Wednesday, 13 January 2021

The Forest Demon of Riseholme

Riseholme is a farming estate just north of Lincoln, the chief campus of Lincolnshire's agricultural college. Here are two location maps:

A big feature of Riseholme is its lake, and the mansion ('Hall' in the map above) overlooking it. This was once the Bishop of Lincoln's Palace, as this old map shows. It was on display in 1996.

In 1996 Riseholme had deer in the parkland west of the lake, and these could be seen from the new complex that was opened in 1994, next to the northern arm of the lake. 

This was the Inland Revenue's (and, in succession from 2005, HMRC's) National Residential Training College. It was a state-of-the-art facility called Lawress Hall, with excellent accommodation, catering and leisure facilities for many staff and students. But its relevance in a changing world receded, and it is now up for sale (see It's worth clicking on that link to see present-day pictures of the training college. The official video gives an even better idea of what this place is like inside and out - see It was definitely one of the nicer places that Revenue staff might be sent to, if attending a week-long training course. 

I went there first in 1996, not very long after it opened. Here are some of the pictures I took then, of the grounds, the building, and its entrance. 

There was a model of the place proudly on display. It was really extensive. It made the Revenue seem like a big corporation, on the lines of IBM, this being its impressive headquarters. The residential block faced the car park; the classrooms, exercise suite, swimming pool, bar and restaurant overlooked the lake; and the training and support staff lurked in the high-tech central hub. The agricultural college was out of shot on the other side of the bridge.

I think it was built with eventual sale as a conference centre, or even as a country hotel, in mind. Compared to the often ramshackle accommodation in the old-style Revenue training centres (the ones at Bristol and North London were in adapted wartime buildings, reputed to have contained prisoners of war), or the bland generic conference rooms hired in hotels, Lawress Hall was a revelation when new. My younger brother Wayne, one grade beneath me but promising to go much further than I ever would, had already been here. I remember his feeling disturbed by that seated stone female figure with a book on her lap at the entrance: she had no face. 

The classrooms were sunny and airy, although functional and filled with standard training-centre furniture, albeit better than usual. 

In 1996 I was there to attend a Team Development Workshop for the NDCIO. That stood for the 'North Downs Corporate Investigation Office', and it was an experimental unit set up to handle medium-level company investigations on a team basis, rather than leave them in the hands of individual Inspectors. Special Offices already existed, to look into entire trades. This would deal with the general run of local incorporated businesses within an area, using Special Office methods, pooling the talents of a selected bunch of investigators. For the time - for the Inland Revenue - the concept and organisation were novel. 

Like most new-fangled offices with a narrow remit, detached from the norm, getting recruits wasn't easy. Most Inspectors, traditionally trained to make their own decisions on their own cases, and enjoying almost unfettered freedom to run their own casework, did not at all relish the notion of full-blown teamwork in a tucked-away office, with team achievements and team rewards. They wanted to stay mainstream. The perception was that this might prove to be a career-killing dead end. Most Inspectors wanted multiple chances to shine individually in conventional tax offices, where they they would be noticed, and receive every scrap of the kudos (and possibly promotion) accruing from a successful case. Their reputation as a good investigator was based on that. I was no exception. 

But teamworking was the coming thing. By 2005 all investigation, everywhere, was a team effort. People like myself would be given a company case to look into as a Team Leader. It came with a bulging file of evidence - computer printouts on profit ratios, press cuttings, bank account information, all kinds of stuff - complied by a section that gathered data and brought it together in a standard format, easy to assess for investigation potential. I'd then have to decide, given the type of business and its ramifications, what kind of team was needed for a comprehensive enquiry. Then devise an investigation plan whose methods, lines of enquiry, goals and expected outcome had to be agreed with my senior line manager before selecting the team members and briefing them. This for every one of my varied portfolio of current enquiries. 

My role was essentially that of co-ordinator. I had to exercise constant complex control, perfect management of deadlines, and the endless chasing, nagging (and nannying) of people to get things done. It was a high-level but strictly hands-off approach that (for me) sucked all the fun out of the job. I had to be the brains, the director, and nothing more. It was no longer my job to get my hands dirty, sifting through the tangible evidence, nor could I ever personally explore a line of enquiry merely on a hunch, all that now being the concern of others working under me. And the whole time, rules on standards and procedures had to be strictly observed, clear audit trails had to be laid down, and regular meetings held to discuss how we were doing. For the most senior managers, ticking off quality indicators had to become their obsession. My lower-level job was little different.  

I was not a natural team player, nor was I one to work to strict procedural rules. So the NDCIO was the wrong place for me. I was persuaded to join against my inclination, wasn't enthusiastic, and soon realised that I'd made a mistake. I extricated myself in acrimonious circumstances after only a few months. The episode left me badly bruised in both spirit and reputation. It took a while to re-establish myself, although I did, by 1999 becoming Deputy Officer In Charge of Sutton Tax Office in South London. My most exalted responsibility. Dad must have taken some pride in that, even if, disappointingly for him, I never reached the grade he did.

Here's a trivial but telling example of how I'd fail to be team-minded. 

That's a diagram I made at the start of our team-building course, of our progress through a game of deduction, exploring an imaginary building full of dangerous pitfalls and traps, and finding the safest course through it. It was designed to discover how 'the team' could talk things through and make shared collective decisions. I drew it on my own initiative, thinking it would be helpful and assist the end-of-game discussion. 

But I got roundly criticised for doing something 'the team' hadn't discussed and authorised. I should have put it up to 'the team' first, before taking marker pen to paper. Individual initiative like this wasn't wanted. Naturally, I thought this was a perverse point of view - it was, after all, only a diagram - and I'm afraid I didn't take enough pains to conceal my frustration and surprise. 

The rest of the week wasn't a bundle of joy. It couldn't be, when at every turn I was supposed to stifle my individuality and think collectively, which was so alien to my soul. I'd be no good in a Communist state. 

Otherwise, I enjoyed my 1996 visit to Riseholme. My room was pretty good (for 1996) - these two shots might give an idea. It was a nightly refuge from 'the team', whose enthusiasm for doing everything together was getting on my nerves.  

Once the NDCIO episode was in the past, I returned to Lawress Hall in much happier circumstances. I went there for three management courses in 1998, and another in 1999. 

All this is however by the by. What about that Forest Demon?

Well, while attending the NDCIO session in May 1996, I escaped 'the team' for a bit and explored the woods adjacent to the lake. And in those woods I discovered this startling creature, made from a freshly hewn tree stump:

It was in the grounds of the agricultural college, and I guessed that some of the students had made it. It was rather well done, but fierce and evil-looking even in daylight. It made me jump. It most definitely wasn't something to stumble upon after sunset. I remember mentioning its existence to 'the team' as we walked past the wood on our last evening, on our way to a pub for a 'team drink'. I put it up as a 'team experience' they might enjoy, and ought not to miss. They declined. Perhaps it was just as well. 

A year and a half later, in September 1998, I was back at Riseholme and went to see the Demon again. 

Oh dear. He was now in a sorry state, his hammer and most of his decoration gone. However, still a Creepy Presence in the shady light of the wood. 

I saw the Demon yet again one year on, in September 1999, by which time he was being threatened by invading ferns, and was just a frightening face poking up through the greenery, like some crazy madman. 

Even like this, he was a strange, scary sight. This was the last time I saw him. I returned to Riseholme in 2003, while on holiday with M--- on the Wolds, but couldn't find him - although it was admittedly a rainy day, and not the occasion for fossicking around in an overgrown wood. 

Then there was a long gap. I wasn't back again until 2017, by myself, and this time I did search in earnest for traces. But I had no expectation whatever of his survival after so long. Nor had he survived. The green stump in the centre of the shot below probably marks where he once was. The head honcho at the agricultural college had no doubt decided, years before, that the fearsome green face in the woods must go. 

As for Lawress Hall, it was still busy in 2003:

But by 2017 the place had a deserted look, although still immaculately maintained. I peeped in through the restaurant window. It looked ready for a fresh intake. But I'm guessing its active days as a tax college were already over. 

In its early years, this was a flagship facility. Of course it cost millions - one of the PFI builds fashionable in the 1990s. I wonder if that outlay was ever recouped by not having to hire hotel rooms in city centres? Probably not. Around the year 2000, the Revenue reorganised itself into just a few big regional offices, largely abandoning any local presence in the towns and cities around the country. It then became sensible for the trainers to come down from Lawress Hall to hold one-day events in each of these big offices (there were hundreds of people in the Croydon office I ended up in), rather than make everyone trek up to Riseholme. Which greatly reduced the need for Lawress Hall, except perhaps for week-long residential training courses. 

Who will now buy it? A big corporation? Or will it become a hotel? I'll just have to go back and see.

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