Review by Fiona Duncan, published 7th December 2005.
Now here’s a well-kept secret. Amongst our stately homes and important country houses, there’s a handful where ordinary mortals can book in for a stay. Not in the Coach House, not in the West Wing or the Old Laundry but in the house itself, where you will wake in the principal bedrooms, and breakfast beneath centuries-old family portraits while the owner, be he duke or earl or country gentleman, presides benignly in the foreground or background as you wish, happy for you to be helping to keep his ancestral pile up and running.
Amongst those described, some are open to the public, others entirely private. Some are very grand, best suited to a special occasion, others homely; one is literally in the throes of restoration. All are available for weddings and corporate events as well as for more informal private house parties and two offer self-catering holiday apartments.
The owners or managers will discuss individual requirements; some ask for a minimum number of people. If you’re thinking of a special weekend at a country hotel, a celebration, perhaps, or a reunion, consider one of these heritage houses as an alternative. By comparison they represent value for money in terms of service, comfort and ambience (prices quoted may include extras such as wines and spirits, canapés and tea).Somerley House, Ringwood, Hampshire (01425 480819; www.somerley.com).You can enjoy a short break with friends in a luxury hotel – or you can stay at Somerley. The difference is this: in our bathroom, along with pampering oils and essences and thick pile towels, was Chinese porcelain on marquetry tables; in the bedroom, where Edward VII slept whenever he visited, a bowl of roses on a Georgian writing desk, family miniatures at either side of the marble fireplace, whiskey, gin and brandy in glass decanters (no minibar here); and a view of classic English parkland stretching to the horizon. A butler in tails and white gloves, not a waiter, served our drinks and canapés in the ravishingly gilded drawing room, and after a superb dinner in a room stiff with paintings by Reynolds (ingeniously lit as if from within), Somerley’s affable owner, the 6th Earl of Normanton, quietly opened the doors of the 2nd Earl’s 90–ft long Picture Gallery, a sight that made us gasp.
There’s an enormous sense of privilege at staying in a place like Somerley, a stately home closed to the public, which is also very much a family base. A mile-long drive leads to the lovely 18th-century house, and Shaun Normanton greets his guests on the front steps. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, sharing his home, but he does it with grace and panache, with the help of his hotel-trained manager, Richard Horridge. For a day or two at least, Somerley becomes your stately home as well as his.Groups of 6-16; from £290-£400 per person per night including breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Eastnor Castle, Ledbury Herefordshire (01531 633160; www.eastnorcastle.com) And if you dream of living in a fairytale castle, then look no further than Eastnor, in the foothills of the Malverns. Built as a mock Welsh border fortress by the 1st Earl Somers in 1812 as a means of catapulting his family into the upper eschelons of the aristocracy, it was passed to his descendant James Hervey-Bathurst in 1989. By the time James was a child growing up there, the family was living in a wing of the castle and the forbidding state rooms were good for bicycling and badminton but not much more. Now they have been dramatically and imaginatively brought back to life, using the original furniture, paintings, objects and armour to thrilling effect, and overnight guests have their exclusive use. You get a great deal for your money: a tour of the house and drinks hosted by James, charming and wise, in the Great Hall (firelight, pianist); dinner in the portrait-lined dining room (family silver, candlelight); coffee in the Pugin-designed Gothic Drawing Room; not to mention the Red Hall, dominated by a full-size armoured knight on horseback, the Octagon Saloon, Long Library, Little Library and Billiard Room, and up to eleven stunningly designed bedrooms and eight wonderfully old fashioned bathrooms. And beyond the castle walls are 5,000 acres of woodland, farmland, deer park and lake at your disposal.Groups of 10-22; £225 per person per night including breakfast and dinner.
Chillingham Castle, Chillingham, Northumberland (01668 215359; www.chillingham-castle.com) Atmospheric and luxurious though it is, Eastnor isn’t a ‘real’ castle. For that, ghosts and all, you must book into one of the eight self-catering apartments in the dynastic seat of the once-powerful Earls Grey which was given its licence to fortify in 1344. Sword fights and sieges, dank dungeons and strange legends, royal visitors and bricked-up bodies…Chillingham’s colourful past has been passionately, absorbingly, eccentrically brought back to life by its present owner, Sir Humphrey Wakefield Bt, whose wife is a descendent of the Greys. Sir Humphrey – art dealer, historian, adventurer, not to mention rodeo rider and army tent-pegging champion – took on the dilapidated castle in 1982, stripping it back to its medieval roots and filling it with a magpie collection of furniture and objects, from mantraps to giant elk’s antlers, with the sumptuously lovely James 1st Drawing Room as the centrepiece. Two of the characterful, idiosyncratic apartments look down from on high to the lovely 1828 Italian Garden. In the adjacent park roam the 60 or so Chillingham Wild Cattle, the same animals that were used for Roman sacrifice, and unique in the world for remaining pure bred ever since. “I like having visitors here,” says Sir Humphrey. “So helpful when I’m moving the furniture or bringing in the logs.” In return he will show you his beloved castle, which is open to the public. Bring plenty of warm clothes and enjoy the castle-dwelling breed at its most endearing.
Apartments sleeping 2-6 people; £50-£75 per person per night.Ugbrooke Park, Chudleigh, Devon (01626 852179; www.ugbrooke.co.uk) For the sort of sophisticated, ultra-luxurious country house interior that graces the pages of glossy magazines, rather than frozen-in-time magnificence, head for the home, from Tudor days, of the Lords Clifford of Chudleigh. Remodelled in the 1760s by Robert Adam, with grounds landscaped by Capability Brown, Ugbrooke was known in the late 19th century for its lavish theatrical parties. Later, however, it became a wartime school for evacuees and then a dilapidated grain store, before interior designer Lady Clifford, brought it back to life. Now it is filled with gorgeous displays of family heirlooms – particularly needlework, porcelain and rare militaria – in stylish, cosseting surroundings. Organised and professional, Clarissa Clifford ensures that her guests are superbly cared for. “Often we dine with them, house-party style,” she says, “though we want our guests to feel as though it is their party, not ours.”Groups of 10-16. £350 per person per night including breakfast and dinner. Catton Hall, Walton-on-Trent, Derbyshire (01283 716311; www.catton-hall.com).Robin and Katie Neilson have been welcoming paying guests to their home, which has been in Robin’s family for 600 years, for a quarter of a century, and are completely at ease with the arrangement. “People must take us as they find us, dogs and all,” says Katie, who knows just how to blend warmth of welcome with unobtrusiveness, and this handsome Georgian pile, filled with antiques and fine 17th and 18th century paintings, is very much a family home. The eight four-poster and double guest bedrooms are on the first and second floor (“the only difference is that ours isn’t en-suite”, says Katie), drinks from an honesty tray and coffee are served in the morning room and drawing room, and dinner, with or without the Neilsons, as guests wish, in the splendid dining room where entertainers (music, magic or murder) can be laid on for large parties. Sunday lunch is traditional, with all the trimmings. Many people return: one couple, whose marriage was blessed in the Hall’s chapel, book in for every anniversary with their own growing family. Romance lingers at Catton: the original manuscript of Byron’s famous lines “She walks in beauty like the night…” is still kept here, along with a portrait of Anne Beatrix, the poem’s subject and a previous châtelaine of the house. £70 per person per night including breakfast; dinner from £35 per person; lunch from £25.Dochfour, Inverness (01463 861218; www.dochfour.co.uk).
Alexander and Gigina Baillie have the same approach as the Neilsons. “This is first and foremost a family home,” says Gigina, who has three children under six, and welcomes families. “While we are happy to fade into the background, we are equally happy to mix. Every house party is different, I find.” What guests find when they arrive, however, remains the same. The Baillie’s home since the mid-14th century – the present building dates from 1780 – is perched on the banks of Loch Ness amid stunning scenery, the estate noted for its magnificent trees and abundant wildlife. Prince Albert reported to Victoria that Dochfour was “beautiful, the house elegant, with a fine garden”, and so it is today, having recently been refurbished by Alex and Gigina to create an exquisite home, filled with period details and lovely things. A local chef is on hand to produce the meals, mainly using home-grown produce and plenty of game.Groups of 6-16; £250 per person per night including breakfast and dinner. Gilmerton House, Athelstaneford, East Lothian (01620 880207; www.gilmertonhouse.com).“There’s a wonderful atmosphere at Gilmerton,” says one regular visitor, “which is all down to the people who own it”. And indeed, Sir David Kinloch, his wife Maureen, twin sister Ann and cousin-in-law Di, who pull together to run the house (in the family for 13 generations) are warm, down-to-earth people who delight in their project. It’s a case of feeling instantly at home in the Grade I-listed Georgian mansion, whether you are Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany, who married here, or a group of writers or performers in residence for the Festival at Edinburgh, just 40 minutes’ drive away. Cosily furnished, with the odd bypass of taste that only adds to the charm, the house includes an important wood-panelled music room and two drawing rooms, one on the first floor overlooking the gardens and parkland. The house is yours while you are in residence, though the Kinlochs and their dogs are always about. “We use the back stairs when we have guests,” says Ann, “so we aren’t always bustling about in front of them.”Groups of 6-18; £120 per person per night including breakfast; dinner from £50.Boconnoc, Lostwithiel, Cornwall (01208 872594; www.boconnocenterprises.co.uk) This is a magical place. It’s also an object lesson in courage and determination, and if you want to see at first hand what it takes to save a historic home, and to keep it in the family, then Boconnoc will fascinate. Purchased in 1717 with a diamond, Boconnoc was the seat of the famous Pitt family, passing to the present owners. By the Second World War it was near derelict, but Anthony and Elizabeth Fortescue are movingly intent on restoring it to its former glory. And when you arrive, you’ll see why: apart from the grandeur of the house, with features added by Sir John Soane, it’s secret, far-away setting is heart-stopping, with long valley views, a series of beautiful spring gardens, a hydrangea drive, cricket pitch, medieval church, and a deer park dating from Norman times that ranks as one of the most important unchanged woodlands in Britain. You can stay in countrified, cosy apartments, with kitchenettes, in the house itself or in Soane’s stable yard. As well as these, three state rooms – at your disposal (for catered meals if you wish) – have been superbly restored, though minimally furnished; the rest is – hopefully – to come. You’ll have the run of the place, and the Fortescues will look after you well.£65 per person per night including breakfast; dinner from £30; lunch from £20.Manderston, Duns, Berwickshire (01361 882636; www.manderston.co.uk) Manderston suits a celebration. From the moment you step from the immaculately harrowed gravel into the marble hall to the moment you pose on the ravishing silver staircase for a final photograph, you will want to twirl and twitter, sip champagne and marvel at the “charming mansion inexhaustible in its attractions”. So wrote a guest at the lavish inaugural ball given by Sir James Miller exactly one hundred years ago to celebrate the completion of his new house: the swansong, as it is now known, of the Edwardian era, made famous by its starring role in the Channel 4 series The Edwardian Country House. The army of servants needed to run the house in those days may have depleted, but Manderston, now the home of Miller’s great-great nephew Lord Palmer, remains almost unchanged since its creation, a superbly preserved relic of Edwardian England, with equally beautiful period gardens to match. Swansong it was: just three months after the ball, Sir James was dead, aged 42, and the house entered a long period of semi-sleep. Now, with the help of Geoffrey the butler, dressed in wing collar and tails, you can take the part of the toffs, entertaining your guests (the more the merrier; there are ten guest bedrooms) in a series of breathtakingly pretty reception rooms on the ground floor, and retiring to elegant, beautifully furnished bedrooms (thoughtfully equipped with electric blankets) on the first floor. And just as if you were a guest staying for the 1906 ball, you will find your name in a brass nameplate on your bedroom door. From £200 to £500 per person per night including dinner, bed and breakfast.Essentials
The majority of these properties are members of the Historic Houses Association (020 7259 5688; www.hha.org.uk), a support and lobbying group for owners of heritage houses. Their excellent website includes details of member properties that offer accommodation (direct link: www.historichousevenues.com). Hudson’s (01295 750750; www.hudsons.co.uk) is an independent guide to heritage properties open to the public, also listing ones offering accommodation, while Lloyd & Townsend Rose (01573 229797; www.ltr.co.uk) is an agency specialising in private exclusive visits to a hand-picked selection of historic houses.