Ten years and an age: the family in the castle
We are celebrating an anniversary this week. Today, it is ten years to the day since my family moved into this castle. I say ‘celebrate’, but in fact we are just getting on with life, work and the school term rather than throwing a party or anything and besides, we are off the swally* for Lent. (*given up alcohol)
Still, it’s a milestone which deserves a little reflection on how far we’ve come. In one sense, nowhere at all: here we still are. That in itself is an achievement, as keeping a place like this going is a perennial headache for my husband and his management team. Often we think we should sell up and move to a sensibly sized family house. There is however, as my husband says, a golden thread of family history running through this castle, which we would be loath to cut. Although we – my husband, first child and myself – moved in ten years ago, we were taking over from generations of my husband’s family who have gone before. Four hundred years rooted in one place, building, expanding, planning, rebuilding: since 1615, the family has developed this home from a fortified tower into a gentleman’s country seat, while the acres surrounding it have turned from rough moor and pasture to the planned policies we enjoy today, studded with balustrades, grottos and stone gateways and criss-crossed with avenues of mature trees. And all by ancestors whose faces are familiar to us from portraits; so that we know that it was probably ‘Brave Sir George’, for example, who planted the first lime avenues in the late eighteenth century, and that is was his great-great-great uncle, grim-faced Sir Thomas, whose new-fangled ideas for garden design (picked up while he was at university in Leiden) were responsible for the layout of the Dutch garden in the 1660s.
Each generation has made changes inside, too. The defensive yett which was the front door of the fifteenth century tower (a nail-studded oak door behind a heavy iron grill) was replaced by sweeping curved front steps in the early eighteenth century. And although the wing where we sleep was added in the seventeenth century, there were no corridors outside the bedrooms until ‘Grandfather’ (actually great-grandfather) had them built in the 1890s. Before that, you had to scamper through one bedroom to reach the next. House-parties must have been riotous affairs.
Our generation is unlikely to make any such major changes to castle or policies. Where historic buildings are concerned, ours is an age not of innovation, but of red tape and cautious conservation. Still, we have managed to adapt the house to the needs of a young family; the building of a family kitchen being my high point, when I felt as if all my birthdays had come at once. It’s worth pointing out that this is the first family kitchen there has ever been in the castle! We are the first generation to cook all our own meals and to eat/ work/ socialise in the kitchen: a decade ago, the housekeeper did all the cooking in a drearily functional staff kitchen, and the family were served by the butler in the breakfast room or dining room.
And that is the extraordinary thing. Looking back, I can hardly believe how different our lifestyle was then. Ten years ago, we inherited a house and way of living which were essentially Edwardian. Dinner was served in the dining room every night, whether or not there were visitors. Ladies were expected to wear skirts or dresses for dinner and to withdraw after the meal, while the gentlemen enjoyed a glass or two of port at the table. After dinner entertainment in the drawing room consisted of playing the grand piano and singing. (There was one telly, but it was banished to a small dark room at the back.) Some paperwork might be done in the mornings, but it stopped in time for the daily pre-lunch sherry or dram and was never allowed to get in the way of a shooting or fishing invitation.
It was a splendid life in many ways, and I am grateful to have experienced it; but it couldn’t last. For one thing, it was utterly impractical to try to maintain those ways without an army of house staff, which we neither wanted nor could afford. I am probably the first mother living here who has chosen to bring up my children without a nanny (gasp), and I have vivid memories of having to lug the baby miles along freezing corridors and up stairs to find a bathroom where I could change a nappy. Likewise it was an epic trip to go from the library to the kitchen, where I felt I was intruding upon the housekeeper’s domain as I went in search of a cup of milk for a toddler (who was meanwhile either left far out of earshot or dragged screaming along with me). The best change we have made is to do what almost every family seems to do in a big house: move to the old servants’ quarters in the basement and establish a warm, untidy family kitchen and ‘den’. This is the heart of the house now, from which we make occasional forays into the old formal rooms upstairs. The butler and housekeeper were not replaced after their retirement, and our supper these days is usually something like pasta or a stir fry on laps in front of the box, with the wood-stove burning and the dogs snoozing at our feet, rather than pheasant stew served over an interminable dinner in the chilly dining room. We don’t often miss the old days.
All of which makes me wonder, should I perhaps try to write a little more about life in the castle here on Dancing Beastie? What would you like to hear more about? Fewer trees, more castle interiors and history, maybe? I’ve avoided saying much about the castle in the past because it’s important to me to respect the family’s privacy, but perhaps there is more I could write if that would be of interest. Please let me know.
Meanwhile, here’s to the next ten years. You never know, perhaps Dancing Beastie will still be around to give you an update…
You might enjoy some stories of the ups and downs of life in a castle in the following posts: In which I talk rot; Here be treasure and Cycling in the ballroom: children’s castle memories.