Hanley Castle is popular with P G Wodehouse enthusiasts because Severn End was the model for Brinkley Court, the setting for several Jeeves stories and the country seat of Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia. Bertie and his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle attended Market Snodsbury Grammar School, in reality Hanley Castle Grammar School. The scene in Right Ho, Jeeves in which Gussie, thoroughly inebriated due to Jeeves lacing his orange juice with gin, gives a speech at the school is among the finest vignettes of English comic literature.
Bertie Wooster watched the proceedings. “G. G. Simmons was an unpleasant perky-looking stripling, mostly front teeth and spectacles… Gussie, I was sorry to see, didn’t like him. ‘So you’ve won the Scripture-knowledge prize, have you?’
‘Sir, yes, sir.’
‘Yes,’ said Gussie, ‘you look just the sort of little tick who would. And yet,’ he said, pausing and eyeing the child keenly, ‘how are we to know that this has all been open and above board? Let me test you, G. G. Simmons. Who was What’s-His-Name – the chap who begat Thingummy? Can you answer me that, Simmons?’
‘Sir, no, sir.’
Gussie turned to the bearded bloke. ‘Fishy,’ he said. ‘Very fishy. This boy appears to be totally lacking in Scripture knowledge.'”
Bertie makes a swift exit and is told what happened next by Jeeves. “…he proceeded to deliver a violent verbal attack upon the young gentleman, asserting that it was impossible for him to have won the Scripture-knowledge prize without systematic cheating on an impressive scale. He went so far as to suggest that Master Simmons was well known to the police. ‘Golly, Jeeves!’
Yes, sir. The words did create a considerable sensation. The reaction of those present to this accusation I should describe as mixed. The young students appeared pleased and applauded vigorously, but Master Simmons’s mother rose from her seat and addressed Mr Fink-Nottle in terms of strong protest.
‘Did Gussie seem taken aback? Did he recede from his position?’
No, sir. He said he could see it all now; and hinted at a guilty liaison between Master Simmons’s mother and the head master, accusing the latter of having cooked the marks, as his expression was, in order to gain favour with the former.
‘You don’t mean that?’
‘Egad, Jeeves! And then -‘
They sang the national anthem, sir.”
PG’s real life aunt, Lucy Apollonia Wodehouse, was married to the Rev. Edward Isaac (1837-1915), vicar of Hanley Castle, and Wodehouse memorial plaques are to be found in St Mary’s church. In Meet Mr Mulliner Wodehouse describes a wonder tonic called Buck-U-Uppo, said to have been based on a concoction once given to the Rev Isaac by the chemist in Upton-on-Severn. When a bishop who came to stay complained of not feeling well, Isaac recommended his tonic and had some to keep the bishop company. Apparently the service that evening had to be cancelled due to the inability of either the vicar or the bishop to do more than totter and smile vaguely.
In 1798 began a series of law suits that were to last for 17 years to establish the heirs of William Jennens, who died intestate, leaving a fortune, one third of which eventually passed to the Lygon family of nearby Madresfield Court. These protracted disputes gave Charles Dickens the inspiration for the case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce in Bleak House.
Evelyn Waugh is said to have modelled Brideshead Revisited on life at Madresfield Court and the Marchmains on the Lygon family. A branch of the Lygons lived in the parish of Hanley Castle for 70 years from 1937 when the Hon. Richard Lygon, youngest son of William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp, renamed a house in Hanley Swan, Pyndar Lodge (Pyndar is an old Lygon family name) and lived there with his wife Patricia and their daughters Lettice and Rosalind. In 1954 they moved to what had been the vicarage in Hanley Castle, the former home of P G Wodehouse’s uncle and aunt, which they renamed Pyndar House and where Patricia and Lettice lived until 2007.
Hanley Swan forms the backdrop to David Mitchell’s novel Black Swan Green, which brilliantly evokes a year in the life of a 13-year-old boy, Jason Taylor, poet and school misfit, in the 1980s. Jason’s home in Kingfisher Meadows is based on the house in Westmere, where Mitchell lived as a child. From Kingfisher Meadows a bridle path leads towards the Malvern Hills and is said to end at the mouth of a lost tunnel that comes out in Herefordshire, near the Obelisk. But Jason’s friend Moran tells him there are three tunnels.
One was built by the Romans to invade Hereford. “How else could they keep out the blinkin’ Vikings?” Another is the rail tunnel, “…haunted by an engineer in orange overalls with a black stripe where the train ran him over.” The third was dug by the Ministry of Defence for a nuclear bomb shelter. “The entrance is in the garden at Woolworths in Great Malvern. Gospel. One of the garden centre walls is a fake wall what hides a vault door, like in a bank. When the four-minute warning goes off, the Ministry of Defence lot at the RSRE’ll be ferried up to Woolies by the military police. Councillors from Malvern Council’ll be allowed in… Then the military police – who’ve kept out all the panicking shoppers with their guns – they’ll be allowed in. They’ll grab one or two of the prettier assistants for breeding.”
The school bus runs via Guarlford, Blackmore End, Black Swan and Drugger’s End [actually signposted near Castlemorton, but transported by Mitchell to the village] and on to Welland and Upton before reaching the school [Hanley Castle High School]. The village shop is run by a Mr Rhydd. At one point Jason moans, “I’d like a can of Tizer and a Toblerone, but Mr Rhydd’s shop’s shut on Saturday afternoon. Black Swan Green’s shut on Saturday afternoons. All pissing England’s shut.”
A girl he meets on holiday asks, “Is Black Swan Green famous for black swans or green swans or something?” “There aren’t even any white swans there”, he replies. “So there’re no swans in Black Swan Green?” “Yeah, it’s sort of a local joke.”