Retreats from common sense

LIFE IN THE COUNTRY HOUSE: A Historical Dictionary by David N Durant John Murray pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
A more expressive title might have been "It's a Hard Life in the Country House". Over the last millennium, rural toffs haven't had it easy. Even after the turn of the century, the winter chill might force them to wrap up well merely to venture into the corridors. By contrast, at Avery Hill near Greenwich there was central heating - in the stables. As late as the 16th century, floors might be of packed earth, covered with rushes which were changed twice a year. That was where the servants slept. As for the loos, a "garderobe" was a toilet seat over a shaft which led to the moat, if you were lucky, to a place which had to be cleaned out periodically if you weren't.

It was dark, too. Until the advent of gas in the 1850s, the only illumination was the fire or candles. And the Brideshead Diet was pretty awful. Fruit and vegetables were considered unhealthy; the gentry gorged on meat, which provided too much protein, which gave them gout. The best that could be said for rural residence was that it was safer than the urban variety.

A number of the alphabetical entries in this "historical dictionary" seem to fall outside its scope. While the "Royal Company of Archers" can just about be justified as part of our social history, the "Royal Air Force" is as unexpected here as a page on warming-pans would be in a biography of Bomber Harris. In fact, parts of the book appear to have been written by the press office of Buckingham Palace: "Royal Marines", "Royal Regiment of Artillery", "Royal Navy" and even "Royal Academy of Arts".

Clearing out this extraneous matter would have made space for more interesting entries. A few paragraphs on "House guests" would have given scope for an account of those welcome and unwelcome visitors who, having spent perhaps several days travelling to your home, could hardly be sent away after a quick cup of tea. Also missing is any survey of fiction set in rural retreats. This rich literary field ranges from Sir Gawain, whose intriguing green friend cut off his own head, to the Cluedo-style novel in which six characters are isolated in marsh - or Ngaio Marsh - country. Still, many parts of this encyclopaedia are excellent. As the landed gentry increasingly throws open its doors, the descendants of villeins need a handy reference to the nobs and bolts of the mansions they wander through.

A country estate could be seen as a vast job-creation scheme. Its staff was so large that trays were unnecessary; another servant would be along in a minute. There was a J Arthur Rank-style retainer to bang the gong when it was time to dress for dinner and again when it was time to enter the dining-room. Meat cooked over a fire needed a kitchen boy to turn the spit. A "knocknobbler", or dog-whipper, had the task of shooing noisy hounds from church services. The construction of the vast conservatory at Chatsworth was like a employment agency of its own, not least for Joseph Paxton (of Crystal Palace fame) who designed it. The Great Stove alone needed so much coal that it had its own railway line for deliveries.

Then there were the builders required to knock up the instant ruins specified by Capability Brown, also on the Chatsworth payroll. Lawyers, too, had a slice of the action, particularly in the late 18th century when marriage settlements were as elaborate as Hollywood pre-nuptial agreements today: in what was doubtless a passionate love-match between Viscount Wentworth and Lady Elizabeth Cavendish-Bentinck, 300 square feet of parchment were taken up in legal niceties.

Some of the terminology sounds more Middle-Earth than Middle England. A "bovate or oxgang" was the area that an ox could plough in a year and equalled one-eighth of a "ploughland". A "hide" is enough land to support a peasant's family and a "hundred" (as in Chiltern) is 100 hides. In Yorkshire, they talked of "wapentakes", as in, "You've just missed him - he's moved to another wapentake." A "frankpledge" was a group who would stand bail if any members committed an offence, and a "feoffment" was a form of transferring freehold that included handing over a symbolic blade of grass from the land in question. Try it on the next estate agent you meet.

Other elements of our past social history ring only too true in the present. James I created the first baronetcies in 1611, flogging them at a price equal to maintaining 30 soldiers in Ireland for three years, at eight pence a day. This worked out at a cool pounds 1,095 but, as any big donor to the Conservative party will tell you, titles don't come cheap.