Belton House is a Grade I listed building in Lincolnshire, England, which sits amid beautiful formal Italian and Dutch gardens. Once the home of the Brownlow/Cust family, it now belongs to The National Trust who open it to the public and run tours. The house is fascinating both outside and in, but the incredible gardens and vast grounds are truly stunning.
On a recent visit I took a tour of the servants’ quarters which led me below stairs, into cool stone kitchens, past the original bells that were used to call the servants, in and out of the wine cellar, the small quirky chapel, and into damp corridors where frogs and toads leap and wander. Our guide touched briefly on the lives of the servants, but it was enough to set me thinking. Many of the servants came from all over the UK to work here, and many from towns and cities a world away from the lives being lived above stairs at Belton House.
One of these servants who travelled from afar was a woman called Poline Clark. Tracing Poline isn’t easy, but I do know she was born in and lived in Woolwich in Kent until sometime in her adult life when she moved to Lincolnshire and became a servant. Poline was born in 1806 and by 1851, when she was 45, she was a lady’s maid.
Just what made Poline move all the way up to Lincolnshire from Woolwich, we can only guess at, but when Poline was a girl growing up in Woolwich the town was becoming more and more industrialised and was a military centre with large barracks and a dockyard. In contrast, Belton House sat in glorious grounds with a 1300 acre deer park, an orangery, and a beautiful lake and boat house.
Yes, she would have been busy and couldn’t wander the gardens at will, but our guide did mention that Lord Brownlow only stayed at the house at weekends, leaving the workers to manage their own time and work to their own schedules, and records suggest once the servants had fulfilled their duties they had the freedom of the beautiful surroundings.
I like to imagine Poline taking a turn around the Italian gardens, breathing in the scents from the orangery, meandering a while amid the oak trees and taking a stroll down to the lake where the boat house overlooks the still water. A vast oasis of beauty, lush greenery, tranquillity, and calm. In a country that was becoming heavily industrialised and towns like Woolwich were seeing the rise of factory work or the grim workhouse looming, Belton House with its clean air and rolling landscape could have been a pocket of perfection for someone like Poline. I like to think so.
Samantha Priestley is the author of the Folded Word short-fiction chapbooks Dreamers (2014) and the forthcoming Orange Balloon (August 2016). She’s a novelist, playwright, and essayist who spins words into gold from her home in Sheffield, UK.