The Lake

Didlington Lake from the site of the Hall

Research

The journey into the past to uncover the story of the Amhersts of Didlington Hall has taken me from Dorset to Norfolk, from Kent to New York and North Carolina, and via the miracle of email, to Melborne too. There are relevant archives in this country in Beverley, Oxford, Hackney, Swaffham, Norwich, Cambridge and Cowes. And the more material I uncover, the more I realise still lies waiting to be found.

My earliest memories are of Hampshire, many miles from the wild open countryside of Norfolk. However, holidays were spent at Foulden Hall, some eight miles from Swaffham, in West Norfolk.

We did not have neighbours there as such; houses and villages in the area are well spread out. However I had my pony, and a bicycle on which I explored the surrounding countryside. But in all the sixteen years worth of holidays spent there, I never once went to Didlington. Yet Didlington was just two miles away.

Didlington was mentioned occasionally, but the word was always imbued with a touch of mystery combined with tragedy. I knew that once the Hall had been the Amherst's family home, and that relatively recently it been pulled down. I also knew that seven sisters had lived there, one of whom must have been my great-grandmother, but I knew little else. I also knew that there had been a connection with Howard Carter, of Tutankhamun fame, and that somehow Egypt and our own personal ‘the Curse of the Mummy’, had featured in the family’s dramatic fall from wealth in the early years of the twentieth century. The only other fact I was aware of was that a mummy referred to as Lady Amherst’s mummy, was once part of the Egyptian collection at Didlington Hall, but now lay in the British Museum.

Mummy Case at Didlington Hall

Mummy Case in the Old Museum at The Hall

One of my earliest memories is being taken to see it. My mother and I walked along miles of echoing corridors, past endless musty wooden display cases. I was filled by a tingling curiosity as I half-believed I was being taken to see my grandmother. After all, my mother was Lady Amherst and the mummy could be the elusive grandmother that I thought I had never had; I had been told all my grandparents had died long before I had been born. When eventually I was shown a beautifully painted wooden mummy case, it had been quite confusing.

It was only a few years ago, during a visit to the fabulous and fascinating British Museum of today, to introduce my own children to the same mummy, that it occurred to me to ask for more information about its origins and history. I was informed, by a wonderfully helpful curator, that it had been presented to the museum by my great-grandmother, Lady William Cecil (May Tyssen-Amherst). The more intriguing fact that I also then learned, was that although the origins of this particular mummy were not known, May had run her own excavations in Egypt, near Aswan. The flare of interest I felt at that point was then ignited by the almost coincidental unearthing of various family papers, letters and journals.

So I found myself with a mission to try and reconstruct the past, even as my ancestors had tried to reconstruct Ancient Egypt. Getting to know these Amherst ancestors, their talents and achievements, the important role they played in many spheres of Victorian life, particularly the part they played in the development of Egyptology, has been a fascinating, if challenging, journey, and there is still so much I have yet to discover...