Blue Badge Guide, Sophie Campbell takes us on a grand tour of Britain’s stately homes.
What makes the definitive English stately home? Well, obviously, it’s Lady Penelope’s Creighton-Ward Mansion in Thunderbirds – pillared, porticoed and Palladian, complete with sprawling estate, Norman origins and supermodel scion of the family still in residence.
It’s easy to take our national stable of stately homes for granted as one flicks through the National Trust guidebook or studies the Historic Houses website. Britain is dotted with glamorous piles, often as large as palaces and frequently linked to a single family.
In fact, few regions lack a stately home. Rutland – oddly, as one of England’s richest per capita counties – is one, although several grand houses, including Burghley, nudge its borders. Kent has very few for its size, partly due to its ancient laws of inheritance – it has many lovely historic houses, some of them whoppers, but rarely true ‘statelies’.
So what exactly is a stately home? Well, size really does matter. Such a house needs to be large enough to have a suite of grand state rooms in which to entertain the rich, the powerful and possibly the royal. That, in turn, means a huge estate – the income for grandiose building programmes came from land, which also conferred political status.
A stately home will have been built by a famous architect of the era, with parkland to match. It will have superb furniture and art. It will be linked to an aristocratic family, possibly with several estates and titles, one of which will be duke, marquess or earl. Such factors place most stately homes into a period of 400 years or so – the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries – as hall houses, manors and country seats were outstripped by great show houses funded by staggering wealth.
And while we might assume that many countries have their stately equivalents, it’s not so. Think of the Loire chateaux, stripped of contents and owners in the Revolution, or how few occupied Venetian palazzi are open to the public. Houses and possessions often suffer during political upheavals, their owners sometimes dispossessed or killed.
Because our civil wars were done and dusted by the late seventeenth century and we just avoided a French-style revolution in the eighteenth after the Napoleonic Wars, our super-rich had the cash and freedom to make Grand Tours of Europe, carting back Old Masters, antiquities, furniture, classical statuary and decorative arts by the ton.
Our gardens also developed very differently, with eighteenth-century landscapers such as‘Capability’Brown and Humphry Repton replacing Continental formality with a more naturalistic style. This re-ordering of nature on a colossal scale became known as the English landscape tradition and was reflected in poetry, literature and art.
Finally, there are the people. Most stately homes are owned and lived in, at least in part, by the families that built them. And those surviving in situ into the 21st century are skilled entrepreneurs and shrewd employers – that’s the reason they’re still going. Drive on, Parker.
THE BIG BEASTS
THE BUSINESS OF LAND
The Derbyshire seat of the Devonshires (confusing, I know) is a huge, creamy, English Baroque pile on a far older site, transformed by the Duke’s parents from a crumbling monster into a vibrant business. A £32-million, 13-year Masterplan ended this summer, providing, among other things, full wheelchair access. Closed January to mid-March.
GESTURE OF DEFIANCE
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
This golden Vanbrugh/Hawksmoor creation arose thanks to Queen Anne, who gave land and money in gratitude for the Duke of Marlborough’s 1704 victory at Blenheim (spot the vanquished French cockerels on the walls). It all ended in tears, but the palace boasts one of the most glorious vistas in England – and has a cracking playground. Open all year.
SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL
The site shared by Stowe School (house), the National Trust (estate) and the Landmark Trust (rental properties) was once occupied by the Temple family, Whig oligarchs with a taste for politically significant landscaping. The house is magnificently grand and the grounds completely fascinating. Grounds open all year. House visits work around school.
THE WATER BABIES
The Montagus have owned Palace House, a Victorian rejig of an old abbey gatehouse, for 300 years, opening to the public in 1952 with a display of five cars bought by early petrolhead Edward, Lord Montagu. Now the National Motor Museum Trust, its year-long Chitty Chitty Bang Bang 50 Years exhibition runs from October. Open all year.
PLACE OF REFLECTION
Leeds Castle, Kent
The last private owner, Lady Baillie, left her island fortress to the nation partly for meetings. The 900-year-old castle, rebuilt in the 1820s and 1920s, has hosted many high-level summits. The rest of us can tour the neo-gothic interior, tackle the circular maze and take selfies by the castle and its mirror-image in the lake. Open all year.
A DECADE OF DOWNTON
Highclere Castle, Hampshire/Berkshire
Who knew, when the Carnarvons opened their doors for filming in 2010, that the resulting TV series would add to its rich history? Its architecture – by Charles Barry, builder of the Houses of Parliament – and top Tutankhamun connections were comprehensively out-gunned by Downton Abbey. The film is due September 2019. Open Easter, May Bank Holidays and July to September. Private tours in winter.
Never a dull moment at this Elizabethan prodigy house, home to 14 generations of Thynns. In 2010 the ‘flamboyant’ Marquess of Bath handed the 10,000-acre estate, which introduced its safari park and lions in 1966 and was the first stately home to open to the public, to his son, Viscount Weymouth and wife Emma. It appeared in several early Dr Who episodes, as well as the BBC’s series Animal Park. Open all year.
WAUGH AND PEACE
Castle Howard, Yorkshire
Look vaguely familiar? That’s partly because it’s been in Victoria and partly because it was built by Blenheim dream-team (with less stress, due to the absence of the Duchess of Marlborough) John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor. Home to a branch of the Catholic Howards, it became world-famous in the 1981 TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited doubling as Brideshead Castle, home to the Catholic Flytes. Open all year.
SOME STATELY FACTS
• The longest façade of any stately home in Britain is that of Grade I-listed Wentworth Woodhouse, in the South Yorkshire coalfields, which measures over 600ft with a terrace wall of 1,500ft.
• Welbeck Abbey, in the Nottinghamshire ‘Dukeries’, was home to the reclusive 5th Duke of Portland, who built 2.5 miles of underground tunnels and painted much of his subterranean kingdom pink. Staterooms open for 33 days a year.
• The Red Deer herd at Woburn Abbey has been in residence for 250 years: sire stag Woburn Alexander, aged 14, has 55 measurable antler points.
• The art collection at Petworth House in Sussex, originally home to the Percys and now run by the National Trust, includes numerous Turners painted on site when he stayed with the 3rd Earl of Egremont, and a recently-discovered Titian.
• Goodwood House in West Sussex, home to the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, has hosted more Privy Council meetings than any other private house. Why? Because they took place during the famous flat-racing meeting known as Glorious Goodwood. Plaques record meetings held by King George V and the Queen. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury held a meeting during the winter race meeting.