Tales From The Pantry: A Butler's Diary

From the pantry of an historic country house comes the ongoing diary of its butler, Mr Dean Fielding. I shall be giving you a glimpse of the family I serve and of the lives both 'Below Stairs' and 'Above'. I hope you follow my jottings daily.

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Have been butler here for over 15 years. Having previously, and unusually for these days, worked my way up from footman to under-butler to my current post. You can now follow me on Twitter via: http://www.twitter.com/butlerfielding

Friday, March 31, 2006

Dear Old Carstone

Carstone House, my home and workplace, is a rather large mansion near the border of England and Wales. It is indisputably a country house but it likes to wear the cunning disguise of a castle. Call it a mock-castle if you will, call it a castle that simply likes dressing-up, but it wears its battlements as proudly as a Dowager Viscountess parades a new hat.

The setting is wonderfully beautiful. The outside world of urban sprall seems to have taken one look at Carstone and swiftly moved on without comment. A visitor entering Carstone Park would be met at the Lodge-gates by the Lodgekeeper Mr Llywelyn, a Welshman who seems to know every story about the House, many of which, I have often suspected, were created by Mr Llywelyn himself. The lodges (which are 19th century replacements of the originals) flank the large iron entrance gates. Llywelyn has a living room in one, and a bedroom in the other. This often means that, at night, if you have a powerful telescope, and get to a window in the South-East Tower of Carstone, you might see the sight of old Llywelyn (complete with old fashioned nightcap) moving, like a ghost unwilling to wake up the local wildlife, silently from lodge to lodge in order to retire for the night. Many ghost stories, I am sure, were generated by a passer-by witnessing Llywelyn in wee-willy-winky-esque attire going to bed!

Once into the Park proper, your car would sweep up the curving drive, and you might see, to your right, just over a ridge in the near distance, the large serpentine ornamental lake, complete with quite rare exotic fowl. On this lake is a boathouse. It can be wonderful to row out into the centre of the lake on a Sunday afternoon in summer. The boathouse contains about six such rowboats, and also a gilded gondola that Mr Miles Carstone brought back from Venice.

To your left you would see a large wooded hill. In ancient times this was an iron age hill fort, but the Carstone family built a summerhouse on top which gives impeccable views for miles around. It is quite a climb to reach the thatched summerhouse, and I confess, on a very hot day, I do sometimes cringe when Lady Carstone decides to take tea up there. I am quite out of puff by the time I get to the top. I am sure I am not getting less fit, I suspect the hill is getting steeper.

When you eventually reach Carstone House itself, with its battlements and towers, trying oh-so-hard to be the castle it always wished it could have been, you are confronted with an imposing porch which contains the armorial bearings of a monarch who enjoyed the hospitality of Carstone so much that he left behind many legends, by way of a tip. Of course, how many of these legends were later created or embellished by Mr Llewelyn, perhaps only a trip to the archives would reveal.

Inside (and I have to be careful in revealing works of art and possessions for fear of giving the game away) you would find all the rooms you would expect in such a building. The State Dining Room, The Family Parlour, The Library, The Smoking Room, The Armory, The Italian Room, The Long Gallery are all wonderous creations reflecting the taste of various owners of Carstone over the centuries. There is, inevitably, a King's Room, where the said monarch once slept, and a long sequence of bedrooms; my favourite being the Chintz Bedroom which is situated in the South-East tower for its sheer boldness of decoration, although I do not recommend entering that room with a hang-over, it is liable to make you feel quite queasy. I speak from sad experience.

My domain is, of course, Below Stairs, but, perhaps you have heard too much about Carstone House for one sitting. Perhaps, in this modern age of narrowing attention spans and instant entertainment, you are sitting there in front of your computer screen, rolling your eyes, and thinking: "This Fielding chap does go on a bit!" So for now I shall turn my focus elsewhere: to the family.

The Carstone identities

I did write the following entry last night, well, in draft form at least. It took me an awful long time to settle on names to cover the real identities of my subjects. On more than one occasion, in fact, I have sailed perilously close to the wind, and I can only hope that anybody who rumbles me, and discovers the true identities of the characters that will be flitting in and out of my diary, keeps such revelations to themselves, because, obviously, posting such information on this blog (you know, I really DO prefer the term 'diary'; 'blog' is a rather horrid word; it gives me indigestion) would be akin to hurling a lit match into a fireworks factory.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The missing spectacles

I arose at 6.30am to find the day blustery and wet. I had struggled to sleep much during the night. Not only did my hand continue to ache (some call me a hypochondriac, but that is ridiculous!) but I had also mislaid my reading glasses, and was worried about not finding them. I found it rather difficult to read in bed as I normally do to wind down after a day's work. There is nothing more annoying than curling up with a good book (in this case, a book about the cricket commentator Brian Johnstone) only to find that the print is unreadable. Like a small child I could only look at the pictures! The mystery of the missing spectacles was solved this morning when during the serving of breakfast I noticed them on a side table. I discreetly retrieved them with the dexterous slight of hand that would have made a street conjuror proud.

The family left for London at 8.45am for an engagement. They are not due to return until Friday evening. A cousin is celebrating a 21st birthday and the planned festivities are set to be lavish and rather splendid. It is at times like this that I sometimes, for a fraction of a second, envy my Master's valet, Mr Copeland, who accompanies him on these trips; but then I gaze out of a window onto the magnificent formal gardens (Mr Barton does a good job for all of his indifference to cricket), or maybe I wander around the state rooms, or maybe even just settle back in my comfy chair in the Pantry, and I realise that for all the delights elsewhere, it is here that I feel most comfortable and happy. When I am away from this House, for even a few days, I find myself worrying about a million and one things that might have gone wrong in my absence.

It is only 8.15pm as I type this, and all, rather unusually, is quiet in the House. I am in my flat at the top of the building, and perhaps I will now have the opportunity to tell you a little more about this place, to set the scene, as it were.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Thorn of a dilemma (or 'Gardeners Never Forget!')

Well, this is quite exciting. My first real blog post. I daresay that some are wondering what it is I actually do. Well, wonder no more. As Butler of Carstone House, I am the senior member of the serving staff. I have many duties, and it is my responsibility to ensure that the Household runs smoothly. Certain tasks can be delegated to others, but you will often find me serving at table, supervising the cleaning of the silver and crystal, answering the front door and telephone (not at the same time, although elasticity is called for in this post), ensuring that the cellars are well stocked, administering the budget, and many other sundry tasks. I am in charge of the male members of the Service Staff. The female staff are under the supervision of Mrs Berry, the Housekeeper.

The staff here are not as numerous as in years gone by. It used to be taken as a rule-of-thumb that in Victorian times there were thirty servants in the house, thirty on Home Farm, and thirty working in the gardens. When there is a busy social occasion looming I often find myself wishing for just a fraction of the manpower of those halcyon days. But, it is not good to whine about such things. We go on as we must.

I take great pride in my work and have a keen affection for dear old Carstone. This House has certainly gotten into my blood, so to speak, and, if I'm being honest, my blood has gotten into this House. Such as today when I caught myself on a rather nasty thorn that was protruding from a bush near the Orangery. It caught the side of my hand and cut it rather badly. The name of the guilty plant, I could not say, it was probably an incomprehensible Latin one. I readily confess that I know little about gardening, and Mr Barton, the Head Gardnener, is not always the most approachable of fellows to ask about it. In some Houses and, indeed, here in years gone by, the Gardening staff were deferential to the Butler. Not today I am afraid. My Master likes to keep the 'inside' and 'outside' staff as almost independent bodies. I sometimes believe that Mr Barton is too 'independent' by far. I am not convinced that he has forgiven me for playing cricket on one of the lawns last summer. We had permission, of course, but that meant nothing to him.

He was preparing for one of my Master's garden parties, and he did not approve of Robert, the Hall Boy, bashing stumps into his, admittedly beautifully kept, lawn. I am not sure about Barton. He arrived last summer with all sorts of ideas and changed an awful lot. He also does not like cricket, or indeed any sport that might cause damage to his beloved plants. His predecessor, Mr Wells, I got on far better with. He supported Yorkshire and was a decent leg-spin bowler in his day.

Have I been poisoned by the possibly strategically placed thorn? I wouldn't be a bit surprised. I got a clean rag from my Pantry (the first-aid box that is stored in the drawer beneath the knife polisher was out of bandages or plasters) but it took a while to staunch the bleeding. The colour seems strange too.

I had intended to introduce you to the family and staff that live here, but time seems to have gotten the better of me, and my hand is throbbing quite painfully. Tomorrow should be a relatively quiet one as most of the family are away with my Master in London. Hopefully I will get the opportunity to properly introduce you to Carstone and its inhabitants then.

Monday, March 27, 2006

A Warm Welcome To My Blog

The above photograph is not actually of me. I am most dreadfully unphotogenic. I could, and indeed often do, find myself in a similar situation to the fellow above: stepping out of the shadows while holding a tray, but my profile is not quite as pleasing to the eye.

The idea of this blog came to me last week. My job can be conducive to day dreaming at times. Do not get me wrong: I work extremely hard, and I can rarely be certain when I will be allowed to disappear through the Green Baize Door and retire to my bed at night. But, certain tasks, such as polishing silver does sometimes allow one a moment to reflect on life with all its hopes and travails.

I was polishing my master's silver punch bowl, last Tuesday, when the idea came to me. The things that occur in this house, are often far more interesting (to me at least!) than many of the things you see on television or read about in books. So many people seem to believe that butlers are extinct. That we are quaint things that appear in films like Gosford Park and Remains Of The Day, but that, surely, in this day and age do not exist outside of Her Majesty's Household.

This is a fallacy.

I hope you will return here again and again to read my jottings. I shall post whenever I get a minute. I hope to post everyday but that will not always be possible. It will all depend on my Master's arrangements.

Perhaps it will be best if I supply a 'Dramatis Personae' as the Victorians used to say of the people living in this household (I think I shall tomorrow). It will be essential for you to get to know them. I hope you find the blog interesting and enlightening.