Multi-tasking modern housekeeper to the Coke family – and their 30,000 annual visitors
Norfolk mother Nicky, 35, had always seen herself as a ‘grafter’ – ‘someone who works hard but never gets anywhere.’ She studied catering at college, worked in a pub kitchen (which she hated), and then as a part-time cleaner at Holkham Hall. But the new mistress of this great Palladian pile, Polly Coke, was on the hunt for a housekeeper – and she decided to take a gamble on Nicky Garner, née Tottle (‘Not at all the stereotype; the sort of woman you might go and have a beer with’). She liked her can-do attitude and dogged determination. Viscountess Coke had no idea that Nicky came from a long line of Holkham Hall servants, including one former housekeeper. Nicky now manages a team of five women and is immensely proud of the conservation work they do, on top of the many public events. The modern housekeeper’s role is extraordinarily demanding, but hugely fulfilling.
I’d wanted to find a contemporary woman to end this book; someone who was part of the reinvention of the English country house. How had the role changed? I went first to Highclere Castle (the setting for TV’s Downton Abbey) – and was politely but firmly rebuffed. Fair enough: I was asking someone to let me into their home, then have their most trusted member of staff unlock doors and family secrets for me. Just when I was about to give up, a very different sort of chatelaine – the down to earth Polly Coke – bravely said she’d be up for it.
I spent a fascinating day with Nicky at Holkham Hall, seeing, from her unique perspective, how the wheels of a stately home turn. I watched the butler precision-lay Lady Coke’s informal lunch table in the old Audit Room (now the vast family kitchen). I saw Nicky’s ‘girls’ polishing 17th-century silver plate in the chapel, arranging flowers for two dozen guest bedrooms, and vigorously applying linseed oil and e-cloths to antique furniture (a classic Holkham marriage of old and new methods). Nicky was thrillingly honest about her job. But also commendably discreet.
‘Many things about Nicky’s role today would be unimaginable to the women of this book. Most obviously, just now, that she shares an office with a man; that she is expected to make her own tea from an electric kettle; and that her Ladyship is so constantly in touch, with such a stream of informal correspondence. The photograph of Nicky’s two young sons pinned to the wall might catch the eye of Dorothy Doar, sacked for requesting six week’s maternity leave back in 1832. Nicky lives locally with her family, and it is unthinkable that she might desert them as Mrs Doar and Mrs Wells were forced to in the 19th-century.
Her priorities lie outside the Triumphal arch, and it might seem obvious, looking at the calm, unflustered face of Holkham’s housekeeper, that there is little drama or tragedy in her world. She is not crushed or bowed down by her job. She has to suffer none of the random injustices and upheavals of her predecessors; her life is not lived on the edge, or riven by crisis. Nicky Garner is the last in the line of this great tradition – and thankfully, outwardly, her life could not be more different.’