An Edwardian Christmas at Lyme

Red and gold Christmas decorations on a tree at Lyme, Cheshire

In 'A Country House Christmas: Treasure on Earth', Phyllis Sandeman remembers an Edwardian Christmas at Lyme, Cheshire, where she was brought up. Read on to be transported back to Christmas Eve, 1906, in this short extract.

One Christmas Eve, well before the First World War, a fine layer of snow already covered the slopes of the park and the sky was heavy with more to come. Not far from the house, in a wooded hollow beside a mill pool, deer were feeding from bundles of hay. Passing through this wooded valley, rising in serpentine twists and bends, a carriage drive wound its gradual ascent to the house, but cutting across it, running straight up the steep hillside, a narrow footpath gave a direct approach. Up this a little girl was climbing. She wore the black stockings and button-boots of her generation, an obviously home-made coat and skirt, and a hat secured by an elastic under her chin.

It was late afternoon.

Rabbits, looking almost black in the fading light, sped to their snowy burrows on either side of the path. A cock pheasant rocketed up almost from the child’s feet and made for the cover of the woods. Without pausing, she continued on her way. Excitement was mounting in her as she climbed. So short a time to wait now before the curtain rose on a drama of infinite delight – a gradual crescendo of bliss. To-night a large party of visitors was arriving, and from to-morrow for a whole fortnight one pleasure would succeed another.

There might, if this weather held, by skating or better still tobogganing, for which the slopes of the park were so well suited – but the weather did not matter. How could it, with a house full of delightful visitors and such a house to play in? There would be the Christmas tree with all its presents; games in the drawing room, music and dancing in the hall, private theatricals in the Long Gallery; hide-and-seek all over the house, with people chasing each other in delicious terror the whole length of the long corridors; wonderful meals in the dining-room; dinners as well as luncheons even for little girls, and all the time everybody, particularly the grown-ups, happy, good-humoured, joking and jolly, ready at any moment to romp and play the fool.

At the top of the slope, where the footpath emerging from behind a row of old lime trees joined the drive just in front of the forecourt, the house was fully revealed. Lights shone in some of the windows glowing warmly behind red blinds. Two small guard houses with barred windows and surmounted by couching lions flanked the wide-open spaces of the forecourt.

The main approach to the house was a continuous ascent, the ground on the right hand falling away to wooded declivities, on the left rising in stretches of open country to a panorama of distant hills. Above the tree-tops in the middle distance rose a bare conical hill, its summit crowned by an ancient grey stone tower.

Still thinking of nothing but the coming delights, the child turned in at the forecourt gates. To her the house seemed to possess a living soul of its own and to be now waiting in a state of happiness that matched her own to take the arriving guests into its loving old heart.