Category Archives: Explore Europe

Dusty, Drafty and Doggy-Doting: Lytes Cary Manor is a Perfect British Country House

Armed with a National Trust Pass, I could wander the British countryside for weeks on end. I never seem to get tired of old houses. Above is Lytes Cary Manor, begun in the 1400s and added to over the centuries. (Did it rain while I was there? Just a little. As Jane Austen’s heroine Anne Elliot told dreamboat Captain Wentworth in Persuasion, “It’s nothing that I regard.” She wanted him to walk her home in the rain).

Lytes Cary still has its Great Room from the 1400s. The Lyte family used to eat at the long table on the dais at the end of the room.

Each ancient roof beam is supported by an angel holding the coat of arms of the Lyte family.

Carved owls in the entry passage look a bit newer, but in a house so old, whooooo knows?

Of course I also like much grander mansions such as Harewood. Many of them still have deep-pocketed owners with the means to bring in modern and avante-garde art.

But National Trust properties, which have mostly come from families hard hit by misfortune and crushing inheritance taxes, lovingly preserve the old stuff that came with the property. The mirror frame above, at Lytes Cary, was worked up in the old needlework technique of “stumpwork” in the 1600s. In the early 1900s, a relative of the newest owner learned the technique and added some panels, including the view of the house in the upper left-hand panel.

A pair of mysterious old leather mannikins, about 3 feet tall, stand beside the fireplace in the Great Parlor.

Their purpose? Possibly to fill chairs in case the dining table would otherwise have 13 guests.

Or possibly they could have been set up in windows to make thieves think the house was occupied when the family was away.

The fireplace settee is very Downton Abbey, don’t you think?

Sir Walter Jenner, the last owner of Lytes Cary, was the son of Queen Victoria’s physician. The Lyte family had been forced to abandon the property way back in 1755. Subsequent owners and tenants allowed the house to fall into decay. Sir Walter bought what was left of it in 1907 and set to work restoring it.

Sir Walter planted yew bushes along the walk. He trimmed them into topiary forms which he named “The Twelve Apostles.”

He kept peacocks which used to scratch at the door for handouts at teatime. Now there’s an enormous peacock topiary beside the front door.

Being abandoned actually saved the house. In Victorian times, rich people busily “improved” medieval manor houses, much the way people today install new Sheetrock walls to cover antique stone or paneling. That’s rare and valuable “linen fold” carved oak medieval paneling above, original to the house.

A little parlor has a “squint:” a tiny narrow window.

It looks like this from outside.

The squint is positioned so that a person could stay inside the house by the fire and still see Mass being celebrated in the little chapel next to the house–which most likely happened regularly in medieval times.

Sir Walter lived happily at Lytes Cary for decades with his wife Flora and their only child, Esme. Sadly, Esme died at age 37 from pneumonia after catching a chill while out riding. She was a keen hunter, serving as Master of the Sparkford Vale Harriers. She died in 1932. (Sir Alexander Fleming had discovered penicillin in 1928, but antibiotics were not yet in wide use).

Sir Walter outlived both his wife and his daughter. A wistful memorial to them both in the little chapel reads, “My Little World!”

When Sir Walter decided to will Lytes Cary to the National Trust at age 88, the director came out to the house to see him, and found him in his canopied bed in nightcap and dressing gown. The house was chilly and drafty, as it was in medieval times.

Another bedroom features a “campaign bed” from around 1800. From Napoleonic times up through the Victorian era, aristocratic military officers who were used to comfy canopied beds ordered custom-made fold-up ones to take with them to training camp and even to battlefields. Why not live in the style to which they were accustomed?

I recently watched a 2016 movie called “Golden Years.” A group of old British friends, battered by loss of their pensions and closing of their subsidized social club, stumble into a plot to roam the countryside, robbing banks and innocently hobbling away to their getaway vehicle: an RV parked in the handicap zone. Cops rushing to the crime scenes try not to knock over the old dears. They’re caught when a sharp detective with elderly parents of his own notices that the banks are always near National Trust properties. The bank robbers have very sensibly combined one of their favorite pastimes with larceny. (It’s a comedy, so all ends well!)

The British love to visit old houses, and they love their dogs. Most National Trust properties encourage dog-walking on the grounds. So do a lot of privately-owned mansions, like Chatsworth. (I also love the very British wordage beside this gateway, “Dead Slow, Hoot.” Translation: If you’re driving into the courtyard, roll ahead at a snail’s pace and lean on your car horn).

National Trust properties almost always have teashops where dogs are welcome at the outdoor tables. The dogs are always polite, though they do cadge table scraps.

It’s easy to strike up a conversation when I stop to pet someone’s dog. I meet a lot of lovely people that way.

Getting to these out-of-the way places requires a brave driver. Country roads are narrow, often only a single lane with occasional pull-offs for when cars meet. And even when there are two lanes, we Americans are driving on THE WRONG SIDE. I wouldn’t do it myself, especially with jet lag. But my husband, bless his heart, thinks nothing of it.

I’m the navigator. I used to maneuver three or four maps at a time to locate things. Navigation got infinitely easier when we acquired a Garmin GPS device with updatable maps. I just plug in the name or the postal code of the destination and we’re pretty likely to get there by following the voice commands and the purple line on the screen. (Note to self: write a post called “How Garmin GPS Saved My Marriage”).

Still, sometimes Garmin gets us into a pickle. Wait, Voice from the Satellite, you really mean we should do a loop-de-loop and then leave the road? Excuse me while I check my paper map.

English country houses: Dusty, Drafty, Doggy-Doting. And sometimes the Directions are Dodgy.

It’s worth all the trouble. Yesterday, daffodils, asters and bluebells were in glorious bloom at Lytes Cary.

I Love England, Heartless Yobs and All

Sensible people who live in places where it snows (a lot) in April go off for sunny beach vacations if they can. Not me. I’m off to England where I fully expect a little rain.

I love medieval buildings that people still live in and use daily. The two above are in Lavenham. Pretty much the entire town looks like this, and it has looked like this since the 1400s. The roads are better now, though.

History abounds. The gatehouse above, at Charlecote, was familiar to both William Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I. It was old even in their time, property of the Lucy family.

Bodiam Castle dates from 1385.

I haven’t had a chance to actually visit Stonehenge in years, but it’s a thrill to drive by the ancient mysterious stones and see them from the highway.

The British love their history. At Erddig in Wales, family servants were honored with portraits. That’s the venerable Spider Brusher above.

Schoolchildren make a day of learning to be servants at Erddig. Looks like more fun now than it probably was in the past!

The British love their Queen.

And she’s surprisingly easy to rub elbows with, if you know where to go and how to dress for the occasion.

If I were invited to the upcoming Royal Wedding, I’d certainly wear a fascinator. Sadly, I’m not invited.

The wedding will be in St. George’s Chapel in the grounds of Windsor Castle. Anyone can attend the daily 5pm Evensong there, and it is a beautiful experience. A couple of years ago, my husband was shown to his seat in the choir. It’s where Prince William sits during the Order of the Garter ceremony! His coat of arms was right there on the back of the seat (photos were not allowed inside).

I might be in England when the new royal baby is born. When little Charlotte arrived, I happened to be near the hospital. The fence was decorated with pink pennants celebrating the birth, and I mingled with people who had camped outside for weeks in hopes of a royal sighting.

Part of the reason I love England is that I have some British ancestry. As a child, I heard all about my ancestor Thomas Guy, who founded Guy’s Hospital in 1721. He had made a fortune from the slave trade, sold that business, and then made more money printing unauthorized Bibles. Years ago I made a pilgrimage to the huge hospital/medical school complex, only to learn that Thomas Guy never married and had no children. So he was not a direct ancestor! But he did divvy up his money among various nieces and nephews and such. The great diarist Samuel Pepys was one of the witnesses to his will. I was disappointed, but I still like being a distant relative of an illustrious British subject.

This will be a fairly short trip, and it will be relaxed. I’m hoping for a lot of time in tea shops and cafes, reading the very readable British papers. I don’t exactly know the definition of “yob,” but that’s half the fun is sitting down for a British cuppa. And then there are the scones with clotted cream and jam…I’m off!

Penrhyn Castle: A Neo-Norman Victorian Fantasy

I can’t believe I even have a “least favorite” castle, but right now Penrhyn is it. Why would that be? Penrhyn is spectacular in every way. It was built to impress: a fabulous Victorian gingerbread castle in Wales.

Penrhyn is in the very northern part of Wales overlooking Snowdonia. Originally, there was a medieval fortified house on the property. In 1438 the house was expanded into a stone castle and tower. Between 1822 and 1837, the architect Thomas Hopper expanded the building into a “neo-Norman” castle–in other words, a castle like the ones built by William the Conqueror after 1066, in order to show his new British subjects who was in charge.

That’s William above, in the Bayeux Tapestry, lifting his helm to show that he’s still alive during the Battle of Hastings (public domain).

The Tower of London is the best-known example of a Norman castle in Britain. William began the White Tower as a timber fortification almost as soon as he left the battlefield, and work in stone continued until about 1100. It still dominates the Tower complex. (The photo is by Bernard Gagnon, licensed under Creative Commons).

The owner of Penrhyn was the fabulously wealthy George Hay Dawkins-Pennant, who inherited the property and a whole lot of money from his second cousin, Richard Pennant. The money came from Welsh slate mining, from Jamaican sugar, and from Jamaican slavery. (I do realize that a lot of British wealth came from slavery and other ills of the colonial era).

Starting at the entrance, everything about Penrhyn seems overbearing.

The cavernous entrance hall is meant to impress. It does. I found myself wondering whether I was all that welcome, even with my National Trust Pass.

Everything looks somehow overdone. The huge stained glass windows seem like they belong in a cathedral, plus they block the light from outside.

I know the huge entrance hall is meant to be welcoming, but I felt like menacing faces were looming high above me in the arched ceilings.

Even the chairs looked uncomfortable.

Oh, well, I thought, maybe it’s just my silly reaction. I looked at one of the framed photos, which showed a visit by Albert, Prince of Wales, in June 1894. Bertie is the portly fellow in the hat. He was a regular–he obviously liked the place. Maybe I could learn to like it.

Guests would have proceeded into the library for some aristocratic R & R.

There’s the dinner gong! I wonder if I would even hear it, if I was still upstairs checking the mirror in my evening dress and trying to remember which fork to use for which course.

And so to dinner, admiring the fine paintings on all the walls…

…and then coffee and conversation and cards in the drawing room. So what’s not to like? I don’t know exactly. It all seems dark and heavy and confining, without feeling very Norman.

Especially in the stairwells, there are acres of fine stonework and plasterwork. It’s beautiful, but it seems to me that actual Norman architecture is a lot more elegantly austere.

In the family and guest bedrooms, there’s fine wood carving and canopied beds galore.

At least one person found the decor too heavy for her taste: Queen Victoria. The photo above was taken in 1860 by J. J. E. Mayall, public domain.

A one-ton bed was carved from local slate especially for a royal visit. Victoria took one look and refused to sleep in it; she said the slate headboard and footboard looked like tombstones.

Maybe she ended up in the very pretty Lower Indian bedroom instead. That’s beautiful handpainted wallpaper from around 1800. The last Lord Penrhyn chose this as his bedroom. I would have, too.

I’m sure Victoria enjoyed a world-class bathroom–essential for any vacation, especially if it’s tended by an army of discreet servants. I liked the more modest bedrooms and bathrooms better than any of the grander rooms.

I hope the many carved stone faces in the hallways didn’t scare Victoria if she wandered around in the middle of the night.

Maybe she wandered all the way down to the kitchens, and maybe the French chef was still awake, cooking and baking goodies for the royal visit.

Family members lived in the castle until 1951, when the dreaded British “death duty” taxes plus the staggering costs of upkeep, drove them to more modest digs. Penrhyn is now owned and run by the National Trust.

There’s a very entertaining little railroad museum, trains having been important to the family slate business. The photo above shows the open bench car that slate mine workers rode in.

The shiny red car towering over the workers’ car was for mine owners and other bigwigs. They got cushy swivel chairs and stained glass. Sorry, that’s me being judgmental. But if I’m honest, I should admit that I’m very privileged myself. I’m a budget traveler. But I know how fortunate I am to be able to hop on a plane and go pretty much anywhere I want, even if it’s in a too-narrow seat with no legroom. So I really have no business turning up my nose at Victorian luxury.

I’ll visit Penrhyn again if I happen to be nearby. Maybe I’ll be in a better mood and I’ll like the place better. I do love castles, but I like them to be authentic. For my taste, Penrhyn is not–at least not authentically Norman. On the other hand, it’s a reflection of the days when the sun never set on the British Empire. In Penrhyn’s heyday, British business tycoons were Masters of the Universe. That’s about as authentically Victorian as anything gets.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

First Day of Spring

I think spring is coming late to England this year. I’ll be there soon, and I’m thinking there might still be snow in the ground. Or flooded spring rivers. Still, I’m hoping for tulips. They were spectacular a couple of years ago.

These were in the gardens of Ann Hathaway’s thatched-roof cottage near Stratford-on-Avon.

The tulips and daffodils were in bloom at Sudeley Castle in Winchcombe, where Richard III’s banqueting hall lies in picturesque ruins, sheltering a Tudor Knot Garden (planted much later, using Tudor designs).

Fruit trees blossomed overhead…

…and in St. Mary’s Church on the castle grounds, angels hovered over the Victorian tomb of Queen Catherine Parr, the last wife of King Henry VIII. (Her coffin was lost for a few centuries following the English Civil War, when the castle was “slighted” by Cromwell’s troops).

I was on the lookout for bluebells in all the woodsy places.

We should have been on the lookout for hidden springtime potholes too. This one caused not one but two flat tires on our rental car. Country roads are narrow, we’re driving on the “wrong side,” and sometimes we have to swerve.

Where I live in the mountains of Colorado, it’s still winter. The moose are finding tender branches to chomp, though.

In the dead of winter, I admired a painting by Fritz Syberg, from 1892. It’s called simply “Spring.”

Birds sing, rivers flow, and trees bud.

The young girl’s face is oddly melancholy. Or maybe she is just thoughtful.

Art should make us think. Travel makes us think too, about the past, about being present in the moment (even if the moment involves flat tires), and about the future. I’m anxious to be off again!

Topiaries and the Hound of Hades at Hever Castle

Apparently the art of topiary began under the Romans. Did Julius Caesar ever order up a topiary pig? This one lives on the grounds at Hever Castle, in Edenbridge. It’s about 30 miles south of London.

How about a reindeer?

Or a nice songbird.

I’m pretty sure this is a giant snail.

Hever Castle was the childhood home of the unfortunate Queen Anne Boleyn. The castle was the family seat of the Boleyns from 1462 to 1539.

Tour guides in period costume roam the creaky hallways and courtyard today. Photos are not allowed inside, much to my disappointment.

Visitors wait in the courtyard to be let in by timed ticket. There’s not much to see while waiting, but it’s interesting to get a glimpse of how the house was constructed centuries ago. I think the walls were made with a “wattle and daub” method.

No doubt there were fine Tudor gardens during the heyday of the Boleyns, but I doubt they would compare to the gardens planted by William Waldorf Astor when he bought the derelict castle in 1903.

He had become the richest man in America on the death of his father in 1890, but after failing at politics and having a falling-out with some of his relatives, he took his vast fortune to England and became a British subject in 1899.

Hever Castle was more or less abandoned and falling into ruin until Mr. Astor made it one of his family homes. He needed a country place to entertain his famous friends, like Sir Winston Churchill and his family.

Mr. Astor poured money into the house and grounds. He began planting yew and box hedges, which his small army of gardeners carved into topiary figures for the amusement of his guests. There are about 100 figures altogether. There’s a maze and water garden, too.

My favorite part of the estate is the Italian Garden, with statuary from Mr. Astor’s travels organized into little floral rooms.

There’s an Italian colonnade leading to a lake.

It’s a popular wedding venue.

Cherubs frolic in the colonnade on the lakeshore.

Mythical beasts keep watch. Just above, that’s Cerberus, the fierce three-headed Hound of Hades.

The nearby village church is a little melancholy. Several Astors are buried there.

It also holds the tomb of Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne. The Boleyns seized the main chance under King Henry VIII, but their line died out when Thomas died in 1538. If I understand it correctly, Thomas sat in judgment for at least part of the trial of his son George and daughter Anne when they were convicted on trumped-up charges of incest. George and Anne were both executed, but Thomas survived.

Here’s a right-side-up view of the image on Thomas’s tomb. Through the murderous reign of Henry VIII, Thomas had managed to hold on to his head and his castle at Hever, but he must have felt his family was pursued by the Hound of Hades. Did he regret the part he played in the fates of his son and daughter? I’m thinking his last days at Hever must have been sad and lonely.

After Thomas died, his castle passed to Henry VIII, who later gave it to Anne of Cleves as part of their dissolution-of-marriage settlement. Henry is known to have visited here. Inside the castle, not very much remains of the rooms these long-ago people walked in. But the stone walls and windows and doorways look about the same as they did during those turbulent Tudor times.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

The Ha-Ha at Chirk Castle

I’ll be the first to admit that it rains in England. So when visiting castles and stately homes, I often scurry through the gardens and take refuge inside. But the day I made it to Chirk Castle was gloriously sunny, so I got the full effect of the gardens.

The views across the Ceiriog Valley in Wales are spectacular. I’m sure the herd of 500 deer, established by the 1500s, enjoy the views as much as their ancestors did (when they’re not being hunted by their owners). But deer and cattle are not allowed inside the 5 manicured acres of the garden. They’re kept out by the Ha-Ha, built in 1764 by landscape architect William Emes.

What’s a Ha-Ha? It’s a deep ditch with a stone or brick wall set into one side. Presumably the name comes from the reaction of a person who stumbles into it, although I’d expect to hear some choice words beyond “Ha ha!” Anyway, it works as well as a fence, but preserves the views. I’ve always wanted one, but I would probably get sued if someone stumbled in.

Generations of the Myddelton family lovingly tended the gardens. I visited in springtime.

The yew-tree topiaries are about 130 years old. These days, there are only three gardeners. It takes them 6 to 8 weeks every year just to trim the topiaries.

The grandest topiary is the Crown on the Cushion.

In 1901, it was not that much taller than a Victorian lady.

Now, it’s big enough to pitch a tent under.

I like this bird topiary, perched in a shady spot among the ferns.

In recent years a beloved tree was felled by a storm.

The Myddelton family had its trunk carved into a garden bench.

If I were more of a gardener myself, I’d know exactly what I’m looking at. Rhododendrons? I like the wildness of the grassy bordered walks, after the formality of the manicured gardens.

Inside the castle, there was a special exhibit of embroidery based on the grounds and gardens. The piece above, “Across the Fields,” is by Janet Vance of the Embroiderers’ Guild.

Sue Sercombe made “Snowdrops in the Woods.”

Sheila Foggin used her sewing machine in ways I would not dream of, to create “Through the Gate.”

I always think that needlework is under-appreciated as an art form. I have trouble appreciating the gardener’s art too, because I know so little about it.

Well, I’ll head back into the castle for one last look at the grand Drawing Room.

It has an 18th-century look to it. In a 700-year-old castle, each succeeding generation makes its mark.

And there’s that famous Red Hand again! It’s the subject of all kinds of entertainingly bloody legends, but really it just represents the title of Baronet which the Myddelton family bought themselves a few centuries ago.

So many faces have come and gone at Chirk. We know a bit about those who made it into the history books. The more humble “below stairs” stories would be just as fascinating.

On my way out, I’ll admire this cottage perched on the edge of the Ha-Ha. Maybe it was once the home of the chief gardener. I’d cheerfully move right in! Just show me how to use those garden shears.

Join me next time for more explorations in Europe and the British Isles!

Chirk Castle

Catching-up time: I’m off to England soon, so I’m posting about places I will not see because I’ve seen them before. For a hopeless Anglophile like me, England has way too many stellar sights. Chirk Castle is one of my favorites.

Construction began in 1295, under Roger Mortimer. He was an English army captain who received the land from Edward I, with a mandate to show the recently-subdued Welsh who was in charge. A powerful ring of fortresses grew within a few years on the Marches, the brooding borderlands between England and Wales.

Most of these stone piles are now picturesque ruins, but Chirk has been continuously inhabited since it was finished in 1310.

I’d like to think this emblem, showing a hand above a crown, is from the days of the Mortimers. I’m a “Game of Thrones” fan. Was Roger Mortimer the “Hand of the King?” No, actually the hand emblem is from the late 1500s, when the Myddelton family owned the place and bought themselves a title.

When they added to King James I’s coffers by paying for the title of Baronet, they were entitled to add a red glove to their coat of arms.

The original Roger Mortimer and his namesake nephew both turned against the Crown. The first died in the Tower, and the second was executed as a traitor by Edward III. Three other owners of Chirk were also executed as traitors over the years. It’s easy to imagine the castle being haunted.

In Tudor times, in 1563, Elizabeth I gifted the castle to her favorite, Robert Dudley. Some rooms and parts of the gardens still have a distinctly Tudor look.

After Robert Dudley died, the castle was eventually sold to Sir Thomas Myddelton I. His son, Sir Thomas Myddelton II, found himself in the peculiar position of being ordered to break in and occupy his own castle in 1643. It had been taken by Royalists under Charles I in the English Civil War. Myddelton was ordered to retake it, which he could have done with artillery. But he didn’t feel like bashing his own home to smithereens. Eventually, the Royalists were bribed to leave peacefully, Charles I was executed, and Chirk went on as before. If these walls could talk!

Later, subsequent generations of Myddeltons were forced to rent out their castle to make ends meet, but the family managed to hold on until 1978. Even after giving the castle to the National Trust, family members lived there, and they still actively help manage the castle and grounds. That’s a Lady Mary Myddelton above, circa 1613.

One of her descendants sits, wineglass in hand, in the Bow Drawing Room.

The room is furnished as it was for posh parties in the twenties and thirties.

A gramophone plays dance music, and visitors are invited to make themselves at home.

Maybe we should take a turn in the Long Gallery?

Wait, I heard the dinner gong!

The dining room, last decorated in the 1930s, has entertained the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Augustus John, and any number of other people I would love to meet.

I’m not big on romantic castle ruins, but I’d go back to gloriously UN-ruined Chirk Castle anytime.

The exuberant Baroque Davies Gates, made by two local blacksmiths in 1712, will be waiting.