The August Bank Holiday: Welcome to Upton Downstairs!

This year Laura and myself have gone for a Bank Holiday Blitz of new attractions. There is our new Medieval Tea Pavilion; Laura’s Rose Garden (below), the new Gatehouse borders by Lindsay Bousfield. Andy the gardener has been planting up this morning with new last minute additions – including some huge delphiniums and hydrangeas – from the Gobbett nursery near Burwarton where Laura has also been busy acquiring her new exotic chickens and wildfowl that wil be roaming in the dry ramparts of the old moat.

Tea+Tent

I have called BBC Radio Shropshire in the hope they might send a reporter to do a story on Laura’s exotic new chickens and fowl collection. Keeping rare fowl, including Silkies, peacocks and black & white stripe wild turkeys in a dry moat could be a first for a historic house around here. To keep the foxes out that love our medieval wood, we have built an Alcatraz style pen that covers a quarter of the medieval moat.

But will anybody come? The weather is lookiing promising but it can be so fickle.

So can the manners of our ‘guests’. Yesterday – with our houskeeper having left us just before our busiest week of the year – Laura and I had no extra help at all as we worked incredibly hard between us to give teas, tours and serve 38 members of the Sutton Coldfield National Trust (NT) group. They seemed to have a wonderful time, helped by Margaret’s delicious home made walnut, coffee and lemon sponge cakes.

We thought the NT group would like to experience the new Medieval Tent, which one NT group a few days before had said was ‘better than any National Trust tea room’. So we put in the extra effort to lug 40 sets of cups, saucers and cake plates up from The Dairy, along with gallons of water for the tea caddy. All this when it was a working Thursday and I was also having to field a couple of important work emails in regards to sponsorship of The Spear’s Awards in London in late October.

We then lugged trays of freshly made cake across the Moat to the tent. AT 1.30pm, I sped into Bridgnorth to buy two additional cake stands from the Low Town Antique Centre. As I brought them int the house, alas one smashed on the brick path outside the kitchen as it wasnt fixed properly together.

I had arrived back at Upton Cressett just after 2pm to find that the members of the National Trust group from Sutton Coldfiend had already arrived (they were booked for 2.30pm). Several cars had actually arrived an hour early. This often happens. But if you are not ready…..it is the host who is greeted with disapproving glances.

Anyhow, yesterday’s tour group from Sutton Coldfield were fairly typical of the groups that have been descending on us this August. They seemed to have a splendid time as I spent 25 minutes giving them a history of Upton Cressett in the Norman church before the tour as it was drizzling with rain. I then gave two further 30 min tours of the Hall with the 38 strong National Trust group splitting into two groups, with one havng tea first in the Bosworth Tea Tent whilst I showed the other around the house and Elizabethan garden. So in total I spoke for nearly an hour and a half.

All seemed to go swimmingly, although I was surprised to see a few people opening the main door of the Gatehouse to have a snoop around the kitchen after I had expressly asked them not to enter the Gatehouse as we had a wedding couple from Australia staying. This polite request was ignored.

As they left, the tour leader and her husband thanked myself and Laura for the day and said they would ‘spread the good word’. They had ‘all had a lovely time’ and would be recommending Upton Cressett to other National Trust groups. They were in every way the very model of politeness and good manners and they genuinely seemed to have enjoyed themselves. This is why we give tours and I give up half a day (on a working week day) so that others can enjoy the magic atmosphere of Upton Cressett that we enjoy sharing with the public.

I then went into the Tea Tent to help Laura clear up and lug all the cups and saucers back to the house (we currenly have no staff at all) to find her lookng a little cross. ‘Some people can be so ungrateful’ Laura said. ‘This one white haired lady was quite rude to me. She said ‘ I dont like chocolate or walnut cake. I only want lemon cake’.

When Laura had apologised saying that they had run out of lemon cake, she got quite tetchy. This is a lesson you learn quite eary on in the tea and tours business. Never give punters too much choice as some late-comers will end up disappointed. And will let you know. In the end the lady next to Mrs Moan kindly said; ‘Oh don’t worry dear you have mine and I’ll have the walnut whch looks delicious’.

Then, as I opened the Visitor Book, Laura and I had another shock as we read through the comments with remarks like ‘Lovely visit !’; ‘Interesting and unusual with lots of histroical interest’…. and then my eye caught the following comment from a ‘Sue’. ‘Not very organised, almost as if we were not expected. Much waiting around. Felt it was very bad manners to take phone calls’. This was followed by another attack on me (their host) by a Ms Anonynous: ‘No information of substance given as clearly we were not allowed much time’.

I was not ‘taking’ any phone calls as we have no mobile signal here. I took 30 seconds to read one email. I have been giving tours of Upton Cressett since I was about twelve. Sadly, in the era of Twitter and Trip Advisor, when everybody thinks they are Egon Ronay or Alan Whicker this new trend of ‘host abuse’ is ever-increasing. So from now on, if anybody is rude, anti-social or offensive I cam going to strike back – on this Blog. Name and Shame, Ms Sue Gobran and Co.

You had to wait for five minutes or so before your tour because we have no exra staff. We are not like the National Trust with each property having dozens of ‘volunteer’ guides of a certain age (retired) and often more guides and staff patrolling around than guests. We do everything – including washing up your plates, and cleaning the new ‘public toilet’ in the stable block that we have just had installed to make your visit more ‘satisfactory’. We were on our own yesterday ourselves after our former housekeeper bolted back to Leighton Buzzard in the middle of the night and has never been seen again.

Laura and myself host ‘tours and teas” for groups because we genuinely enjoy sharing our history and unique heritage with the public. The photo (right) was taken when a simply delightful group recently from the WI and they all wrote in the visitor’s book how much they had enjoyed the home-made tea and cake, served by Laura, my tours and especially the new loo. More of these sort of visitors please !

When Sir John Betjeman came here with the artist John Piper for The Shell Guide to Shropshire – one of the country’s first heritage touring guides (published in 1951), the Poet Laureate described Upton Cressett as ‘a remote and beautiful place’. We try to keep it that way by giving visitors the chance to escape the modern world for an afternoon. As I said above mobiles don’t work here anyhow so I am not sure what on earth the woman was talking about.

Upton Cressett is the antithesis of Dowton Abbey. When you are open to the public, things have a horrible way of going publicly wrong. We have very few staff, with myself and my wife (milliner Laura Cathcart) having to do almost all the work this August after our housekeeper bolted in the face of almost daily group tours. My wife may have an aristocratic background but when she comes into the kitchen with plasters around her fingers from pricking herself whilst hand-stitching all day making hats, she jokes that her current life as a seamstress/tea-lady is more ‘below-stairs’ than upstairs.

Being chatelaine of a house open to the public in the summer is not always glamorous as Laura discovred yesterday. Life at Upton Cressett often resembles a mongrel cross combining the best and worst of Fawlty Towers, Tom Sharpe and To The Manor Born.

Every week at Upton Cressett we have an abundance of episodes, mostly darkly comic: disastrous washed out Bank Holiday weekends with just two wet visitors; semi-naked MPs (my father Bill Cash likes to sunbathe in his next-door garden); on-going civil war with the local farmers, from wind farms to 50 acre solar schemes; our crazy Romanian housekeeper throwing out a priceless leaded original Elizabethan window thinking it was junk; horror  TripAdvisor reviews;  house opening signs being stolen from the road; missing £1000 pugs; the holy quest for the perfect Tory blue piped sheets for The Thatcher Suite; how do get rid of a 14 year old BMW in the public car park with grass growing through the chassis?; runaway housekeepers.

In the heritage tour business, all your house is a stage. For four months, your house and garden resemble a theatre set as the curtain goes up on your private life. Not that this normally stops people from trying to snoop around other parts of the house that are officially closed: bedrooms, loos, attics and so on. The other day we caught somebody down in the laundry room below the kitchen having a peek inside our airing cupboard.

All this can be often difficult for people marrying owners of historic houses who aren’t used to having visitors trekking around their house. As they politely sit listening to your 800 year old house history and family anecdotes during the tour, they are secretly wanting to know how long it will be until they can sit down for a cup of tea and judge that ‘home-made’ walnut cake that your website boasts is made by your very own cake-maker.

Being brought up in a house open to the public is the perfect apprenticeship for an acting career. Before each weekend tour,  I sit in the kitchen, usually finishing off a glass of rose after lunch, watching the kitchen clock slowly turn towards 2.30pm. This is my cue to walk through the Tudor dining room, through the panelled doors into the Salon and then open the front door to start the show with the first tour of the day.

Near calamities this season to date have included the time when I opened the back hall door at the end of the tour and said, ‘And now it’s time for home-made cake and tea’ … Only to be greeted by the sight of my black labrador, Cressetta, and my wife’s pug both guzzling on a large lemon drizzle cake that had just been placed on the outdoor table.

On another occasion, on a Saturday lunch time at around 1.45pm, I was driving  to a local pub for lunch with some friends we had to stay when we encountered a small armada of cars heading towards the Hall. Stopping the first car, I asked if I could help?

‘Yes, we are trying to find the Hall’ the man said.’We are a group from the National Trust and are coming for a tour’.

I had forgotten a volunteer group from the National Trust group was coming. ‘The tour starts at 2.30 pm’ I calmly responded, whilst my wife Laura looked at me aghast. I quickly dropped off my friends at the pub, and then bolted back home in a local taxi to just make it in time for the tour on time. Phew.

When you open your house to the public – Shropshire Art Society, Rolls Royce Owners Club, the Condover Women’s Institute –  there is, however, an unwritten contract between owner and visitor. Just because you are paying doesn’t mean that you can treat the house as if it is the local pub or KFCoutlet.

One hopes – and prays – that your ‘guests’ (as the Duke of Devonshire tells Historic House Association members that they should call visitors) will likewise behave as if they are visiting a private home as opposed to a railway station. Just because a few token pounds have passed hands doesn’t mean ‘guests’ have the right to think the ‘client is always right’ – that most nebulous of modern mantra’s – and that they have a self-righteous right to abuse the owner.

Now that we have installed a smart new outdoor loo, hopefully that won’t be happening this Bank Holiday Weekend.