Stately homes and castles – part 1

Dear travellers,

We were planning this post for a while, but we were not sure how to shape it. As we have several visits still planned and we didn’t want to cramp too much information all in one post, we decided to split it into a series and to post as we go so to say.

I guess you have already seen our general post with the links to all the openings. I have to admit that we didn’t go to any of the first openings as these usually are very crowded, and also we have been busy on other trips for most of the spring, so we are now trying to fit in as much as we can before some of the homes close for winter. But let’s go back to our main subject and start with our first visit, for this post we will have little paragraphs divided as usual in two points of view. Please, follow us in our tour!

Kimbolton Castle

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We’ll start with the closest to home, which for us is Buckden Towers, located in Buckden, Cambridgeshire. Replacing a previous wooden structure from the 12th century, the current brick building dates from as far back as 1475 although some parts have been added more recently. Looking like a cross somewhere between a castle and a stately home, it must have been a formidable fortress when it still had its original moat.

There have been many notable visitors to this site, many monarchs included, and this area has a lot of connections with Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. This is where she was first held during their famous divorce before being moved to nearby Kimbolton Castle, which we will get to shortly. Unfortunately the building is not open to the public, however the grounds are open every day during daylight hours and it is free to enter. The coaching inn next door, The Lion Inn, dates from a similar period and it is entirely possible that King Henry VIII may have stopped here for a drink during one of his stays at Buckden Towers! Still providing accommodation and refreshment to travellers and locals alike, I would highly recommend The Lion Inn for lunch, dinner, or just a drink if you are in the area.

Kimbolton Castle, Catherine of Aragon’s next and final home, is unfortunately not as accessible. Currently owned and used by Kimbolton School, the building is only open to the public on two open days held during the year, usually one in March and the other in November. As it spends the vast majority of the year as a school, the interior of the building is understandably lacking in the fine art and treasures that you would normally expect to find in an English stately home. However that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a visit, as the volunteers that organise the open days provide some very interesting insights into the history of the house, both through guided mini-tours and informative displays. Some of the rooms of the house also warrant a visit even without any artefacts to bolster their appeal, most notably the chapel, the courtyard, and the Headmaster’s Office (originally the room that Catherine of Aragon was kept in). Unfortunately the weather wasn’t being too kind when we visited, and we weren’t able to fully explore the grounds without risking an unexpected shower. I’m sure we’ll be back for another one of their open days to finish off the tour!

***

This stately home, as many of them do, has an interesting history. It was originally built as a Norman castle but nothing of that remains today. The actual town of Kimbolton was built as a marketplace for the castle and still thrives. The Tudor castle that was built afterwards had some famous guests, Catherine of Aragon being probably the most known. The current building partly saved the building the queen lived in but has mainly been rebuilt and is now a school. It usually opens a couple of times a year and the volunteers are eager to tell you everything about the history and the ghosts!

On the left of the entrance, where is now the Headmaster’s office, were Catherine of Aragon’s chambers. The Queen, who was married to Henry VIII for 24 years, never accepted to be called “Dowager Princess of Wales”, the only title that the King would accept for her as his brother’s widow. Before being confined to Kimbolton, she stayed a few months in another building very near to us, Buckden Towers.

Going back to Kimbolton, as I said, the building is quite modern and keeps evolving with the times in order to provide an adequate environment for the students, and several of the rooms have been modified. The old servants area still presents some of the old features, including some old windows, although some that were external are now part of the internal walls due to the extensions added to the building. In the internal court, some of the hooks for the buckets used to extinguish fires are still visible but are now just part of the decorations.

Do not miss one of the next opening days:

Sunday 5 November 2017, 1-4pm

Sunday 4 March 2018, 1-4pm

Burghley House

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The first true stately home that we visited, Burghley House is a grand mansion just north of Peterborough. Built during the Elizabethan period of the 16th century, it is a very good example of the large homes of this period. The house is still lived in today by the Cecil family, so not all of it is open to the public however there is still a large number of rooms that can be viewed. The tour of the house starts in the kitchen, which has been recreated into a scene of life in Tudor times. From here you are taken upstairs and through the main body of the house. The rooms that are open to the public are mainly state rooms used by guests, most notably the rooms that Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria used on their visits to the estate. As would be expected, the rooms are furnished beautifully and filled with many fine artworks and artefacts, although it has a more functional atmosphere than more extravagant places such as Waddesdon Manor.

The tour of the house didn’t take as long as expected, as not all of it is accessible, and we then went to explore the grounds. Originally designed by Capability Brown, a famous landscape designer of the time, the grounds are extremely vast and impressive. The highlight for me was the river and bridge at the rear of the grounds, a very pleasant setting which would have been perfect for a picnic. We didn’t explore the grounds as much as we would have liked, so we’re already planning a return visit! Fortunately a ticket for here is valid for the calendar year, so it gives plenty of opportunities for visits.

***

One of the most incredible examples of an Elizabethan house is definitely Burghley House. Built in the XVI century, it still conserves its original exterior. The family who built it, the Cecils, still live in the house but a big part of it is accessible for the visit. While you walk through the rooms, called by their colours, you can learn about the famous visitors who stayed in them, including Queen Victoria, both when still a princess and after her coronation, and Queen Elizabeth I.

The works of art in the house are incredible: Hundreds of paintings by great European masters such as Caravaggio just to name one, frescos that cover entire rooms floor to ceiling, ornaments, furniture, everything has an inestimable value. What I can say, and you can understand by looking at the pictures, is that it feels quite cramped, as if the room were to fall on the visitor. Of course, I had that impression especially in the kitchen, which is full of copper tins everywhere and, after living in my Sardinian home, I am immediately disturbed by these objects. The fact that there was a real-size copper turtle as well definitely didn’t help.

One thing that I definitely loved was to see all the bells for the servants. As a big fan of Downton Abbey (we will come back to that soon), I can’t help but remember the opening every time I see the panels with all the wires and bells. They are not just in Burghley House, of course, but they were in such a peculiar position in this case that they stay in my memory as iconic. Walking out of the kitchen, we are soon in a small, dark room that then leads upstairs; the walls are covered with wood panels, and the bells run all around the walls just over the wood. Standing under there makes you feel amazed and trapped at once, as if they could start ringing and you were forced to start your day of work. A few flights of stairs, the first one still covered with wooden panels and then more elegant, all stone and with round arches, take you to the chapel and then all the main rooms.

As one who doesn’t like gardens, I have to admit that Burghley House’s gardens are beautiful. Not just walking along them to see the beauty of the building from outside, but the gardens themselves. there is a river along them and they are immense. They were originally built by Capability Brown, an eminence of the time, and now include also the Garden of Surprises with fountains, sculptures, water shows, and a little maze. They are something not to miss.

The ticket gives you access to the House for the whole year and a 50% discount on some other listed buildings, which is not bad. The Christmas market is very famous, so we are looking forward to go back again a few times before the end of the year!

Hedingham Castle

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This one is slightly different to the places above, as the purpose of our visit was not for exploring. My cousin had her wedding here in the spring, and in my mind she couldn’t have chosen a better, or more interesting venue. The most well-preserved Norman keep in England, it is the embodiment of all those castles we used to draw when we were kids. Four square walls with some battlements on top, this is a true castle that was built for function rather than show. Still a formidable fortress to this day, it’s easy to see how it has managed to survive for so long.

As I said, the exterior is fairly plain. The few windows it has are small and give little insight into the goings-on inside, and the only real feature is the steps up to the entrance. Once inside however, it is a completely different story. Obviously it has been dressed up a bit for the wedding, yet I could see how it would have been impressive nonetheless. With the exception of a few modern amenities such as flushing toilets and a bar, it still feels like a Norman castle inside as well. There are three floors that are still accessible to the public, each containing a large, singular room. We would be using all three during the course of the day, much to our delight! The first room you enter is the reception room, which is the middle room of the three. This is where we found the modern creature comforts, the other two floors are purely medieval. A large room with chandeliers and a few artefacts here and there, it is a good introduction for what is to come. For the ceremony we went upstairs to the Great Hall, which is like something out of a movie. A huge fireplace, a balcony at the rear (from which the ring-bearing barn owls came from), and ancient weaponry on the walls, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Robin Hood himself had gatecrashed proceedings! It really is a beautiful setting for a wedding ceremony, but my favourite room was yet to come.

After the ceremony, we made our way down to the bottom floor which is home to the banqueting room. This room is everything you would expect a medieval banqueting room to be, right down to the metal goblets provided for our drinks. There was none of the usual round tables dotted around a room found at most weddings, here there are three long tables stretching the length of the room. As such there is no head table either, and it was a really nice touch for my cousin and the rest of the wedding party to be seated in the very centre of the room. The darkness caused by the small, high windows only added to the atmosphere, and I’m glad that the artificial lighting was also kept low. Again, I couldn’t think of a better place for a wedding, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first medieval banquet (of many I hope!!).

The castle isn’t just used for weddings, and it is possible to visit when there isn’t a function being held here. I would thoroughly recommend it, especially when one of their many medieval-themed events are taking place.

***

A bit of a different experience has been our time in Hedingham Castle, as we were invited there for a wedding. The difference in this experience is not just due to my personal opinion on wedding ceremonies, although it is part of it. This castle is a private property that is owned by the heirs of the family that bought it in the XVIII century. The family lives in the country house also in the grounds and the keep is the only surviving part of the castle that was built in the XII century. Visits are limited, on their website it seems like they open on Wednesday and Sundays or, as in our case, you have access when the building is hired for events. These help financing the building maintenance, which is not supported by any institutions and it is paid for by the owners.

Going back to the building, it is surrounded by wonderful gardens and a lake. The tower has four levels:

– The lower level, where the banqueting hall was installed in this case. This part has access from one side of the tower through a huge portal which made it easy for the catering to install the marquee and reach us at the tables. In the case of the wedding, all the table was dressed in style, with metal goblets and Venetian style masks, which was a detail that completed the picture.

– The two levels above were probably the Guardroom and the Great Hall. An external staircase grants you access to the Guardroom, where seats and the bar were installed. From here, access to both the lower and the upper levels is granted by my nemesis, the spiral staircase, which is even less loved when wearing a tight dress and 10 cm high heels. I guess I am glad I didn’t drink too much!

The Great Hall is dominated by a majestic chimney. Although all the rooms follow the same plan, the fireplace in the Great Hall, with a cuirass and two axes over it, is quite a sight. A balcony runs along the sides of the rooms at another level granting a privileged position to those looking down at the Hall. In our case, the ceremony was officiated in this room and we had the plus of a bird of prey diving into the hall to entrust the rings to the best man. It was a perfect fit to the surrounding and an incredible surprise.

The location is impressive, definitely worth a visit, and we wish we had more time and more comfortable shoes in order to wander around the gardens, but the ceremony added some details that made the visit quite exquisite, definitely not what I was expecting by a wedding. Due to the restrictions on visiting days, plan your visit wisely but definitely give it a shot!

Lyveden

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Ah, the stately home that could have been! The dream of Sir Thomas Tresham, Lyveden New Bield was designed as a summerhouse for entertaining his guests. Unfortunately the construction was hindered by his poor financial credentials, and the fact that he spent a lot of time in prison due to this. However construction continued until Sir Thomas’s death when, realising that they would now never be paid, the workers downed tools and the estate has been left in this unfinished state ever since. This makes this building rather unique in that in original inspection it would appear to be ruins, however it doesn’t take long to realise that the building is actually in very good condition despite never being completed. This was the first National Trust home that we visited, and I have to say that they have done an incredible job preserving this site. Every single thing about the house and the grounds is in such good condition, it feels like the workers stopped work only a few days prior to your visit. It really is incredible that this building has remained so intact despite not even having a roof or floors, and that it has stood for so long without damage. Most complete stately homes and castles of this age aren’t in such good condition!

As I mentioned, the construction was halted before walls had been completed, and the roof and floors had yet to be started. From the outside it is easy to see how the house would have looked if it had been completed, but it is a different story once you head inside. Entering through what would have been the servants’ entrance (the main entrance required steps which hadn’t been built yet), it is hard to imagine where you are and what each room was designed for. The house was designed in a cross shape which means that a lot of the rooms are very similar to each other, and their lack of furniture or other adornments means their functions are not obvious (with the exception of the kitchen where the fireplace and larder were obvious features). This is why I would highly recommend the audio tour that the National Trust provide as part of the entrance fee. Highly informative, it gives a fantastic insight into the history of the house and explains what each room was intended for. This makes it a whole lot easier to imagine how it would have looked if completed, and Sir Thomas’s dream starts to come alive.

After exploring the house, it was time for a walk around the grounds. Again these have been preserved to the exact state that the workmen would have left them in. Seemingly closer to completion than the house, yet there are still obvious signs that it was abandoned. The most obvious of these is the moat. Three sides of the moat had been finished, which then ends abruptly where the fourth side should have been. Strolling through the grounds, with the help of the audio guide, really gives an insight into the mentality of Sir Thomas Tresham and the motives behind his dream. As with all stately homes, it was driven by ego and showmanship. The summerhouse was to be his masterpiece, and every aspect of the grounds had been designed to showcase the house for his guests’ admiration.

I really enjoyed exploring Lyveden New Bield, as it gives you the chance to admire the building rather than being overwhelmed with all the treasures inside. It was really interesting to find out the story behind it as well, and to be able to see Sir Thomas’s vision. If you do visit here, make sure to bring your imagination with you! Oh, and also leave some time for a cream tea at the National Trust café on-site, you won’t regret it!

***

The start of our National Trust membership in June was celebrated with a hike in the Peak District and a visit to Lyveden New Bield. This building is unfinished and yet the visit is extremely interesting. Not too far from us in Northamptonshire, the estate was the dream and ruin of the Tresham family. Ruined by the taxes requested from the followers of the Catholic faith and by the participation of some members of the family to the Gunpowder plot, the Treshams never finished the construction of this home.

Although inside it was never completed, the external walls are still perfectly standing as they workers left them when they abandoned the project after hearing of their employer’s death and understanding that they were never going to be paid for the job. The audio guide takes you through the rooms and makes you imagine what is missing and how the house, once completed, would have hosted guests and parties.

The walk through the grounds is both interesting and pleasing, with the guide explaining the projects of the original owner through the messages to his workers. The National Trust has recreated what was in the original design, planting the same fruit trees and keeping alive the decorations that were thought for the amusement of the guests. We went on an extremely hot afternoon and some comfortable shoes and insect repellent are a good idea, but even with ballerinas you can enjoy the visit without struggling.

Two highlights of the visit: The red kite flying over us during our visit and the National Trust café. They seem two bizarre things to list together, but it was a sweet sight to see the bird of prey cutting through the perfectly blue sky while we were enjoying our cream tea in the garden surrounded by little finches that were trying to make the most of all the crumbs left on the tables by the scrumptious scones. After this visit, we already thought that our membership had paid off, and we still are on the same page!

Waddesdon Manor

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The most recent of our visits was to the National Trust owned Waddesdon Manor, a Rothschild family home which is truly unique. Commissioned and built in the late 19th century, it was purposefully designed to be reminiscent of a French château. Perched on top of a hill in the Buckinghamshire countryside, it manages to look completely out of place yet perfectly presented all at once. This really sets it apart from all the other stately homes in the UK, most likely the reason why it is one of the most visited National Trust properties. It is recommended that you book in advance as tickets are numbered, and each is allocated a specific entrance time to the house. We only booked a day or two in advance and there was plenty of time slots left to choose from, but I would suggest booking as far in advance as you can to avoid disappointment.

The house is on top of a fairly steep hill, with the visitor car park situated at the bottom. There is the option to take a free shuttle bus up to the house, or to take a walk along one of the many walking tracks through the grounds. We opted for the sensible option, and decided to take the bus up and then to take the downhill walk back! The shuttle bus drops visitors off at the North Fountain, with an incredible view of the house through the grounds. We had arrived a little early to enter the house, so we took a short walk around the grounds and discovered the aviary. This building is more reminiscent of the period in which it was built, a very Victorian style structure housing many species of birds that I had never heard of before. The most famous of these is the Rothschild’s Mynah, named after Lord Rothschild. Most of the species here are critically endangered and some are even extinct in the wild, and although it isn’t ideal for them to be in captivity it is reassuring to know that the birds here are being used in breeding programmes to help reintroduce them to the wild.

After our short walk it was time to enter the house, and it doesn’t take long for the decadence of this place to be apparent. Starting in the Oval Hall, there are three options for which route to take. There are volunteers to help lost visitors and to keep everyone heading in the same direction, and fortunately we had an audio guide to direct us as well. The audio guide can be purchased with the tickets, or it can be downloaded for free onto a smartphone (although it would seem that it does need to be smarter than my phone!). Every single room is chocked full of treasures in the form of artwork, fine furniture, pottery, and many other very expensive artefacts. Most of the furniture and collections are from the French Renaissance period while the artwork is mostly of English origin, combining in what has become known as the Rothschild style. As the house is no longer lived in, the vast majority of the rooms are open to the public. There are many drawing rooms, bedrooms, and dining rooms, all filled with precious items. This was a place built solely for entertaining and as a showcase of their wealth, and this is evident everywhere you look. The house is so extravagant that Queen Victoria actually requested to stay here on numerous occasions. She was also taken by the fact that Waddesdon Manor was quick to install an electricity supply, and she was fascinated by the electric lighting in the house.

After exploring the rooms, including those favoured by Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, and other notable guests, it was time to head back outside to continue exploring. There are a couple of other buildings that are open to the public and included in the entry ticket, the stables and the powerhouse. The stables feature a courtyard with a cafe and ice cream stall, and at the time of our visit part of the stables were open for an art exhibition. The powerhouse was originally used to control the electricity supply of the house, and the original equipment is still in place along with the small electric elevator that had also been installed in the house. Now the building is also used to show short videos explaining the background of the property, worth ten minutes or so to view them if you have time. After this our explorations were finished and it was time to head back to the car park. As we had walked quite a long way around the house and through the grounds, our original plan was abandoned and we opted to take the bus back to the car park. They are very frequent, and just too convenient!

On the way to Waddesdon Manor we had noticed signs for a number of other National Trust properties nearby, so we decided to try and fit one more in while we were in the area. The perfect choice seemed to be Ascott House, a Tudor building that had also been a Rothschild family home. Unfortunately we didn’t quite make it in time to enter the house, but we were able to view it from the outside and to explore the grounds. Certainly not as grand as Waddesdon Manor, Ascott House has a more homely feel to it. Reminiscent of all those houses we imagine from Shakespearean plays, it is also very well-preserved. The grounds are large, yet not grand with only a few sculptures and fountains located in hidden gardens around the periphery. The main area of the grounds is a large open space more familiar to parklands rather than stately homes. I would love to be able to tell you more about it, but you’ll just have to wait until we can go for a more timely visit, or visit for yourself!

Well, that’s all the visits we’ve managed so far, but you can be assured they will be plenty more in the best future. So stay tuned for part two!

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

***

Another beauty in the list of the National Trust, Waddesdon Manor has a completely different story. This building was created from scratch at the end of the XIX century by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild who wanted his own French château in the middle of the British countryside. Thought to be a showcase for his art collection, the manor grew with the times, both with additions to his original plan and with improvements to adapt with modern times, being one of the first places to install electricity (for great amusement of Queen Victoria when she visited) and to have a lift. The collection keeps growing with more additions in the present time, and Waddesdon Manor goes through deep cleaning every winter when closed, a cleaning that follows the rules established by the Baron’s sister.

The tours follows a very organised path and is easy to follow, and when you buy your tickets online you are suggested to download the app with the audio guide. We followed the suggestion and it is a great idea, you can choose what you listen to and see the images and videos on your phone in a very handy app with lots of extras. The furniture is incredible, with real art pieces in every room. The care for the objects is extreme and many pieces of furniture and fabrics in general are covered with fine nets to preserve them from further deterioration. The paintings and the clocks, in particular the big musical clock in the conservatory and the elephant clock, are definitely the most beautiful objects in the collection for my taste, but you can find many fine porcelain objects and full sets of plates that will astonish you as well.

The gardens around the manor are definitely reminiscent of the ones in Versailles, often cited as an example. In the grounds you also have a few interesting diversions. First of all, the Aviary, with cages with different birds, all set in a semi-circle with a fountain in the middle. Another interesting part is the Power House, a small building with a screen with information about the activities such as the wine nights and the foundation activities, the old power units and the original lift. About the wine nights, the manor produces some fine wines and organises dinners and wine tastings for all tastes and prices, have a look at their website for the dates scheduled up to the end of the year. Further away in the grounds are the Stables. You know my issue with horses, but this place is not used as stables anymore, it is instead partly a café and partly a small exhibition centre for modern art. I fell in love with these dresses showcased there!

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The carpark is located at a certain distance from the manor but shuttle buses run every 7-8 minutes to take you to two stops, the actual building and the stables. You can also choose to walk back, but you will have a fair share of walking in the actual house and in between places through the woods if you want. That’s what we did and we were glad for the bus there and back.

Near Waddesdon there is another National Trust place, Ascott House, a Tudor house with extensive artistic grounds. Unfortunately, we arrived late for the last entry (or on time to be more precise) and we didn’t get in, but we had a walk around the grounds to enjoy the views and the fountains. I guess we should plan a wine and cheese escape to Waddesdon Manor soon and combine it with this visit.

There are so many other splendid buildings in the UK, symbols of luxury and squanders of the old times, but many of them are living a second golden age thanks to foundations and trusts and are actually working in different ways for the community. This second half of the summer should be pretty busy again and we can’t wait to tell you more about our next visits, we have some special ones already booked, stay tuned!

Ms Lust

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