Life above and below stairs at Kelmarsh Hall
Many of us have seen Downton Abbey and became captivated with the goings on `upstairs and downstairs’ for the Crawley family and their servants in a classic English country house, but what was life really like for an aristocratic family and their servants?
Visitors to the elegant, 18th-century Grade I listed Northamptonshire country house Kelmarsh Hall can now find out for themselves with the opening of a dozen new interactive rooms which enables visitors not only to, savour the opulence and grandeur `above stairs` but also to go `below stairs’ and experience what life, was like amongst the hidden rooms, in which the servants lived and worked.
Visitors can hear the voices and experience first – hand the daily working activities of the servants, from polishing the silver, cleaning the boots to doing the laundry. Visitors can explore the servant’s bedrooms, the Huntsman’s room, bakery, Laundry, beer and wine cellars.
Not only can visitors see how the servants lived but you can also experience the smell of the laundry and the sounds of the servants talking while they worked. The use of new technology helps visitors understand, both upstairs and downstairs, in far more detail, as several `live` costumed characters including Housemaids reveal what Kelmarsh was like, to be their home and workplace.
Visitors can listen to `hologram` footman John Jacobs describing why he is the `hardest working man in the house’ then stroll across to the bakery to smell the fresh bread being baked. There is also a secret door which leads to a hidden servants staircase through which they could pass and go about their daily tasks without disturbing the peace and quiet of the upstairs rooms or be seen!
A small window at the foot of the stairs enabled the House Steward to keep an eagle eye on the movement of his staff at all times. A ` dumb waiter’ made it possible for food and drink to be moved effortlessly from below stairs to the dining room above. I stooped low and walked the long, wet, dripping tunnel which connects the servants quarters to the laundry and drying rooms.
Small children and other visitors will love the opportunity to touch and interact with the objects on display. A large, brightly lit new Learning Centre complete with interactive teaching aids. several desks and other teaching aids presents the ideal learning environment for school groups to follow up on the experiences they have enjoyed `downstairs`.
“a perfect, extremely reticent design…done in an impeccable taste.”
Art historian Nikolaus Pevsner
Kelmarsh Hall is surrounded by a working estate of parkland and gardens. The Estate is a typical agricultural landscape covering over 1,000ha (3,000 acres) made up of mixed arable crop land, managed by tenant farmers, pasture, woodlands and parkland.
The centrepiece of Kelmarsh is the Great Hall which was built in 1732 with its breath taking Italian `Wedding Cake` terracotta pink walls and fine 18th century intricate ceiling plaster work. There is a stunning single gilt lantern hanging down from the double height room with large windows close to the ceiling, flooding the room with natural light. The Saloon resplendent with chandeliers, polished oak floorboards and far reaching vistas across the parkland is just as grand!
The walls of the Chinese Room were covered with 300-year-old hand-painted wallpaper and the formal Dining Room has several wonderful portraits on the walls. The Library comes complete with a secret door disguised as a bookcase, which takes you back into the Hall from which the ornate cantilever staircase ascends.
Take the time to visit the Yellow Drawing Room too, its exquisite! The Ballroom was added during the reign of Queen Victoria and has splendid views over the West Terrace to the lake beyond.
Much of the house was refurbished by American interior designer and later owner, Nancy Lancaster, who was celebrated for introducing a relaxed country house style, which later became recognised as the quintessential English country-house look. Her spirit still permeates the house today in the delicate terracotta colouring of the Great Hall, the exuberant Chinese wallpaper and seasonal flower arrangements.
“If you haven’t already done so, put Kelmarsh Hall on your ‘lust list’ today.” Country Life Magazine
The gardens that visitors see today are largely inspired by Nancy Lancaster. She extended her interior style of shabby chic charm to the gardens. From the sophisticated pastels of the sunken garden through to the 60m long border, the garden leads you on a tour around the perimeter of a triangular walled garden.
This central heart is a relaxing space filled with traditional fruit and vegetables, cut flower beds and a restored vinery. A dahlia festival is held each September to showcase the varied collection inside the walled kitchen garden and swathes of daffodils can be enjoyed in early April.
I can highly recommend a visit to Kelmarsh Hall for families with small children, school groups and to anyone who has an interest in history or simply for a great day out and an enjoyable and educational experience.
Kelmarsh Hall is about 5 miles (8.0 km) south of Market Harborough and 11 miles (18 km) north of Northampton.