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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?

The Present Past: Kingston Lacy

Please note this post is full of images. Kingston Lacy was built by Ralph Banks, beginning in 1663, and remained in the family until 1981 when it was given to The National Trust. It started out as a red brick hall and was remodelled in the 1800s. It houses many Egyptian artefacts, the result of the travels of the re-modeller.

Kingston Lacy is one of, if not the best, historic house I have ever visited. In relative terms it is small – it’s a massive mansion but mini when compared to the likes of Highclere Castle. And as I hope my photographs will show, it is simply spectacular. It’s luxury in the extreme, there are acres upon acres of land – split into parts so that it feels bigger than most – and there is enough for an entire day out and then some. But perhaps the best thing about Kingston Lacy is the fact you’re able to see so much of it. Unlike many, most, historic buildings wherein there are many floors and rooms but you are only allowed in a few of them (Knighthayes, I’m looking at you with your four floors and your ‘oh sorry, you can only see half of two of them’) you get to explore the vast majority of the house. You get to go on all floors. You get to use the grand staircases where other houses relegate you to the back entrances. And, significantly, you are allowed to take photographs.

When you drive up to Kingston Lacy the car park is a little to the side. This means you get to walk up to the house, take photographs from the front, and enter through the main doors. The entrance hall walls are packed, similarly to the rest of the house as you’ll see, and it’s a good indication of the marvel waiting for you further in. Stag heads abound, which may not be particularly nice but are at least relics of an older time rather than the present, and there’s the rather splendid clock that I liked so much I concentrated on it instead of waiting around to see if I’d be able to get a shot of the hall itself (pretty impossible unless you’re happy to have a crowd in your pictures). The hall has a chequered floor and is on two levels.

First up is the Audit room, the name of which took me ages to discover because it seems not many people like it enough to photograph it… and I’m writing this a year late. There’s a reason for the lack of photography; it’s a nice room but nowhere near the scale of the rest.

Into the library and here comes the luxury. I’m under no impression all the paintings in this house were here originally – they may have been but it’s not unlike Trusts to chop and change furnishings – but it’s no matter because the effect is jaw-dropping. The library is your typical wall-to-wall bookshelf affair, which is a much appreciated typical and one I’m sure you appreciate, too. The room, despite being rather large, is very homely and warm.

Next is the drawing room, just as beautiful. There is a lot more light here as you might imagine and it looks straight out of an Austen adaptation. The fact that that could well be the case considering the number of films and TV shows that require historical houses just adds to its appeal. And if we needed any more evidence that pink used to be more of a neutral colour, take a look at the walls. Obviously I couldn’t sit down on the sofa but how I wished to and how certain I am that most everyone else felt the same way.

The Spanish Room is where things take a step up, as if they needed to. More paintings, more sparkle, it’s a combination of Georgian beauty and the ‘exotic’. I haven’t a clue if this room was used to eat in, but the table and chairs look nice regardless. The dining room has an organ. Yes, an organ in the dining room; it’s pretty epic here, isn’t it? (I haven’t a photo of it – there were too many people – but you can easily find one online.)

Up the stairs. The white marble stairs that are lovely themselves but are housed in an elegant hallway. You can view the ceiling here but I recommend waiting until you’re higher up and have less chance of twisting your neck out of joint.

The saloon opts for brighter, lighter colours. The ceiling is high; I believe it reaches the top of the house. There is much to savour here; the paintings as always, the perfect bureaus that you’ve always wanted but would cost the earth.

The state bedroom is fairly small in comparison, as you can see, but no chances were being taken in the bed department. Clearly no crowd of visitors was involved in the thought process behind the decision.

There are other bedrooms and bathrooms. One bedroom in particular is quite a sight – you’ll find all the vanilla ice cream you’ve ever wanted in it.

Up another flight of stairs and you find yourself in the attic. This fact in itself is awesome as few attics are open to the public, but even better is the tent effect that’s going on. Building dens seems to have been as popular back in the day as it is now but how many people can say they were able to keep their dens in place indefinitely? Not me, that’s for sure! I suppose it’s possible such decoration was considered easier than constantly grabbing blankets from the laundry.

Downstairs, the domain of the servants, are some models of houses and a general exhibition on Kingston Lacy.

The laundry is located in a long barn outside. The rooms have been set up as they would have been and at three long rooms you can imagine how much there was to do. But look at those stairs – there’s very little room for anyone!

The gardens are vast; too vast to explore completely in one day, but as long as you’ve not spent too long in the house you’ll see a fair amount. There’s the lawn that takes you down to one of the Cleopatra’s Needles taken from Egypt. There’s a path that takes you all the way from the far end of the lawn to the kitchen gardens (and a few pigs). The traveller who reaches them will find ice cream and snacks awaiting their arrival – the time it takes to get there makes ‘traveller’ a most suitable descriptor. On this path you’ll also find a Japanese garden and a small place that’s been left to grow wild.

The restaurant’s housed in the stables. It’s not particularly good – cramped, few items on the menu – but it’s the only downside. And now for a slightly slanted photo:

It’s really no wonder, when you take in everything I’ve said above, that Kingston Lacy is a favourite amongst history lovers. It’s no wonder my parents kept on about it throughout my childhood. I’m not sure how popular it is in international recommendations, it’s hardly Highclere/Dowton Abbey or Buckingham Palace and no queens ever lived there. But I would recommend it in a heartbeat. If you go, check which days allow free roaming – some days you can only see the house via guided tour and for a place like this that wouldn’t be fun.

The rest of my photos (and afterwards a question for you). I’m aware this is messy!

Forgetting that I said I visited last year, where did you go this summer? (Or, for those in the southern hemisphere, where are you hoping to go?)

The Present Past: Whittington Castle

This post is full of images. Whittington Castle changed hands through battle many times in the Medieval period; its place near the border being highly sought after by both English and Welsh alike. Perhaps the most notable of keepers, the Fitwaryns, legend has it, kept the Holy Grail hidden there.

There isn’t all that much to say about Whittington Castle in its present state. Whilst the site is full of history, few walls remain; suffice to say a lot of my visit comprised of guesswork and the sorts of dreams history-minded tourists are predisposed to have, fancying ourselves sitting at windows and at table and what have you. Suffice to say it has taken me this long to write about the place because part of me believes an image of arms held out and ‘this is it’ written below it would sum up the situation quite well.

Whittington Castle as it now stands is situated by a main road, the bridge and entrance facing the road almost as though it were just another residence. The gatehouse is actually Victorian, one of those faux-historical Victorian constructions, and the only part that remains intact (even if the very fact of its Victorianhood makes such a fact less awe-inspiring). Other than the gatehouse there is a barn-like building, newer, that houses the shop (here I must thank the assistant who ran after me when I left my camera there), a tearoom, a couple of crumbling towers, and patches of stonework. You get a sense of where rooms were, but by and large you have to use your imagination, especially as what’s left presents a false impression – the castle would have been larger than it appears.

Modernity, presumably the trust that looks after the castle, has placed a bridge across the moat and a small gazebo overlooking a field/garden. Given that it is free to visit and that the walls have crumbled, you can approach the castle from a few places, namely the car park and the bridge. If approaching from the left, you can get a sense of where the left side of the stone buildings would have been. (Somehow viewing the castle from the left makes it seem bigger – I was a little silly and didn’t think to take a photograph from this angle but there are plenty online.)

I believe the room at the top of the gatehouse is used for parties of some sort but the castle as a whole is taken over once a year by a re-enactment society, Historia Normannis, that focuses on the many battles that took place. I wasn’t there at that time but I imagine such an event would make the castle seem greater than it now does. As with many historical sites, ghost stories abound. There are many, it seems, which surely fits the situation.

Where it is hard to assume which rooms were which there is positive side to visiting for visiting’s sake – the landscape. It is by a road and you will never escape that, but the moat is lovely, the field a nice place for a walk, and it is incredibly quiet on account of Whittington being so small.

Can I recommend it? Tough question. Is it worth a trip for the average tourist, especially someone with little time in England? No, it is not; you would likely feel you’d wasted your time. Is it worth a trip if you are really into Medieval history? Yes, though you would want to make it part of a day because it really only takes a few minutes to view everything unless you are intent on walking through every part. It’s difficult – this place is full of history but that history has long gone.

The rest of my photos. I’m aware this is messy!

Where are you planning to visit this year (or, if you live in the southern hemisphere, where did you go this summer)?

The Present Past: A La Ronde

Please note this post is full of images and as such not very ‘neat’. A La Ronde was built in the 18th century by two unmarried female cousins and was to be inherited only by unmarried kinswoman. It was sold at auction and opened for visitors in 1935.

A La Ronde was built by a couple of cousins for a specific purpose. Its name being obvious, there is more than meets the eye to this circular building – it was built such that in the days before artificial light, the sisters could follow the sun round the house, using as much time as possible to work on their embroidery.

A La Ronde is not a big house, at least in the grand scheme of things (it’s certainly bigger than anywhere I have lived!) and whilst it sports an excellent view, the grounds are fairly small and is really just one field – so whilst I’d recommend you visit, I’d also recommend you don’t plan to make a day of it.

Once you’ve passed through the shop you enter the house through the main doors which, if you’ve visited even just a few historical buildings, you’ll realise makes a welcome change. The hallway is fairly grand yet simple – a beautiful mahogany staircase (that you can’t ascend but will later descend) and your first glimpse of the interior design. Given the nature of the house, the semi-linear directions you are supposed to take (as opposed to walking around freely) make a lot of sense.

For lack of any other suitable place to say so, I will say now that you get to see a rather lot of the house. Certainly the fact that it’s not so old and it’s relative lack of importance overall (the sisters are not famous and this is of course no castle) likely help, as there are will be less visitors and fewer items to be damaged, but given your overall welcome, I expect passion and the desire to show others had a role to play, too. I counted four closed doors, there are probably a few more, but not anywhere near the amount that makes tourists grumble. More on the closed sections later.

So, through the entrance and to the left into the drawing room. It’s tiny, as most of the rooms are, but hosts a pretty fireplace and a rather large tapestry woven by the sisters that the enthusiastic room guides will inevitably tell you about supposing the building is not jam packed. I didn’t take a photograph of this room, partly for the size (the furniture makes it awkward) but mostly because the room guide was stood in the centre and whilst I’ve no doubt she would have moved she’d spent a good few minutes telling us about the room and making a request would’ve made me feel rude. However as this is the least interesting room for photographs anyway, in my opinion, I was not too worried.

On into the library, the smallest cubbyhole you’re likely to see in a historical house. The poor composition of my photograph hopefully infers the size.

Into the music room and a sighting of the most gigantic radiator I’d ever seen. It’s a wonderful contraption that I’ve no doubt would’ve been appreciated in the larger houses I’ve been to. So large is it, in fact, that I didn’t realise it was a heating system until the guide told us.

The music room is the place you’re introduced to the house hobby – shell collecting. This house is absolutely chock-full of seashells. Whole cabinets of seashells, hallways full of them. It’s a nice collection as it’s the cousins’ own rather than anything imported from elsewhere.

Of course there are the instruments. An antique clavichord (it may have been a harpsichord) stands weakly against a wall and quite rightly you must not touch it. The small Grand, on the other hand, you may play, in fact it’s positively requested that you do. The room guides spoke of the many wonderful afternoons spent listening to expert players and the joy, if not artistic creativity, of children playing chopsticks.

From here you go up the stairs, carefully, as they are small and spiral. With your eye for all things literary you’re going to spot the old Dickens collection. Don’t listen to your partner when they tell you to hurry up – it’s worth a few moments.

A bedroom. A gorgeous, very Victorian, sunny room. The views are fantastic, the windows created so that you can appreciate them to the full (both the view and the windows themselves). The room guide had us smell an old-fashioned soap that made me feel strange when I noted it’s one I’ve used myself. It’s not a nice smell but I didn’t realise it was so old! A dumb waiter stands in the corner; you can see the bottom of it downstairs.

The next room hasn’t been furnished as it’s been set aside for children to play dress up and pose for photos. I declined the dress shown to me but did take a photograph. There is one more room to see on this floor, it’s used as a sort of second-hand book shop, and the rest are private. Here is the note I spoke of discussing earlier – at the end of the hall, beside the stairs (next to which is a well-reasoned caution as the landing is tiny) is a private office with a photograph of the interior on the door. It’s an excellent idea that I can’t but hope the staff will extend to the rest of the private rooms. You may not be able to go into those rooms and they might be furnished as 21st century offices, but a photograph goes a long way to making it less of a pity.

Just before you head down the stairs you can look up the closed-off second flight to see the grotto on the second floor. Whilst you can’t enter it, you can see enough to realise what it is and it might just take your breath away. Obviously a small attic/sun room space, the walls have been decorated with shells, no gap left unfilled. When you return downstairs you can view the room from another angle due to a double-floor hallway, and there are also objects and photographs to give you a better look. The grotto is undergoing restoration but whether or not it’ll be opened to the public is another question. I would hazard to guess it won’t happen simply because the room is so small. Yes they could put some protective layer over the walls but that would make an already small floor pretty impossible to walk on, and it’s likely the constant flow of visitors would cause the room to deteriorate. A La Ronde is thus a place I would loved to see covered on a television documentary.

As said before, you get to descend the stairs. This is when you enter the second hallway, as it were – a round room from which other rooms lead into. In the living room, which is actually too rooms opened into one, the frieze (along the top of the wall and along the mantelpiece of the fireplace in the photograph to the left) is made entirely of feathers. As far as I remember I believe these feathers were collected from the ground rather than from any hunted bird, though I could be wrong. Artistic, too, are the works in the frames, too small to capture here – pictures made of tiny shells. It is a beautiful room, full of light when I was there. You’ll find photographs of the hallway and frieze below.

The dining room is small and pretty and then there are a few basic rooms with more shells and examples of the uniquely shaped windows. You end your visit via the basement/lower floor (given the hill) wherein you can eat in the tea room or simply pass through and see the last cabinet of shells.

There are few flowers to see in the grounds and, as previously stated, no garden of the sort you might expect to see elsewhere. The view is worth a good several minutes, and there is a small obelisk to see and a short walk around the grounds to be had if you so wish.

You’ll find more photographs of the view in the collection below, but for now here is one in which you can just make out the Exe Estuary in the background.

Nice building? Check. Beautiful surroundings? Check. And as the members of staff at any one historical place can make the difference between your wanting to return and wanting to never come back I will say that they’re passionate and will talk to you for a good while. They definitely add to the experience.

Visit A La Ronde in the round before you circle back along the road to somewhere else.

The rest of my photos (and afterwards a question for you). I’m aware this is messy!

Setting aside for a moment the fact we have artificial light now, what do you think of the idea of following the sun round the house?


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