FAB­U­LOUS FOL­LIES

Stay­ing in a Land­mark Trust prop­erty is an en­gage­ment with his­tory and her­itage, writes Fiona Gruber

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

THE wind howls dis­mally, rat­tling the thick oak doors and lead-paned win­dows of our Ja­cobean re­treat and the fit­ful moon­light il­lu­mi­nates the roil­ing clouds and storm-tossed trees sur­round­ing it. It out­lines the tur­rets of the gate­house and the jagged ru­ins of a once great man­sion. It picks out the rough hum­mocks of old ter­races, flowerbeds and prom­e­nades, long cov­ered in grass and nib­bled by obliv­i­ous sheep.

Inside, all is snug and hand­somely com­fort­able. Fire­light flick­ers on a mas­sive 17th-cen­tury din­ing ta­ble and a carved oak cof­fer. An oil of the Madonna and child from the man­ner­ist school hangs above a linen­fold cup­board. There are soft arm­chairs and so­fas. There are books and games and witty jig­saw puz­zles. Pos­si­bly even a ghost. I want to stay here for­ever.

The plan of gath­er­ing par­ents and sis­ters to­gether for a win­ter re­union in Eng­land, with a week of feast­ing, talk­ing and ex­plor­ing, has worked. And our dra­matic set­ting is many notches above the usual self-cater­ing hol­i­day lets, with their twee fac­sim­ile of ye olde English­ness and slightly cheap fix­tures and fit­tings.

We wanted to rent some­where with ar­chi­tec­tural dis­tinc­tion, a strik­ing as­pect and a lo­ca­tion in the Cotswolds, close to a vil­lage, with good pubs, long walks and within a short­ish drive of Strat­ford-upon-Avon and Ox­ford.

And so we find our­selves, with the help of the Land­mark Trust, a char­ity that re­stores his­toric build­ings, in the East Ban­quet­ing House of Old Campden House, in pretty Chip­ping Campden.

Af­ter ex­plor­ing the pic­ture-book vil­lage, which com­bines real shops with the sort tourists go to, we buy a brace of pheas­ants from the butcher, chest­nuts and ba­con for stuff­ing, and a lo­cal cheese called Stink­ing Bishop, and head up the high street to our new home.

Of the house it­self, once the prop­erty of the splen­didly named Bap­tist Hicks, who started build­ing it in 1613, only a charred stump re­mains. It was burned down in 1645 dur­ing the English Civil War. All that is left are the gate­houses with their ogee domes, an al­monry and two ban­quet­ing halls.

Th­ese or­nate pav­il­ions were all the rage in the 17th cen­tury and stood apart from the main house. They were a place where lunch or din­ner guests were taken af­ter the main cour­ses, for in­for­mal gath­er­ings of wine and sweet­meats and a chance to look back at the stately pile of stone the owner had built with his pile of gold.

Both ban­quet­ing houses stand proudly in their lonely turf set­tings, topped with twisted chim­neys and flam­boy­ant para­pets, built in the honey-hued stone for which the Cotswolds are fa­mous.

Al­though ours looks sin­gle storey from the front, with enor­mous arched doors lead­ing on to a stone ter­race, the land drops sharply away and the two lower storeys are hid­den.

In keep­ing with Land­mark Trust phi­los­o­phy, they have been re­stored with orig­i­nal ma­te­ri­als and as lit­tle in­ter­fer­ence to the orig­i­nal struc­ture as pos­si­ble. This means the bath­room takes up half the base­ment and has vaulted ceil­ings and the stairs up to the mid­dle floor (a well-equipped kitchen and sec­ond bed­room) are worn to a hollow with the foot­falls of cen­turies.

The mag­nif­i­cent sit­ting room has a li­brary of nov­els and lo­cal his­to­ries, games and a jig­saw of the ban­quet­ing house, but no television or ra­dio.

The trust’s hand­book points out all the foibles of its prop­er­ties, many of which were never de­signed to be lived in, and some of them are quite chal­leng­ing.

In the gate­house, where my hus­band and I elect to sleep, the stairs are a stone spi­ral of me­dieval church-tower nar­row­ness.

The walk from the car park­ing area to the ban­quet­ing house is a five-minute squelch over bumpy turf, with lug­gage and pro­vi­sions pre­car­i­ously bal­anced in wheel­bar­rows pro­vided for the oc­ca­sion, some­thing my el­derly par­ents un­der­take with frown­ing good grace, wellies to the ready.

But once we’re en­sconced, and have lit the wood-burn­ing stove and opened a bot­tle of wine, ev­ery­one is happy, de­spite the grow­ing storm that bat­ters the three-storey pavil­ion with screech­ing in­ten­sity.

We have heard about the trust from var­i­ous friends, all of whom de­velop a slightly mes­sianic look when talk­ing about the amaz­ing views, in­cred­i­ble ar­chi­tec­ture and stun­ning lo­ca­tions of their favourite haunt. Some have spent only a week­end or a cou­ple of week­days; oth­ers have man­aged to book for the max­i­mum stay of three weeks. We know the trust’s port­fo­lio tends to­wards the un­usual and ec­cen­tric. A cou­ple has hired a Re­gency house and sev­eral cot­tages on the Isle of Lundy in the Bris­tol Chan­nel, all owned by the trust, for a week­end party for 20. An­other friend has stayed in a Martello watch­tower on the Suf­folk coast.

We’ve heard about Auchin­leck House, the 18th-cen­tury Scot­tish home of James Boswell, the bi­og­ra­pher of Samuel John­son. It sleeps 13, surely an­other won­der­ful ex­cuse for a re­union or rous­ing house party.

Un­til we flick through the trust’s hand­book, how­ever, we have no idea there is such a range of prop­er­ties for rent.

The old­est two, Stogursey

Cas­tle

in Som­er­set and Pur­ton Green in Suf­folk, date back to the 13th cen­tury.

The new­est, the modernist An­der­son House in Devon, was de­signed in 1970. Of the 186 build­ings, 11 are tow­ers, some on clifftops. There are also 11 cas­tles to choose from, as well as 12 fol­lies, in­clud­ing one in the shape of a pineap­ple. There is a House of Cor­rec­tion in Lin­colnshire, a place for ‘‘ idlers and the dis­or­derly’’, surely an in­vi­ta­tion for all hol­i­day­mak­ers.

The build­ings’ lo­ca­tions cover Eng­land, Scot­land and Wales (the Ir­ish Land­mark Trust is a sep­a­rate or­gan­i­sa­tion), with the West Coun­try be­ing es­pe­cially favoured.

There are also four prop­er­ties in the US and four in Italy, in­clud­ing Sant’An­to­nio, near Rome, started in 60BC and later a Fran­cis­can monastery.

There are sev­eral lit­er­ary land­marks on the trust’s books. Along­side Auchin­leck House there is Naulakha, Rud­yard Ki­pling’s house in Ver­mont, where he wrote The Jun­gle Book. The Casa Guidi, near Florence’s Pitti Palace, was the home of Vic­to­rian po­ets Robert and El­iz­a­beth Brown­ing, and you can also stay in the house on the Span­ish Steps in Rome where ro­man­tic poet John Keats breathed his last.

In Lon­don you can look at the world through the same win­dows as for­mer poet lau­re­ate John Bet­je­man, who lived for many years at Cloth Fair in the East End neigh­bour­hood of Smith­field. It’s now a bi­jou res­i­dence for two. Rather amaz­ingly, there are also two apart­ments for rent at fash­ion­able Hamp­ton Court.

Other ur­ban prop­erty lo­ca­tions in­clude Bath, Glas­gow, Lan­caster and Pen­zance. Then there are the houses with strong ar­chi­tec­tural links.

One of the most pop­u­lar lets is The Grange near Rams­gate in Kent, a gothic villa built and lived in by the great Vic­to­rian ar­chi­tect Au­gus­tus Pu­gin. It still has many orig­i­nal fea­tures and sleeps eight. Hill House in He­lens­burgh, near Glas­gow, was de­signed by Scot­land’s famed ar­chi­tect and de­signer Charles Ren­nie Mack­in­tosh.

Ed­win Lu­tyens de­signed God­dards in Dork­ing, Sur­rey, which sleeps 12, has a court­yard gar­den cre­ated by renowned gar­den de­signer Gertrude Jekyll and a 100-year old bowl­ing al­ley. An evening of pitch­ing the heavy old balls surely would be much more hol­i­day fun than telly.

Since the trust was founded in 1965, it has saved more than 200 build­ings, but of the 150 ap­proaches it re­ceives each year only an av­er­age of three are taken up. Restor­ing a derelict build­ing to some­thing like its for­mer glory, us­ing orig­i­nal ma­te­ri­als and tech­niques, doesn’t come cheap.

One of the latest projects is Cow­side, a 17th-cen­tury cot­tage in the York­shire Dales that will cost an es­ti­mated $1.3 mil­lion to com­plete. Clavell Tower, a 19th-cen­tury folly in Dorset, has been moved 25m in­land away from the crum­bling cliff on which it stood.

That lit­tle project, along­side the restora­tion, de­voured al­most $2 mil­lion. Much of the money comes from fundrais­ing, some from Bri­tain’s Na­tional Lot­tery. The rental from each prop­erty pays for its up­keep.

We find our­selves por­ing over the cof­feetable sized Land­mark Trust hand­book, with its glossy pho­tos of ex­te­ri­ors and in­te­ri­ors, maps and ground plans, and fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ries of each build­ing.

The web­site is full of in­for­ma­tion too but, while plans are afoot to pro­vide on­line book­ings, at present it is done by phone, fax or let­ter, and only af­ter buy­ing the hand­book.

It may seem ir­ri­tat­ingly old-fash­ioned and time con­sum­ing, but the hand­book is part of the charm and club-like feel of the Land­mark Trust. Once you’ve stayed in one, you will want to tick off a few more. My par­ents, en­thu­si­asm tem­pered by creak­ing limbs, are vot­ing for two-storey Gur­ney Manor in Som­er­set, a build­ing with­out spi­ral stair­cases and with park­ing at the door.

We have a han­ker­ing to get ver­ti­cal in Fre­ston Tower, near Ipswich in Suf­folk, with its six storeys of 16th-cen­tury his­tory in park­land with views over the es­tu­ary of the River Or­well.

Dart­mouth’s Kingswear Cas­tle, with waves dash­ing against its foun­da­tions, is an­other fan­tasy wait­ing to be re­alised.

Thanks to the metic­u­lous at­ten­tion to pe­riod de­tails and the co­pi­ous amounts of read­ing mat­ter about the build­ing and the his­tory of the area, you feel part of the his­toric nar­ra­tive.

We’re not alone in this ap­pre­ci­a­tion. The bi­ble-thick vis­i­tors’ book at the East Ban­quet­ing House bears tes­ta­ment to an avid en­thu­si­asm. It con­tains po­ems, thought­ful mus­ings on na­ture, care­fully pasted chil­dren’s draw­ings and menus of mem­o­rable feasts. Peo­ple re­ally do live in Land­mark Trust prop­er­ties, if only for a few days.

Check­list

The Land­mark Trust hand­book costs £11.50 ($24) in Bri­tain or £22 if or­dered from Aus­tralia. It comes with a price and avail­abil­ity list, which is quite com­pli­cated as charges vary from build­ing to build­ing and from sea­son to sea­son. If you book a stay, the price of the hand­book is de­ducted. More: www.land­marktrust.co.uk.

Pic­tures: Land­mark Trust

Char­ac­ter plus: Clock­wise from top, East Ban­quet­ing House; the sit­ting room; Land­mark Trust’s the Ruin, North York­shire, inside and out; bed­room at Dart­mouth’s Kingswear Cas­tle; the cas­tle lashed by waves, cen­tre

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