Category Archives: Why I Love England

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!

Kelmscott Manor: William Morris’s Dream House

In honor of the artist/writer/social activist/all-around creative genius William Morris’s birthday on March 24 of 1834, I’m remembering a visit to his home. He had a dream house: a house that actually appeared in his dreams. One day in 1871, he found the actual house, exactly as he had dreamed it, and immediately rented it for himself, his wife and two young children. The house, begun around 1594 and added to over the years, was Kelmscott Manor in farming country in Oxfordshire.

Morris was 37 years old, at the height of his very great powers. Frederick Hollyer photographed him later, in 1899, Public Domain.

He was not making a lot of money, though. So he shared the tenancy of Kelmscott with his close friend, the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He’s above, painted by George Frederic Watts, 1871, Public Domain.

In 1861, Rossetti had become a founding partner in Morris’s design firm, along with Ford Madox Brown, Philip Webb, Charles Faulkner, Peter Paul Marshall, and Edward Burne-Jones.

The house today is a picture of long-ago domestic bliss. Above is a wall hanging which Jane and William embroidered together, early in their marriage. In reaction to the beginning of the Industrial Age and the rise of capitalism, Morris and his friends looked back at an idealized Medieval Age, when life was simpler and beautiful things were hand-crafted. Morris adapted the design from one he found in a 14th-century French manuscript.

William’s overcoat hangs ready for a ramble on country lanes, soaking up the nature that inspired him.

It hangs next to a handpainted medieval-style settle, with a tall curved hood as a shelter from drafts. The settle was designed by Philip Webb, the architect and designer whose work included the country house Standen.

William Morris had met his future wife, 18-year-old Jane Burden, in Oxford. Her photo is by John Robert Parsons, 1865, Public Domain. Rossetti posed her for this photograph. Morris and his friends were mesmerized by Jane’s ethereal beauty and she immediately became their model and muse. Jane had grown up poor and uneducated. William Morris arranged a whirlwind education for her, which she thrived on. Before long, she could hold her own with the most sophisticated of Morris’s friends, and she was perfectly at home in society. They married in 1859.

Does this story sound familiar? Many people think Jane was the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion.”

The playwright was a friend and frequent visitor to the Morris family.

The illustration above shows Mrs. Patrick Campbell as Eliza Doolittle, 1913, Public Domain. The play became the source for the Broadway musical and movie “My Fair Lady.” Six degrees of Victorian separation!

Later, Jane admitted that she always liked Morris, but never actually loved him. This spelled trouble. No sooner had Morris settled his family in the house than he set off on an extended trip to Iceland to study the hero sagas.

He wrote and illustrated several books about Icelandic folklore over a period of two years, during which Jane was involved with Rossetti in the home they all shared.

According to a Kelmscott guidebook, Morris was being a gentleman by going off to Iceland: making himself scarce so that the relationship between Jane and his friend could run its course (which it did). In “Water Willow,” 1871, Rossetti painted Jane with the nearby Thames tributary, the boathouse, Kelmscott Manor and the village church in the background. The painting still hangs in the house; it was Jane’s favorite.

Rossetti was a bit of a ladies’ man, and Jane was irresistible. He painted her many times, before, during, and even after their liaison. The portrait above is “The Blue Silk Dress,” 1868. It still hangs in the house.

“Proserpine,” 1874, hangs in the Tate Britain gallery in London, Public Domain.

In spite of the turmoil in their love lives, the Morris family had many happy years in the house, and eventually Morris’s daughter May was able to buy it.

The house had cozy rooms for entertaining friends.

Naturally, the house was decorated with the designs of Morris and his friends.

The early designs were actually printed by hand on fabrics. Above are some of the original blocks used for printing. Some designs took a dozen or more different blocks.

The attics of the house, once the sleeping quarters for farm servants, were left plain, whitewashed, the sturdy beams exposed, with minimal furniture.

Morris loved the “medieval” look of the attics. He wrote, “I have spent, I know, a vast amount of time designing furniture and wallpaper, carpets and curtains…but I would prefer, for my part, to live with the plainest whitewashed walls and wooden chairs and tables.” (I’m not so sure I believe that, but it’s a nice thought, in keeping with Morris’s concern for working people and his longing for a simple life).

The garden was as important to Morris as the house.

It was never a manicured garden, but it was beautiful in all seasons. I saw it in spring, with tulips and bluebells.

William Morris lived in other houses during his lifetime, but Kelmscott was always his dream home.

The nearby village church, St. George’s, was begun in Norman times, in the eleventh century, with additions up to around 1430 but very minimal changes after that. When he lived at Kelmscott, William Morris founded the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings to protect just such buildings from over-enthusiastic Victorian “restorations.” After his death in 1896, William Morris was buried in the peaceful churchyard near his beloved Kelmscott.

Happy Birthday, dear William!

Arts and Crafts Perfection at Standen

If I could move into any house I wanted in the English countryside, I’d take Standen, near East Grinstead in Sussex.

The house has a complicated floor plan, built in stages. I’m not exactly sure what was older and what was newer. The final stage was to link the new building to the original farmhouse on the property, Great Hollybush (I’d have kept that name!)

It is not a particularly grand house–in fact, that is the point. It was built by the architect Philip Webb, a close friend of William Morris, in 1892-94.

The client, James Beale, was a very wealthy solicitor who had made his fortune in London. At age 50, Mr. Beale wanted a beautiful but functional second home in the country for his wife and their seven children. The children were already beginning to marry and move away, but Standen remained the gathering place for children and grandchildren for almost eighty years.

Philip Webb and William Morris had met in their twenties at Oxford. They immediately hit it off, and collaborated on projects for the rest of their working years.

I’d love to hire “The Firm” today. They were the very opposite of the sleek throw-away esthetic of IKEA. (Not that I don’t own plenty of practical IKEA stuff!)

James Beale was a hardworking, pragmatic, sober, simple-living family man. He wanted a comfortable family home, not a showplace. But he was willing to pay for quality.

His idea of luxury was a house big enough to contain the hijinks of his large family and lots of visitors.

The house is large and filled with daylight. The conservatory was a favorite place to lounge and read.

Billiards, anyone? The house had electric lighting from the beginning.

All the fixtures were specially designed, most of them by W. A. S. Benson, who trained under William Morris.

The effect is subtle but beautiful, even in daylight.

The Beales did not need any grand rooms for entertaining; they just wanted to relax and enjoy each other’s company.

Most of the textiles and wallpapers were William Morris designs.

Margaret Beale was creative and handy with any kind of needle.

She kept her children busy making things for the house.

One of the daughters, Maggie, never married. She stayed at Standen and became a skilled artist and designer in her own right.

Maggie’s studio is one of the most pleasant rooms in the house. It seems like she could breeze in at any moment with an idea for a painting or a sofa cushion.

My other favorite room is the Larkspur Bedroom, so named for the William Morris wallpaper. I like the built-in wardrobes and I LOVE the tub in front of the fire (the maids may not have loved lugging pails of water up and down stairs for it).

Mr. Beale and his architect were old-fashioned and a bit frugal. The floor with all the bedrooms had only two “necessary” rooms and one bathroom. (I think bedrooms still had chamber pots and maids still had to deal with them).

The family enjoyed their meals and they were big eaters. The children used to have contests to see who could pack on the most weight from a single meal. The family record was five pounds, put on by one of the boys. (The family dressed for dinner. I guess someone’s satin cummerbund must have felt a little tight after that epic meal).

The children had plenty of room outside to burn energy. There were flower beds and a kitchen garden and woodlands to explore.

Then as now, there were chickens right outside.

And the door was always open to the home the Beales created, where everything was useful or beautiful–or both.

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!

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!