One of the most satisfying things about the English countryside is how much it looks like the English countryside. Consider the view here at Stapleford Park, a spectacular old estate near the village of Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. An hour north of London by train, Leicestershire is the heart of England's impossibly pastoral hunt country, Stilton cheese country and "hand raised" pork pie country. Out the bedroom window, just visible through my hangover, a morning mist cloaks the sheep meadows, liberally sprinkled with the pea-witted beasts, and oozes down to the lake, where a single swan, white as sugar, glides along with such measured grace that it must be one of those animatronic track-mounted kind they have at Disneyland. As if that weren't enough, a rainbow arcs over the nearby woodland.
Indeed, the scene is so excruciatingly exquisite that I've got a good mind to call Mr. Merchant and Mr. Ivory and tell them to get their softly lit Panavision asses up here and bring along Helena Bonham Carter and Jeremy Irons, or some other members of the Supremely Sensitive Pallid Performers Academy, and knock off another of those precious extravaganzas that they've been pumping into cineplexes for the last decade or so. Instead, I walk to the mirror -- starkers -- to see if I look as ravaged as I feel.
I look worse. One glance and it's frighteningly apparent: Some kind of untamed, passion-crazed, hydrophobic Catpeople-type creature has indulged in most unwholesome sport at my expense. I have been clawed, gnawed or pawed by a love-hungry humanoid of unnatural inclinations and insatiable appetite. My right shoulder is a mass of lacy crimson stripes. They'd be beautiful, if it weren't for the pain. That's the good news.
The bad news is that I can't remember any of last night's gymnastics. Stapleford has been described to me as the "one-time home of the Naughty Earl," but that doesn't explain my wounds because the randy old scamp vacated long ago. My room, my lovely, splendid room -- which was personally decorated by Lady Jane Churchill (a specialist in rose hues that exacerbate hangovers) -- is wobbling lazily, first in one direction, then another. My clothes are neatly folded on the chesterfield; nothing seems to be out of place. It's all quite mysterious.
Suddenly, I hear the cry of a great blue heron in the distance, or maybe it's Mariah Carey warming up down the hall. Did I mention that Mariah Carey is also staying in this mansion, that she arrived late last night in a black Saab stretch limousine (yes, Saab) accompanied by two cell phone-addicted bodyguards and two personal assistants? No, of course not, I've barely got started telling about the house. Lordy, where is my brain? Let's back up a bit.
This entire junket -- I'm here with a small group of assorted media types -- has been conceived as a luxurious blitzkrieg tour. These excursions are particularly seductive to freelance freeloaders such as me who are never likely to travel in such exalted style unless we somehow secure a middle management position with the Medellmn Cartel (but then when would there be time to write, what with all the money-laundering and gun-running?).
The odyssey began with a British Airways first-class "sleeper service" flight from San Francisco to London. At more than $10,500 round trip it is one of the best reasons I've come across for getting rich. The flight is more than 10 hours long, but who cares? At the touch of a button, the motor-operated recliner seat will bend you any which way you desire -- including stretched out flat (and I'm 6-foot-1). What's more, you get your own "sleeping suit," plus what I call a sleeping bag and the airline calls a duvet ("No camping references please, we're British").
Flying in such rarefied fashion is nearly as good as not flying at all. Luxuriating in one's own private wood-grain lounging pod in the first-class cabin all but obliterates the fact that you may be rocketing toward eternity in a giant tube of machinery. Instead, and especially after a glass of claret or three and a bit of liquid velvet watercress soup, you find yourself serenely suspended above the clouds and sea over the Lost Planet of the Barbarians, snug in a Jules Verne airship while being coddled by the last representatives of civilization. Remember the times when you were a child, a late night drive home, dozing in your mama's lap? It's like that, but with free movies and cognac.
Which brings us back to Stapleford Park. The main residence at Stapleford is what the English call "somewhat old." That is to say it's mentioned in the Doomsday Book, the record of the Norman survey carried out by order of William the Conqueror in 1085-86 -- though the present structure has been around only since the 14th century. Of course, it's had some improvements since then. (A high relief inscription on one exterior wall reads, "William Lord Sherard Baron of Letrym Repayred This Building Anno Domini 1633.") Stapleford comprises 500 parklike acres (down from the original 4,500), the Gothic 18th century Church of St. Mary Magdalene, a graveyard, thatched cottages, gatehouses, a lavish stable, a school of falconry and a folly in the woods built, the story goes, as headquarters for the naughtiness of the Naughty Earl and his mistress. Some say there is a tunnel from the main house to the folly. Others say they're not so sure. I say if you're an earl, why bother with a tunnel -- don't you get to do whatever the flock you want?
Stapleford now caters to those who are different from you and me in that they think little of dropping as much as $900 (double occupancy, canines welcome for $8 extra) on a night's lodging, breakfast included (kibble extra). The house and grounds fulfill even the most idealized imagining of English country splendor and privilege. The cuisine is good to excellent: The venison was the richest and most tender I've ever eaten -- so aromatic, so succulent, I wanted to get up on the table and roll in it like my dog does with dead cormorants at the beach. The wines, brandies and single malt scotches are superb and free-flowing. And the service is impeccable, which is why people like Margaret Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, Tom Jones, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and others of their ilk come here to chill.
Stapleford is also imbued with that unmistakable air of cool discretion that naturally seeps from the pores of the celebrated and wealthy. Mariah Carey and her two assistants hung out in the small library/bar during the evenings and nobody even glanced in their direction (except for me, who stared shamelessly and leaned my chair back so far I almost fell over trying to hear what they were saying). Still, the atmosphere is friendly and in at least one case it bubbles over with a certain, outsize rural mirth -- namely Malcolm.
Malcolm is the big, toothy, tweedy, constantly laughing man who oversees
outdoor activities at Stapleford. No sooner had I arrived than he piled
me, a couple of fellow pilgrims and several shotguns into his Land Rover
and drove us off across the wide-wale corduroy meadow in search of the
elusive clay pigeon. We stopped a few hundred yards from the house and
climbed out of the Rover. Two boys were huddled behind a nearby mound
ready to operate the catapult. They looked anxious -- as well they should
have. Perhaps they could tell that I'd never fired a shotgun before and
was eager to get my hands on the thing as a means of releasing the day's
Malcolm gave us a brief lecture on gun safety as a pregnant gray
thunderhead approached from the south. Then he handed me the shotgun. I
raised it to my shoulder. Malcolm watched nervously. The boys ducked out
of sight. The sheep stopped chewing and cocked their heads. All was
silent. My fellow travelers adjusted their ear protection. The
thunderhead moved in and dumped its water on us. I gave a sideways nod
to Malcolm. He yelled "Pull!" And a black flying saucer no bigger than a
crumpet went sailing toward the horizon. I jerked the gun, squeezed the
trigger and the intact saucer fell to earth with a dull wet splat. The
sheep moved quickly toward the lake and the swan on the bank fell over
It went like that for the next half hour or so as I briskly made my way
through several hundred dollars worth of ammunition and the dour,
Hindenberg-sized cloud gave us a proper English soaking. "It's true," I
conceded to Malcolm as we walked back to the Rover, "that I used a great
deal of ammunition while refining my aim. I'm not proud of it. But the
weather conditions were not the best, and think of how much money was
saved by sparing all those clay pigeons." Malcolm glanced mournfully at
the boys, who were running hither and thither gathering the pucks I'd
failed to blast back to the Stone Age. "I always say," he remarked,
"that you can't educate pork." I snorted and took it as a compliment.
Along with rapeseed and cheese, grand houses, castles and abbeys are the prime cash crops in Leicestershire. Within an hour of Stapleford there
are more than a dozen, most of which are open to the public. In addition
to Althorp, the Spencer family's estate and the final resting place of
Princess Diana, there's 900-year-old Rockingham Castle; Burghley House,
a hysterically ornate Elizabethan hallucination of a place with a deer
park capably landscaped by the famed Capability Brown; Belton House, with
its orangery and Italian-style sunken gardens; the medieval Grimsthorpe
Castle; Hardwick Hall; Calke Abbey ("crammed with all manner of curious
collections," I'm told); Kedleston Hall; Fawlty Towers; Sudbury Hall;
Newstead Abbey (once home of Lord Byron); Harlaxton Manor, the first
Duke of Devonshire's Chatsworth estate; and Deene Park, ancestral home
of those sweater-wearing maniacs, the Earls of Cardigan.
Granted, many people are bored delirious by being marched through such places,
forced to look at moldy tapestries, dusky portraits of long-departed
dukes, suits of armor, moth-eaten boar heads, kitchen walls hung with
turtle skulls, a glove that Queen Victoria left behind, a chair in which
Disraeli once sat, rusty muskets, ancient billiard tables and hideously
painted ceilings. But some are never happier than when they're creaking
around spooky 800-year-old hallways. For those of us who spent much of
our childhood staring hypnotically out the windows of cars and
classrooms while imagining ourselves anywhere but in the drear present,
going to these places is like coming home. They are high-test fuel for
the imagination -- magnificent stages, as they were for centuries of
human drama both political and personal. For the career daydreamer,
there are few things more pleasant than wondering who did what to whom
600 years ago in the very room where you're standing.
The place the locals call "Beaver" Castle (though it's spelled
B-e-l-v-o-i-r), situated atop a hill about 25 minutes from Stapleford,
fired my hope of lurid revelations. Unfortunately, all they could come
up with was a snippet of 16th century Chinese silk said to have been
taken from the nightgown worn by Mary Queen of Scots the evening before
she was beheaded. "But those embroidered, uh, paddles," I said, breathing
heavily, "on the stands next to the fireplace. What were those used
"Why, those are just 'pull screens,'" the elderly guide answered
irritably. "They were used to protect ladies' faces from the direct heat
of the fire. Back in those days they covered their faces with wax as a
base for their makeup, to give a smooth surface. But if they didn't
place the screen between themselves and the fire, why, their faces would
melt right off. Terrible mess on the carpets, I should think."
"Yes, terrible," I agreed.
Later, in the picture gallery, standing next to a magnificent life-size
portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein, I finally had to query our guide
on the castle's name. "How do you get the pronunciation 'Beaver' from
Belvoir?" The old gentleman paused and looked at me as if I'd just asked
the most absurd of questions. "We're British," he said abruptly, and
took us into the King's Rooms for a close look at the hand-painted 19th
Back at Stapleford there was just time for a short horseback ride before
descending into the evening's menu of indulgences. I was given a large,
dark gelding and loaned a pair of black boots, and off we went through the
woodland and past the Naughty Earl's folly, which now resembles a tumbledown chimney wrapped in vines. I had horses when I was a kid, so riding
usually returns me to those days of contentment and abandon -- ambling
aimlessly through the wilds of child dreamland atop a cordial beast.
When we emerged from the woods, we looked across the verdant sheep
meadow to the great house lit up yellow by late afternoon sunshine
spilling through the clouds. The light, the air, the eager energy of the
horses demanded that we gallop over the expanse of grass and mud that
lay before us. And backwards in time I went -- almost.
The rain had left the ground soggy and the horses' hooves sunk in a good
six inches or more with each impact. I watched my animal's pounding
feet, felt the bracing English air against me, the great body beneath
me, his mane whipping my face, his tree trunk neck rocking back and
forth in front of me, but I was not transported to childhood. Instead I
was returned to my anxiety-ridden, adult media-besotted memory. And as I
listened to the slog and clump of the racing horses and watched the horizon
bounce up and down, two words came to mind: Christopher Reeve. And I
immediately slowed my warm beast to a walk.
Such is the curse of adulthood, isn't it -- graphically imagining
everything that might go wrong, so fast come undone, never able to
be-here-now like the gurus say we're supposed to? I walked back to the
house from the stable through the gardens, past Mariah Carey, who was
nibbling a fruit salad at a table on the patio, and into the back
hallway where I got stuck reading the old certificates displayed on the
walls. One of Stapleford's previous owners was a collector of
turn-of-the-century memorabilia from men's societies, and several of the
best examples still hang in the house. The "Registration Certificate of
the Worshipful Company of Farriers" was fine indeed, and another for the
"Ancient Order of Foresters Friendly Society" was also a hit, as was the
certificate for the "Otters United Ancient Order of Druids." But
really the best, I thought -- the winner hands down -- was the superb specimen
from "The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes" (antediluvian, mind
you!), which read, "This is to certify that Brother William Jacques has
been duly initiated into the mysteries of Buffaloism with all the
ancient rites and ceremonies." We should all be so lucky, no?
As I turned to go to my room, Mariah Carey walked into the hall,
assiduously avoiding eye contact with me (a skill the famous must
perfect if they're to have any hope of making it through the corridors
of a crowded, fawning world). She was followed by one of my shooting
companions. He looked at my injured shoulder. I guess I was
absentmindedly rubbing it. "Shoulder bothering you?" he asked.
"A little sore," I said, wondering if he'd heard any antediluvian
buffalo howls emanating from my room the night before.
"Yeah," he said. "Mine too. Those shotguns have a bit of a kick. They'll
bruise you up good and red if you don't hold 'em firm." At which point
Mariah Carey looked back at us with a very peculiar glance, then headed
into the bar.
"Shall we kick off the evening with a glass of Cardhu?" my companion
asked, nodding toward the door through which Ms. Carey had just
disappeared. And we did. In fact, we had several, and the mass of lacy
crimson stripes on my shoulder was all gone by morning.