Pantries are pulling in the punters

Visitors to stately homes now prefer Mrs Bridges to Captain Bellamy, writes David Nicholson-Lord
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN A fortnight's time the National Trust will open the doors of more than 200 country houses and a new viewing season will begin. Forty million visitors are expected over the next seven months - and if last year is any guide, many of them will march briskly past the Grinling Gibbons carvings, Sevres porcelain and family portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and head for the kitchen.

Life below stairs has never been so popular. Increasing numbers of trust properties are opening up their servants' quarters to the public and discovering the pulling power of pantries and pastry-making. Some critics argue that the trust's decision to celebrate the serving man and woman, rather than their aristocratic employers, is long overdue.

In houses such as Lanhydrock in Cornwall, Cragside in Northumberland, Saltram in Devon and Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk, the kitchens, instead of being "plundered" for use as shops or tea-rooms or shut off from view, are now prime attractions.

Last year, newly restored kitchens were opened in two of the trust's best-known houses: Uppark, reopened in June after a fire, and Petworth House, both in Sussex. This year's new "star" attraction at Petworth will be the chef's sitting-room. The trust describes the response as "phenomenal". At Petworth last year numbers were up by a quarter - boosted, not least, by many former servants, now in their eighties and nineties, returning to view the scenes of their youth. But according to Peter Brears, who advises the trust on kitchen restoration, there is "massive curiosity" from the public.

Mr Brears attributes this to period television productions - the much- repeated series Upstairs Downstairs, for example - and also to the vogue for grassroots history, as witnessed from the bottom of the pecking order rather than the top. But for older visitors especially, there is a folk memory of life below stairs.

"Something like one-third of the workforce used to be in domestic service, which means that virtually every ordinary family in the land knows of a grandparent or an aunt or an uncle who used to work in great houses like these," he adds.

The trust stumbled upon the phenomenon almost by accident. In the 1970s it acquired Erddig, near Wrexham in Clwyd, a 17th-century mansion so neglected that a sheep had broken a mirror in the Chinese Room by butting its reflection. Among its assets, however, was a comprehensive archive of serving life with hundreds of photographs, paintings and poems about servants, mainly produced by its owners, the likeable, eccentric Yorke family.

At Erddig the traditional route for viewing, with the state rooms and apartment coming first and theworking areas later or not at all,was reversed, proving highly popular. According to Jeremy Cragg, the house manager, visitors found the below-stairs areas much more "user-friendly". He said: "In the upper parts of the house there is fine porcelain and gilded furniture but it is a little bit beyond people. The downstairs bits are more homely. There were things in them that people knew and could identify with." Erddig, and the restoration of working areas in Cornish houses such as Lanhydrock and Cotehele, changed the trust's perceptions of what a country house should be: less a museum, more a microcosm of social life.

The trust's rediscovery of the commonplace is also reflected in acquisitions such as a perfectly preserved middle-class Edwardian semi-detached house in Worksop. Many people believe that this marks a return to the trust's more egalitarian origins - hijacked in the Thirties by, among others, James Lees-Milne, an Old Etonian official who pushed it into buying up country houses.

Last year Simon Jenkins, the former editor of the Times, extolled Lees- Milne's "trickery" in an article in the National Trust magazine. It prompted an angry letter from a trust member, condemning the "privilege and injustice" on which the houses were built, and adding: "The funds to buy and maintain these properties come from the pockets of millions of totally non-aristocratic members ... who rejoice that ownership ... has passed to the descendants of the common people from whose sweat they were financed and built."