Written by Simon Whaley
(A Runner-up entry in the Off the Beaten Track Writing Competition.)
“You’re in the School Room,” advises the Under Butler, as he carries my flimsy outlet-shopping-centre-bought suitcase into the room.
I’m greeted by the beautiful, classical tones of Claude Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lume’ drifting through the air from the Roberts radio on an antique occasional table in the corner. The floor-to-ceiling net curtains tiptoe back and forth, across the carpet, silently skipping on the fresh summer breeze seeping in through the open sash window. At the foot of the sumptuous king-sized bed is a studded, green chaise-lounge, ordered by the first Earl of Bradford in 1805.
“Dinner will be served at seven o’clock, Sir.” The Under Butler nods, and leaves me by the window gazing across the 1,000-acre Capability Brown-landscaped grounds of Weston Park.
The aroma of freshly cut grass drifts into the room. So manicured are the lawns, the pile on my bedroom carpet is taller. Two cedar trees add majestic structure, elegance, formality and dignity to the grounds. Everything feels in its right place. Except me.
The day visitors, who merely glimpse life in a stately home, left an hour ago. But I’m here to live it. Albeit for one night.
A short walk along the oil-painting-lined landing brings me to the top of the marble stairs, it’s highly-polished mahogany handrail topping intricately-patterned wrought iron balusters. My fingers descend effortlessly along the handrail. How many hands of history have swept along here?
My question is answered in the First Salon. A photo in a glass cabinet shows the leaders of the G8 summit from May 1998, relaxing by the steps outside: Blair, Clinton, Kohl, Chirac, Chretien, Santer, Hashimoto, Prodi.
Despite this history, and grandeur, Weston Park’s atmosphere is familial. Photos of the Earl of Bradford, his wife and children, adorn the place. In the lounge, today’s Times lies across the arm of a winged armchair. But a pair of glasses, arms folded, resting on the adjacent reading table, instils a sense of intrusion within me.
The Head Butler stands discreetly inside the library door, holding a tray of drinks. I meet my fellow guests: a mother and daughter from Buxton, a retired American couple touring Britain who mention Downton Abbey in every sentence, and a young couple from Surrey celebrating
their first wedding anniversary.
The Dining Room walls drip with Gainsboroughs and Van Dycks. A mahogany dining table, the middle of which aligns perfectly with the centre of the great fireplace, is illuminated by two sparkling silver candelabras thrusting exquisite flames of light high into the air. I step closer, marvelling at the twinkling cut glasses catching the candles’ naked flames and the military precision of the place settings. Everything is in its rightful place. Except me.
“Sir.” The Head Butler pulls out my chair. His head movement is barely perceptible, but his meaning is clear. Apparently, this is my place.
Courses appear beneath our noses as we chat to our neighbours around the table. Spring pea soup with crispy bacon lardons captures the estate on a plate. The Americans ask if the portraits are family members. They are, many dating back to the 18th century. Pan-fried scallops with asparagus and verjus sauce follow, when the Surrey couple ask about the stuffed yellow parrot in the Drawing Room. A present from Disraeli, when he visited. I’m dining at the same table as Blair, Clinton and Disraeli. I’m definitely out of place.
Fine dining prevails. A slow-roasted beef sirloin with spring greens,caramelised shallots, thyme rosti and a red wine sauce appears, followed by Colton Basset Stilton with pear and balsamic chutney, all rounded off with a lemon grass cream mille-feuille with vanilla and mint marinated berries.
Four hours later, I thank everyone for their wonderful company and slip through my bedroom door, reaching out to switch on the light. But there’s no need. Not my place. The shutters are closed, the curtains drawn, the bedclothes turned back, and the two bedside lamps switched on. The Roberts radio sings the Flower Duet, ready to instil pleasant dreams.
Being off the beaten track is not about remoteness, but of experiencing something different. It’s about understanding our place in the world, in history, and ourselves.
Tomorrow I go home, to my comfort zone. I close my eyes and smile contentedly, as I snuggle into the warm linen sheets, topped with crocheted blankets and an eiderdown. It seems it is possible to be comfortably out of place, after all.
Weston Park can be visited free of charge by members of Historic Houses. See our special offer on annual membership.
POSTED 14th FEBRUARY 2017 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of SIMON WHALEY. The photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged.