But let us be as merry as we can! At least we do not have to please royalty.
When I went to Burghley House a couple of weeks ago, I saw the lavish State Rooms that had to be created just in case the monarch of the day should go on a tour of his or her realm, and needed overnight accommodation. They were inclined to do this rather a lot, and while it was a signal honour to be notified, sometimes at quite short notice, that Old King Cole wanted to kip down at one's establishment, their vast retinue of court ladies and gentlemen and servants and sundry hangers-on would also be staying the night - or the week - and the expense and disruption would be extraordinary. Naturally the King or Queen's favourite courtiers would get picked on most for bed and breakfast, especially if their country seats were conveniently situated. Lord Burghley's at Stamford, just off the Great North Road, was one such.
The monarch always had limited funds - a bit like me - but nevertheless some lucrative offices and appointments to bestow. Any of these would generate dues and fees and tolls and levies for their owners. Ambitious courtiers would therefore try to secure a collection of them for themselves, by sucking up to the monarch at court in London. Those who got the best ones were made men.
However, once they were coining the fruits of their prized positions, a good proportion of it had to be invested in a high-class country residence. Because the monarch would at some point come and visit. And he or she would expect to be right royally treated, and properly satisfied. If they were disappointed, the hapless courtier might fall from favour. It was a dog's life, to be sure.
I am certain that pouring money into one's house and grounds was not done simply to wow the Top Man or Lady. Courtiers, vying for prestige and eminence, wanted to engage the most fashionable architects, painters, sculptors, carvers, furniture makers, landscapers and so on, just to be able to boast about it to their peers and make them feel envious. Regardless of expense. It was a vast game of one-upmanship. Just as how today the private buyers of a Picasso or a Francis Bacon will spend obscene amounts of cash in a bidding contest, in order to gain possession of some coveted picture.
Thus it was that a succession of Lord Burghleys built and added to and embellished their family home. It became a very large country house, a little palace, stuffed with impressive items. So far as I can judge, these men did well for themselves, and could spend cash extravagantly. The party stopped only when twentieth-century Death Duties spoiled the fun. But Burghley House remains a private home, and although the public is admitted, you really get to see only the State Rooms and two small parts of the gardens. That said, I felt the visit was worth it, even though it cost me £11.50 - and that was claiming an old-age concession.
You enter via the servants and tradesmen's entrance. I have to say, the rooms in the servants' domain were less dingy than in some other grand houses I've seen, but they were still drab and utilitarian compared to the rest of the House. I noticed the many bells on the wall, any of which might be rung to summon a servant to do something menial. They went electric on this in the course of time, so that at some point a buzzer would have sounded instead of the old-fashioned bell, indicating that instant service was required somewhere in the House. One place, clearly equipped with a button to push, caught my eye:
A Secret Room! Known only to one hundred servants! I don't think many people noticed that. In the State Rooms, I got into conversation with a chap called Peter, one of the Room Guides, and he seemed impressed that I had noticed the existence of this Secret Room. But he didn't offer to show me it. It must be off limits to the public. Perhaps naughty things went on there.
A few shots will convey the opulence of the House and its contents:
The silver item in the bottom picture is a huge wine cooler. Peter told me that it would be half-filled with ice from the Ice House in the garden (a covered brick-lined pit filled with compacted winter snow) and then forty-odd bottles would be allowed to chill for a banquet. Even when empty, this wine cooler needed several footmen to lift it, and move it here and there. I've decided against getting one.
Each State Room had its massive bed. Here is Queen Elizabeth I's:
This next one was for a later monarch, I've forgotten who. A bit scary, isn't it?
Peter was a very pleasant man, immaculately dressed in a quiet grey suit and dark red tie. He'd come all the way from Grantham (a town some way off) to do his Sunday stint at Burghley House. We had quite a conversation. I think he sensed that I was genuinely interested in furniture and painting and fabrics, and he escorted me to and fro, pointing out this and that.
There are several State Rooms, and the seventeenth-century ones are decorated in a riotously Baroque style by the famous contemporary painter Antonio Verrio - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Verrio. To be honest, Verrio's virtuoso walls and ceilings were for me the most appealing and memorable things at Burghley House. He spent years there painting dazzling scenes that showed gods and goddesses and celestial figures of all kinds flying and tumbling about. His ceilings are all motion, and a feast for the eye. The light on the day of my visit was difficult, and the reflections dire, but I did manage to get a few shots that will suggest what I mean:
In the room just above, Verrio has some of the gods and goddesses falling out of Heaven, like water cascading. It must all have been very distracting when dining. It's all so exuberant, and you sense that every one of these painted beings are having a jolly good time. Even Verrio's depiction of Hell has something of a party atmosphere, albeit one that has got a bit overheated:
All too soon, I was at the exit, but I could still visit the Garden of Surprises and the Sculpture Garden. The Garden of Surprises was a bit tame, I thought. The emphasis was on hidden fountains that might squirt water at you - diverting to children, but not to sophisticates. But I found some mirrors, and had great fun:
Hmm...perhaps one Lucy is more than enough! The Scupture Garden was a showcase for modern works. I thought it a bit sterile and emotionally uninvolving, but then I'd just come from Verrio's highly appealing masterpieces. Here are the works that most caught my attention:
That inflated yellow seed pod swung about in the breeze in a most diverting fashion. At least I trust it was a seed pod. It's vaguely suspect.
In a quiet corner of the garden was this grave:
Telemachus (1868-1876) was a prize bull with a brief but brilliant career. I suppose he died from being too fat, or just from servicing too many cows. His prize money totalled £652 - say about £70,000 nowadays. A nice little earner. But also a cherished estate animal who earned a proper grave. Was he butchered for his meat first? Probably not. I wonder what the hungry servants thought about that.