Tales From The Pantry: A Butler's Diary

From the pantry of an historic country house comes the ongoing diary of its butler, Mr Dean Fielding. I shall be giving you a glimpse of the family I serve and of the lives both 'Below Stairs' and 'Above'. I hope you follow my jottings daily.

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Have been butler here for over 15 years. Having previously, and unusually for these days, worked my way up from footman to under-butler to my current post. You can now follow me on Twitter via: http://www.twitter.com/butlerfielding

Sunday, July 30, 2006

In Praise of the Pince-Nez

Woke at 6.45am to begin another day. Climbed out of bed and stubbed my toe on the Chamber Pot; they are not used anymore, I assure you, but Sir Geoffrey Carstone is so in love with tradition that he insists each room has one; one of his little quirks, perhaps. Then, while shaving, I spotted in the mirror ANOTHER small part of the wall that I had missed while re-decorating last week. That really is intolerable. I have no idea why my attention was wandering so badly. I am usually so thorough. Perhaps it was the thought of Lady Blanche's arrival.

Things got no better as the day wore on. I popped a cufflink on the floor of the Dining Room, and as I was rummaging around on all fours looking for it, Sir Geoffrey came in, and presumed that I had lost a contact-lens. He proceeded to give me a ten minute lecture on the evils of the contact lens. I did not like to halt him when in full flow, so I listened politely, hoping to learn something. The contact lens, according to him, was to blame for much of the problems in the world today. He had been bullied, a few years ago, by Lady Carstone into trying contacts because he kept misplacing his spectacles. The experience appears to have been an unpleasant one for the noble baronet. He is much happier with the older method. He is extremely fond of the pince-nez. That may seem rather old fashioned to some, but that is exactly how Sir Geoffrey likes it. He spoke for another ten minutes on the merits of the pince-nez, and seemed to put its invention right up there with the telephone. I assurred him that I would never wear contact lenses again. In fact, I have NEVER worn contact lenses. I have a pair of reading glasses, but that is it. Finally found cufflink under a side-table.

Problems in the Servant's Hall. Wendy in tears. Probably love trouble. She was being comforted by Mrs Berry. The sobs were really rather wracking. The old Jacobean beams were shaking. The two footmen were standing around looking worried but slightly uncomfortable. I overheard one of them say to the other: "She will be okay after a Mrs Berry special in Pug's Parlour." Mrs Berry is indeed a wonderful person to talk to. She is the one that most rush to when in need of advice or simply a friendly ear. I am sure that is exactly what Wendy needs. However, I do frown at the term 'Pug's Parlour'. I know, traditionally, the lower servants in many large British houses have referred to the Housekeeper's Room in this way, but I have never liked it.

Having problems with the Tradesmen's Entrance door. It may need a new lock. Couldn't open it properly this morning. We all had to enter and exit via the Housekeeper's Scullery Door. Very inconvenient.

One person who seemed very happy today was Mr Barton. The rain has improved his mood immensely. He was whistling to himself while tending the flower beds in the Cedar Garden and called out to me: "Good morning Fielding! Didn't Harmison and Panesar bowl beautifully in the Test Match!" I am not used to such friendliness from Barton. I usually only get plant lectures from him, and moans about the younger gardening staff. I was quite taken aback. At least he has his priorities right. Harmison and Panesar did indeed bowl beautifully.

Day ended with an invitation for drinks with Llywelyn in a few nights time. Mindful of what happened the last time, I shall be very cautious in my conversation.

Saturday, July 29, 2006


And a Head Gardener rejoices......

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Dog Walking

Lady Blanche has come and gone. I am sure I detected a soft sigh of relief emanating from the battlements of a relieved Carstone House on her departure. There now seems to be a spring in the step of all, the world seems a better, less fraught, place.

Only Barton maintains a look of grave concern, but that is all to do with the state of the lawns. There is still no sign of rain. You see him pottering around muttering darkly to himself. He actually climbed up to the Summerhouse yesterday evening to peer sagely at the clouds as the sun set. He was looking for any sign of moisture in the air. Any indication that his torment will soon be over. His look seemed to say, "Forget Pennies From Heaven, just give me a Bracing Downpour."

For the rest of us, however, life is returning to normal. One can actually now approach Mr Copeland without him leaping several feet into the air; there is less of a jangling coming from his nerves. I can even enter the Kitchen without the fear of being snarled at by Mrs Styles (her cake was a great success). Things were very different at the week-end.

Saturday saw the Carstone family invade the ancestral home. Lady Blanche's arrival put everyone on edge. I hope I did not give the impression of an advancing dragon. She is not particularly strict, her voice is very soft and friendly. In fact, if you didn't listen to the words she uttered, she would seem pleasant. She is the sort of person who can insult you dreadfully, and you only realize it later that night in bed. Her insults are fired, not with a blunderbuss like some, but with a sleek revolver with the silencer firmly fitted. She is also undeniably odd. She has a passion for birds and animals, which makes her marriage all the more puzzling. Her husband, Lord Hallross likes nothing better than to go out shooting. Lady Blanche sides with the birds. There would be terrible arguments if only the two conversed.

Accompanying Lady Blanche to Carstone was her favourite Skye Terrier, named 'Bailey'. Lady Blanche is obviously very fond of Bailey. When listing her favourite things Bailey would appear noticeably higher on the list than Lord Hallross. Just before dinner I was summoned to her regal presence with a beckoning finger. The conversation (which I guarantee is absolutely true, no matter how unusual it may sound) went something like this:

Lady Blanche: Wilson! (she always calls me Wilson. I have never quite figured out why)
Fielding: Yes, My Lady
Lady Blanche: Bailey needs to be taken for a walk!
Fielding: Indeed, My Lady? I shall inform the Hall Boy.
Lady Blanche: Remember Wilson. Don't let Bailey actually WALK. Far too dangerous. He is far too precious.
Fielding: My Lady?
Lady Blanche: I was reading that last year only 35 Skye Terriers were born in this country. Did you know that?
Fielding: Indeed I did not, My Lady.
Lady Blanche: They are a dying breed!
Fielding: Very sad, My Lady.
Lady Blanche: Tragic Wilson! tragic! We can't afford to lose darling Bailey. Take him out for a walk. Get the chauffeur to do it!
Fielding: You wish Mr Reynolds to walk Bailey, My Lady?
Lady Blanche: Not WALK, Wilson! Far too dangerous. Get the chauffeur to DRIVE him!
Fielding: Very good, My Lady.

And so it was that visitors to Carstone Park on Saturday evening would have witnessed the remarkable sight of Mr Reynolds in Sir Geoffrey's Rolls-Royce driving at a sedate pace around the turning circle, his only passenger being a small Skye Terrier perched on a velvet cushion in the back seat. If this passenger had sat up and looked out of the window he would, no doubt, have seen a Gardener muttering darkly, his gaze always up at the darkening sky, his attention on more important matters than chauffered dogs.

Sometimes this is a very strange place to work. I was telling this tale to an estate worker at the nearby pub, The Carstone Arms, only last night, and he repeated an opinion I have heard many times before. Leaning back in his chair, he snorted, and said: "Only the aristocracy are eccentric. If you have money you are 'eccentric'; if you have no money you are 'barking mad.'"

I merely raised one eyebrow and changed the subject to cricket.

I have much more to report from the week-end's festivities. I hope to have the time to write again very soon.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Saturday Morning Update

Lady Blance arrived later than expected last night, and so retired directly to bed. She was accompanied by her Lady's Maid and her secretary. The secretary seemed to carry himself with a more regal air than his titled employer, and since I have a sneaking suspicion that Her Majesty the Queen feels compelled to curtsey in the presence of Lady Blanche, that really is saying something.

The rest of the party are expected to arrive this afternoon. An awfully busy day awaits.

I have a headache, and it is a bad time to have one.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Gathering Storm

Sir Geoffrey returned at 11.15am, and I think by 11.30am he was out riding. He had travelled from London, and as a man who sees the train as a dangerous new invention, he was quite eager to return to the 'natural way of doing things', as he so regularly puts it. He has always been a fine horseman. He was taught to ride as a young boy here at Carstone. I have seen photographs of the young baronet-to-be being led around the Riding School (which is attached to the Stables) on a small pony. This image surprised me when I was first shown it, because I have always found it hard to believe that there was ever a time when Sir Geoffrey was clean shaven. I harboured a sneaking suspicion that he was actually born with his drooping moustache. This sepia-tinted gem from the family archive seems to suggest otherwise.

Family is both a delight and a burden to Sir Geoffrey. Mostly a burden. His eldest son, Mr Miles, for instance, has never really lived up to his father's expectations. You rarely see Mr Miles on a horse. Even his trips to the countryside, I suspect, are only taken because he cannot avoid them, and that they occasionally come in handy when recovering from a particularly nasty hangover. London Society knows Mr Miles well. The Carstone Estate workers seem a little unsure about him.

The whole clan are gathering here over the week-end to celebrate Lady Blanche's sixtieth birthday. Lady Blanche is Lady Carstone's sister. We do not see her very often but she makes a point of attending all the major family functions. She tends to bring a small retinue of her own servants with her whenever she arrives. In the past some of the staff here have commented on her slightly erratic behaviour, but the aristocracy have always had ways that were peculiar to outsiders. It is not for us to pass judgement. We are also expecting her husband, Lord Hallross, who will probably spend most of his time talking about shooting or horses with Sir Geoffrey; Mr Thomas Carstone, Miss Gemma Carstone, and a whole host of family members that need to be catered for. Preparations are well underway.

Wendy and Rhiannon have made a superb job of the brass in the House. Rarely have I seen it gleam so. I must take the time to commend them. Mrs Styles is in the process of creating a splendid looking birthday cake. The last time I checked it was progressing nicely. That was a little while ago, because I received a glare when I popped my head around the Kitchen door, that will take a while to recover from. The glare seemed to say, 'do not disturb an artist at work.' I quickly backtracked to the Bell's Passage where I almost bumped into a rather agitated looking Mr Copeland. At first I thought that he had also unwisely entered the Kitchen, but his look told me that he was afraid of a higher power. "She is still coming tomorrow then?" he asked, a flicker of desperate hope in his eyes. Poor chap. He was obviously hoping for divine intervention. I didn't have to ask who he meant. I well remember the last time Mr Copeland met this week-ends' guest of honour. I left the poor man to lick his re-opened wounds. He won't sleep tonight. Never has a valet suffered so much in the call of duty.

Sir Geoffrey and Lady Carstone spent a quiet evening relaxing. The noble baronet seemed rather tired from his ride. When I served afternoon tea in the Drawing Room Lady Carstone was obviously deeply engrossed in planning the week-end ahead. Notebooks and lists were strewn on the table in front of her. Her spectacles were perched on the end of her nose, and she kept tutting, and muttering to herself. Occasionally she would ask her husband a question. I do not suppose she ever expected a reply, certainly not a useful one. It hardly mattered because by the time I had poured the tea, gentle snoring could be heard coming from Sir Geoffrey's armchair. As I turned to leave, as if noticing me for the first time, Lady Carstone asked how the preparations were going. I assured her that everything was in hand. "I hope so." she replied with a tired sigh, "because SHE is bound to notice everything. She ALWAYS notices everything." With that I left Her Ladyship to her lists, and the sound of a gentle snore that was in the process of becoming less gentle.

There is a reason why everybody is tense. One majestic figure links the furrowed brow of Lady Carstone, the nervousness of the usually unflappable Copeland, and the raw intensity and concentration of a cake-making Mrs Styles. Lady Blanche is, as Llywelyn put it to me today, "rather unique in the annals of Carstone; possibly unique in the annals of humanity."

Thursday, July 20, 2006

And So We Swelter

And so it continues: relentless, overbearing, causing discomfort to everybody, people hide from it under hats that cover their faces: I am of course referring to the questioning that our little visitor Amy inflicts on all in her path.

Perhaps I AM being a little unfair.

Her questions were lively and showed interest. Despite informing her of the more unpleasant duties of a scullery maid, she still seemed keen on being one. You must admire her spirit. Despite Miss Roberts spending a good hour showing Amy some of Lady Carstone's finest dresses, and extolling the perks and privileges of being Lady's Maid to one of the British aristocracy's finest, Amy still steadfastly maintained that it would be much more fun to gut fish, pluck game, clean vegetables, peel potatoes, and wash-up in the scullery. The youth of today!

Things seem quiet now Amy has departed. I am rather relieved that everybody has left. I'm not sure what to make of 'Remus' and his clan. I like things to be orderly. I like to know a little about the guests of Carstone, otherwise how can I best ensure that their stay will be a pleasant one? I can only assume that they were poetical or bohemian people in nature. Although I find it hard to imagine Remus writing anything TOO sensitive. His handshake was a little too excessively firm. You can tell a lot about a man from his handshake. I suppose their dark secret (everything about them, except Amy, seemed dark and brooding) will come out eventually.

Not happy with myself. Spotted a bit that I missed while decorating. That is not like me. I am usually most thorough about everything. It must be the weather.

It has been sweltering at Carstone today. Apparently we could hit the highest temperature since records began. Barton was having problems keeping the lawns nice and green. He has been forbidden to use the sprinklers, and the hosepipe is frowned upon, when it comes to the lawns. This worries Barton. To me, everything still seemed immaculate, but, for a perfectionist like Barton, these are hard times. I left him near the Summerhouse with a furrowed brow. He had explained, in great detail, all the problems that this constant sunshine causes for him. The weather and Barton seem to have a love-hate relationship. At the moment the weather is being rather too 'clingy' and Barton would prefer a cooling off period.

Inside the house things were scarcely much better. I asked both footmen to help me stockcheck the cellars (always my refuge when it gets TOO hot), this allowed them to stay blissfully cool for an hour. I sent Robert, the Hall Boy, out in the gardens to help Barton. There was nothing really for him to do in the House, and I thought he might find a cool spot outside somewhere. I also spotted something which really amused me. I took a quick trip to the garages to ask the chauffeur Mr Reynolds something, and he showed me the quite remarkable shield that he places on the windscreen of Sir Geoffrey's car to help keep the interior (especially the steering wheel it seems) of said vehicle cool when unoccupied in blazing sunshine. I have seen these things before, of course, but nothing like this: it was gilded. I thought that seemed rather extravagant, and must have been custom made. Reynolds explained to me that it was a gift from Mr Miles. Everything then made sense. Mr Miles does like gold-leaf. I am sure he would like to gild the driveway, as was once done at one of Britain's stately homes in the 1930s to honour a particularly eccentric visitor.

Today sees the return of Sir Geoffrey. How reassuring that will be. Normality and tradition shall reign supreme once more.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Small Companion

The week-end proved to be far quieter than I thought it would be. Miss Gemma's party left early on Sunday morning, and Mr Miles' group kept themselves largely to themselves. I'm not entirely sure about their background, and they seemed to remain a mystery to all in the Servant's Hall. They never used the bell pull to summon a servant and they never seemed to want anything. They just kept themselves in their rooms doing goodness knows what.

I did have a lasting encounter with one of them, however. I had not been informed that she was among the party, and I had not detected her on arrival, presumably on account of her tiny size. Yesterday morning as I was unlocking the front door, Mr Miles bounded down the staircase, and called out to me. He asked me if I wouldn't mind showing one of the guests the servant's areas of the house, and outlining my duties to them. With some surprise (which I did not betray) I agreed. Little did I know at the time that I had just agreed to spend much of my day babysitting.

The 'guest' happened to be a little girl named Amy, aged roughly nine years old (I am not very good at estimating the age of people. I invariably cause offence when asked to do so.). Actually I was informed, several times throughout the course of the day, that she was actually nine and a quarter. This fraction seemed to be very important to her. I admired her precision. She seemed very interested in service and, as instructed, I gave her a tour of 'Below Stairs.' She had all the impetuousness and curiosity of youth, and peppered me with questions. In fact she followed me around like a puppy. Wherever I went, she was not far behind. I thought I had left her with Mrs Berry in the Housekeeper's Room but when replacing the notepaper on a desk in the Morning Room I felt eyes upon me. Sure enough, there she was gazing up at me, her brain obviously buzzing with more questions.

My favourite moment of the day came in the Entrance Hall, when Amy asked me:

Who answers the front door?
I answer the front door.

What if you are busy?
If I am unavailable, the 1st Footman will answer the door.

What if he is busy?
The 2nd Footman will do it.

What about The Scullery Maid? (we had a long discussion about scullery maids earier)
Certainly not. You can't have servants like the Hall Boy or Scullery Maid answering the front door. Imagine a scullery maid with bits of potato peel, and bits of fish on her hands and apron, answering the front door of Sir Geoffrey's house. A Scullery Maid answering the door? Where would it all end?

"It would end up on the door handle." She replied with grave sincerity.

There wasn't much I could say in response to that.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

An Odd Arrival

Began decorating at an early hour. The colour scheme that I have settled on is very tasteful, very refined. There was something rather therapeutic about the whole process.

Mr Miles arrived at half past three with a party of four people. As is traditional Llewelyn telephoned from the Lodge Gates as an early warning for me. I stood to greet the party on the front steps. Two men and two women emerged from cars, and what an odd bunch they were. They were dressed primarily in black (I would have approved of this had the hour been later, but at that time in the afternoon it all seemed a little peculiar) and the bright orange waistcoat that Mr Miles was wearing stood out all the more in consequence. I reached out to take the bags off a burly gentleman who approached me, and, completely misunderstanding my intentions, he took my hand and shook it warmly, introducing himself as 'Remus'. Rather embarrassing. Only Mr Miles seemed to think this was unusual, but he hid his smile, and bade the group to follow him into the House.

I fear that with Miss Gemma and her friends in residence, and now joined by Mr Miles' odd companions, that this will not be a quiet weekend.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Task In Hand

I am going to re-decorate my butler's flat at the top of Carstone House. I have been told that it could be re-decorated for me, but I would like to attack the task myself. I have purchased all that I need this morning, and tomorrow I shall jump to it. I think a SLIGHT change in decoration is what is needed to spruce things up. Nothing too radical, of course. You will not find my flat turned into a 'modernist' fantasy, that is for sure. My preferences lean towards 'cosy' and slightly cluttered.

Miss Gemma is staying at Carstone with a couple of friends, and Mr Miles is expected tomorrow. The sales of his volume of poetry have not gone particularly well, and he has now vowed to throw himself fully into portrait painting. I suppose he only half threw himself into poetry. And I think he might have sprained something in the process.

For all who are new to this diary, the following links might come in useful as way of an introduction:

The First Post
Carstone House
Above Stairs: The Family
Below Stairs: The Servants

Oh, and for those in a mood for a little socialising:

My ill-fated drink with Llywelyn
The Ball

That should set the scene quite nicely, I should think. We are quite a nice bunch here at Carstone. I warmly welcome you to the blog 're-launch'. I will be posting much more regularly, even if it is only a line or two, so that you can be properly kept up-to-date with all the goings on at this wonderful old house.