As the chatelaine of Carlton Towers, one of Yorkshire’s largest stately homes, Lady Gerald Fitzalan Howard might be forgiven if she found the prospect of decorating the entire house a trifle daunting.
“At the last count we found there were 170 rooms but the family live in the south wing so that’s the part I concentrate on,” says Lady Gerald – or Emma as she prefers to be called.
“The east wing which dates from the 19th century and was built by one of Gerald’s forebears has an enfilade of splendid, ornately decorated State rooms. It’s a much sought after year-round venue for weddings and celebrations – in fact Gerald and I held our own wedding reception here one snowy day 26 years ago and it was a fabulous setting – even in December.”
Emma orders not one Christmas tree but six from her local Yorkshire supplier.
“One for the village church, four for the east wing, and a ten foot one for us.
“Thankfully, the professional team who take care of the hospitality and catering arrangements in the east wing decorate those trees which is just as well as it takes me several hours on top of a ladder to do ours.”
For Emma, the festive season begins in earnest with the annual candlelit carol concert given in aid of Action Research by the choir of Selby Abbey, which she and Gerald host for 200 guests.
“It always gives me a thrill seeing the house come to life as the guests arrive and mingle, before settling down for an hour or so of sublime singing. “Afterwards we all tuck into canapés made by members of the committee; my contribution is platefuls of mini sausages cooked with plenty of honey and mustard; hardly cutting edge but they go down a storm on a chilly December evening and along with a glass or two of mulled wine and mince pies.”
Emma takes an organised approach to Christmas preparations in the family’s south wing. “I like to get most of it done over a couple of days at the beginning of Advent. Then I can relax and enjoy the party season.”
The crib takes centre stage on the large table in the entrance hall with the biblical figures of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus sharing the fairy lights with snowmen and elves made from coloured felt.
“Those were bought by Gerald’s mother in Germany when the children lived there during her husband’s army posting. The elves have been part of the family’s Christmas ever since and they add a fun folksy touch to the traditional Nativity scene.”
When the Christmas trees are delivered, Emma places hers in the morning room and spends the best part of a day perched on a ladder hanging it with ornaments and lights. A collection of colourful, make- believe presents wrapped in vintage Christmas paper is piled around the base.
“They fill the space once all the real presents have been opened.”
The Fitzalan Howards and their three children Arthur, who is 25, Florence 23, Grace, 21, generally spend Christmas at home, sharing a traditional family get-together.
“Gerald and I both cook, and everybody else helps. On Christmas Eve, we go to church in Selby and then come home to an easy-to-prepare fondue, in the kitchen. The following morning starts with opening stocking presents in front of the fire in the library.
“Then after breakfast we take the dogs for a long walk before more present-giving around the tree.
“Christmas lunch with all the trimmings is served rather late in the dining room but as my lot aren’t keen on Christmas pudding, we have mince pies instead. In the evening, we relax by the fire playing silly games and later curl up to watch a film on TV.”
Emma isn’t short of room for guests, especially when the east wing isn’t booked for a wedding. “When we first moved up here, Arthur was just a month old and the original kitchen was about half a mile from our bedroom so sprinting between the two with a babe in arms helped me keep warm. In due course, I set about adapting the house for modern family living. My late father-in-law’s study became our kitchen, and the Victorian kitchens have recently been transformed into Cooks at Carlton, our cookery school. It made sense to have accommodation for guests attending the weddings, shoots and cookery courses so I renovated 16 fusty bedrooms, installing en suite bathroomss. I had no professional experience but I learnt on the job. I’m still living with some of my initial mistakes, such as an elaborate dark red and green wallpaper which I chose for our bedroom. It looked dated almost immediately but as the rooms here are so big, it costs a small fortune to redecorate one room.”
Having realised that what works best are classic designs in subtle colours, Emma sourced most of the fabrics and wallpapers for the guest bedrooms from Lewis & Wood with wools from Yorkshire companies such as Scutt & Coles and Moon & Sons incorporated.
“I’ve since renovated several development properties for clients in and around London. However, Carlton with its hundred and more rooms will take some finishing.”
By the time Twelfth Night rolls round, Emma will have briskly cleared the south wing of all signs of Christmas
“Whatever happens, I’m up that ladder again by January 5. Everything is dismantled in a day and the ornaments and elves are carefully boxed up in tissue paper, ready for all the fun and excitement of many Christmases to come.
www.carltontowers.co.uk Tel 01405 861662, www.cooksatcarlton.co.uk