Moving with the times
Carla Carlisle has to admire the graceful manner in which one generation of one family is making way for the next
THE invitation did not say ‘End of an Era’ or ‘Passing the Torch’, but everyone seemed to know it was. Driving through the 400-acre deer park with its ancient oaks, walking across the bridge over the deep moat and into the courtyard, it was as much a personal story as a journey through English history. This was a Suffolk gathering with the collective memory of another party held here a decade earlier.
That was a gala evening celebrating the unbroken residency of the same family in this house for 500 years. The night ended with fireworks reflected in the moat and accompanied by music, a stupendous spectacle made possible by speakers in the park the size of freight cars.
Our generous hosts, still stylish, beautiful and youthful, brought this house and estate into the 21st century with taste, originality and social conscience. Now, they’re moving out of the grand manor house and into the smaller house on the estate where they began their married life in 1970. Their eldest son and his young family are moving in.
If you check volume 1 A–M of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, first published in 1933 and reprinted with corrections in 1959, the word ‘downsizing’ does not appear. What happened in novels as well as in real life was the unwritten tribal procedure of aristocratic primogeniture: the husband died and his widow moved into a dower house. If there was no dower house, she might be persuaded to move into another house on the estate.
Failing that, a flat near Peter Jones. In Vita Sackville-west’s All Passion Spent, the widowed Lady Slane buys a small cottage in remote Hampstead, a move so daring that it shocks her friends and children.
Times have changed. The dower house may have been sold when Inheritance Tax was 98%, lost after the debacle with Lloyds of London or because too many generations have lived off the capital. More significantly, we now live in the age of titanium hips, triple bypasses, stents, statins, flu shots, pneumonia shots and airbags. We haven’t yet conquered the Grim Reaper, but we have triumphed over at least one of Man’s initial handicaps: the brevity of life.
Despite the alarm bells in medical columns, we are living longer and, if each generation stays put in the ‘Big House’ until death does one part, the next generation can’t bring the sunlight, oxygen, fun and sheer stamina needed to keep these demanding big houses and estates alive. The wise and the brave recognise this and plan their departure while they have the energy and imagination to embark on the new passage.
There is a palpable sense of excitement in couples who make the move. It’s as if the decades of stewardship—bringing life to the garden, converting the stables into a wedding venue and the old smithy into tea rooms, organising garden festivals, music festivals, farm shops—have been an exciting and complicated meal. Moving out—and creating their new, smaller house in which ancestral portraits and dark furniture are replaced by modern pictures, pale sofas and tout confort—this is the lovely dessert.
Even without the moated house and 5,000 acres, the urge to downsize before it’s forced upon you by sickness, old age or the death of a spouse is a powerful one. Reading in the FT Weekend about wine writer Jancis Robinson and her husband, Nicholas Lander, selling their four-storey Victorian house in Belsize Park and moving into a large top-floor apartment in King’s Cross could fill the most dedicated lover of country life with envy. Even the descriptions about spending ‘every free weekend for more than a year throwing things out’, giving away the piano, culling and recycling until the last day, feel like a tale of courage and deliverance.
‘They celebrate the freedom and independence that downsizing provides ‘The belief that generation must tread upon the heels of generation is a law of Nature
On a more modest level, it’s what more and more country folk are doing— moving out of their patch of rural paradise where life depends on the car. All around me, couples whose children have left home are now moving into their nearest market town. They miss the chickens and the kitchen garden, but they brag about being able to walk to the cinema, restaurants, shops, train station and GP. They celebrate the freedom and independence that ‘downsizing’ provides. They may not walk home after a movie followed by risotto and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc at Carluccio’s every night, but they like knowing that they can.
Leaving the ancient moated manor house on a large estate is a little more complicated. It requires timing and preparation comparable to putting on the Olympics. It also requires a son or daughter, not necessarily the eldest, who is up for the role and has what it takes to hold it all together. Sometimes that isn’t obvious, even to the hopeful parents, but the belief that generation must tread upon the heels of generation is a law of Nature embedded in our DNA. The history of this country indicates that its landed aristocracy has survived this long because of its capacity to make the ‘leap of faith’.
As for the couple giving the party, their family motto bodes well: Confido Conquiesco —I trust and am content.