Britain is so packed full of historic homes and houses it can be difficult to know where to start. Here’s a few of our favourite homes open to the public across the country.
Dennis Severs’ House, London
When sitting idly at home, do you ever try to picture who has lived there before you? Dennis Severs did. In fact, his imagination gripped him so powerfully that, when he bought a run-down eighteenth-century house on a narrow, cobbled street in London’s East End, he re-created a living image of its Georgian and Victorian pasts, furnished and ornamented in meticulous period detail, and filled it with a cast of fictional characters. He then opened it to guests, inviting them to partake in a unique theatrical experience.
Stepping across the threshold of 18 Folgate St is like passing through a picture-frame into a painting. As your eye readjusts to the candlelit gloom, your nostrils to the burning tallow, and you move through the shadows across the hall’s creaking floorboards, it becomes obvious that this is no museum. A dark-clad, slightly sinister gentleman introduces “the game” that’s about to unfold: the house’s owners, the Jervises, a family of Huguenot master silk-weavers, have departed suddenly, moments before your arrival. You’re about to be immersed in their world.
As you explore, the spaces – both temporal and mental – between you and your surroundings seem to dissipate. In the kitchen, a teacake browns in front of the crackling fire; lulled by the warmth, the house cat curls contentedly on a chair. In another room, a Hogarthian tableau – the aftermath of a drinking party – is re-created: the punch bowl is empty, chairs are overturned, tobacco strewn across the table. You’re rather sorry you missed it.
Wandering in mesmerized silence, you’ll feel as though you’re taking part in a story – of which Dennis himself, though long dead, is the narrator. Playful, cryptic notes, artfully left on sideboards and mantelpieces, encourage you to take part in this “adventure of the imagination”. And as imagination takes over, you become as much a part of this otherworldly house as the Jervises themselves.
Dennis Severs’ House, 18 Folgate St, London E1 dennissevershouse.co.uk.
Chatsworth House, Derbyshire
There aren’t many stately homes where “stately” plays second fiddle to “home”, but at Chatsworth – ancestral pile of the Dukes of Devonshire, handed down through sixteen generations – family still comes first. Sure, it’s an estate on a vast scale, employing hundreds of people and attracting a million paying visitors a year, but there’s still a tangible sense of the Cavendish family at home in the grandiose rooms, halls and chambers. You can feel it in the ornate, carved, seventeenth-century chapel, used for family christenings, or in the charming paintings of the sixth Duke’s favourite dogs. Pictures of assorted nobles and royals in their finery might appear to be of mere, stuffy, long-gone toffs, but these portraits across the centuries are of intimate family friends.
Everything, of course, is on a grand scale, and what the Dukes of Devonshire have always thought of as home is less a house and more a stunning Baroque palace, with magnificent gardens by Capability Brown complete with maze and tumbling cascade. A nine-mile-long wall encloses the thousand-acre grounds that are studded with big-ticket sculptures, an imperial fountain shoots a spear of water into the sky, while the eighteenth-century stables (now housing restaurants and shops) were once the fanciest horse lodgings in the country.
But despite the theatrical opulence of the house there’s nothing too precious about an estate where staff are only too keen to share their knowledge. It’s a refreshingly open approach that derives directly from the family’s enthusiasm – “if you see us about the place, please say hello”, invite the current Duke and Duchess. Baroque it may be, boring never.
Chatsworth House, near Bakewell, Derbyshire, www.chatsworth.org.
Wealthy Victorian industrialists showed off in a way that is entirely recognizable even today – they built huge, inappropriate mansions in the bucolic English countryside, and William Armstrong’s faux-Tudor Cragside, near Rothbury in Nothumberland, is typical of the type. But Armstrong himself (later the first Baron Armstrong) was far from the stereotypical, more-money-than-sense fat cat, and his house – though brash for its time – was also bold and innovative. For the fabulously rich arms manufacturer was also a pioneering hydraulic and hydroelectric engineer who pursued his dream of renewable energy more than a century before the wider world woke up to its potential.
Armstrong had society architect Richard Norman Shaw design him a lavish country seat at which he entertained the Prince and Princess of Wales and other A-list guests. Run now by the National Trust, the house itself offers a fascinating glimpse of a high-Victorian opulence that echoes down through the ages – Armstrong’s impressive billiard parlour is the equal of any modern-day mansion games zone, while today’s WAGs would feel right at home in the over-the-top marble drawing room.
But it was all made possible by what Armstrong did outside the house. The “water wizard”, as the National Trust dubs him, landscaped an entire craggy valley, built artificial lakes, installed hydraulic machinery and a Pump House, and powered the whole shebang from his Power House, down in the estate gardens.
Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland, www.nationaltrust.org.uk.
Sir John Soane’s Museum, London
Sir John Soane was a dreamer when it came to architecture, likening it to poetry and claiming it should “keep the imagination awake”. Lofty ideals indeed for this ambitious son of a brickie who through graft, luck and marrying a rich woman, became one of Britain’s most original architects. He may have spent nearly fifty years designing the Bank of England, but it’s his home, where he lived from 1813 to 1837, that offers the most exciting journey into the imagination of this quirky genius.
Soane gathered inspirations like a magpie. Like his contemporaries, he had a soft spot for the ancient Romans, but found beauty everywhere, judging objects only by their emotional impact. As you burrow through the crannies of his creaking old house, a riot of busts and scrolls, statuettes and urns, tiles and plaques confront you. Some are originals, others casts – “authenticity” is irrelevant in this Looking Glass world where imagination rules the roost.
Boxy rooms are lit by convex mirrors bulging from unexpected surfaces – on the backs of shutters, embedded in the ceiling – like giant water droplets reflecting imaginary rooms. Imaginary rooms do exist here, too: the tiny Picture Room, for example, lined ceiling to floor with Soane’s favourite paintings, including Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress sequence. Head down into the cellar, which Soane cluttered with crumbling statuary, centred on a giant Egyptian sarcophagus and called a crypt. Or to the “monk’s parlour”, a folly built for the architect’s alter ego, the solitary “Padre Giovanni”. Here the imagination drifts into loopy humour, with gloomy Gothic trappings including a giant, ostentatious tomb for a tiny dog called Fanny.
Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2, www.soane.org.
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
The estate of one of Britain’s pre-eminent families, and one of the most magnificent houses in the country, Blenheim is grand and impressive more than lovable, a monument to great men rather than a family home. Its history is bookended by two great military tales, and two men bearing the illustrious name Churchill. The first was John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, whose reward for his military success on behalf of Queen Anne in the 1702 Battle of Blenheim was the land and resources to build this palace. The result is a colossal Baroque pile designed by John Vanbrugh, and filled with art, artefacts and ornamentation.
Throughout the house the story of his military brilliance is told – in portraits, in tapestries of him in battle, painted on the ceiling of the saloon, crafted in a huge silver ornament depicting him on horseback at the moment of victory, in the overblown memorial in the chapel – and atop a Victory Column in the grounds. The palace’s highlight, though, is less bellicose: the light and elegant Hawksmoor-designed long library, housing 10,000 books and a large organ that you may occasionally hear played.
It took nearly two hundred years for the family to produce another man quite so celebrated, but it was worth the wait. On November 30, 1874, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born in a downstairs room here. It’s preserved as it was at the time, as part of a fascinating exhibition that includes some of his paintings and letters.
Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, www.blenheimpalace.com.
Traquair House, Peebles
Tall, turreted Traquair House turns its face away from visitors – the entrance gates, topped with statues of bears supporting shields, were locked in 1745 following a visit by Bonnie Prince Charlie. The then owner, the fifth Earl, swore they would remain that way until a Stuart king sat on the throne. The tale is possibly apocryphal, but it does reveal something of Traquair’s history of rebellion; it sheltered Catholic priests from persecution – the priest’s hole and secret staircase can still be explored – and the family fervently supported Mary Queen of Scots as well as the doomed Jacobite campaign.
The genesis of the ancient house is more peaceable: it was built as a hunting lodge for Alexander I in the early twelfth century and it was also used as a centre of administration and justice. During the thirteenth-century Wars of Independence Traquair was remodelled along military lines. It wasn’t till the sixteenth century that the lairdship of Traquair was established, and the house took on its current domestic role. And it is the personal effects and family portraits that make a visit to Traquair so special: you can see the cradle used by Mary Queen of Scots to rock her son James when she visited in 1566, and there are rich tapestries, illuminated books, Jacobite glass and a rare working harpsichord from 1651.
In more recent times, the eighteenth-century brewery was revived: make sure you sample a Bear Ale or a Traquair Jacobite Ale in the 1745 Cottage Restaurant, set in an old walled garden, before leaving this idiosyncratic and beautiful home.
Traquair House, 6 miles east of Peebles, Innerleithen, Borders, www.traquair.co.uk.
Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire
Elegantly painted on the postbox outside Snowshill Manor are the words Nequid pereat – “Let nothing perish” – a mantra for compulsive hoarders everywhere, and an appropriate motto for this treasury of trinkets, curios, objets trouvés and gorgeous gewgaws from around the world.
After an inheritance freed him from the tedium of earning a living, the illustrator and architect Charles Paget Wade (1883-1956) dedicated his time to the acquisition of beautiful works of craftsmanship that he restored and exhibited in this pale-gold Cotswold manor house outside Broadway. The house is emphatically not a museum, but an idiosyncratic private collection, for Wade’s own enjoyment and that of any connoisseur of fine things who happened to be passing, including such eminent visitors as J.B. Priestley, Virginia Woolf and John Betjeman. Wade himself lived in an adjacent cottage.
The fruits of his labours – some 22,000 items in all – are displayed from floor to ceiling of the twenty rooms here, stuffed into every niche, nook and cranny, a veritable cornucopia of the weird and the wonderful: Bedouin cloaks, Balinese masks, Cantonese lacquer cabinets, eighteenth-century model ships, a Chinese opium press, astronomical aids, figures used in Japanese No theatre, exotic musical instruments, gaudy toys, Samurai armour, Victorian dolls, and in the attic, rooms devoted to ancient bicycles (think boneshakers and penny-farthings) and spinning wheels. The lighting is subdued and mysterious, labelling is scarce, and it really needs to be seen to be believed.
Snowshill Manor, near Broadway, Gloucestershire, www.nationaltrust.org.uk.
Plas Mawr, Conwy
The reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) is often regarded as a golden era – a short-lived period of peace and prosperity when the English Renaissance flourished, Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe and Shakespeare composed his plays. Plas Mawr is the finest surviving home from this period. On a cobbled street in the heart of Conwy – a beautiful walled town on the north Wales coast – Plas Mawr (Welsh for “big house”) was built between 1575 and 1586 for wealthy merchant and local MP Robert Wynn.
Thanks to £2-million-worth of repairs and restoration work, the townhouse is in remarkable condition, with tall sandy-coloured lime-rendered walls, turrets and a stately courtyard. As you walk through the kitchen, pantry, dairy, bedchambers, reception rooms and grand dining halls, it is easy to imagine yourself back in Elizabethan times. There are colourful (and sometimes gaudy) friezes, many decorated with the over-the-top Wynn family crest (which features regal lions and topless maidens); elaborate plasterwork ceilings; and innumerable original heirlooms, including an aged Welsh Bible, kitchen utensils and a mighty four-poster bed. Plas Mawr is also a fun place for kids: there are countless nooks and crannies to explore, a romantic tower to climb and light-hearted interactive displays on aspects of Tudor and Stuart life, including their bodily functions, superstitions and diet.
Plas Mawr, Conwy, www.conwy.com/plasmawr.html.