My car was flanked by a sea of baby pheasants, flooding the surrounding roads as I made my way up the long winding drive to the Brygwyn Hall.
I had been invited to stay with Auriol Marchioness of Linlithgow for a week in her country estate in Wales. The 450-acre estate, bought with wealth generated from Jamaican sugar plantations, has been in Auriol’s family since 1813 and includes extensive forestry, a farm, a number of houses and outbuildings, a swimming pool, a lake, tennis courts and a croquet lawn.
When I finally I made it to the end of the long drive, I was greeted by the amusing sight of a giant red and blue rug draped over a tractor for beating.
“Is Auriol around?” I asked Andrea the head gardener.
“Ah, Lady ‘L’” she said, “yes, I think she is in her office”.
I was sent into the enormous front hall, edged with floor to ceiling bookshelves full of ancient gold and red books, above them glass cases were filled with taxidermy birds. A huge fireplace holds centre stage in the room, above which hangs an eight-foot painting of Auriol’s Great Uncle, killed by injuries sustained lion hunting in Somaliland.
Suddenly my mid-range bottle of Rioja and withering Co-op flowers seemed a little underwhelming, embarrassing even. I contemplated hiding them but was greeted by Christine the cook before I got the chance.
Christine has been a loyal employee of the family for 32 years, beginning her tenure as the nanny of Auriol’s son. The estate currently employs a head groundsman, two part-time gardeners, six indoor staff – one full-time, one working student and four part-time, some of whom are seasonal – a bookkeeper, a tech manager – both part time – and a large rolodex of seasonal contractors
A moment later Auriol breezed into the enormous kitchen wearing a black polo shirt, shook my hand and accepted the bunch of flowers with an earnest smile.
“The wine is to apologise for the flowers”, I quipped, attempting to break the ice.
“Oh, they’re beautiful,” she beamed, before asking Lisa from the housekeeping team to show me to my room – ‘Bedroom five and bathroom two’.
I felt as if I had stumbled onto the set of Downton Abbey as I walked up around the huge elegant staircase, passing horse statues and the bronze head castings of Auriol’s mother and son.
Shortly after arriving, we sat down to lunch. “You have a beautiful home,” I said in my posh voice.
“I love it here. To me it’s heaven,” Auriol smiled at me wistfully before giving a quick nod and switching to a more practical tone, “but the house has to earn its keep. We all work terribly hard, hosting weddings and shooting parties. You always have to be thinking outside the box for ways the house and gardens can pay for themselves. It’s the only way small estates like this can survive”.
I experienced this first-hand a few days later when 12 men descended on Bryngwyn for a day’s clay pigeon shooting, ready to be plied with champagne, damson gin and mind-bending quantities of food. A typical bird day (‘proper shooting’) at a large corporate shoot will provide around 400 birds for a group of eight people, at a cost of £50 per bird. Needless to say most shooters of this ilk tend to be successful businessmen, those of ‘private wealth’ or rich farmers. Clay pigeon shooting is much less of an assault on ones bank balance at £250 per head, thus attracting a (slightly) more eclectic crowd.
The previous evening we sat by the fire – Auriol on the floor and me on the fire surround – and I asked her about her upbringing.
“My father didn’t want me to go to university”, she told me. “He didn’t believe that girls should be educated, because then they might argue. I was sent off to finishing school in Verbier for six months. We learnt to sew, cook, ski, and speak French. I think we were given the oldest, ugliest ski instructor going, but of course we all fell desperately in love with him”. She looked at me, serious for a moment, before a playful smile crept across her lips. We both laughed.
“I remember my sister being presented at court when she was 18” she continues. “My mother took a house in London for four months. We had to go to Buckingham palace to sign a register to say that she was ‘in town’. We called it ‘coming out’… I was too young to be presented at court – that had all been done away with before I was 18 – so I came out at ‘The London Season’… It was a marriage fair really – party after party for a whole year. All of the parents threw events in big grand houses, or at places like Claridges, Ascot and Goodwood. The pinnacle was the Queen Charlotte Ball where all the young girls who were coming out that season had to courtesy to a big cake” – she took a puff on her cigarette – “which is very odd when you think about it”.
After thirstily drinking up my stories of the past year with astonishing open-mindedness – the most common response to each letter I explain being, ‘Oh, what fun!’ – the subject strayed onto the impending arrival of Auriol’s son.
“I don’t think we should tell him about the vampires,” Auriol said as we hugged and wished each other goodnight, “not yet anyway”.