ESSAY Ellie Rees

NWR Issue 108

Blurred Boundaries

Montello Priory

Sixty years ago, when my mother, father and I first went to live with Grandma, Montello Priory was a fortress: such a square, solid yet romantic edifice. A porch, supported by two large pillars, sheltered a double front door that opened onto a central hall, paved with white marble. The floor had once – how decadent – circled a goldfish pond, though my grandfather filled it in after an ‘incident’ when he returned late one night from the Conservative club. He had decided to pursue a political argument with the fish and had overbalanced. The house was faced with Portland stone; it had crenellations, a red-tiled roof, outlandishly tall chimneystacks and its bay windows were decorated with stained glass. I thought it was a castle, fit for a princess (me), and its large garden surrounded by high stone walls blinded me to its setting: the terraced housing that jostled all around it and the busy road that ran past its sturdy gates.

Montello Priory had ideas above its station. It stood on an ordinary street in Fishponds, a street that has signposts to places like Mangotsfield, Horfield and Pucklechurch. Many of the houses, still there today, are terraced cottages with long strips of garden, but some time in the early twentieth century, developers bought up small bundles of these dwellings and knocked them down, building something more pretentious on the larger plots. Montello Priory was one of these.

Whoever had designed and built Montello Priory had imagined a grand country house, albeit on a smaller scale, and when my grand-parents bought it in 1940, they were only too happy to foster this illusion.

By the time my grandfather had finished with it, everything about the house and its grounds suggested order and tranquillity, a perfect balance between town and country. At the back, the garden did not venture too close to the house; it was kept firmly in its place by an ornamental terrace, built by my grandfather. He could keep his feet dry, stand with one arm leaning on the balustrade, smoke another cigarette and gaze at his suburban splendour. He didn’t have a view over the surrounding countryside – there wasn’t any – so he planted fir trees that grew as tall as leylandii to screen the modest houses whose back doors opened onto a view of the rear of Montello Priory. The trees cast long shadows onto the small gardens and accounted for our neighbours’ rather distant behaviour. My grandfather encouraged horse chestnut trees to grow along the side walls, adding green height to the barrier between the gardens of the adjacent cottages and us. But at the front of the house, outside the gates, there was a bus stop with regular buses to the centre of Bristol; there were bright streetlights and a petrol station directly opposite. A general store, a greengrocer and pawnshop were just a few doors down. Fishponds even had a railway station until the 1960s. Montello Priory seemed to have the best of both the rural and the urban.

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Ellie Rees spent her early years near Borth before moving to Bristol. She has spent the last thirty years living in the Vale of Glamorgan where she worked at Atlantic College. Since retiring as Head of Languages, Ellie graduated in 2013 with an MA in Creative Writing from Swansea University where she is now studying for a PhD. Ellie's work has been published in New Welsh Review as well as Roundyhouse, Poetry Wales and Swansea Review.Her tripartite memoir, from which this is an excerpt, was highly commended in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2015, WWF Cymru Prize for Writing on Nature and the Environment, run by ourselves.


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