I didn’t really want to go round Stivrington Hall, but I was cajoled. Come on Livia, it’s a day out, there’s bound to be something of interest there, and I hear they do a rather good lunch and cream teas.
In fact I knew there was not much to interest me there – it really was an exceedingly dull place, once belonging to an exceedingly dull family. Despite the great examples of other stately homes which present themselves in ways to catch the interest of most people, Stivrington had managed to avoid following their model. However, I felt somewhat obliged to go along with Pat; I’d dragged her to the most terrible play, embarrassingly ghastly, and she had been stoic and pleasant. I’d made up for it by buying too many large gins in a nearby bar, and then had to pay for a taxi to take her home as I’d forgotten I was supposed to be driving. And I got a parking ticket.
We arrived at Stivrington, parked among trees and walked through the woodland to the gate where we had to pay. This was the nicest part of the visit, I remembered, and Pat, who hadn’t been before thought it, was delightful. We’d arrived at the same time as a minibus of old ladies – maybe I should say other old ladies, because I have to admit I can’t honestly call myself middle-aged any more. It was rather depressing, but I bucked up for Pat’s sake as she was looking forward to it.
Through the gate and a rather grim young woman took control of us; we somehow got drawn into the OAPs fold, and the young woman told us in an unnecessarily snappish way, that we had to stick together, we were not to wander off, and all bags, coats and umbrellas were to be left at the entrance. One old dear – I shouldn’t call her that, one of the minibus ladies asked if it was alright for them to bring their walking sticks. She was told ‘only if strictly necessary’. Strictly necessary? I was about to say something, but Pat murmured soothingly to me and I held my tongue. It was like being back at school.
It was only a short walk between tall, dark yew hedges, and when I stopped to read a notice, the grim young woman chivvied me to keep up. Pat was amused. I thought to myself that the lunch and the cream tea – yes both, ought to be jolly good to make up for it. One of the minibus ladies, the one who seemed to be in charge, was calling out things of interest about the visit – wonderful glass, mind the mats they can be slippy, there might be a Gainsborough but it’s disputed, don’t touch the crewel work. I wasn’t surprised that the grim young lady stalked ahead without waiting for the party.
It was lucky that no-one was in a wheelchair as there was no ramp up to the front door, only steps. Some of the ladies struggled and I helped several of them who I don’t think would have made it safely to the top without a helping hand. There was no sight of the grim young lady until we were all inside. I was last in and had missed most of the introduction which she was rattling through, ignoring one old dear who kept asking her to speak up and turning round to the others – what did she say, dear? What was that, eh? Eh? What? Eh?
“Please do not touch anything! Now, follow me, and do not touch anything!”
Suddenly, the minibus lady who seemed to be in charge of the group turned to me and Pat. “You should wait for the next tour, you’re not in our group!” she said in an unnecessarily nasty way.
“Jean, that’s not a nice thing to say!” said another in the group – there was obviously some history between them.
We said not one word, ignored nasty Jean, and followed on, even though she kept hissing at us that we weren’t in the group. There were items of interest, and one of the minibus ladies attached herself to me and Pat and proved to be not only very pleasant and knowledgeable, but a great expert in glass of all sorts. The grim young lady marched ahead, and the group became spread out, trailing along at their own snail-like speed.
“I can’t wait to see the paperweights,” our new friend, Bella, said as we paused in front of a family portrait. “They are the only reason I’ve come to this ghastly place.”
She gave us some information about them. Paperweights began to be popular in the 1850’s, everything in them is made of glass, the ones which look like flowers or coral are called millefiori and there are also lampwork weights. Bella told us a lot more, that they were made in Venice and London and Bohemia, but the best were French. We came to the so-called anteroom where the collection was displayed, unprotected, on a very long oval table. My favourite had a flare of turquoise and bright yellow, like sunflowers on a sunny day.
The grim young lady was giving the patter and kept snapping not to touch, not to touch which was understandable as some of the old dears were desperate to do so. She soon ordered the group to follow her to the long gallery, but we lingered behind with a couple of others, gazing at the wonders of the paperweights.
“We ought to move on,” Pat said and regretfully we left them, although Jean, the bossy the woman, ignored us and stayed. I glanced back at the miserable old dear and was shocked to see her actually picking up one of the paperweights. She’d be in trouble if the grim young lady found out!
We went into the long gallery and at the end was a largish what you might call an alcove, with benches. We were told to sit to watch some flickery film of the Ffrarengton family who owned the hall and now lived in a small flat in the east wing.
We’d just sat down when Bella tried to get up again – she had left her gloves on the table in front of the portrait we’d been looking at. I immediately volunteered to go and get them, I’d be quicker and also I didn’t mind missing the Ffarengton family movies. The grim young lady was not in sight, and I hurried back through the long gallery and into the ante-room.
I was surprised to see miserable Jean still standing by the paperweight display. She looked equally surprised to see me and put her head down and set off to join her friends. I found Bella’s gloves as she had described, on the table in front of the portrait of a mournful Ffarengton.
On my way back I paused to look again at the sunflower paperweight – except it wasn’t there! I looked under the table in case it had been picked up and dropped, but no, there was no sign of it. There was nothing I could do, so I dashed back to the long gallery and caught up with miserable Jean creeping along.
“Can I help? Do you want to take my arm?” I asked, and grudgingly she did and leant on me and I could feel how feeble she actually was.
I helped her to sit down in a space on the benches and sat next to her. I wasn’t watching the last tedious black and white frolics of the Ffarengtons, but thinking instead of the mystery of the missing paperweight. Of course it wasn’t a mystery at all, but I was mulling it over.
The grim young lady appeared as the clunking piano which had accompanied the home movies drew to a close and we were chivvied to follow her to the gift shop. I helped Jean up, heaving her onto her feet, much to her grumbling that she was quite alright, which she obviously wasn’t, her energy was flagging. Pat stepped in to help and I left her to it.
I caught up with Pat back in the gift shop and we decided to head to the refreshment area in the stables. I was more than ready for something to eat and a cup of coffee. Bella asked if we minded her accompanying us, she’d bought a book but none of the knickknacks had any appeal, she said.
After a very good lunch, we headed home, chatting about the place we’d visited, and deciding if we came again, we would walk in the grounds and have lunch but give the hall a miss.
“The best part was the paperweights, and all the interesting history Bella told us, what a nice person she is!” exclaimed Pat.
I was thinking about my own small adventure, extracting the sunflower paperweight from miserable Jean’s coat pocket and putting it back in its place on the long oval table. I didn’t tell Pat about it, Jean’s secret was safe.