Louise Minchin on skinning a deer and washing with urine in Time Crashers
The BBC Breakfast presenter discovered servant life was a far cry from Downton Abbey after agreeing to take part in Channel 4's living history show
Why on earth, you might ask, would anyone want to give up all the creature comforts of 21st-century life and go back in time, to periods without electricity, hot water, or the basic human rights that we take for granted today?
As a journalist, I’m really interested in stories, and by agreeing to take part in Channel 4’s living history show Time Crashers with nine other celebrities, I thought I would get a unique perspective on history, one that was much more instructive than what we see on Downton Abbey or in history documentaries. I wanted a 100 per cent immersive experience, and that’s what we got, from what we ate to what we wore and the tools we used.
For each time period, we would have to don a blindfold, and then we were helped to get dressed. Then we would be driven off and walked into our venue, still blindfolded. It was incredibly disorientating, but it was also my favourite moment. Everything was very quiet, and you could only hear and smell your environment, and start guessing where you might be.
Other than obviously missing my family, the lack of hot water and baths was a particular hardship. We have a romantic view of history; we think life was simpler, calmer, more bucolic. Maybe. But it was also physically tough, cold and dirty. What I came to realise is that we have lost the knowledge of the practical skills that our ancestors used on a daily basis. Whether it’s gutting a fish, plucking a chicken or foraging in a hedgerow, we have lost being in touch with our environment and the food that we eat.
After leaving the show, I caught some fish in Cornwall, gutted them myself, and cooked them on a fire that I’d made and lit. I couldn’t have done that before Time Crashers.
Although this was the furthest back in time we went, it was our final challenge. And after being stuck in a corset for most of the other periods, it was a blessing to be out of the corsets and into the hessian trousers! It took us ages to work out how to light a fire, and we only had a very blunt knife, with which we were meant to gut a chicken. But that was a fiasco.
The next day we were supposed to skin a deer with this blunt knife. I sat there for hours sharpening it, and in the end it got sharp enough. I learnt that I have way more patience to see things through than I thought. We also foraged for nettles, which we fried up in home-made butter, and we managed to make a salad for all of us. By the end of it we were entirely feral, filthy, with marks all over us, but I really enjoyed the Iron Age.
When my blindfold came off I realised I was standing on a stage, looking across a stunning jousting arena, outside a castle. We were squires, looking after a knight who was about to joust. I had to pretend to be a man, because women wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near a jousting arena. I had to groom a horse, and I spent hours trying to plait its mane, being shouted at by the show’s taskmasters.
After two hours, one of them shouted at me to go and eat. I thought I’d just finish off the plaiting, and before I knew it he had come up behind me, grabbed my ponytail and thrown me onto the grass. Apparently he aimed a kick at me, too, but missed. I was incensed! I shouted back at him, which only got me into more trouble. But I’m a 21st-century woman and I’m used to being able to argue back.
As I opened my eyes I was by a four-poster bed, with a roaring fire, and I thought, “This is fantastic.” Then I looked down at my clothes and realised that I was plainly not wearing beautiful silk gowns, but instead had on a maid’s outfit. It dawned on me that I wouldn’t be using that bed!
I walked into another room and bumped into Keith Allen, who was dressed, hilariously, in a velvet jacket and a very smart hat. He took one look at me and said, “You’re obviously my servant.” But, brilliantly, he was a servant, too.
Meg Mathews and I were ladies’ maids. One of our jobs was to wash the ladies’ nightwear. I took one look at the bucket of liquid and thought I’d have a smell. It was urine. So there we were, no Marigolds, hands in the urine, washing these nighties. It was disgusting. I’d not realised that women would have actually worn those clothes, absolutely stinking of pee!
For this challenge I was in the kitchen, and in charge of Kirstie Alley, who was quite difficult to manage. We had to make 25 loaves of bread and some biscuits in an oven, and although we were supposed to be in 1796 it looked like a pizza oven that we might use today. I was working with red-hot coals and ash, but wearing a corset and huge skirts. Masses of women of the time burnt to death because coals would fall under their skirts and they’d go up in flames. It was so impractical.
I’m definitely not a natural baker. The biscuits went completely and utterly wrong, and ended up looking like semolina, so I got into huge trouble.
We were fishwives on the east coast for this challenge. That was really funny. We had to choose husbands to work alongside, and I ended up with Jermaine Jenas, who was really charming. We were given a bucket of herring and told we had to gut 30 each. I’ve never gutted a fish in my life; I didn’t have a clue.
We had really sharp knives, and I slipped and cut myself. There was blood everywhere. Then the taskmistress came back and all she cared about was whether I’d got any blood on the fish!
We had to bash barnacles off oysters and prepare mussels for market. It was cold and wet, but better than the other periods because there was no rigid hierarchy. We could get on with it as we wanted to. I found it much more comfortable than being in service. It was harder work, physically, and the conditions were filthy, but I preferred the autonomy and the freedom.
I was promoted to be first maidservant, in charge of Meg and Fern Britton. We had to serve tea for the Edwardian lady who was having her friends over, and the sandwiches had to be cut in the right way and everything had to be laid out properly. It was really complicated, and all they were doing was having a cup of tea! It was all very tense, and then Fern managed to trip and drop a whole tray of cakes. I had to fall to the floor and clear it up, because I was snorting with laughter and I knew if they caught me I’d be punished.
What got me was that as servants you weren’t supposed to be seen or heard, so if the lady of the house walked past you, you had to turn your face to the wall so she couldn’t see you. You were basically not considered worthy of being looked at. A far cry from Downton Abbey!
As told to Patrick Foster
Time Crashers begins on Channel 4 tonight (Sunday 23rd August) at 8.00pm