The title conjured images of a rambling house and high teas with pots and pots of English tea and cream scones, stuff that filled the novels of my childhood…so when I saw the book thrust between hundreds of others at the unique “buy books by the kilo” sale I attended last year, I promptly put it in my already overloaded basket.
Though I started it during my Christmas holidays, I didn’t get around to seriously reading it until last week, when all I wanted to do when I got home was curl up in bed with a cup of tea and read. I spent a delightful evening turning the pages of this funny little book, at the end of which, I had but one thought running through my head. “I have to go to England and visit Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk.”
Cobwebs and Cream Teas follows Mary Mackie (author of historical fiction) and her husband during the first year in this magnificent National Trust House. Life for Mary and her husband Chris changed completely after he took on the mantle of Houseman at Felbrigg Hall. Living in an apartment which was part of national heritage, open almost throughout the year to visitors, must have been quite an experience and Mary Mackie’s account does complete justice to it. She has written the book like a personal diary, replete with interesting anecdotes in a witty and humorous style.
Though her language is sometimes rather quaint (and strange), I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and at several points I was tempted to set the book aside and look up Google to see if the pictures in my head matched reality. I did finally give into temptation and wasn’t disappointed.
I devoured the accounts of how the staff of Felbrigg Hall meticulously cleaned each tiny object in the many rooms of the large house, of how she found herself playing the roles of assistant drain-cleaner, doorbell answerer, ticket seller and even a “not-quite-Constance-Spry” flower arranger ! I loved the idea of the “Living History” project and wondered why we don’t have similar initiatives in India. I was entranced by the descriptions of the gorgeous gardens, of the trees overladen with fruits, of autumn walks in the forests surrounding the Estate and of clear starry skies. The many passages about the discoveries, refurbishing and renovation work, school tours, quirks of the many visitors were filled with the warm humour that made this book such a wonderful read. The descriptions of the numerous concert evenings and special candlelight dinners organised for the members of the Trust were magical, despite the fact that they were accompanied with detailed accounts of the hard work that went into organising such events.
There are so many passages in the book that I would love to share, but I shall content myself with two passages that seem to best summarise the essence of the book.
“Having tried to unblock the washbasins manually, Chris went to a distant store room and found some caustic soda, but as he was making for the gents’ room again, he heard the doorbell and detoured to answer it. No, it was not the expected delivery, it was two workmen arriving unannounced to replace the flooring in the base camp. […] while they made a start on their work, Chris returned to the gents’ with the caustic soda. With a good deal of poking and prodding, eventually the blockage moved and the water drained freely again.”
“…the evening was a great success. The visitors marvelled at the romantic aspect of the mansion with its lamps throwing pools of soft light across antique furniture and carpets while from the walls family portraits veiled in shadows looked down on the scene.[…] as Chris and I closed up the house, pulling down blinds, closing shutters, switching off heaters and lights, he felt that his long busy day had been well worthwhile. He always enjoys sharing his love of the Hall with other people, showing it at its best for them.”
…a love that comes shining through in his wife’s account of their first years at Felbrigg Hall that has made me want to procure the second book in the series “Dry Roy and Daffodils” and plan a trip to Norfolk as soon as I can afford it !