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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
Here’s what I think is that room today . . . sourced from a real estate listing . . .
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.
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.
My life was complete. Like my poster of Caesar, although battered, I could also claim –
VENI, VIDI, VICI