Tag Archives: Landmark Trust

Living In History

I nearly always blog about the ‘long’ Regency, the era in which almost all my books are set, but like most of us who are passionate about history, any opportunity to get closer to it fires the imagination. One of the best ways of doing that is living in an historic building. Some people are lucky enough to own one, but for the rest of us the Landmark Trust provides brilliant opportunities to live in eras ranging from the Middle Ages to the mid 20th century.

This month I have stayed in three West County Landmarks – two castles (nothing says Social Distancing like a castle), one medieval and one Tudor, and a Listed mid-century house and I thought I’d share them with you.

The first is Stogursey Castle near Bridgwater in Somerset, that just happened to be built by my husband’s distant great grandfather, William de Curci. Stoke de Curci was corrupted into Stogursey, hence the unusual name..

The castle itself is a ruin of curtain walls surrounding the central space where the keep used to stand.

The castle gradually fell into disrepair after the Wars of the Roses but the gatehouse, was  converted into a cottage in the 17th century. One side incorporates the base of a tower and the rest fits into the section where the gate itself would be. It was repaired in the 19th century and then fell into almost terminal decline until rescued by the Trust who discovered a bridge of about 1300 in the process.

We were enchanted to have a sitting room with arrow-slit windows.

The best view was just after sunrise and the only disappointment was that we couldn’t raise a drawbridge. Several walkers came and knocked, clearly under the impression that we could sell them tickets to get inside!

From Stogursey we went to Anderton House, near Barnstable, and couldn’t have found a greater contrast. The house was commissioned in 1969 and is one of the few houses of the period to have Grade II* Listed status.

The view was wonderful and we enjoyed the simple. pared-back design. In the centre, between the living room and kitchen/dining room was a small, open study space (the white wall behind the sofa), as specified by the original owner, who liked to work in the heart of things. I even managed to write a chapter there on a rainy day.

From our 20th century comforts we travelled on to the South Devon coast and Kingswear Castle, opposite Dartmouth Castle. Kingswear Castle was completed in 1502, a Tudor fortlet to defend a significant harbour.  The position is dramatic, the steps (inside and out) guarantee toned calf muscles by the end of the stay and the views are amazing. Here’s the castle from the opposite bank –

And here is the view across the River Dart to Dartmouth Castle in the early morning.

Stogursey Castle gave me the opportunity to soak up general atmosphere but Kingswear has far more practical experiences. The castle was, when it was built, absolutely state of the art. It possessed the first gun ports that allowed cannon to be trained in a wide sweep of fire and these gun ports remain on the lowest level in the gun battery (picture below). They are low in the walls because the guns were on wooden sledges, not on wheels, and were dragged into position. Above some of them you can see the small apertures that may have been sighting holes for the gunners. Even with the primitive cannon of the time the pair of forts between them could cover the width of the river.

Then artillery design improved and the range rapidly increased to the point where Dartmouth Castle alone could fire right across the estuary and Kingswear became more or less redundant after fifty years. It was manned during times of emergency and saw some action during the Civil War, but then there was a fire and it was allowed to fall into decay. In 1855 a wealthy young man, Charles Hayne Seale Hayne (yes, that is the correct name), bought it and turned it into his summer residence. He later became an MP and held office in Gladstone’s government. After his death it had several owners, was occupied by the Marines during the 2nd World War and was rescued again in 1957 by the MP for Torquay as his constituency home. In 1987 he sold it to the Landmark Trust.

Living in the castle now, one has the benefit of a modern kitchen and comfortable sitting room and bedroom, but there are constant reminders of the original purpose of the castle. There is modern plumbing in a bathroom on the roof, in the position where a firing platform would have allowed defenders to shoot at attackers on the landward side – the slope is so steep that the top of the castle is virtually at the level where today one parks the car. This meant that I could conveniently arrange the contents of my washbag in the sockets that carried the beams supporting the platform and could brush my teeth imagining the gunfire and shouts echoing overhead.

The position of the bathroom meant that one had regular experience of living with a stone spiral staircase spanning four floors. It was tough enough in modern clothing and not carrying anything, but negotiating it at night gave me a vivid sense of what it must have been like for defenders, probably in some kind of armour or chainmail, hurrying up and down during an attack. [The image below has been copied from the Landmark Trust website] It also made me wish that the Landmark Trust had seen fit to reinstall the garderobe which was discovered in the alcove that Seale Hayne had used as a wine cupboard and into which a later occupant had installed a large window. It is now in the bedroom.

 

 

Finally, to top off Kingswear’s historical experience, there is the 2nd World War blockhouse.

I look back on ten days experience of the Middle Ages, the early 16thc, the English Civil War, the 2nd World War and the 1970s with my imagination stimulated and ideas jostling for attention – and of course, in expeditions out from our Landmarks I discovered treasures that fitted ‘my’ period perfectly – a very early steam engine and a delicious little Regency ‘Gothic’ house in Totnes, which is surely going to have a place in a future book.

 

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Taking A Cold Plunge

In 1702 Sir John Floyer wrote A History of Cold Bathing, promoting immersion in cold water as a cure for just about any disease then known, from scurvy to cancers. Hot springs had never entirely gone out of fashion – the heat must have been a great benefit for all kinds of aches and pains – but bathing of any kind had fallen victim to the displeasure of the church after the Reformation. Partly this was because of the connection with bathing in ancient holy springs and partly because washing the body, let alone taking all one’s clothes off and engaging in a pleasurable activity, suggested sin.

Some bathing houses and plunge pools survive from the 17th century, so the pleasure of bathing, or the belief in its benefits, had never entirely gone away, but it was the 18th century that saw the explosion of the cold bathing craze.

The Georgian Seaside Cover_MEDIUM WEBAs I found when I was researching for my book The Georgian Seaside: The English Resorts Before the Railway Age, sea bathing did not really take off until the mid-18th century, but the same aristocrats who visited spas began to build bathing houses and plunge pools on their own estates decades earlier.

The country was stable under the Hanoverians, there was money to indulge in improvements in their grounds and, as well as the health benefits, an architecturally interesting bathing house made an attractive ‘eye-catcher’ in a landscaped park.

I was lucky enough to stay in one of these delightful buildings at the beginning of the month – The Bath House bathhouse-exterior-main-600x400at Walton in Warwickshire, now a Landmark Trust property.

Sir Charles Mordaunt of Walton Hall ordered the bathing house which was completed in 1755. It sits on a hillside in woodland with a glorious view in front and the romantic gloom of the trees behind. The spring-fed plunge bath is approximately 3.5 metres square and deep enough to come up to my shoulders. The chamber is deliberately rustic to appear as though it is a natural cave with a rugged ceiling, vast blocks of stone and a precipitous stair to the room above. Apparently Sir Charles was not averse to people assuming it was of Roman origin – the Fosse Way runs close by.

Bath pool

One of the diseases supposedly cured by cold water bathing was gout and as a sufferer, Sir Charles may have hoped this would help. But he was also undoubtedly influenced by fashion and an element of competition with the many wonderful houses and parks in the area, such as Compton

Bath House entrance

Bath House deerVerney.

The water from deep in the hill, was absolutely icy, the sort of cold that makes your bones ache. But it is also perfectly clear and the flow is strong enough to keep the pool constantly refreshed. The wildlife appreciate it too – there are bats in the ceiling, the Landmark Trust thoughtfully provides a net for frog-removal, and the fallow deer, like these two twin fawns, come to the outfall on the lawn below to drink.

The approach to the Bath House is from the back, through the woods, so there is an element of surprise as you walk in to the incredible drawing room above the bathing chamber.

In contrast to the rough-hewn basement the drawing room is an elegant jewel box with a high ceiling, wide widows and fabulous decoration. Great swags of seashells, each almost 3 metres across, decorate the walls and the ceiling has a mass of thousands of plaster ‘icicles’.Bath House Interior 2

Sir Charles was very fortunate to have the advice and practical help of Mrs Mary Delaney, famous for her exquisite flower pictures created in cut paper. She was also an expert in shell-work, then very fashionable for grottos, summer houses and follies and she sourced shells for the Bath House from the West Indies, Naples, Ireland and the Channel Islands. The swags were mounted in boards by Mrs Delaney herself helped by her sister and Sir Charles’s two daughters.Bath House interior

When the building was taken over by the Landmark Trust it had been severely damaged by vandals and the swags and icicles had to be re-made. The interior is now restored to its former Georgian glory and staying there is a wonderful experience. We slept with the shutters open so that when we woke we could look up into the gorgeous ceiling before tip-toeing to the window to see if the deer and their fawns were on the grass below. I have to confess that one dip in the pool was enough and it was fortunate that there were no neighbours – the screams of anguish were so loud!

Bath House swags

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Living In History

For those  who are fascinated by the past, or who write about it or who just want to reach out and touch history – I have a recommendation for you – The Landmark Trust.

I’m just back from a stay in one of their properties – Calverley Old Hall in the village of the same name just outside Leeds. This ancient manor house is now stranded in the middle of 20th century development which only added to its air of faint melancholy and mystery.Calverley exterior

The part of the building we were staying in was built at the time of the English Civil War, so we spent our evenings beside the massive hearth dating from about 1640 (see below) or enjoying a bottle of wine at the long table under the beams. But that’s not the best bit – part of the building goes back to 1300 and there’s a 15th century Great Hall and chapel (seen above) and a heart-wrenching story about a father who, in 1604, lost his mind and killed his two sons (and came to a dreadful end). True, the older parts are only viewable from the outside and through the windows, but the entire place was priceless for firing this writer’s imagination.

Calverley interior

The Landmark Trust specialises in saving historic buildings which have lost their purpose and, in some cases, almost their hold on existence. They restore what they can and convert, with integrity, the building as holiday accommodation. There is no TV or radio, phone or wifi, just peace, atmosphere and a well-stocked library relevant to the location. The decoration and furnishing is true to the building as well, with a seemingly endless supply of characterful antiques and near-antiques from their store.

Calverley Old Hall was our 6th Landmark and we are already looking forward to number seven, The Bath House, a mid-18th century folly near Stratford on Avon, built over a bathing pool formed from a natural spring. (One half of the party is completely unimpressed by my remarks that 18th century gentlemen would have splashed happily in the pool in a state of nature and is refusing to assist with my researches into this.)

Pigsty exteriorThe others? There was The Pigsty (above) overlooking Robin Hood’s Bay – a miniature Classical temple with a spectacular view built by an eccentric farmer in 1891 for some very pampered pigs. You can see the view below:

Pigsty view

Lock Cottage (below), built 1790/1815 on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, has a wheelbarrow provided to transport luggage and provides all the entertainment of watching the passing holidaymakers negotiating the flight of locks with various degrees of skill (and colourful language).

Lock Cottage

Iron Bridge House (about 1830) is right at one end of the famous Iron Bridge. It is the building right in the middle of the picture.

Ironbridge exterior

There were lovely glimpses of the river and close-ups of the bridge itself  as you can see through the right-hand living room window.

Ironbridge interior

Then there was Beckford’s Tower overlooking Bath with spectacular views from the top of the tower, all 276 feet of it.

Beckfords tower exterior

Built by eccentric connoisseur and collector William Beckford it was later given to a Bath church as a graveyard, so one could lie in bed, or in the bath on the ground floor (middle window), and virtually read the gravestones. A little macabre perhaps, but no ghosts were encountered. The living room (below) has been decorated in a colour scheme true to Beckford’s Regency taste.

Beckford's tower interior

Finally we enjoyed the Prospect Tower, built in 1808 near Faversham by General, later Lord, Harris of Seringapatam as a folly and tea house. In the Edwardian period it became a changing room for the 4th Lord Harris who was an enthusiastic cricketer. It still overlooks the cricket pitch of his home, Belmont Park.

Prospect Tower exterior

There is something very special about living in ancient buildings, I find. Partly it is the tranquility and the lack of modern distractions so my mind can wander freely, part is the thrill of imagining the past inhabitants who looked out of this window, or huddled round that fire in flickering candlelight or gazed out over that view. Why not give it a try?

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