Me and my home: Life above stairs

Growing up in a country mansion is everything it is cracked up to be. Caroline Brannigan hears why
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The Independent Online

Photographer and author Christopher Simon Sykes, 56, is one of the last Englishmen to have grown up in the privileged and comfortable life of a traditional country mansion, Sledmere in Yorkshire, surrounded by a large family and waited on by servants.

Photographer and author Christopher Simon Sykes, 56, is one of the last Englishmen to have grown up in the privileged and comfortable life of a traditional country mansion, Sledmere in Yorkshire, surrounded by a large family and waited on by servants.

When I was a small child, life was often spent peeping through banisters at the exciting things going on downstairs because children were expected to live on the upper floors where the day and night nurseries were. But they were very happy times with our nannies and governesses and it wasn't unusual for upper class children to see little of their parents.

Once the magical age of four arrived we were dressed in our best clothes and taken down the back stairs to have tea with Mama and Papa in front of the fire in the big hall.

Sledmere is a huge building with three floors, plus attics and cellars, so it was always fun. I loved the kitchen and would spend hours watching what went on. There were a lot of mouths to feed each day, including 11 servants, and if there was a house party, the numbers would be swelled by 14 more. It was always a hive of activity all day, beginning first thing in the morning with the delivery of the fresh milk, cream and rich Guernsey butter from the dairy.

As we got older we became more daring and because there were six of us - I'm number three - we were thrown together as a gang. One of our favourite games was sliding on the 40m polished wood library floor but there was big trouble if you were caught. It's my favourite room in the house, two storeys high and flooded with light from windows at each end and down one side. If this were my home now I'd make it into the biggest bed-sitting room in the world. It's a fantastic room with a wonderful atmosphere.

I've never been allowed to forget those magical childhood escapades. Even as a grown man of 30, the housekeeper refused to unlock the library doors when I brought some friends to look round. "Master Christopher, I am not having you and your mucky friends sliding about on that library floor," she said. I've never lived down the embarrassment of that moment.

Going down to the cellars was also forbidden to children, so we did, of course. They are rather spooky and we once made our own version of Madame Tussaud's using dressing up clothes. Though the cellars are rather frightening and are said to be haunted, to me Sledmere is the most un-haunted house in the world. Apart from being terrified by some sinister paintings hanging in dark passages, I found it a very friendly place and had a happy childhood there, though I was away at boarding school during term time. Summer holidays were a glorious time of roaming the 9,000 acre estate and romping on the haystacks.

About the time I went to public school at the age of 13, I was allowed down for dinner at the huge polished table in the dining room. It was very exciting and I was rather nervous but felt very grown up in my suit. My parents always dressed for dinner and my father Richard, who was a baronet, wore a black tie even when dining on his own, which he often did after my mother, Virginia, died in 1970. He was old fashioned in that respect. This is where the portrait by Romney hangs of my 18th century ancestor Sir Christopher Simon Sykes and his wife Elizabeth. By this time I had also got my own room on the first floor with a small four-poster bed made long before by the estate carpenter who had inlaid the frame with ivory keys from a Victorian organ, which had once been in the house.

My father had another organ, big enough for a cathedral, installed in 1947. The console is still at the bottom of the main staircase and all the pipes are in a loft on the top floor. One of my happiest memories of Papa is him playing each evening. The windows would rattle, the floors would vibrate and it was an unforgettable experience, especially for any guests not expecting it.

He found his children perplexing as they grew older, especially when I went through my hippy phase, and he referred to us as The Snakepit. Dressed in my floral clothes, I'd escape to the exotically-tiled Turkish Room, originally built as an ante-room for a Turkish bath below. The mystical eastern atmosphere became the ideal place for me to play my records in candlelight.

What most visitors to Sledmere don't realise is that most of it is a reconstruction following a fire in 1911 which left a shell of the 18th century house built by my ancestor Richard Sykes. It was well insured and thanks to the bravery of members of my family, the staff and local people, many things were saved from the flames. In some ways the fire was the saving of Sledmere because it was rebuilt with modern materials and methods and maintenance isn't quite as expensive as other large houses. Central heating and modern plumbing were also put in, so it was always warm and has lovely big baths.

Sledmere has a very special place in my heart, so it came as a shock when my brother Tatton inherited the house in 1978 and made it clear it was now his home and that the rest of us would have to ask if we wanted to stay. But I soon realised he was absolutely right and he is always very welcoming and family orientated. It's just him there now, with a skeleton staff. The house is open to the public and also used for corporate events. I rent a folly on the estate. On the side viewed from the big house, it looks like a gothic castle but from the other it's an ordinary farmhouse and I visit as often as I can from my home in Kilburn, North London.

I have a great feeling of peace at Sledmere because it's where my heart lies and I feel like a different person, much more relaxed. It has left me with a great love of landscape, especially the rolling views of the Yorkshire Wolds. I don't mind that it doesn't belong to me because there are always responsibilities attached to being the eldest son and I am very lucky that I have been able to make my own career.

The Big House - The story of a Country House and Its Family, by Christopher Simon Sykes, is out now (HarperCollins £20). Sledmere House, near Driffield, opens again next Easter www.sledmerehouse.com.

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