Category Archives: Why I Love England

Downton Abbey Locations: Irresistible for a Fan

I managed to get to Highclere Castle, the “real” Downton Abbey, on a day it was closed to the general public. Now, I have no claim to fame and I was not invited to take tea with the current Countess, but I was armed with a yearly pass from the Historic Houses Association of England. Reading the booklet’s fine print, I let out a very unladylike whoop–it was covered! Hopeless fan of British eye candy that I am, I was not about to miss my chance.

We arrived at the estate in sunny Hampshire on a day when a fleet of classy British sport cars were parked on the grounds. Lord Grantham and his faithful golden labrador were nowhere in sight.

Full disclosure: my husband had seen exactly half of one episode of the TV show, but we share a fascination with British country homes. It’s always fun to be on the inside looking out of those imposing windows.

Alas, no photos were allowed inside, but after a short time cooling our heels outside the famous front door, in we went. Is that door-knocker a wolf? He’s just a little intimidating, for sure. Inside, the house looks exactly as it does on TV and now in the movie. No photos are allowed, but I can’t blame the owners. Visitors moved through the lush rooms quietly, not rushed, murmuring about their favorite scenes.

The movie’s other stately home location is Harewood–pronounced “Harwood,” of course. I never get British pronunciations right until I’m either corrected or I hear them from somebody who knows better.

Harewood is in Yorkshire (where Downton Abbey is supposed to be) and it’s very grand indeed.

In the recent movie, set in 1927, it’s one of the homes of Princess Mary, daughter of King George V and Queen Mary. She is married to Viscount Henry Lascelles, later the Sixth Earl of Harewood. He had a reputation for being difficult, especially after possibly suffering from shellshock in World War I. Also, he was fifteen years older than the Princess. But I can’t find any evidence that she ever considered leaving him, as in the movie.

Princess Mary was beloved for her gentle nature and her service during the Great War, including her gift packages in 1914 to every single British and Indian soldier, nurse or anyone who had a part in the war effort. The packages included tobacco, a pipe, cigarettes and a lighter in a brass box with a picture of her face. Those who did not smoke received boxes with sweets and such instead.

Harewood as it stands today was built beginning in 1759. The money came directly from the slave trade. Henry Lascelles, an earlier ancestor of the current owners, went to Barbados at the age of twenty-one and made his family’s fortune by astute, and apparently ruthless, exploitation of interests the family already had in sugar, cotton, rum and tobacco production–and in running slave ships.

The year 2007 was the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire, which happened in 1807. The Lascelles family had already sponsored research into the original source of their wealth, something very few British families did. In the Bicentary year, they sponsored a whole range of talks, tours, lectures and theatrical performances on the subject of slavery. Many if not most of the stately homes I like so much share the same history, but very few acknowledge it.

My old guidebook from a visit in the 1990s does not mention the slave trade at all. To their credit, the current owners have produced a new guidebook that not only tells the sad story, but tells how to access the actual historical records online.

The original Henry Lascelles may not have enjoyed his ill-gotten gains all that much. In 1753, he killed himself by slashing his own throat. (I have to wonder if his death was really a suicide, but that’s the story in the house’s current guidebook, above). His son Edwin Lascelles immediately began planning a grand house on the property he inherited.

The slave-trade money certainly bought beauty and luxury.

Robert Adam was a young Scottish architect, recently returned from studies in Italy and on the way up the social ladder when Edwin Lascelles hired him. The hallmark of Adams’s style was elaborate symmetrical plaster ornamentation on every flat surface, and especially on every ceiling.

Capability Brown designed the extensive grounds and gardens.

And Thomas Chippendale furnished the entire house from top to bottom.

Chippendale’s hall chairs, designed especially for the grand entry hall, were never sat upon–they were purely decorative. No doubt anybody like me, who might have plopped down in one, was never left alone in this most intimidating room.

Today, Jacob Epstein’s monumental alabaster sculpture “Adam” dominates the grand hall. It was made in the late 1930s and arrived at Harewood only in 1961. One wonders what “Downton Abbey’s” Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, would make of this Adam.

Anglophile that I am, I’ll always fall for the beauty and romance of a way of life that only existed for a very few people in a very brief period of time. But I’m happy to see the true cost of such beauty acknowledged as it is at Harewood.

St. Hubert’s Chapel at Amboise: A Resting Place for Leonardo da Vinci

The Gothic Chapel of Saint-Hubert was built between 1491 and 1496 during the reign of Charles VIII.

It’s perched right at the edge of the wall surrounding Chateau d’Amboise, towering over the town far below.

The chapel is tiny but exquisite. The facade tells the story of St. Hubert. He seems to have been an actual person, born around 656 to 658 in Toulouse. By the time he died on May 30, 727, he had become the first Bishop of Liege.

Hubert was a courtier living the good life of feasting, wearing fine clothes, and hunting in the vast royal forests of various parts of France. But when his wife died in childbirth, it seems he had a sort of midlife crisis. He chucked his royal duties and turned his back on religion. Instead he spent all his time hunting, all by himself.

On Good Friday, while everybody else was in church, he was out hunting alone as usual when he had a miraculous vision. A magnificent stag appeared with a crucifix in its antlers. A voice told him to mend his ways and get back to religious life, which he did. He became known as the “Apostle of the Ardennes,” devoted himself to all manner of good works, and died peacefully in old age.

Hubert became the patron saint of hunters (of course). He was much venerated in the Middle Ages for being able to cure rabies. The cure involved using St. Hubert’s Key, a fearsome metal nail-like brand that was heated red-hot and applied to the spot where an unfortunate person was bitten by a rabid animal. I suppose it worked at times, but I’m betting Leonardo da Vinci could have improved on the method if he’d set his mind to it.

St. Hubert has his very own club today in the UK. It’s dedicated to deer and wild boar management.

https://www.sainthubertclub.co.uk/who-was-st-hubert/

St. Hubert’s story is very similar to that of St. Eustace, but it does seem they were different people who had the same vision. I first encountered the crucifix-in-antlers story on a visit to Canterbury Cathedral in England, and wrote about it. Eustace did not fare as well as Hubert, though. Legend has it that Eustace, his wife and children were eventually roasted alive by the Emperor Hadrian.

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2016/04/29/st-eustace-in-canterbury-cathedral/

St. Hubert’s chapel is lovely and peaceful inside even when there are a lot of tourists visiting Amboise. People duck in to see Leonardo’s tomb, but they don’t linger.

The chapel is a nice resting place for Leonardo, who died just up the street in his last house, Clos Luce, in 1519. And I’m sure he appreciates the visitors from all over the world.

Virginia Woolf and A Room of Her Own at Monk’s House

Virginia Woolf was born on January 25, 1882. She was a central figure of the intellectual and artistic Bloomsbury Group, whose influence is still felt.  Virginia herself was an avant-garde novelist who changed the shape of the English novel with works such as Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, The Waves, and To the Lighthouse.

Monk’s House is now a National Trust property. When I visited, I was thrilled to walk in the footsteps of Virginia and Leonard Woolf.

Virginia had suffered bouts of debilitating depression for much of her life, but she had always recovered. Between illnesses, she was a fun-loving friend and a wonderful conversationalist.  But she needed a certain amount of “alone” time in order to create.

In her country garden, she spent long hours composing her ground-breaking novels and thoughtful essays in her writing shed. It is furnished just as she left it.  It looks as though she just stepped out for a stroll through her flowers.

One of Virginia’s most famous works is the long essay “A  Room of One’s Own,” in which she examined the need for women to have solitary time and space in order to create. She knew all too well that most women had no writing shed or other personal space. Maybe her need for creative time and space is what prompted a friend, Lady Ottoline Morrell, to describe Virginia as “this strange, lovely, furtive creature.”

Inside the house, I could imagine long and lively discussions at the dining table, with the likes of Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, T.S. Eliot, and H.M. Forster, not to mention Virginia’s sister the painter Vanessa Bell.

Her bedroom was originally added to the house as a writing studio.

But Virginia liked the airy room so much she decided to sleep there.  I would too.

Naturally, there are books everywhere in the house.

The drawing room is cosy, set up for long evenings of reading and conversation.

Are these his-and-hers chairs?  I can imagine Virginia in one and Leonard in the other.

On March 28, 1941, Virginia wrote a loving letter to her husband, Leonard Woolf, and walked out of her beloved country home for the last time. She made her way to the nearby River Ouse.  On its banks, she filled her pockets with stones, waded in, and drowned.  Her body was recovered almost 3 weeks later. She was 59 years old. 

After her death, Leonard had Virginia’s ashes buried in their beloved garden. A bust of Virginia stands nearby.  Her admirers leave stones beneath it.

Later, Leonard’s own ashes and bust took their places near hers. In her final letter, Virginia sadly explained that she could not bear another episode of what she called her “madness.” Possibly she suffered from what we would now call bipolar syndrome. At any rate, she described hearing “voices.” The last line of her final letter read, “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.”

The photo  at the top of this post is from the article cited below, “Virginia Woolf: The Woman Who Remade the Novel,” by Jonathan deBurca Butler. The photo, of Virginia in 1902, is by George C. Beresford. The article is an excellent summary of Virginia’s life, her sad death, and her continuing influence on modern literature.

http://www.independent.ie/life/virginia-woolf-the-woman-who-remade-the-novel-34572892.html

Monk’s House is wonderfully maintained by the National Trust. Charleston Farmhouse, where Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell lived, is nearby.  I would highly recommend a visit to both.

Engagement photo of Virginia Stephen and Leonard Woolf, 1912, unknown photographer, Public Domain

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

 

 

Winchester Cathedral, Jane Austen’s Resting Place

When Jane Austen died in 1817, she was not famous. She was buried as a gentlewoman beneath the floor in the north aisle of the nave of Winchester Cathedral, with no mention of her as a writer. She had published four of her great novels while living at Chawton, but readers did not know her name. The title page read, “By a Lady.”

I finally made a visit last spring, after visiting Jane’s cottage home in Chawton and the “great house” that played a big part in her most productive years.

No doubt Jane knew the medieval cathedral well, having lived the last eight years of her life in nearby Chawton Village. She spent the last eight weeks or so of her life in Winchester, undergoing treatment that didn’t work. (Theories about her illness include Addison’s disease and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, among others).

Jane lies underneath the stone floor. Her brothers James and Henry arranged the burial. Her tombstone refers to “the extraordinary endowments of her mind,” but the emphasis is on her qualities as a proper Christian gentlewoman, not her genius as a writer and satirist. Only four people attended Jane’s brief funeral service in 1817. She has much more company now.

I’d like to think Jane was familiar with the Holy Sepulchre Chapel.

The chapel’s wall and ceiling paintings date from the 12th and early 13th centuries.

Even more, I’d like to think Jane once stood and gazed up at the exquisite ceiling of the Guardian Angels Chapel, dating from around 1240, by Master William, the King’s painter.

That would have been King Henry III. The ceiling was restored in 1959, so Jane may not have seen it at its best. But I like to think the guardians angels watch over her anyway.

The cathedral has a nice display about Jane on banners and signs in the north aisle.

One sign explains that by around 1850, as Jane’s identity as a writer came out and her fame began to grow, visitors were coming just to see her grave.

In 1870 Jane’s nephew published a memoir about her and used the proceeds for a brass plaque on the wall near her tomb.

By 1900, a public subscription paid for a memorial window above the brass plaque.

Aside from the Jane connection, Winchester is a fascinating cathedral. The building was finished and consecrated in 1093, after all. It still functions as a church, and it’s possible to wander without crowds of tourists.

The beautiful illuminated Winchester Bible, used by the 60 to 80 monks in residence in the 1100s, is worth a visit all by itself.

I especially like the huge heavy “flying” buttresses that hold up the cathedral walls from outside. They form a sort of secular cloister which locals use all the time. I like to imagine Jane attending a service, then hurrying home with a new plot twist or turn of phrase. Maybe, for instance, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Jane lives on!

Chawton, Jane Austen’s Great House

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen! Jane was born on December 16, 1775. She lived the last eight years of her too-short life in the famous cottage on the grounds of Chawton House, where she wrote and polished four of her six surviving novels. Jane’s clergyman father had died, leaving his family dependent on the kindness of relatives. But thanks to a quirk in the family’s fortunes, Jane’s brother was able to provide a home for his impoverished mother and his two spinster sisters, Jane and Cassandra.

The cottage is a pilgrimage site for Jane’s admirers (including me). But until 2015, we could not visit the “great house” where Jane and her family were grateful guests.

From the cottage in Chawton Village, Jane often walked up the country lane, past the village church, on her way to visit her brother.

Chawton House must have seemed imposing. How did all this come about?

Wonder of wonders, Jane’s brother Edward had won the 18th-century version of the lottery by being adopted out of the Austen family as a child. This was a great stroke of luck, but it made perfect sense to everyone concerned. As Jane would be the first to explain, people with any wealth to speak of really wanted a male heir to inherit their property and keep it in the family name. Edward fit the bill for the Knight family.

Above is Edward’s silk suit, which he wore as a very lucky adopted teenager, around 1782.

By adoption, Edward acquired the wealthy ancestors above, Jane and Thomas Knight, parents of his adoptive father Thomas. Thomas and his wife had no children of their own. So Edward Austen, son of a cleric of modest means, became Edward Knight and eventually inherited several grand homes and a lot of valuable property.

But nothing lasts forever. Over the years after Edward’s time, the house had various owners and proceeded to fall apart, as neglected houses do.

In 1992 the American businesswoman and philanthropist Sandra Lerner bought the lease and began pouring money into restoration.

In 2003, the house opened as a center for the study of early women’s writing. The house is still a study center and hosts exhibits.

Finally, in 2015, the house opened to tourists like me. (Weddings are also held there, no doubt tempting a lot of Jane-admiring brides).

Today, the house is charmingly old-fashioned, with a bewildering floor plan, creaky old floors, and cozy corners perfect for settling in with a good book.

It’s easy to imagine Jane, her mother and sisters at the dining table.

The house reminds me of my very favorite Jane Austen movie, the 1995 version of Persuasion starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds.

The novel is set eight years after Anne Elliot has been persuaded by a well-meaning friend to break her engagement to the love of her life, Captain Frederick Wentworth, because he has no money or connections. Anne also refuses the proposal of a perfectly nice but uninspiring young squire who then marries her sister. Anne is destined to be a sad spinster.

But Captain Wentworth suddenly reappears as a now-rich man looking for a wife. Of course his pride has been hurt, so Anne is out of the question. Until this and this and this happens, and we’re off into the story. Much of the action takes place in a manor house very much like Chawton House, where Anne is often a guest, just as Jane was at Chawton. I think Anne Elliot has a lot in common with her creator, Jane Austen.

As in all of Jane Austen’s novels, there’s sharp satire of the British class system, the precarious financial position of most women, and the unavoidable importance of marrying wisely. There’s unbearable suspense hinging on the timely arrival of a secret love letter. There’s the tremulous joy of a long-awaited kiss. There’s true love at last for the intelligent woman who stubbornly waits for it, willing to be poor rather than suffer through a loveless marriage. It’s a fine, fine movie.

And Chawton House is a fine place to imagine Jane’s life as a spinster with a whole semi-secret life as a writer of genius.

https://chawtonhouse.org/

For Halloween: These Are a Few of My Favorite Tombs

Since Halloween is historically about honoring the souls of the departed, I’m paying a virtual visit to some of the most memorable resting places I’ve seen on my travels. Above is the tomb of Catherine Parr, the only one of Henry VIII’s wives who managed to outlive him. She rests in St. Mary’s Church on the grounds of Sudeley Castle, where she lived part of her turbulent life. Previous posts about Catherine are at:

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2013/08/12/visiting-sudeley-castle/

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2013/08/05/sudeley-castle-home-of-three-queens/

Here’s the churchyard of Eyam Parish Church in Derbyshire, England.  Eyam was a remote village when the bubonic plague struck in 1665. Everybody know the disease was contagious, but nobody knew exactly how it spread. (Much later, it turned out it spread via fleas that fed on rats). Under the leadership of the rector, Reverend William Mompesson and the Puritan minister, Thomas Stanley, the villagers chose to quarantine themselves for the fourteen months of the outbreak.  Only about 80 of the villagers survived out of the 350 who lived there. Geraldine Brooks wrote a wonderful historical novel about the plague village, “Year of Wonders,” 2001.

Haddon Hall is a well-preserved medieval house in Derbyshire. Its St. Nicholas chapel dates from the 1400s or earlier. The chapel contains one of the most beautiful and touching memorials I’ve ever seen, a marble effigy of young Lord Haddon, who died in 1894 at the age of 9.

His mother, Violet, Duchess of Rutland, designed it in his memory.

A nobleman whose name is lost to me has one of the best resting places I know of. His tomb is in a side chapel of the Augustinian Church in Vienna. It’s the parish church of the Hapsburg royal family, connected directly to their Hofburg Palace. The tomb’s occupant has his own personal perpetual mourner to keep him company when things are quiet.

But for November and December, he has plenty of company. The church ladies run a charming little Christmas market with handcrafted items. And they serve homemade cakes and coffee. It’s a cheerful resting place.

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/04/11/a-cheerful-resting-place/

Where I live in the mountains of Colorado, Halloween is a weeklong party. Everybody in town takes every opportunity to dress up as somebody else.

But November 1 is All Saints’ Day, celebrated in many churches as a day to remember “all saints, known and unknown” who are no longer with us. Sadly, we also need to honor all those lost in the senseless violence in our country and elsewhere. Wishing one and all a Halloween full of laughter and an All Saints’ Day full of remembrance.

The Fashion Museum in Bath: Blackout Curtains to Ball Gowns

Bath’s charming Fashion Museum is always worth a wander. And there’s a large central gallery where one and all are invited to try on new identities. How does that wig fit, Sir?

In this town where Jane Austen lived and wrote in the early 1800s, there are always Jane-esque muslin gowns on display. The placard explains that in the 1780s Marie Antoinette and her ladies at Versailles wore similar gowns in their private off-duty hours. In France, these refreshingly simple dresses were called chemises de la reine: dresses of the queen. They were inspired by archaeological discoveries of the ancient world in Herculaneum and Pompeii.

By 1900, fashions had gone fancy and formal again. To appear at court, a lady had to wear a dress with a train that trailed at least three yards from her ankles–nine feet. I’d be hopeless in a getup like that, I’m afraid. I’d trip myself and anyone in a nine-foot radius.

Sailor suits for little boys were popular in Victorian times. The fashion started when the five-year-old Prince of Wales, son of Queen Victoria, wore a miniature version of a sailor’s uniform from the HMS Victory. It was the flagship of Lord Nelson at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar.

During and after World War II, blackout cloth was about the only fabric that was not rationed. Enterprising ladies used it creatively for dresses. The one above is from 1945.

In honor of the postwar accession of Queen Elizabeth II, a little girl’s mother treated her to a homemade dress printed with scenes from the coronation.

The smocked dress features a border and collar with the coronation procession.

I lived through the 1960s, but I have to say I would not have appeared in public in a “knickerbocker dress.” Was this really a thing? Mary Quant, the swinging 60s designer, thought so, and actually sold this little number in her boutique in 1961. Not for me, thanks. I do remember wearing geometric minidresses, though.

In 2018, the Fashion Museum features a special exhibit of clothes worn by several British royal women.

The exhibit starts with Princess Alexandra, subject of a previous post.

Next is Queen Consort Mary of Teck. She was married to King George V.

Elizabeth, the mother of Queen Elizabeth II, wore this Norman Hartnell ball gown in 1954.

My favorites were the exquisite gowns worn by Princess Margaret, sister of the Queen.

The striped 1949 Dioresque gown above was designed to encourage postwar women to wear British textiles, including reasonably-priced cotton. It was the work of Norman Hartnell.

Best of show, in my opinion? Margaret’s ethereal ivory chiffon evening gown with tied bolero jacket, above.

The Fashion Museum is a bit off the beaten path in Bath, but worth the slight detour.

And did I mention that guests are invited to try on historic outfits for size?

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