A second extract from George Harrison: Behind The Locked Door by Graeme Thomson.
         It is the beginning of 1970 and George and Pattie have decided to move from Kinfauns, their house in Esher, to Friar Park in Henley, the house (and gardens) that would become synonymous with George for the remainder of his life. It was, I think, where he was always meant to be…

‘My Sweet Lord’ was one of the last songs George wrote in Esher. Not long after seeing in the new year and the new decade he and his wife moved to Friar Park on the outskirts of Henley-On-Thames, a well-heeled town on the river 40 miles west of London. A 120-room late Victorian oddity, he would call it home for the remainder of his life. More than bricks and mortar, it was part sanctuary, part folly, part cosmic joke, and a life-long passion which he restored and nurtured and which became so closely associated with the man who lived there it is now almost impossible to imagine one without the other. Like the music he was about to make, Friar Park reflected the complexities of his inner character on a monumental scale. 
Kinfauns was too small, too conventional, too exposed. “I am seeking the absolute peace of complete privacy,” he said during his hunt for a new home. “I am also insisting on a private lake, because water is very peaceful for the mind.”
 “George said to me, ‘I don’t care what the house is like as long as it’s not on the road and there is room to put in a recording studio’,” says Pattie Boyd. “At Esher, girls managed to get into the garden, even into the house, and it was a bit of a nightmare. And he really wanted a studio where he could work on stuff himself, that was the real reason for having a big house.” She spent much of 1969 looking for a suitable location. They found one: Plumpton Place, near Lewes in East Sussex, at the end of a sweeping drive surrounded by moats and gardens. But the elderly owner refused Harrison’s offer on the grounds that “she didn’t want rock and roll musicians buying her lovely house.” The lady must have either experienced a swift change of heart or an offer she couldn’t refuse: shortly afterwards Jimmy Page bought the property.
Boyd finally spotted a small advert in the Sunday Times placed by the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco. The nuns had been running a school in Friar Park in Henley-On-Thames which had recently closed, and the remarkable building was now facing demolition unless a buyer could be found. Its vast husk was inhabited by six nuns and a monk, which must have appealed to Harrison’s sense of humour. Boyd went to view it and instantly fell in love; Harrison came the next day and fell equally hard. Built by Sir Frank Crisp in 1898 on the site of an old monastery, the redbrick neo-Gothic pile was an essay in English eccentricity writ large. Harrison’s £140,000 bought him a gatehouse, two lodges, 12 acres of formal gardens, another 20 acres of land, a three-storey mansion with 25 bedrooms and numerous public rooms, including a ballroom and a library. There were turrets, towers and parapets with glowering gargoyles.
But that was the least of it. As well as being an eminent lawyer and keen amateur horticulturalist, Crisp was also a microscopist, and the home he built rewarded those with an eye for detail and a taste for the playfully absurd. “He was clearly a wonderful man with a great sense of humour, he travelled extensively and brought back all sorts of things he discovered in other countries,” says Boyd. “His attention to detail was exquisite and just what George understood. He loved it for many reasons.”
The parkland, open to the public during Crisp’s lifetime and long after his death in 1919, was a cross between Botanical garden, fairground attraction and Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. The centrepiece of the Alpine garden was a replica of the Matterhorn made from 20,000 tons of Yorkshire granite. There was a series of man-made underground caves and grottos through which one could travel by boat from one lake to another, the journey enlivened by distorting circus mirrors, gnomes, fairies, toadstools and shimmering blue glass. Above ground there were Elizabethan and Japanese gardens, topiary, a maze. Signs on the lawn read, to the delight of the future hippie interlopers, “Don’t keep off the grass.”
Inside, the double doors led to a marble vestibule and then a huge hall with a grand staircase and a minstrel’s gallery above. The fireplace was vast, flanked on each side by a panel showing the Tree of Life and the Tree of Destiny. The dining room had stained glass windows and the ballroom ceiling was dotted with cherubs. There were Swastikas all over the house: the sacred Hindu symbols were removed when World War Two began but there was still evidence of them in the Seventies. A closer look revealed the true art of the microscopist: all the light switches were monk’s faces, activated by clicking the nose; the walls were adorned with puns, aphorisms, maxims and proverbs, several of which found their way into Harrison’s conversation and eventually his songs. Every new corner seemed to reveal some new whimsical delight, but there was a dark, shadowy intrigue to the place as well. Friar Park was, in many ways, the ultimate expression of Harrison’s worldview. How could he not love it? 
Unfortunately, on his arrival in March 1970 he found only the ghost of Friar Park’s past splendour: the gardens had been used as a local dump, brambles and ivy covered everything, the lakes had been filled in, and internally the house was in a state of extreme disrepair, with grass growing through the floors, whole walls crumbling, and many parts of the building closed off. In the early months they lived like gold-class squatters. There was no heating, no furniture and no beds, so they slept in the hall in sleeping bags, wrapped in coats and scarves and with a fire burning constantly in the huge grate. Even then they almost froze. The only other inhabitable space was the original kitchen, a huge tiled room with flagstone floors, industrial-sized sinks and a walk-in pantry. Slowly, with the guiding hand of architect David Platt, they began to restore parts of the property. For a period they lived in one of the lodges. Back in the house they would sleep on a mattress on the floor in a different room every other night. It was a game. “We were like children – we were playing,” says Boyd. “We could decorate, we embarked on a huge garden programme, it was so exciting. It was huge fun.”
Friar Park soon began filling up with people: first to land was Terry Doran, the “man from the motor trade” of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ fame who had graduated from flogging cars to running Apple Publishing. Now, post-Beatles, he became Harrison’s personal fixer. [Apple secretary] Chris O’Dell moved in after falling foul of Allen Klein’s cull of Apple staff, and was quick to form a fast and lasting friendship with Pattie Boyd. “I think Friar Park was a folly for them as much as for the man who built it,” says O’Dell. “There were no boundaries – George’s main goal was to get it back to how it was before the nuns had it and closed everything up. He read everything he could and got all this information from people in the village who knew the house, and it became his passion. Pattie had her mind inside the house and he had his outside the house. He loved the gardens.”
John Lennon popped around – he called it Henley-on-Toast and thought Friar Park a little gloomy – and musicians gravitated there, especially when, shortly after moving in, Harrison began working on his album. Every new visitor got the tour and a sleeping bag. The first person up in the morning brought everyone else tea. “I was there when George was just exploring it himself,” says Bobby Whitlock. “We put the wellies and jackets on, got a couple of torches and went down this hole in his yard and suddenly we’re in a tunnel with a creek going down the middle of it. It was real interesting! Came out on another pond, and another tunnel, a cave. One bathroom had 12 wooden holes going around the walls, and all the light switches had little friars. It was very cold. I stayed right up at the very top, the tallest room in the tower, Room 101 Pattie called it. There was supposed to be a ghost but I never saw it.”
They would mess around on the replica of the Matterhorn, or ride around the property on go-karts. In the morning it was tea, eggs or porridge and newspapers at the kitchen table, and then into London to record or setting to work on the house and gardens. At night there would be Indian cooking, and they would sit in the kitchen to eat, drink and talk. Harrison might play them his new songs, or he might disappear to meditate. They would listen to music, or watch a movie in the makeshift screening room in the office next to the kitchen. “He loved The Producers,” says O’Dell. “I can’t tell you how many times we watched that in a very short space of time.” His favourite new TV show was Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He saw something of The Beatles’ iconoclastic appeal in their irreverent though essentially benign anarchy. He would explain the humour to the bemused American contingent and memorise lines, much as he had Dylan lyrics. “He had that obsessive compulsive part of him, definitely,” says O’Dell.
       The house teased out the prankster in Harrison, the same strain which prompted him to tear off Delaney Bramlett’s trousers, put a flaming ashtray on his head and, years earlier, to play “gear” practical jokes with Gerry Marsden. “This shows the playful side of George,” says Bobby Keys, recalling the first time he arrived at Friar Park. “He said to [Beatles aide] Mal [Evans], ‘Okay Mal, take the guys to their rooms.’ Mal said, ‘Follow me, boys.’ This place had a subterranean cave network underneath, so we followed Mal down into this cave, thinking ‘The guy’s a Beatle, but this is still a little weird.’ Eventually in the middle of this labyrinth of caves George jumped out and tried to scare us: ‘Woohooohoo.’ Well, it didn’t really scare us much. So that was his introduction.”


Anonymous said...

Great read thank you

Unknown said...

Fascinating article, thanks so much for posting it!

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Anonymous said...

I went to school at Friar Park from the age of nearly 4 (in 1956) until I was 9 and had to leave. Girls were allowed to remain until 11. Not sure the reason for this disparity.
I hated this school maily due to the sadistic nature of the nuns. I remember the gardens with its grottos and tunnels.

Anonymous said...

A great short read.. thanks. Patty really should write another book, but with a deeper dive into the early days of friar park, and another just on1967. Cynthia's first book, was also good, but a bit sparse. I really enjoyed this read .. Thank you... Jim Lagasse