June 21st 2013

Bowood House, Wiltshire, pictured in 1905.
The success of Downton Abbey across the world has brought English country houses and the families who own them into the limelight. Just what is it about these impractical old buildings, vastly expensive to run and maintain, which makes them so appealing? Some of them, of course, are amazingly beautiful: the first sight of Castle Howard in Yorkshire, or Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, or Bowood House in Wiltshire, set in lush gardens designed by Capability Brown, is enough to stop you in your tracks. Yet even houses on a more modest scale have their charm. No matter how spectacular, I think what fascinates us most about these homes is the stories they tell us about the people who lived and worked there. When we walk around them today, we are searching for clues about our ancestors. What kind of food did they eat? How did they pass their time? What sort of clothes did they wear? And quite apart from those details, we’re curious about how those Victorians and Edwardians actually felt. Was a servant in a great house better off than today’s office worker? Did a strict code of etiquette subdue emotions or make them stronger? We have a sneaking suspicion that people might have been happier living simpler lives within a more rigid social structure than we are now: in some senses we’re freed by technology, able to cross the world in a matter of hours, but are driven by the need to work harder, buy more things, communicate with more ‘friends’, master the latest piece of baffling new technology…
Bowood House modern day (Credit:Paul Buckingham, Creative commons license)
Landowners’ houses have of course developed through history. In the Middle Ages, they were much simpler. Masters and their servants lived communally, with servants often sleeping in large rooms or passageways near their master’s chamber and eating with him and his family in the great hall. As banquets became more popular, lords and their guests began to take more formal meals in greater privacy. Sir William Sharington, for example, added an octagonal tower when rebuilding Lacock Abbey in the 1550s which featured two small banqueting rooms, complete with octagonal carved stone tables, each able to accommodate six guests at most. His friend Sir John Thynne promptly followed suit and scattered the roof of his great house, Longleat, with many domed banqueting turrets. More private bedrooms appeared, with drawing rooms now alongside the dining halls, and libraries – which in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were the main informal living rooms. Maria Edgeworth (a prolific Irish writer of adults’ and children’s books) described the library at Bowood in 1818 as: ‘a most comfortable habitable-looking room… it was very agreeable in the delightful library after breakfast this day – groups round various tables – books and prints – Lady Lansdowne found the battle of Roundway for me in different histories…’ By Victorian times, servants had been removed almost completely from the main house, living and working in separate quarters and only allowed to visit their employers’ domain for strictly practical purposes: to dust and wash, empty slops, light fires, help with dressing, wait at table, and so on. What a fertile breeding ground for stories! When I began to write my Swallowcliffe Hall books, I decided to begin from the servants’ point of view: witnessing this privileged world from close quarters but not able to share it. Perhaps the thing we love most about the Edwardian country-house world is the idea that it is ordered, and regulated, and safe: a harmonious community in which everyone is working towards the same goal. And if you are lucky enough to be at the top of the country-house tree (so to speak), how wonderful your life must be! Someone to light your fire in the morning, to help you dress, to serve you with food and clear up afterwards – leaving you free to express your true personality, free from the worries and constraints of everyday life. We enjoy hearing about the whims of aristocrats who behaved exactly as they pleased within their own little kingdoms: such as Francis Egerton, the eighth earl of Bridgewater, who preferred dogs to people and took meals with his dogs every day. The table would be laid for twelve and the dogs led in, each with a napkin round its neck, to be waited on by servants from silver dishes. Although he employed a famous French chef, Bridgewater would eat nothing but boiled beef and potatoes, and once returned from a planned trip to the country (complete with 16 carriages of luggage and 30 servants on horseback) after a few hours because he couldn't find boiled beef and potatoes in any restaurant along the way. Lord Berners of Faringdon gave his whippets diamond collars, had his doves painted pink and blue, and in 1935, built a 140-foot folly in the ground of his house complete with a sign that read: ‘Members of the public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk’. Of course, people will always find things to worry about, and employing large numbers of servants brought its own responsibilities – especially for the mistress of the house, who had to give their daily orders. By the later nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution had brought increasing wealth to the burgeoning middle class, who began to invest in country houses. Etiquette manuals and instruction books – such as Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management – became popular as those not born into the aristocracy strove to learn its rules. Many upper-class families were becoming wealthier, too, and wanted to invest in their homes as fitting showcases for the treasures they brought back from their Grand Tours of Europe. Highclere Castle had been described in the 1840s as exemplifying the ‘flatness and insipidity of bare classicism,’ before the Earl of Carnarvon transformed it into the magnificently ornate palace we see on our television screens today as Downton Abbey.
Pentillie Castle
The chance to peek inside an English country house is irresistible. What secrets from the past might you discover? Do you picture yourself as the mistress or the scullery maid? The gentleman’s valet or the lord himself? A master like James Tillie, perhaps, the original owner of Pentillie in the beautiful Cornish Tamar Valley, who was so reluctant to leave his charmed life that his will stipulated he should not be buried but dressed in his best clothes, bound to a stout chair and placed with his books, wine and pipe in the vault of the mausoleum there. Human remains have recently been discovered during an archaeological dig at Pentillie, and investigations are underway to establish whether they are indeed those of James Tillie. And now you too can stay in that very house, live like its owner, and see whether it casts the same spell over you. Perhaps we all need a touch of eccentricity in our lives….
About the Author:  Jennie Walters is the author of the Swallowcliffe Hall series of historical novels, as well as many books for children, and divides her time between London and Dorset. Jennie has just released an audiobook version of 'Eugenie's Story' - the newest in the Swallowcliffe Hall series. About The Wayfarers: The Wayfarers Walking Vacations since 1984 tours offer a week-long stay in Pentillie Castle with wonderful walks out each day.  Other walking tours include the historic houses mentioned in Jennie's article: Downton Abbey, Castle Combe & Avebury Circle walking vacation visits Highclere Castle and Bowood House, The Cotswolds & Oxford walking vacation passes through Blenheim Palace's parkland.

Download: PDF Document.
Print: Press CTRL+P or click here to print.

Next Post  →