Friday, 11 January 2013

Five favourite English country houses

Following the pattern of my five favourite Edwardian memoirs in a previous post, here in no particular order are my five favourite English country houses. I'm almost certain to have left out your personal favourite, but these are the houses that I'm drawn to - the houses that seem to 'speak' to me in some indefinable way, to offer up a little of their history. 

Kingston Lacy
First off is Kingston Lacy in Dorset, to the south-west of England. A neatly symmetrical house built of grey stone in the seventeenth century and re-modelled in the nineteenth by Sir Charles Barry, who designed the Houses of Parliament, this was the place I had at the back of my mind when I first started writing my Swallowcliffe Hall books. It is certainly imposing, standing in acres of lush grounds, but on a more accessible scale than huge edifices like Blenheim Palace, where Sir Winston Churchill was born. Kingston Lacy is just as lovely inside as out, being stuffed with paintings and antique furniture, but you can also see less formal rooms like the Day and Night Nurseries, which are a reminder that this amazing house was also a family home. The Bankes family lived there for over three hundred years (having moved from nearby Corfe Castle when it was destroyed in the Civil War), and the reminiscences of Viola Bankes have been collected in this fascinating book: A Kingston Lacy Childhood. It's a wonderful account of how it felt to grow up as part of an Edwardian aristocratic family, with all its inflexible rules and stifling traditions. Highly recommended!

Belton House
Rather similar to Kingston Lacy is Belton House, near Grantham in Lincolnshire, in the Midlands. Now run by the National Trust (as is Kingston Lacy), the house was home to the Brownlow family until the 1980s, when the seventh Lord Brownlow gave the house and gardens to the Trust. I like the house and the treasures inside (including the most enormous piece of silver I've ever seen: a huge wine cooler that would need two footmen to lift), but I think it's the grounds that I love the most. I've borrowed several features to use in my books: the Belmount Tower, for example, which stands on a hill above Belton, has become the Fairview Tower at Swallowcliffe, and the boathouse which features in both Polly's and Isobel's Stories is inspired by the one that overlooks Belton's lake. An important scene in my teen novel, See You in My Dreams, also takes place in an orangerie exactly like that at Belton House. I also find Belton fascinating because of the part it played in history: mainly the abdication crisis of 1936, when the Prince of Wales renounced his claim to the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. Peregrine Cust, the sixth Lord Brownlow, was a great friend of the Prince's, who sometimes stayed at Belton - as did Wallis Simpson. When Edward succeeded to the throne in January 1936, Lord Brownlow was appointed Lord-in-Waiting to the King, and advised him throughout the whole debacle. In later years, it was also rumoured that Princess Diana wanted to buy Belton House and move there from Highgrove, which was rather too close to the home of Camilla Parker-Bowles for comfort, although nothing came of that and it may just have been a story dreamed up by a canny estate agent!
Castle Howard

A two-hour train journey north from Grantham takes you to the city of York, and from there you can take a coach to probably the most beautiful house I've ever seen: Castle Howard. When I first visited in 1999, Christian, the elder daughter of Geoffrey Howard the Liberal MP, had just died, and there were family flowers for her in the chapel - a personal touch which made me feel like an intruder in somebody's private home. The house is on a much larger scale than the two previous ones, and is full of views and treasures that will take your breath away. The television and film adaptations of Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited were filmed at Castle Howard, although the book, Madresfield: the Real Brideshead, by Jane Mulvagh, makes the point that Waugh had a smaller, homelier house in mind when he wrote this novel. He was a friend of the Lygon family, who lived at Madresfield, and was a frequent visitor there. Jane Mulvagh's book is an engrossing account of one country house through the ages and the various generations who have inhabited it.

Chatsworth House,

Another country house on a vast scale is Chatsworth House, a little further south from Castle Howard in the beautiful Peak District. The first sight of Chatsworth, standing proudly against the wooded hills behind, always makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It has been lived in by the Dukes of Devonshire since the seventeenth century, and was one of the first country houses to develop commercially and become self-financing as a tourist attraction. Deborah, the youngest and last of the famous Mitford sisters still living (described by journalist Ben Macintyre as 'Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover, Nancy the Novelist, Deborah the Duchess and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur,') is the eleventh (now Dowager) Duchess of Devonshire and is a witty and accomplished writer. Her book, Wait for Me: Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister, is another must-read for anyone interested in the English country-house world, as is The Chatsworth Cookery Book. On a personal note: my family lived near the Peak District when I was a teenager, and my parents met the Duchess several times. She was always completely charming and down-to-earth - a lady through and through. Her son has since inherited the title, and she now lives happily in a Dower House on the Chatsworth Estate. It's typical of her lack of pretension  that she once described the main house as 'a terrible place to house-train a puppy'.

Leeds Castle
And last but not least, in Kent, to the south-east of England, lies the fairy-tale Leeds Castle, the oldest of these houses, which was originally a Saxon manor dating from the ninth century. Surrounded by a moat, the castle has the most gorgeous gardens and is particularly lovely to visit in the spring, when the carpets of daffodils are blooming.  Heavy death duties meant the place had to be sold in the 1920s by the Wykeham Martin family, who had owned it for a century (relative newcomers!). Randolph Hearst, the American newspaper magnate, was looking to buy an English castle (as you do), but so much work was needed, he was discouraged, and it was eventually acquired by the Hon. Mrs Wilson-Filmer, later Lady Baillie. She transformed the castle into one of the great houses of England and entertained politicians, various royals and film stars within its secluded walls. During the Second World War, the castle became a military hospital (as Swallowcliffe Hall became in the First), and later Lady Baillie bequeathed it to the nation. I love this portrait of her with her daughters, painted in1947; she is smoking so insouciantly, staring straight out of the picture, while her daughters (two elegant English roses) look shyly into the distance.

So these are my favourite country houses. I've left out Sissinghurst with its wonderful gardens created by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson, and Chartwell, Winston Churchill's beloved family home, and romantic Ightam Mote, and many hundreds more - not to mention Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed. Which house would you like to live in, if you could choose?

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