Thursday was a day devoted to an obscure part of the experience of my father during his service with Eighth Air Force in England during WWII. For background, I have done extensive research to learn about his war experience, and have a rather substantial book in draft form that I hope to ultimately provide to members of my family.
The story of this day began in February, 1945. Dad and the other enlisted men on his bomber crew were sent to an English manor house for a week of “Rest & Relaxation” from their bombing missions over Germany. He had several photographs of this occasion in his war memorabilia.
Dad, third from the left
Dad’s memorabilia did not reveal the name or location of the manor house. Through some research and detective work, I discovered that this manor house was located in Pangbourne, just outside of Reading, England, 40 miles west of London. I could write a fairly fascinating book as to how I tracked down the location of this house, but I’ll spare you those details for now. My hope was to visit it someday.
On Thursday, we drove from Looe, Cornwall to Reading to spend the night. Reading? – not my favorite place, and our B & B was dreadful. Oh well, that’s how it goes on a self-guided tour of a different country.
Early Friday morning we drove 10 miles outside of Reading to the village of Pangbourne – a quaint and breathtaking old English village on the Thames River. Why did we stay in Reading???????
I knew the history of the manor house, but not its address. We were going to have to find it and it could have been anywhere in the Pangbourne area. During WWII, it was known as Pangbourne House, but my research revealed that it had subsequently been renamed Coombe Park. We found a small bakery in the middle of the village for a bite of breakfast.
I asked the bakery staff about Coombe Park and showed them pictures of it on my computer. I got some puzzling nods, until one older lady began to say, “Yes….yes….I think it’s over the bridge in Whitchurch-On-Thames.” Another gentlemen confirmed and gave us specific directions. We were within walking distance.
We walked down a lovely lane, across a small bridge over the Thames and into the adjacent village of Whitchurch. It would be hard to describe my feelings as we walked along. I was about to see the manor I had envisioned in my mind for some years.
The small toll booth leading from Pangbourne to Whitchurch. This was there even in 1945.
The bridge over the Thames leading into Whitchurch
We ultimately arrived at the large private gate for Coombe Park. We were locked out with no house in sight. Suddenly, a car appeared inside the gate, and the equestrian director appeared. I explained my story. She made a brief telephone call and then invited us to enter. “Walk up the lane for about a mile. You’ll find the house. Mrs. Deaner will see you.”
The lane leading to the house was simply beautiful. We soon rounded a corner, and there it sat. I was awestruck.
I rang the doorbell, and the housekeeper appeared. No, Mrs. Deaner was not there, and she “couldn’t give us permission to walk around and take pictures.” I managed to keep the conversation going until she finally acquiesced.
The manor house has been extensively renovated since WWII. At first glance, it is recognizable, but when you study it closely, you begin to wonder if you’re at the right place. But, gradually I began to match scenes from my Dad’s pictures, and from other research I had done, to what I was seeing.
Sadly, it is in a desperate state of disrepair. It reminded me of the final images of Tara in Gone with the Wind.
For the next little while, we snooped around and took many, many pictures. It was quite a moment for me personally to stand on the very same grounds that my father had been on in WWII, and to see this property that has been the subject of my fascination for several years now.
The back of the house
The back of the house. The bay window is the exact spot where one of the above photos of my father and his crew was made.
A greenhouse on the property. Lovely potential, but in complete shambles.