Today our guest blogger is bestselling historical author (and part-time tour guide) Nicola Cornick. She has wonderfully romantic origins that seem to us to be just right for the books she writes — full of the sweep of history, and with heroes to die for.
Nicola was born in Yorkshire within a stone’s throw of the moors that inspired the Brontë sisters. She grew up in a sprawling Edwardian house full of books and went to school in a converted Georgian mansion. Her grandmother nurtured her love of history as well as teaching her to play canasta and grow rhubarb. (Buzz from the hive: clearly even rhubarb can be romantic!)
Nicola has written over 30 Regency historical romances for Harlequin Books and now writes historical mystery.
Confessions of a Country House Tour Guide
Nicola’s Confessions start with a couple of tourist/tour guide exchanges…
“Did you enjoy the guided tour?” “Not much. I don’t really like history.” “What did you think of the view from the roof platform?” “I’ve seen better on the road into Swindon.”
Ah, the joys of being a National Trust guide at Ashdown House! Most of our visitors are absolutely fantastic — interested, engaged, out to enjoy their day and full of questions or indeed information about Ashdown House and the Craven family. Sometimes they are people with a family connection to the house or the estate, and are able to help us fill in a part of the history of the place. We learn a lot from them.
I’ve worked at Ashdown for 14 years now. For years I drove past the stunning little 17th century white house that sat, looking mysterious, in the middle of a wood. I wondered a lot about its history but I always seemed too busy to visit. It was seldom open to the public and then only by guided tour.
National Trust Volunteer Tour Guide
However, when I gave up my job to become a full-time author, I was looking for something to do that would get me out of the house and meeting real people. Since history was my obsession, volunteering with the National Trust seemed like a good option.
Working at Ashdown isn’t like volunteering in most country houses, or at least I imagine not. For a start the house has a tenant, which means that the National Trust staff are only allowed in fifteen minutes before the visitors arrive, so we scurry around the visitor centre, setting up the displays, putting the benches outside, trying to get the video to work and all before we open the gates at 2pm.
We can only take 25 people on each guided tour because this is a very small “stately home” so there can be something of a scrimmage for the timed tickets! But there is plenty for people to see at Ashdown whilst they wait for a tour.
Ashdown’s External Attractions (while waiting for tour guide!)
We have an Iron Age hill fort with connections to Alfred the Great, we have woodland that at this time of year is thick with bluebells, primroses and wood anemones, and there are the parterre gardens where our costumed re-enactors demonstrate lace making, wood turning and other historic skills.
Inside, the Tour Guide tells all…
On the tour we tell our visitors the extraordinary story of the rise of the Craven family from rags to riches, and the love story of William, First Earl of Craven, and Elizabeth, the Winter Queen. The house contains the exquisite portrait collection that Elizabeth bequeathed to William. The view from the roof platform is the literal highlight of the visit, hundreds of feet above the surrounding countryside.
Our most commonly asked questions are: “Where is the loo?” and “Do you have a teashop?” Occasionally there will be academics wandering in who ask such challenging things as: “Could you give us some detail on the causes of the Thirty Years War?” Well no, not if I don’t want the rest of the tour group to fall asleep!
My favourite question of all time, though, happened during a windy day up on the roof. One lady fixed me with a curious eye and said: “Could you tell me what lipstick you’re wearing?” My reply of “I don’t have any on” caused consternation at the back of the group where they had not heard the original question.
Many thanks to Nicola Cornick for her “Confessions”
And for making the hive buzz with laughter. Having been on one of Nicola’s guided tours at Ashdown House, I can warmly recommend a visit. It’s a delightful place.
Ashdown is the kind of house that has a writer buzzing with ideas for new stories. In fact, that’s probably what happened with Nicola’s latest book, House of Shadows, a timeslip story partly based at Ashdown, as you can see from the cover. It’s a fabulous tale, totally gripping. Reading it, you feel right there with the historical characters — it’s impossible to put it down before the end. The love stories will touch your heart, too.
London, February, 1662. On the eve of her death Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen, bequeaths to her faithful cavalier William Craven an ancient treasure to be kept safe for her rightful heir. Craven will build a magnificent house and estate to Elizabeth’s memory at Ashdown Park and at the centre of it will be the treasure. Centuries will pass and Elizabeth and her secrets will be almost forgotten…
When Holly Ansell comes to Ashdown Park looking for her missing brother Ben, she is drawn into the mystery of Elizabeth’s lost legacy. To find Ben she must also unravel the truth behind the Winter Queen’s secret marriage to William Craven and the mystery of the rightful heir.
You can find out more about Nicola and her books on her website or on her Facebook page. Follow her on Twitter @NicolaCornick, or read her occasional blogs on the Word Wenches website.
I was lucky enough to go on one of Nicola’s tours and both house and story are fascinating.
Thank you so much, Liz. I am delighted you enjoyed it!
I’d love to visit. In a way I feel I’ve been there, having devoured House of Shadows when it first came out. Absolutely wonderful book!
Bless you, Liz. I’m very happy you liked the book!
Oh, wow, I knew you worked in a house like this, but I didn’t realise what a quirky, fascinating building it was. I doubt I will have time to get there on my next trip to England, but I really wish I could.
Also: NEVER ask people what they thought of a tourist attraction! If I love a place, I hate having it ruined by miserable comments from miserable people!
That’s good advice, Sonya. I do hope to have the pleasure of showing you round Ashdown one day.
Terrific post, Nicola, I’d love to hear more about your adventures at Ashdown. This sounds like such a dream job but dealing with the public is always a challenge, isn’t it?
Thank you, Christine. It is a lot of fun and the majority of visitors are fabulous but you do always have to be on your toes. I remember the occasion the tenant accidentally left the door to his private rooms unlocked and I found people rooting around in his kitchen!
Having just finished House of Shadows I was delighted to read this post. I shall have to go down and take the tour.
Hi Lesley! I would be so happy to give you the guided tour!
What a lovely post! I’d love to take the tour, it sounds fabulous. Thanks Nicola, and libertabooks.
I would love to show you round Ashdown one day, Julie! I’m so glad you like the blog – I love Liberta and it is such a treat to be featured on here!