Week 16 – In which I lived in an authentic Victorian Cottage


Time-travelling had never been more fun

Ever seen the BBC series ‘The Victorian Farm’? Then you’ll remember the cottage, where Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn and Alex Langlands stayed and the Christmas party took place. That little gem of Victoriana near Church Stretton in Shropshire was going to be our home for 3 days!

While this blog gives you a humorous account of our early struggles, let it be known that we fell in love with our Victorian Cottage and pretty much mastered most aspects of it by the end of the weekend. If you feel like you might want to try out this adventure, here is some more info on the cottage and how to book it.

So, an idyllic weekend in Victorian times without electricity, running water or WIFI – what’s not to love?


a walk-in fridge

Upon arrival we were delighted to find a roaring fire in the well-scrubbed kitchen of this 19th-century farm labourer’s dwelling. It wasn’t until later that evening, that we realized just how much skill and work was required to get that started!

The cottage has been sympathetically restored to its original condition, which meant that no modern appliances were installed and our pantry served as a gigantic walk-in fridge. However with my knack off upping most of my challenges, I had managed to book us in for a spring weekend that promised night-frost and snow. So technically all of the charming vegetable garden could chill our milk.

Imagine a couple of Sloanies on a Camping Trip . . .

What amused me most was just how much we are all creatures of habit. Every time I entered a dark room, my fingers searched the wall for a light switch. And wandering off to bed, I turned around mid-way because I’d left without a candle.

And while we are on the point of candles, I feel the urge to explain that they might look romantic in Jane Austen movies, yet are totally useless on your way to the outbuildings. Holding it in front of you the flame only lights upwards to blind you (and make your face look spooky), but doesn’t illuminate any of the path you’re trying to walk on. Free-hanging oil lamps (or the moon) are the way to go. Quite literally.

The extend in which we take warmth and light for granted these days, dawned on me when we found ourselves faced with the dilemma of freezing to death vs. dying of carbon-monoxide poisoning. A tough choice really, especially if you are already feeling lightheaded . . .

While Rupert Acton had given us a very solid introduction into lighting oil lamps and tending to the wood-burning stove, our urban survival skills weren’t quite up to the task. Inexperienced as we were, we managed to create a solid wall of smoke in the kitchen the first night, that slowly wafted through the house. For health concerns we decided to swap the oil lamps for candles, yet our evidence to the effectiveness of that substitution remained utterly inconclusive.


More Victorian survival skills to the test

One of the attempts to heat up our pies

One of the attempts to heat up our pies

The next step in this survival camp was to figure out how to cook with the Victorian AGA. While it was sheer impossible not to get the stove working, (the hot plates were right above the fire), it proved a little trickier to heat up the oven situated to the left of the coal fire. When I put my hand into it, it felt pleasantly warm like a day in Ibiza during off-season, but nowhere near warm enough to heat our pies. After what felt like a decent fight, we let the AGA take this victory and toasted our pies on the cooktop.

We also hadn’t anticipated how difficult it would be to keep our hands and clothes clean. The soot and grime of the coal fires and oil lamps seemed to be lurking everywhere, which again was partially due to our incompetence of lighting them correctly. (For a delightful account of how another Henley Cottage visitor dealt with that dilemma, click here).


Practice makes Victorian!

Our washing up kit 

Our washing up kit 

With our pride taken down a notch, we vowed to figure out this Victorian kitchen the following day. Luckily for the girls we had brought along a gent, who self-appointed himself as ‘fire-maker’; a role requiring him to get out of his lovely snug bed (horsehair mattress naturally) way before the rest of us did. And with yesterday’s practice he was now able to get the fire going much quicker and less smoky and we all felt pretty accomplished (if not strictly Victorian) drinking piping hot tea and munching warm croissants.

We also became champions in lighting oil-lamps. While it took us a minute or two originally, we had it down to just under 25 seconds by the end of the weekend. And as the days passed, we remembered to duck when entering a room (low ceilings everywhere) and carry paper, matches, coal, wood and a bedside candle on a trip to light the upstairs fires. We turned into Victorian pros!


Appreciating the little things

At the same time, we became grateful for the little things: like a still night that wouldn’t blow out your candle or the speed in which our drying clothes dried hanging from the pulleymaid.

We also found we were getting more frugal with just about everything: matches, candles, water. Dish washing water was used sparsely, as each bucket had to be collected from outside, the use of oil lamps and candles was on a strict needs-basis, even though we had plenty. The environment affected our behaviour.

Time took on a different meaning, as nothing could be rushed. Everything had to be planned for. In the mornings we tended to be late because we underestimated how long it took to get the wood-burning stove going to make the kettle boil.

“I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is” said Alice to the Queen

The table is all set for Mockturtle Soup

The table is all set for Mockturtle Soup

This reply from Alice in Wonderland shows that neither Alice nor I had a clue what Mock Turtles are, where to find them or how to turn them into soup.

In Victorian times turtle soup was so popular at politician’s banquets and similar functions that the population of turtles dwindled dramatically and it was no longer permitted to catch them for cooking. Crafty Victorian cooks (including Mrs. Beeton) created similarly flavoured soups that did not required actual turtles but instead 2 cow heels, a calf’s head, and balls of forcemeat (veal, suet, bread, and spices) as well as a glass of sherry. With these ingredients it is unsurprising, that ‘Mockturtle Soup’ was considered a delicacy at Victorian dinner parties. My recipe was a lot simpler, yet kept the sherry and substituted the forcemeat with Ginger Snap cookies.

Our dinner party was considered a great success, as everybody made an effort to dress somewhat Victorian. Rupert put us all to shame by creating the most splendid, roaring fire in the AGA within minutes, that didn’t smoke at all and would have allowed for a Sunday roast to be prepared. Oh well, - that is what true mastery looks like . . .