Upstairs, downstairs at a stately home in England
BEAULIEU, England, Nov 20: Pausing to catch her breath on step 53, Belinda Sheldon leans on her vacuum cleaner and eyes the last stretch of staircase that winds up through Palace House, a stately home in Beaulieu, southern England.
Vacuuming the 70-odd carpeted stairs is just one of the chores Sheldon and two other cleaning staff must do to keep each nook and cranny of the historic mansion spotless for their master, Lord Edward Montagu and his wife, Fiona.
''Working here, you have to tap on doors before you enter and remember your manners,'' Sheldon, 42, said. ''It's a big house. When I first started I got lost in it.'' Woe-betide any chambermaid who entered the wrong room in a stately home in Britain 100 years ago as she would have likely received a box around the ear from the housekeeper.
Fortunately for Sheldon and the other staff at Beaulieu, times have changed. Not only are they free from the risk of being beaten for making a mistake, but the cleaners no longer toil from dawn until dusk on their hands and knees scrubbing floors, before tumbling into a small bed in the servants' quarters.
Instead, Sheldon and fellow cleaner Eileen Goulding, 59, come in just four days a week. A third woman, Suzi Virani, 46, also cleans and acts as a full-time personal assistant to Lady Montagu. She too lives away from the Beaulieu estate.
''The actual work we do is similar to the Victorian times (1837-1901), but we use modern appliances, like vacuum cleaners and polishers, which make the job easier,'' said Goulding, who has worked for the Montagus for 27 years.
Palace House, a picturesque blend of turrets, chimneys and windows surrounded by a dry moat and luscious gardens, has belonged to the family since the 16th century.
Like many of Britain's landed gentry, the Montagus once had a large staff of up to 30, including chambermaids, footmen, a butler, cook, kitchen maid and scullery maid.
Nowadays, however, with the cost of maintaining an estate rocketing, titled families are cutting back on workers and often opening up their homes and grounds to the public as a way of generating much needed revenue.
''My generation don't want to live in enormous houses with the responsibility of keeping up taxes,'' said Lord Montagu, who has opened part of his house to the public as a ''living history'' museum, with guides dressed in period outfits from 1889.
''I am not waited on by hundreds of servants, I don't need it, I don't want it and I can't afford it. It costs a lot to run a household,'' the 80-year-old told Reuters in an interview. But staff for the upper classes are not a dying breed as openings arise to serve the nouveau riche generation of pop stars, actors and billionaire businessmen, said Francine Bray, founder of the Chelsea Staff Bureau, a recruitment agency for high-quality household staff.
''The world is full of wealthy people and today the majority are not the titled families,'' Bray said.
Pay is often better for staff working for the newly rich and famous, but some still prefer to serve the landed gentry, who understand better the upstairs-downstairs divide -- treating their workers with respect but not getting too close, Bray added.
At Beaulieu, the three cleaning staff along with Chris Morley, a butler, and Dena Saunderson, a cook, are Lord and Lady Montagu's remaining private employees.
The couple, whose children have grown up and left home, hire other workers to help with the public-side of the property, which includes the National Motor Museum and Beaulieu Abbey.
As well as easier working conditions, today's high-quality domestic staff also receive better salaries, more holidays and even pension schemes. The relationship between the workers and the Montagus is also less formal than it once would have been.
Lord Montagu says the way he runs his house is not typical of many stately homes, especially the larger ones, where a stricter upstairs-downstairs regime is observed.
However, some of the old traditions remain at Beaulieu.
With the exception of the cook, the staff still wear a uniform -- the cleaners in a black skirt or pair of trousers and white shirt, the butler in a black suit.
In addition, the private living quarters where they work look like a museum, from the old children's room with its pint-sized four-poster bed to the master bedroom, where the sheets and blankets are folded with Origami perfection.
Also, Palace House is wired with an electronic calling system so the Montagus can summon their staff at the press of a button -- there is one discretely placed in most of the rooms, which triggers a bell on a panel on a wall in the kitchen.
''Work is work and home is home, but since I have been at Beaulieu, I feel as though I am part of someone else's family (too),'' said Sheldon, as she starts up the vacuum cleaner again.