CHRISTINE Robinson began her morning with an hour in the chilly car park kiosk, before unlocking all the doors of the area’s grandest stately home and briefing its guides. Next on her agenda was a hunt through the cellars in search of kitchen curios…
It’s all in a day’s work for Chatsworth’s head housekeeper – and it’s a tradition that has spanned generations of her family. “My great-great-great-grandmother was a kitchen maid at Chatsworth: they drafted in local girls to help at busy times,” she says. “She also helped to cart stones from the family quarry to build an extension to the house back in the 1840s.”
Over the years numerous members of her family have farmed or worked on the estate. Christine’s own stint began as a holiday job: “I was studying history at Newcastle and rang the housekeeper to see if there was anything going.
“She set me on – cleaning, vaccing, dusting and selling tickets and ice cream – and when I graduated she offered me a job. I thought I’d come to Chatsworth for a year. That was in 1977…”
It’s not so much a job as a way of life and tomorrow (Friday) Christine will give others a glimpse of that life when she is the first guest speaker at Chatsworth’s new series of Elevenses talks.
Next week it’s the turn of her bosses, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, who will give an illustrated talk about What We Do at Chatsworth: “It should be a really fascinating insight into what it’s like to live at Chatsworth and be involved at the sharp end. They’re very much part of the team and they’re looking forward to having a chance to talk to people about it, too.”
Responsibility for drawing up the list of speakers is another of Christine’s jobs – this time in the role of visitor services manager, which she took on at the behest of the new Duke and Duchess.
“It’s great because it means you’re looking after the whole visitor experience, from the moment they arrive in the car park,” she says.
Christine takes her duties seriously, which explains why she began her day with a turn as relief car park attendant.
In addition to making sure all the staff are in place, taking care of admin work and overseeing the guides, she also takes great pride in opening up the house – literally walking the visitor route with her big bunch of keys.
“I like to be on the coal face rather than in an office. I try and get round the house at least once a day and being out on the route with the visitors is my favourite job,” she says.
Her daily routine includes overseeing dusting and vacuuming of the half-mile public route, a labyrinth of passageways, 18 staircases and nearly 300 rooms.
At this time of year her staff are engaged on the annual ‘deep clean’. That’s not just windows and carpets but also the massive chandeliers, which need scaffolding to take them down. Each piece must be painstakingly washed in soap flakes and water, then polished and replaced. There are 2,763 pendants in the Great Dining Room chandelier alone.
Ongoing responsibilities include the planning and preparing of Christmas decorations: a year-round task. Other challenges crop up out of the blue.
“We had a huge dinner party and the first job was finding a table that would seat 34 people. It was only when we were setting it that we realised the surface was too wide for the silver steward to reach the middle, so we had to find him a pair of white socks so he could pad about on top of the cloth!”
There are compensations to working in a stately home. Christine has met many celebrities over 36 years at Chatsworth. Visits from Laurence Llewelyn Bowen and JK Rowling stand out in her memory; last week she came across actress Caroline Quentin filming in one of the rooms.
Some visitors are a complete surprise: “Deborah Duchess once asked me to pop up to the drawing room and show someone round the house. When I got there it was Senator Edward Kennedy – I didn’t even know he was in the building.”
Other highlights have included meeting the Queen, the Prince and Princess of Wales and Pride and Prejudice star Matthew Mcfadyen: “He was absolutely delightful…”
The job has changed over the years and Christine enjoys the variety – but her latest role, as public speaker, has surprised even herself. “I was a real shrinking violet at school; terribly embarrassed about everything. I’d never have thought I would enjoy talking about Chatsworth but it’s given me huge personal confidence. I’ve found I enjoy talking about it and people like to listen.”
The first series of Elevenses talks, which runs until March, covers everything from the gardens and the collections to curiosities once used in the kitchens. There are so many possibilities that Christine hopes the programme will become an annual feature.
lElevenses talks take place in the Stables restaurant on Fridays at 11am; entry £7.50. The Duke and Duchess’ presentation will be followed by a two-course lunch; entry £30. Reservations: (01246) 565300.