Gordon Brooke: an appreciation

It was a shock to belatedly hear of Gordon’s death, at Mill Place, Rye on July 14 last year. He was such a large man and so full of life. But for some reason his passing was largely missed at the time.

Gordon was born in 1933 in West Yorkshire. His parents ran a market stall selling clothes which he helped with, but he was keen to see more of the world and so he got a place at Kings College, London University to study civil engineering. It was there that he met Hilary.

The story was that he was an important young man, as president of the students’ union, and she was a fresher. There was a bridge between the students union and the university and he waited for her until he saw her and then he said: “I’ve been waiting for you.” They were married on August 8 1959 in Bristol where Hilary grew up.

Lamb House pre war with garden room in the foreground in the Town Model (front left)

The couple moved several times during that period, finally choosing Southport as a great place for the children to grow up in. Gordon worked for the NHS in Liverpool and then for Lancashire County Council in Preston where he was director of property services, working in a huge office and responsible for hundreds of historic properties, including those in Lancaster.

When he retired Gordon helped Hilary run her TEFL business, entertaining students from all over the world. When Hilary retired, the couple decided to move closer to their children and thought Rye was an acceptable southern equivalent of Southport. At this time the National Trust was looking for tenants for Lamb House and so they leapt at the chance, being perfectly suited to the tenancy.

Many Ryers will remember Gordon and Hilary from their time at Lamb House, during the years 1998 to 2003. It was a natural tenancy for the couple, given Gordon’s interest in architecture and gardening and Hilary’s passion for literature. Gordon became chairman of the Rye Festival and they helped organise events for the festival, as well as hosting local charities and normal Trust visitors.

Henry James, one of Lamb House’s most famous inhabitants

There was always a mischievous side to Gordon’s character and, when asked about a Henry James oeuvre, he’d make up the reply, saying later, “It was near enough”. During this period they continued to visit France and Italy, which they loved.

It was at this time that I met the Brookes, when I was a consultant architect for the Trust. There were several safety issues at Lamb House, which had to be dealt with, including asbestos removal and a dramatically leaning garden wall. Gordon and Hilary were always helpful and patient.

Arriving on the London train one evening, Gordon was struck by the scruffy appearance of the area which greeted visitors. Always one for a project, he started to organise, through Rye in Bloom, a major tidying up exercise. This included new planting, hard landscape and new bus shelters. The resulting shelters are a compromise between Gordon’s desire for a modern stainless steel and glass design, and Rother’s offer of green-painted perforated steel.

Alongside this project was another, to make Rye famous, as the place to visit at cherry blossom time, by planting hundreds of cherry trees on every piece of available land. Cherry blossom represents, to the Japanese, ‘the impermanence of life’. Again Gordon’s plans were frustrated, except around the station bus stops and outside the Studio School, where he organised the planting of more than a dozen trees. Fortunately the county arborologist at the time had resources and funds.

After Lamb House, the Brookes bought Mill Place and set about internal improvements and a large extension to suit their social and family lives. Mill Place gave Gordon an opportunity to use his planning and gardening knowledge, to produce a lovely garden, with sweeping lawns, extensive beds and a terrace with vine-covered pergola. Always a modest man, when complimented on the garden, he would just shrug his shoulders.

Image Credits: Couleur / Pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/japanese-cherry-trees-flowers-pink-2168858/, Rye Town Council , Rye Arts Festival .

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  1. A lovely insight Chris into the life of Gordon Brooke! Love the point when he met his wife and said’ I have been waiting for you’ it proves romance isn’t dead!


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