Polesden Lacey, Tyntesfield, Dunham Massey, Cotehele, Castle Drogo, Wightwick Manor, Charlecote Park, Baddesley Clinton… just listing these names gets me itching to buy a plane ticket immediately. And there are hundreds more. All these places are part of Britain’s National Trust. These are just a few of my favorite country homes to visit. I could cheerfully spend an hour or a day at each one, but another one just down the road always beckons. There are wonderful nature preserves too, and several properties in London.
The British–including Wales and Scotland–are the best in the world at preserving historic properties. I’m told the Irish are great too, but I’ve yet to visit Ireland. (English Heritage is a related organization that also sells passes. It seems to concentrate more on historic sites that might be in ruins. I find that for my passion, country homes along with their art and furnishings, the National Trust is better. With unlimited time in Britain, I would buy both).
Over the years, as economic conditions changed drastically, families who could no longer afford to maintain their beautiful country homes had to face hard realities. Some, like the Cavendishes of Chatsworth, were able to turn their at least some of their properties into money-making enterprises. Others sold them and divided the profits among the heirs. (Many of these properties ended up as golf clubs, upscale hotels, or homes for rich rock stars, and the history was pretty much lost). Other families generously planned to transition their homes and treasures into historic sites we can all enjoy. The National Trust of Britain does a stellar job of preserving and maintaining these properties.
Money comes from the National Lottery, generous donations, memberships and the fees visitors pay. Much of the work is done by dedicated volunteers. Houses are staffed by kindly local people, standing patiently for hours in old rooms and gardens. (I always think of Britain as the world headquarters for sensible shoes). The Trust produces lovely, detailed and reasonably priced little guidebooks which they sell at each property. They are temptingly slim and easy to stash in a suitcase.
Many of these properties have delightful tearooms. Fancy a lunch of Stargazy Pie? Toad-in-the-Hole? Bubble and Squeak? Or maybe just a nice pot of tea for you, dear. Perhaps a lovely warm Apple Crumble to go along with it? The British love their Days Out in the countryside, and it’s a joy to join them.
If I had to choose my very favorite trip to dream of, it would be a very close contest between two: Vienna in December, or the English countryside in the spring or fall. Of course I’m blessed with an intrepid husband willing to drive “on the wrong side of the road” while sitting behind the wheel “on the wrong side of the car.”
The best travel bargain in Britain: the Touring Pass from the National Trust. It’s available for either 7 or 14 days, at prices ranging from $38 to a high of $90 for an entire family for 14 days. The pass comes with a wonderfully detailed book, including maps, directions, and opening hours.
Just looking at the maps, with treasures dotted all over England, makes me want to get out my own sensible shoes and travel. For American visitors, there is also the related Royal Oak Foundation. A year’s membership for a couple is $95. It includes all entries to National Trust properties, plus a very nice magazine and various special events in the U.S., mostly it seems in New York.
Alas, I have other plans this year and won’t make it to England. I guess I’ll have to revisit my favorite places using my photos and guidebooks.
Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!