There are qualities you can list on a CV, or pick up on at interview, but there is something indefinable about a good housekeeper. In Nicky Garner’s case you could argue that it’s genetic.
I’m not saying that something in your gene pool determines which side of the servant-master divide you end up on – but in the village of Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, there’s still a surprising amount of entrenched loyalty (or, in a few cases, grudge-bearing) that’s been passed down through many generations. Some families have connections with Holkham Hall that go back hundreds of years.
Was it Nicky’s destiny to end up as housekeeper ? The 35-year-old mother of two, née Tottle, comes from the Butters clan – and Butters, historically, were born to serve. Her great grandfather Henry Butters was a lifelong Holkham Hall handyman. His son, Fredrick Butters, was a footman and under butler. Great aunt Althea worked in the estate office after WWII, then as a room steward welcoming the first public to Holkham in 1950; she married Albert Butters, another Hall handyman who doubled up as footman. Auntie Sheila Gibson, ‘very particular, a bit of a clean freak’, was housekeeper to the 7th Earl of Leicester in the 1990s.
Nicky is not the stereotype – she is young, she’s of her time, she has her four Aztec tattoos. But for all the immediate differences, I think my five earlier housekeepers would still recognize her as one of them. She has the same obsessive, literal-minded attention to detail; the same character that can’t step back from the job. There is something almost military about her. ‘I’ve always been ridiculously methodical,’ she says, flipping open a folder and showing me her annual graph on moth reduction (down fifty per cent in the staterooms and Statue Gallery).
When summoned to Lady Coke’s office in 2011 and offered the top job, Nicky wasn’t sure she could do it. She has always viewed herself as a grafter – ‘someone who works really hard but never gets anywhere.’ She was intimidated by the title Head Housekeeper, wondering if she shouldn’t be called Cleaning Supervisor instead. But, as she soon discovered, cleaning was the most straightforward part of her role…