Baroness Shirley Williams (Leigh)

Excerpt From Climbing The Bookshelves...

Baroness Shirley Williams was born in 1930. She was a member of the Labour Party for thirty-five years before becoming a co-founder of the Social Democratic Party and later, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.

baroness-shirley-williams"The Britain's, my grandfather’s family, were a quarrelsome lot. There were eleven children, of whom my grandfather was the eldest, and they rarely met except at weddings and funerals. By the time John and I were born, most of them were lost to us. There were rumours of one who had gone to the Klondike to hunt for gold. Just one, the youngest, Aunt Muriel, remained closely in touch. She had ‘married well’, to use the phrase much in fashion at the time, a young man called Henry Leigh Groves, the only son of a successful Manchester businessman, William Grimble Groves, who had made his money from a thriving brewery. In 1897 he had bought an impressive Victorian mansion, Holehird, in the Patterdale valley in the Lake District, designed by the renowned architect J. S. Crowther and commanding a panoramic view of Lake Windermere and the Langdale fells beyond.

Henry Leigh Groves trained as a water engineer and worked on the construction of reservoirs, but his real dedication was to public service. ‘Service,’ he once wrote sententiously, ‘is the rent we pay for our room on earth.’ Elected to the Westmorland County Council as representative for Bowness, he remained on it for forty-seven years and was its chairman from 1925 to 1927. He meant exactly what he said, and the rent he paid for his room on earth was indeed munificent. Becoming High Sheriff in 1938, he celebrated his office by donating the bed of Lake Windermere, 3642 acres in all, to the Westmorland County Council. The gift enabled the local authority to control development and commercial exploitation of the lake. He and Muriel also devoted themselves to creating a work of art out of the already extensive gardens he had inherited. There were large heated greenhouses in which a remarkable range of orchids flourished. Great-aunt Muriel used to enjoy taking guests between the rows of flesh-eating orchids, their exotic flowers moving to follow the warm scent of living beings.

Aunt Muriel was not particularly keen on her Britain relatives, but fortunately for me, my mother was among the exceptions. Muriel liked my mother, who had been a bridesmaid at her wedding to Leigh in 1906. Muriel and Leigh never had any children, but they were generous hosts to John and me, encouraging us to row on the pond and scramble up the surrounding fells. I came to love the Lake District, and after the war quite often went to visit."