Oil money

After bidding Buckinghamshire farewell, we pushed on towards Warwickshire. West and slightly north. After the traffic and roadworks hell-hole (or whatever the atheist equivalent is) of the south east, I was relieved and pleasantly surprised at the feeling of space on this cross-country route. Very farmy with big rolling hills and long distant views. Hans loves this type of country: lots of up and down, but gentle inclines and twisty without too many tight turns. All 4th and 5th gear driving at about 80km/h (or 50mph in old money). Gives pilot D a chance to enjoy the driving as well as the countryside (with occasional token admiring glances at S so she feels special).

So, our next stop was a National Trust property. We bloody well paid for the membership so it won’t cost £12 to get in. In fact when conveniently forgetting how much our little orange cards cost for the year, it’s free entry! First stop Snowshill Manor. Oh dear. It’s one of NT’s most popular properties, it’s on a very steep hillside and the carpark small and full. Well full of plonkers! All the spots Hans could have squeezed into were taken by cars spaced far enough apart to open doors fully and allow a lady in crinoline to pass between without catching a door mirror. Grrr. After much manoeuvering, gear changing, hill starts centimetres from the surrounding cars, and pacing the length of Hans to see if we could squeeze into that impossible gap, we gave up and took to the road. The place Hans feels at home. “We did pass that other National Trust property that mentioned an Art Deco Bathroom”. I do like a circular route and become irrationally annoyed by having to go back to somewhere after passing previously. This may change as we travel. After heavy soul searching and the words “Art Deco” to persuade, we decided to backtrack a bit. Art Deco is my favourite period for design and architecture so it would seem silly to be irrationally annoyed at this point.

Upton House. The country pad for Walter Bearsted, the son of Marcus Bearsted who founded the company Shell Transport and Trading Company. Which became Shell. Which became Royal Dutch Shell. Which we all call Shell.

Upton House was already an old house that was modified to suit the owners. Don’t get too excited Art Deco lovers, this is not a house that was completely remodelled to look like a 1920’s ocean liner. Walter was a great art lover and didn’t want the interior of the house overpowering his paintings and hideous porcelain collection. Because of this, most of the house is restrained and homely. Where the interior designers were allowed to run riot was in Lady Bearsted’s bedroom and her bathroom. The bathroom is almost entirely clad in aluminium foil with red highlights. Can red be a highlight when the rest is silver? To modern eyes her bathroom is far too superficially bling. Having said that, can you imagine the shocked reaction of people in the 1930s who were shown this room when all they had seen before was white tiles and dark timber left over from the (UK) Victorian era

His bathroom

Her bathroom

The house was used as a weekend party house mainly. As you walk in through the entrance, you walk into a large entertaining hall that features wonderful views over the countryside. Typical of these types of houses, it’s all about the impressively large facade. As you enter, you realise it’s only two rooms and a corridor deep. The house is all left, right and up – but not back!

Walter was filthy rich. This was the era when that black/brown gloopy stuff that powers everything and is made into stuff became gold. Oil was the future and we are still umbilically connected to the stuff. As well as buying very expensive paintings with his pocket money, he gave huge amounts of his money away. Schools, charities, homes and even football clubs! A true philanthropist. Picture him as a sort of Bill Gates of his era.

There was a very interesting room set up as a sort of “history of Shell advertising”. There’s a sort of wonderful innocence in the early advertisements. It’s all “oil is good for you, burn the stuff like there’s no tomorrow!” We know too much now. When I see an advertisement for Shell or any or them for that matter, bleating on about how kind they are to the environment, all I can think about is: the shameful neglect of the Niger Delta, the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, arming militia in central America, or the biggest environmental disaster the planet has ever seen: Alberta Tar sands in Alaska.

Right, need a coffee, best turn the gas on.

Ha-ha. I know it sounds ridiculous. This is the posh thing to do with a garden – have a ditch at the end of the garden, so it looks like your land goes on forever. Known as a Ha-ha. I know, I keep laughing too! Perhaps the inspiration for those hotels with an infinity pool overlooking the sea.

Ah-ha! What was the other side of the ditch


The main picture is me in my perfect kitchen. It was huge with separate pantry and marble-shelved coolroom, as well as a corner with a bookshelf and armchair. And of course, the enormous Aga. Couldn’t get any better for me.

Apparently the latest director of the National Trust believes that people should experience history and that their properties should include hands-on bits. So, we were able to read Her Ladyship’s scrapbook in her bedroom (including her receipts for Elizabeth Arden – she was keeping track because her brother teased her about how much she spent there) and His Lordship’s journal in the library. There was a great story in the journal. He, unusually for the time, ‘managed’ the kitchen – basically, he gave the cook her orders. He was unwell for a couple of months and his wife took over. One day, she was in the kitchen when a young lad appeared at the door with a jug. He didn’t recognise her so said ‘Excuse me ma’am, I’ve come for the cream’. The wife sent him away and then investigated – it turned out that the kitchen staff gave him a free jug of cream every now and then. She told her husband that the staff were stealing from him and that he was too soft on them. His response was ‘It is an arrangement that seems to suit everyone well and if I can’t afford to lose an occasional jug of cream, no-one can’. I got the impression that he was an all-round nice chap, even if his taste in porcelain was awful. It was only matched by his wife’s taste in bathrooms.



I rather like that bathroom. The only other silver-clad room I’ve seen was in a palace whose name I can’t remember (Henry VIII and Virginia Wolfe were involved in it somehow). The entire room and everything in it was plated with silver (Ag that is, not Al). Apparently a fad of some bygone era. As for that Shell advert – could it be that they were at the time claiming that oil was taking over from coal (only a good thing if you remain ignorant of the fossil nature of each)? And, S, that kitchen; you will be needing a lackey to do the dusting as you read beside the soup simmering on the Aga. Note to D; win the lottery.

His bathroom is very practical… he could, for example, leap directly into the bath-tub if someone happens to plant a bomb under the toilet seat?

Love the other side of the ditch, kitchen too big for me !!

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