Confessions of a Country House Tour Guide

Ashdown 1 Nicola here. Now that we are into May, I’ve restarted my volunteering at Ashdown House, the 17th century hunting lodge in Oxfordshire where I work for the National Trust. It’s a great pleasure to be back, not least because we have only been open intermittently during the last two years of the pandemic and I really missed being in one of my favourite places.

I love visiting historic houses myself and when I go, I’m always curious to see the tour guides and volunteers in action. So often, things seem to run so smoothly yet when you’re behind the scenes you know it isn’t always the case at all. As with organising anything, there’s mad paddling going on below the surface!

I’ve worked at Ashdown for 20 years now. For years I drove past the stunning little 17th century white stone house that sat looking mysterious in the middle of a wood. I wondered a lot about its history but I always seemed too busy to visit. It was seldom open to the public and then only by guided tour. However when I gave up my job to become a full time author I was looking for something to do that would get me out of the house and meeting real people. Since history was my obsession, volunteering with the National Trust seemed like a good option.

Read more

The Luxury of Tea

Tea kanji

Kanji meaning tea

Christina here. Despite being half British, I’ve never been much of a tea drinker. I don’t mind it, but it’s not my favourite beverage. It doesn’t work on me as a panacea or cure-all either, the way most British people seem to see it. If I have a cold or the weather is chilly and damp as now, however, I do occasionally enjoy a cup of Twinings English Breakfast with lots of milk and sugar. It’s cosy and yes, quite comforting. And we all take for granted how cheap and easy it is to buy it – but that wasn’t always the case!

Wooden_tea_caddy _Museum_of_Liverpool Reptonix free Creative Commons licensed photos  CC BY 3.0 httpscreativecommons.orglicensesby3.0  via Wikimedia Commons


Although nowadays we can buy tea bags of every variety in the supermarket, or loose weight tea in specialist shops without any problems, in the 18th century it was a luxury commodity. Housewives kept the tea in lockable tea caddies so that only they could dispense it. And there was a reason for that – importing it was quite an undertaking. While doing the research for my first historical novel, Trade Winds, I read about the journey an East India merchant ship had to make in 1731/32 order to go to Canton in China to buy tea and other goods to bring back to Europe. I couldn’t believe how complicated and hazardous it all was!

Read more

Drawing Writing Inspiration from Family History with Elizabeth St.John

ElizabethNicola here. Today I welcome historical author Elizabeth St.John to the Word Wenches. I first met Elizabeth at the Historical Novel Conference in Oxford a few years ago. I confess to stalking her a little (in a completely non-sinister way!) because I knew she had a family connection to Lydiard Park, the glorious 18th century stately home in Swindon near where I live, and I was desperate to meet her and chat about Lydiard and its history. It’s been a huge pleasure to get to know Elizabeth and discover her writing. Her books are set in the 17th century, in an intensely turbulent period of English history, and they are intricate, immersive and beautifully-written. I’ve just started reading Written In Their Stars and I am hooked. Elizabeth evokes a rich historical world that draws you in from the very start of the book. Here she is to tell us more about her writing.

Elizabeth, welcome to the Word Wench Blog! Please tell us about your personal connection to the family you are writing about.

The St.John family in The Lydiard Chronicles share a common great-grandmother with me: Margaret Beauchamp, who was also Polyptych Open with Trees (003) grandmother to Henry VII. The seventeenth century family thought she was a very useful ancestor to increase their standing in society, and didn’t hesitate to use their “royal connection” to further their position. Sir John St.John, the First Baronet, was particularly enthralled, and thus commissioned the Polyptych in 1615, which stands in St. Mary’s Church at Lydiard Park. It’s an extraordinary monument, full of beautiful portraits which inspired my work—plus a gorgeous family tree, complete with Margaret at the top.

Read more