The Long Weekend: Life in a Country House between the wars – Adrian Tinniswood
Depending upon your point of view, English country houses were the glue that held rural life together and provided employment to the lower orders or they were the embodiment of the class system that bedevilled British society. Or you could be like Sir Charles Trevelyan and try to have your Victoria sponge and eat it – he moved into Wallington House in Northumberland in 1929 and started opening it up for community events of a socialist hue before eventually giving it over to the National Trust in 1936 on the proviso that he could continue to live there. “I do not believe in the private ownership of land”, he said. “By pure chance I own Wallington. I regard myself solely as a trustee for the community..”
The Long Weekend is the period between the end of the First World War and the start of the Second, a period of phenomenal change and challenge for the country house, beloved of English fiction of all genres in the early to mid 20th century and TV series to the current day. The carnage of the Flanders’ killing fields did for many a son and heir as well as cutting down swathes of erstwhile servants and estate workers. Taxes and death duties were crippling. Some chose to sit it out, immolated in grief, hanging on in quiet desperation, the English way, like the first family we meet, the Hoares of the wonderful Stourhead whose son, Harry, was killed in 1917, until death and the National Trust came knocking on the door as they did in 1946.
But it was not all gloom and doom. Often salvation came from across the pond either through judicious marriages with American heiresses a la Lord Grantham or through monied American purchasers. The newspaper tycoon, Randolph Hearst, telegraphed “want to buy castle in England, please find one which ones available”. He ended up with St Donat’s which happens to be in Wales, a small detail perhaps. Others were remodelled, some more sensitively and successfully than others, to introduce some of the modern conveniences that earlier owners thought unnecessary, like electricity. The castles at Leeds, Herstmonceaux and Saltwood were all restored during the twenties and thirties.
Some were built from scratch – Lutyens built Castle Drogo for Julius Drewe who wanted a new mediaeval castle built, a contradiction in terms which seemed to escape him. But others were pillaged, staircases and ceilings shipped off to America and some like Nuthall temple in Nottinghamshire demolished. Many didn’t survive the Second World War, not because of bombing but because of the vandalism of troops who were billeted in the stately piles.
Tinniswood is a fount of amusing stories, enlivening the account of life both above and below stairs. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Saturday to Monday parties – it was infra-dig to call them weekend parties. So accustomed were the staff to see priapic male guests padding the corridors en route to an illicit assignation that one poor chambermaid turned a blind eye to one who turned out to be a thief making off with jewellery to the value of £4,000.
I found the sections on architectural features harder going and, perhaps, more illustrations would have helped the reader. But on the whole it is an engaging and entertaining book with a fund of anecdotes which will light up a dull dinner party. If you haven’t read it, put it on your Christmas list.