15 Oct Five fabulous Country Houses
“If only it could be like this always – “always summer, and the fruit always ripe”, wrote Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited. To help you make the most of the summer, here are five exquisite houses and grounds open to visitors around the UK – all of them either free or half-price with a National Art Pass.
On the banks of the River Tweed in the Scottish Borders, you’ll find Abbotsford House. It’s the idealised creation of that paragon of Scottishness, Sir Walter Scott. Scott transformed a patch of bare bank into what he called his “conundrum castle” – a wonderfully eccentric house in which he gathered his huge library and a collection of relics and curiosities connected with Scottish history, many of which you can still see today. Originally created by the brilliant and powerful Elizabethan, Bess of Hardwick, home to the 18th-century style icon Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and inspiration to Jane Austen, Chatsworth in Derbyshire is one of the most magnificent of all British country houses.
Today, the house contains works of art spanning 4,000 years, from ancient Roman and Egyptian sculpture to newly commissioned contemporary art. And if the weather’s anything like this, you might just find yourself in the 105-acre garden, complete with fountains, grottos, a human sundial and a maze. When Queen Victoria exclaimed, “It’s impossible to imagine a prettier spot”, she was talking about Osborne House. It’s where she and Prince Albert holidayed with their children every summer.
More palace than seaside cottage, it’s open for visits to their private apartments, bathing beach and terraced garden with glorious views out across the Solent. The 7th Earl of Stamford and Warrington, heir of Dunham Massey, was one of the most eligible men in Cheshire. So when he married circus bareback rider Catherine Cox, it didn’t go down well with polite Victorian society. Snubbed and sidelined, the couple abandoned the estate, but you can visit the splendid Georgian house and grounds they left behind. While away an hour or two in the classic formal rose garden, and be thankful you’re not down for gardening duties – the dead-heading alone takes 75 hours a week.
Now, you may be wondering about the not-half-bad setting I’m in right now, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the Loire Valley. But in fact it’s Buckinghamshire and Waddesdon Manor. Over a century ago, the house was created for luxe entertaining by the banker and art collector Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. Built in the style of a French chateau, the house had ultra-modern central heating and hot running water in its bathrooms, as well as an electric bell system to summon the many servants. Country houses are icons of the British countryside, each with their own character, history and eccentricities. Armed with your National Art Pass, what better way to spend a summer afternoon? Now…where’s that sun-cream?.