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The Present Past: Russell-Cotes Museum

A photograph of the main building of the Russell-Cotes Museum; a fountain is in the foreground and the house rises behind it

This is an image-heavy post. The photograph of Merton Russell-Cotes from 1909 is held by the Lafayette Archive of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Russell-Cotes Museum is a historic semi-hidden, purposefully-constructed house, on the edge of the coast of Bournemouth. If you didn’t know about it already and decided to go to the beach, to walk along the sand or promenade down the pier, you would most likely miss it; at most you might spot a couple of none-too-tall spires in the distance. This is because the house is situated on a cliff that is accessed by a pathway that climbs the hill from the opposite end of the car park to the beach access route. There’s also not much to see from the pathway unless you continue up the hill away from the house – in fact, when I saw the sandwich board outside the single-width gap in the stone wall, I reversed my steps to make sure the Museum wasn’t actually the big building with a pavilion and lawn next door. (That building is the Royal Bath Hotel which seems to have taken use of the Museum’s pavilion; the original owners of the Museum building had bought the Hotel.)

A photograph of the garden from the perspective of the building - we look down towards the sea

As you might expect, once through the gap, the front garden (there isn’t a back garden) is fairly small in relative terms and at least in autumn more focused on greenery than flowers (there could be flowers but the amount of evergreen suggested not too many). It’s the kind of garden you might expect of a house where the interior is everything. You’d be right.

A photograph of Merton Russell-Cotes

The main building, the rather Gothic house in the photograph above, is joined on the left to a new building that holds the ticket office, shop, and cafe, and on the right an extension that was built by the original owners (the builders of the house). In building the cafe/shop building, the group that run the house made a decision that works incredibly well: unlike many historic houses, where there are many more rooms than you, as a member of the public, can access, due to cafe conversions and storage spaces, the majority of the Museum is publicly accessible. There are a few smaller rooms for the staff and workings, but what you see in the photograph above you will for the most part view from the inside outwards, too. (I will from now on be referring to the people who run the Museum as ‘Bournemouth’, as it is officially the Borough of Bournemouth who do so.)

This is where we get to the history. The Museum, previously called East Cliff Hall, was conceived by Merton Russell-Cotes as a gift for his wife, Annie, and completed in 1901 (the extension was finished in 1919). Its conception was for the general purpose you see today: the couple were avid travellers and wanted a house that could exhibit all the items they brought back from around the world. Essentially, for all they lived in it, the building was a museum first, house second. In 1907, before the extension was built, the couple donated the house as a museum to the town of Bournemouth (it’s now a city) and continued to live in it until their deaths. From what I can ascertain, the shop/cafe building was created a lot later, in 2000.

Due to the couple’s love of beautiful objects and their interest in culture, there is a monumental amount to see. And everything gives you a firm idea of the interests and values westerners of the time looked for in the ‘exotic’. Joining these objects are a vast number of artworks, many from back in the day, and some closer to our own time. Owing to our discoveries of how light fades things, the blinds over almost every window are pulled down; only a few rooms have natural light to see by. I went to Russell-Cotes not knowing much about it other than it looked like it would be a place I’d love, so I was unprepared for the relative darkness and I didn’t have a polariser with me – please forgive the blurry lights in these photographs.

So, we begin just a little inside. We have gone into the new, left-hand side building, bought our tickets, walked through the shops and up a staircase into the large cafe. Our trip starts beside the cafe’s fridge where we find a narrow corridor – the modern building opens straight into the house and we are, in many ways, about to step back in time.

A photograph of the dining room - the table is in the centre and a grand fireplace is on the right-hand side wall

As you get to the house-end of the rather short corridor, you step into the dining room, just as you see above. This is your first example of what you’re going to find as you venture further in. It’s all rather fantastical in this room, and you can walk around freely (more on walking around later). Everything is detailed, even the high ceiling and the area just above the coving is covered in artwork – peacocks. Besides the cafe entrance, there are three doors leading out of this room. One right next to the corridor’s door, that leads to a grand hall, one at the left end, and one opposite that which leads to a conservatory (where the daylight is coming from). The conservatory is currently closed to visitors – there are a number of buckets on the floor; Bournemouth are looking for donations to restore it.

A photograph of the dining room from another angle which shows where the door to the conservatory is

I’m not going to take you through to the hallway just yet, but I will tell you in advance that in this house, almost every room backs out into the hallway – the rooms of the house are clustered in groups of two or three in the corners and sides behind the hallway, both ground and second floor – so there’s no real linear way to go around; it’s really up to you.

A photograph of the morning room, bare except for a line of chairs, the fireplace, and a few pieces of artwork

I’ve taken you through the left-end door and into the morning room. It was in fact a study for Merton; his desk was a table originally made for Napoleon. The present-day room, as you see, is very bland compared to almost every other room; parts of the ceiling started coming down around 1928, and it’s believed that the original design is behind the one there now. War damage created more problems. Bournemouth have decided to restore the room to its 1949 appearance as they don’t have enough details of what it looked like prior to that year. This is of course a pity, but, when you see the rest of the house you may in fact be grateful for the pause in grandeur.

A photograph of the morning room's ceiling - a naked woman sat in a shell in the clouds with cherubs around her

This is a section of the ceiling that has been restored.

A photograph of the drawing room - the hall door on the left, and a dresser and fireplace at the end

Carrying on through the morning room and you get to the drawing room, a room you could probably identify without the information board, it’s so much of what you’d expect. Even with the blinds down it’s incredibly light and airy.

Now. Now you turn out of the room and through that door you see in the left of the photograph, and enter the hall.

A photograph of the hall

It’s no exaggeration to say that I fell in love with this room. I found an excuse to go back to it a good few times and I’d have been happy to stay there all day. The view you see above was taken from a few feet away from the end looking towards the dining room door. The opposite view is also spectacular, perhaps more so, with its sunken pool and grand piano, but the gorgeous potted plant that rounds it off unfortunately means that a 2D photo doesn’t work so well. So, to the left, where you see the pillar, is the drawing room; behind me, effectively, is the gallery, which we’ll come back to. Beside me on the right is the lift with decorated doors, the size of which suggests an old store room. Then, you can just see them, are the stairs.

A photograph of the staircase, which is one wide set of stairs and then a set right and left

If I could sit at the bottom of these stairs and read all day, I’d be happy. I considered it – I could have. The door to the right leads to the Ladies; I considered taking a photograph because the room, split into three parts and almost certainly always used as a toilet, was just as decorative as the other rooms.

Up the stairs, and both side staircases go to the mezzanine floor. Looking at the photo above, on the sort of mini floor/turnabout space you can see before the left staircase begins, are a couple of small rooms that are roped off but visible.

A photograph of the mezzanine floor, walls covered by paintings

This photo was taken from the same end of the hall as the one downstairs. The area is slightly smaller – the mezzanine ends roughly where the marble pillars downstairs are situated, but again all rooms lead from it. We’re going to the doorway you see on the right.

A photograph of the study

The study is on the left of the doorway; it’s a beautiful little room just big enough to walk around. Essentially split in two parts, the study gives you an idea for the rest of the upper floor.

The room to the right of this cluster isn’t pictured because that room is smaller, black-walled, and simply holds paintings, photos, and memorabilia of Henry Irving, the the very-famous stage actor for whom we’ve lots of contemporary accounts and reviews but, due to the time period, no video footage.

A photograph of the Arabesque anti-room showing the doorways to other rooms

Back out, and we’ll go to the left-hand cluster. The rooms here are joined by a sort of anteroom in the Arab style. It’s difficult to get a proper photo – I didn’t want to lie down – so I decided to take one that gives you a general idea and shows you how the clusters work. The pink room to the right is the boudoir, and the room on the left has been turned into a big display, various ‘exotic’ items behind glass.

A photograph of the Boudoir

This is the pink Boudoir room for the lady of the house, split in two like the study.

A photograph of the garden from the perspective of the building - we look down towards the sea

Japanese-esque, the room features dressers like the others, but then the sitting area that’s really quite lovely.

I haven’t included a photo of the display room – it’s difficult to get a photograph without simply showing the objects and the relatively plain wall (compared to the others). From here, however, you walk straight into the bedroom.

A photograph of the table and chairs in the bedroom, set in the bay window area

Annie Russell-Cotes’ room, where she passed away, is a lot simpler than the others, thought there’s a lot of space to move freely. This room is the third with a bay window, and it’s situated at the far right end of the original house. Behind and to the right is where the bed is, and behind and centre is a dresser. Beside the dresser the door leads back to the mezzanine.

A photograph of the Mikado room

From here there’s just two more rooms: the Mikado room, above, and a small display room with one object for each letter of the alphabet. Highlights in that second room include a painting of a native New Zealander, a piece of a gown that belonged to Marie Antoinette, and a suit of Samurai armour.

A photograph of the entrance to the galleries

We go back downstairs and to the end of the hall that was behind me in the photograph. This leads to the 1909 extension.

Full of light and utterly different, the three rooms from here compose the gallery, where collections of artworks from a few artists adorn the walls, statues stand in glory, and, just like many galleries, there are lots of seats to sit on. The day I came to the Museum, an overcast day mid November (last week if you’re reading this at the time of posting) the twenty or so other visitors were all artists and most were sat making studies in these rooms. I’ve no idea if it was a one-off trip or if, like Virginia Woolf’s house, this place simply welcomes artists generally, but it was rather wonderful. It added to the relaxed atmosphere of the place – there’s no one route around the house; you wander at will.

A photograph of marble 'gateway' of the first gallery

The second gallery hosts more paintings and some decorative plates, and the third, a lot smaller, boasts a collection of tiles.

A photograph of marble 'gateway' of the first gallery

Looking around Russell-Cotes (for, apart from the garden which is a quick visit, we have reached the end of our tour) doesn’t take very long. If you’re the type to take in more of the whole than study in detail you can easily get round it in about an hour. A little longer if you want to stop in, on your way back, at the cafe. The detail-oriented will want to schedule at least double that time. There are parts of the house that I haven’t covered today – there are tours available at certain times that take you around areas that aren’t always open – that you may want to look into.

Owing to the period and style, access will be difficult if you struggle with walking or are in a wheelchair. The lift does allow a fair amount of access to the ground floor but getting around may be difficult – that is relevant to everyone.

A photograph of the painted glass ceiling in the hall

After I had been to Brighton Pavillion and again after Cardiff Castle, I wondered if anything could top those places. It’s been a few years since I visited them and I was starting to think that at least in Britain, finding a place that beat them would be hard. Well, they are both stunning, but in a great many ways, Russell-Cotes far surpasses anywhere I’ve ever been and, needless to say, it’s worth every moment.

The Present Past: Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House

A photograph of Virginia Woolf's living room

Monk’s House, in the village of Rodmell, near Lewes, in East Sussex, was Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s home for a few decades; they bought the house in 1919, a quick purchase after having previously bought a windmill a short distance away – the two preferred the Rodmell home so they moved in. Wikipedia dates the cottage to both the 1500s and the 1700s – the latter seems more likely, but regardless, it was altered during the Woolfs’ time. They bought some of the surrounding land. Virginia had an extension built for a bedroom and later a writing lodge. After the author’s death, Leonard remained at the House, often joined by Trekkie Parsons, a married artist who is believed to have been his chaste lover. Following Leonard’s death, Trekkie sold the house to Sussex University in 1972 and the National Trust bought it in 1980, turning it into the museum you see today.

A photograph of the front door of Monk's House

Arriving at Monk’s House, a white-washed half-hidden cottage down a gorgeous English country road, you find a space in the small car park and walk back to the entrance. The National Trust has set up their ticket office and shop in Leonard Woolf’s garage; the door-to-street environment, so different a choice to every other Trust property I’ve visited, gives you your first glimpse of what you’re about to experience. Once you’ve purchased your ticket, you exit back onto the road and head for the front garden gate. You pass the front door, surrounded by overgrown plants (another hint) and continue to the back garden, past the greenhouse which is effectively also a conservatory.

A photograph of the conservatory/greenhouse at Monk's House

And there you are. The door to the house is in the greenhouse, and in front of you stretches a number of small garden areas which, if you visit during the hotter months (there’s likely also some overgrowth in autumn) cover… everywhere. The Trust have kept the property close to the way it was when Virginia and Leonard owned it, and they have let the laid-back atmosphere remain. At Monk’s House you can sit in the garden, lay on the lawn, play bowls, relax on a bench, have a picnic, and take your time. The House itself, its rooms very small, is limited to a certain number of people at any one time so that you can properly enjoy it, and even when busy remains a casual experience. I’ll start with the House.

A photograph of Monk's House dining room

You walk in through the greenhouse door into what is now the dining room; its function changed from bedroom to dining room when Virginia extended the house. A staircase directly to your right holds books; it’s closed off, likely due to space. Presumably the first floor holds the room that was Leonard’s – certainly there is a balcony on which the Trust have placed deck chairs and a few other windows. The dining table is roped off because the furniture is at least partly original – the decoration on the chairs was created by Virginia’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell. The painting of Leonard you see to the left was done by Trekkie Parsons. To the right, not pictured, is Vanessa Bell’s famous painting of Virginia. The room also houses Leonard’s bowling balls.

A photograph of the fireplace in Virginia Woolf's living room

To the left of the dining room is the living room, shown in the opening photograph to this post. The fireplace above is the other end of the room. You can probably tell from these just how small the house is. Due to the smallness I didn’t take a photograph of the kitchen, which is at the far right side of the dining room. It’s tiny; it holds a dresser and a cupboard that was painted by Trekkie (the Trust says whilst she was waiting for food to boil), and a few other kitchen items.

A photograph of Virginia Woolf's bedroom

From the kitchen you return outside. Then you take a left turn into the extension built to house Virginia’s bedroom. The author had this room built so that she had a place to write, and it’s indeed inspiring, light shining through the windows, the walls painted a bright colour. On the shelves stand her self-bound volumes of Shakespeare. Virginia soon found that the bedroom wasn’t quite what she was after in terms of her concept of a room of one’s own, and so she and Leonard built a writing lodge.

A photograph of the view from Virginia Woolf's bedroom door

This is the view that awaits you as you turn to leave the room. I couldn’t not include it.

A photograph of the purposefully-overgrown gardens

Here’s the view from further right. It’s hard not to fall in love with this place. If you’ve ever seen the garden that inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett you’ll know that it was quite average apart from its walls. I can’t help but wonder if Virginia and Leonard decided to create their own homage to the book.

A photograph of flowers in the garden at Monk's House - red flowers are in focus against a background of greenery and purple flowers

Leonard was the gardener of the pair and he designed the space to be atmospheric and inspiring. The garden to the right of the greenhouse, the first garden you see as you step onto the property, contains a sunken pond (photo below this post). The path shown just above, purposefully overgrown, that’s parallel to the one from the bedroom door, takes you to a few side-by-side flower gardens which continue on to a couple of lawns, one which holds the burial places of the couple’s ashes.

A photograph of Leonard's burial site

Virginia’s spot has a similar plaque and bust to Leonard’s; there was a group picnicking beside it so I didn’t take a photograph, but you can just about see the plaque at the right edge of the photograph. The burial spots were chosen for their elm trees, which have unfortunately both since died; Leonard’s was blown over in the wind, Virginia’s had problems with mold.

A photograph of the writing lodge

As you move on further, part of the garden opens into a wild area where the Trust have a shed and green house they use for upkeep. The village church is this garden’s neighbour. Beyond that is Virginia’s writing lodge. The lodge has been split into two sections via a windowed wall, allowing you to see the room as it might have been set up whilst not having to worry about knocking things over. The section in which you stand has a collage of copies of A Room Of One’s Own on the wall, different covers and pages from many different languages. According to my research, the fairly tidy desk is fantasy; Virginia kept her space less organised. It was here she wrote almost all her novels. (You can find a photograph of the outside of the lodge at the bottom of this post.)

A photograph of the lawn at Monk's House

Out of the door and to the other side is the lawn on which the Woolfs invited their friends to play bowls; the view is stunning; it’s easy to see why it was so favoured. On this lawn is also a pond, currently the host to water-boatmen, dragonflies, water fleas, and lotus flowers. On one side of the lawn, near the lodge, is the allotment. The other side takes you back to the House, your longer-than-it-first-seemed walk around now complete.

A photograph of the wild(er) garden at Monk's House

Whilst I may have visited on a glorious day, I would say that you could visit whatever the weather or season (besides winter when the property is closed for all-round maintenance) and enjoy yourself. The experience of the place is such that it’s going to inspire you no matter what.

The rest of my photos

A photograph of the writing lodge - exterior

A photograph of peach and purple coloured flowers in the gardens

A photograph of the orchard

A photograph of a red and yellow flower in the far garden

A photograph of an in-progress flower border. There's a wooden wheelbarrow and seedlings in pots as well as a piece of slate which reads, in chalk, 'We are reinstating this long border which Virginia Woolf described as burning and blazing. Pop back to see progress

A photograph of the first garden you come to once through the gate - the sunken pond with statues around it. Neighbouring houses can be seen over the fence

A photograph of Leonard's garage

A photograph of the inner staircase

The Present Past: Hardy’s Cottage, And Max Gate

A photograph of Hardy's Cottage

Hardy lived all his life near Dorchester, Dorset (the east end of the west side of England, 30 minutes to the coast by car). He was born in a tiny leasehold cottage where he lived with his many siblings – in a few rooms before the place was later extended in order to house his grandmother. He stayed in the cottage until he married, writing his first novels there before designing and having his father and brother build Max Gate, 10 minutes (by car) from the cottage, where he lived with his wife, Emma.

Today, due to the short travelling distance between the homes, you can visit both within a few hours, or, if you’re like me and have made an appointment elsewhere for mid afternoon, you can see both houses within the space of 45 minutes. I don’t really recommend rushing it as I did – you’ll miss the cemetery wherein lies Hardy’s family – but if you don’t have much time, the houses are small enough that you can rush it and tick another two items off your list.

A photograph of Max Gate

Both houses are owned by the National Trust; Hardy’s youngest sister, Kate, enabled the Trust to take over one, and actively handed the other over to them so that they could be looked after. Neither home sports any of its original furniture, whether Hardy’s or otherwise; the cottage was handed back to the council in the interim of the Hardy’s time there, and Max Gate was bought by someone else. This means that there is an unfortunate lack of authenticity about the buildings, but due to this the National Trust have kitted them out with furniture that you can sit on, and at Max Gate the kitchen is a self-serve cafe – you can take your food through the house and into the garden (seeing someone carrying a tea tray through the hallway took some getting used to!)

So you may not find Hardy here, exactly, but if you want to sit in the place in which he sat and look at the gardens he would have seen when he looked up from his work, you can.

A photograph of the parlour at Hardy's Cottage

Hardy’s Cottage is an idyllic place – a traditional thatched cottage with a traditional English country garden. The original building consisted of just two rooms downstairs – the window in the parlour (behind me as I took the photograph) was where the door used to be, and the tiny room to the side, now laid out as a study. The porch and room now laid out as a kitchen, to the right as you come in, as well as another room beyond that looked to be in use as an office by Trust staff, was the extension added on later. Given how small the cottage is, that it was originally even smaller was a shock.

A photograph the kitchen at Hardy's Cottage

Only a small number of people are allowed upstairs at once, and the reason is obvious as soon as you start to ascend the stairs – the steps a narrow, many are slanted, and the linear layout of the three bedrooms leave little room to move. (There is another staircase at the end of the run of rooms but for whatever reason they are roped off.)

A photograph of a bedroom at Hardy's Cottage

It’s not known for definite which room was Hardy’s but the Trust has made a good guess and planted a writing desk in the last. What we do know is that whichever room he chose to write in, he would have looked out onto the garden. Here he wrote Under The Greenwood Tree and Far From The Madding Crowd, and also The Poor Man And The Lady – his very first novel, which he destroyed towards the end of his life.

A photograph the children's bedroom at Hardy's Cottage

Hardy met Emma Gifford whilst on an architectural mission to restore the parish church of St Juliot in Cornwall (Gibson 1975), fell in love, and married her. According to a few volunteers at both the Cottage and Max Gate, Emma viewed herself as higher class than Hardy (factually correct – he had grown up poor and her family had had money) so whilst the relationship began well, the couple’s time together soon became emotionally distant. Although Hardy was by then a very popular writer and able to design and have built a house of their own, Emma’s distaste grew and she spent more and more of her time away from him, finally retreating into the two attic rooms except for dinnertime. She is now considered to have suffered from a mental illness. When she died, Hardy was distraught – suddenly he missed her, having got used to the distance – and whilst he married the lady he had been seeing (Florence Dugdale) he didn’t stop writing about Emma nor, as a volunteer told me, did he stop visiting Emma’s family. This naturally resulted in his second marriage becoming strained.

A photograph of the upper hallway at Max Gate

Max Gate is a stunning place. The outside is pretty grand in terms of size but once inside it’s rather like a homecoming – if you’ve ever been into a modest English house built in the Victorian period, or even just a fairly large house from the early to mid 20th century, you’ll likely find Max Gate to be a bit like ‘coming home’. It is very much a bog standard home – walking around it feels so normal it’s almost as if you’re looking at it from the perspective of moving in.

A photograph of the dining room at Max Gate

The house doesn’t have all that many windows, and the long-ish corridors mean it can be difficult to see, certainly it’s hard to take good photographs! The decor in the hallways is dark and gloomy, and who knows what Hardy’s original design choices were, but the current one is very Victorian.

The dining room is set up on to the left of the entrance hall (I didn’t get a photo of it because that’s where people mill around and where the till is, but it’s gorgeous in a historical way, all dark greens and wood). Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, J M Barrie, all came to dine here on various occasions. The dining room was extended after it’s original build – the addition is to the far end, shown by the frame that goes round it.

A photograph of the drawing room at Max Gate

To the right of the entrance hall is the drawing room, packed with furniture and leading invitingly to the conservatory which is the sort of size conservatory we’d nowadays more likely turn into a utility room. Copies of literary magazines are spread over the table and a lovely little upright piano stands behind the door ready for visitors to play.

The hallway past the stairs leads to another that the Trust use as the public toilet – it’s a single room with a shower, which completes that feeling of mooching around someone’s house – and the kitchen from which you can serve yourself coffee and scones.

A photograph of the dressing room/study at Max Gate

Back to the entrance and up the stairs, left takes you to Hardy’s dressing room/first study – a wonderfully light room – and his bedroom (not pictured – a couple of visitors had taken the ‘sit down wherever you want’ directive to heart and were reading by the window… I may still be envious of their time).

A photograph of the second study at Max Gate

Back across the hallway and you reach the second bedroom/study, a room with one window facing trees that I couldn’t wait to leave. The space you see in the photo is over half the room. It’s evident that Hardy wanted more light – there’s an alcove with windows on either side – but it wasn’t happening.

A photograph of the third study at Max Gate

Walking out of the study and into Hardy’s writing room is like day and night. The room is sumptuous, with a large desk in the place he surely set up his own. It looks out onto the back garden (there are two – there’s also one to the side of the house, beyond the conservatory) and the amount of light the windows let in must have aided Hardy a great deal. It was another part of the extension, effectively his third study.

A photograph of Emma's attic sitting room at Max Gate

Emma’s attic rooms are accessed by a narrow staircase between the two studies that goes up to a big window ledge before the last step. It’s dark and dingy, more so than the rest of the house and I think that even if it weren’t for the story about Emma’s seclusion here, it would still feel… horrible. Being there reminded me of how I’d felt walking round the Bronte Parsonage when I was far too young to know what it was all about, and noting only how dark and spooky it was. I couldn’t help but feel a true connection existed – Emma was, in historical terms, quite literally the ‘mad woman in the attic’. You would think she had been sent to live up here by her family rather than made the decision herself.

A photograph of Emma's attic bedroom at Max Gate

In the second room a typewriter has been set up, along with a copy of her poetry. Her picture is everywhere; whether true to Hardy’s choices or not it is an apt representation of the way Emma must have haunted the house, her shadow hanging over Hardy and Florence.

I was unable to properly visit the garden and so missed the grave of Hardy’s dog, Wessex, spending a while in conversation with a volunteer whose knowledge I have used in this blog – a lot of what I’ve written about Emma Gifford is thanks to him, and the information about Hardy’s life before marriage is thanks to the volunteer at the Cottage.

A photograph of a hallway at Max Gate

As said, there is a feeling of something missing in these homes; that’s because if the National Trust made it all original you’d be walking round empty rooms; but if you visit both on the same day and add on a trip to the churchyard, it’s time well spent. If you go on the ‘right’ day, you could also fit in a visit to Virginia Woolf’s house.

What you do get from Hardy’s houses is a journey through a life, from relative poverty to fame and relative wealth, and you get a working knowledge of Hardy’s architectural knowledge that you would miss out on otherwise. And it just stands out from other historical houses, its relative modernity being pretty special.

For what it is, it’s expensive, but at the same time it’d be hard to say it isn’t worth it.

The rest of my photos – Hardy’s Cottage

A photograph the 'study' at Hardy's Cottage

A photograph the garden shed at Hardy's Cottage

The rest of my photos – Max Gate

A photograph of a hallway at Max Gate

A photograph of the bathroom at Max Gate

Book References

Gibson, James (ed.) (1975) Chosen Poems of Thomas Hardy, Macmillan Education, London, p.9

The Present Past: Lydiard Park

Lydiard Manor

Lydiard Park is a large estate in Swindon. Now owned by the local council, only some of the building is accessible to the public as the first floor and some parts of the ground floor are used as meeting rooms and for other council purposes, but the medieval church and the grounds are free to roam, and there is a cafe and walled garden, so all in all it constitutes a good casual day out – a fair length of time if you want to see it all, and a couple of hours if it’s your local park and you want to take the dog for a walk.

Lydiard Manor

Presumably due to the house being mostly council space, the accessible ground floor sports all kinds of rooms. You start in the side corridor rather than at the front of the house, as you do in many others, pay for entry, and walk into a large hallway/receiving hall space. The house was sold by the original owners to the council unfurnished – it had been the in the same family since the medieval period – so the furniture has been collected. It’s been done very well; the rooms are well decorated and there are plenty of paintings on the walls.

Lydiard Manor

The dining room is small, but the living rooms are large and there is a lot to see if you like to look at old items close up. The ‘state bedroom’ is pretty special, so too the blue room at the end that was likely a chapel, and of course it’s always good to see a library. The house, believed to have been built in the medieval period, was restructured in the Georgian decades so behind the walls there are even older elements. It’s that catch 22 that befalls a lot of old buildings that were restructured in the days when people didn’t think of history – the restructure has value as a historic building as much as the Tudor, so decisions have to be made in terms of keeping it as it is or cutting back further in time.

Lydiard Manor

To go back to the original family, briefly, they were called St John (or, rather, are called – one present-day relative writes about the house). There is a connection with the House of Tudor – Margaret Beauchamp, later grandmother of Henry VII, was related to the St Johns via her first marriage. They kept the house right up until the 1940s. It had been requisitioned for use as a war hospitals and training grounds whilst and at the same time this was happening the family were deciding to move on.

Lydiard Manor

Back to the estate itself, whilst the house is a short trip in itself, the church and surrounding parkland make up for it. It’s best to visit the church before you go around the park.

Something that I think can be considered special is the way access to the church is allowed; whilst you understandably can’t visit it when a service is happening (unless you want to join in, I suppose), the key to the church is available to borrow from the staff at the house. This means you get the church to yourself, or mostly for yourself – as keyholder you’re responsible for ushering out anyone who happens to enter before you leave (not to turn them away but so the church can be locked again).

Lydiard Manor

It’s really worth the visit. The church is very old and though you can’t see it from my photos – it was a little too dark near the altar – a lot of what could be assumed the original artwork remains. (At least I like to think it’s original – Catholic churches of old were very beautiful, colourful, and so it does follow that the starry ceiling of St Mary’s could date back to the pre-Reformation years.)

Lydiard Manor

So to the grounds – they are vast, more vast than they first seem (you have to start exploring to see just how much there is to find). The Chinese bridge takes you over the lake to a patch of woodland which then winds round back across the lake where you can choose to tramp round the fields or go further out. The track back to the gates takes you past the ice house, or a slightly different route takes you to the walled garden and stables, where you’ll find the cafe.

Lydiard Manor

Like most house grounds, the items of particular interest outside are near the building, so if you’re coming from afar the opening hours offer more than enough time. A keen walker may want to return to see what lies in the distance. And as the grounds do serve as a local park, it’s a lovely casual experience.

The rest of my photos

Lydiard Manor

Lydiard Manor

Lydiard Manor

Lydiard Manor

Lydiard Manor

Lydiard Manor

Lydiard Manor

Lydiard Manor

The Present Past: Old Wardour Castle

Old Wardour Castle, near Salisbury, was the home of a few different families and was a casualty of the English Civil War, the owners at the time supporting the King and the land threatened as a result. A new castle was built when the family recovered power and the old ruins were left as they were.

The setting of Old Wardour, herein to be known as Wardour because the ‘new’ castle is not on the same site, is the most beautiful I’ve come across so far. It’s like a fairyland, a romantic setting of the sort that might have been used in old romance novels. High on a hill a few miles from Salisbury, the landscape is brimming with trees – forest – a stunning lake, and views for miles.

The castle, in its ruined state, rooms unrecognisable, echoes Rochester Castle’s set-up. If you recall my post on that easterly ruin you’ll remember I didn’t say as much as the size of the building required and that that was because in its present state you simply went round and round viewing the same scene. For similar reasons, I’ll be doing the same here.

You don’t go round Wardour as you do Rochester, but the way the towers spiral higher and higher makes everything rather repetitive in a way it obviously wouldn’t have been in years gone by when it was furnished. The towers open to bedrooms, that much is clear, but whose bedrooms would be anyone’s guess. I’ll be your tour guide to a point after which you’ll have to do some creative work.

When you drive up to Wardour you will have already had a bit of an experience. The literal upwards motion showing off the landscape. The trees are so abundant there’s no use looking out for the castle until you’re practically on top of it and the use is no more. You must drive – you could probably walk it but the roads are narrow and it would take a very long time. If you’re planning to walk you’re not planning a walk – you’re planning a hike.

There’s a lovely spot of green space for parking. On the day we went there seemed to be a rally of sorts going on, unaffiliated with the castle. It’s a popular place for families (though not too popular – children use the ruins to hide in but we’re not talking more than a few dozen people in total) so you can take a picnic but still bask in the atmosphere. Do check the day you plan to go – a couple of rooms are forever cordoned off as they serve as a wedding site which suggests weddings happen here often. Indeed there was a wedding on when we visited and we had to wait to view the banqueting house (like a summer house in appearance).

Wardour sports a little grotto made out of fallen stones from the castle and a couple of other places to find as well as that small banqueting house. The castle stands in the middle of a circular green that’s a bit of a hill itself and leads down to the lake and some very lucky person’s house. (Admittedly it can’t be nice living amongst constant noise.) The site is bordered by a wall where it counts – going to the lake is a deliberate action.

The great thing about ruins is that you can generally, safety pending, enter the building from whichever entrance you like. You can walk up those grand steps and walk through the main doorway to the envy of those gone before you who were relegated to the servant’s hall and experience the largesse as it was made to be experienced. All this to say, I entered through the main archway and it was grand. Because Wardour is grand, approximately seven storeys of past luxury.

A room on the right housed a guard. It would make a good hiding place for children (and I expect it may be used as such) – there’s a narrow gap, perhaps an old toilet, that the very short can go through, over a small wall, and stand in.

In the entrance area itself is a beer cellar. It looks a bit like a lobby, really, a fireplace and set of stairs at the back wall, but in a time when water was not pure I suppose you’d want a lot of storage space for alcohol. Perhaps in times gone by people wouldn’t have seen a space or an alcove and thought ‘walk-in wardrobe! Library!’, instead wondering if they could send a messenger to Dave to ask about the dimensions of his wine racks. If it’s raining when you visit, the entrance is where you want to be. Whilst the bedrooms have ceilings they also have windows and the cellar is, aptly, light and thus wind free.

Beyond the cellar is the courtyard. Even now it’s grand. There are quite a few paths to choose from here and it’s worth remembering exactly where you’ve detoured so that you can come back to the courtyard and press on with the other routes afterwards. The sweeping staircase is one of two ways up, the other rooms at ground level only requiring a few minutes. There’s the cordoned off rooms I mentioned to the right, and a few doors that lead to the other side of the green. One room is accessible only by walking outside first.

Taking the ground level rooms first we have a couple of dingy places partly held together by recent re-building. Whilst I did change my lighting setting when taking photographs to offset the lack of sunlight the greenish tinge reflects the reality. Lichen has made its home on the walls. The information boards say that this, or these, rather, are the ground floor kitchens. It can’t have been nice working here. It’s stuffy enough and that’s with a damaged ceiling and lots of air.

To the courtyard again, this time ascending that magnificent staircase (photo at the bottom of this post). I believe this large room was the hall and once again you’ve different doors to choose. The small rooms to the right. The roofless rooms beyond. The spiral staircases. The small rooms are nondescript but it is worth looking around for the bars that signal a drop beyond – you can get good views of the rooms below from them. You can walk up narrow, worn, stairs to other look outs and small rooms and there’s a second spiral, other than that to the bedrooms, that will take you back down and out a gap in the side of the building.

The rooms beyond the hall are the great chamber and kitchens; this place could hold quite a party.

Up the spiral staircase to a room that shouts ‘bedroom’ just for the smallish size and fireplace. Up again to another, and then again – there are about four of the exact same room. If we suppose the inaccessible parallel tower sported the same number we’re looking at an 8 bedroom detached mansion with large garden, complete with children’s hideaway grotto and summer house. The last part of the building to see is the roof, or at least what’s now the roof.

Choose your way back down and you’ve the banquet house, grotto, standing stones and bridge to see. The banquet house is composed of two rooms, nicely decorated, 1700s in style.

The grotto is small and looks more tumbledown than you might expect, the stones pitted all over and suggesting a fairyland in the making. You can walk through it and there are a couple of places to sit. The standing stones are more restful.

I didn’t find the bridge. I looked, because the guidebook said it has a wonderful view of the castle, but where it’s situated I don’t know.

Wardour makes a lovely day out. There’s more to see than photographs of the exterior suggest, so don’t plan too much else, but there’s also not all that much to do once you’ve been round it. You do have to be careful – we went up the spiral and there were a couple with dogs coming down (really not sure that’s allowed) but for the most part there are hand rails – the stable, metal kind – and you just have to tread carefully because us humans aren’t as small as we were when this castle was built. Even the kids’ feet were verging on too big for the steps.

And, actually, I’d recommend it just for the view, even just for the drive up there. Even if you’re not big on castles it’s somewhere you’ll appreciate having visited. Do remember what I said about weddings – seeing people dressed up is nice but paying out for limited access isn’t – take a picnic, keep the entrance in sight if it clouds over and enjoy the romance of this ruined ‘assall, as my nephew used to call them.

The rest of my photos (and afterwards a question for you).

Which historical place/museum/park do you most want to visit this year?


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