Russian Children at The Castle, Bude
Here follows some info from a chat with a lovely Bude lady called Barbara who recalls the presence of Russian children at The Castle. If anyone else has any information, please get in touch! Dawn, author of Secret Bude and two other Bude books, is happy to interview anyone who has some interesting oral history to provide.
In the 1930s, according to Barbara (born 1926) the Castle building was basically the same as it is now but had an impressive entrance (a wide gateway for horses?) and was shrouded with trees all round and screened off, so you couldn’t see into it from the road. It was very private with grounds (no bandstand, no library) and access to the beach. Barbara’s school was based at what is now the Parkhouse Centre, so was very close to the ‘posh’ Castle.
At that time, the Castle belonged to the Admiral Sir Douglas and Lady Edith Nicholson. According to Barbara, Lady Nicholson looked rather like old pictures of Queen Mary, with long dresses, toque hats and a parasol. “I don’t suppose she was all that old but she seemed very old to me”, said Barbara. The Admiral she felt, looked like Carlton Blyth (Arthur Madge) – both dressed similarly and were “very handsome”.
On the August Bank Holiday, which was then the first Monday in August, the Castle used to allow the Bude Horticultural & Honey Society to have a marquee on the lawn to hold an annual flower show. It was at this time that local people could see young Russian visitors demonstrating their ballet skills.
No one quite knows why these Russian children were in Bude or from where they came. Living at the Castle, it is thought they were of aristocratic White Russian background, in a place of safety post-Russian Revolution and the ensuing civil war. So, their visit was probably related to regime changes. Aristocrats and Communists were fundamentally opposed to each other. They were emigres. Barbara said: “That part of the world was little known at the time to people in Europe. It was quite exciting having foreigners here as until then, foreigners were people who came from Holsworthy”.
What Barbara recalls as a child is that they gave a beautiful ballet demonstration in the Castle ballroom which later became the Council Chamber. This was in the early 1930s. She assumed ballet was part of their culture and teaching. The ballet was something completely different, and a big event for children in Bude. The boys wore tights and tunics and the girls wore “fairy” dresses. To see boys dancing was a new experience for children like Barbara. Their governess would play piano as they danced. Barbara recalls that people had to pay extra to see the ballet but that local children loved it. “My sister and I walked around on tiptoe for weeks after”.
The children’s governess did not speak English, so far as Barbara was aware. The group kept themselves very much to themselves and did not mix with the town folk, though she did not know if they had any links with St Petroc’s or St Catherine’s. then schools for boys and girls, often of absent parents working abroad. The governess accompanied the children everywhere. She took little tiny steps, according to Barbara, wore a turban hat, not as smart as a toque hat but tight fitting, and she had a very stern face. Barbara believes she was auntie to one of the children. Barbara described the children as “refugees”. She guessed the Russians were aged around 8-14, and comprised boys and girls. They left before 1939 and she does not know how or why.
It is believed that Edith Nicholson inherited the lease to the Castle in 1930 and was visited by a number of White Russian emigres, including members of the Tolstoy family and Sergei Obolensky (cousin of Alexandre Obolensky who played rugby for England and was killed on 29th March 1940, aged 24, in an air crash). Barbara thought he was the brother of Alexandre Obolensky but cousin seems more likely.
“They never came into Bude town but the governess would take them for walks on Efford Down and to Upton. If a car came by (they were rare then) these children were terrified they’d be shot at, so would leap over a hedge. Barbara thinks there were no more than a dozen of them. She would see them from the beach as they would go swimming in the sea pool, down at the rocky Crooklets end, having crossed the beach via the iron bridge.
“They used to go swimming in the bathing pool, and wore red costumes. They would go across the iron bridge (over the river) to the sea pool”.
Barbara recounted how Prince Obolensky once ran across the beach, flattening her carefully built sandcastle in the process, so she hit him on the back of the legs with her spade. He didn’t seem bothered by this and kept running. She thinks he was just enjoying being a normal child but says it is the closest she ever came to royalty.
The children also used to slide down the hill at the back of the Castle. There was a summerhouse in the dent at the top of the hill, in which they kept rush mats. The children entertained themselves by using these to slide on. They didn’t have specific play equipment so far as Barbara knew, but had the run of the grounds, and made their own entertainment. They didn’t play on the beach either but would walk there and back for their constitutional swim. Barbara wasn’t sure (she never saw them there) if they ever swam in Tommy’s Pit which she said was freezing between the rocks, but sometimes the sea pool would get scummy during summer low high tides, so it wouldn’t always be washed out, and could be quite unpleasant, so presumes they found alternatives.
Alongside the ballet, Barbara also mentioned the magic of pantomime with the Reg Leaver panto which had real ponies (to pull Cinderella’s coach) stabled at Lansdown Mews. The children would ride the ponies, who arrived by train, back to the station, which was another very real treat.