Festive Times at Michael’s Nook

Recapping from earlier posts – I drove up to Grasmere after finishing work at the Leed’s solicitor on Friday 22nd December (1978). I regretted leaving my colleagues to celebrate the office Christmas party without me, but I needed to be ready to start my new job the next morning. The Christmas period at the hotel was a big house party and as far as staff was concerned, it was all hands to the pump. In keeping with the ethos that guests should feel part of the family, our duties extended far and wide.

So it was that on Christmas Eve, after the five course dinner service was completed, we all of us, proprietor, guests and staff, went down to the village church for the midnight service. That I remember as pretty special, celebrating in an ancient stone church, experiencing my first cold Christmas service, being a part of the reverent yet convivial atmosphere – almost spiritual – and then rushing back through the night to be ready to serve mulled wine and cakes to all the guests.

Come Boxing Day, and the Giffords had decreed a fancy dress party, with us required to dress up – again, after dinner service was done and dusted. Here’s Mrs Gifford, aka the Statue of Liberty, with two of the guests.

Michaels Nook Country House Hotel Boxing Day 1978 (3) (710x1024)

Our chefs excited some comment. Nigel came as Long John Silver, tossing a dead pheasant from the game larder over his shoulder and limping around with a crutch. Barry, the sous chef, came as Sweeney Todd, and the apprentice Simon made a very fetching nurse. The other apprentice, Paul, may have been missing from the shot, or he may simply have said, “sod that for a joke, I’m not dressing up for no-one.” I can imagine he said that 🙂

Michaels Nook Country House Hotel Boxing Day 1978 (2)

As soon as our guests had gone to bed and we were let off our leash, we all dashed to the staff quarters of the nearby Swan Hotel and had our own party down there. Here’s Simon snuggling up to Stewart, Maureen’s newly acquired fiance who worked at the Swan. Simon’s showing a nice bit of leg.

Michaels Nook Country House Hotel Boxing Day (714x1024)

The food at Michael’s Nook was always superb and dinner included several desserts arrayed on the sideboard, and a cheese platter that we carried to each table, comprising about six speciality cheeses, one of which was always a Stilton. New Year’s Eve, though, topped the lot. It was eleven courses, including haggis and scotch. We served much of the food that night silver service, and on a good day I can still balance the spoon and fork. It took hours for the guests to complete the meal, and this was on top of the breakfast and lunch they had already consumed. Thinking back, I have no idea how they managed it all. Even if I am of Italian heritage, I have to admire them – that is giving an appetite one heck of a nudge. You can be sure than when we laid the ladies’ nighties out on their bed that evening, we made sure to snip those waists in even tighter 🙂

Our life was Upstairs Downstairs for sure. Upstairs, the guests sat at gleaming mahogany dinner tables and glowed at each other across the candelabra, partaking these luxurious meals served on the finest Coalport dinnerware and eaten with freshly polished silver.

Downstairs, in the basement, we ate at a stone bench that I think may have been the slaughter block, because for sure meat had once hung from the hooks that still punctuated the ceiling, and our crockery was plastic plates, although we had real stainless steel cutlery to use. We ate our main meal before the lunch service, and always had a pudding with it. The evening meal was a quick filler before the dinner service.

“What do you want with your chips?” Nigel would ask me.

“Err,” says I, who’s put on a considerable amount of weight in the nine months I’ve been in Europe. “Can I skip the chips and just have the protein?”

“No,” he’s firm. “You’ll get hungry later, and I’m not cooking again. So what do you want? Eggs or baked beans?”

Here’s a photo of us horsing around in our staff room. Note the butcher’s hooks and tatty furniture. Please try to overlook the chubby sheila.

Michaels Nook Staff Room (1024x687)

Here’s what I think is that room today . . . sourced from a real estate listing . . .

part of the former basement area

New Year’s also brought blizzards. When the snow first fell I was so excited I ran out to photograph the house in it. I’d only seen one other snowfall in my life, a few months previously when an early fall hit Grindelwald, the village in Switzerland where I worked for a month. I’d been feeling a bit maudlin there, and I had discovered that living surrounded by high alps made me claustrophobic. I’d downed a few drinks in the local bar one evening. When I stepped outside, I discovered the world had turned white. I raced back in the bar in a panic. “What was I drinking,” I asked the barman. “I think I’ve gone blind!”

So I was a bit more prepared to recognise the white stuff this time, but no one told me that to achieve that chocolate box look in your photos, you have to wait for it to stop falling and let the sun come out again. I was very disappointed when the snaps came back. They were sepia toned and obscured by falling snow. Here I’ve tinted them to black and white so they look more atmospheric.

Snow at Michaels Nook early 1979

Since I had never experienced snow, I had no idea how to drive in it. Michael’s Nook sat at the top of a steep hill, and then the long driveway added another level of steepness. Often I would lose momentum about two thirds of the way up, and slowly slide back down the driveway. Eventually I mastered the revs that I needed, and where to start riding the clutch and accelerator, so that at the top of the drive I’d still have so much impetus left that I’d bounce up and fly towards the garage. Stopping was another matter, but I learnt that driving into a snowdrift usually takes care of that. I went all around Grasmere village aiming for snowdrifts whenever I failed to take a curve correctly and could feel the rear of the car threatening to fishtail.

Percy, the gardener, went ballistic at people losing control on the driveway. The linen van was his biggest nemesis. Before too long he ordered that it be stopped at the gate and that we minions were to lug the dirty laundry bags down the driveway and carry back the piles of fresh laundry. When I asked him why, he told me that the wheels damaged the lawn and garden beds. I couldn’t imagine how anything would rip through the deep snow. Sure enough, when spring came, there were gouges all over the place from people who had skidded off the driveway proper. It trampled the tulip bulbs, and it took him weeks to coax the lawn back to pristine condition.

The snow fell and fell. We were cut off for a few days. England was in the grip of the coldest winter in fifteen years. The snow fell so regularly that it never thawed, it just turned icy and very slippery between fresh falls. The temperature dropped to minus 12’c. And we General Assistants were living in a little stone cottage further into the grounds of Michael’s Nook, where the meter attached to the small electric heater in each of our rooms was ripping through our meagre wages. Thank goodness, as the last of the January guests drifted away, and no forward bookings were received, Mr Gifford let us move into the main house. Central heating and colour TV – sighhhhh.

The cottage at Michaels Nook (691x1024)

My life was complete. Like my poster of Caesar, although battered, I could also claim –

VENI, VIDI, VICI

Veni, Vidi, Vici

20 thoughts on “Festive Times at Michael’s Nook

  1. Hallo! I stayed at Michael’s Nook probably in about April or May 1977 or 1978. I loved reading your stories and also remember the parrot in the hall. I remember being surprised that none of the bedrooms had keys. We were in The Parrot bedroom! We had driven from Switzerland in our bright orange Pontiac Firebird car. We drove into Ambleside to a little garage to fill up and the garage man filling it saw the CH on the back of the car and asked if we’d driven from CHina – when we said No he scratched his head and said Oh Czechoslovakia then! The really Interesting coincidence is that friends of mine from New Zealand (brits though) bought it and I recognised it when looking at my friends Facebook page!

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    • My apologies for the delay in response Clare. It was such a delight to hear from you. I’m glad I wrote the series on Michael Nook as I have had several people contact me with their memories. I’m sure if you arrived in a Pontiac Firebird I would have remembered you. My brother had many scale-model toy cars and I was so envious – so I know a little about cars. How funny that your friends ended up with it.

      I hadn’t thought about no keys to the rooms. I think the idea was you were to feel as if you were friends and family come for an elegant stay in the country. And it meant we underlings could race upstairs between serving courses to put hot water bottles between your sheets, and find your nightwear to lay out with a tiny waist curved into it. I’m not surprised the garage owner didn’t recognise the car plate, as many of the locals I met had not travelled widely at the time. Why leave such a gorgeous place? The Lake District was so lovely back then – and probably still is – just a little more developed.

      Often people would remark on my accent, and I would say, ‘please don’t say I’m American.’ One man responded proudly, ‘No. I can tell the difference. You’re Canadian!’ I wailed and walked out of the shop, leaving my friend to explain I was Australian J

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  2. I worked there in 1976. Colin Dennis and Adrian in the kitchen. Me and Janet as the general assistants. Denise the secretary. Hated that parrot in the entrance. Horacio the Great Dane and Bungy the overfed cat. What memories

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    • How wonderful of you to drop by and comment. Working there was certainly an experience. In all I did around 8 posts where I mention Michaels Nook, but the search bar seems to be a bit hit and miss about how to find them They are under the travel section “England”. I too share you sentiment on the parrot, as I touch on here https://garrulousgwendoline.wordpress.com/2017/10/01/an-introduction-to-michaels-nook-country-house-retreat/

      All your 1976 colleagues seem to have moved on by the time I arrived a couple of years later. Here’s the ones I remember . . .https://garrulousgwendoline.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-minions-of-michaels-nook/

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      • Hi Just found your blog on a random search! I too worked at Michael’s Nook in 76/77 and remember Pauline but doubt she’d remember me! It was a life changing experience- first time away from home and living with other ‘adults’. I remember Reg asking me in my ‘interview’ if i had been in trouble with the police. Don’t know if that was a reflection on me or prevoius staff. It was Fawlty Towers through and through, manic chaos behind the dining room door and smiles and servitude in front. We used to walk Horace the great dane up to Alcock Tarn and all piled into Denise’s fiat to go to the bar in the basement of the Prince of Wales at least once a week. Grasmere hasn’t changed much over the last 40+ years and will always have a piece of my ❣

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        • Hi Anne, I’ve just come across a bunch of comments on various of my Michael’s Nook blog posts that I seemed to have missed at the time. I wrote about eight different stories of my time there. So, many apologies, I did not wish to ignore your lovely comment. I was 23 when I went to work there, a dinosaur in comparison to the majority of young staff coming through, who, like you, were away from home for the first time. On the off-chance that you two may get in touch again, I am trying to include Pauline in this reply. I’m not sure it will work . . . and I hope I’m not overstepping the mark. I’m sure you’d have lots of shared memories, Horace and the parrot for starters J.

          I’d love to spend another season in the Lake District. On my infrequent visits to England I try to pop up to Grasmere, but it is always high summer, so not the best time to visit there.

          Thanks for discovering my post and taking the time to comment!

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        • AnneL, I do remember you! Didn’t the parrot take a might chunk out of your arm while you were cleaning the porch? I remember us all fleeing down to the Prince of Wales to the disco, I also remember nearly losing my life in Colins reliant Robin when he took the humped backed bridge in Grasmere at over 50 mph. Didn’t Rod Stewart come and stay for Xmas in 1976?

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        • I’ve just had a response from Pauline on my blog post about Michael’s Nook and it says: AnneL, I do remember you! Didn’t the parrot take a might chunk out of your arm while you were cleaning the porch? I remember us all fleeing down to the Prince of Wales to the disco, I also remember nearly losing my life in Colins reliant Robin when he took the humped backed bridge in Grasmere at over 50 mph. Didn’t Rod Stewart come and stay for Xmas in 1976?

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  3. I think I heard we’re due some snow this weekend, I hope not I’m travelling. I hate driving in the snow, my dad took me out after I passed my test in bad weather before he’d let me drive alone to make sure he knew I knew how to turn out of a skid and which gear to.

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    • I attended a memorial service last Friday for Mrs Hawkins. You may recall she was one of the stand-in mothers in my book. When reminiscing about the outings she took me on with her two daughters, I referred to myself as a limpet i.e. clung on so tight there was no chance of dislodging me 🙂 I guess I always attached myself wherever there was a chance of a ribbon of sunshine coming my way, and the time at Michael’s Nook was one of those. It was a friend who read the passage written after I had given my son up for adoption who suggested the title. Very apt on a number of levels.

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  4. GREAT story Gwen! You got the atmosphere perfectly! I remember it all so well from my happy childhood in Cornwall where there always heaps of snow! The thing is with snow is that you DO NOT drive in it!!

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    • Seriously? Ill remember that for next time. Probably, I didn’t drive until it had stopped, but I doubt the village streets were cleared for a while. I can’t remember. And the snow plough wouldn’t have come up our drive, I don’t think. Glad you enjoyed the story. 🙂

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  5. Looks like you worked with a fun bunch. Bit harsh to be charged for electricity when you were basically live-in staff! I remember that winter as our village, on the top of a very small hill, got cut-off for a couple of days. My father still had his snow chains from driving through the Alps and it was the second and last time he used them in the UK.

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    • I guess those blessed electricity meters
      were so ubiquitous that it was taken for granted you paid for your own consumption, but it was unfair in hindsight. That winter was the first of four I spent in Europe, and I never owned a coat! I must have been much hardier then.

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