It’s early February and Howick Hall, the ancestral home of the Grey family (of Earl Grey tea fame) opens its doors for the first time in the year for their annual snowdrop festival. It is still home to the present Lord Howick of Glendale who is the grandson of the 5th Earl Grey. It is however Charles the 2nd Earl Grey who is the most famous Grey of all. His statue stands on the column at the top of Grey Street in Newcastle and is known as Grey’s Monument. If you ever want to meet anyone in Newcastle – you always meet them at the Monument. He was leader of the Whig party (sort of Liberals) and was prime minister from 1830 to 1834. Earl Grey tea was specially blended by a Chinese mandarin for Charles to suit the water from the spring at Howick, using bergamot leaf tea to offset the taste of lime in it. Lady Grey used it in London when entertaining as a political hostess and it proved very popular. Twinings started to market it and it is now sold worldwide. Sadly, the Greys failed to register the trademark and never made a penny in royalties from their creation. Earl Grey had fifteen children, all of whom he had educated at home and, unusually for those days , they all survived into adulthood probably because of the fresh air at Howick.
Up early – snowdrops
The gardens at Howick are real gardener’s gardens (you know what I mean) and there is always something to see whatever time of year you go there. Obviously the snowdrops are our earliest sign that spring is on the way and Lady Grey, a keen gardener planted whole swathes of them all over the estate. They are very pretty indeed, sprinkled for miles around like icing sugar through the woodland around the hall. I did think it was a bit much to call it a snowdrop ‘festival’ though, as nothing much else seemed to be happening. the quietest festival I’ve ever encountered – Glastonbury it wasn’t.
Another very civilised feature of Howick hall is the Earl Grey Tea House which is in the old ballroom.. Mary, the lady that runs the tea shop was born at Howick and it is certainly a very genteel place to sit and have your Earl Grey tea and your cream scone. Not many of great English stately homes are still lived in by the original families – looking after large estates like this is an expensive business. Maybe we need a North East version of Downtown Abbey filmed here to revive its fortunes? What do you say Robson Green?