The Minions of Michael’s Nook

Michael’s Nook, Grasmere, Lake District National Park, Cumbria

Michael’s Nook, Grasmere 2016, clearly showing the stone fence I backed into in 1978.             Source: Moneyweek.com/properties with mountain views

THERE MUST BE AN EASIER WAY TO DO THIS JOB –

BUT DON’T SHOW ME!

I ENJOY SUFFERING.

Despite tacking that sign up within a few weeks of starting at Michael’s Nook, I really did enjoy my time there, which on the first stint took me up to spring. I enjoyed it so much, I returned for two more stints in the following years.

I was already well-versed in both customer service and housework – I’d been at both since the age of thirteen – so my varied (dogsbody) duties at Michael’s Nook were no hardship. Plus I learnt so much in my time there; how polite society behaves, social and table etiquette, exposure to the finer things in life. Skills that came in handy as I climbed the corporate ladder and played in the big pond.

Michael’s Nook became my temporary home, and the people who worked there became my family. Here is a little of each one who was there in the winter of 1978.

Reg Gifford 1978

Let’s start at the top of the tree with Reg Gifford, owner and proprietor. Well over six feet tall, he was the quintessential English gentleman of the landed variety (although I suspect his origins may have been humble). He was an antiques dealer who purchased the property in the late 60s, firstly as a private home, and then shortly after turning it into an exclusive country inn where the clientele were expected to feel more like house guests than tourists. Many of his antiques such as ormolu clocks and gilt-decorated furniture decorated the rooms. An eccentric, one of his party tricks was to ride his penny-farthing around the village on special occasions. He was also a lover of Great Danes, one of whom died while I was working there (not on account of me I rush to add!) Some of us stood vigil together with Mr Gifford as the dog slipped away. It was a very sad night for all of us.
Elizabeth Gifford 1978

In this photo, his wife, Elizabeth Gifford, is not hanging her head in shame, nor over-indulging in the glass of wine. She and “Giff” (only used behind his back) had come to our staff room to wish us Merry Christmas. It seems I have clicked the shutter at the precise moment she is laughing at a joke – a “mistake” not discovered until the film was developed. She was a lithe woman, always darting about, so it is not unusual that she would throw her whole body into the amusement. She was famous for her floral arrangements, one of which sat on a large round mahogany table in the entrance foyer, since turned into a dining area by the looks of this contemporary photo below. This angle is taken facing towards the front portico, and the doorway to the guests’ lounge on the right. There was a similar doorway on the left leading to the dining room.

Image 11 of 26

Source: www.onthemarket.com/details/3960601/    circa 2015

There was a secretary who handled reservations, correspondence and typing the daily menu. She was also in her early twenties, although for some reason I don’t have a strong memory of her, apart from her being slim and blonde, quite the opposite to myself.

The stars were in the kitchen. Nigel Marriage, the head chef about my age, a true temperamental professional who has dedicated his life to the art. The sous chef was Barry, and there were two sixteen-year-old apprentices, Simon and Paul. Barry was not of the physique to enjoy a walk, even though we were in Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter country, but the other guys took me off exploring. Here they are posing artistically for my camera. Not sure when this was taken, but clearly not December or January when I first arrived.

Nigel, Simon and Paul in the Lakes District circa 1978

Nigel, Simon and Paul in the Lakes District circa 1978-1979

Coming down to we plebs, there were two other General Assistants, Maureen, a 17-year-old Geordie who’d been working there for two seasons; and Sandra, a 16-year-old who was a recent hire, like myself.

As you can see, the place was being run on teenagers and young adults, but living out of home in this type of working environment made everyone mature for their age; although I did despair that there was not much mutual conversation to be had with Sandra, who was heavily into her make-up and her love-life. Maureen, on the other hand, had just been engaged to a waiter in one of the local hotels, a union blessed by both sets of parents.

There was a lady from the village who came daily to run the upstairs section with one of us providing additional labour. She was a hard-working no-nonsense woman, a widow as I recall, perhaps in her fifties, slim build and tightly permed hair, her street clothes always hidden behind a work smock.

And then there was Percy, the gardener, a middle-aged chubby chap who’d lived all his life in the valley and had the accent to match. One day I was dishing up the pudding that always accompanied our midday meal, and I asked if he wanted some.

‘Aye. I’ll have a la’ bit, ta,’ he said in a sing-song lilt. . . .

‘That’s nice Percy,’ I responded. ‘Now would you like some of this pudding or not?’ Turned out what he’d said was,

‘Yes, I’ll have a small portion please.’

Maureen used to give me a giggle with her Geordie (Newcastle) accent too. After a busy shift, she’d flop into the nearest chair and say, “Ee, it’s sha’-erred, me.” Or at the lunch table she might ask someone to “Pass the bu’er.” Apparently there is no double-t in the Geordie dialect, maybe even no ‘t’ in the alphabet at all.

Not that I fared any better. After accidentally ordering “two qwiche” instead of “two quiche” Nigel teased me about my colonial accent.

‘What?’ I countered. ‘You guys live on an island the size of Tasmania and you can’t decide amongst yourselves how you are going to speak the language!’

Good humoured banter was part of our daily routine. It stopped us feeling sorry for ourselves 🙂

I’m not sure if I already mentioned the house has been divided into four luxury private dwellings. These two photos below show how the former elegant dining room has been converted.

 

I wrote home to my mother that guests paid an average of $35 per head per night for bed, breakfast and dinner. To put that in context, the job that I’d left earlier that year in Australia was paying $170 less tax per week. For their money though, guests at Michael’s Nook got the spoil to end all spoils; and the food was sublime, featuring in both the Egon Ronay and Michelin good food guides.

Meanwhile, downstairs, in the servant’s quarters . . . to be continued.

Here’s a hint though. Take a second look at the background of the photos of Mr and Mrs Gifford 🙂

49 thoughts on “The Minions of Michael’s Nook

  1. Hi ,
    I was at Michaels Nook 1979-80. Then moved to The Drunken Duck between Ambleside and Conniston. What year did The Wordsworth re- open. ? as i helped over that winter to make and hang curtains there ? I enjoyed it so much I’ve been doing it ever since.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Gwen, yes when I looked back I realised I had sent almost identical message.
        I’m blaming being quarantined sending us all a little mad 🤣
        It’s so lovely hearing about other people from that time and how living at Michaels Nook influenced their lives ?
        Hows things in Australia ?
        Kind regards Glenda x

        Liked by 1 person

        • I was pleased to hear from you again. I’m in awe how the dawdle down the memory lane of Michael’s Nook drew forth so many comments.
          We’re doing okay over here. Still in lockdown, and not sure how we’ll go with winter around the corner, but there was a little relax in that we can have two visitors.

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  2. I was fortunate to land a summer job at the Singing Birds as a teenager in 1980. I was the tall (thin back then) American boy (my Dad was a professor visting at Dove Cottage over several summers) and had the chance to learn “silver service” from the gay couple Gifford hired to run the birds. I remember blowing my first pay buying “a round” for the Nook and Birds staff at the Swan. I also spent a bit of time in the kitchen at the Wordsworth Hotel the following summer.

    Does anyone remember the lady who came down every morning to make the scones? I think I gained a stone that summer making many of them disappear — would love to find her recipe. There isnt a decent plain scone to be had in Grasmere based on my last visit (they’ve all been improved with fruits and such).

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    • I so love that these posts on Michael’s Nook have brought forward so many with memories of that time. Our paths did not cross Daniel, I can be certain, because I would never forget someone who shouted the bar at The Swan. I was living in Yugoslavia until Tito died in May 1980, and I would have to go through old letters to remind myself where I went next. I certainly came back to England, but doubtful I went up to the Lakes, as I never worked there in the summer.
      I soooo remember the lady with the scones. I can remember her body shape, and her hands working the mix, and how she never cut out the dough, just rolled it in her palms, (or did it with a glass?) and how for so many years I tried to make my scones look anything like hers – but do you think I can remember her name???? Not a chance.
      The Singing Birds was light and loveliness. I know Giff sent me there for a time when he didn’t have work for me at Michael’s Nook.
      It’s all somewhere in my box of letters home . . .

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    • Its lovely hearing all your memorys of Michaels Nook. When i was there i worked on Giffords other hotel The Wordswoth Hotel helping make the curtains etc for the bedrooms. I enjoyed it so much that when i lived at The Drunken Duck Inn i helped them convert the pub to B&B. Still do the job today under Malvern House Interiors. Did we all benifit from out time spent being at Michael Nook ? x

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      • Hi Glenda, this looks like another comment on my Michaell’s Nook blog post I must have missed at the time. It sounds as if you CERTAINLY put your skills from there to good use. As for me, I can still dish up the veges silver service if I put my mind to it J I don’t believe I ever went inside the Wordsworth Hotel, but it looked very appealing from the outside. I did occasionally work at his restaurant, The Singing Birds, which if I remember, was attached to Wordsworth’s cottage. Xx Gwen

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    • Many apologies, I have only just come across this comment. I don’t know what happened to the clocks, but as Mr Gifford had an antique store, I guess he sold them there or through his connections. Thanks for dropping by my blog post on Michael’s Nook!

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  3. Many happy memories, and a funny one when we arrived with our 3 year old son. We must have had crayons in sight and as we arrived at our room so did Reg Gifford equipped with piece of plastic in hand; “the oriental carpets” he murmured as the plastic covered the rug. Glad to say those in our house are still doing well.

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    • He would have had a fit! LOL. He was very particular about how things were kept and cleaned. Although when I visited some years later, some furniture was starting to look overblown and a bit frowsy. Styles had moved on from the formal manor house look.

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  4. Hi.Good to hear from you.
    I dont know what happened but us five girls arrived all together one easter ! The advert was put in The Lady magazine .
    Must have been 1980. Cottage freshley painted and no sign of anyone else ? In hind site it was a bit mysterious ?
    They had Michaels Nook and The Singing Birds to run but no girls in sight ?? Barry and Nigel in the kitchen but Paul and Simon must have been given time off as they appeared days later.
    We were all issued with black with tiny fflowers on dresses for evening and pale blue floral for day time. We cleaned and changed the rooms and cleaned the rest of the house and served meals and all got other dutys added on. Mine was to look after the flowers. We worked five mornings and evenings then on the sixth day we worked through from seven am until six pm then had the night off and the next day. Slave drivers . The house keeper still came in. Her name was Mrs Bailey. She loved Debbie but wasent keen on the rest of us ! She lived in the village in a barn conversion. Widow but no kids. Do you remember bone stew ? The puddings were yummy though thanks to Barry
    I have photos somewhere but moved here a year ago as i left my partner of thirty-five years two years ago and moved into my house a year ago then he having had a bad drink problem died thiis August and left me to sort it all out. I live in West Auckland near my son Michael his wife Lisa and kids Paighton and Olivia. Its near Barnard Castle co Durham.
    I have many tales of drunken nights and working our way through the wine list. I left to go on holiday with Debbie for five weeks hitchiking on roller skates round the coast of England ! But got home to be offered our jobs back by Gifford. He wanted us to live in caravan and we refused so he rented a holiday cottage in the village. We all smelled of damp house. Yuck.
    I have many tales to tell. Like when the chefs all went down with food poisening ! Or the cockroach invasion. Or best of all being wisked away to Manchester by Gifford , to buy new dresses,. Wined and dined and then the car running out ofpetrol on the M6 ? Then the river flooded between Ambleside and Grassmere and we had to go the long way round to get back very late. !
    Is he still alive? By the way they were not married then but got married later. Crumbs. Sorry i prattle on . Memorys i havent thought about for years.
    Great fun. Love to hear from you.

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    • Hi Glenda

      Please forgive my delay in reply. It’s definitely the silly season. Too many parties. Not like when we worked at Michaels Nook and Singing Birds and Christmas/New Year only meant work, and more work.

      Your memories are so familiar to me! But the timing caused me to look back through old letters and remind myself that from the winter of 1979 leading up to Tito’s death in May 1980 I was living in Yugoslavia, so our paths definitely did not cross. And perhaps that also means that Simon did not marry the young lady I’d met the year before.

      Thank you for reminding me the name of Mrs Bailey. I can remember distinctly how she looked but couldn’t put a name to the face. I’m glad she continued to have regular work with the Giffords. Even though they were definitely “demanding” employers, they treated her with a certain respect and dignity, and supported her through a difficult time.

      From the get-go I’d been put in charge of “downstairs”, mirroring her “upstairs” role. So I didn’t clean the upstairs rooms, but oh my goodness! There was plenty enough work downstairs.

      Then of course, there was “below stairs”, where we ate and socialised in primitive conditions. Lots of stories from those days.

      I appreciate your enthusiasm about memories of those days. They were extraordinary times for young girls to have experienced, and I’m not sure people appreciate just how mature we were. Or were expected to be. I don’t know too many of that age today who would be prepared to take on the responsibility.

      And I too, have these moments where one stray memory sparks another, and another. However, I must let you know that your ABOVE comment is still sitting on my blog which has public access, so please let me know if you would like me to delete anything.

      Xxxxx Gwen

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    • Glenda I arrived to work In the kitchen as a trainee along with Michael we followed Simon and Paul I remember you and Debbie awful singing voice beautiful red hair😀 Elaine you two looked similar Julie who was seeing Simon and Paula? I was very lucky as the girls took me under Thier wings and looked after me we had Nigel,Barrie,and Paul and Simon in the kitchen although one would have to cover the singing birds they did this in turn I remember you had the single room upstairs in the cottage I was in contact with Mrs B up to a few years ago she sold up.and moved to Cornwall to be closer to her son in the winter we had to work front of house loved her to bits she made me laugh soo much I look back at my time with much fondness although at the time I didn’t appreciate the opportunity that I’d been given happy days
      Karen

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      • Paula ? Or Paul ?
        Didn’t Julie get married to Paul?
        Where did you live/sleep ?
        I do remember you arriving and going to Kendal Collage, but i think i moved to The Drunken Duck in the May.
        Don’t know what happened to the girls aftet i left ? What happened to you ? Did you continue chefing ? Glenda x

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  5. I loved reading what i could find ? I think there is more ?
    You lived in the cottage. Which room ?
    Did you bath in that giant bath? There was five of us and we all used the same water. Filled it to the brim. We had one day dress and one for dinner and we washed once a week. Yuck.
    The tarn on the hill was called Alcock Tarn. There is an entrance a few yards down the road heading towards The White Swan. Did you ever see the toads crossing that road in the spring ? Just amazing like African wilder beasts crossing after dark( on the way back from the pub) It was a hard job not yo step on them !

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  6. Hi, i must have arrived when you left !
    By the time i arrive there were five of us girls and two more college students in the kitchen. One of us girls Julie married Simon. We lived in the cottage up the path at the back of Michaels Nook. I had great fun there and then moved to The Drunken Duck Inn near Hawkeshead where i met my partner of thirty- five years.

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    • Hi again Glenda,

      I left Michael’s Nook for the first time in May 1979, but I returned later that year, or early 1981. I’d have to dig through my letters to my mother to remember the exact time.

      When I got back there, Simon was in a relationship with a young woman who was working there. It looked pretty serious, so perhaps that is who he married? I don’t remember her name, but Julie is a possibility. They could have only been around 18 or so at the time. Perhaps she was working in the kitchen, although I don’t recall any female chefs.

      Was Nigel Marriage still head chef when you were there? I made contact with him a few times in recent years, but the contact fell away again.

      Reg Gifford issued us new uniforms shortly after I first arrived. It’s the dark floral you see in a pic taken in the staff room. He wasn’t very happy with me, because my chubby curves didn’t achieve the elegant look he was going for. In hindsight though, the dress was pretty dowdy even for the slimmest girls, so perhaps he decided to change it again. It was the same dress for day and evening.

      Are you still living in the Lake District? Such a beautiful part of the world.

      Xxxx Gwen

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  7. There was a review in the Observer today of a place in Grasmere, which got me wondering what had happened to Michael’s Nook. I went for an interview for the secretarial job some time in the late 70s. Reg Gifford offered it to someone else, who later changed her mind and so he then offered it to me. But by that time I’d lost interest, which made him – er – quite cross! But sorry not to have met you – we might have been colleagues!

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    • I set off armed with a five year working holiday visa, available for under 30s. Then Margaret Thatcher came in and kept trying to kick me out. I staggered through with four years – I think the last year was an administrative error.

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  8. It is quite striking how rare taking photos of our work colleagues was back then and how ubiquitous taking pics now is isn’t it? In 1978 I was working at W&H Marriage & Sons Master Millers and only took photos on my leaving day. The Essex Marriages are/were a well-known Quaker family – any relation to your Nigel?

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    • Photos were so expensive in the day – and really, why take a photo other than to memorialise a day or event? All these thousands and thousands of digital images which will just get junked, of everybody and everything. Most of them posted on social media aren’t even good quality. I wonder how genealogists will fare in another 100 years trying to locate a readable image. With regard to Nigel – no, we never discussed our family roots – and there is no hint in his CV – he has worked in so many leading restaurants. But I would say he had a neutral southern accent.

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      • Heartily agree with you about the quality of most photos posted, but you never know humanity might suffer a global catastrophe and a few surviving memory sticks may end up being discovered like the Dead Sea scrolls in 2000 years time. Can’t imagine what future archaeologists would make of our culture from some of the random images that might be found.

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          • You look at who their friends are. Usually you’ll find a familiar name pretty quickly, or you’ll see surnames that you know are connected with your person of interest. Sometimes if you know they had a friend with a distinctive name, it is easier to find that friend’s Facebook profile first, look on their friends list, then find your person of interest in there. Other hints will be in what they like, where they live/d, schools, etc. Age, of course. If you can get into their feed you can scroll down and see if what they are doing, or what other people are tagging them in, matches anything you know e.g. kids, grand-kids, sport groups, etc. All part of the reason it is so important to have your privacy up to the level that people can’t drill into those details too easily. I am not a great fan of FB, but I need to have an author page as publishers expect writers to have a social media presence.

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