As a big fan of history, visits to England’s various tourist sites have always been a feature of my school holidays and family outings. So when my parents finally managed to get me to fly the nest, and lengthy university summer breaks left me with time to fill, I could imagine no better place to work that the local-to-me gothic wonder that is Knebworth House.
Knebworth House is a place of contradictions. Despite its appearance as a Victorian Gothic mansion, it is a building that dates to 1563 – built, in standard Tudor style, out of red brick. It was constructed by Sir Robert Lytton, friend of Henry VII, who purchased the estate in 1490 to be nearer to the King’s Court in London. Costing just £800 at the time, I’m sure we can all agree that he got a pretty good deal. The Lytton family have occupied the House ever since and, hugely unique for buildings of the kind, it is still lived in by the family (the 19th generation to do so). The outside of the House that you see today is the product of Victorian alterations. Depending on your perspective, either brutalising a fantastic Tudor red brick quadrangle house or creating a compelling Gothic fantasy. In 1810, short on finances, Elizabeth Bulwer Lytton decided to knock down three of Knebworth House’s four sides, leaving her able to invest her money in renovating the one remaining wing. She also cemented over the top of the red brick, bringing the House into line with the Victorian style. It was her son, novelist Edward Bulwer Lytton, who added the gothic detail – including some pretty intimidating gargoyles and a few Wizard of Oz-style flying monkeys (at least, that’s what they look like to me).
With over 500 years of history, there’s obviously more than enough to keep the history fan occupied. Needless to say, after two years as an assistant in the Tea Room, I was beyond excited to get the opportunity to work as a Tour Guide in the House. Now on my fourth year, the most unbelievable aspect of the job is how much there still is to learn. As the youngest member of staff, I am surrounded by enormously knowledgeable people who have been giving tours for decades. They are fountains of information. But even they continue to learn new things with every Season. Some of this new knowledge is historically pertinent (I learnt, for example, that Charles Dickens and Edward Bulwer Lytton would have some pretty elaborate midnight feasts following theatrical performances on the Minstrels’ Gallery). Some of it is very much not (for example, that Mick Jagger left us a pair of his underpants after staying in the House).
With touring, it is usually through my interactions with the public that this new information comes about – either through questions that I do not know the answer to, or through a visitor’s own experiences at Knebworth. Knebworth House is most renowned as the location of some pretty major music concerts. We have hosted the world’s biggest bands out in the Park – from the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, to Led Zeppelin and Oasis. Robbie William’s three-concert stint in 2003 attracted a record-breaking 375,000 people, and Queen played their last concert with Freddie Mercury at Knebworth. Needless to say, it is with memories of these various events that many of the visitors on my tours return to the House. And it is always fascinating to hear about their experiences (none of which I feel able to repeat here). The concerts are yet another example of what I mean when I say that Knebworth House is a place of contradictions. I mean, really. Rock shows don’t scream Stately Home. But, for me, it is absolutely these contradictions that set Knebworth House apart.
Obviously, there is no need for me to declare bias here. Because, clearly, I am going to think that Knebworth House is one of the greatest places in the UK. But this post is not intended as an elongated advertisement. It is a celebration of both the fantastic sites that Britain has on offer and of the multiple layers to our history. Knebworth House is, to me, brilliant in its diversity and contradictions. It offers one of the best social narratives of England’s last 500 years, but also offers a chance to bask in one of the most epic eras of rock music. Granted; a really strange combination. But that’s what keeps me coming to work every day. Working in this House is truly one of the best experiences I have had.
If you speak to the staff who work in the House, they will all say the same thing to you: that they feel completely and utterly at home there. Perhaps it’s the fact that it is still lived in and that the family are usually to be seen wandering around the House and Gardens. Perhaps it’s just that we spend so much time there, we are practically a part of the furniture. For me, it’s a combination of these factors. But it’s also that I have become so completely and utterly invested in the place – its history and its future. To think that Knebworth House might not stand on the site forever is a thought I prefer to avoid. But as long as it’s standing, you’ll continue to see me wandering around (at least, until they force me into retirement). So if you’re passing, come and say hello. We’re really very nice people. And if this history lesson/emotional outpouring hasn’t put you off, I’ll soon be writing a post on my own blog thebookhabit.blogspot.co.uk about Knebworth House’s literary history – there’ll even be a photo of our amazing library (my favourite room; obviously).