Closing times, huge queues, expensive bar tabs… Who needs it? Chris Osburn spurns another night out in London to live it up in the shires instead. The country house party has returned, and it’s in full swing.
Terribly fun and mildly frisky, White Blackbird has been hosting swanked-up weekend getaways for a couple of years now as an alternative to typical night out in the city. Set amid the countryside splendour of Stoke Place – a sprawling three storey “William and Mary” style house in the Buckinghamshire boonies (but only 30 miles or so from London), the events offer a bit of burlesque-inspired lowbrow entertainment in an otherwise highbrow setting.
Keen to jump on the bandwagon before it got too crowded (or rather the 18.45 coach from Hanover Square, which the organisers throw on) I popped along to the last soiree – dubbed “Tainted Love” and held over Valentine’s weekend. The party was jam-packed with surprises and events, and instead of stumbling to and from a bar three-deep with suited bankers, I found myself wandering stately corridors, bustling with Burlesque dancers, in search of a private nude portraiture salon (failure), or following a trail of rumours about an intimate performance of the dance of the seven veils (success!). All the performances and festivities I happened upon were kept just this side of ‘wrong’ in an adeptly balanced blend of style and frivolity, and the crowd of 20 and 30-something mature hipsters, had all made an effort to dress with the sort of decadence the occasion demanded. From pagan love Gods to English aristocrats, and not forgetting those Burlesque dancers, the costumes didn’t disappoint.
While hide-n-seeking around Stoke Place, I managed to bump into Polly Betton, the producer and creator of the White Blackbird. We started chatting about the very British phenomenon of country house parties, and whether a new trend for escaping the city is weekends is taking hold in London.
“The country house party format is definitely starting to take off: I’ve been invited to three since Christmas. I think we’re still one of the few regular parties that you can buy tickets to, but more and more people are taking the initiative and throwing their own country house parties for their major celebrations.
People understand the idea of the country house party – we’ve read about it, and seen it in films – but there aren’t many opportunities to experience one. They really died out with the start of the second world war, the Bright Young Things were the last generation for whom it was a regular thing. Of course there were still people throwing parties in houses in the country, but the combination of scale, budget and imagination hasn’t been seen since. Which, of course, means that with the recent surge of interest in both vintage socialising and experiential events, they’re ripe for a revival of sorts.”
That’s all very well, but in an economic climate which has forced many people to tighten their belts a notch or two, is it really good timing to revive a decadent phenomenon that happened in the elite circles of the 1920s and 30s? I put the question to Polly, as I served myself a second slice of tiramisu from the dessert table.
“It’s true that the idea of a big party in a country house has always seemed pretty inaccessible, but in fact as money has gotten tighter people have gotten more inventive – and more demanding – about how they spend it. It’s very easy to go into central London on a Friday night, run through at least £60 over a couple of hours, then go home feeling it wasn’t anything special. For the same price bracket you can step outside your comfort zone a little and have a bit of an adventure. Immersive theatre and underground dining have both helped our cause – people are much more accepting of ‘experiential’ events, they’re happy to be taken out of their usual environment. In fact, they’ve started demanding it.”
At 35 GBP a ticket in fact the Tainted Love party is exceptionally good value. The fact that the party takes place at a hotel-for-hire means that you don’t need a millionaire mate any more to enjoy the high life… at least not for one night. Perhaps the biggest surprise about the country house party trend taking place right now is that people are ready to invest the time and expense out of getting out of London. Although this is where the 15 GBP coach service from Hanover square comes in handy.
“At first we thought that getting people to come down from London would be the difficult bit. In fact, it’s much harder getting them to go back. I wasn’t entirely sure that a coach transfer would work for a grown-up crowd, but I’ve never had a complaint, and quite a few people have told me how much they’ve enjoyed the journey. I suppose it’s a bit like a school trip, it gives the whole thing a certain sense of occasion and amps up the anticipation. There are some pretty big benefits to taking people out of London too – the quality of the air, for a start, which immediately puts you in a good mood. The sheer space of the grounds gives a sense of freedom and privacy, and there’s something about knowing that you’re in situ until 2am that makes people much more sociable and happy to join in – everyone seems to come back with new friends. Even if it tuns out that the party isn’t entirely to your taste, you’ve still done all the things you would’ve done in London – dance, drink, eat and chat – in a beautiful setting that you wouldn’t usually have access to.”
The next White Blackbird Party will be Friday the 13th of May with a “Superstition” theme, taking place at Stoke Place.