In astrology, the house is the most intimate part of a person’s life, hidden away from all that is visible to the public. It is where the heart lies, and this couldn’t be truer for the British. One does not tell his finest stories centre stage, but over a magnificent dinner while entertaining guests. Britain certainly wouldn’t have the fine storytellers it possesses if not for this age-old custom, and throughout the tempestuous clashes of classes, races, ethnicities, and rulers throughout the island’s history, these conflicts have birthed some of the world’s most exciting tales, resulting from eyewitness accounts of their unfolding.
One can invoke Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the gathering of a British community, complete with some of the most captivating orations from all walks of life; that is precisely the microcosm of British history that has unfolded for the global theatre. It comes as no surprise that the United Kingdom is home to some of the world’s best poets and writers: artisans such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, William Blake, T.S. Elliot and countless others have graced mantles and library bookshelves to entertain imaginations through their writings. However, when the hands that write them turn to dust, one must return to the dusty mansions to which they lived to learn the story of their lives.
Beyond the infatuations of the layman tourist, what stories would visitors learn of the real Britain? Would we hear the same old song and dance of creature comforts within London, or the most voguish points of interests in of other metropoli, to learn the true face of the Kingdom’s history? Beneath the visible surface of Union Jacks, Monty Python skits, Bobbies, Twinnings, and first-rate universities is a diverse hodgepodge of Celtic, Briton, Gael, Norman, Anglo, Jute, and even Roman and Viking history waiting to be discovered. This is where the magic begins for guests of this marvellous country, and the reason why living here yields more fruit than simply visiting. To profit on the true essence of Britain, one should look no further than its generational caretaker.
In 1895, three wealthy patrons accepted the task of restoring and preserving the immense wealth of British heritage, which lay threatened by the wear and tear of Father Time. Their tireless work would eventually grow into a large-scale endeavour to become the National Trust of Places of Historic Interest and Natural Beauty (‘National Trust’ for short), ratified under the National Trusts Act of 1907. Over the years, it has transformed into the largest membership organisation of its kind in the world, if not the largest, and relies heavily on annual subscriptions for revenues.
The organisation has taken upon itself the colossal task of preserving over 200 landmarks from Britain’s history; including such monumental sites as Stonehenge, Hadrian’s Wall, the childhood homes of members of the Beatles, and even Castle Ward, better known as Winterfell from the hit TV series Game of Thrones. It is also the largest private owner of land, totalling some 610,000 acres, and boasts a collection of nearly one million works of art in its repertoire. To the organisation, it is a sacred duty to tell these stories to the public by becoming the curator of the United Kingdom; both to the British and their guests.
Over the last year, we have had the pleasure of visiting some of the National Trust’s most breathtaking sites within the West Midlands and the Cotswolds, giving us a rare glimpse of some of the UK’s most prized collections of houses, artwork, and decor. All photos are courtesy of the National Trust unless otherwise stated. Here are our top 8 takeaways:
Packwood House, Packwood Lane, Lapworth, Warwickshire B94 6AT, +441564782024
Originally a farmhouse constructed during the mid-16th century, Packwood House is an impressive Tudor-style home that was restored during the First and Second World Wars by Birmingham-native Graham Baron Ash. Featuring an extensive collection of fine tapestries, artwork, and furnishings, this house has been rated as a listed Grade I building–one of utmost historical relevance to the United Kingdom. This estate also features the world-famous Yew gardens, which symbolically mirror the Twelve Apostles and Four Evangelists of Christianity. Visitors will often find the estate populated with families having picnics on sunny days, as well as children playing hide-and-seek throughout the gardens.
Packwood House and Yew Gardens [Photo: UK Tripper]
Charlecote Park, Wellesbourne, Warwick, Warwickshire, CV35 9ER, +441789470277
Calling this massive and ancient mansion “huge” is still an underestimate. Located nearby the world-renowned Stratford-on-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare, this house was owned and inhabited by the Lucy family for approximately 900 years. Measuring at around 185 acres and listed as a Grade I property, the house features a brewery, courtyard, and a labyrinth of grounds complete with intricate gardens. Inside the Great Hall, one will find another fine example of Tudor-style architecture, and several rooms feature correspondences between the Lucy family and Oliver Cromwell–the progenitor of Parliamentarism during the English Civil War–a large collection of family portraits, as well as one of the first paintings to feature Black Africans in the Midlands.
Birmingham Back-to-Backs, 55-63 Hurst Street/50-54 Inge Street, Birmingham, West Midlands, B5 4TE, +441216667671
Built for Birmingham’s rapidly expanding working class population during the Industrial Revolution, these houses are literally built “back-to-back” to keep as many families together as possible. One of the most interesting places we have visited, this location illustrates the rather difficult circumstances of those participating in Birmingham’s rapid development and celebrates the diversity of the city’s growing working class ethnicities and cultures. The communal homes operated between the 1840s – 1970s and are some of the last surviving models of their kind before many were demolished in favour of council houses. This landmark is only available by a prebooked guided tour, and chronicles the lives of a toymaker, jeweller, as well as other families who shared cramped but oddly comfortable living conditions there. Definitely a must-see if you are interested in learning about the special place Britain calls “Court 15”.
Coughton Court, Alcester, Warwickshire, B49 5JA, +441789400777
Any fan of the blockbuster film V for Vendetta would recall the legend of Guy Fawkes, the dastardly revolutionary who helped plan the Gunpowder Plot in secret against the King of England. Coughton Court was the special hideaway for both this planned insurgency and the Throckmorton Plot, named after the Sir Francis Throckmorton, the head of the family that has owned the estate since the early 1400s, to murder Queen Elizabeth I and replace her with the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. Due to the suppression of Catholicism under the rule of the Anglican Church, this family house became a meeting point for a garden variety of conspirators. The Tudor-style house features over a hundred acres of farmland, a lovely courtyard full of gardens and places to picnic, an immense treasury of paintings, and is by far one of the most fascinating and well-known properties of the National Trust. Visit also the nearby St. Peter’s Church, which was made Anglican during the Reformation, and where members of the Throckmorton family worshipped and were buried.
Upton House and Gardens, near Banbury, Warwickshire, OX15 6HT, +441295670266
Another captivating takeaway is this rare offering to the National Trust. The Upton House epitomises itself with the slogan, “Banking for Victory”, as it became a makeshift enclave for the financial elite during the Second World War. During the Luftwaffe’s merciless bombing campaigns on London, many workers from two companies–M. Samuel & Co. and Shell Transport & Trading–relocated to this secluded manor in order to procure supplies, finances, and continue operations as the war progressed. Due to its clandestine nature in the West Midlands, substantial number of rooms, and ample access to supplies and running water, this house was the equivalent of the Batcave for bankers. The house was primarily owned by Lord Bearsted and Mary Berry, whom holed up in the Long Gallery of the house with plenty of office equipment, telegrams, and wartime banking propaganda, alongside the gallery’s endless collection of fine art from internationally-acclaimed artists, to ensure that Britain banking and art could endure the trials of Hitler’s onslaught.
Calke Abbey, Ticknall, Derby, Derbyshire, DE73 7LE, +441332863822
This particular estate has a rather atypical history, proving that not all houses are haunted by ghosts. The model example of the phantasmagoric, abandoned dwelling comes alive at Calke Abbey, and rather than restoring it to its full glory, the National Trust chose to preserve it at its most rudimentary level; precisely the way the Harpur family would have wanted it. This Baroque-style mansion was home to the eccentric Sir Vauncey Harpur-Crewe, 10th Baronet, whom left the manor in a dilapidated condition. Due to his fondness for taxidermy, hunting, lack of upkeep, and antisocial behaviour, some historians believe that his family had been plagued with a hereditary affliction similar to autism or Asperger’s. The mansion features his endless collection of embalmed animals, a extravagant welcoming gift from the Royal Palace, which was casually tossed aside (visitors will notice it immediately), and vast grounds with an isolated church nearby.
Calke Abbey [Photo: Wikipedia]
Moseley Old Hall, Moseley Old Hall Lane, Fordhouses, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, WV10 7HY, +441902782808
Another famous analogy found within Britain’s tempestuous history can be noted in the daunting escape of Charles II. In 1651, after experiencing a crushing defeat by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army at the Battle of Worcester, Charles fled to Moseley Old Hall and sought refuge amongst the Whitgreave family. Remaining concealed within the tiny space of a priest hole for several days, the King found himself amongst a precarious fight for survival as guards patrolled the roads in hot pursuit of his whereabouts. Attendees of the Hall can hear his story, read his personal manuscripts, and learn the tale of a man seeking redemption through the good graces of his fellow countrymen.
Baddesley Clinton, Rising Lane, Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire, B93 0DQ, +441564783294
Home to the Ferrer’s family for over 500 years, this house is one of the Trust’s older dwellings; built some time during the 13th century. The property is quietly situated within the Forest of Arden and comes complete with an encapsulating moat and hidden openings for guns, which offered sanctuary and protection for members of the Catholic faith as they escaped persecution from the Protestant Church. Walking through the Great Hall, one will find stained glass to commemorate Henry Ferrer’s dedication to protecting Catholics, and one will find a famous stain of crimson on the floor of one of the rooms where an unfortunate incident had taken place within the house. Despite this contradiction and the mystery behind it, this landmark remains one of the Midland’s most cherished places for England’s diverse religious history, and the men and women willing to risk everything to preserve it.
For more information, please visit the National Trust website at http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk or call +44 3448001895 for more information.