There are plenty of old people's homes round the country, and there are plenty of historical visitor's centres, but the only man who ever had the wit to combine both in the same place was Hedley Hunter. Hedley Hunter runs the Loosebrook Living History Heritage Home near Canterbury in Kent, where every resident is the relic of some great period or event in the past.
To look at, you might think it was just another old folk's home and they were just another random collection of elderly people, but each one of them has a story to tell, and will tell it on demand. One of them is a survivor of the General Strike of 1926; another had a part to play in the Abdication; another was in Moscow during the Russian Revolution, and so on.
"They are all living witnesses to history," says Hedley Hunter, "and to anyone who is willing to pay the small price, they will tell their thrilling first-hand tale of what it was like back then. This is REAL history. It's wonderful. And it's here and now. For instance, a lot of interest has been aroused recently by the BBC adaptation of Nancy Mitford's 'Love In A Cold Climate', and the world of the 1930s with its old stately homes and coming out balls. People suddenly long to know what it was really like. And one of the best ways of finding out is coming to Loosebrook and talking to old Molly, who used to work in the kitchens for a Duke in the 30s, or to Arthur, who played trombone in one of the big society dance bands… Of course, musicians always have pretty fruity stories anyway... "
The system is that if you want to come and talk history with the inmates, you make an appointment in advance to book half an hour or however long you want, and pay in advance. You can then have an exclusive first-hand account of whatever it is you are interested in.
"You'd be surprised what people want and what they can offer. Old Mr Tremblett, for instance, is in great demand with medical people, because he has wonderful memories of the great Influenza Epidemic of 1917 or whenever it was. Millions of people died in it. Mr Tremblett didn't, though I sometimes think he has never entirely shaken off the bug. Have you, Mr Tremblett ?" he says, as an old man totters past.
"The symptoms were always the same," says Mr Tremblett, as if springing into life suddenly. "First the sneezing, then the fatigue, then the loss of weight, then the loss of life. I lost seventeen relations to the 'flu. Some of them I didn't even know I had till they died. Twelve funerals in two months I attended at one time. It takes it out of a chap. Course, most of the people who came to the funerals were sickening for the 'flu as well. There was more sneezing and nose-blowing and coughing at those funerals than any hospital I've ever been to. It was not uncommon in the 'Flu Epidemic for people to die at other people's funerals. I remember one time the clergyman actually keeled over..."
"Good value, eh?" says Hedley Hunter, steering me away from old Mr Tremblett. "Now, if that was your own grandfather, you might say - Shut up, grandad! We've heard it all before! - but if it's someone else's grandpa, it's fascinating. Honestly, I never thought it would take off in the way it has."
Loosebrook Living History Heritage Home is probably the only old folk's home where old folk have to audition to get in. If they haven't got a living slice of history to talk about, that's it. They're out. Even worse, if they have got a slice of history already covered, they don't get in.
"We had a chap apply the other day who had been in the Foreign Legion for ten years. Gripping stuff. Unfortunately, we already had an old legionnaire, Mr McEvoy here, and he had the added attraction of having lived in Kenya before that, in all the White Mischief days, so we had to reject the legionnaire. What was it like in Kenya before the war, Mr McEvoy?"
"Horrible," sighs Rupert. "All those lovely women and I never committed adultery once. Never got caught up in a menage a trois, and never shot anyone dead through jealousy..."
"Poor old Rupert," whispers Hedley Hunter. "Only man who ever ran away to join the Foreign Legion with no skeletons in his cupboard."
Loosebrook Living History Heritage Home is open Monday-Friday. Book in advance and don't forget to specify your historical interest.
The Independent Tuesday Feb 13 2001