My pursuit of Prime Ministerial graves has come to involve increasingly elaborate planning. This weekend found me on either side of the Anglo-Scottish border and reliant, as ever, upon public transport and the indulgence of friends.
I needed to get to Howick Hall, the ancestral home of the Grey family, but the closest a train could get me from London was Alnmouth. A connecting bus service appeared intermittent and slow, so I had little choice but to arrange for a local taxi firm to take me there. This was punctual and cheap, and my driver wasn't at all interested in the reason for my journey.
Howick isn't the most impressive of country piles but it's surrounded by an attractive garden – all the Greys appear to have been green-fingered – and boasts an attractive parish (rather than estate) church, St Michael and All Angels. Built in the Neo-Norman style and opened in 1848, this houses the tomb of Charles, 2nd Earl Grey, and his wife Mary Elizabeth Ponsonby, with whom he had a remarkable 15 children.
Rather unceremoniously, this was being used for flower arranging when I arrived, but it was obligingly cleared so I could take a couple of photographs. There wasn't much to see, just a simple marble casket with some brass memorial plaques in barely legible Gothic script. Apparently a Gothic canopy was added in the late 19th century but the 5th Earl hated it so much he used a hammer and chisel to destroy it.
The 2nd Earl was a significant figure in two worlds: politics and tea. As leader of the Whigs, he served as Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834, during which the Great Reform Act of 1832 received Royal Assent. Although its effect has been overstated, this significantly expanded the electoral franchise – in the teeth of bitter Conservative opposition – and instigated a gradual process of electoral reform in what was then the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Grey also abolished slavery in 1833. Not a bad slate for a four-year premiership.
And then there's the eponymous tea. A special blend was created for the 2nd Earl, contrived to suit the water from his well (bergamot was used to offset the taste of lime). Lady Grey took this to London for entertaining, and it proved so popular that Twinings ended up marketing it worldwide. The Greys, however, failed to register the trademark and therefore failed to cash in. I enjoyed a refreshing cup (with lemon) at the Howick Hall tea rooms.
After another taxi back to Alnmouth and a train to Berwick-upon-Tweed – a pleasant town which once straddled the Anglo-Scottish border – I spent a weekend helping friends redecorate a house they've just bought in Galashiels. The quid pro quo was a trip to Coldstream on Sunday afternoon to track down the final resting place of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who was briefly Prime Minister between 1963 and 1964.
As a 20th-century premier, I felt a bit more connected to Douglas-Home in that he died within living memory (1995), while I have friends and colleagues who either knew or interviewed him. All are agreed that he was a modest and charming man, and indeed his headstone in the historic Lennel Kirkyard (just beyond Coldstream) is the epitome of Presbyterian understatement.
It records that 'Sir Alex' was an MP, Privy Counsellor, Knight of the Thistle and the 14th Earl of Home, but not that he renounced the Earldom in 1963 in order to succeed Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party. Indeed, it's one of my favourite pieces of constitutional trivia that for two weeks Douglas-Home was premier without being a member of either House of Parliament. A by-election was pending in Kinross and West Perthshire, then a safe Tory seat, and Sir Alec was returned.
Douglas-Home also represented the end of an era in which the Sovereign exercised some discretion over whom to appoint Prime Minister (it was assumed she would choose Rab Butler) and the leadership of the Conservative Party emerged discreetly from 'soundings' from within the party. This was replaced in 1965 with two rounds of voting among Conservative Party MPs. That system, introduced by Sir Alec, ended Margaret Thatcher's career in 1990, just weeks after the death of the Countess of Home, who's buried alongside her husband in Lennel.
Also buried in Lennel, which lies close to the Anglo-Scottish border, is Alec's nephew Robin Douglas-Home, an intriguing figure who played jazz piano, wrote a biography of Frank Sinatra and married the model Sandra Paul (later Mrs Michael Howard), and Patrick Brydone, a traveller and author who served as Comptroller of the Stamp Office in the troubled administration of Frederick, Lord North.
I had tracked down Lord North a few weeks earlier thanks, once again, to the indulgence of friends I was visiting near Oxford. He's at All Saints in Wroxton, a church that's usually locked. Fortunately, I tracked down someone with a key, which allowed me to photograph North's handsome marble memorial, which features his portrait in profile and Britannia standing guard with a Union flag shield and rather sleepy looking lion.
It records that he became First Lord of the Treasury (Prime Minister) in 1770, 'in which place he continued till the year 1782'. This 12-year premiership is generally regarded as a failure on account of the 'loss' of the North American colonies, but as Frederick's official entry on the 10 Downing Street website more diplomatically observes, 'Lord North is more justly appreciated as an outstanding parliamentarian and potentially great premier brought low, like so many others, by events
David Torrance is a writer and historian