I’m up at a time before 6am, and Birmingham is awash with silent snow, clagging up roads, watering down paths, muting grey suburbia into a delight of white shapes. It’s also making taxi’s late.
Two train, two hours twenty including a 40 minute wait at Stockport journey. I’ve become quite accustomed to the wait at Stockport, buying over priced drinks just to slide into the warm of the ubiquitous Orange Pumpkin Cafe. They have so slowly seeped their way into our travelling conscious, that I have only now noticed that their microwave sandwiches and range of Ginsters are the only refreshments available in stations. I’m just grateful it’s not the mouth lacerating Upper Crust. Still, I can tell up I’m further up north, as chat is made with the overtly friendly staff. I’m sucking on a soggy sausage sandwich, weighing up customers, getting up to shut the breeze blowing door and wondering if a piece of grit will fly happily into my eye.
I’m starting at Tatton Park today, a research project, a writing project, what will become a performance around the hidden histories of the famous manor and it’s deer filled park. I bring a few of my own recent histories; I know that my best mate and her husband met here in a vodka fuelled marquee, black tie, high heels and smart dresses, nearly a decade ago. I’ve heard that my maternal grandmother was bought here, being wheeled about under tartan blanket to have her face frozen in the wind in front of a lake and a herd of deers. Rictus smile.
There is a wealth of research being made, about the servants that lived here, the lords and ladies, the technologies used, the people that passed through. We walk through the house that is closed to the public at the moment, dust covers on antique furniture, silk wall paper, sweeping stairs. A library shelved in leather bound books, actual books, not display books, books that have been cared for and read, and re-read, notes in the margins. Music manuscripts. An entrance hall with a sprung dance floor. Pictures and paintings of owners past eye us in shaded rooms. I wonder how many hands have polished those 6 by 6 mirrors, the dust of skin cells that settle on chandeliers, the footsteps of footmen that wear down the carpet. We walk through bedroom and gilded corridor, down staircases made for the family, peeping in made for maids cupboards that sit underneath. And try to hear the stories that whisper through the walls, of facts and figures and turn over of staff, of myths and legends that run through the bloodlines.
The shut lift. I’m told it’s beautiful inside, made for two, but not for my eyes at present, soon it will re-open, when it’s been re-assessed, re-built. Baggage, original suitcases, stranded on the landing, having travelled so far before being stuck on one floor.
At the end of last week, I was toured through the kitchens and the servants quarters, cutting edge cookers of their time, and copper pans of giant’s proportions. An electric spit, and rumours of an old, old electric fridge, one of the first of it’s kind. Locked doors and glimpsed through offices to show what once was. Shelves piled high with pieces and items that have no place.
And today, this afternoon we creep into the attic. The male quarters that were once for servants travelling with their Masters and Mistresses, now shut off as untouched rooms in the eves. A glass panel and a hint at floor above through a glass dome. Steep steps up to the roof to a landing. Shut doors surround the domed roof glass that casts light right down to the stairway hall, the dancing hall.
Through the creak of a door and a stepping over of fragile floorboards, a beam from the torches (there is no electric light) sweep down printed paper that peels from walls. These were rooms, once were slept in, lived in, in limbo, part time in an alien house. Century or more old flowers crawl across walls perfectly preserved in colour as they squint preserved in the dark. All natural light in these rooms has been boarded up, or insulated. Old insulation show fillings prickly with horse hair to fill the gaps. Wires from modern fire alarms race along the ceiling, alongside the tracks of once pulled bell cables, ducking under wallpaper and connecting no more to their master. The paper curls off like a woman collapsing, feminine colours…these vaulted rooms were only for visiting male staff. Their footsteps treading quietly on roofs above the heads of their employers. Squirrels in the attic attending to their duties.
It was about the 1880’s that these rooms were shut off, no longer needed, boarded up, cold and with little light they were left to age on their own, save the smoke alarms, an ancient vacuum cleaner that plugs into light fittings and a forest of lamps.
An small cupboard entrance up to the roof shows years and years of pencilled and inked graffiti, from pre world wars through world wars to 2000’s workman have written on this cubby hole; some italicised writing that is hard to decipher, some instructional-manual assistance, some simple dates, names and ages (17, 24, 36) some-a postcard home-‘I wish it would stop raining’. In this well to do home sits the writing of the men that helped maintain it.
On the way back to the offices that sit inside the house, people working away as they have always done here, we stop to take a peek inside ‘the chapel’ on the 2nd floor. Now mainly for storage, it stretches out from the door, faded panels hint at more decorative times, sofas swathed in plastic, giant drill bits on shelves, flags, bits of shelving. And hints, in pull down black out blinds that this might once have been a place for Maurice Egerton (the last Earl of the estate, game hunter, collector, traveller) to project his films.