Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by Britain’s stately homes and love nothing more than to visit my favourites whenever I get the opportunity.
They open up a truly amazing world to visitors with their impressive architecture, amazing art, and their offer of peace and tranquillity compared to more modern attractions.
On entering a stately home, I immediately feel I enter in to a whole new world full of interest and intrigue and I’m always curious to explore.
The stately homes we have in Britain are not just for history lovers. They are great for all the family. I’d encourage young people to visit as many as they can so they can learn about social history, how people lived in certain eras, and how the owners of these aristocratic homes supported their neighbouring villages.
It was my mother who introduced me to stately homes when I was still a child. She came from Ripon and had grown up in the shadows of Fountains Hall at and Fountains Abbey nearby. She went back to her beloved Ripon frequently and she always took me with her.
I liked those trips, and was always happy when we visited the deer park at Fountains Hall. There were so many deers roaming freely, and I was fascinated by the little bambis huddled with their mothers in the herd. A lovely sight.
Two other things intrigued me there. The ruins of the great Cistercian Abbey, and the water gardens which had been planned and landscaped in an earlier century.
I have come to understand that my imagination was formed when I wandered through the ruins with my mother. Looking back I’ve realised that I had been filled with curiosity about the monks who had lived there so long ago, and the kind of lives they had lived, what they had done and thought.
As for the water gardens, I thought they were beautiful, but I was also taken by the unusual names of some of them. For instance, there was the Moon Pond, which intrigued me. It had a stone statue of Neptune at its centre, and there were a series of Crescent Ponds, yet another unique name. A statue of Baccheus guarded one of the ponds. Then there was the lovey Temple of Piety which had been built in front of a stand of leafy trees, and this faced Neptune in the water.
I truly believe the sights I saw there helped to set my mind working, and story telling ,must have started bubbling inside me even then. I think my love of stately homes began at that particular time. No wonder I have written so many novels featuring such grand houses, and their fictional occupants behind those ancient walls.
I was about 10-years-old when my mother led me farther afield to see other great houses. Temple Newsam, just outside Leeds, which had 365 windows, one for each day of the year; the elegant Newby Hall near Ripon, and Castle Howard, where Brideshead Revisited was filmed.
It was around then that my mother took me to Harewood House for the first time. It was a stately home of enormous grandeur and beauty standing in a glorious park, and located in Harewood village, just outside Harrogate.
The house made a deep impression on me as a child, so much so that when I had to create a home for fictional characters in the Ingham family in a recent book collection called the Cavendon series, Harewood was my inspiration.
On that first visit long ago, I was captivated by the 77 foot-long gallery, and its beauty still takes my breathe away today. And so do the magnificent rooms designed by Robert Adam. I believe him to be the greatest interior designed of all time. In fact, he was the father of interior design as we know it today. He stands alone in his magnificent talents, a true genius. Even now, his traditional style is as popular as it ever was. His rooms have a timeless beauty, luxury, and a most striking opulence.
I know now, looking back, that I always fell under the spell of houses designed and decorated by the young Scottish architect who put his singular stamp on so many Georgian houses. The architect of Harewood House was John Carr of York, Adam, of course, designed the interiors, and the furniture was made by the great Thomas Chippendale, of Otley, who had recently made a name for himself in London. The gardens were landscaped by `Capability’ Brown. No wonder the house was a dazzling stately home and much admired when it was finished. An extraordinary team of genuinely talented men had created it with flair, imagination and skill for Edwin Lascelles, the owner of Harewood.
Aside form the long gallery, I am always impressed by John Carr’s grand entrance hall, perhaps because of Adam’s decoration. It has bold plaster work, by Joseph Rose, cream plaques set against soft misty green walls, and soaring mahogany columns. Robert Adam paid great attention to detail, and that is apparent in the long gallery where some of the finest furniture ever made is on display. It was by Thomas Chippendale, who also made the pelmets, the picture farmes and the pier glasses. This brilliant craftsman was also responsible for the marquetry and guilding. Harewood House is indeed a feast for the eyes, and so in Syon House in Middlesex.
It was a friend who led me there when I was a young journalist in Fleet Street, a reporter on the London Evening News. Her name was Dorothy Davies, and she was the mother of the famous child star, John Howard Davies, who enchanted everyone in Oliver Twist, in the original film. His mother was an interior designer.
Dorothy took me to Syon House, `for a big surprise’ was the way she put it. Little did I know when I saw the crenelated roof line atop a solid square building, with a stone lion guarding the roof, that I was about to enter a treasure trove.
I remember Dorothy saying, `That’s the Percy lion, and Syon House is the home of the Duke of Northumberland. Wait until you see what’s inside…’ Although I pestered her to tell me more, she wouldn’t. And I understood why, when we walked into the Great Hall. I was awestruck, and after only a moment I knew it was by Robert Adam.
There it was, a huge white hall, with an extraordinary plaster-work ceiling, and black-and-white marble floor laid out in an intricate design, life-sized Roman figures in togas standing on square pedestals covered in plaster-work. A unique atrium. When I looked at Dorothy,she just smiled, knowing that she had surprised me whilst giving me pleasure. As we moved through the gorgeous rooms of that house, Dorothy explained that the house ranked as one of the most illustrious in England because of the superb interiors created by Robert Adam in the 1760s. His patrons were the Earl and Countess of Northumberland (before becoming the Duke and Duchess). They undoubtedly knew what they were doing because Robert Ada had worked for them at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.
Naturally, I fell in love with the red drawing room with its magnificent painted ceiling, crimson Spitalfields silk walls, and a carpet designed buy Robert Adam in 1769. Every room was a feast for the eyes. I thought of my mother that day, and what she said to me as a child. `Keep you eyes open always, so that you see all the beauty.’ A year later, when she came to stay with me in London, I took her to Syon House, and reminded her of her words to me as a child. Like me, she was a fan of Robert Adam rooms.
It is obvious that the designer/architect had many fans in Georgian England. Everyone was after him to design their great houses. It was perhaps his attention to details that was a key part of his success. His eye for colour, form, and textures also played a role. He designed literally every part of a room: the ceiling, the walls, the floor, the window draperies, the artefacts. After a classical education in Italy, he understood paintings, tapestries, the use of marble, statues, and other objects of art. He designed the carpets and had them made at Moorfields; all of his designs for silks came from Spitafields; he designed every inch of plaster-work, later executed by Angelica Kauffman and Joseph Rose. He was a true master of his craft…many crafts, actually.
In fact, many of the original owners of Britain’s stately homes provided amazing opportunities for the best craftsmen in the country to showcase their work, ranging from landscape architects like Capability Brown to artists Joshua Reynolds and Peter Lely.
The riches that they contain promise plenty of delight, as soon as we can visit once again.
- Harewood House, Harewood, near Harrogate (open to the public)
- Syon House, Middlesex
- Newby Hall, near Ripon (open to the public)
- Alnwick Castle, Northumberland (open to the public)