Tag Archives: National Trust

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 often 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.

Mary Anne Disraeli: the Woman Behind the Man

Why is a Victorian carriage door prominently displayed on a wall at Hughenden, the country home of Queen Victoria’s friend and Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli? The Prime Minister himself removed it from the carriage and preserved it as a tribute to his wife, Mary Anne. One evening the ambitious politician and his doting wife set off from his London house to Parliament, where he was to deliver a very important speech.  When the carriage door was closed, it slammed shut on Mary Anne’s thumb. What did she do? She suffered in silence, all the way to Westminster. She didn’t want to upset the man before his speech. A placard next to the carriage door explains that Mary Anne said not a word until Disraeli was safely out of the carriage and on his way into the corridors of power.  The placard remarks drily that her words when her thumb was released were not recorded.

 Mary Anne was 12 years older than her husband, and the marriage began as one of convenience. But it grew into a true love match.

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According to the guidebook sold at Hughenden, Disraeli was a novelist and something of a playboy in 1830s London. He had written a novel, Vivian Grey, which was a thinly veiled self-portrait of a young man on the make. His friend Bulwer-Lytton described him thus: he wore “green velvet trousers, a canary coloured waistcoat, low sleeves, silver buckles, lace at his wrists, his hair in ringlets.” He cut a wide swath through bohemian London salons, finally gaining an entree into the highest circles. He tried five times for a seat in Parliament before he won an election.  His maiden speech was a disaster; he was shouted down. What worked in drawing rooms did not work in the House of Commons.  He famously ended by saying, “I will sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me.”

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Mary Anne, my photo from Hughenden guidebook

 

What Disraeli needed was a rich wife. He met Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis in 1832, when she was just another older married woman he enjoyed flirting with.  He thought her “a pretty little woman, a flirt and a rattle” which according to the guidebook meant “incessant chatterer.” But her deep-pocketed husband obligingly died in 1838, leaving her a rich widow. Her appeal increased and Disraeli married her in 1839.
Disraeli soon learned what a treasure he had found.  He wrote, “There was no care which she could not mitigate, and no difficulty which she could not face. She was the most cheerful and the most courageous woman I ever knew.”  High praise indeed; Disraeli had known and depended on many, many women in his rise to power in Victorian England.

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A visit to Hughenden is a window into the Victorian past.

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The estate is under the care of the National Trust, and beyond the quintessentially Victorian rooms there’s a surprise, new since I first visited years ago. The estate was a secret location for surveillance work which was crucial to victory in World War II.  This work was so secret that not even the National Trust knew a thing about it until very recently.  I’ll be writing about what went on in the wartime rooms and the icehouse soon.

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

Why I Love England: History in Bits and Bobs

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In the Oak Gallery at Blickling, a Tudor house in Norfolk, I came across a tall chair upholstered in red velvet. It had no label, just the usual polite note from the National Trust asking the visitor not to sit on it. (Actually, the NT has so many unsittable ancient chairs that they often just place a dried thistle or a pinecone on the seat).

I asked the friendly room docent, a lovely white-haired lady, if there was anything special about this chair. “Oh, yes!” she said. “That was the coronation chair of Charles the Second.”

Really? The coronation chair of the King whose reign ended the bloody Civil War in England didn’t rate a placard? Charles II was the English king crowned in 1660, 11 years after his father, Charles I, was executed–for treason. How could a king be guilty of treason? Charles I wanted to rule as an absolute monarch, levying taxes without consulting Parliament. Thus began the bloody English Civil War. Charles I lost.

Contemporary print of Beheading of Charles I of England, 1649, Public Domain

Contemporary print of Beheading of Charles I of England, 1649, Public Domain

Charles I was executed in public, with all due ceremony, in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall, in 1649. It was a cold day in January, and reportedly Charles’s main worry was that he would shiver and the crowd would think he was scared. He wasn’t.

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Charles I was an unpopular king, but there are countless images of him. I can spot one at twenty paces.  The painting above is at Blickling, but I forgot to take a picture of the caption so I don’t know the artist.  I think the future Charles II is shown with his unfortunate dad. The pointy beard at the bottom of Charles I’s long narrow face is always a giveaway. I’m sure I’m being way too hard on the man, but to me he always looks very aloof, with his head in the clouds.

After Charles I lost his head at Whitehall, a Commonwealth of England was declared, but it was really more of a dictatorship led by Oliver Cromwell.  Before too long the people wanted their monarchy back. This is a huge simplification of events and people that are still hotly debated, of course. Oliver Cromwell was dug up and beheaded for treason after he was already dead, but many people consider him the father of British democracy.  Anyway, once again England had a hereditary King, Charles II.  I’d have thought the coronation chair of Charles II was an important piece of furniture.

I was pretty sure the kindly docent was mistaken about the tall red velvet chair.

Charles II of England in Coronation Robes, John Michael Wright, 1661-1662, Public Domain

Charles II of England in Coronation Robes, John Michael Wright, 1661-1662, Public Domain

I found a coronation portrait of Charles II with a much grander coronation chair just visible behind him.  He was crowned at Westminster Abbey in the full splendor that the English have always done so well. Now I think the chair I saw may have been used for something else–maybe a grand banquet following the coronation, built high so that everyone could see the new King.  Or maybe Charles II just had especially long legs and this was his favorite chair. I’m not willing to give up the idea that Charles II sat in that chair.

Anyway, I love the way the British love their history.  I would not dream of contradicting a lovely, friendly docent who is working as a volunteer in a National Trust property. If I heard a mistake, I would always just let it slide.  But if a Brit heard a howler of a mistake, trust me, there would be a swift and stern correction. People in the room would immediately gather round and join the debate. Events from 400 years ago might as well have happened yesterday. They are lovingly preserved in memory and in physical objects.

The Oak Gallery at Blickling is magnificent. For the price of a National Trust pass, a visitor can trace the footsteps of Henry VIII and several of his queens. When Henry was gone, Queen Elizabeth I was a frequent visitor. Anne Boleyn was most likely born on the property, though not in the present house.  On the anniversary of her death, she is said to arrive at the house in a ghostly carriage, sadly carrying her head.   Did Charles I or II walk this gallery? I’m not sure.  I’d better go back for another visit.

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

Visiting Sudeley Castle

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I don’t know if I’d care to have several separate funerals with crowds of strangers as mourners, but then I’m not an English Queen who was born 500 years ago and survived marriage to King Henry VIII. Katherine Parr, the 6th wife of Henry VIII, was honored last September with not one but two re-enactments of her funeral on the anniversary of her birth. She had already had at least one funeral when she died, plus another one when her coffin was rediscovered following the ruin of her burial place during the English Civil War, plus another one when her tomb was renovated to its present state. An excellent article about the most recent funerals is at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/uk/9474364/Sudeley-Castle-the-curious-life-and-death-of-Katherine-Parr.html.

Sudeley Castle with ruins of banqueting hall

Sudeley Castle with ruins of banqueting hall

Sudeley Castle is one of the most interesting and evocative historic sites to visit in England. Its origins date from around the 12th century. It has passed in and out of royal possession several times, depending on politics and the outcome of battles. It has been the scene of intrigue and rebellion. Most famously, it was home to three Queens at the same time: Katherine Parr, Elizabeth I, and the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey. The castle is mainly a private home, owned since the 19th century by the Dent-Broklehurst family. They open large parts of the grounds and building for visits at certain times. However, English Heritage members receive a 20% discount.

St. Mary's Chapel at Sudeley

St. Mary’s Chapel at Sudeley

The chapel is still part of a Church of England parish. Services still take place there–mostly, I think, on Sunday afternoons. According to the castle website, Sudeley Castle is open from
mid-March to early November
from 10.30am-5.00pm daily. On certain days of the week, it is possible to pay an extra fee and tour parts of the family’s private quarters. I would go out of my way to take the private tour. (Children under 12 are not allowed in the private quarters). There are also special garden tours on certain days. I would always check the opening times before driving out to the Castle, though. Weddings or private events could interfere interfere with parts of the Castle and grounds. I would call.

If the place were open, though, I would cheerfully spend about half a day wandering the grounds, touring the castle and chapel, and having lunch on the terrace or in the very nice indoor restaurant. Since I was there last, the Tudor rooms occupied by the three Queens have been restored. There are museum-quality exhibits of exquisite personal possessions of Katherine Parr–and, somewhat ghoulishly, a blackened tooth taken from her coffin. I also remember seeing a very interesting exhibit about a Victorian ancestor of the present owners, Emma Dent. Possibly the exhibit about Katherine Parr occupies that exhibition space at the moment.

The nearby village of Winchcombe is very pretty and not nearly as crowded or touristy as more well-known towns in the Cotswolds. I once stayed in one of the Sudeley Cottages between the Castle and Winchcombe. The Cottages formerly housed some of the help at the castle. They sleep 2-6. They are well-equipped, charming and affordable. WInchcombe is my favorite base in the Cotswolds. It feels like a regular town where actual people go about their lives as they have for centuries.

Time to start planning an English itinerary!

Mr. Gibbs Made His Dibs

Entry Hall

Entry Hall

William Gibbs’s son Antony did not take over the family business as expected.  The story went that William would not allow it, after he observed that the boy could not add four columns of figures simultaneously (I wonder how many of us would pass that test?)  I doubt Antony was disappointed.  He managed the Tyntesfield estates and charities, became an accomplished carver of ivory, and puttered with inventions such as a bicycle which supposedly stored energy going downhill and used it when going uphill. It didn’t work, though.

Instead, William’s nephew Henry Hucks Gibbs took over the company.  Henry was elevated to the peerage, becoming Baron Aldenham in 1896.  (What exactly is the peerage, anyway?  A subject for another post).  Henry also became Governor of the Bank of England, earning him the popular jingle which forever followed the Gibbs family: “Mr. Gibbs made his dibs, Selling the turds of foreign birds.” Not very elegant, but it certainly told the story. And he must have laughed all the way to the bank.

The little ditty no doubt followed George Abraham Gibbs, a war hero who moved in higher social circles than his humbler ancestors.

George became 1st Lord Wraxall and Treasurer of the Royal Household–an example of the new commercial and industrial wealth overtaking older titled families.

The 2nd Lord Wraxall, known as Richard, inherited the title at the age of 3.  His mother, Ursula, Lady Wraxall, presided at Tyntesfield until she died in 1979.  She received an OBE for her services to the war effort. During World War II, the house became a medical distribution center, with the books in the library replaced by bandages. It was also a convalescent home for American soldiers, who stage reunions there to this day.

When he came of age, the 2nd Lord Wraxall (Richard) served with the Coldstream Guards, then took over management of the estate. He maintained the house and grounds as they were, not following the lead of so many great homes in getting rid of Victorian furniture and features as they became unfashionable. He never married, and ended up living alone in the house with most of the rooms closed. When he died unexpectedly in 2001, the place was a treasure trove of Victorian items from the past 150 years.

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Join me next time when I consider the very challenging acquisition of the house by the National Trust.  It’s one of the chapters in the fascinating story of the history and art of the British Isles.

Mark Rylance in Victorian England

Last week the fine actor Mark Rylance finished the Guthrie Theater run of his play Nice Fish, (co-written with the Duluth poet Louis Jenkins).  Minneapolis will miss him, but  I want to recommend his 1995 film Angels and Insects. I think I saw Mr. Rylance on stage years ago in England, but this excellent movie is the first time I remember seeing him.

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The movie is based on A.S. Byatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia, and she participated in writing the screenplay.

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Mark Rylance plays a penniless naturalist, William Adamson.  He is just back from years studying animals and insects along the Amazon.  Almost all his possessions were lost in a shipwreck on his way home to England, so he counts himself lucky to find a job helping a rich Victorian man catalog his own collections.  The Victorians were great ones for collections, of course.  Every respectable country home had shelves full of curiosities.

Patsy Kensit plays a somewhat dimwitted and seriously  messed-up daughter of the family.  Kristin Scott Thomas plays a razor-sharp governess.  William Adamson finds himself between them.  Of course, complications ensue.  Mr. Rylance, as William Adamson, steals every scene with his quiet dignity that clearly covers a passionate nature. He is the second-most intelligent person on the premises, and yet he falls into a trap that an outsider can see from a mile away.  As always, love is blind.

What I find fascinating about the movie is the depiction of social classes in a grand country house which is very similar to Downton Abbey.  Instead of the formal but friendly relations depicted in the TV series, the servants in Angels and Insects are supposed to either grovel or turn invisible.  When a housemaid encounters a family member in a corridor, the housemaid has to immediately turn and face the wall until the family member passes. And William Adamson has to rescue a maid from sexual abuse by a haughty family member. I have to wonder whether the TV series or the movie has the more accurate depiction of master/servant behavior.

Bedroom arrangements are interesting, too.  In Downton Abbey, Lady Mary teases her parents for sharing a bedroom. The penniless William Adamson has no such luck. When he marries the daughter of the house, he gets certain privileges, but he always knows his place. He is given a small bachelor-like room adjoining his heiress bride’s bedroom.  However, he is only allowed into her grand bedroom when she has her maid unlock the door in between.  If he is not welcome, he finds himself standing in his nightshirt before a silent locked door.

The movie was filmed at Arbury Hall in Nuneaton, Warwickshire.  The descendants of the founding families still occupy it.  It is not part of the National Trust, which in modern times means it has to be run as a money-making enterprise. Like many stately homes, it is now used for corporate events and weddings.  The neo-Gothic rooms shown on the estate’s website are grand indeed. Visiting hours are limited, but I’m putting it on my list for my next trip.

The 19th century writer George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) was born on the estate. Her father worked as a manager there.  She wrote about the estate as “Cheverel Manor” in her book Scenes of Clerical Life.

For stellar acting and a fascinating look at Victorian life, check out the movie Angels and Insects. And join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe–and the British Isles.