Home » Older stuff » How to Live in a Stately Home, Part Two

How to Live in a Stately Home, Part Two

Posted October 2013

“WOW just what I was searching for. Came here by searching
for kostenlos automaten spielen”

– from my WordPress File of Spam

Someone calling himself Porfirio Beamont, who has the longest and most complicated email address I have yet seen, has very kindly messaged me via the WordPress Spam service to say my Page entitled How to Live in a Stately Home (Older Stuff) is just what they were searching for.

Porfirio, be warned, I am an expert at irony. I don’t know what ‘kostenlos’ means, I suspect it means ‘cheap’, or ‘low-cost’, and ‘automaten spielen’ is of course ‘computer games’. This suggests to me that you are not really interested in living in a stately home: you would rather have space aliens blow one up.

I’m with you there.

I did as it happens try to get a software developer to create a simple game for the website of the stately home where I lived, as a promotional exercise. The house was reputed to have been the home of the Holy Grail, and lots of delicious ghosts had been seen by visitors over the years, so I thought it would be fun to have a ghostly Grail Hunt on the website.

It never happened. None of my best ideas ever see the light of day; no-one who can afford to pay for them ever understands the point of them.

I wrote the piece several years ago, originally for submission to an old-established magazine for gentlewomen, entitled The Lady; having disentangled their address from a list of less salubrious websites proposed to me by Mr Google. It was, inevitably, rejected; I suspect, less because of its lack of literary merit and interest, than because it was written apparently by someone of the servant class.

Not only that, but it ended with the writer enjoying a glass (it was probably more like a couple of bottles) of well-chilled Chardonnay under the Palladian portico overlooking a misty Welsh valley at sunset, while playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy at full volume on the house PA: not at all the sort of thing the servants ought to be getting up to while their masters are away.

In my defence, I did pay for the wine, it was my own. The house had no wine cellar, only a dank and low-ceilinged basement growing strangely hairy fungus over the walls and floor.

The principal interest of this primeval undercroft was its architectural back-story. It had once been the ground-floor entrance hall of the old manor house that had stood on the site in the seventeenth century, before the present, grandiose mid-Georgian box was erected on top as a symbolic act of rape between two great Welsh families, united in love of money. The original front door and windows were still in situ, but now eight feet underground.

Beyond the unlit, barrel-vaulted passage that ran parallel with the front of the house, supporting the new portico, through which the roots of the myrtle bushes above dangled between gaps in the brickwork in mycologically interesting curtains, were two unlit, earth-floored cells at the front, under the car park, where I was told slaves were kept. A headstone among tributes to the estate’s former pack of hunting hounds in the pets’ cemetery bears the ominous legend: “to poor Jack the Coon, and his wife Mary”. I used to get emails asking tartly about it from professors of Afro-American History at obscure US universities, and have to explain that ‘cwn’ is the Welsh word for a ‘dog’ – which it isn’t. Not quite.

Unsuitable for the storing of fine vintages, by virtue of a stern edict from the Environmental Health inspectors, the basement boasted only a half-dozen plastic crates of ginger-ale mixers with rusted caps, a bottle of Martini that had gone off, and some worm-eaten items of late Victorian brown furniture my masters had bought at auction on one of their rare flying visits (home for them being an infinite series of airport lounges), imagining them to be valuable antiques for which they had cleverly paid only a few pounds.

I was another among their cheaper acquisitions. Originally hired as the gardener/handyman, I  rapidly rose through the ranks (I was the only staff) to become the cook, the waiter, the receptionist, the cleaner, the laundrymaid and the barman – and, indeed, the administrator and marketing guru – of probably the most appalling guesthouse since Fawlty Towers. The owners resolutely refused to invest a penny in home comforts, informing me loftily that the house would have to start making a profit before they could sanction improvements which they considered frivolous and unnecessary.

As a result, neither of the two showers worked, owing to there being insufficient water-pressure; the pipes froze in winter; the TVs in the rooms could receive only a Welsh-language channel; while any pioneering B&B guest investigating the beds to see what they were getting for their £100 a night would have discovered under the sanitary covers, by the light of cheap Woolworths bedside lamps, lumpy mattresses stained with ancient piss, blood and semen; coffee and wine. A high point was when the RAC hotel inspector showed me the bedbug bites on his arms.

In the hot, dry summer of 2006, the house – whose open drains had been laid down in the C18th and led to no disposal system anyone could discover – began to reek of sewage, as wedding guests noticed. This naturally attracted rats, that ate the poisoned bait the rat-man put down. As he explained it, Warfarin thins the blood, so the rats feel cold. They seek out the hot water pipes under the floors, where they eventually perish. This explained the even more pungent stench lingering for months in the Ballroom.

When the owners did finally come to understand that their beautiful country home was, in the words of the local fire chief, a ‘deathtrap’, and that the legal ramifications of the Health & Safety acts were in fact as hair-raising as I had been trying to warn them they were, I was summarily fired and forced to reapply for a lesser role as the old caretaker; although the job description seemed suspiciously familiar.

There I remained for another three years while millions of gold sovereigns were squandered on home improvements dictated by an oddly favoured  ‘consultant’ with no discernible knowledge or special intelligence that I could detect, designed to turn the house into a fantasy five-star establishment. It came complete with obsequious waiters, eyewatering prices and a man-armed-with-an-umbrella hanging about the foyer, waiting in vain to greet the rush of prospective guests, among whom actual market research had told me there was almost zero demand for a return to the dreary provincial snobberies of the early 1960s.

It was with some difficulty that I persuaded my employer that it might not be such a good idea to call the new dive-bar he was hoping would be created in the cellar, the Marquis de Sade room. I assumed at first he must be joking, but no. In that curious way owners of large houses have, of giving the rooms names rather than numbers, he had gone around plucking names out of the air, anything with local Welsh associations, he had no idea of their meanings. I wondered aloud, how a Polish waiter on minimum wage was going to cope with noting down the long and convoluted names of the rooms inhabited by the guests at breakfast, instead of just writing the number four, or fourteen.

But it was no longer my problem as, by the time the builders started putting the floorboards back in the estate office, where I had been working for months with an elevated view of the Marquis de Sade room below, I had offered my employers the hospitality of my flat, the only room that still had chairs comfortable enough to sit on and not covered in eighteenth-century brick crumbs and plaster dust, in order to hold the meeting at which I was to be offered redundancy.

At least in my day, when the guests couldn’t get enough hot water for a bath, the kitchen had run out of food, the fire alarm had gone off at five a.m. and they found bat droppings on the hospitality tray in their room, they could chuckle sympathetically without being charged extra for it. Many of them even came back for another disbelieving experience. Now things were to be different: properly managed, as the owners kindly put it.

I left as the mechanical digger was bulldozing the scented rose garden the autistic man squatting in one of the caravans and I had dug through an unexpected layer of concrete under the lawn for the future benefit of blind and partially sighted guests. The order had been given to enlarge the already ample car park on the word of the consultant, who had convinced my employers that coach parties would undoubtedly arrive by the dozen, now the negative and recalcitrant old manager was gone. They’ll still be waiting.

And somewhere in my masters’ collection of long and overexplained memos from me, will be the one in which I did question the aesthetic justification for planting a large car park immediately in front of the view over the misted green Welsh valley, an Arcadia carefully planned and laid-out by Georgian landscape gardeners for the delight of the family and their guests, now spoiled by futile twentieth-century-style commercial greed.

Ignorance and colossal, self-regarding, obtuse stupidity are not, I know, the sole preserve of the rich; but they are qualities with which our masters have come to be closely associated. Either that, or it was all a clever tax dodge. I suppose it is this faintly contemptuous attitude which marks me out as a member of the servant class, despite my genuinely minor-aristocratic family background.

So, Porfirio, if you find any of those low-cost computer games, I’m not doing anything tonight.

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