Nicola here! Last weekend we met up with some of our college friends for our annual reunion. This was the 27th year we have done this. We started small – ten of us having dinner together in a rented flat in London in 1986. (Here we all are in the picture - I hope my friends will forgive me!) As time passed and we became a little more prosperous we met in various country house hotels where someone else cooked the dinner for us. Then some members of the group got married, some had children and we wanted to bring partners and kids along so we moved the location to old coaching inns in towns and cities where there was plenty to occupy the children. Then it all changed again. About six years ago we decided to go back to catering for ourselves and we took it in turns to book houses that could accommodate up to twenty-four people. This year it was my turn to arrange the weekend and I knew exactly where I wanted us to go – somewhere historic.
It’s not easy to arrange accommodation for twenty-four when you’re looking for a fair degree of comfort. You also need a degree in mathematics simply to work out which rooms can accommodate which combination of families. It’s even more difficult to find somewhere old that will accommodate twenty-four people and not cost the earth. I looked at various splendid stately homes. One, in Somerset, was a 13th century manor house. It sounded fabulous but it cost £11 000 for the weekend. There was plenty of choice in Scotland and at a very reasonable price. The problem was that it would take us all weekend simply to get there. Next!
An 18th Century Farm
I realised we would need to set our sights a little lower. Then I found Luckley Farm (pictured), in a village in the Cotswolds near Stow-On-The-Wold. Stow is an ancient market town packed with interesting old buildings, quirky shops and two wonderful antiquarian booksellers. Luckley was only a few miles outside of the town in the middle of stunning countryside. It was perfect, an 18th century farmhouse with 21st century plumbing. When I say farmhouse, I’m talking about the kind of very substantial home a prosperous farmer would live in during the late 18th and early 19th century. Luckley was a big house and a working farm. In 1806 the rent charged for it was over £500. The tenant farmer also had considerable standing in the neighbourhood. Samuel Shelton, who lived at Luckley at the turn of the 19th century, was described as a “yeoman” in the records. From the Middle Ages a yeoman was a free man who owned or worked a parcel of land. By the late 18th century he was a solid member of the middle class. Samuel Shelton was happy to engage in correspondence with Sir Charles Cockerell the owner of Sezincote, the local “big house” about improvements to the church and did not seem overawed by his aristocratic neighbours, pointing out in one letter that the parishoners needed a warm, dry church and since Sir Charles only visited a couple of times a year it was hardly fair to penalise the people who attended every week!
Down on the Farm
The day started early on the Regency farm. Both the farmer and his wife would be up at 5am, the wife getting the servant girls up to light the fires and get milking, making the cheese or churning the butter. The housewife herself would be quite prepared to turn her hand to any of these tasks and also to tend to the animals, collect the eggs and take the farm produce to market.
Behind the house at Luckley was a walled garden with fruit trees and in the farmyard a beautiful dovecote. The dovecote would have been a valuable source of meat, manure and feathers. In the medieval period only manorial lords were allowed to have a dovecote but the laws were relaxed after 1600 and many farms then built them. There is also a restored granary at Luckley. Granaries were built from the mid 17th century onwards when changes in farming methods led to increased grain production and the need to find a means of storage for large quantities of it.
As lesser gentry the yeoman and his family might well still live as their ancestors had done, the farmer's wife looking after the house, family, servants and animals. They would not be part of the society that went up to London for the season and the daughters in particular might receive a very basic education at the local school. However there were yeomen who were ambitious for their daughters to marry further up the social scale and these girls became genteel, adopting the accomplishments of drawing and embroidery and even reading upon occasion! Some old-fashioned people complained that these girls were no longer any good at shearing a sheep or even cleaning or making a pudding. Financial ruin was never far away from such families, though. A couple of bad harvests could reverse their fortunes and then the girls might find themselves looking for a post as governess.
Although the farmhouse had been renovated and changed over the years there were still plenty of the original 18th century features left. There was a huge kitchen with bread ovens on each side of the enormous open fireplace and a big, comfortable drawing room that featured family portraits from the 19th century. We all took our turn for a photograph under the ancestors. (The picture shows the dh and me taking our turn in the hot seat!) The portraits of the male members of the family looked every inch the Victorian country gentlemen they had become. According to the family story we were told, the Victorian owner of Luckley married a much younger lady (the one in the portrait above us.) There was some sort of scandal and they had to go abroad to get married!
On the first floor of the house, up a wide wooden staircase, were four bedrooms, one with a 19th century four-poster bed. (Yes, I grabbed that one!) All the rooms on this floor had their original windows with stone embrasures and mullioned panes. On the top floor were a further two rooms with wonderful original beams on display. It would be difficult to find a more inspiring place for a historical romance writer – and friends – to stay. The house had a definite atmosphere and more than one guest mentioned that they had sensed a ghostly presence and seen a mysterious white shadow wafting about the house!
It was also a house packed with old books. One wall on the first floor was completely taken up with a bookcase whose contents varied from the religious to the medical to Barbara Cartland romances to a “health and efficiency” manual about sex published in the 1920s!
We had a wonderful weeked full of friendship and nostalgia and plans for the future. It was lovely to see everyone and explore such a beautiful place. Plus I came away with ideas for settings, characters - and Regency scandals!
Do you have friendships going back many years? Do you go to reunions of family, high school or college friends? What would be your perfect venue?