When I wrote a series of six blog posts on my time in 1978/1979 working at Michael’s Nook Country House Retreat, situated in Grasmere in England’s Lake District, I did not foresee that other employees would find my stories and add their memories. It’s been a fun ride keeping up with them all.
Earlier this year, Tony Sanderson, one of the locals I knew way back then let me know the proprietor, Reginald Gifford, had passed away last March, aged in his nineties. Reg Gifford was a larger-than-life figure with a vision to turn the ten-bedroomed house he had acquired into a luxury escape to be experienced as if you were a guest of a country squire. The food was to be of Michelin star standard and his establishment was listed in the Egon Ronay Good Food guide.
This post is intended for those who knew and worked with Reg Gifford and may serve as a catalyst for some to reconnect with each other. Settle in with your drink of choice or read it in instalments. This is going to be a very long post, but it doesn’t make sense to chop it up.
First, a reminder of the house,
and its owner, Reg Gifford, and his partner, Elizabeth, paying a visit to the staff room Christmas 1978.
So! Without further ado, here is a summary of those who have reached out to me. This is a collation of comments they have left publicly on my posts:
Nick – 1969 The original Bell Boy when the place opened up in 1969. Reg was married to his Aunt Jane at the time. Nick had to walk the bloody dogs every day. They kept jumping into the stream that ran nearby. Could never get em out! Also had to gather vegetables for the then Chef Dave, who was married to his cousin Carolyn. They lived in the cottage up the path round the back of the property (that’s the staff cottage in below photos).
Vanessa – 1975 She didn’t work at Michael’s Nook, rather, at the Singing Birds Restaurant, also owned by Reg Gifford. If I recall correctly this was either in Dove Cottage, formerly occupied by the poet William Wordsworth, or beside it. Vanessa provides the answer to the all-important question, “What was the name of the lady who made the best scones in the district?” It was Violet, who lived with her husband in a cottage just behind the restaurant.
Gill – 1976 Another who didn’t actually work there but came close. She went for an interview for the secretarial job early in the summer of 1976. Reg Gifford offered it to someone else, who later changed her mind and so he then offered it to Gill. But by that time, she’d lost interest, which made him – er – quite cross! His response when she turned the job down suggested she’d probably dodged a bullet … Well, yes. Reg Gifford was an “interesting” employer.
Pauline – 1976 Recalls Colin, Dennis and Adrian in the kitchen and her and Janet as the General Assistants. Denise was the secretary. Lingering memories include the (hated) parrot in the entrance, Horacio the Great Dane and Bungy the overfed cat … I don’t remember the cat, but Horatio died on my watch. It was a pity it wasn’t the parrot 🙂
Anne L – 1976/77 Jumped on to say she remembered Pauline but doubt that Pauline would remember her. Anne spoke for many when she said it was a life changing experience – first time away from home and living with other ‘adults’. She remembers Reg asking in her ‘interview’ if she’d been in trouble with the police and wondered whether that was a reflection on her or previous staff. Again, voicing my exact experience, she added “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”. She also recalls piling into Denise’s Fiat to go to the bar in the basement of the Prince of Wales at least once a week. By the sounds of Anne’s comment, she is one of the lucky ones who still live in the area. Grasmere will always have a piece of her heart she says … as it does mine.
Pauline jumped back on at this point to say she did remember Anne – didn’t the parrot take a mighty chunk out of her arm while she was cleaning the porch? Picking up on the staff entertainment, Pauline remembered them all fleeing down to the Prince of Wales to the disco, and also nearly losing her life in Colin’s Reliant Robin when he took the humped-backed bridge in Grasmere at over 50 mph. She also thought that Rod Stewart had been a guest for Xmas in 1976.
Even a guest came on board for the fun. Clare Goldie said she stayed in April or May 1977 or 1978. She also remembers the parrot in the hall (who can forget?). Also being surprised that none of the bedrooms had keys (I think you were meant to feel like house guests). They were in The Parrot bedroom! They had driven from Switzerland in their bright orange Pontiac Firebird car (I wasn’t there – I’d definitely remember that!). They 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 they’d driven from CHina – when they said No he scratched his head and said Oh Czechoslovakia then! In an interesting aside, coincidentally British friends of Clare from New Zealand bought the car. Clare recognised it when looking at a friend’s Facebook page!
And another guest, Anonymous, who didn’t say when she stayed, said “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 a 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.” I can honestly say Giff would have had a fit when he saw the crayons!
Gwen – December 1978 This is where I place myself in the chronology. I got the position of General Assistant, despite backing my car into a stone fence on arrival for the interview, and started my first shift on Friday 22nd December, just in time for Festive Season chaos. I stayed (that time) until May 1979. The chefs at the time were Nigel Marriage, Simon, Paul and Barry. One of the General Assistants was 16-year-old Sandra, and the other, Maureen, who had just got engaged to Stewart (pictured below), who worked down the road at the Swan Hotel. I wrote of my experiences in the six posts of the Michael’s Nook series.
Glenda Coates – 1979/1980 must have come along not long after I left. Glenda has been the most enthusiastic contributor to the reminiscences and credits her current career to her time with Reginald Gifford in a variety of roles. I’ll do my best to piece together her several comments. She was at Michaels Nook 1979-80. And now I think about it, I must have known Glenda and the other girls she mentions in her comments. Easter 1980 was at the beginning of April, and I left a few weeks later. I remember a moment in time when I was given an influx of girls to train, and by the time I’d finished I’d probably told some girls the same thing twice, and others not at all. Some were a bit sniffy about me being pedantic on how to clean stair treads, wash glasses in the right temperature, dry them streak free, snuff candles, polish silverware and so on. I told them, trust me, ‘you’d rather have this come from me than from Giff!’ I remember one of the girls had come from a northern mill town and I wonder if that was actually Glenda as she lives “up north” now.
So! Glenda says, “I don’t 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 freshly painted and no sign of anyone else? In hindsight 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.” (In our exchange of comments, Glenda and I thought our paths had not crossed. Now I realise that actually, I was the remaining “girl” but at 23 and telling them what to do, I was obviously not viewed that way).
“We were all issued with black dresses with tiny flowers for evening (I remember! – not flattering on my chubby shape) and pale blue floral for daytime. We cleaned and changed the rooms and cleaned the rest of the house and served meals and all got other duties 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 housekeeper still came in. Her name was Mrs Bailey. She loved Debbie but wasn’t 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.”
Glenda continues, “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 hitchhiking 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. We returned to the cottage for the summer (that’s the staff cottage that was at the back of the property, photo below).
I have many tales to tell. Like when the chefs all went down with food poisoning! Or the cockroach invasion. Or best of all being whisked away to Manchester by Gifford, to buy new dresses. Wined and dined and then the car running out of petrol on the M6? Then the river flooded between Ambleside and Grasmere, and we had to go the long way round to get back very late!”
When Reg Gifford acquired and re-opened the historic Wordsworth Hotel in Grasmere (year?) Glenda helped over that winter to make and hang its guest bedroom curtains over the winter lull. Glenda enjoyed it so much she’s been doing window coverings ever since under the name of Malvern House Interiors.
Glenda moved to The Drunken Duck near Hawkshead between Ambleside and Coniston and helped them convert the pub to a B&B; and then was persuaded by Gifford to return after three months for the spring and summer. She was unsure of the year but thinks it might have been 1979-1980. While at the Drunken Duck Glenda met her husband of thirty-five years.
Glenda’s vivid memories very much tie in with mine and sparked another female employee to come on. But Karen Bowdenp broke the mould, as she was a trainee chef along with Michael. This must be the two college students that Glenda recalled in another comment. Karen recalls Nigel, Barrie, Paul and Simon in the kitchen, and them taking turns at covering The Singing Birds as well. Karen credits the girls, all General Assistants, for taking her under their wing. (It would have been daunting as the first female to cross the kitchen threshold.) Karen remembers Glenda and Debbie – awful singing voice but beautiful red hair – Elaine, who bore a resemblance to Glenda, Paula, and Julie who was seeing Simon. And she recalls that Glenda had the single room upstairs in the staff cottage (That was a privilege! I had a downstairs share room – picture below).
Karen also sheds light on the mainstay employee of this Fawlty Towers scenario. The widowed Mrs Bailey was the house-keeper of long-standing. Karen stayed in touched with her until recent years when she sold up and moved to Cornwall to be closer to her son. In the quieter winter months Karen had to work front of house as well, and came to love Mrs Bailey and her sense of humour.
Like me, Karen looks back on her time at Michael’s Nook with much fondness although at the time she didn’t appreciate the opportunity that she’d been given.
Glenda was delighted to read Karen’s comments, and had a bunch of questions for her, but I doubt that Karen saw them. So, it may turn out they re-unite through this post!
Gwen – Late Autumn 1979 (?). When I’d left Michael’s Nook in the May I head off to Crete for five months and then meandered up to Yugoslavia, first to what is now Serbia, and then on to Croatia where I met a guy. That prompted me to return to England for my car and possessions and another few weeks of filler employment before moving back to Yugoslavia for the winter of 1979. I always tell people I worked in the Lakes District for every season except summer, so it must have been around October or November that I turned up. But I do get muddled, it could just as easily have been in 1980. I remember there were a close-knit team of girls there at the time, who regarded me with a certain suspicion. The chef, Simon, was seeing one of them, and I guess that was Julie, as it seems they married later. (When Tito died in May 1980 and we thought the Soviets would invade, I returned to England from Yugoslavia.)
Vanessa – 1980 Another who made a brief re-appearance was Vanessa, to work at The Singing Birds, and she recalls sharing a room with “the lady who was making the curtains for the Wordsworth”. That has to be Glenda.
Daniel J Jaye – 1980 Another who pops up in 1980 is Daniel, like me, one of the few “foreigners” to work for Reg Gifford. He 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.”
Daniel asks if anyone remembers the lady who came down every morning to make the scones? He thinks he gained a stone that summer making many of them disappear — and would love to find her recipe. “There isn’t a decent plain scone to be had in Grasmere based on my last visit (they’ve all been improved with fruits and such).”
Well, Vanessa has provided the answer to that. It was Violet. And now we have the name, I think many of us will be able to picture her as well.
Paul Shay – 1990s
The joint must have been really firing during the early 1980s, as there is a jump in employee’s memories until Paul’s who was there as a chef in the early 90’s. Being a married senior chef, he got to stay in another of Giff’s properties in Grasmere behind the old smithy’s shop, and so was spared having to live in the staff digs behind the house. Paul says, “Giff was still very much Giff. We still hadn’t received a Michelin star and that was his focus (apart from the dogs, garden and Triumph Stags). Interesting times.” In later off-blog correspondence Paul expands that, “The gardens and the rhododendrons will live with me forever. As hard as I worked, and for the pay I got working at Michael’s Nook, I will always remember such a wonderful environment and group of people at my time there and what an experience it was. Yes, we were Giff’s minions but what a wonderful place, and I agree with you that for a couple of million quid I’d buy back into that.” Paul has lots of photographs from the era – including one of the kitchen which had not been upgraded since the 1960s – and whenever he stops working he might have time to send me some.
Paul puts Reginald Gifford’s vision into context when he says “Chefs like myself were induced to come from the big hotels in London to reproduce the popular cuisine of the fashion for well-heeled clients to these estates. Mentioning names such as Le Manoir au Quat’Saison, Flitwich Manor or Handbury Manor really encapsulates this fashion as it was, even people such as Michael Caine indulged in the idea of provision of high-quality services in unique country houses.”
By 2000, the vision must have been running out of puff. Sadly, Alexis Callus has no warm memories of her time working there.
In 2002 Reginald Gifford converted Michael’s Nook into four luxury private dwellings, and it was stumbling across that advertisement that sent me down memory lane.
There is no doubt that Reg Gifford’s idea of Industrial Relations would not pass the pub test today, but I think the above reminiscences are testament to how much the slave teams meshed with each other, and in hindsight, can appreciate the experience in its context and what was learned that was useful going forward. I may never again have call to serve my guests by silver service (doubt my arthritic wrists are up to the job), but I certainly learned how the other half lived, and to appreciate fine things in life. This helped me immensely in my corporate life, where few knew just how humble my beginnings had been!
We have two unanswered questions from all the feedback. An anonymous reader asks, “What happened to the collection of long case clocks?” (And what a collection that was. As well as all his other enterprises, Reg Gifford had an antique store in town).
And Br Johnnie (who?) asks, “Do you remember Stewart’s surname by any chance?” That would be the Stewart of the Swan Hotel, who got engaged to Maureen, and is pictured in the below New Year’s Eve photo, where Chef Simon is dressed as a nurse. (We all had to don fancy dress for the guest’s entertainment. Clearly Simon was in too much of a hurry to get to our own party to be bothered to get changed.)
I think the final word must go to Tony Sanderson. He reminds me that his mother worked for Reg at Singing Birds antique shop for a while. Tony should have started at Michael’s Nook but went on to a Civil Servant position in Kendal in 1978. His wife, “Mo” worked at the Red Lion in those days but had friends at Michael’s Nook. They remember Sarah Holden from Preston, and a Gwen Hooker (Hey! That’s ME!!!).
Tony and Mo still live in Grasmere, although he laments that housing prices have increased so much the young locals are forced to move further afield. Elizabeth Gifford is still there also and lives in a house near to the Nook.
We Michael’s Nook Minions worked hard, and we partied harder. In a direct email, Tony reminds me the names of several of our watering holes and goes into detail about a party I attended at Mo’s house. They are still talking about it all these years later! What a session to be remembered for. Not my finest hour, methinks 🙂
Never mind. I’ll leave you with these pretty pictures of the main house in the snow, and the staff cottage in Wordsworth’s spring daffodils. Click on the images to see them in their full glory.
Tony Sanderson advises that master sconemaker Violet Harrison passed March 2021. She will be warmly remembered, I’m sure. Her husband John continues to live in a cottage at Townend.
Wordsworth Hotel sold recently to the “Inn Collection” who have bought the Swan Hotel as well.