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