Nikolai Tolstoy Visits The Castle

Nikolai Tolstoy, author, historian and former parliamentary candidate, visited The Castle this week and met with Mark Berridge, the Castle & Communities Manager. Nikolai, who is 85, and his wife, Georgina, had made a special trip to share photographs, documents and letters pertaining to members of his family who lived at The Castle during the 1930’s. His great-aunt, father and two uncles lived with Lady Nicholson and her husband, Admiral Nicholson, who owned The Castle at that time.

Mark explains, ‘We knew a Countess Tolstoy lived at The Castle and had set up a school with Lady Nicholson for children who were Russian emigres. We also knew of Nikolai and that he might have photos from that time but we weren’t sure of the relationship between the two. At the beginning of lockdown whilst working from home, I reached out to him, initially through his daughter, Alexandra, and a few hours later I had a response from him. Over the next few months, we conversed over email, swapping facts, but Nikolai had a lot more to give from that period than we had at The Castle from that time.’

Countess Maria Tolstoy, who helped set up the school and an emigre herself, was, in fact, his great aunt. His father, Dimitri, did live in the Castle during school holidays but was schooled elsewhere. His uncles, Paul and Ivan, did live at The Castle and attended the school. Other Russian children, included Prince Serge Obolensky and his half-sister, Alexandra, also attended the school. Some English children, whose parents worked abroad, were also schooled by the Countess.

The photos, which have not been seen before in Bude, were numerous and show the children performing plays and ballet within The Castle and out on the lawn. Some of the photos show either The Castle, Breakwater Road or The Grenville Hotel behind the children. In addition to the photos were some written accounts from former pupils of the ‘school’, one from a Lorna Glanville, painted a vivid picture of her time as a pupil. There were also letters, to and from the Countess to various family members around the world and to friends such as the Grand Duchess Xenia. Unfortunately, these were mostly in Russian and French so no further facts could be taken from these. They did, however, help build a timeline of her whereabouts from the addressed envelopes and either the dates of the letters or the post frank marks. There were even formal invites to royal events which showed the close friendship with the Grand Duchess.

Nikolai gave permission for these artefacts to be scanned, archived and used by The Castle and in return, he asked if he could have digital copies so he could share with his family. Nikolai’s scanner is broken and he could not share these rare items over email and so saw the opportunity, and an excuse, for a trip to Cornwall. Morwenstowe is one of his favourite places and has visited friends there for many years. His connection to the West Country goes back many years, not only did his father stay at The Castle, his mother is from Appledore in North Devon.

Mark expressed, ‘I was so grateful for Nikolai and Georgina to make this trip and it was an honour to meet them. What they have shared with us is amazing and really adds to the rich history of The Castle. To us, these photos are priceless and it is great to add these to our archive collection. Nikolai had mused how if he hadn’t shared these now and named those in the pictures, that information would be lost forever once he is no longer around. I can’t express my appreciation enough and if it wasn’t for his daughter who passed on my email, this would not have happened and I am so thankful to her that she did.’

Mark is in the process of writing a book on the history of The Castle and the information and the photos will help depict the history of that time.

Photo credit to Nikolai Tolstoy