It was a truly magical experience visiting the Lake District in Cumbria, in northwest England, last year with Number One London Tours. We saw beautiful vistas, blue lakes, a real stone circle, charming villages, and historic houses. So when I needed a setting for A Lady Becomes a Governess, where else was I going to pick but the Lake District, with its’ ever changing, romantic landscapes? In many ways it became like visiting the area again. The sights I saw on the tour are sprinkled throughout the book. William Wordsworth even makes an appearance. It made the book a pleasure to write.
I needed a country house for my hero and the tour gave me several examples. I wanted something very different than a typical Georgian mansion. I was tempted to use Wray Castle, because it was so over the top gothic, but, alas, it was not a real castle, but a gothic revival built in 1840.
I finally decided on Levens Hall, now owned by the Bagot family, originally a medieval pele tower built in 1350. In the 1500s the Bellingham family expanded the house and added the oak paneling and plasterwork that makes Levens so distinctive. In the 1600s the park and gardens were added by new owner Colonel James Grahme, who brought in French gardener, Guillaume Beaumont. The park and gardens have remained remarkably intact from Beaumont’s design. The topiary is a wonder to behold, so naturally, it had to appear in the book. Further additions to the house were again made in the early 1800s.
Some floorplans online and room images helped me visualize the setting as it was in the the Regency, the time period of my book, and as I saw it on the tour. I did have to make a few alterations to the house to suit the book, though. For one thing, I had to add an imagined children’s wing to the house and, unfortunately, those details were not part of the tour or shown in any online images.
Speaking of the Regency period, Kristine and I were most excited to visit Levens Hall on the tour as the house features a “Wellington Trail” – Sir Charles Bagot married Lady Mary Wellesley, niece of the Duke of Wellington, and it is through this connection that so many fascinating artifacts have been handed down through the family. The collection was truly impressive.
Now that I’ve “lived” in the house through the writing of A Lady Becomes a Governess, I wish I could visit Levens Hall again to see how close my version was to the real place. In fact, the Lake District is a place to which I’d be more than delighted to return – especially for the hot chocolate and marshmallows!
A Lady Becomes a Governess is dedicated to Kristine, because, after all, without her and her Number One London Tours, this book would not have been written.
Book 2 of the Governess swap will include another setting from last year’s trip with Kristine. Bath! And, because I’m going on Number One London Tours Scottish Writers Retreat in September, expect a future book set in Scotland.
I have a great friend in Beth Elliot. Those of you who follow this blog and my posts on Facebook will know that Beth and I try to get together whenever I’m in England. And you may recall that Beth was my saviour when my phone was stolen in London, taking me to buy a new one and following that up with a fabulous day out in Greenwich. This time over, Victoria Hinshaw and I spent a few days doing research on the Duke of Wellington at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), located in Reading.
As it turns out, Beth lives just outside of Reading, in the very same town in which our hotel was located. Needless to say, we had the opportunity to see each other often. What does need to be said is that Beth went out of her way to accommodate Vicky and myself, picking us up at the train station, driving us where we needed to go, joining us for dinner nightly and taking us to hidden villages and places of interest on our days off. She was even kind enough to bring us back to her home on several occasions, giving us lunch, wine, laughs and the opportunity to see her fabulous garden and to unwind in her incredibly comfy front room.
Since Beth, Vicky and I first met in 2010, during Number One London’s Duke of Wellington Tour, she and I have shared personal histories and family stories, and I was most enchanted with her stories of her beloved Uncle Frank, who was Financial Editor for the Times. Frank Wright was born in 1900 and graduated from Manchester University before joining the staff of the Manchester Guardian, moving in 1924 to it’s London office as Assistant Chief Editor, going on afterwards to join the Times of London.
What I knew about Uncle Frank was that he and his wife, Auntie Marie, had never had children of their own and so looked upon Beth as a most favourite niece. Beth spent many hours with Uncle Frank and Auntie Marie, but what sticks in my mind most are Beth’s stories of going with Uncle Frank to his London office. Once the day’s business was done, Uncle Frank would ask Beth what she most wanted to do, and would then grant her wishes, regardless of the fact that most of the places she chose were at opposite ends of London. Off they’d go, Uncle Frank indulging the wishes of his favourite little girl and Beth enjoying his undivided attention.
So, when Beth mentioned during our last visit that she had some things of Uncle Frank’s she was set to take to the charity shop, I had to ask –
“Wait. What? What sort of things?”
“Oh, just some old clothes. I’ve got a Chinese robe he bought in the 30’s at Harrods.”
“Wait. You’re giving Uncle Frank’s 1930’s Chinese robe from Harrod’s to the charity shop?!”
“Do you want to see it?”
Off she went, up the stairs and back down. “I have this, too,” she said, laying a treasure on the table before me.
“It’s Uncle Frank’s cigarette case,” she said.
“And it’s leather. And embossed with his initials.” Upon opening it, I saw the Harrod’s stamp. I picked it up and inhaled the smell of leather and tobacco.
“Would you like it?” Beth asked.
“What? Don’t you want it?”
“I don’t smoke. And besides, what am I ever going to do with it. If you think you can use it, please take it.”
I stared at her. Stunned. “I don’t smoke, either. But I’d love to have it. Are you sure?”
“Yes. I’ve got to have a clear out. And here’s the robe I told you about.”
“Try it on,” Beth urged.
Silently I prayed, please, Uncle Frank, be the same size as me. Please. I slipped the robe on and . . . it fit. Like a glove.
“I love it,” said I, looking at myself in the mirror and running a hand over the black silk lapel. “How does it look?”
“It looks fabulous on you,” offered Vicky.
“Do take it if you want it,” said Beth. “It’s only going to be given away otherwise.”
“I can’t believe you’re giving this away.”
“I can’t believe you want it,” said Beth. “Hang on, I’ve got some other bits if you want to see them. Come with me out to the garden, they’re in the shed.”
In the shed?!
After a quick rummage, Beth came out with a rather large box, which held a morning suit – tailed jacket, waistcoat and striped pants. Even a pair of spats.
Holding out the jacket, Beth said, “Here, give it a try.” I took it from her and attempted to get into it. Dash it all, it didn’t fit.
“It’s too small!” I lamented.
“It isn’t,” Beth said.
“There’s no way I can get it on,” I wailed.
“Here, give it to me,” Beth said, in her no nonsense way. “Now, you stand there and I’m going to slip it on you. You don’t think Brummell got into his coats without help, do you? Gentlemen needed a valet to don their coats. Turn your back to me and put your arms down at your sides and I’ll slip this on you.”
I complied, doubtfully. Beth slid the coat sleeves up over my arms, gave it a yank and settled it upon my shoulders. “There. I told you it would fit. Go look in the mirror.”
I obeyed. Reader, it fit. As though it had been tailor made for me.
“Wow,” said Vicky.
“How does it look?”
“Wow,” repeated Vicky. “Do you like it?”
“Like it?! I love it.”
“Here, take the waistcoat, too,” offered Beth. It, too, fit like a dream. Once I’d removed the coat, Beth directed my attention to the construction details inside, gorgeous attention to detail and quilting that had gone out of fashion many decades ago.
“Try the pants on,” suggested Beth. I did, but while Uncle Frank and I seemed to be the same size from the waist up, we varied widely from the waist down. Or it was the style of the striped trousers that defeated me – I looked like a clown in the baggy trousers.
“No,” said Beth, “those won’t do. But there are a few final things you must see.”
I didn’t care about anything else. The robe and coat were each beyond my wildest dreams. But who was I to say no?
This time, she came through with a hat box. Opening the lid, we found a leather collar box and, upon opening that, we discovered that it still held a number of collars, as well as collar and cuff studs. Beneath that was a gentleman’s white silk dress scarf. And under that were the hats. Three hats. And what hats they are!
“Try them on,” Beth prompted. After a stunned moment, I lifted the first hat, a derby, and put it on. Again, it fit as though it had been made to fit my head alone. Then there were two top hats, one a traditional beaver hat, the other a silk, collapsible opera hat. Each one fit. And looked deuced fine atop my head, if I do say so myself.
“Do you think you can fit this all into your suitcase?” Beth asked, once I’d left off admiring myself in the mirror.
“Never. We’ll have to ship it. Are you absolutely certain that you want me take it all?” I asked. “I mean, I know what Uncle Frank meant to you.”
“Uncle Frank would be thrilled that they were being given to someone who can enjoy them. Believe me, you’re doing me the favour by allowing me to clear all this out of my attic and shed. I just can’t believe that you actually want it all. I’ll go and fetch a box and we can pack these up.”
While Beth was gone, Vicky asked, “What in the world are you going to do with all that suff?”
“I’m going to wear it. At writer’s conventions and seminars. And maybe on Sundays. All my costuming needs have been taken care of in one fell swoop!”
My costuming needs had been take care of, and not only by Uncle Frank. I had found the beauty below in a charity shop in Bath for twenty quid before meeting up with Vicky and Beth.
Next day, Beth boxed up my treasures – and tied up the boxes with string. I’ll let you digest that for a bit. String. A lost art. I could wax lyrical and write an entire post about the string, but I’ll spare you. Shortly thereafter, Beth and I walked down to her local Post Office and shipped the boxes off to my address in America. And they both arrived long before I made it home.
I’m thrilled to report that all of Uncle Frank’s clothing has now been dry cleaned and they are hanging in my closet, just waiting for their first airing at the upcoming Romance Writers of America (RWA) Conference in Denver. Now all I need is a valet.
This is the first installment on a series of posts we’ll be re-running from The Horse-World of London by William John Gordon (1893), each one chock-a-block full of interesting details. We hope you’ll enjoy them as much as we do!
The Post Office owns no horses; it does its work by contract, and McNamara’s have `horsed the mails’ ever since 1837, when so many good things began. They have now 600 horses at their central quarters in Finsbury and the local branches from which the outer ring of postal districts is worked, besides a few hundred others for trade traffic. And out of London there are forty-two horses on the Brighton road working the Parcels Coach, and the twenty-six Tunbridge Wells Coach horses, and the other coach horses; but these cannot fairly come into our census, except as regards those for the first stage out and last stage home —the stages being the ten-mile ones of’ the glorious old coaching-days,’ concerning which we may have something to say presently.
The mail horse is the least conspicuous of draught animals. How often do we hear a shout of ‘Here comes the mail!’ and how seldom do we trouble as to what its horses are like! Our attention is caught and fixed by the scarlet cart, while horse and man pass unnoticed; scarlet will have its way, and a mass of it in movement throws all its surroundings into background. Not that the horse need fear criticism. At times he is somewhat rough, at others a trifle weedy; but, taking him by the hundred, he is a serviceable servant, with no nonsense about him, and rarely much to find fault with. Like most of his brethren, he makes his first appearance in the London streets between his fifth and seventh years. Younger than five, no wise master will have a horse for London cartage work. ‘Under that age,’ as an authority told us, ‘they are like children and catch every ailment that comes along.’
The Post-Office horse is always at work. What with ‘mails inwards’ in the morning, ‘mails interchangeable’ during the day, and ‘mails outwards’ at night, and ‘foreign mails’ arriving before their time at all hours of the day and night, and which he must always be at the railway to meet, he has quite enough to employ and worry him. He begins his week’s work at four o’clock on Sunday afternoon; he ends it at half-past ten on Sunday morning; and at any time during that long week he is liable for instant service, and has only five and a half hours’ undisturbed rest. Of course he gets a good deal more as he becomes used to the bustle of the stable, but that is the only respite he is sure of—just enough, as it were, to go to church and digest the Sunday’s dinner. And yet with all this, while the tram horse is cast after four years, and the omnibus horse after five, the mail horse is not weeded out of the service until on an average he has spent six in it.
He is generally English, but comes from no county in particular, and costs rather more than the omnibus horse, for we shall be averaging him rather under the mark at 36L; but he is well looked after and has few ailments. It is not often that a mail horse is sick or goes very wrong. At every railway station to which he goes there is a foreman to look after him, and at every stable there is a keeper to every dozen horses, so that he is attended to at both ends, and his keepers check each other to his advantage. And he lives, as a rule, in flats, in an atmosphere of disinfectants and a continual round of whitewashing; so that everything is done to keep him in health, and the result justifies the effort.
And he is fed well—indeed, if he were not, he could not stand the work. One of the noticeable things at the ever-extending headquarters in Castle Street is the mixing machine, in which the oats and clover and hay and beans are blended into the general mass which forms the fodder. On one floor the hay and clover are being chopped by steam, the knives, owing to the silex in the straw, requiring renewal every twenty minutes; on another floor the chopped stuff is being poured into hoppers sackful by sackful; on another, oats are being poured into another hopper, beans into another; and all these hoppers communicate with channels and spiral travellers and ingenious mixers, so that in the delivery the blend is even and free from all patchiness—the last stage being when the mixture is shot into a huge bin, the bottom of which is, by a turn of a lever, converted into so many swing-fans, between which the provender falls instantly into the sacks below.
McNamara’s not only mix their own fodder, but make their own harness, their own shoes, their own wheels, and even their own carts—for the mail carts are not designed by the Post Office, but by the contractors, and then built on approval. The body of a one-horse mail cart looks n6t unlike a cupboard until it gets the wheels on, but it is rather more elaborate in its decoration, simple as it may seem, for before it gains the royal colour which saves the horse from notice it requires no less than sixteen different coats of paint and varnish. There are 260 of these red carts and vans, and the yard is busy with them and the parcel coaches coming in splashed and thick with mud—the coaches having been out all night, to remain till night, and the carts having most of them been out since four in the morning, and being off again with the change horse.
In and out the horses are worked with very little attempt at a hard-and-fast routine, owing to the irregularity in time and bulk of the foreign mails, which forms the great difficulty of the business, and makes the problem to be dealt with that of dealing with surprise trains. The unexpectedness of these is due to the limit being made as wide as possible at the shipping company’s request, in order to save them from all risk of penalty for being behind-hand, and the arrival taking place as far as possible within the limit, for the sake of the company’s reputation. The inland mail that comes to the moment can be provided for as easily as the outgoing mail that starts to its time; it is the foreign mail brought by the record-breaker, and delivered any number of hours before it is due, for which the Post Office horse has to suffer.
Number One London Tours loves surprises, whether it’s an impromptu stop at an 18th century village, a surprise run-in with Prince Charles or an unexpected stroll in the rain.
Sometimes, we arrange the surprises, as we did by adding a three hour Land Rover tour of the Drumlanrig estate to our upcoming Scottish Writers Retreat itinerary in September. Of course, a tour of the Castle will follow.
I’m posting this video of a partridge shoot at Drumlanrig because it includes great shots of the stunning landscapes we’ll be driving and walking through with our guides, the estate Rangers.
Our 2019 Scottish Writer’s Retreat at Auchinleck House sold out so quickly, we’ve added another Retreat at Gargunnock House for 2019 – details here.
Warning: This video includes segments of an actual shoot. Nothing graphic, but birds do fall from the sky. You can skip past the shooting segments to see the Castle and landscapes, including hills, river and waterfalls.
Partridge Shoot at Drumlanrig Castle – Part One, Part Two will play afterwards.