It is the first day of the new season and visitors are beginning to pour into Hatfield House after the winter months. The rainbow portrait of Queen
Elizabeth I faces the entrance to the Marble hall, where lavish banquets were once held. It is panelled wall-to-wall in dark wood with a black and white chequered marble floor. This leads onto the Grand Staircase. As I climb the wooden stairs I admire the tapestries that line the walls, and the huge crystal chandelier suspended from the gilded ceiling, its antique crystals dimmed with age.
Jacobean carvings of cherubs playing musical instruments and lions holding heraldic shields are surmounted on posts along the bannister. On reaching the top of the stairs, all I can make out are their silhouettes as the daylight casts shadows across them. I turn around for a moment and feel an eerie sense of days gone by as I imagine all the guests that have treaded these stairs and feel like a speck in history.
I wander in and out of more rooms that lead to the long gallery and into the library. The walls are filled with antiquarian books and the chairs are crimson leather. I step a little closer and notice books by authors from Darwin to Shakespeare, but also a large collection of French literature. The guide tells me that there are over 10,000 books in this room. Amazing! There is a balcony decorated with Parisian cast-iron rails and I naturally want to climb the steps to look at the library from a different angle. I linger, absorbing the atmosphere, wishing I could have the place to myself for an evening or two and dip into any book I choose.
I descend another staircase and step into a small peaceful chapel, consecrated in 1611 and still in use. The stained glass window takes centre stage and an incandescent light diffuses the sacred space. It is rich in imagery and colour depicting scenes from the Old Testament and flanked by two angels, beautifully sculpted in marble.
My feelings of serenity are short-lived as I approach the basement and the end of the tour. There before me lies a series of spacious basement kitchen rooms with slate work tops, cast iron ovens and shelves filled with copperware, set up to prepare Elizabethan recipes. I imagine all the clattering about and chaos in preparation for a banquet. I stand still for a moment and there in my mind’s eye appears Mrs Bridges from Upstairs Downstairs, stressed out as always, up to her neck in flour and butter, preparing an apple pie fit for a Queen!
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