John Gallehawk, Bletchley Park Research contributor shares our the story of our day out to see Cournswood House, the home of Bletchley Park Codebreaker, Dilly Knox.
On Monday 9th June 2014 two inveterate and intrepid investigators left the urban parts of High Wycombe and ventured forth into the wooded and hilly village of Naphill and in particular to the Village Hall where we could look again at the Memorial plaque to Dilly Knox set near the large Atlantic Cedar tree that he donated in 1936 .This plaque had been unveiled by Mavis Batey in 2009.
We were met by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable Ian James, estate manager at Cournswood House. We travelled a short distance through the village of Naphill before turning right down a lane to the entrance driveway to the house we had come to see .
That house is Cournswood House – the home of Bletchley Park codebreaker, Dilly Knox until his death in 1943. The gates opened as we approached and we continued to a magnificent home set deep in the woodlands in wonderful surroundings.
We approached Cournswood House with a mixture of awe, humility and excitement, for very few people have seen this house. We had passed a couple of dwellings and took a sharp left turn to take us past the front of Cournswood House.
This is a large house, extended at both ends since Dilly’s time here but it still has a strong sense of the past.
We were taken on a tour around the outside and had pointed out to us where windows had been added, a wooden workshop removed and the earlier septic tanks covered over. We took a picture from outside the Library where Dilly had worked.
The immediate views from the back of the house are superb, one of two small lakes with carp and ducks and woodlands from which two deer and a fawn appeared later on. There are pictures of the house showing this aspect and photos were taken in an attempt to replicate this.
We were told the story of how Dilly would ride his motorbike from the house down to the rail station at High Wycombe to travel to London, allegedly studying Greek papyrii while other passengers read their newspapers. He apparently had a very bad accident on the bike and thereafter had a limp. He subsequently had a small Austin car to make the journey.
The garage housing Dilly’s prizedAustin has now been converted into a cottage set within the woods surrounding Cournswood House. He is reputed to have coasted down the hill from the garage to see how far he could go before having to start the engine. He also had a rather unique way to traverse crossroads – straight across as fast as possible.
As we completed this stroll around the exterior the owner of the house, Sharon Constançon, came down the stepped path from the large Conservatory and Office beside the lawn that had probably been a grassed tennis court in past times. She invited us into the luxuriously appointed home.
We saw Dilly’s Library from the inside, now also used as an office. A drawing of Cournswood hung on the wall. We were enveloped by history at this point as the reader can imagine, an unforgettable experience. Most intriguing was the safe hidden behind the oak panelled wall. Its key is long-lost. It was hard not to imagine a stack of papers, a lost pipe or glasses.
We had pointed out to us some of the alterations that were thought to have been made since Dilly’s time in the passageway and the now considerably enlarged lounge.
We were indeed privileged to be shown the upstairs rooms that enjoyed a magnificent view over the grounds and lake. As we looked, the delightful sight of two deer and a fawn came out of the woodland into the paddock just below the house and seemed quite unconcerned.
After these memorable hours, we were invited to walk out of the immediate estate and across into the woodland where a memorial stone to Dilly is located to mark where his ashes were placed along with those of his wife, Olive. The woods were Dilly’s passion, he planted the trees that now stand there and guard his resting place.
Back at the house, our host bade us goodbye and we strolled back to the car, we had been talking there for a while when our host re-appeared, rather excited to say that back in her office she had come across, by chance, some documents about past details of the house and we were so fortunate to be invited back to take a look at these.
We mentioned that we ought to be able to locate the Finance Act 1910 survey records for the house. This was in fact subsequently done and there was the bonus that a sketch plan with measurements had been included in the Rating assessment of the time. (There will be more about the Finance Map for Cournswood in a future post).
What a memorable day!
Images were tumbling though our heads as we eventually made our way back towards Naphill.