The way I remember this story, I saw the ad for Michael’s Nook Country House Retreat in The Land newspaper while I was working for the solicitors in Leeds. On the other hand, maybe The Land is an Australian newspaper, and the English version was something like Town and Country. Doesn’t matter.
Here’s what I know for fact, because I recorded it in my diary. It was Sunday 17th December 1978 when I drove the 115 klm (71 miles) from Leeds to Grasmere for the job interview. On arrival I promptly backed my newly purchased Vauxhall Viva into the stone garden wall of the mansion, unaware that all the time I was being watched from a bay window by my potential boss and co-workers.
Well, you know, not everybody wants a job as a general dogsbody just as Christmas is approaching, so my sins were forgiven and I got the job.
The last entry in my diary for that year is 20th December 1978, and records that “Mr Dickson* (the solicitor I was working for) had me to dinner, a very enjoyable evening, his wife Fran was . . . ”
And I stop there. Please feel free to insert the next phrase however you wish. I cannot begin to imagine what cut me off at that point. It’s quite intriguing don’t you think? The mind boggles at where I could go from there!
I was to arrive at my new job on the following Friday night, which would make it Friday 22nd December, and I wrote to my mother that I was peeved that meant I had to miss the office Christmas Party. The very next morning I was put to work.
Michael’s Nook Country House Retreat was a former private home, which the owner, Reg Gifford, was now offering as an exclusive get-away for the moneyed elite. A stately place of ten bedrooms, most with ensuite, although those rooms without had share of the most magnificent bathroom.
My role was General Assistant, a suitably vague title in the era before job descriptions, so Mr Gifford could get me to do whatever he bloody well liked (sorry!) but which boiled down to waitressing, bar work, kitchen work, and any other cleaning he took a mind to. I wrote home that I hoped the secretary was planning on running off soon and I would be offered her place.
Christmas Week was a big house party. This wasn’t a week when guests could come for one night only. They signed on for the whole shebang. Michael’s Nook was in the Egon Ronay good food guide. That meant three huge meals a day. I’m talking several courses for breakfast and lunch, and
seven five courses for dinner. If they could be bothered, guests could participate in an escorted walk after lunch, or just wander the extensive gardens.
We had some free time between each food service, although the hour after breakfast was taken up with putting the oak-panelled dining room to rights. On one day we polished the mahogany tables, on the other day we polished the silver. I soon came to dread the helpful guests who blew the candles out, as it sprayed candle wax across the tables, which meant we had to soak it off the next morning with hot face washers. The best way to extinguish the candles was to lick your fingers and pinch the wick quickly between your wet fingertips.
There was an entrance to the grand house, a kind of enclosed portico, with a beautiful tiled floor – black and white checker-board as I recall – and a resident parrot who abused the newcomers and dropped feathers and other detritus all about his cage. Being a GA meant that keeping that area also came under our control.
Then the guests would step into the beautiful entrance foyer, the centrepiece of which was a round mahogany table on top of which stood a huge vase of flowers picked fresh from the garden. Mrs Gifford – Elizabeth – took care of this arrangement. She was an artisan of floral arranging, and all I can say is that was a ‘very good thing‘ as I still can’t do it.
The magnificent staircase swept up to the next level which contained the bedrooms. That is where our responsibility ended, as “upstairs” was managed by a different woman, who lived in the village and came for the day. Having said that, we were responsible for everything that happened up there after five pm.
The routine was that guests would assemble pre-dinner in the drawing room on the ground floor. The Head GA – eg ME – would mingle discreetly and hand around sherries and the table d’hote menu. Mr and Mrs Gifford would provide the bonhomie of the cheery hosts. Then I take the order of each guest, pass it to the kitchen, and then in a circumspect manner, entice the guests from the drawing room to the dining room, table by table. I have to keep each order in my head, and serve the first course from the eldest woman to the youngest, then the eldest man to the youngest.
Here’s the trick with that. THEY KNOW. The guests flippin’ well know the rules you are playing – and heaven help you if you get the age difference wrong. There’s a trap for the uninitiated. Falling on my sword as an ignorant Aussie saved my bacon on several occasions.
There was a heavy panelled oak door between the dining room and the servers’ pantry / Parlour. The kitchen was beyond the that. The door into the dining room had a solid long metal handle – no swinging door! So, hooking the door open and shut with our elbow, we had to glide in with plates of food piled up our arms, and glide out again with the empty plates, looking effortless and smiling, but I can tell you – once that door closed behind us and we were in the parlour all hell broke loose!
Timing was key. We knew how many to serve and we staggered so the kitchen could cope. Once everyone had a main meal in front of them we had some vital time on our hands. Time enough to send some of the other girls upstairs to tend to . . . putting hot water bottles in everybody’s bed. Yep. At a couple of strategic points on the floor above there was an alcove with a kettle. A kettle folks, like you would use to boil for a cup of tea. No problems! Boil the kettle, fill two hot water bottles, race to a bedroom, turn the covers down, stick the bottle inside the bed, find the woman’s nightie and lay it out on the bed nicked in to the tiniest of waists, then scamper back downstairs in time to clear away the main course dishes in time to serve the dessert. Piece of cake – to coin a phrase!
- * I think the correct spelling is Dixon.
Watch this space for more stories 🙂