From leopards in the dining room and jackdaws in the kitchen to vicious dogs, rabid cats and ferrets invading the nursery, Bronwyn Riley presents a pair of the worst-behaved pets in the history of British country houses. Photographs by David Stouten.
It was the end of an embarrassing week when my undeniably entitled whippet committed outrage across the country.
In Cumbria, on entering another drawing room, he was forbidden to lift up his leg a pair of sumptuous silk curtains belonging to the editor of a glossy interiors magazine.
Confined to the kitchen in a Hertfordshire house, he quickly worked out how to open the back-stairs door and lead my hosts’ two unruly Italian greyhounds on a rampage through the plush, new yellow-carpeted bedrooms. gone.
In Scotland, when everyone sat down to eat, I saw teeth marks in the butter that could only have come from a smug-looking whippet, licking lips stretched across the sofa. I smoothed the marks with a gentle hand, hoping no one noticed.
In strange times like these, I find solace in the classics — there’s always a terrifying emperor to put everything in perspective — and among animal friends who are more outrageous than my own. For anyone else frustrated by their pet’s misbehavior, here’s a room-by-room investigation of Country House pet crimes, with hard-earned tips from both victims and perpetrators.
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Insult of the dining room
Opinions on the place of pets at mealtimes have been sharply divided since the classical days. The Greek poet Ancreon had a dove that ate from his hand and drank from his cup, and the Roman emperor Heliogabulus, the greatest lunatic, had his pet lions and leopards climb on sofas with anxious dinner guests. He enjoyed being naughty. Renaissance etiquette books advise against bringing dogs and cats to the table, suggesting that many did.
Having your own pets On A table is one thing, but author Thomas Hardy’s spoiled dog, Wessex, was allowed to roam. On table during the meal. Cynthia Asquith recalled him grabbing every morsel of food before it reached his mouth as the amused Hardy looked on.
It’s weird enough that your pets swipe other people’s food, but it’s a whole different story when they eat each other – especially in public. During a legendary Sunday lunch hosted by the late Major Tim Reilly of Blanco, Cumbria, his black Labrador wandered into the dining room, where he sickened a cat under a sideboard. Without breaking off the conversation, the Major rallied and deftly placed his handkerchief over the remains. We are told that it indeed had a bushy tail.
Drawing Room Disasters
Animals on furniture? Martha, Lady Setwell’s dogs, Ethel and Ernie, no longer lie on her sofa, but only because they have been driven away by their mistress’s newest addition to her brood—a magpie. Which is called Hecate. ‘I’ve always wanted a magpie ever since I read about Gerald Durrell’s “Magpies”. My family and other animalsLady Sitwell admitted. ‘I think Hackett is a little bit eccentric, uncontrollable and a terrible thief. Sometimes, my friends have it for a sleepover to give me a break, but they have to empty their entire drawing room and put everything in the bubble first.
‘She’ll steal ice from your drink and can’t resist a glass of wine, which she likes to slip from her wings, but what she really likes are cigarettes, pulling them to shreds. to hide.’
Lurcher breeder Turn Riley’s Jack Dows was also partial to tobacco: ‘His worst trick was when he’d grab a cigarette from your lips and fly across the room with it, shooting sparks like a phoenix. They were treated very badly… We got into terrible trouble with the village because they would fly into their houses and do terrible things.’
Lakeland farmer Jimmy Hodgson says, ‘We always thought one of the pups we walked for Ullswater Foxhounds was clever.’ ‘She was called Ransom and, once she got in, any time she was hunting in our territory, she—unbeknownst to me, for I was happily out hunting—she made her way home. She would find herself, let herself in and be found lying in it. Couch, covered in mud. I later discovered that she often stopped at the Hawtown Hotel to see if any food was going into the kitchen.
‘We had to call the hunter and tell him she was accounted for after that and he would come round and pick her up – as she got older, it seemed to happen more often.’
Kitchens with agaves have special appeal for birds. ‘My Jack Dows absolutely loved the Aga rail where we hung the dishtowels,’ recalls Mrs Riley.
‘They would jump up and down on them and we would often find a hewing dishcloth on the floor with a very cross jackdaw underneath.’
In Dinley, Lancashire, Cosima Townley has had to put a child lock on the fridge because her whippet, Bat, has learned to poke its sharp little snout between the seal and the door. I always know it’s up to no good because he takes a determined step and disappears at a very strong dog trot into the garden, where I find lots of empty packets of cheese, fish, chocolate, cake. Sad remains have been found. The only good thing I can say about his thieving habit is that his coat is very shiny and thank God he has a stomach of iron.
Although now banned from all his siblings’ homes, Miss Townley says Bate is a perfect guest, ‘because he never turns down an invitation and always leaves a clean plate, like that the nanny was instructed’.
Bad things in the bedroom
For those who like to try seduction in the bedroom – strictly keep pets out of the action. Artist and farmer Jason Gaithorn-Hardy of Great Gillham, Suffolk, who comes from a long line of zoologists (his grandfather carried a pipistrelle bat in his pocket), offers a cautionary tale from his undergraduate days as a zoologist. : ‘A friend of mine was in a complete panic when the semi-adult wolf spiders I kept under my bed started scratching to get out of their boxes, which I also kept.’ He lost the girl, but kept the spiders. ‘Our corridor had a Mediterranean feel, with crickets chirping and the occasional spider running around.’ (The ancient Greeks, incidentally, also kept crickets as pets.)
Corridor crawling is one thing, but using bedrooms in strangers’ homes is quite another. ‘When I lived in Weston (Hull, Northamptonshire), I had a wonderful cat called Chairman Meow,’ shares Lady Setwell. ‘He basically owned the whole village and everyone hated him. He would break into people’s homes and be found sleeping not on the cats’ beds but on their owners’ beds. He also ruled over dogs with iron claws.’
‘We used to have a very nice man called Marky Ledyard, who had a Jack Russell called Slug who had a very bad habit of being absolutely full of hedgehogs,’ added Mrs Riley. ‘He used to go around in hedgehog holes and the thing about hedgehogs, as you know, is that they’re absolutely covered in fleas. Slug did this for a day without Marky knowing – until one night the scariest kerfuffle came from Marky’s room, a window opened and Marky threw all his bedclothes out the window into the yard, and his blankets. Thrown down to find. Bed black with fleas.’
Chairman Meow entered through cat flaps and windows, but Miss Townley’s white pencil ferret, Miss Fitzherbert, had a rather more dangerous habit of tunneling through rubble walls. ‘She once fell off the wall into my nephew and niece’s bedroom in the middle of the night and scared them. My sister never forgave me,’ she reveals. ‘In other ways, she was perfectly bidable and I could have put her in the lead.’
As a young girl, Caroline, Countess of Cranbrook decided to celebrate her birthday one year by taking her pony upstairs as a treat to her mother.
She managed to get him up the Elizabethan spiral staircase at Doddington Hall, Lincolnshire, to the nursery, where the pony looked quite large under its low ceilings. Trying to get him down the stairs proved more difficult.
Her son, Mr Gaithorn-Hardy, agrees that the animals upstairs can be dangerous: ‘We keep the door open for our pet sheep and ducks, who are used to joining us for meals. Until hopefully they won’t. On the kitchen floor and they don’t go up. When a neighbor of mine, a beef farmer, was told that one of his cows had gotten into someone’s house, his first and only question was: “Did it go upstairs?”
Horror in the hallways
Pets always get into the spirit of high days and holidays and look forward to big events, provided they can take full advantage of all the extra food and chaos. ‘There was a big Boxing Day lunch at Holker (Hall, Cumbria), with hundreds of kids running around,’ Sue Crews recalls.
‘My Labrador ran into the Guinness Hall and quickly closed in on my niece Lucy (Civendish) Whippet, as did everyone else. All the children gasped: “What’s Guinness doing mummy?”
‘Someone tried to throw a bucket of water at them, which of course didn’t work and only made the whole spectacle even more dramatic and memorable for everyone.’
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