I will try to describe the place as best I can, though you would have to see Swallowcliffe for yourself to understand its magic. The main house is three storeys high, built from a honey-coloured stone which weathers to a silvery-grey in places over time. There is a grey slate roof with dormer windows set into it, a parapet around the edge and a little round tower in the middle which I think is called a cupola. On top of that is the weather vane: a golden swallow who swings about as the wind takes him, looking out over the formal gardens and the lake to the south of the house, or the winding drive and avenue of oak trees to the north, or east and west across miles of rolling parkland to the wooded hills which rise up behind.

From Polly's Story

Swallowcliffe Hall is an imaginary building, but it is a combination of several of the country houses I've visited – in particular, Kingston Lacy, near Wimborne in Dorset, and Belton House, near Grantham in Lincolnshire. They seemed to me to be the right sort of size for Swallowcliffe (large, but not vast palaces), grand but also somehow homely, being inhabited by the same family for generations, and both set in lovely gardens. You can find out about these two stately homes and lots more in Britain on the National Trust website: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk

For the covers of the Swallowcliffe Hall books, I photographed beautiful Creech Grange in Dorset, with the kind permission of the owner, Mr Norman Hayward. The colour photographs on this page show various aspects of the Grange as it is today.


When might Swallowcliffe Hall have been built? Perhaps in the late 1600s, like Belton House and Kingston Lacy. It might well have been improved upon over the years by succeeding generations of the family, depending on their fortunes and according to their interests; a servants' courtyard might be added, for example, the gardens landscaped or a stable block built.  As the Vyes' fortunes were augmented by proceeds from farming or industry, perhaps, or from tea or sugar plantations in British colonies abroad, Lord Vye would have wanted to show off the money he'd made. The family home would become a showcase for sculpture, paintings, furniture and books brought back from travels overseas.

The servants, however, would be as far removed from such finery as possible. A separate staircase might be built, for example, so that they would not have to be seen coming and going (especially if they were carrying chamber pots!), and a kitchen established some distance away from the main part of the house so that cooking smells would be less obvious. Belton has an underground passage running under the servants' courtyard which links the kitchen to the dining room, and along which the food was transported on wall-mounted trolleys. The dishes must have been quite cold by the time they arrived! The servants' areas would also have been organised so that men and women could be kept strictly apart, with the butler or steward in charge of the male indoor servants and the housekeeper in charge of the female staff (apart from the cook – sometimes a man, in any case – who was usually a law unto herself).

Not many homes would have had electricity in the late Victorian period, no matter how grand they were. Hatfield House in Hertfordshire was one of the first to benefit from electric light. A visitor to the house in the winter of 1890 wrote wonderingly, 'All the windows blazed and glittered with light through the dark walls; the Golden Gallery with its hundreds of electric lights was like a Venetian illumination. The many guests coming and going, the curiously varied names inscribed upon the bedroom doors were all part of the magic.'

Lady Godiva de Rougepott: 'I don't think any painting looks well in this horrid electric light!'
Hostess (nettled): 'Don't you,dear? Perhaps you would prefer to remain in the drawing-room, where the lamps and shades are!'

From Punch magazine, 1891

When Polly Perkins first came to Swallowcliffe, the house would probably have been lit by a mixture of portable lamps and gas lighting in places like hallways, where draughts from open doors could put out a lamp or candle, and kitchens, where brighter light was needed (although we wouldn't think Victorian gaslight so very bright today). Polly would have carried out her work on dark winter mornings by the light of a candle and she'd have had a candle to light her way to bed.

There might well have been one or two bathrooms at Swallowcliffe Hall in the 1890s – although with plenty of servants to carry cans of hot water upstairs, Lord Vye might have thought piped hot water wasn't worth the expense. Many ladies certainly preferred to have baths before a roaring fire in their bedrooms than venture down the draughty corridor. And a chamber pot under the bed was more convenient in the middle of the night than a visit to the water-closet. A bathroom for the servants would probably have been considered completely unnecessary. They were provided with washstands in their rooms. By the time Grace, Polly's daughter, arrived to work at the Hall in 1913, electric lighting and a piped hot water system would have made life a great deal easier for the servants – although there was no sign yet of such newfangled contraptions as a telephone or a refrigerator at Swallowcliffe.

The photograph below shows a group of housemaids, one of whom is carrying a water can. (Note the iny waist of the girl second on the left! Her corset must have been laced so tightly she could hardly breathe.)

Probably the greatest change to the Vyes' way of life would have occurred outside the house, rather than inside: the arrival of the motor-car. The motor not only took people about more quickly and comfortably than a carriage, it also provided a place where young men and women could spend time alone together without a chaperone. At first the upper classes relied on a chauffeur (usually a Frenchman in the early years of motoring, as the first cars to appear in England were French), but later, when so many men went off to fight in the First World War, both sexes learned to drive for themselves, and girls gained an independence that their mothers must have envied.

Many of the gentry encouraged their menservants to volunteer for active service in the war, promising to hold open their jobs until they returned. Some also offered their houses for the war effort, which were turned into hospitals or convalescent homes for wounded soldiers. For example, Major and Mrs Powell Cotton made their home – Quex Park, a small country house set in 250 acres of parkland in Kent – available to the Red Cross for use as a military hospital, moving with their three young children into one of the staff cottages on the estate. The hospital opened with four hours' notice to receive 27 wounded Belgian soldiers on 14 October, 1914. By the time the war ended, 1,241 men had been cared for, and only three lives lost. Six private cars (two belonging to Major Powell Cotton) were converted into ambulances for the hospital, and a further fleet of 29 cars donated by local people carried 'sitting' patients – all costs being borne by their owners. You can visit Quex Park today. Major Powell Cotton's son still lives there and is director of the fascinating Powell-Cotton Museum in the grounds.

Deciding what to do with their large country houses was an impossible dilemma for many of the landed gentry in between the two world wars. It was difficult to find staff or the money to pay them, a generation of sons and heirs had been killed in the Great War, and death duties and taxes were rising so sharply that most families struggled to maintain the homes that had been theirs for generations. The National Trust did a good job of preserving some historic houses, but it couldn't afford to take on every crumbling pile it was offered. Some houses were turned into boarding schools, nursing homes, hotels or country clubs, some were opened to the public, and others simply rotted away. An irreplaceable window into British history went with them ...

The photographs below show Tyneham House in Dorset as it was in 1891, and then in ruins in 1968. The house was taken over by the RAF in 1941, along with the rest of the village, and then abandoned after the Second World War. In 1968, the War Office and Ministry of Works decided the house was not worth restoration and most of it was demolished. (Reprinted from Purbeck Camera, by Mike O'Hara and Ben Buxton, Dovecote Press.)