The subject of this blog post is a place very special to me and my favourite in the UK, a place that can be found nestled in the countryside of the United Kingdom but one with a powerful connection to the heart of Africa.
When growing up i spent much time in Bath and always felt a real connection to the place, usually being there playing rugby or watching rugby at the famous recreation ground in the middle of the city, and would otherwise spend time wandering around exploring a place very different to most other places i had ever visited in the UK. To my surprise, one day i found out that the City of Bath had once been home to Emperor Haile Selassie I and the Ethiopian Royal Family and Exiles during their period of distress, the Fascist Italian Invasion of Ethiopia 1935-1941 . I am proud to say that visiting Fairfield house and connecting with the living history of Rastafari changed my life.
My life (Back story)
Growing up mixed ethnicity in the UK, Born in the 1980s has not always been smooth sailing. My ethnic make up is African, European British, Chinese and Taino indian. My father is from Trinidad (His Father from Barbados) and my mother is from Oxford, Uk of European heritage. I lived the larger part of my childhood in a rural and remote part of South West England, something which made me tough to the realities of casual racism and broad closed mindedness. At each educational institution i attended (even primary schools) I can remember experiencing racism. At my secondary school of roughly 1500 pupils, there were two indian children attending the school, a single black pupil, two girls who were part arabic and me, everyone else, including all staff were racially european. For the county i speak of, this level of diversity, to have such an abundance of people who weren’t just of local heritage was actually remarkable, but in reality it felt very disconnected from any kind of multi cultural society. Often, being of blended ethnic background, people couldn’t connect me to a particular place they knew of, this meant at school and often in the sports teams i played in, i would constantly hear racist language and jokes that i was expected to find funny (as they weren’t about me supposedly), sometimes due to the pressures of youth I often carried a sense of shame and anger at myself for not speaking out and giving my true opinions. Other times the racist insults or overtures were directed straight at me. However, as mad as it sounds, some of these racist things i heard where said by otherwise nice, (but very ignorant) people. After leaving this rural and ”isolated” part of the country I was really happy to move to bristol and live somewhere that is a lot more culturally diverse. However, the reason i had moved to Bristol was for sports scholarship at a prestigious school, actually founded by a notorious slave owner (I didn’t know this at the time of joining, but i soon found out), at this school, I experienced a whole new type of Racism. This sort was what i would call the colonial ”Jeremy Clarkson” type that is taught and thought with their interpretation of a bias history, the automatic assumption that Britain is the best country in the world, who had the most successful empire that everyone should be thankful for and the racist views and excuses that come from this. It was soon after leaving this school and during my time there, that I started properly exploring and getting to know my roots and trying my best to piece together an honest interpretation of history and consider my life existence in the context of the world. Whilst at University studying law in London, in my own private studies I searched and searched for examples of ”great people” in history who could inspire me and provide further insight to understanding why such a thing as racism exists. I wondered if anyone had ever proudly declared to the world ” ALL HUMAN BEINGS ARE EQUAL” as I intuitively felt.
One day i had what i would classify as an epiphany, I was lying on my bed in my first year of university and listening to a collection of Bob Marley songs, the song ”War” played from the list and my mind focused in on the lyrical content. I glanced over to a poster of Bob i had who was photographed singing passionately whilst pointing to a blurred mural of what I knew was a person called ”Ras Tafari”, In those few moments, age approximately 18, I realised that Bob had been delivering a message, but it was not his message, he was in fact pointing to the author and always had been. The words of Bob Marley’s song war, are taken from Emperor Haile Selassie I Speech at the United Nations in 1963.
”That until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned: That until there are no longer first-class and second class citizens of any nation; That until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained;”
These words, at this point in my life provided a great healing for a bruised young spirit,i was astounded at how profound they were and felt the message and the meaning resonate powerfully within. I thought to myself, no wonder, Bob Marley had been trying so passionately to deliver this message to us.
A year or two after this moment, after reading all I could in the few books I had about Rastafari, Ethiopia and Emperor Haile Selassie I, I stumbled upon a documentary about the Emperor’s time in the UK. I thought wow! It was hugely broadening my horizons to know I had been unknowingly surrounded by such inspirational history. Needless to say i felt very excited to watch it.
This brilliant documentary entitled ”Footsteps of the Emperor”, created by Dr Shawn Naphtali Sobers and presented by well known poet Benjamin Zephaniah tells the story of Fairfield house and how it became home to the Ethiopian royal family in exile. It features some unique testimonials from the local elderly who have personal stories remembering the Emperor and his time in Britain. It is a great learning resource for looking at a hidden (or largely unknown) fascinating part of history and is very helpful for proper examination of the period of Italian Invasion and the exile of Emperor Haile Selassie. I recommend it to everyone.
Having watched this documentary. One day, when driving back to London from the South West almost 10 years ago, i decided to take a detour to Bath to visit this mysterious place myself. When I arrived at the address, 2 Kelston Road, Bath, it was pouring with rain on an dark autumn afternoon and the place was quiet yet peaceful. I parked on the side of Kelston road and felt my self instinctively walk up the slope and around the corner following the wall of the neighboring building to where i imagined His Majesty’s house to be. At this point i received my first clue, a street sign otherwise looking just as any other but displaying the words, EMPRESS MENEN GARDENS.
Continuing my journey and walking along Empress Menen Gardens, (once the stables and vegetable gardens of Fairfield house but now housing for the elderly) i wondered how many Rastafari through the years had made the same pilgrimage to this place. I wondered if there would be any other signs that this was the residence of the famous Lion of Judah.
Towards the end of the driveway leading alongside Empress Menen Gardens, i could now see the grand landmark of Fairfield house that I had came especially to be in the presence of. As i walked further along the drive i felt wonder and marvel as i gazed up at this monumental residence in history. Standing there in the rain, after taking a moment to appreciate the mystery of this place i had been drawn to because of its immense energy, i decided to take shelter near the entrance of the house and also see if anyone was inside. Again i felt amazement thinking that i was in the presence of something within history that was so undervalued yet so important to world history… I mean, to think, that the Last King of the 3000 year old Solomonic Dynasty and of an Independent Uncolonised Africa and his beloved wife and children lived here, walked up these steps into the same doorway blew my mind then and it still does today each time i am blessed enough to visit.
Once inside the doorway of Fairfield house, i discovered at that time, that no one was home, but i was greeted with the Green, Gold and Red of the Ethiopian flag and i again knew i was in the right place. I looked at the wall and saw an inscription in both the Ethiopian language Amharic and English, detailing His Majesty’s gift of Fairfield house to the city of bath in 1954, particularly for the benefit of the Elderly. I sat there for a while on the steps of Fairfield house meditating on my journey and left thankful for having seen this historic place with my own eyes. I was determined to further my research into Rastafari, the history of Ethiopia and the life of Emperor Haile Selassie I.
My next visit to Fairfield was in 2011 and this time i had contacted the house ahead of time to ask when would be a good time to visit. It was the 2nd of November 2011 and that day i had filled my car with some friends who were very interested to visit also. It was a brilliant day and we received a tour by Ras Chris and Iowna of the house and grounds and heard the official history of Fairfield house. We chatted with Iowna’s dad, Dominic who was busy in the early stages of carving a tree stump into a majestic lion in the gardens of the house. We proudly signed our names in the guestbook and were warmly received by Pauline Swaby Wallace (who manages the house) and the few Rastafari elders who were present. I remember feeling as though His Majesty’s philosophy is happening in action at Fairfield house with how welcome we were made to feel by everyone, In the evening a fire was lit outside the house and around 5/6 of us were gathered there reasoning. Now, this is where something special happened to me so i will be specific about the details of what I remember. A friend from Uganda named Kiya who had travelled with us to Fairfield house had been speaking about her juice fast that she was doing and we were all discussing the benefits and practices of fasting whilst gathered around the fire. One of the elders from Birmingham, (i cannot remember his name but do remember that he runs a Rasta driving school) kept mentioning a Vitamix blender saying he had one and it really was the best in his opinion, and we all laughed and joked that he must work for the company with all this promotion he is doing and he agreed and said maybe he should approach them to do just that. Soon after we left to return to London and after dropping my friends home, my partner and i were pleased to have had a great day and to have met so many welcoming people and reached home ourselves. At home i fell asleep on the sofa and had the most vivid dream that i was standing back there at Fairfield house, around the fire, laughing and joking with new friends and old about the blender! I felt so happy just as i had during the day and looked down into the fire as i smiled about the joke, after looking in the fire i followed the embers which shot up from the fire into the sky and as i did i found myself looking at the balcony of Fairfield house and i could see clearly, in my dream, His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I standing on the balcony looking down at us gathered there, laughing with each other. He was wearing a white Kabba, the Ethiopian traditional cloak garment and he was smiling with us. I felt a sense, in my dream, that His Majesty was pleased we had gathered to remember the coronation, and was enjoying our joyful and unified interactions with each other, transcending petty obstacles such as our national backgrounds, race, religion or age.
The shock of such a vision in my dream, woke me back up and i immediately told my partner Simbah about it. Regardless of what anyone thinks about dreams and there meanings or lack there of, I have always felt that this one meant we were heading in the right direction and that Fairfield house, and its potential to be a landmark uniting human beings of all backgrounds inspite of our differences and ”petty prejudices’ is very great indeed.
Another interesting thing that has happened to me concerning the house is becoming friends with an elderly Jehovahs witness man named Michael who has visited my doorstep in London. I’d sometimes invite him in to the garden and we’d chat about many things and we’d both explain our interpretations of the bible to each other and i told him what i knew about Emperor Haile Selassie I. One day he turned up at my house with an old magazine from his collection and said it was a gift for me. I stood there at my front door and to my surprise i opened the first page on historic photos of Fairfield house in the time of Emperor Haile Selassie. The magazine was ”London Illustrated” from 1954 and had a special feature about the visit of His Imperial Majesty in London with a state reception and his return visit to Bath. I thanked Michael greatly for this gift and actually attended a meeting of his faith during Easter as a thankyou for such a kind and thoughtful gift. I gave the magazine to Dr Shawn Sobers of the Friends of Fairfield house committee and the University of the West of England who professionally copied the photos within. I feel so happy that these photographs went around the world in ”Rastafari, the Majesty and the Movement Exhibition” and now they are on display framed within the house.
Since first visiting Fairfield house all those years ago, i have visited as many times as i have possibly been able to and made an effort to help out the continued legacy in any way that i can fundraising and further raising awareness of Fairfield’s existence in person and on social media.
The house itself is an English Heritage Grade II listed building built between 1840–50 . The property was the home to His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Royal Family during 1936–41.
From Fairfield House the Emperor planned the strategic battle to defeat Mussolini, and wrote correspondence to world leaders, visited many events to lobby support, planned his address to the League of Nations and successfully gathered the support of the British people and eventually the government who helped the Ethiopian army at the final push to defeat the Italian troops, on the eve of World War 2 becoming a closer reality.
“In Early 1937 it was reported that he had decided to build a chapel in the Fairfield grounds. Many years later the Emperor revealed the full story about his dream of building his own church. He said the royal group was distressed that they could not utter their pleas to God in a properly constituted chapel. The Emperor sent a letter to an Ethiopian priest based in Jerusalem, saying they required a consecrated stone so they could create a place of worship and that it was necessary to listen quietly until he knew his creator’s decisions. The stone arrived just before Good Friday and was sanctified on Easter Sunday. It was laid in the greenhouse in the grounds of Fairfield House. The glass windows of the greenhouse were whitewashed to maintain some privacy. The chapel was to be a source of great solace and inspiration for the Emperor. On Maundy Thursday he would wash the feet of his servants in the Chapel, following the example of Jesus Christ. A Sprig of rosemary would be added to the water. “
Excerpt From a great book I recommend ”Imperial Exile” by Keith Bowers, detailing His Majesty’s time in the UK, including his life at Fairfield house.
Upon returning to Ethiopia, the Emperor remembered his time in the city of Bath, and named his family retreat in Bishoftu Fairfield. In His Autobiography, written at Fairfield house, the Emperor recounts how the hills and valleys of somerset gave him strength to continue the struggle:
“The view through its front windows always reminded us if the hills in Harer (provence of Ethiopia)”.
In 1954 the Emperor returned to Bath and was honoured with the Freedom of the City, which is a rare reward bestowed upon valued persons who have been held in high regard by the city’s leaders and citizens.
The Emperor then bequeathed the house to the city to be used by the elderly as a care/support home, though it was first used as the ‘Fairfield Home for Babies’ between 1943 – 1946. The residents were evacuated there from Chippenham during World War 2. At the point of 1944 the house accommodated 35 children between the ages of two weeks and two years. In 1946 after the war had ended, the Home for Babies moved to Saville House Nursery, Bath. (Reference – Hidden Lives Revealed). Since then the house has been used by aged citizens of the city and it remains so to this day as the home of Bath Senior Citizens Association (BEMSCA).
In recent times, the legacy of Fairfield house was under threat as Bath council were considering selling the property. In response, “The Friends of Fairfield House” has been formed in 2012 to offer a community based alternative to Council management and hopefully become responsible for the future of Fairfield. Along the way a small group of dedicated people have fought tenaciously hard to protect, preserve and keep things running at Fairfield house, I am so thankful for all they do.
The house is used on certain days of significance by the Rastafari community from all over the UK (see below), members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and also the Royal Family of Ethiopia. Fairfield House is also visited by people of all backgrounds from all over the world interested in this history. A specific room has been set-up on the 1st floor for prayer and meditation and the New Tafari Gallery is regularly showcasing exciting art exhibitions and also contains many artifacts kindly donated from the time of Emperor Haile Selassie in Bath.
The Rastafari community hold regular gatherings at Fairfield House, especially in reverence of the important dates in the Rastafari Calender, especially H.I.M Haile Selassie’s Birthday 23rd of July, Coronation 2nd of November, the Birthday of Empress Menen in April and Ethiopia Liberation day May 5th. Nyahbinghi Ises also takes place 1st Saturday of every month led by Ras Bandele and everyone is welcome. The house always has a welcoming friendly vibration and is a great place to converse, ask questions and learn more about the Rastafari movement, the history of Ethiopia and Emperor Haile Selassie I, Local or African history.
Fairfield house has regular open days and Is open for visiting especially on the days mentioned above.
In 2019 anyone world-wide will be able to connect with Fairfield house 24/7 as we are launching an exciting new Internet Radio station called Imperial Voice Radio. serving the city of Bath, and broadcasting worldwide. Based at the House the station will broadcast a broad range of discussion and music shows for all lovers of positivity, consciousness, culture, history, community, and more. We are looking for presenters of our talk radio shows, from topics as diverse as health, literature, and the arts.
If something in this post has caught your attention, i wholeheartedly recommend a visit to Fairfield house in the City of Bath, County of Somerset in the UK, it is certainly a hidden gem and a place I am very thankful to know, maybe i will see you there..
Ras Benji I
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