Category Archives: Historic Homes

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!

British Hall Chairs: Putting Visitors in Their Place

If you turned up at the entrance to a grand home in Britain without an invitation, you’d likely be told to go around to the servants’ entrance. If you were obviously respectable and had a convincing story, you might be shown into the drawing room to wait for the master or mistress. But if the maid or butler was not sure whether you were fish or fowl, you’d be told to cool your heels on a hall chair. The one above is at Attingham, a Georgian mansion near Shrewsbury.

Hall chairs were often custom-made for grand homes, the style carefully considered to reflect the wealth and taste of the owner. The one above is from Penrhyn, an over-the-top 19th-century stone pile built to resemble a medieval Norman castle. It’s in North Wales, and in its heyday it was a favorite haunt of Bertie, Prince of Wales.

At Plas Newydd, also in North Wales, hall chairs boast the family’s coat of arms.

This chair, at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, looks like a spot to squirm in discomfort. But then comfort is not the point in hall chairs. They almost never have arms. This one barely has a seat.

Hall chairs are almost never padded or upholstered. A docent explained to me that a visitor relegated to a hall chair might have fleas. Hall chairs had to be easy to sanitize.

If you were lucky enough to be invited into a drawing room and dared to sit down, you might feel comfy on an upholstered chair, like one of these at Attingham. But if you were kept in the entry hall, you might have a long wait perched on a hard chair. I suspect that often a servant would be delegated to watch you as well, to be sure you didn’t make off with a silver candlestick.

At Sandringham House, the private home of the Royal Family in Norfolk, paying visitors are welcome to see a few rooms when the Queen is not in residence.

Everybody enters through this door. But photographs inside are strictly forbidden.

It seemed all right to take a picture of one of the Queen’s very elegant hall chairs just inside. But I didn’t quite dare to sit down.

In refreshing contrast to aristocratic chair rules, stately and historic homes run by the National Trust often have special non-historic chairs set aside for weary visitors to take a load off. This one, at Standen near East Grinstead, even has an inviting pillow. Standen is entirely done up in William Morris style, which was all about beauty, comfort and practicality. Sit down? Thank you! I don’t mind if I do.

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

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.

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen!

In honor of Jane Austen’s birth on December 16, 1775, I’m revisiting one of my favorite travel memories. In 2014, I visited the home where Jane lived in her last years. And I experienced Six (or fewer) Degrees of Separation from Jane.

Jane Austen lived the last few years of her too-short life in tranquil Chawton, Hampshire, with her mother, her cherished sister Cassandra, and a family friend. The women were pretty much penniless after the death of Jane’s father.  Like most single women of their time, they had to depend on the kindness of relatives for a roof over their heads.

Edward Knight

It was their good fortune that Jane’s brother Edward Knight was able to come to the rescue. Why was his name Edward Knight, not Edward Austen?  He had been formally adopted by a cousin of Jane’s father, Thomas Knight.  Thomas and his wife Catherine were wealthy and childless.  They made Edward their heir.  He inherited several estates, among them a grand house at Chawton.  The house came with a sizable but cozy cottage, which Edward made available to his mother and sisters for their lifetimes.

At last, in her thirties, Jane had a stable home.  She had begun writing as a teenager but had more or less given it up during the years that she had no settled home.  In Chawton, she established a routine of writing every morning at a little round table in front of the dining room window.  Her sister Cassandra took over morning household chores, giving Jane the freedom to write. In the afternoons, they took long walks in the countryside–just like Jane’s heroines. They also spent a lot of time visiting friends and relatives, including the wealthy connections Edward Knight was able to give them.

On this humble little table, Jane wrote the classics we know and love: Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma. Some of them she had begun earlier and had put away. Family lore had it that a squeaky door was purposely never oiled, so that Jane always had warning of visitors.  She would hastily hide her manuscript until the visitors had left.

Jane’s books dealt with the serious problems of women dependent on men for economic security.  As she knew all too well from her own life, an unmarried woman without a fortune of her own had very few options for survival. Jane spun her stories with humor, but also with hard-earned experience in understanding human conflicts.

I was deep in a discussion about Austen family history with a man stationed in the house, when I noticed that his name tag said, “Mr. Knight.”  Could it be?  Yes!  My Mr. Knight was a living, breathing, direct descendant of Jane’s brother! I think he looks just like his ancestor.

In Copenhagen this month, I loved seeing some outfits from Jane’s era in the Design Museum.

The Empire dresses first popularized by Josephine, the wife of Napoleon, were popular in Scandinavia as well as in Jane’s England.

I loved the puff detail on this one, which was made in Denmark’s colony in the Indies. (Taking care of fragile garments like this was the job of slaves–an unpleasant fact that countries like Denmark and England and America are still struggling to come to terms with). In one of her books, “Mansfield Park,” Jane touched on the subject.

Still, I can dream of a ladylike life in a peaceful English village. How about a little cotton jacket for a stroll in the garden?

I just found my DVD of my all-time favorite movie based on Jane’s work, “Persuasion.” It’s about maturity, regrets, making one’s own risky choices, and second chances. It stars Amanda Root, Ciaran Hinds, Corin Redgrave, Fiona Shaw, and a long list of other fine British actors. I’ll be watching it today, and feeling grateful that in her short life Jane was able to write as much as she did.

Plas Newydd: Royalty and Green Skilly 

I admit to being a hopeless Anglophile. I can easily see myself sweeping down a grand staircase to greet visiting royalty, as the  Angleseys of Plas Newydd in Wales did for centuries.

The house has Tudor origins, but much of it was built in stages beginning in the 1700s. According to a docent, it was more or less a summer cottage, so costs were kept down. The stone walls and pillars in the entry hall? Faux painting. Works for me.

Royals attended Anglesey weddings as a matter of course. And royals stopped by Plas Newydd to play cards in the saloon (toffspeak for the main living room, where everybody gathers. If there are children, this is where they play checkers and race around on tricycles).

Show me a drawing room or saloon, any room where my betters relax, and I’ll head straight to the obligatory black-and-white framed photos, casually strewn on the grand piano or the museum-quality writing desk.

I love faded chintz, tastefully worn Persian rugs, and slightly shabby velvet.

I asked whether this little ceramic pair represented any couple in particular. No, the docent said, it’s just a prince and princess. This figurine was probably mass-produced, but somebody liked it enough to set it on a table alongside family heirlooms.

In another lifetime, maybe I was a British aristocrat–not a snooty one, but a slightly eccentric one who welcomed artists of all stripes. The artist Rex Whistler would have a permanent room in my mansion.

I’d look over Rex’s shoulder as he worked on whatever he wanted, maybe costumes and stage design for a production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” I think this is Alonso, Prospero’s brother.

Caliban is spiky and green.

Miranda looks lovely, and remarkably like Caroline, a daughter of the family (to whom the artist was devoted).

The 6th Marquess of Anglesey had a fine sense of humor. These are his photos of his four daughters. I’m guessing that none of these daughters inherited any of the property. British families kept their estates intact by passing on everything to the oldest son. Most of them still do. But growing up as an aristocratic daughter looks like a pretty good life all the same.

In the breakfast room, there’s a special side table with a screened box to keep the family dogs away from the sausages.

The bedrooms were completely redecorated in the epitome of 1930s country house comfort and style. I’ll take the pink one, please.

I’ll be down for dinner when the gong sounds. Just let me fuss a bit more with my hair…

In the kitchen far below, servants bustle with pots and pans and silver platters. They sit down to their own dinners. Do they say grace after the meal instead of before? Sounds like it:

We thank the Lord for what we’ve had,

It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad.

The sodduck was stale, the skilly was green,

But thank the Lord the plates were clean.

I’m blessed with a husband who likes old stuff as much as I do. We celebrated our 49th year of wedded bliss at Plas Newydd. This year, we made it to 50! I’d like to go back to Plas Newydd for a nice cup of skilly (tea), green or not.