The best stately homes in Britain
CULTURE: LUKE MARLOWE
Britain is renowned for its grand stately homes and the summer months are perfect for exploring these historic and romantic buildings. Q&C explores ten of the country’s best.
If there’s one thing us Brits are good at it’s a stately home. There’s many in the countryside offering history, romance, antiques, and a cream tea. So pack up a picnic, stick on a tweed jacket, and head out to explore Q&C’s ten of Britain’s best.
Dating back to 1705, Oxfordshire’s Blenheim Palace is a rather odd combination of stately home and mausoleum, owned by the Dukes of Marlborough, and the birthplace of Winston Churchill. Gilded state rooms look out over stunning formal gardens, where visitors can see species from all round the world in the Butterfly House, or get lost in the Marlborough maze. Interestingly, the house is due to host an exhibition by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan whose conceptual art offers something slightly different to the normal country house experience. His solid 18-karat gold toilet will be installed adjacent to Winston Churchill’s birth room and will be fully functional and available to guests. The grounds to Blenheim are open from 09:00am, with entry to the Palace beginning at 10:30.
Heading up to the peak district, Chatsworth House is one of the most famous stately homes in the UK, and with good reason. The estate is known to have existed since the 11th Century, and has had a rich history since then, with Mary Queen of Scots having been kept here during part of her imprisonment, Queen Victoria visiting for her first formal dinner, and the lady of the house for the second half of the Twentieth Century being Deborah Mitford, one of the infamous Mitford sisters, and a lady who did huge amounts to raise the profile and appeal of Chatsworth House.
Following a ten-year renovation, Chatsworth House is fully open and ready for visitors again. Whilst the state rooms and grand entrances are truly stunning, it’s in the gardens and grounds that, for me, the true beauty lies. Carefully cultivated gardens are blended with breath-taking water features and statues that blend modern sensibilities with the old.
During peak seasons the House is open from 10:30-5pm, and the gardens 10:30 until 6pm. Whilst you’re there, why not nip into the nearby village of Bakewell (only 3 miles away). The Bakewell Pudding is to die for.
Down to Hampshire, and to the house which some of us may remember as the setting of the “Jeeves and Wooster” TV series, and perhaps more famous as the titular “Downton Abbey”. Home of the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679, it offers a truly immersive experience for fans of the period drama. Little has changed since filming and guests will get a real insight into life both upstairs and downstairs. Feel free to roam the halls and recreate your (inevitably doomed) period romance; but be aware that the house is only widely open to the public during the summer months from July to September. Outside of this period, occasional events and tours allow the public a glimpse into the house, but it is still used as a home by the family outside of the peak period.
Over to Nottinghamshire, and Newstead is known as the former home of one of the great romantics Lord Byron. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know, Byron probably went a little too far in his quest for romance (we can’t recommend dating one’s half-sister, nor fighting for Greek Independence and promptly dying of sepsis), but you can certainly visit his rooms to get an idea of the inner life of the poet, explore the various gardens, and visit Boatswain’s Tomb, a tribute Byron built to his beloved dog.
The grounds are open daily from 9am-5pm, and the House is open Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holidays from 12noon to 4pm, as well as on Weekdays during school holidays.
Down to Kent now, and the historic Leeds Castle. Having existed since 1119, Leeds Castle has seen a significant number of famous faces pass through, with Edward 1st and Eleanor of Castile having bought the house in 1278, and Catherine of Aragon having lived here for a significant period of time. The castle itself was fully remodelled in 1823 and given the Tudor style that it has today, with perhaps the most famous recent resident being Lady Olive Baillie, who updated and redecorated the house, turned it into a hospital for injured servicemen during WWII, and whose mark is still very much felt upon the place. Following her death, the house was handed to a charitable trust who opened the house to the public, and it’s available for both day visits and longer stays, as with rooms both in the castle and within the grounds, combined with medieval style Knight’s tents for some glamping, Leeds Castle is a great place to spend a romantic weekend, and can be good value for money due to access to the castle and grounds being free for anyone staying on the premises. Once the home and grounds have been thoroughly explored, there’s the opportunity to take part in a spot of falconry or burn off some energy at the Go Ape! Centre, before ending the evening by heading to the nearby pub The Dirty Habit for some fantastic food.
From April to September the grounds are open from 10:00-18:00, with the castle open from 10:30-17:30.
Shropshire’s Attingham park is a beautiful example of neoclassical architecture, built in 1785 for the first Baron Berwick. Having been used as a private home until the death of the 8th Lord Berwick in 1947, the house was then turned into an Adult Education college lasting until 1971 when the National Trust took over caring for the house and opened it to the public. With stunning grounds (incorporating a large herd of deer), regular sessions dedicated to archaeology (it’s thought that buildings have been on the site for around 4,000 years), and several coffee and gift shops, there is plenty to do at Attingham, but it could well be worth organising your visit to coincide with one of the six days a year when nearby villa Cronkhill is open, based on the Attingham estate, it’s a beautiful Italianate villa that sits in stark contrast to the grand house.
Attingham Park is open from 09:00 to 19:00 during Summer months, with the Mansion is open from 11:00-16:30.
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Based on the border of Leicestershire and Lincolnshire, Belvoir Castle is a hugely impressive building that stands high above the surrounding countryside. The fourth castle to be built on this spot, it’s a stunning example of the Gothic Revival style, and is the seat of the Dukes of Rutland. The state rooms are a great place to get some interior design tips with intricate floral wallpapers and cascading drapes bringing blazes of colour to the castle, and then there’s the easy opportunity to utilise all that you’ve learned in “The Engine Yard”, Belvoir’s newly built rural retail village that showcases local brands, offers delicious produce to eat, along with the chance to relax in the spa.
Always a busy hub, it’s worth visiting Belvoir on a day when they have an activity happening, from firework displays to outdoor concerts and films, there’s almost always something exciting happening within the grounds. As a side note, the castle was named “Belvoir” (which means beautiful view) by the French speaking Norman invaders, but us simple Anglo-Saxons were unable to get our tongues round the tricky French pronunciation so most still call it “Beaver Castle”.
Belvoir Castle is open to the public on select dates from March to October. Check the website for exact availability.
Back to Derbyshire now, and another house utilised by the formidable Bess of Hardwick, Hardwick Hall is one of the finest examples of the Elizabethan Country House. Still dressed with many of the furnishings from that time, from tapestries and embroideries through to the elaborately beautiful Sea Dog Table, it’s easy to get lost in time whilst exploring Hardwick Hall. It feels almost like Bess of Hardwick could be just round the corner, rather than dead for over four hundred years. Beautifully curated grounds contain fine borders and an orchard, but one of the real draws of this house is for Harry Potter fans. The exterior of the house (and some of the interiors) were used to represent Malfoy Manor.
Hardwick Hall is open from Wednesdays to Sundays, the garden from 09:00-18:00 and the house from 11:00-17:00
Rather smaller than some of the grander houses on our list, Norton Conyers is nevertheless packed full of history, and may have served as inspiration for a literary classic.
Based near Wensleydale in North Yorkshire, it’s thought that there has been a house on this site since Viking times, with the current house a late medieval manor house with Stuart and Georgian additions.
A young Charlotte Bronte visited Norton Conyers in 1839, and rumours of a mad woman confined to the attics of the house may well have given her the inspiration for Jane Eyre, with the woman in the attic a major plot point, and her descriptions of Mr Rochester’s “Thornfield Hall” closely resembling Norton Conyers. Having mainly been owned by the same family since 1624, there is considerable history within Norton Conyers, and one can view portraits of descendants from across the decades hanging underneath the 18th century plaster ceilings. There is also a large walled garden where, during the summer months, it’s possible to shop for unusual plants, fruit, and seasonal flowers.
Due to an ongoing restoration project, Norton Conyers is only open on occasion this year, with a full list of dates available on the website. As Norton Conyers is relatively small, it could well be worth combining your visit with a trip to Castle Howard (detailed below) as the two are roughly an hour from each other across the Howardian hills.
It’s rather difficult to convey the grandeur of Castle Howard in words. One of North Yorkshire’s true gems, and a building that is just as astonishing now as it was when built 300 years ago. Designed by John Vanbrugh, construction began in 1699 and took over a hundred years to complete. A fire in 1940 destroyed large parts of the building but much has been rebuilt over the last seventy years, restoring the house to its former glory. For me, it’s impossible to view Castle Howard without thinking of Brideshead Revisited, the novel by Evelyn Waugh set in Brideshead Castle, for which Castle Howard is portrayed in both film and television adaptations. A story packed full of gay and homoerotic themes, go to Castle Howard and follow the footsteps of Sebastian and Charles, view the collections of priceless art and sculpture, and explore the temples and monuments scattered throughout the grounds.
The Castle Grounds are open from 10:00 until 18:00, with the House open from 10:00. Last entry for a free flow visit into the house is at 15:00, with guided tours after this point.