds of the Hotel as part of the Pendley Shakespeare Festival which took place there every year and was now in its 70th year.

But, as the delegates filed in, the uneasy feeling shared initially by Emmeline and Sharron, transmitted itself to Liam and Eric like Covid 19, and they all felt their confidence draining away.

They had been expecting a largely male audience of aspiring salesmen, all eager to learn about how to be successful. Instead, they were confronted by the most incredible range of human beings imaginable with an indefinable demographic; males and females of all ages from early teens to mature looking elder statesmen and women. But it was their attire which knocked the Chance family sideways. All of the delegates were dressed in period costumes ranging from Medieval to Mid Victorian. All had fixed smiles on their faces as if in a trance as they took their places.

Roger Harcourt-Williams welcomed them all in his customary upbeat manner as it became clear to the Chance family that this was no ordinary sales conference more a gathering of the Tring branch of the Universal Eugenics Movement. Their collective nervousness increased with every unbelievable utterance from the lips of their host.

“We are gathered together today to pay homage and worship at the feet of Tring’s finest example of genetic potential. You will shortly have an opportunity to hear from individual members of the remarkable Chance family. You will be able to question them about their incredible successes …

but just before I invite them to make their presentations, can I take this opportunity to remind each and every one of you what binds us together? Our Cradle to Grave Beliefs!”

With this concluding peroration Roger Harcourt-Williams aimed his slide clicker at the projector, the lights dimmed and instantly, on the Giant Screen behind him, appeared a huge and detailed family tree, the sight of which brought the audience to its feet in a spontaneous standing ovation.

The first entry was:

William the Conqueror +++ Matilda of Flanders

(C1028 – 1087)

But cascading down and outwards were row upon row upon row of lineage, all recorded in meticulous detail.

The Chance family looked on in astonishment as members of the audience peered upwards using opera glasses included in their conference packs, to search for their own individual entries. It soon became clear that every single member of the audience was represented on the Family tree somewhere.

Eric Chance was in two minds about remaining at all but whispered nervously behind his hand to his sister.

“Dad claims to know someone directly related to Oliver Cromwell, but this stuff takes the biscuit. I’m surprised the first entry wasn’t Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.”

“Give him time” she replied, stifling an equally nervous chortle, “It might be the after-lunch treat!”

Roger Harcourt-Williams was now in his pomp, revelling in his own centre stage spotlight, with his guest speakers to one side, completely lost for words.

“We are the dispossessed!” he roared to the obvious delight of his enraptured audience who seemed overjoyed; willingly accepting the accuracy of his bleak analysis of their situation.

“But our time is coming! Yes! Yes! Our time is coming!” he roared

“This very hotel should have been mine all mine but for the indiscretions of Sir William Harcourt who had a child out of wedlock with a daughter of Joseph Grout Williams, the very person who bought this acreage at a knock down price. It was blackmail of the worst kind, but superior breeding will succeed in the end!”

With that he used his pointer to highlight an entry on the Family tree for 1835 when the original mansion burnt down to the approval of his adoring fans who all seemed to have similar points in history which they could point to when it all went wrong for them. They seemed united in their shared misfortune and began chanting in unison, the movement’s mantra “Cradle to Grave, Cradle to Grave, Cradle to Grave ….”

Their mass hysteria was suddenly interrupted by the sound of multiple fire bells ringing and thick smoke started billowing from the ceiling of the Harcourt Ballroom which engulphed them all within seconds. The Chance family huddled together for mutual support as they inched their way to the doorway and the relative safety of the corridor leading to an outer door emblazed with the sign “fire exit only”. Crawling along on all fours, coughing and spluttering as they went, they finally reached the official assembly point. By this time, six fire engines were fighting the blaze.

Sir Peter Harcourt-Williams sat down with his wife Annie to discuss a situation which they had been putting off for years. He had just received a knighthood for his work on developing a vaccine for the Covid 19 virus which had thrust him unexpectedly into the public limelight. He had analysed the data connected to the Great Plagues of 1665/1666 and the Black Death of 1331. Through DNA analysis completed as recently as 2016, he had been able to finally attribute it in part to the woollen clothes worn at the time, which contained bacterium from rat flies.

Annie, a highly successful fashion designer, held his hand and looked into his eyes.

“We should have told him years ago” said Sir Peter shaking his head in sorrow “But I never found the time, Annie”

“You are right of course, my dearest Peter. We’ve both been very remiss. We’ve concentrated on our careers for too long; however beneficial that has been for us, and Roger himself of course, not to mention, in your case, for the whole world”

“We should have taken the opportunity to tell him our secret when he first got started on that Ancestry lark” added Sir Peter, “But he seemed happy enough. I was disappointed he didn’t make it to university or follow me into medicine, but he looked as if he was making a reasonable living for himself”

His wife nodded in agreement when there was a knock on their study door and Roger entered, smiling his usual good-natured smile “You wanted a word Papa, sounds ominous?” he said plonking himself down on an easy chair next Annie.

An awkward silence ensued but was finally broken by Annie

“This is particularly painful for me Roger…… but your father has been amazing throughout.…. but the truth is ……. neither of us is your biological parent. We adopted you legally when you were only three months old and we have loved and cherished you ever since ……

Annie’s voice was beginning to break up, so her husband took up the story

“Our first try at starting a family ended in a still birth.” Sir Peter explained calmly, head down, hardly wanting to maintain eye contact with his son.

“A second attempt was not possible medically” he added, tears beginning to moisten his eyes as he lifted his head to look straight at his son “So I … we ... set about adopting ……. and because of the nature of my work, I was able to access all the right advice, cut through the paperwork, with the adoption society’s blessing of course ….. and, Annie was introduced to you when you were only three weeks old”

“It was the most joyous thing I have ever done” said Annie, head in hands, relief flooding out of her like a dam bursting.

Roger Harcourt–Williams sat in silence utterly dumb struck as the colour drained from his face.

Sunday evenings at Chateau Chance the principal Chance residence in rural East Sussex were usually boisterous affairs, a chance (no pun intended) to catch up with each other, exchange some current gossip and enjoy a glass or two (or three) of their tipple of choice before getting down to the semi-formal agenda, which was a review of progress at their various business interests plus plans for the following week.

Liam always chaired it with good humour whilst his wife Sharron acted as secretary, taking the informal minutes but always protesting that it was time for Chance Enterprises to modernise by re-casting their individual business roles.

“We didn’t call you Emmeline for nothing!” she was fond of telling her daughter.

But Eric and his sister were more than happy with things the way they were and not very keen to embark upon sibling rivalry for the sake of it.

“Come on Mum” Eric would say “Methinks the lady doth protest too much.”

“That’s Shakespeare you know Mum” would add Emmeline with a laugh in her voice

“And I suppose he also said ‘if it aint broke don’t fix it’” Sharron would reply with all good humour.

At which point Liam usually chimed in with “Order, Order!” in his best John Bercow voice so that they could move on to the agenda.

“Can I move straight to the third item, the proposed presentation next month at that Tring sales conference? I’m not so sure we are ready for this yet do you?” said Liam cautiously.

Eric immediately chipped in with his own reservation. “I’ve been doing a bit of research on Facebook. The organiser used to go to Grove Road Primary School – isn’t that where you went Dad? And it would have been around your time?”

“What’s his name?” asked Liam.

“Roger Harcourt-Williams” replied Eric

“Rings a faint bell” said Liam “If I recall, we used to call him the boy with two fathers which was a bit cruel when you think of it now looking back. Very politically incorrect; but I do seem to remember him being a bit like a fish out of water, poor sod”

Sharron now chipped in with her thoughts.

“I have to say that I thought we rather rushed into a decision last time. It is something we can return to at some point in the future when all’s said and done. If you are all in agreement, I will drop Roger Harcourt-Williams a short note apologising for having to turn down his generous offer at this relatively short notice”

They all nodded their agreement before moving on to the next item on the agenda

Emmeline was particularly pleased with their unanimous decision as she had not wanted to tell her fellow family members that she had had a weird dream only the night before.

Historical Notes:

William the Conqueror was also known as William the Bastard. He was the son of the unmarried Robert 1 Duke of Normandy and his mistress Herleva.

The manor of Pendley dates back nearly 1,000 years, to at least the time of the Domesday Book of 1086. At that date, Robert, Count of Mortain, was awarded two hides of land in the manor as a reward for supporting his conquering half-brother, William.

There was one villager with six smallholders who shared a plough and enough meadowland for one and a half ploughs. It was valued at 30 shillings but had been worth 40 shillings before 1066.

In 1440, the Lord of the Manor, Sir Robert Whittingham, was granted ‘free warren in the manor’ (snaring of rabbits) and granted a licence to enclose 200 acres in the parish for a park.

The good times were to end in 1461, when Whittingham was attainted for his loyalty to Henry VI. The manor was granted instead by the new king, Edward IV, to George, Bishop of Exeter, for life.

In the same year Pendley was granted for life to Thomas Montgomery, then again in 1467 when it was granted to Henry Bourchier, the Earl of Essex. At last, in 1469, it appeared to have a permanent home with George, Archbishop of York.

In the 15th century, Pendley was described as a great town; at that time there was no great mansion house in existence. There were 13 ploughs, as well as many tradesmen, such as tailors, shoemakers and cordmakers.

However, when Edward IV fled to Flanders in 1470, Henry IV came back to the throne and re-instated Sir Robert Whittingham, who laid the town area to pasture and built his house at the western end. By this time, his daughter and heiress, Margaret, had married John Verney and she succeeded to Pendley. Their son, Ralph, inherited the Manor and was subsequently knighted.

A succession of his heirs held the manor until 1547, when Edmund Verney fell out of favour with Queen Mary and was ordered to keep to his house. An early form of self-isolating?

Edmund Verney died in 1558, without any heirs, so the manor came to his third brother, who died survived by his second wife. She had persuaded him before his death to divide the inheritance between her son, Edmund, and her stepson, Sir Francis. The latter sold his share and went abroad, where he lived a dissipated life in company with pirates until his death in Messina in 1615.

In 1606-7, the rest of the Pendley manor was sold by Mary Verney to the Anderson family, who occupied the Manor for the next four generations. In Daniel Defoe’s writings, it was described as “a delightful retirement to a man who wants to deceive life in a habitation which has all the charms nature can give, with a large common rounded by a wood behind.”

Sir William Harcourt, the next name to be associated with the estate, abandoned the manor in the 19th century as a protest against the building of the railway. It burnt down in 1835. The Harcourt family demolished the ruins and auctioned the site.

In 1872, a successful local landowner, Joseph Grout Williams, commissioned architect John Lion to build a new Tudor-style house. This was home to the Williams family from 1875 until his death just after the Second World War, when the manor was used by the Women’s Land Army. Then Joseph’s nephew, Dorian Williams, the racehorse owner and television presenter, helped turn Pendley into an Adult Education Centre.

Two years later, in 1947, Dorian founded the first of the outdoor Pendley Shakespeare Festivals. He held an open day for local groups selling their wares and a local drama group, who presented a few scenes from Shakespeare in the gardens.

This proved so popular that the next year saw the full production of Henry VIII. Dorian himself acted in the plays and rode his own horse in Richard III. He loved to include animals in the productions, a tradition that continues today.

The Manor was eventually sold to an independent hotelier, who, after sympathetic refurbishment in 1988, re-opened it as a Country House Hotel. In 1991, there was the addition of the Harcourt ballroom, meeting rooms and 73 large bedrooms. In 2001, a swimming pool and spa were constructed, both of which have been enjoyed by my son and his wife on several occasions, along with the billiards room in the converted wine cellar. Pendley Manor also has a restaurant where meals before the plays are served at festival times.

It is not surprising that with its long history, many tales handed down, and no doubt lots of family secrets, Pendley Manor keeps its place as one of the many splendid grand houses still remaining in Dacorum. You have just read one of them!