Ingredients of history

24th February 2008 at 00:00

Jane Norrie visits the kitchens at Pallant House for a taste of life downstairs

Contrary to our current perceptions, conspicuous consumption was not just the prerogative of the Eighties. In 1712 the upwardly mobile wine merchant Henry Peckham spent Pounds 3,000 of his wife's fortune on building a magnificent house in Chichester this at a time when a fine town house could be got for Pounds 500.

Now run by a trust and open to the public, Pallant House is every bit as imposing as it must have been the day it was completed. Set back from the street, it guards its distinction behind wrought-iron gates and pillars surmounted by carved stone dodos. The interiors are equally impressive with all the rooms individually restored. You move in time from the early 18th-century entrance hall with its superb carved staircase to the late Victorian kitchen, and as you go you encounter a host of superb decorative pieces from a 1700 Hepplewhite four-poster bed to Georgian pottery from the Bow factory, East London.

The icing on the cake comes in the 1830s drawing room which is hung with an outstanding collection of British modern paintings (the gifts of two generous benefactors). For 18th and 19th-century social history, art and design history, maths and technology, Pallant House provides a rich resource for cross-curricular topics. Themes range from living and working in the house to the city and port, building crafts, travel and transport. My own visit, however, was to the Victorian kitchen in the company of five and six-year-old children from Rose Green School in Bognor Regis. They were following the topic "past and present" and in particular "houses old and new".

The class had been divided in two, with one half looking at nearby Chichester Cathedral to highlight the different uses of buildings. The other half gathered, somewhat cramped, round the kitchen table while I wondered how fifteen five and six-year-olds would cope with a slice of Victorian social history?

Education officer, Betty Harries, who incidentally spent much of her career training teachers, began by introducing the kitchen range. One hundred years ago, we learned, maids pumped the fire with foot bellows leaving their hands free for dealing with the spit and its dripping roast which splattered copiously on to the floor. Cooks preferred this tried and tested method to the new-fangled idea of baking meat in an oven. Without any controls like the modern thermostat, judging the temperature in the new ovens could be a hazardous business.

Next we were shown a knife polisher, an apple peeler and corer and a bean slicer, all with fully working parts. Apples were peeled and cored before the children's eyes and information gently slipped their way. How in late summer the sliced beans were packed away with salt for Christmas, how kitchen maids started work as young as 10, how to identify the different metals on view the copper jelly moulds, brass spit or iron range. By this time the children were eating out of Betty Harries's hand, both answering and asking questions. The high point came with the appearance of the flour sifter. Who loved to chomp the spilled flour? Cockroaches? Yes, probably and then a chorus of "Mice".

Out came Mr Pullinger's Mousetrap, a trap that didn't kill the mice but kept them caged until they could be released next morning. Entranced, the children set about drawing their favourite objects then taking turns in dressing up in the maid's cap and apron.

Back in the classroom comparisons would be drawn with the modern kitchen. This particular class came to Pallant House on the recommendation of a fellow teacher.

Ideally, seven-year-olds and upwards are thought to get the most out of a visit. Their session may include interviews with young houseboys and maids and the chance to see the well in the cellar (still extant from the house's previous incarnation as a malthouse). Practical activities include weighing vessels with and without water, counting the number of grates to be cleaned or taking the mincer to pieces and drawing its parts. One school studied the patterns which flourish on floor tiles and furnishings, then made their own wrapping paper designs on the school computer.

As a corrective to the televison picture of upstairsdownstairs, the trading topic shows the micro economic system that radiated round the house, creating scores of jobs for traders not just butchers and bakers but hatters, surgeons, wigmakers and so on.

Teachers are encouraged to make a preliminary visit to see the house and discuss their own teaching needs.

In addition, for preparatory and follow-up work there is a superb resource pack, beautifully illustrated, packed with information, full of fascinating documentary evidence from primary sources. The kind of details that make the past come gloriously alive.

For booking and information contact Pallant House, 9, North Pallant, Chichester, West Sussex PO19 1TJ.

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