We are visiting Burghley House near Stamford, which is a few miles north of Peterborough. It’s the place where they have the cross-country horse trials in stunning countryside. Or is it parkland? Both, I suppose. A lovely setting anyway for a mighty impressive house. A house where the other half live. Actually, it’s where the one percent of one percent live.
If there are two things the UK is good at, they are State Occasions and Country Houses. Neither of which I have had any meaningful involvement.
We are met by a charming lady guide. Very smart in cream blazer, friendly and well-spoken. She is the kind of lady one could imagine hosting a bridge four in a drawing room somewhere in a hide-away village below a thatched roof. Bear in mind that we are from a land, far to the north, where maidens in dungarees milk cows and swear a lot. Our hostess is altogether indicative of an 'English' way of life. It's peculiar actually, because in nearby Peterborough, where we spent a very comfortable night, there was a huge cross-section of nationalities. People of many races, of multiple hue, all unique, just walking, talking, sitting, eating. Amazing really, and the stage for this multi-cultural play is a wonderful honey-coloured central square surrounded by shops, cafes and bars. Close by, the striking gothic Cathedral - where the choir were practising Christmas carols in late September. What a mixture.
Anyhow, our lady guide talks her introductory talk for a few moments, actually trying to encourage us to buy a book portraying all the beautiful the artwork within the house. When I tell her I prefer to remember the real thing in situ she rapidly points to the corner of the room and says, ‘the visit begins through there in the kitchen….’.
Now this doesn’t sound like the most promising start to a tour of one of our country’s great houses, but my scepticism is misplaced. It is absolutely amazing.
Through an automated glass door that swings back reverently, we enter the Elizabethan kitchen. That’s Elizabeth 1 of course, 16th century Elizabeth. A kitchen from the second Elizabethan era would likely come from Sweden! And this one certainly didn't.
We are pounced upon by another guide, male this time, a cheerful, fit-looking chap. You have to pre-book a time to look around the interior of the house. We booked the 10.30 AM slot, the first of the day. As we are just about the first guests of today’s first slot, our guide seems desperate to impart knowledge. It sounds like he’s been storing up his spiel overnight because we’re bombarded with interesting facts - he's rather like someone who lives on their own and won’t shut up when they get chance to offload. We discover he is a narrowboat owner, so we sort of connect, he probably realizes we are willing ears.
It's fascinating and I'm spending more time in the kitchen than I normally do. (Because I don’t usually get chance. As my wife puts it, ‘will you please get out of my way. Except when you're washing up.’)
The room is exposed stone and huge. The roof is like looking up into a funnel, narrowing to a ‘spout’ at the top where there used to be a ‘lantern’ to allow smoke and heat to disperse. These days, it’s been sealed off, but the funnel-shape remains as a ‘feature’.
To our left is an enormous range built within one of two fireplaces. Originally it would have been basic, but what we see today is the upgrade done in Victorian times. A big back-boiler creates steam that is piped across the kitchen to heat another oven. There’s a large spit, the final resting place of beasts such as deer or pigs. The spit would have been rotated by a ‘turnspit dog’. This is a new one for me. It’s a short-legged, long bodied breed that would run round a wheel which would turn the spit. Bit like a hamster really, though a hamster does it for self-amusement (or as part of a fitness campaign). The whole range looks like the big brother of those you see in Victorian terraced houses. It is tar black and feels like the hot focal point of below-stairs life.
There is a huge brass (or copper?) basin below the spit where fat would have been collected. Not much was wasted in Elizabethan times. The solid bottoms of loaves of bread, known as ‘the dole’, would be broken up and mixed with the fat (and other leftovers) to feed the folk below stairs and around the estate. The folk upstairs would eat the top of the loaves – the upper crust. Bread given out as alms to peasants, on all-saints day for example, became known as the dole.
In the opposite corner, above the other oven, fastened to the chimney breast, is a collection of turtle skulls. Rather macabre, if I may say so. They are the remains of some of the turtles that would have fed their lordships many moons ago, both as meat and soup.
In the next room, The Hogs Hall, are the bells and a huge indicator board where the butlers would have been summoned to various rooms in the house. I’ve seen indicator boards with six or eight separate indictors but here there are perhaps fifty! The board would be watched full time by a rotation of juniors so staff could be dispatched without delay into the depths of the upper quarters.
From here we ascend an incredible Roman Staircase (in name only). The stone is stunningly carved with the designs of Elizabethan renaissance architecture. It gives us entry to a series of rooms, the décor of which is mostly from the late sixteen hundreds. There is a huge display of furniture, paintings, objects d’art and tapestries that give us some idea of the astonishing wealth of the Cecil family. My favourites though are the paintings done directly onto the walls, mostly by Italian artists. Enormous works depicting Counter-Reformation cherubs. I’m learning here. Counter-Reformation is the resurgence of the Catholics following the initial Reformation which was the rise of the protestants.
It seems religion has ever been bickering, rising and falling, but apparently to the backdrop of enormous wealth.
Some of the paintings depict walls and columns giving the walls themselves a 3D look. Quite breathtaking.
The tapestries, largely from Belgium and Paris, are not only decorative, but also act as insulation. I imagine these huge rooms to be mighty chilly in winter.
There’s too much to take in really (in fact so much, I’ve forgotten most of it! Despite our visit being only two days ago.) But the two things that left the biggest impression on me were the last two rooms in the (small) part of the house open to the public. They depict heaven and hell.
Heaven is painted by Antonio Verrio, a Baroque artist. It is one huge painting covering walls and ceiling. Gods and Goddesses are eating and making merry, usually without much in the way of clothing. They look happy though - just what heaven should be.
Then there’s hell. Hell is in the room next door, where a four-sided walklway surrounds a set of descending stairs – ‘Hell’s Staircase’. The walls and roof are astonishing. It was largely painted by Verrio in the late sixteen hundreds, though the walls were completed by Thomas Stothard in the early nineteenth century.
The defining image is the mouth of hell, depicted as the mouth of a huge dystopic cat. A bright fire burns within and we can see the vague images of the poor souls who have been taken by the devil. It’s not surprising that people prayed to The Lord, either as Catholic or protestant, if the alternative was ending up in Verrio’s hell.
David, 6th Marquis of Exeter, won gold in the 400-metre hurdles at the 1928 Olympics. There’s an exhibition of him and his tackle (including some impossibly tiny running shoes) after we’ve passed though the great hall. Just round the corner, ideally placed to offer sustenance to the famous athlete, is The Orangery Restaurant.
We, being more peasant stock than aristocratic, don’t avail ourselves of The Orangery (partly because the vast majority of food is not suited to our low carb diet). Instead, we have planned a frugal meal of tongue sandwiches (with a smear of mint), which we take on a bench overlooking the park. After lunch we have a romp round the ‘Surprise Garden’, which is indeed full of surprises, both of the sculpture variety and water features. I, and another couple, fell for the wiles of a young girl when she promised to show us the way out of the mirror maze. We ended up in the same spot three times before I took matters into my own hands and made a solo escape, rather dizzy.
Burghley House. It really is quite a place.