Upstairs, downstairs


Life above and below stairs at Kelmarsh Hall

Many of us have seen Downton Abbey and become captivated with the goings on `upstairs and downstairs’ for the Crawley family and their servants in a classic English country house, but what was life really like for an aristocratic family and their servants?

Visitors to the elegant, 18th-century Grade I listed Northamptonshire country house Kelmarsh Hall can now find out for themselves with the opening of a dozen new interactive rooms which enables visitors not only to savour the opulence and grandeur `above stairs` but also to go `below stairs’ and experience what life was like amongst the hidden rooms, in which the servants lived and worked.

You can experience first – hand the daily working activities of the servants, from polishing the silver, cleaning the boots to doing the laundry. Visitors can explore the servant’s bedrooms, the Huntsman’s room, bakery, laundry and beer and wine cellars. Not only can visitors see how the servants lived but they can also immerse themselves with the smell of the laundry and the sounds of the servants chatting while they worked.

Visitors can listen to `hologram` footman John Jacobs describing why he is the `hardest working man in the house’ then stroll across to the bakery to smell the fresh bread being baked. There is also a secret door which leads to a hidden servants staircase through which the servants could pass and go about their daily tasks without disturbing the peace and quiet of the upstairs rooms.

A small window at the foot of the stairs allowed the House Steward to keep an eagle eye on the movement of his staff at all times. A ` dumb waiter’ made it possible for food and drink to be moved effortlessly from below stairs to the dining room above. I stooped low and walked the long, wet, dripping tunnel which connects the servants quarters to the laundry and drying rooms.

Small children will love the opportunity to touch and interact with the objects on display. A former coach house has been transformed into a dedicated new Learning Centre. This large, brightly lit resource has all essential interactive teaching aids and is available for school groups to follow up on the experiences they have enjoyed `downstairs`.

The centrepiece of Kelmarsh is the Great Hall which was built in 1732 with its breath taking Italian `Wedding Cake’ terracotta pink walls and fine 18th century intricate ceiling plasterwork. There is a stunning single gilt lantern hanging down from the double height room with windows close to the ceiling, flooding the room with natural light. The Saloon with polished oak floorboards and far reaching vistas cross the parkland is just as grand!

The walls of the Chinese Room are covered with 300-year-old hand-painted wallpaper of incredible detail. The Ballroom was added during the reign of Queen Victoria and has splendid views over the West Terrace to the lake beyond. The Dining Room displays several female portraits and the more formal Library comes complete with a secret door, which resembles a bookcase. Take the time to visit the Yellow Drawing Room too.

Much of the house was refurbished by American interior designer and later owner, Nancy Lancaster, who was celebrated for introducing a relaxed country house style, which later became recognised as the quintessential English country-house look. Her spirit still permeates the house today in the delicate terracotta colouring of the Great Hall, the exuberant Chinese wallpaper and seasonal flower arrangements.

I can highly recommend a visit to Kelmarsh Hall for families with small children, school groups and anyone who has an interest in social history or are simply looking for an educational and/or enjoyable day out.

Kelmarsh Hall is about 5 miles (8.0 km) south of Market Harborough and 11 miles (18 km) north of Northampton.
Kelmarsh Hall and Gardens
Kelmarsh, Northampton NN6 9LY

Jim Davis
The Travel Locker
Twitter: @thetravellocker
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Jim Davis is a retired Northamptonshire secondary school teacher. Having worked as a freelance journalist for many years, he now writes a travel blog.He is available to write blog reviews for attractions, hotels and restaurants across the Midlands. Please contact him directly at


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