Tales from the Country Estates
by John Bailey
pub. David & Charles, 1999
Hardback, 192 pages, £17.99
ISBN 0 7153 0724 X
Since 'Tales From the Country Estates' arrived a couple of days ago I haven't wanted to put the book down. With a socio-historical slant the illustrations are not particularly glamorous (though some of the Country Houses are), mixing, as many such books do, contemporary and old photographs, images of oil paintings, and engravings.
What the author, John Bailey, does do is take us on a wonderful, colourful journey, seen through the eyes of people working behind the scenes at some of the great Country Estates. Some invididuals have long since retired from Service but others are still employed.
The majority of the text is in the form of contemporaneous interviews (possibly edited) with staff past and present, backed up by a historical overview of each of the thirteen great houses or estates featured; Chatsworth, Berkeley Castle, Beaulieu, Knebworth and Castle Howard among them. It's an absolutely fascinating read and provides a great insight into the running and management of these huge properties. If you thought keeping a simple two-up two-down semi was a chore, imagine the effort involved in maintaining Chatsworth's 175 rooms, 17 staircases, 8000 panes of glass, and replacing 2000 lightbulbs from time to time. It's not surprising that large retinues of staff are required to run these great houses.
The one thing which comes across in all the personal reflections is how much the people involved love their work, even if it wasn't or isn't highly paid, and often requiring much longer hours than most employees would contemplate. Jim Link, Chatsworth's Head Gardener says: '...working at Chatsworth is not really a job at all - it's more like a way of life.'
Reading the interviews there is real sense of affection for those who own these houses (many seeing themselves as custodians of their property for future generations), as well as a sense of community among the various teams of staff. In nearly every case everyone is expected to muck in and help; no job demarcation here, rather the absolute neccessity of multi-skilling if these great houses are to function. Perhaps the author was lucky in finding people who had been treated so well because, as one interviewee put it: 'There are some people who treat any servant like a piece of furniture.'
But the real treasures of this book lie within the individual stories and work routines related to the author. At Knebworth, forester Wacko Watkins reflects on spending more than 25 years working on the estate, being able to run his own life and having the freedom to roam the grounds. Head of Maintenance, Derek Spencer, relates the problems of heating the old house, and how the frost cracked stucco exterior allows water to get in and affect the brickwork behind.
At Berkeley Castle, Mollie Sage remembers how everyone used to turn out at harvest time to lend a hand. Her father worked on the estate for most of his life and still worked at manning the gatehouse until he died at the age of 96. He wouldn't have had it any other way.
The great country house of Chatsworth, the ancestral home of the Devonshire family, is of particular interest in that successive enlightened generations have welcomed visitors to the house and its grounds since the 18th century. Bailey interviews Chatsworth's retired Comptroller, Eric Oliver, who worked at house for fifty years, beginning as an apprentice house carpenter. Interestingly Oliver says how much the staff and Devonshire family like to have people visiting as it makes the huge grounds come alive. His reminiscences also reveal how expensive the upkeep of these great houses is. Replacing Chatsworth's lead roof cost the best part of one and a half million pounds - all paid out of the estate's purse.
The latter financial angle highlights another interesting aspect of the personal interviews. Nowhere within them do you feel that the employees feel resentment for their employer's privilege and wealth. Indeed, there rather seems to be a realisation that these country estates are very expensive to maintain and that the next bit of resoration work has to be planned well ahead.
At Harewood House, Geoff Hall, the former Head Gardener, tells us how Princess Mary - who lived at Harewood for years - would sit down in the garden and chat to him. Frank Widdop, the Butler, finds his former life in the Royal Navy has prepared him well for the job which starts at around 06.45 each day: 'If there's a job to be done, you just get on with it.' Frank also chauffer's Lord Harewood to Elland Road football ground where they both watch Leeds United play.
Over at Castle Howard - known for its services as the backdrop to the televised version of Evelyn Waugh's 'Brideshead Revisited' - retired cook, Arthur Nelms, tells stories of how the late George Howard would return from his train journeys with cookery books gleaned from the shelves of station WH Smith stores, and how Sophia Loren developed a love of Arthur's Yorkshire Pudding while she was staying at the house.
When I finally turned the last page of 'Tales from the Country Estates' I had one regret; that there wasn't more to come. The author's exploration of behind the scenes life is fascinating, and reveals how much jobs in 'Service' have changed over the years. In the past, Estate employees were lucky to get a week's holiday a year, and perhaps one day, or two half days, off a week. But set against that you get a sense that these hardships were balanced by a great sense of community spirit, well-being, and a great pride in the work involved. As Butler, Frank Widdop says: 'I've never regretted spending a single day at Harewood, and that to me is the real test as to whether a man has enjoyed his life or not.'
For Your Information: David & Charles Publishers have a whole series of 'Tales From the Countryside' books though I am uncertain whether they are of a similar format or price to the above title.
The ones listed on the back cover are:
These should be available from all good bookshops but in case there are problems the following address is given: David & Charles Direct, PO Box 6, Newton Abbot, TQ12 2DW. There's also a credit card hotline too: 01626 334555.