by Dana Gornitzki
A house party in the country? Roasting marshmallows and sharing stories by a bonfire? Dance classes and a murder mystery treasure hunt? Oh yes, please!
A hundred years ago, an invitation to a country house party was the golden ticket to one of “the” social events of the season.
Members of elite society, politicians, and even some royalty fled the city in exchange for a weekend of sports, glamour and good old-fashioned tomfoolery.
But this is a Friday night, and it’s January 2010. You don’t need a special invitation to the White Blackbird, a country house party in Buckinghamshire. Just a ticket, suitable attire, and a nostalgic soul that’s willing to suspend disbelief.
On this particular evening, about 250 or so revellers gather in central London after work ready to board one of two coaches. The mood is jovial, with everyone anticipating an adventure in the countryside. I even spot one or two people sipping from a flask as they get on the bus – how fitting.
We are then whisked away, and after about an hour’s journey we arrive at the 17th century Stoke Place.
Polly Betton and Johnny Vercourture of Teatime Productions are our hosts and organisers of the evening. The crowd is smartly dressed – most clad in tweed (the theme for this country house party. Previous themes include “futurist aerobanquet” and “colourscape”), others in vintage and few in “modern” wear.
But what you wear doesn’t seem to matter – what does matter is that we’re all escaping the city noise in exchange for a good dose of nostalgic fun in a countryside idyll.
“Most people don’t have big houses, and have lost the notion of going away,” says Polly Betton. “These parties are an opportunity for people to socialise on a scale and format that is not done anymore.”
And that we do. The party pays homage to true English culture, and is obviously heavily influenced by country house parties of days gone by.
The fashion of hosting a country house party really took off in the Edwardian era from 1861 to 1914. In fact, this was considered the party’s ‘golden era’ even though the social event can be traced back to the time of Chaucer and the Tudors.
The traditional country house party of yester-year is where society and royalty frolicked playing sports, indoor games, eating, dancing and getting up to all sorts of shenanigans. These social affairs were the highlight of the hunting and shooting season, also supposedly ‘famous’ for naughty activities (something that’s hinted at Tweed as well, but I can’t spot anything at all. Saucy and fun? Yes. Naughty? Not at all). “Marriage marts” were also a common feature in some country house parties (think matchmaking session, when mothers would try to find suitable husbands for their daughters),
These were the parties where society could mingle and kick back far away from the city – usually for three or four days at a time.
But at Tweed, it doesn’t matter if you have a double-barreled name. In fact, quite the contrary. This revival of the country house party is very welcoming. After all, Stoke Place is a country house that belongs to all of us for that evening. It’s beautiful with lovely winding corridors where we’re free to wander, and the party’s various events and entertainers are sprinkled throughout the property making the night that much more playful.
Guests at the party have each dished out £50 including the coach ride – well worth it, considering all of the entertainment. The evening is a unique outing.
“It’s a completely different environment and people don’t behave like they normally would,” says Polly Betton.
If amusement and delight were the main ingredients in the ‘golden era’ of the country house party, then this more modern version fulfills with nostalgic glee in all of the house’s nooks and crannies: from a burlesque show to a “most unusual” horse race to telling stories by the bonfire in the gardens and reeling classes in the ballroom. Oh and let’s not leave out the sin confessional tucked away upstairs, a whisky tasting, piano sing-a-long in the bar, and a dressing room to borrow garb in case you’ve left your tweed behind.
The time flies by, and it’s already 3am — the coaches are ready to take us back to London. Well, everyone except for guests who’ve booked one of the few rooms at Stoke Place.
With fantastic company, this country house party (my first) has been brilliantly sociable, an escape, fun, and – it must be said – most civilised. Just like being transported back in time. I am already looking forward to the next one.
The next White Blackbird country house party takes place on April 23 2010 to celebrate St George’s Day.
Header photo: source
Thank you to photos from: Juan C Vargas, Katie Antoniou of Vintage Secret, Catherine Wilson, Pandora Harrison, and Emma Wesley