The Stately Homes of England
Act 1: The Search
The English nobility used to be the cool kids of the planet. Rockefeller and Vanderbilt were lucky to build custom homes as grand as the summer hunting lodges of these dukes and earls and barons and not even the ones visited once a year but the ones given out in last minute okay you can marry my daughter deals. The twentieth century, however, was not as kind to the nobility as were their servants. First it threw World War I at them, and after generations of leading charges into French lances, the nobility led charges into concrete German pillboxes, and the machine guns drew many a dotted line through many a family tree growing back to Norman times. Then World War II happened and the 65% taxes on the nobility that came with. When you inherit an estate with those kinds of taxes and a fifteen million dollar roof repair and the salaries for a staff of 80, then after one thousand years of ruling the West, you’re not inheriting a title of nobility but the title to a loan no person of earthly possession can afford. But you know what they say, one man’s tax burden is another man’s day trip and some of the nobility made a deal with the state they had never not controlled until now. The families stayed on the estates they had called home for hundreds of years as long as they opened their homes to the public. Remember, though, that just like your neighbors who don’t keep set hours for afternoon bbq’s and inflating the pool in the front driveway before remembering oh yeah last summer it did get a hole in it that we never got around to patching, the hours of these great manors and the festivals and shows they put on can vary wildly and from month to month.
So to find one, start by looking up filming locations of your favorite movies filmed in England, the period ones especially, keeping a sharp eye out for the great houses. Then go to the websites of the houses that seem interesting and check to see if they’re open to visitors when you’ll be in London and better yet check if the family is putting on any kind of an event. Also, while you’re on the website, check for a message from the family. I prefer but am not exclusive to the houses that aren’t run by event corporations but by the actual families who have lived there forever because why not go for a personal touch if you can. But be open about that. Don’t throw away a Shakespeare play in a small auditorium that’s surrounded by real life landscape paintings just because the family who once owned it had to give up the property. The times are the times. Also, if it’s a practical day trip from London, the directions of how to get there from London will usually be on the website, and if they aren’t, it’s usually not practical. Skip to the next one.
So for an example, Burghley House is where Joe Wright filmed Pride and Prejudice. He used it as Rosings Park, where resided Lady Catherine and where Elizabeth plays the piano for Her Ladyship in that painted room. It’s still lived in by something like the sixteenth generation of the first Lord Burghley that Queen Elizabeth I gifted the estate to centuries ago. Then when I saw the family was putting on a film festival while I was going to be in London, the decision was pretty much made for me. That’s why I like theming trips. It decreases substantially the decisions you have to make. That’s always a nice thing while traveling. Do that to yourself when you can.
Then go to Kings Cross Station with your dossier of stately home knowledge. You know that slow motion footage of the spider butt-firing filament from the leaf and how it makes you envious that that spider can just go anywhere it wants. That’s Kings Cross Station and the trains are its filament and the train tracks across England are it’s ah s*$t the metaphor fell apart. Anyway. The trains from Kings Cross take you anywhere in England and Scotland (that’s why Hogwarts is on this line), and all you’ve got to do is to tell the good people at the ticket counters of Kings Cross Station where you need to go and that you are going for the day and they will set you up brilliantly and tell you what times you need to be where.
Then relax and get on the train and relax again and ride it as someone else ferries you through the English country side because the only choice you’re going to have to make now is whether you can fit in three chapters of Pride and Prejudice or four.
At the station of your arrival, ask the good folks who work there where the cabs are parked or if need be how to request one. At Peterborough, which is the stop I got off at for Burghley House, the cabbies are always lined up outside because it is, in part, a commuter town to London. All you have to do is to tell the cabbie the name of the house you are to attend this day. They’ll know the way. Don’t ask if they know the way. They know the way. That’s how easy this is.
Act II: The Estate
Upon your arrival, and though there is no longer a valet to announce your arrival feel free to do so yourself, start with a tour of the house, because this is your neighbor’s house now and that’s what you do when you go to your neighbor’s for the first time before jumping into the pool that they finished resurfacing before it turned too cold to swim, thank God. It’s nice to spend the rest of the day in complete leisure where leisure was invented. At this point, if you aren’t already, it’s okay to start pretending you’re the characters in the movies that inspired you to come to this house.
If you happen to run into the one other couple that will be touring the house’s art and architecture that only the most powerful people of the world could afford as they were conquering it, keep your pleasantries short because the best part of the uncrowdedness isn’t the world class art you have all to yourself but it is the people who work in these homes. They’re some of the loveliest, most informative people I’ve met while traveling. Even when your fingers start to cramp keep milking the people who work at these homes for everything they know, because to them this isn’t just a museum. They know the family. They live in the area. They’re showing you around the houses of their friends. They know a personal side of these stately homes that the history writers who wrote paragraphs about them did not.
At Burghley, it wasn’t Mr. Darcy making a subtle but dramatic entrance into the room where they filmed Elizabeth playing piano at the insistence of Lady Catherine, it was me, and the staff barely seemed to noticed that I was calling everyone Miss Elizabeth. I don’t think I was the first one. In fact I know I wasn’t because at Burghley House many of the staff did play small roles in the film Pride and Prejudice and love talking about the film as much as they do about the house and the history of its family. I got a picture with the girl that Brenda Blethyn, who played Mrs. Bennet in the film, turned to and said, oh look, Jane’s already dancing. Then we had a twenty-minute conversation about how wonderful Brenda Blethyn is and how Brenda would share her make up artist when the actors were getting a little hot under the film lights. Thanks, Brenda.
Then eat in the cafés and outside if you can. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, because it is the unique part of these houses that the people who built and designed these estates were at one point the most powerful people in the world. They had their choice of anywhere to build an estate and these are the landscapes they chose in which to hide from the world they were controlling or at least trying to. Take tea or coffee in their courtyards or dining rooms where kings and queens of England have taken tea or coffee.
It’s only polite then to take a turn about the grounds. The lords of these houses created some of the most important paragraphs of your history books, but it seems like in the movies every other phrase said by an English aristocrat is “but first let us take a turn about the gardens.” So, it’s only polite if you’re visiting your local nobility to do as they do and take a turn about the gardens. Take in the view because I promise you there is one.
At Burghley, it was no big deal to be sitting on a bench under oaks that have been there for centuries while looking out over the house and a lake and two trees, one planted by Queen Elizabeth I and a smaller one next to it planted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. It’s no big deal, at least, for these houses, which regularly offer unreal experiences that are unique to England.
Act III: The Event
Neighbors have tea and scones in the living room but good neighbors have pool parties in the backyard. The stately homes of Britain were for centuries the center of local power and law and employment and some held court and some were besieged and more than once, so acting now as the local center of culture with film and food and drink and holiday festivals is something these homes shrug off as doing that sort of thing in their sleep.
Our evening on this day was spent at the Burghley annual film festival enjoying grass fed sausages from an organic English farm and with a pimms that was a cool, refreshing drink on a cool, refreshing lawn next to a cool, refreshing house dropped into cool and refreshing landscape. It’s hard to beat lying on a blanket on a hill looking out over a large outdoor screen playing Back to the Future and also a house and grounds gifted by Queen Elizabeth I and a landscape meant to impress kings and queens and has on multiple occasions, but what else are neighbors for?
Epilogue: Dinner In Town
Don’t forget, they didn’t call the owners of these stately homes lords because they weren’t lords of anything. They were. They owned anything and a lot of times everything for acres and acres around and someone had to work all those thousands of acres and those folks lived in towns and so now most of the time these great stately homes are within a very close distance to very British towns or cities. After all, a lord isn’t a lord without people to be lord over.
So romanticize your hearts out at these great stately homes, I mean I’ve dedicated part of my life to it, but just don’t forget that England is a modern country with just all sorts of modern restaurants and that the point of all of this is to really get into the heart of England and enjoy its people because they just have so much to offer. The least you can do is give back to them by being a lovely guest and admiring their modern splendor. Check out the areas around the great stately home you’ve found and make plans to eat dinner or have drinks at a place nearby.
On this night, we took a cab from Burghley House to Stamford, which is like a mile away, and had drinks and dessert in the bar area of a restaurant called the William Cecil because what’s cooler than going to see an estate that was gifted to William Cecil, the first Lord Burghley, and then heading to town and having drinks and dessert at a joint named after him.
The trains leaving these towns usually run until pretty late back into London and guess what you don’t have to do any of the driving. The cabbies in the area know the way to the towns from the great houses and back, so call ahead to a cab company in town and arrange to be picked up from the great house you’ve chosen and then head to the nearest town for a lovely English evening none of your friends have ever come close to experiencing. You never know what kind of romance you can find in English towns in terms of scenery and people and food. I’m in love with English towns and you will be too.