‘Right, I’ll take these two to feed the ducks, hopefully the walk to the pond will tire them out a bit, and then we’ll see you over at the picnic tables. Meet you at two, does that give you enough time?’
My husband was trying to juggle two small children, the backpack with the food, and a bag of bird-food that we’d got from the little kiosk near the entrance to Suffolk Park. Normally family days out meant that it was me staying with the kids while he went off ‘exploring’; but he knew better than to deprive me of a look inside the seventeenth century mansion. It was quite near home so I was surprised that I’d never actually got round to visiting the house.
I love old houses! The sumptuous furniture, the ornately decorated rooms… actually who am I trying to kid? I love the below stairs areas…it’s so much more interesting! Imagining the life of the lowly servant. Early starts, back-breaking work, dashing down cramped corridors staying out of sight of their betters. I was looking forward to half an hour to myself wandering round. The kids were too young to enjoy anything like this. They’d have just wanted to go haring up all the staircases and laugh at the large ladies in all the portraits.
After quickly working my way through the state rooms and imagining trying to sleep in a bed with those awful curtains round it, I eagerly followed the pale green sign with a hand on it saying ‘downstairs’. This was more like it! Huge scrubbed tables surrounded by units with an assortment of pots and pans for every conceivable dish that the cook could need to make – on the orders of the lady of the house. Then I walked into one lovely, bright little room called ‘The Still’. It had tables and shelves covered with drying flowers and seed-heads. There was also a display of some of the potions that they experimented with – including snail serum – surely not!
‘This is lovely’ I said to the guide standing quietly in the corner, her red curls catching the sunlight. ‘I could see myself working in here on a spring morning – making something calming out of lavender.’
‘It is charming isn’t it?’ replied the woman. ‘Apparently there was a necessity in Tudor times to make pleasant smells to cover up the stench, but this had been refined in the seventeenth century into making tinctures and perfumes. So her ladyship and some of her servants became quite skilled in the art of the apothecary. Many of them became experts in plants. Aromatherapy was becoming popular, and herbal remedies were very common. If you’re interested, the gift shop has a reproduction of a journal from one of the women who worked here. By all accounts she could have rivalled today’s alternative medicine with her knowledge of the beneficial properties of plants.’ She grinned. ‘I’m so sorry, it’s a bit of a passion of mine, this place. I just love the thought of gathering flowers and herbs from the garden and then working in here.’ Her lovely green eyes sparkled with pleasure. ‘So many possibilities.’
‘No, no… I find it fascinating, it’s been really interesting talking to you … thanks!’ Glancing at my watch, I realised I’d need to get a move on if I was going to meet David and the kids on time.
After lunch we were looking in the little shop so that the kids could spend their pocket-money.
‘Ciaran do you really need a key-ring with a picture of the house on it? You don’t even have any keys! Why don’t you look for something else?’
‘But Mum it’s only 50p and that leaves me £1.50 to get an ice-cream!’
While they were queuing up I had a quick look at the books. ‘Ah, here it is’ – almost hidden at the back was the book the woman had been talking about; such a cute little journal in a mauve cover with lots of drawings of flowers on it – ‘Journal of Elizabeth Vale 1672’. It had a strip of purple ribbon as a bookmark with a miniature lavender bag on the end. Turning it over I saw there was an orange sticker saying £4.90. ‘That’ll do. I can read it on the bus’ I thought.
Over the next few days I quite enjoyed reading the journal entries. As well as writing about the herbs she collected at different times of year, and the way she overcame the problems of storing them while they dried; she also included aspects of her life: kindnesses shown her by the lady of the house, interest shown in her by one of the footmen, wearing material wrapped round her feet in the icy weather just to try and keep warm.
There was a long entry that detailed her efforts in collecting mistletoe and columbine. She seemed to go to an awful lot of trouble – maybe she was trying to make a Christmas wreath? Then it ended with an entry on July 19th about how excited she was to have made friends with the two new serving girls who had started work in the house. Then there was a recipe for distilling monkshood and foxglove, with a pretty little garland pattern round it. Why did foxglove ring a bell? I wonder what happened to her. Did she have a happy life?
‘David, did you remember it’s your turn to pick the kids up from Mum and Dad’s tomorrow?’ I asked him as we were clearing up the dinner things. Both of the children had swimming lessons after school on a Thursday, so dad picked them up from the pool and took them to the house so they could see him and Mum for an hour or so. We normally took it in turns to collect them. ‘Mum’ll feed you….’ I added. It was a sad fact, that early in my married life; I’d had to admit that I did not inherit my mother’s flair in the kitchen!
‘Good idea! So what are you up to then? If you’re planning a surprise for my birthday there’s a lovely French restaurant just opened up in town.’ He hinted.
‘Actually I want to nip into Suffolk Park on my way home from work. I wanted to ask that girl if she knows any more about the owner of the diary. Maybe there’s something about her in the history of the house.’
‘Not another mission!’ David laughed. ‘Remember when you were convinced that Queen Elizabeth I was really a man just because of the way she was standing in that portrait. Don’t you think if she was a bloke, her father, Henry VIII might have noticed and not torn the country to pieces trying to get a son?’
‘There was definitely a bulge I tell you!’ I said, joining in with his laughter. ‘I’m just interested that’s all, I shouldn’t be late if I get the bus straight from work. They shut at six anyway, I’ll whizz in quick, and try to be at Mum and Dad’s by seven.’
‘We’ll try and remember to save you some pudding.’ Said David grinning.
I got to the house just after five thirty and it looked beautiful; bathed in an early evening glow. Nodding at the elderly guide in the kitchen I headed straight for the room I had so enjoyed visiting. The room looked the same as before, a little oasis bathed in a warm light, but the pretty girl wasn’t there today. Retracing my steps I thought I’d ask the woman in the kitchen if she might know anything.
‘Hello,’ I said brightly, ‘I picked up a book in your gift shop and I was hoping to find out more about one of the servants who worked in the still in the late sixteen hundreds. She made a lot of perfumes and potions and I wondered if there was any more about her in the history of the house?’
‘Seventeenth century you say? I expect there’ll be something in the gift shop, they have some wonderful books about the area. Can you remember her name?’
‘Yes, the diary I bought was by a girl called Elizabeth Vale. I was talking to the lady who was in the still last week.’ Was I mistaken or did she give me a bit of a strange look? ‘Sorry dear, I don’t think there is anyone who works in that room. It’s too drafty for most of us, I know it plays havoc with my arthritis. My friend Vera works in the gift-shop, I’m just about finished here we can go and ask her if she remembers anything.’
‘I don’t want to put you to any trouble!’ I said, feeling like I was making a fuss about nothing.
‘No, no I always meet her after work so we can get our bus together, it’s no trouble at all dear. She’ll be glad to help you if she can.’
Returning to the shop I was introduced to Vera who turned out to be a mine of information about Suffolk Park. That was why she still volunteered there even though she must have been pushing eighty.
‘Elizabeth Vale you say dear?’ she said in a voice that was surprisingly strong for someone so frail-looking. ‘Yes, that name definitely seems familiar. We did quite a lot of research about the staff who worked here in the seventeenth century. I was one of the secretaries working on a book. We’ve probably got a copy somewhere. Quite a bright girl if it’s the one I’m thinking of, became a trusted confidante of her ladyship, especially through the many dalliances her husband humiliated her with.
‘Really? I didn’t read about that when I was looking round!’
‘Yes dear, he was terrible! Trouble was, where her ladyship put up with his carrying on, this girl took it all a bit too much to heart. Angry about what was going on, she swore vengeance on the young women who were warming his bed, and by all accounts experimented with some of the plants that were …um…how shall I put it… less beneficial to man?’
‘What you mean she poisoned them?!’
‘Well not enough to kill anyone, but it certainly left the poor girls feeling quite rough. I can’t help wondering if Elizabeth was one of his dalliances. Otherwise why not just poison him? She was understood to make friends with the girls and often gave them little gifts like perfume and dried flowers – but her favourite present was a little lavender bag which she advised them to carry around. Trouble was they all contained small amounts of foxglove; which is absorbed through the skin, causing nausea and vomiting. Probably put you off any thought of a romantic evening!’
Walking over to the bookshelf, leaning heavily on her walking stick, she picked up a glossy volume in her gnarled old hand.
‘This is the book I was talking about; written by the current owner’s father back in the thirties.’ She thumbed through the book. ‘Oh yes here we are, she gets a whole paragraph:
“Elizabeth Vale was convicted of causing harm to seven young women in August 1672, and placed in the Bedlam, and there she died after only one month. Refused to eat or drink. It was a sad end for such a pretty young girl, much admired for her long auburn hair and unusually green eyes.”
She never could forgive anyone that she thought might catch her master’s eye. Believed every young woman she met was a scheming Jezebel! What a sad story.’ She said, returning the book to its place on the shelf.
‘They should include that story in the lovely little journal.’ I said, ‘The one with the purple ribbon for a bookmark. No wonder it was the only one left on the shelf – it was such an interesting read.’
‘I think you must be mistaken dear’ she said. We’ve never sold any journal. If we had I’d have saved one for my niece. She loves anything like that.’
First the girl with the green eyes, now the diary with the lavender bag bookmark. Next they’d be telling me that Father Christmas didn’t exist either!
Bidding them farewell as they ambled off towards their bus, I crossed over and waited at the stop on the other side. Rummaging in my bag for my oyster card, my hand closed on the little book. ‘I should have showed them this!’ I thought crossly. Then an unexpected shiver ran through me as my thumb ran along the purple ribbon holding the lavender bag. What does foxglove look like anyway?
Ripping it off; I threw it in the nearest bin. Then picking up my phone; I texted David. ‘You’d better have saved me a very large slice of mum’s fruit cake; I think I’m going to need it!
The picture is from Ham House a National Trust property near Richmond Park.