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Robina Arbuthnott: Memories of South Lodge and Nepal

Robina Arbuthnott (Picture: Toby Phillips)

Published 1st August 2017

I was born during the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. My mother was advised to head north before Hitler invaded, but she only reached Sutton in Surrey, where I was born.

I never knew my father well. My parents married quickly and probably wouldn't have done so had war not broken out. He spent five years as a prisoner of war in Germany, whilst mum did voluntary nursing in the burns unit at East Grinstead Hospital. They were different people when they were reunited and divorced. 

During the war, I lived along Hammerpond Road with my mother and grandmother. We kept chickens, goats and I had a pony. We grew vegetables with the help of two Canadian soldiers billeted at Cisswood and distributed them around Horsham to those in need. Three young male cousins lived opposite and we would play in the forest. We had our own language, which we can still speak! 

For seven years from 1946, we lived in the Bothy, a cottage by the back gate of South Lodge, which was built by my great-great uncle and lived in by my cousins, Eva and Edith Godman. The big rhododendron on the front lawn was my treehouse and I loved to play in the gardens. I have lovely memories of children’s parties there and singing carols around the huge Christmas tree with all the estate people, and riding my pony with Eva or Edith riding side-saddle with me. 

I was only seven when I was sent as a weekly boarder to Heron's Ghyll, just off Comptons Lane. It was hard for me as home was only two miles away and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t be there. I would cry myself to sleep most nights. The school came to a sticky end when the headmaster ran off with the French mademoiselle, so I went to Parkfield in Horsham and later Sherborne Girls in Dorset. There, amongst other things, I was selected for the west of England junior hockey team and toured Germany. I also played tennis, reaching the final of the Aberdare Cup at Wimbledon.

After leaving with A-levels, my uncle and aunt invited me to stay with them in Brazil where they were posted. He was suddenly relocated to Iran and I spent the most blissful nine months there, going straight from boarding school to the Court of the Shah of Iran. The Shah was between wives, so the social life was hectic. I've never eaten so much caviar!

As my uncle was the ambassador, I was invited to many parties and had a wonderful time. One of my uncle’s friends was Assadollah Alam, head of the opposition party and later Prime Minister of Iran. I would go riding with him and his sister on the Shah’s stallions, galloping across the plains without a hat and wearing flat shoes! 

Iran was a wonderful country. The beauty of Isfahan with its grand square and mosques; the joy of Shiraz - the city of poetry and roses; the grandeur of Persepolis where we spent the night under a full moon are special memories. I walked from Qazvin through the Valley of the Assassins to the Caspian Sea with five members of the Embassy staff, following the footsteps of explorer Freya Stark.

By the time I returned, my mother was living in Plummers Plain. She was so shocked by how spoilt I was that she sent me to Crawley College to do a secretarial course to bring me back down to earth. She was quite right!

I moved to London, sharing a flat with three other girls. I found work in the publicity department of the Rank Organisation. For one of the publicity stunts for Spartacus, Kirk Douglas was given a lion cub to be photographed with. It was supposed to be gentle, but it bit!

After a year, my uncle invited me back to Iran as the Queen was visiting. It was an amazing occasion. From there, I went to stay with friends in Pakistan, where I met my husband, Robert. Initially, I didn’t like him, but that soon changed.

I visited India for a week, travelling around the ‘golden triangle’ of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra with my hostess. In Jaipur, we went for tea at the Rambagh Palace Hotel, the former home of the Maharaja. On the steps of the palace, an old Sikh was reading fortunes. My hostess insisted I should have mine told. He looked at me and wrote down four things on a sheet of paper. They were R.A, 25, Green and 3. He said: “You’re going to marry somebody with the initials R.A who is 25 and there will be something green about him. Then you’ll have three children.” When I next met Robert, I discovered he didn’t have a middle name, was 25 and had green eyes. We got engaged soon after. I am a great believer in karma. We went on to have three children. I did fall pregnant for a fourth time and we thought that the fortune teller was wrong. But unfortunately, I lost the baby.

Returning from Pakistan as Robert’s leave was still a year away, I went to Grenoble University to study French and became a Ground Hostess at Gatwick for British European Airways. That ended when l married Robert at St Mary's in Horsham. My cousins hosted our wedding reception at South Lodge. 

After our honeymoon in France, we returned to Karachi by sea. We were soon posted north to Lahore. Despite spending the first month in bed with hepatitis, I have great memories of the place. 

Whilst pregnant with Alison, our first child, we crossed into India and drove to Kashmir to escape the searing heat. I tried to stay cool by sitting in a cold bath tub all night at our guesthouse in Amritsar which made me quite ill. We drove up the dangerous Banihal Pass and I remember looking down at a tiny river several thousand feet below, which made me feel even worse. When we reached the top, looking down into Kashmir was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. 

Because of my connection to the Girl Guides through South Lodge, where Lady Baden-Powell had been a frequent guest, I became involved with the Pakistan Guide movement. I helped organise their first national Girl Guide Camp.  I was awarded the Star of Pakistan, which was going to be presented by Ayub Khan, then President. I remember the amusement caused when my fellow guiders wrapped me in a Girl Guide sari to try to hide the fact that I was heavily pregnant.  

Robert was posted to London, where our second daughter, Catherine, was born. Our next posting was to Nepal. We lived on top of a hill looking out across the temples of Patan, the second oldest city, and northwards to Himalayan peaks. When the King died, thousands of people poured out of Patan and past our front gate on the way to the Hindu temple at Pashupatinath. I wrapped a shawl around my head and joined them for the cremation on the river bank. You could have heard a pin drop despite the huge number of people. I can still recall the scent from the sandalwood funeral pyre.  

Nepal was wonderful, but there weren’t many facilities, particularly for children, so we explored the valley and the foothills on weekend picnics with the dog. The flora and fauna were stunning and the views of the mountains awe-inspiring. Some of the passes we climbed were higher than Mont Blanc.

I had an ectopic pregnancy in Nepal, which went undiagnosed for five days. I was very fortunate to survive. It happened over the main Hindu festival period when everyone was on holiday, but I was saved by a Canadian surgeon working at a missionary hospital and two Nepalese anaesthetists who gave up their holiday to help me.

After five years, we were back in England and Robert commuted to London from Woking, where we lived. I joined the committee of the British Council Wives Association. The British Council had many overseas scholars in the UK and several of the married ones brought their wives with them, who were very lost and lonely, particularly those in London.  

In 1973, we moved to Malaysia, where Robert had been born. I joined the committee of the Malaysian Cheshire Homes and we managed to raise enough money to build a special swimming pool for them. We lived in Kuala Lumpur but managed to escape the heat some weekends to Port Dickson on the west coast, where the children could swim and snorkel, or we’d sail up the coast to Pankor Island where the coral was beautiful. The children even helped carry young turtles from a hatchery to the sea! 

All three children went to the Army School in Kuala Lumpur, but over the years attended at least eight primary schools before reaching secondary level, which was hard on them. They would make friends and suddenly have to move away. But they derived much pleasure from seeing new places and meeting different people. 

Our home was now in Haslemere and we would let it out when we were posted overseas. Whilst we were in Malaysia, our tenants, who were model rent-payers, were caught robbing a bank! They had already robbed six banks, stealing a large amount of cash. Our cleaner told us she had once opened a cupboard and discovered two shotguns. She’d jokingly remarked ‘You could rob a bank with those!’  It was here I started, along with two partners, Home from Home in England, an agency dealing with holiday lets, both self-catering and en famille.  

Robert’s next post was to Cologne, West Germany. It was a big city and I didn’t speak much German. One of our daughters was on a gap year so she joined me in signing up at a language school, which helped us both!
One of Robert’s offices was in Berlin at a time when the Wall was up. When we travelled there on the British military train through communist East Germany, they would search under the train with sniffer dogs to see if anyone was trying to escape into the west. We crossed over into East Berlin from time to time through Check Point Charlie but were always relieved to return home safely. 

India was perhaps our biggest adventure. It appealed to every sense, with its smells, its colours, its people and its sights. Yet there was also extreme poverty, which was difficult to come to terms with. I joined the DCWA (Delhi Commonwealth Women's Association) which ran a hospital and mobile clinic in deprived areas, as well as a school, which offered me a glimpse as to what real poverty was.

I found the women who lived in the slums incredible. They usually lived in tiny shacks made from cardboard and corrugated iron. Yet they turned out kids going to school who looked neat and clean even to the freshly-rolled ribbons in the girls’ hair. Most of the men were not of this calibre. With some of them, any money they had would be spent on drink, cigarettes and sadly drugs. My richer Indian friends and I had a joke that if you took the women away from India, it would collapse in 24 hours.

After distributing second hand clothing in slums, I saw how important woollens were for the poor. Delhi in the summer is very hot, but in winter it gets cold and poor children with only thin clothing picked up diseases very quickly. I sent a letter to the WI monthly magazine with a photo of a small boy looking very cold and a pattern for a very simple jumper. I hoped I might get a few hundred knitted. However, over three years, WI members from the UK knitted 39,000 ‘jhuggi jumpers’ for the DCWA to distribute.

British Airways agreed to transport them free of charge. However, the first consignment was impounded by Customs as being new and large fees were demanded. I went to see the head of the airport authority and told him they were not for sale but for poor children. In return, he lectured me about how people in the slums were useless and should try working for a living. For the first time in many years, I burst into tears at the hopelessness of the situation. The officer was so horrified that within minutes we had all the necessary permits and the jumpers were cleared!

The DCWA organised distributions in the slum areas. We had to put the jumpers over the heads of each child otherwise they might have been taken away from them. We also linked up with Rotary International, who handed them out to children receiving polio vaccinations. This increased the number of mothers willing to have their children inoculated.

When Prince Charles and Princess Diana visited India, some of our slum children in their new jumpers were photographed with Princess Diana and I hope that anyone  who had knitted so hard for this project would have recognised the pattern and felt it all worthwhile. My mother played a big part in preparing the jumpers for their journey, packing them in large silage bags and after she died the Lower Beeding WI took over which was marvellous of them.

I accompanied Princess Diana on some of her visits in New Delhi and she was brilliant. Wherever she went, her interest and warmth could be felt and children flocked to her. She spoke to many social workers who were not held in high esteem by the elite and she would often stay much longer than scheduled so she could speak to every single person.They left feeling a million dollars.

We travelled a lot around India, as it’s a fascinating country. I have memories of standing on the tip of India, where the Indian Ocean meets the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, and thinking of the huge country behind me, ending in the foothills of the Himalayas; the diversity of its people, culture, language and religion entranced me.

We retired to Shropshire in 1993, to a beautiful old rectory with a plantsman’s garden that we opened for the National Gardens Scheme. I also sat on the Red Cross Fundraising committee and made many friends. After seven years we moved to Maplehurst, where my aunt lived, as she was alone and needed looking after. When she died, we downsized to Mannings Heath, which we love.

Whilst living in Sussex, I've served on the Board of Heathfield Care Home in Horsham and successfully campaigned to protect Leith Hill Place – a National Trust property – from being sold.  It had been my great great-grandfather Josiah Wedgwood III’s home and my great-great uncle, Charles Darwin, often visited. Ralph Vaughan Williams, a cousin, donated the house to the National Trust and I didn’t think it was right that they should try to sell it. My latest interest is researching Frederick DuCane Godman of South Lodge, who was an amazing natural scientist and a collector of iznik pottery.

Robert and I still love to travel and our children have inherited the travel bug. Our son worked in Japan and Singapore and our elder daughter has lived in many countries, including Kenya and Nigeria. Happily, they are all back in the UK at present though our grandchildren seem to be catching the travel bug too!

INTERVIEW: BEN MORRIS

PICTURES: TOBY PHILLIPS/ROBINA ARBUTHNOTT


Robina loved horses as a child
Robina riding the Shah of Iran's house
Robina accompanied Princess Diana in India
Robina is awarded the Star of Pakistan