Confessions of a Country House Tour Guide

Ashdown 1 Nicola here. Now that we are into May, I’ve restarted my volunteering at Ashdown House, the 17th century hunting lodge in Oxfordshire where I work for the National Trust. It’s a great pleasure to be back, not least because we have only been open intermittently during the last two years of the pandemic and I really missed being in one of my favourite places.

I love visiting historic houses myself and when I go, I’m always curious to see the tour guides and volunteers in action. So often, things seem to run so smoothly yet when you’re behind the scenes you know it isn’t always the case at all. As with organising anything, there’s mad paddling going on below the surface!

I’ve worked at Ashdown for 20 years now. For years I drove past the stunning little 17th century white stone house that sat looking mysterious in the middle of a wood. I wondered a lot about its history but I always seemed too busy to visit. It was seldom open to the public and then only by guided tour. However when I gave up my job to become a full time author I was looking for something to do that would get me out of the house and meeting real people. Since history was my obsession, volunteering with the National Trust seemed like a good option.

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The “Polite Visitor.”

ChatsworthNicola here. I imagine that a lot of people are, like me, missing their visits to historical houses and heritage sites, and can’t wait for a time when we can all go out and enjoy them again. Country house visiting has, of course, been a hobby for tourists for hundreds of years. One of the best descriptions of it in fiction comes from Pride and Prejudice, when Lizzie Bennett, in company with her aunt and uncle, visits Pemberley on their trip to Derbyshire. They are shown round by the housekeeper, giving Lizzie the chance to reflect on the house she could have been mistress of if only she hadn’t turned down Mr Darcy. The fact that Lizzie thinks that Mr Darcy is from home only to discover he’s just arrived, adds a wonderful, romantic twist to the story.

It’s fun to think that in normal times we can gawp at grand houses in the manner of our ancestors although these days a lot of places provide more entertainment for the visitor than you might have got in the eighteenth century with shops, tea rooms, exhibitions, talks and lots of activities for children. Heritage sites compete for our business in contrast to the past when it was considered an honour to be allowed to visit the home of the Duke of Wherever.

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Inspirational Grandeur

House backChristina here. Have you ever fallen completely and utterly in love … with a house? I have to admit I do this quite frequently. I love old houses, and usually the ones that appeal to me the most are grand aristocratic mansions, but more modest buildings that are quirky in some way also fascinate me. Whatever the type of building, me falling in love with it often leads to inspiration for a story, which is great and just what an author needs. My current “crush” is Tyntesfield, a Victorian Gothic Revival mansion near Bristol here in the UK. It’s a truly spectacular place and absolutely perfect as the setting for a timeslip novel!

Chapel backI’ve had a thing about Gothic architecture ever since the first time I saw a building in that style, and although I have no idea why, it appeals to me like nothing else. Maybe it’s the over-the-top decorations, carvings and gargoyles, or the pointy window and door arches? Or just the sheer extravagance and exuberance that seems to have gone into creating these buildings. Whatever it is, I want one! And I don’t just want a tiny cottage in the Gothic style, I dream of a huge stately home like Tyntesfield, complete with landscaped grounds and a walled garden. Obviously I can’t have one, as I’m not a billionaire, so I make do with the next best thing – using it as the basis for an imaginary house in one of my stories. And since my heroine will be living there, so will I, vicariously.

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Lyveden New Bield – Visiting “An Interrupted Dream”

Lyveden 1Nicola here, with another of my summer historic house travelogues. I finished my latest manuscript a week ago and in traditional fashion celebrated by cleaning the house and doing some ironing. As regular readers of the Wench blog will know, this is the time we all catch up on the thousand and one things that get neglected whilst we are in our writing caves desperately trying to get to The End. Much as a city break in Europe or even a trip to the seaside might sound nice, it’s usually the mundane things that claim our attention, partly because we don’t have energy left for much else but also because we urgently need some clean clothes.  However, when my husband tempted me with a visit to one of my favourite historical sites, I felt a lot more enthused for that than for ironing! So it was that on a baking hot day we set off very early in the morning for Northamptonshire and the intriguing Lyveden New Bield.

Lyveden, like so many country houses, occupies an isolated position. It’s set Lyveden deckchairs the middle of the glorious Northamptonshire countryside and as you approach, you see what looks like a ruin standing alone in a field. It’s an extraordinary sight. The house was the dream of Sir Thomas Tresham, a Tudor knight who was a staunch Catholic. He was a wealthy landowner who moved in the highest social circles in the county but although he was ruthlessly efficient in managing his estates to produce profit, he was also very extravagant and pursued a lavish lifestyle. It was, however, the heavy fines levied on him for following the Catholic faith that were eventually to lead to his financial downfall.

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Peacocks!

PeacockSpring is advancing which means that in villages and stately homes across the length and breadth of the British Isles the mournful cry of the peacock will start to ring out, followed by various news stories about how bad-tempered and/or exhausted peacocks have been causing havoc. Last year there was Kevin, a mischievous peacock causing mayhem in a Derbyshire village, then we heard about Henry the peacock who was so tired of being the only male in a flock of peahens (exhausting work!) that he flew away for some rest.

The peacock is a familiar sight at many of our stately homes in the UK. This one was displaying Peacock 1 for us at Corsham Court in Wiltshire when we visited. The peacock is a native bird to India and was probably introduced into Britain by the Romans. It has many sacred connotations. The name derives from the Old English and the earliest example of it referred to in writing comes from 1300: “Foure and xxti wild ges and a poucock.” In the 14th century Chaucer first used the word to describe ostentatious people who strutted about and it still carries this meaning to this day. In art a peacock feather in a painting was used as a symbol of pride and vanity.

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