Britain is famous for many things around the world – scones with clotted cream…red phone boxes…Big Ben…the Queen! But one of the things Britain is most well-known for has got to be our grand stately homes and gardens.
We are lucky in this country that so many fantastic properties have survived and the National Trust as well as many private estates do great work in protecting and showcasing Britain’s historic homes. Often the houses aren’t just a fantastic example of an architectural style or period extravagance, but also contain all manner of historic artefacts and tell a fascinating story of social history. They also invariably have incredibly impressive gardens to explore, as well as a cafe or two to stop for some tea and cake!
There are many stately homes to visit throughout the country, varying from huge estates to more modest abodes with fascinating histories, but here are a couple of the most prestigious that you should consider making the effort to get to while in the country.
Set in the rolling Howardian Hills, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the edge of York, stunning Castle Howard is an eighteenth century stately home set in beautiful gardens and 1000 acres of grounds. The house itself is a masterpiece of well-known architect Sir John Vanburgh and is filled with fascinating collections of frescos, furniture and paintings. The extensive gardens and grounds offer everything from woodland walks and flower displays to lakes and fountains.
Castle Howard is well-known as being the setting for Brideshead Revisited, the television version of the book by Evelyn Waugh first broadcast in the early 1980s. Castle Howard reprised its role as the Marchmain's family home in 2008 when it featured again in the more recent feature film. You can see how the filming impacted on the house as part of the current Brideshead Exhibition in the High Saloon rooms. Castle Howard also stood in for Kensington Palace in ITV’s current ‘Victoria’ series (and the real Queen Victoria stayed at Castle Howard in 1850).
To get a good feel for the grounds, take a walk down past the famous Atlas Fountain for a lovely view back over the impressive façade of the house. Continue round the edge of gardens and lake to reach the Temple of the Four Winds at the eastern end of Temple Terrace, commanding stunning views across the hills. The temple was designed by Vanbrugh but remained unfinished at the time of his death and the interiors were finally decorated in 1738 by Vassalli. A good loop then takes you winding back though the woodland trails to the café on the edge of the lake (look out for the delicious estate sausage rolls!) before heading back up to the house.
Visit before the end of October to see the castle’s glittering replica crown jewels, which are on display in celebration of the Queen at 90. The set, commissioned for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, includes the Sovereign’s Orb, the Coronation Ring and the Imperial State Crown as well as many of the smaller pieces. Working farmland makes up much of the Castle Howard Estate and you can try the local produce at the excellent farm shop at the entrance to the grounds.
Getting there: Castle Howard is just 15 miles north east of York and easily accessible from the A64. Coming from the North off the A1, take the A61 to Thirsk then the A170 to Helmsley. Before Helmsley turn right onto the B1257 and follow the brown signs. From the South, take the A1M to Junction 44 and follow the A64 east to York. Continue past York and eventually you will pick up the brown signs for Castle Howard. For sat nav, use the postcode YO60 7DA. An adult ticket for the house and grounds costs £17.50.
This UNESCO World heritage site is undoubtedly one of the country’s finest stately homes. The ‘Palace’ was built in the early 18th Century to honour the victories of the 1st Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, in the War of the Spanish Succession. After decades of building works, this grand estate became the Churchills’ family home for centuries, and remains the only non-royal residence to be formally called a palace.
Sir Winston Churchill was born here in 1874 (and there is a very interesting exhibition in the house about his life) and Blenheim Palace subsequently opened its doors to the public in 1950. You can now wander through many of the grand rooms of the palace, together with acres of formal gardens and about 2000 acres parkland to explore (which were beautifully landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in the late 1760s).
You can learn more about the Palace and its incredible collections by taking one of the regular guided tour of the State Rooms, or joining one of the palace’s new experiences, the 'Upstairs' and 'Downstairs' tours which explore private areas of the Palace otherwise closed to the public.
As well as its more traditional history as a luxurious family home, the Palace was used as a convalescence hospital for wounded soldiers during WWI and, during World War II, it served as an evacuation spot for boys from Malvern College in Worcestershire. The palace was used as their school for a year, and it also served as a base of operations for the Home Guard and MI5.
Whilst in the area, take the opportunity to visit Winston Churchill's grave at nearby Bladon or the traditional Cotswolds village of Woodstock, which sits just on the edge of the palace grounds. The pretty village is home to some good independent shops and cafes so make a good place to wander around either before or after a visit to Blenheim.
Getting there: The Palace lies eight miles north-west of Oxford, on the A44 Evesham Road. The Palace is signposted from junction nine of the M40. For sat nav, use the postcode OX20 1PP. Adult tickets for the palace, park & gardens costs £24.90 and can be converted into an annual pass free of charge.