Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Country House Living

Last month, I was once again at the wonderful Dillington House in Somerset, teaching at the Summer School. Dillington House is basically Jacobean with a 1830s makeover; the public rooms are splendid and the gardens and grounds extensive. I, too, grew up in a large country house – though not as large as Dillington – and, what struck me on this visit was the remembrance of how it felt to live in a country house.

Dillington is devoted to making its guests happy. From the moment you enter the Gothic doorway, you feel welcomed. There are vases of flowers, delicious home-made cakes for tea and nothing is too much trouble for the staff. Even when I stupidly locked myself out of my bedroom one evening, the caretaker came over to let me in, with a smile and a ‘It’s no trouble.’

When you actually live in a country house, as I did as a child at Hall Garth, it doesn’t strike you as odd that the entire staff: cook, butler, nanny and nursery-maid, Mrs S. who came in to clean, Mrs T. who did the mending, my father’s groom and the gardener, were there solely to ensure my family’s comfort.

My mother didn’t have to do a thing: the cleaning, cooking, laundry etc were all done for her. She didn’t even have to look after us children. The groom cared for my father’s hunters. The gardener grew fruit, vegetables and flowers for the house and looked after the pigs, hens and ducks.

So, when I arrived at Dillington, the memories flooded back. I didn’t have to do any housework, my bed was made for me and delicious meals appeared on cue. The gardens were beautifully kept for me to enjoy – in fact, I held my classes outside under a tree, with flowers scenting the air and butterflies dancing.

My bedroom at Dillington was in the old servants’ wing in the attic. Interestingly, it was laid out exactly as at Hall Garth: a corridor with two larger rooms at either end and three smaller rooms on one side. At Hall Garth, the end rooms were occupied by the cook and the butler. They were pretty Spartan with lino, thin curtains, old iron bedsteads and whitewashed walls. The three small rooms (once housemaids’ rooms) were filled with junk, including an old linen press, warming-pans and stone hot-water bottles.

At Dillington, my end bedroom was warm and carpeted, with TV, a comfortable bed and tea and coffee to hand. Two of the three smaller rooms were now modern bathrooms, so I had my own bathroom as well. As I went up and down the forty-two stairs to the ground floor, I spared a thought for the housemaids at Dillington who had once climbed the same stairs, probably with jugs of hot water or scuttles full of coal for family members and their guests.

It was a moment for reflection. How could my mother have been happy doing absolutely nothing, being waited on hand and foot? And, worse, how could the staff’s bedrooms have been so shabby and stark? They worked really hard, they deserved proper carpets and comfortable beds.

Nobody at Dillington is shabbily treated. The staff I spoke to all loved working there. As a teacher, I was looked after extremely well, and students were busy with their various classes and far from lazy. In contrast to Hall Garth, Dillington is a country house full of energy and purpose where everyone is respected. And that is as it should be.

I’ve only ever seen Dillington in August but, next February, I shall be back to teach The Infinite Variety of English, a look at the huge variety of writing in English, from diaries and love letters to novels and poems. It should be fun. I’m looking forward to seeing the house in winter, perhaps under a blanket of snow with the skeletons of its magnificent trees glistening with frost and having another week of gracious living.

Photos: Top: Dillington House from the front.
             Middle: Hall Garth, my childhood home
             Bottom: Dillington House from the back
Elizabeth Hawksley


Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

How times have changed, Elizabeth! Your mother probably never questioned her lifestyle and possibly the servants didn't question theirs. I must say I like modern comforts like central heating and wall to wall carpets, even if I have to do my own cooking and cleaning.

Dillington sounds wonderfully luxurious, and both houses look absolutely super.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I think you're right, Melinda - it was just accepted. 'Downstairs' was a lot more fun than being with my parents in the morning room. I used to love sneaking into the kitchen to 'help' the cook making buns; there was always a lot of laughter.