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The stately homes of Britain are a unique architectural heritage

Posted in Architecture, Art, British Countryside, Conservation, Country House, Famous landmarks, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 30 May 2012

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This edited article about Britain’s country houses originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 714 published on 20 September 1975.

Knole, picture, image, illustration

Knole, one of England’s most beautiful country houses

Most of us live in small houses, semi-detached or at best, detached. But for centuries past, there have always been some people who could afford to build and keep up Great Houses, sometimes called Stately Homes. Norman castles may be the most imposing examples of Britain’s architecture, because of the impression they give of having been designed to resist siege and protect their occupants. But our Great Houses represent peace, not war. They were built as homes, not strongholds. They were made beautiful inside and out, set in gardens and parklands, and filled with treasures.

Some of them are vast. Take Blenheim Palace, in Oxfordshire, for instance. The building itself covers seven acres, (2 hectares) and is set in 2,500 acres (1,010 hectares) of parkland. It took seventeen years to build, and the stone came from no fewer than twenty quarries. It was a gift to John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough who was victor over the French at Blenheim. Queen Anne herself was the giver. A descendant of the Duke, Sir Winston Churchill, was born there almost exactly 101 years ago.

Older by a century and a half, is Burghley House in Northamptonshire. It was built in 1552 by Elizabeth I’s Lord High Treasurer, and is occupied by his descendants to this day. Its grounds are so large that the wall surrounding them is seven miles (11 kilometres) in length. Its Marquetry Room, Green Damask Room, Purple Satin Bedroom and other rooms are filled with priceless furniture, pictures and objects d’art.

Quite possibly, though, you will find the kitchen the most interesting room of all. It contains nearly 300 utensils illustrating how meals were prepared and served through four centuries of occupation. The most remarkable of these is the giant spit on which, in olden times, an ox could be roasted whole, as it was when the owner was entertaining on a grand scale, his guests perhaps including the monarch of the day.

Far to the north, over the Scottish Border, is the ‘Scottish Baronial’-style mansion, Abbotsford, built by that great storyteller, Sir Walter Scott, on land belonging to Melrose Abbey, overlooking the River Tweed. It has a mass of towers and turrets and cone-shaped pinnacles that make it not unlike some of the French chateaux. Scott had an unusual taste in the treasures he collected to adorn it. He obtained the famous sword of Montrose. He also obtained the gun and the war-bugle of Rob Roy, and the sporran that he had worn during his warlike adventures. Abbotsford was a fitting home for a man who wrote the Waverley novels and poems like ‘Marmion’.

Farther north still in Scotland there is Glamis Castle, for centuries the home of the Earls of Strathmore, and once the Scottish home of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Princess Margaret was born there. It is called the most haunted house in Scotland, perhaps in all Britain. Within its 15-foot (4 metres) walls there is a bricked-up room said to contain the remains of a monster ‘with a chest like a gorilla, no neck, small head, long hairy arms and a life-span much exceeding that of man’. Each succeeding heir to the earldom had the choice according to tradition, of seeing the monster, who lived for 200 years. If he looked, he was doomed to die. Fable or fact, the tradition is believed by many to this day, especially in Angus.

A happier Stately Home by far is to be found just outside Sevenoaks, in Kent. Knole is regarded by many who know our Great Houses well as one of the largest and certainly one of the most beautiful, and beautifully sited, of all those in Britain. It is sometimes called the ‘Calendar House’, and there is a good reason for this. Knole has as many rooms as there are days in the year, as many staircases as there are weeks, and as many courtyards as there are days in the week.

The house dates from the Middle Ages, but has been enlarged over the centuries. Queen Elizabeth I presented it to Thomas Sackville as a mark of her royal favour. His descendants looked after it lovingly for nearly four hundred years, filling it with treasures and planting more and more trees in the parkland that surrounds it. Now it has been handed over to the care of the National Trust, so that we can be sure that it will be preserved and maintained in perfect condition for many generations even centuries, to come Nobody in the country is more conscious of its responsibility for preserving these properties, all part of our heritage, than the National Trust. It is an organisation that deserves the gratitude and support of us all.

Not all our Great Houses are ‘great’ in the sense of sheer size, like Blenheim, Castle Howard, Burghley, Montacute, Audley End, Hatfield, Hardwick, Chatsworth and Woburn. Many of them, though they are an important part of our heritage, are small and tucked away so that they have to be looked for, rather than immediately catching the eye because of their magnificence.

An example of this is Cothay Manor, only to be located, with difficulty, at the end of a narrow, winding Somerset lane. It has a small, stone-built gate-house that is reflected in a pond immediately opposite, on which geese and swans glide quietly about. It is small, compact, self-contained. It has its own small chapel in the courtyard. It has been called an ‘architectural Sleeping Beauty’, and that is right. It has been occupied by the same family for four hundred years. Now it has a new owner, who no doubt will look after it as well as that family did.

Wales, too, has its Great Houses, large and small. The 15th-century Merchant’s House in Tenby is one that the National Trust cares for. Another is Ty Mawr, in Gwynedd, the birthplace in 1541 of Bishop Morgan, who first translated the Bible into Welsh. But castles are more frequent in Wales than Stately Homes, which are very few.

Many people prefer visiting the smaller Great Houses in Britain because they convey more truly the feeling that they have always been homes lived in for generations, even for centuries, by the same family, preserving a continuous way of life that we today recognise as having been good, and worth cherishing. The sense of heritage, of tradition, is strong, and you feel it at every turn.

Chambercombe Manor, in North Devon, imparts this feeling very strongly, small as it is. It has been continuously occupied for six hundred years, a true home, loved by generations of owners. At first it looks like a farmhouse, tucked away off a side road. You enter it beneath the low lintel of a Tudor doorway. Beyond this, a Gothic doorway leads into a small private chapel. The house does not stand in open, sweeping parkland. Rather, it seems to try to hide from public view. But it is none the less, part of Britain’s heritage. To visit it is to realise how well it has been looked after, and how deeply loved, so that it will be handed over in due course to a new generation of owners who will love and cherish it in their turn.

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