Sunday, 13 April 2008


Eeek! Where has the week gone? School resumes tomorrow, so maybe time will go back to flying along at its usual pace rather than in a series of unscheduled lurches.

It’s now over a week since my visit to Polesden Lacey – a Regency country house near Dorking, Surrey, with some delightful Edwardian interiors and lovely gardens.

Apart from an abundance of daffs, the garden was still pretty dormant – its herbaceous borders and rose gardens come into their own later in the year, of course.

I hadn’t visited for many a long year and only vaguely remembered some of the rooms, although I had not forgotten the sumptuous, glittering gold-and-red saloon – decorated in celebration of her legendary hostess status by the Hon Mrs Greville at the beginning of the twentieth century. A large portrait of the beauteous Mrs G dominates one wall. This was, I hardly need add, 6-year-old SH#3’s favouritest room in the house and we had to keep on going back so she could pirouette princess-like beneath the 4,000-crystal central chandelier. Less ostentatiously there’s a good collection of paintings from the 14th to the 19th centuries and an abundance of other lovely things to admire.

A very elderly gentleman played a small revolving selection of Chopin on the grand piano. The stables are given over to a caff which seemed up to the usual NT standards if the carrot and lentil soup was anything to go by.

I used to completely adore visiting old houses (‘stately homes’, as we used to call them) – indulging my senses and my imagination, absorbing the history, delighting in collections of art and porcelain, coveting libraries full of finely bound books. These days (with the notable exception of William Morris's Red House) the whole experience has recently brought on varying degrees of jaundice. I try to keep this under wraps, so as not to spoil anyone else’s pleasure. I even try quite hard to recover some of my old enthusiasm and get caught up in the romance of it all. But I just don’t seem to be able to do it. Not even by closing my eyes and taking great gulps of bees-wax-and-lily-scented NT air.

A growing distaste for the Gifte Shoppes culture is a part of the problem. A greater awareness of social history - and my own family history (definitely towards the peasant end of the spectrum) - does the rest, I think.

'Don't get me wrong', as we say here in Essex - I appreciate that the National Trust does some admirable work and yes I do believe in 'preserving' such places for the enjoyment of future generations, blah-di-blah-blah. But . . . oh, there's just something I can't quite muster in order to enjoy a perfectly nice, normal stroll round a nice, pretty house any more and think, 'well, that was nice', afterwards. Why do I find it all so disquieting all of a sudden? Maybe I just need to 'go large' with my NT shortbread and my NT cup of tea next time and that would do the trick.

Perhaps it's simply that my transformation into Grumpy Old Woman is teetering on the verge of completion.


Anonymous said...

How funny - I had very similar thoughts yesterday, Juliet. I was visiting the Neue Gallerie in New York. It is a private museum dedicated to early 20th C. German and Austrian art. The museum is housed in a 'stately NY townhouse' and as far as I understand, almost entirely funded by Ronald Lauder, Estee Lauder's son. On the one hand, it's a Good Thing and very philanthropic for an individual to set up a museum and on the other hand, I did pay an entrance fee, so it's not like Lauder is bestowing favours, and yet ultimately I felt like the visitors' presence was merely tolerated.

Anonymous said...

I think that part of the problem, Juliet, is that the National Trust is now as much of a brand as, say, PG Tips, or - and this might be a better analogy - John Lewis. So, as the marketeers might say, you get a more or less identical National Trust experience, no matter which of their properties you visit. I don't bother much with the houses - built entirely by our peasant and artisan ancestry! (And we now know where the money to build far too many of these properties came from - Britain's sugar trade and slave labour.) However, I do have a bit of a passion for walled kitchen gardens, so I don't mind visiting the NT properties that have those. But I do associate them with the folks below rather than above stairs . . .

One of the things I soon discovered when I became involved in researching my family history is that genealogical fact-finding is a good deal easier if you're a toff (or descended from toffs) than if your ancestors were among the many millions somewhere at the bottom of the pile beneath the toffs! Not that I'm a class warrior, you understand . . .

monix said...

Pure peasant, dispossessed (twice!) ancestry here, so I'm with D in the kitchen gardens!

Juliet said...

Jade - welcome and thanks for your interesting comment - yes I've had that uncomfortable kind of feeling in certain museums as well.

D - Agreed re the samey 'NT experience' thing. Another reason I so loved the Red House was that the 'tea room' was very rough-and-ready - more like a corner of a village fete - and the 'shoppe' was minimal. I tend to prefer the gardens over the houses these days, too. Perhaps as you suggest it's that one can't 'un-know' how so many of the fortunes upon which these houses were built were actually amassed. 'Landowner', 'overseas investements', 'wealthy industrialist' . . . we know the brutal realities behind such terminology. And it does prevent the kind of daydreaming in which I once indulged. I no longer imagine myself sweeping down staircases in a beautiful ballgown - I imagine myself sweeping up the mess after the ball!