TOM UTLEY: My week in a stately home made me yearn for suburbia

TOM UTLEY: A stuffed stag in the library and why my week in a stately home made me yearn for suburbia

Over the past few days, I’ve thought often of the opening scene in an episode of Telegoons, the BBC’s less than wholly successful 1960s TV adaptation of the young Prince Charles’s favourite radio programme, The Goon Show.

The scene in question begins as night falls with Henry Crun, a puppet voiced by Peter Sellers, lighting the wick of an oil lamp on the top floor of the Edison Bell lighthouse.

Far away on the ground floor, the telephone rings.

Stumble through the wrong door at Hilles House, as I did the other night, and you may find yourself face-to-face with the stuffed, fully grown stag in the library

Crun starts to walk down the iron spiral staircase to answer it, his clanking footsteps echoing against the lighthouse walls. Down and down he goes, the sound of the telephone growing louder and louder as he approaches it.

At long last, he reaches the bottom of the staircase.

He crosses to the phone, reaches out to pick up the receiver . . . but a moment before he can do so, the ringing stops. Crun turns, dejected, and starts to walk back up the stairs, the silence broken only by the sound of his footsteps.

Hazards

Cut to an announcer, also voiced by Sellers, declaring: ‘That is just one of the many hazards of lighthouse-keeping. It has nothing to do with the story which is about to follow.’ 

(If you were wondering where the Monty Python team got the idea for the sign-off to so many of their sketches, ‘and now for something completely different’, there’s your answer.)

Anyway, I’ve thought of that scene many times this week, some 55 years after I first saw it, because my wife and I happen to be staying alone — not in a lighthouse, it’s true, but in an enormous house in the depths of Gloucestershire, loaned to us by an eccentric and hugely generous family friend while he is away.

In the course of the week, I’ve discovered that there are also other drawbacks to occupying a vast country pile (although I admit that you are unlikely to encounter many of these in the average lighthouse)

Again and again, it has struck me that being in charge of an isolated country mansion — a good six or seven times larger than my semi in the suburbs of London — has at least something in common with the hazards of lighthouse-keeping, as experienced by Henry Crun.

Indeed, when the landline in the kitchen rings, it’s what feels like a half-mile trek from the magnificent drawing room to answer it — and it’s a race against time to reach it before the caller hangs up.

Leave a book or your specs in the bedroom, and you’ll find yourself trudging up and down scores of stairs and along miles of corridors to retrieve them.

This problem is made all the worse if, like me, you tend to have forgotten what you came for by the time you’ve reached the room. In the course of the week, I’ve discovered that there are also other drawbacks to occupying a vast country pile (although I admit that you are unlikely to encounter many of these in the average lighthouse).

Unfamiliar with the place as I am, I’ve found that when I need to get up in the night to answer a call of nature (one of the many indignities of my advancing years) I need a map and a carefully plotted route-plan to find my way to the bathroom.

Stumble through the wrong door at Hilles House, as I did the other night, and you may find yourself face-to-face with the stuffed, fully grown stag in the library — not just the head and antlers, as you see on the walls of less flamboyantly furnished mansions, but the whole animal, standing with lifelike defiance in the middle of the room.

The sight is quite a shock to the system, I can assure you, at four o’clock in the morning, when you’re bleary-eyed and bursting for a pee.

And don’t get me started on the idiosyncrasies of the temperamental plumbing systems in such grand houses as these.

Punishment

At Hilles, the vast network of pipes and tanks gives the impression of having been left untouched since the house was built during World War I by my friend’s architect grandfather, Detmar Blow, whose name his grandson also now bears.

The boiler-room wouldn’t have looked out of place below decks on the Titanic, while the system as a whole reminds me of the lines from Noel Coward’s The Stately Homes of England: ‘Though the pipe on the bathroom landing’s burst/ And the lavatory makes you fear the worst/ It was used by Charles the First/ Quite informally…’

(Stop press: Perhaps as divine punishment for my moaning, Mrs U has just informed me that there is no longer any water, hot or cold, in any of the bathrooms upstairs — and the loos have stopped flushing!)

Ever since my early childhood, I’ve drooled over the property advertisements in the pages of Country Life, dreaming that one day I might have such a pile to call my own.

But after just four days of living the dream, suddenly I’m not so sure.

Indeed, my envy of those I once thought fortunate beyond words to have inherited these fabulous adornments to the British countryside has turned to awestruck admiration of their willingness to shoulder the immense responsibility and palaver of keeping them going, without the armies of domestic staff their designers had in mind.

As never before, I find myself appreciating the comforts and convenience of life in my suburban semi, where the landline is never more than three paces across the room, my specs are no further than a short flight of stairs away — and I don’t need a budget the size of Rishi Sunak’s to fix a rare problem with the plumbing or the roof.

Oh, and if I run out of cigarettes or milk, I don’t have to drive for miles along potholed dirt tracks and terrifyingly narrow country lanes to buy some more, only to find, all too often, that the local shops are shut.

Ungrateful

At home in the suburbs, it’s just a short walk down the hill to the 24-hour garage to stock up with more.

But I mustn’t sound ungrateful. Hilles — with its lovingly tended 1,000-acre estate — is a wonderful house, built on a promontory commanding views over five counties. I count it an immense joy and privilege to have been given the run of it this week.

Indeed, there’s nothing quite like the experience of waking up in our four-poster in the Primavera Room, with the sunlight falling on the huge tapestry of Botticelli’s masterpiece, hanging on the wall opposite the bed.

With its theatrical decor, panoramic views and huge rooms designed for entertaining, I can’t recommend it too strongly as a wedding venue (our absent friend Detmar’s latest venture in the struggle to keep the estate afloat).

If I run out of cigarettes or milk, I don’t have to drive for miles along potholed dirt tracks and terrifyingly narrow country lanes to buy some more, only to find, all too often, that the local shops are shut [File photo]

Heaven knows how he’s been making ends meet during the lockdown but, God willing, couples will be queuing up to tie the knot in this most spectacular of settings once our freedom to live and love is finally restored.

Meanwhile, I may owe another huge debt to my friend’s generosity.

Like so many others during lockdown, as regular readers may recall, Mrs U has been hatching dastardly plans to uproot us and move to the countryside.

Fabulous though it is to be in Gloucestershire for a few days, I have an inkling that even she may be coming to appreciate the comforts and convenience of our suburban home.

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