No longer on my travel bucket list . . . another igneous encounter

I’ve been very fortunate (and privileged) to have visited many places of interest all over the world: Machu Picchu in Peru; the temples of Tikal and Angkor Wat in Guatemala and Cambodia, respectively; some of the world’s iconic cities like New York, Sydney, and Hong Kong, to name just three; and many of the wonderful parks and monuments throughout the USA, such as the Grand Canyon, Devil’s Tower, or Crater Lake. I’ve written about these, and many others, in this blog.

But there is one place, much closer to home, that I wanted to see as long as I can remember. And that place is the Giant’s Causeway, on the north coast of Antrim in Northern Ireland. Last week I was finally able to tick the Giant’s Causeway on my travel bucket list.

Steph and I have just returned from a week-long road trip to Northern Ireland, mainly to visit most of the properties owned by the National Trust over there. We actually got to visit nine houses, one garden, and the Giant’s Causeway.

It took a little under two hours to drive north from our guesthouse in Ardboe, beside Lough Neagh, to the Visitor Centre – mainly because we decided to take back roads to avoid the expected early morning congestion around Coleraine, and also because we missed one turn and found ourselves heading east instead of north, delaying about 15 minutes as a consequence.

It must have been around 10:30 or so when we parked, and already the site was busy. The Giant’s Causeway is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and attracts visitors—by the coach-load—from all over the world, most of whom (not being National Trust members) must handsomely boost the National Trust’s finances. I was surprised to note how many Chinese visitors we met at the Causeway.

The National Trust has built a fine Visitor Centre, with its gift shop and cafeteria, and many exhibits describing the geology and history of the site.

I was surprised how much limestone and chalk can be seen on the north Antrim coast, having been protected, as it were, by an overlay of volcanic rocks. Interesting geology!

It’s the volcanic history that we see at the Giant’s Causeway, an outcrop of beautiful pentagonal and hexagonal basalt columns, stretching from the shore northwards into the incoming tide.

You have to walk just under a mile from the Visitor Centre down the cliff face to reach the Causeway itself. Fortunately, the National Trust does provide a regular shuttle bus service back up, free to members. We were happy to take the bus after wandering over the Causeway for well over an hour.

But the Causeway is not the only landscape attraction. The spectacular cliff backdrop to the landscape just adds that extra grandeur and mystery. Old Irish myths spring to mind! We also took a walk on Runkerry Head (on the left of the map below) so that we could view the Causeway from a distance through a gap in the next headland east (between Portnaboe and Port Ganny). In the far distance the crags of The Amphitheatre just add to the drama.

Looking east from Runkerry Head towards The Amphitheatre (in the far distance) and the Giant’s Causeway that can be seen through the gap in the next headland. The road down the cliff passes through that gap.

With some clever angles and hiding behind various basalt columns I was able to take most photos without any tourists showing, despite there being several hundred or more there at the time. I was also a little surprised at how small an area the Giant’s Causeway covered, but I guess that as the tide was in (or coming in) more would be exposed at low tide. I’m quite happy with my photos, but I have seen several more spectacular photos of the Causeway taken at dawn or sunset.

The Giant’s Causeway is certainly an impressive landscape. If you do plan a visit, do check the weather forecasts carefully. Although mainly overcast, we did have some sunny weather. Half an hour after we left, heading further east and south on the Antrim coast, the heavens opened, and visitors to another National Trust site, the Rope Bridge (where we stopped for a picnic only) were probably soaked to the skin, with the weather turning in the bat of an eyelid. Further south, the chalk is exposed at a number of points including here at Garron Point (map).

A National Trust trip around Northern Ireland

Well, if I count the visit to Plas Newydd on the southern shore of Anglesey, on the way to Holyhead to catch the ferry over to Ireland, Steph and I visited twelve National Trust properties in eight days.

We have wanted to visit Northern Ireland for many years, but until now never really had the opportunity, or we felt that the security situation didn’t make for a comfortable visit. All that has changed. Now retired, we have time on our hands. ‘The Troubles‘ are a thing of the past (fortunately), and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland has transformed the opportunities for that part of the United Kingdom.

Being members of the National Trust, and knowing that there were some splendid houses to see over in Northern Ireland, as well as some Trust-owned landscapes such as the spectacular Giant’s Causeway on the north Antrim coast, this was just the incentive we needed to decide, once and for all, to cross over to the island of Ireland again. We have visited south of the border several times. I first went to Co. Clare in 1968, and Steph and I had holidays there traveling around in 1992 and 1996.

Planning the trip – finding somewhere to stay
For a number of recent holidays, I have used to search for hotels when I was planning our road trips across the USA. So I used this company this time round when looking for an overnight stay in Holyhead, convenient for the ferry to Ireland early the next morning.

In Northern Ireland we were looking for somewhere central from where it would be a relatively easy drive each day to any part because the National Trust properties we wanted to visit were scattered all over (as shown in the map above). After reading various online reviews (are they always reliable?), and looking for value for money, we chose The Drummeny Guest House in Ardboe, Co. Tyrone (Mid-Ulster council district), on the west shore of Lough Neagh.

Me and Tina Quinn on the morning of our departure from The Drumenny Guest House

What a find! Our hosts, Tina and Damien Quinn, were the best. What a friendly welcome, and hospitality like you would never believe. The reviews on were all very positive. Were they accurate? Absolutely! In fact, our experience was even better than previous reviewers had described. Such a breakfast (full Irish), and lots of other extras that Tina provided. In fact, staying with Tina and Damien it felt as though we were staying with family, and a week at The Drumenny was better than we ever anticipated. So, if you ever contemplate a Northern Ireland holiday, there’s only one place to head for: The Drumenny Guest House in Ardboe. You won’t be disappointed.

Less than a mile away there’s a good restaurant, The Tilley Lamp, that serves good, simple food, and lots of it. Very convenient.

Day 1: 8 Sep — home to Holyhead, via Plas Newydd (168 miles; map)
Our Northern Ireland trip started just after 09:15, and because of major road works (and almost certain traffic congestion) we decided to travel northwest from Bromsgrove via Kidderminster and Bridgnorth, before joining the A5 south of Shrewsbury. We then continued on the A5 through Snowdonia, and over the Menai Strait to Plas Newydd House and Gardens, just a few miles west of Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch.

Home to the Marquesses of Anglesey (descendants of the 1st, who as the Earl of Uxbridge, served alongside the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, and had his leg blown off by a cannonball), Plas Newydd stands on the shore of the Menai Strait that separates Anglesey from mainland Wales.

Day 2: 9 Sep — Dublin to Ardboe, calling at Derrymore House near Newry, and Ardress House (120 miles), Co. Armagh
Our Stena Line Superfast X ferry arrived to Dublin Port on time, just after noon, and we quickly headed north on the M1, crossing into Northern Ireland just south of Newry in Co. Armagh.

Derrymore House lies a few miles west of the A1, and is open for just five afternoons a year. That was a piece of luck that we happened to pass by on one of those days. It’s a late 18th century thatched cottage. The ‘Treaty Room’ is the only room open to the public, and the 1800 Act of Union uniting the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland is supposed to have been drafted there.

Further north, and the route to Ardboe, we also visited Ardress House, built in the 17th century, and embellished in the 18th. It has a traditional farmyard.

We arrived to our guesthouse around 18:00, and enjoyed a meal out that evening at The Tilley Lamp. The best pork chops I’ve ever tasted.

Day 3: 10 Sep — Ardboe Cross, Co. Tyrone, Springhill House, Co. Londonderry and The Argory, Co. Armagh (53 miles)
Sunday morning. We decided to briefly explore the Lough Neagh shore near Arboe, and see one of Ireland’s national monuments, the Ardboe Cross.

Springhill House is a typical 17th ‘Plantation‘ house, showing the history of ten generations of the Lenox-Conyngham family.

The Argory is just 20 miles south of Springhill, and was built in the 1820s and was the home of the MacGeough Bond family, and has remained unchanged since 1900. It has magnificent interiors, particularly the cantilevered staircase.

Day 4: 11 Sep — Florence Court and Crom Castle, Co. Fermanagh (169 miles)
Florence Court is the furthest west of all of the National Trust’s properties, a few miles southwest of Enniskillen in Co. Fermangh. It was the home of the Earls of Enniskillen, and was built in the 18th century. There are beautiful views of the nearby mountains from the front of the house. Inside, where photography is not permitted, the walls and ceilings have some of the finest stucco plaster work I have seen. In 1955 there was a disastrous fire and it’s credit to the National Trust how well they accomplished the refurbishment. Remarkably many of the precious items in the house were saved.

On our route back to Ardboe, we diverted to make a quick visit to the ruins of Crom Castle, on the banks of Upper Lough Erne. There was time for a walk to the ruins from the Visitor Centre before it closed for the day, and approaching showers drenched us. There were some lovely views over the lough to Creighton Tower.

We also saw how convoluted the border is between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Sorting that out during the Brexit negotiations will be a challenge, nightmare even, and so unnecessary. It is an invisible border, and hopefully obstacles will not be put in place by this incompetent Conservative government that will undermine the economic and social progress that Northern Ireland has made in recent years. This story on the BBC website (20 September) has a video of the very road we took back to Ardboe between the counties of Fermanagh (Northern Ireland) and Monaghan (Republic).

Day 5: 12 Sep — Giant’s Causeway and the Antrim coast, Co. Antrim (162 miles)
The Giant’s Causeway has long been on my Bucket List of attractions to visit. And we weren’t disappointed. We had carefully monitored the weather forecasts and chose what we hoped would be the best day of the week. In general it was. The drive north from Ardboe took just under 2 hours. We passed through the small town of Bellaghy, Co. Londonderry, burial site of Nobel Literature Laureate Seamus Heaney. I wish we had stopped.

Although it was not yet 10:30 when we reached the Visitors’ Centre at the Giant’s Causeway, it was already very busy, and just got busier over the three hours we stayed there. There were visitors from all over the world – particularly from China.

It’s a walk of more than a mile down the cliff to the actual Causeway, so we took a leisurely stroll there. But we did take advanatge of the free bus ride (as National Trust members) to go back up the cliff road.

We then headed east along the north Antrim coast, and stopped for a picnic at the Rope Bridge car park where a torrential downpour spoiled the view and prompted us to move on rather than have a wander around. Then we headed down the east coast on a road that hugs the bottom of cliffs along the seashore, before reaching Larne and then heading west around the top of Lough Neagh and home to The Drumenny.

Day 6: 13 Sep — Mount Stewart, Co. Down (127 miles)
On the northeast shore of Strangford Lough, just south of Newtownards, the Mount Stewart estate was purchased in the mid-18th century, and became the home of the Marquesses of Londonderry when the current house was built at the beginning of the 19th century. It has a beautiful formal garden, mostly the work of Lady Edith, wife of the 7th Marquess.

Day 7: 14 Sep — Castle Coole, Co. Fermanagh, Donegal (Republic of Ireland), and the Sperrin Mountains in Co. Londonderry and Co. Tyrone (200 miles)
On Day 7, we headed west once again to visit Castle Coole, situated just outside Enniskillen. We were not able to visit there when we had travelled west on Day 4, as the property had been closed for a special BBC Proms in the Park event.

Castle Coole was built by the 1st Earl Belmore between 1789 and 1797. It’s mostly the design of famous English architect James Wyatt, who also designed much of the interior and even the furniture. Photography is not permitted inside, and I’m unable to show you some of the splendours of this house, particularly the Saloon, which must rank as one of the finest examples of its kind among any of the stately homes in this country. The current Earl Belmore resides in a cottage on the estate.

Leaving Castle Coole, we headed west into the Republic, turning north at Donegal and crossing back into Northern Ireland at Strabane. We decided to cross the Sperrin Mountains, and had the weather been better (much of the journey north of Donegal was in torrential rain), I could have taken some nice photos. But we did have one surprise. Having taken one wrong turn too many when road signs petered out, we stumbled across a Bronze Age site of stone circles and cairns, at Beaghmore. It had stopped raining, everywhere was sparkling in the evening sun, and we enjoyed a half hour walk around the site.

Given the sunshine and showers, conditions just right for the appearance of rainbows. We saw ten throughout the day, some double.

Day 8: 15 Sep — Rowallane Garden and Castle Ward, Co. Down (136 miles)
Just south of Saintfield alongside the A7, Rowallane Garden is a haven of tranquility, about 50 acres, created in the mid-19th century by the Revd. John Moore and his nephew Hugh Armytage Moore. It’s also the headquarters of the National Trust in Northern Ireland.

Then we headed the further 16 miles southeast to Castle Ward on the tip of Strangford Lough. It’s an extraordinary building: Neo-Classical Gothic! The two architectural styles are reflected on the front and rear of the building, and mirrored inside, because, it is said, the 1st Viscount Bangor and his wife could not agree.

The Ward family, originally from Cheshire, settled here in the late 16th century, and there is an old castle on the estate – used in the hit HBO TV series Game of Thrones.

Steph (L) and Clare at Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens

Day 9: 16 Sep — Arboe, Co. Tyrone to Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow (224 miles)
We travelled south into the Republic, taking a winding route through Co. Monaghan, Cavan, Longford, Westmeath, Offaly, Kildare and Wicklow to spend the night with old IRRI friends Paul and Clare O’Nolan. Paul had been the IT Manager at IRRI; Clare was my scuba dive buddy (video) for several years. On the evening of our arrival, Clare took us on a tour of the Kilmacurragh Botanic Gardens close to where they live on the edge of the Wicklow Mountains.

Day 10: 17 Sep — Rathdrum to Dublin, Holyhead to home (235 miles)
We left the O’Nolans just before noon, and headed north around the M50 to Dublin Port for our 15:10 Stena Superfast X ferry to Holyhead. We disembarked at exactly 19:00, and the drive home to Bromsgrove took four hours. Fortunately the roads were quite quiet and we made reasonably good progress until we were less than 20 miles from home when we were slowed down by major roadworks on the M5 motorway.

Ten days away, 1594 miles covered, twelve National Trust properties visited, seven enormous Irish breakfasts enjoyed. Northern Ireland was everything we hoped for: beautiful landscapes and friendly people. We had delayed our visit there for too long. And the National Trust was our excuse, if one was needed, to make the effort to visit.

All in all, ten days well spent! In due course, I will post detailed accounts of our visits to all the National Trust properties, and link them here.



Erddig: ‘Where fragrance, peace and beauty reign’ (Philip Yorke II)

A week ago, Steph and I headed 100 miles northeast from home to visit Belton House in Lincolnshire. On Thursday, it was 75 miles northwest, just south of Wrexham in North Wales, to visit Erdigg Hall, a Restoration house built between 1684 and 1687, and standing in 1200 acres. It was the home to the Yorke family for 250 years, although it didn’t come into their possession until 1733. Seven generations!  Here is an interesting Erddig timeline.

Interestingly, we discovered a family connection between the Yorkes of Erddig and the Custs of Belton. Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Cust, Speaker of the House of Commons, married Philip Yorke I in July 1770, three years after he inherited Erddig. Philip Yorke I was author of the The Royal Tribes of Wales, published in 1799.

Erddig (pronounced Erthigg) is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave. Over the centuries, the Yorkes hardly threw anything away; what’s on display today at Erdigg is a fraction of what the National Trust has in storage (more than 30,000 items). There are even vintage cars and old bicycles in some of the outbuildings. In that respect, Erddig must be almost unique among National Trust properties in that all its contents are ‘original’ – somewhat like Calke Abbey in Derbyshire.

The main entrance of Erddig Hall, facing west towards the Welsh hills

This is the rear of the house, facing east, overlooking the formal gardens and lake.

In 1947, disaster almost struck. Following nationalization of the coal industry, the coal mines just beyond the Erddig estate began to mine underneath the house – contrary to what had been apparently agreed over decades if not centuries with the owners of the private mine. The result was massive subsidence, up to five feet on one side of the house. Faced with significant expenditures to make the property safe and not falling into further disrepair, and with no family to pass it on to, the last Squire, Philip Yorke III bequeathed the estate, house and all contents to the National Trust in 1973.

It took four years to carry out all the work necessary to the house, and rehabilitate the gardens. In June 1977, Erddig was opened to the public. This is Erddig’s Ruby Jubilee, 40 years. And the planting designs in the formal garden reflect this, as you will note from many of the photos I have chosen to illustrate this post.

Structurally, the house is aligned north-south, and is a long ‘thin’ building, with a line of rooms along each side and a narrow corridor in between. There’s a grand staircase at the northern end, leading down to the family chapel. Stairs at the south end gave access to all floors for the servants.

A fine complex of red brick out buildings is located on the south side of the house, with a sawmill, workshops, stables and a coach house among others.

Delightful, formal gardens are laid out to the rear (east side) of the house. It’s hard to imagine what the overgrown gardens must have looked like when the National Trust took over Erddig. The fruits of 40 years labour and TLC are apparent in abundance. There are more extensive walks through the park, but we didn’t take any of these.

The National Trust has carefully laid out a route for visitors to enjoy Erddig Hall. The entrance to the house is through the ‘working’ wing of the house through the bakery, scullery and laundry, along a servants’ passage with offices for the housekeeper, butler, and estate manager.

What is also interesting is that the Yorkes ‘celebrated’ their staff, and apparently were very conscientious for their welfare. The servants’ passage is lined with photos of servants from as early as the mid-19th century.

One of the most striking rooms on the ground floor (at the south end, and east side) is the Dining Room, with its pillars and impressive paintings.

Further along are the Saloon (with its unusual metal ceiling), the Tapestry Room, Chinese Room and Chapel.

On the front of the house are the Library, the Entrance Hall (Music Room), and Drawing Room.

On the First Floor are several bedrooms: Red, White, and Blue as well as the State Bedroom with some of the Hall’s oldest artefacts; and the Nursery. There is also access to attic bedrooms on the top floor.

Erddig was so much more than we expected, and well worth the two hour plus travel time from north Worcestershire. I think we were lucky to hit the gardens at just the right time of the season. Everything was at its best and in full bloom. Credit goes to the Erddig garden staff.

Squire Philip Yorke III must have been quite a remarkable man. He died peacefully while attending a church service, in 1978. These quotes from his diary sum up the Yorke family outlook on life.






The perfect country house . . . a stunning English treasure

Standing in 1300 acres on the northern outskirts of Grantham in Lincolnshire, Belton House must be one of the National Trust’s jewels, though perhaps not quite on the same scale as either Waddesdon Manor or Kingston Lacy.

Built in the 1680s for Sir John Brownlow, Belton House is an elegant Restoration mansion that retains much of its original structure externally, but which has been remodelled from time-to-time internally over the past 300 years to meet changing demands for its occupancy. English architect James Wyatt had a major influence on the redesign of parts of Belton House in the late 18th century, as he did on many country houses.

The Brownlow fortune came from sheep and wool and, like may wealthy families, the construction of a large home was a sine qua non. Belton House remained the family seat of the Brownlow and Cust families into the 1980s.

The south front – and main entrance – of Belton House

The north front overlooking a parterre garden

We visited Belton House last Friday. Since we became members in 2011, we have ‘picked all the low-hanging fruit’, more or less (visiting most if not all properties within 50 miles or so of home), so must now travel further afield as active (and enthusiastic) ‘Trusters’.

Belton House is almost exactly 100 miles from home, door-to-door. The ‘best’ route (A38-M42-M6-M69-A46-A52-A607) on Google Maps indicated a journey of about 1 hr 40 minutes. And that’s how long it took (although somewhat slower on the return journey after 2:30 pm as the Friday afternoon traffic picked up).

Belton has much to offer: the house itself, formal gardens, long walks through the park, and one of the Trust’s largest adventure playgrounds for children. No wonder the car park was quite full when we arrived before 11 am, and filled up even further by mid-afternoon.

Not being entirely sure of the weather on Friday (fortunately it remained dry although did become quite overcast for a while around noon), we decided to take in the gardens and the grounds close to the house as far as the Boathouse, Lake and Maze (17 on the map below).

The Boathouse was built in the 1820s in a Swiss chalet style. From a distance the walls appear to be made from woven panels of rushes or the like. But no, the walls are solid with a sculpted surface to resemble panels.

A short distance from the east face of the house is the Mirror Pond (16), from which the house can be seen in all its glory, and reflected in the Pond.

A small maze offers a challenge to many of Belton’s younger (and older) visitors.

To the east of the house a long avenue of trees draws you towards a rather high ha-ha, and beyond that more parkland rises to Belmont Tower a further mile out. From the house’s main entrance there is also a mile-long drive through a deer park leading up to the front door. How magnificent it must have been to arrive by horse-drawn carriage and met by footmen. The views are stunning but of course we are seeing the parkland today as the house architects envisioned them three centuries ago, with majestic mature trees spread across the landscape.

On the north side of the house there are two formal gardens: a 19th century parterre, and another with pond and fountain laid out in front of a very impressive Orangery (14).

Much of the house is open to the public. We opted not to take the below stairs tour, which lasted 50 minutes. First, given the long journey home, we wanted to maximise our viewing of the main parts of the house. Second, a tour of this type would probably have involved standing around as the tour guide described each room; since I broke my leg at the beginning of 2016, I no longer find standing still comfortable .

All rooms on Upper Ground Floor are open to the public.

Marble Hall
Not particularly large by some country house standards, the Marble Hall is elegantly proportioned, with an array of portraits on the walls, and fine ceramics around the perimeter. On the east wall is a large portrait of Sir John Cust, 3rd Bt (1718-1770) who was twice Speaker of the House of Commons. A couple of portraits have fine wood carving surrounds, reminiscent of the work of Grinling Gibbons (d. 1721) to whom some of this work has been attributed. We first saw his exquisite work during our visit to Sudbury Hall earlier this year.

Staircase Hall
What an elegant staircase, climbing in three sweeps to the first floor. It’s lined with some fine portraits, and overlooks a black and white marbled floor, a continuation from the Marble Hall.

Blue Dressing Room
Adjacent to the Blue Bedroom, this small room has some interesting treasures: a whole array of paintings, including the one shown here which portrays the Madonna and Child, attributed to Italian painter Pier Francesco Fiorentino from the 15th century. Behind the door is a cabinet made from lapis lazuli. And some intricate and very beautiful carving on the fireplace surround.

Blue Bedroom
This is the oldest bed in the house, and has a fine view over the parkland and main entrance driveway from the south.

Chapel, Gallery, and Drawing Room
In the Drawing Room hand two fine 17th century tapestries by Huguenot weaver John Vanderbank, modelled on tapestries owned by Queen Mary II at Kensington Palace.

The Saloon has views over the parterre garden on the north side, and has several interesting features, paintings, and pieces of furniture.

Tyrconnel Room
This room has undergone a number of changes over the centuries. This is an impressive portrait of Viscount Tyrconnel (1690-1754) wearing his robes as a Knight of the Order of the Bath. The wide floorboards show the Brownlow coat of arms.

Red Drawing Room
This room was rather dimly lit (although these poor quality photos don’t show that).

What caught my fancy in the Study were the gold busts lining the top of the west wall.

Tapestry Room
This is, in my opinion, undoubtedly the most elegant room in the whole house, and has undergone several changes of use over the centuries. It’s warm, intimate, inviting, and lined with tapestries that, at one time, were found in the attic rooms being used as carpets! The tapestries depict the life of ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes.

One can imagine enjoying a welcome gin and tonic in this room at the end of stressful day. On the piano is a photograph of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson (it looks like one’s I’ve seen from their wedding in 1937. The Duke certainly spent time at Belton. It’s not certain if Wallis did.

Breakfast Room
There are 20th century portraits of the Cust family in this room.

Hondecoeter Room
Swans seem to be a theme in this room which became a dining room in 1876. The large canvasses by 17th century painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter were installed then. A larger canvas was sold to a buyer in the USA as it did not fit in this room. The fireplace came from another family property.

On a table by the window, overlooking the parterre, is a large vessel (a soup tureen, a wine cooler?) made from more than 41 kg of solid silver. It was commissioned by Speaker Cust, referred to earlier. He died, however, before the vessel was completed.

On the First Floor, some apartments are still reserved for the Cust family if they care to visit, and therefore not open to the public. The Cretonne Bedroom was closed as well.

Yellow Bedroom
The Yellow Bedroom is immediately above the Blue Bedroom, and also benefited from structural changes that James Wyatt made, bricking up windows on the east and west walls, leaving just the windows overlooking the south landscape. You can see how these changes were made on the photograph below, on the farthest side of the house.

Chinese Bedroom
This is a quirky room, with 18th century wallpaper designed specifically for the room, but apparently not hung until about 1840. The bamboo door surrounds are painted not made from bamboo.

Queen’s Bedroom
This room was redecorated in 1840 for the visit of Queen Adelaide, widow of King William IV, and has been known as the Queen’s Bedroom ever since. Her monogram adorns the bed’s headboard.

Ante Library and Library
The Library is approached from one side from an Ante Library, and from the main staircase on the other. It has a domed ceiling. High on the walls at either end of the Library are ‘frescoes’ painted by daughters of the Cust family. The one shown here was painted by younger daughter Lucy Cust (bn. 1784).

This was originally a bedroom but in the 1770s was remodeled by James Wyatt as a dressing room. Only some of Wyatt’s designs remain (such as the ceiling). Its presence design and use dates from 1963.

Windsor Bedroom
I suppose the claim to fame of this bedroom is that it was used by HRH The Prince of Wales while undergoing jet aircraft training at nearby RAF Cranwell in 1971. He apparently preferred to stay at Belton House than in the officers’ mess at Cranwell. Maybe this room was also used by the Duke of Windsor, presumably when he was still Prince of Wales. Or did he visit as Edward VIII?

West Staircase
Not as grand as the main staircase, this one is nevertheless quite impressive. It was originally used just by servants, but in 1810, the 1st Earl made the west entrance into the family entrance. The large painting shows the Cust family in 1741. You can see the West Entrance (opening into a courtyard) in the house photograph under the Yellow Bedroom (above).

Belton House certainly has a lot to offer with its mix of indoor and outdoor interests. The National Trust volunteers were very knowledgeable and freely shared intriguing details of the house’s history. For a day trip, four hours on the road, just under four hours at Belton, it was quite tiring. And I was quite relieved to arrive home and enjoy a late afternoon cup of tea. But as I mentioned from the outset, we will now have to travel further and further afield to visit new properties, and probably plan for several overnight stays into the bargain.

Put Belton House on your National Trust ‘bucket list’!

Wandering along the tranquil River Wye at The Weir Garden

Sitting down yesterday, enjoying a DIY cup of coffee at the The Weir Garden (a few miles west of Hereford), I commented to my wife that we had to be thankful for the eccentricities of the former owners of many of the National Trust’s properties.

I’d picked up a copy of the Trust’s Spring 2017 magazine and there on the cover was a photo of an exceedingly eccentric individual: the 5th Marquess of Anglesey, Henry Paget (whose country estate was Plas Newydd on Anglesey that we will visit in September on our way to Holyhead, and a week’s tour of National Trust properties in Northern Ireland). They could pander to their eccentricities because they were wealthy. And many of them spent their wealth—often to their ruin—in developing large houses and estates, and filling them with the most wonderful artefacts. That’s what we can enjoy today thanks to the work of the National Trust.

A Weir Estate is recorded from the reign of Henry VII in the late 15th century. But the Romans were there over 1000 years earlier, and the remains of a villa or temple have been excavated on the banks of the River Wye that flows past.

The Weir Garden was originally laid out at the end of the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the 20th when wealthy Roger Parr became owner did the garden really flourish. He revitalised the walled garden, installing a state-of-the art (for the 1920s) glasshouse. The house is now a nursing home, and has been ever since the estate became the property of the National Trust in 1959.

The south-facing Garden is certainly worth a visit, and must surely show different ‘faces’ at different times of the year. There are few formal parts—a small rock garden surrounded by elegant Acers—but mostly the garden, laid out on the steep slopes along the river below the house, is woodland with oaks, London plane trees and a few tulip trees dominating the landscape. And as the paths weave their way through the woodland, there are vistas over the River Wye east and west. What a river; fast flowing, but clear as a bell, and no doubt full of trout and other fish. There is a report of an eight foot sturgeon having once been caught in the vicinity in the 19th century.

These photos (and a short video) are my take on The Weir Garden in early July, according to the locations indicated on the map above.

(2) Rustic hut

(3) Rockery

(4) Viewing bridge

(6) River meadow and (7) River wall

(10) Roman ruins

(15) Walled garden and Foster & Pearson glasshouse

Rooms open to the sky

Norman. Medieval. Tudor. Georgian. ‘Modern’.

Greys Court is a National Trust property a few miles west of Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. Owned by the Trust since 1969, and most recently the family home of the Brunners (first baronet and industrialist Sir John Brunner was co-founder of a chemical company that merged with others in 1926 to form Imperial Chemical Industries – ICI – in the UK). We spent three hours at Greys, taking the noon tour (that covers just the ground floor rooms) but returned later in the afternoon to explore the house more thoroughly including the library and bedrooms upstairs.

There has been a dwelling here for almost 1000 years. Greys Court today is an attractive brick and flint Tudor country house that underwent some embellishments during the 18th century. From the front of the house there are views over the Chilterns countryside.

Greys Court was erected by Sir Francis Knollys, a courtier under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I. In 1724 it became the property of the Stapleton family who lived there until 1937 when it was bought by Liberal politician Sir Felix Brunner (third baronet and grandson of Sir John) and his wife Lady Elizabeth. She was the granddaughter of the famous Victorian actor Sir Henry Irving. Lady continued to live at Greys Court until her death in 2003.

The house is full of Brunner memorabilia, not the property of the National Trust. Photography is unfortunately (from my blogging perspective) not permitted inside the house. The plasterwork ceiling in the downstairs reception room dates from the 18th century when the height of the room was increased, and a crenellated two floor semicircular extension was added, clearly.

But the exteriors are delightful, and the small but exquisite garden excites the senses. Because Lady Brunner developed the gardens to explore, to entice, to delight, they were set out as a series of ‘rooms’ connected by gates or doors that invited the visitor to open and see what lay on the other side. One can walk through a wisteria arbour, 150 years old, wander between the silence of the White Garden (under the Great Tower), and check out the orchard and vegetable plots, all surrounded by brick and flint walls.

Outside the garden is a brick path maze (no hedges!), ‘symbolizing the journey through life’, dedicated by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, in 1981.

In the grounds there is a Tudor wheelhouse with a donkey wheel, drawing water up some 200 feet, and still in operation until 1914.

At the entrance there was a hand-written welcome sign to the property extolling the friendliness of the staff. And they were!


Croft Castle – spanning the dynasties

Just over seven weeks ago, on a sunny early April morning, we headed west from our home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire, to visit the National Trust’s Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, about 8 miles due south of Ludlow (that’s in Shropshire).

Yesterday, on what was probably the hottest day of the year so far, and without a cloud in the sky, we headed in the same direction, to another National Trust property, Croft Castle and Parkland, just five miles northwest of Berrington Hall. This was our second visit; Croft Castle was one of the first properties we visited in June 2011, just after becoming members of the National Trust.

The main entrance of Croft Castle, and the Church of St Michael

What is particularly remarkable is that Croft Castle has been the home of the Croft family for about 1000 years, and was listed in the Domesday Book in 1086. The Croft family has made many contributions to the annals of British history, under the Plantagenets, during the 15th century Wars of the Roses, Tudor and Elizabethan England, the Civil Wars of the 1640s, and through to recent decades. The Croft baronetcy was created in 1671. The castle itself is a somewhat eclectic mix of architectural styles that reflect its long history.

South face

Much of the interior has an 18th century feel, although some of the rooms on the ground floor must have been used as family rooms when the Croft family were in residence continually. Today the family retains some rooms on the first floor, not open to the public. In fact, during our visit there was only one room on that floor open, the Ambassador’s Room overlooking the main entrance, that has been ‘returned’ to its First World War decor.

Just opposite the main entrance to the castle stands the small church of St Michael. Inside, there is the grand tomb of Sir Richard Croft and his wife Eleanor. Sir Richard fought at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, just a few miles away from Croft Castle, in 1461 on the Yorkist side. He later became a high ranking member of the household of Henry VII (who usurped the throne at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, defeating King Richard III, and establishing the Tudor dynasty).

The castle is surrounded by some 1500 acres of parkland, and the National Trust has set out some well marked walks for visitors to follow. We basically took the Blue walk up to the Iron Age fortress of Croft Ambrey (that dates from about 550 BC), covering almost 4 miles before we returned to the car park, a well-deserved sit down, and picnic lunch under the welcome shade of the magnificent beech and oak trees surrounding the castle.

The Blue walk passes through a grove of pollarded Spanish chestnut trees (panted in the late 16th century) that are said to have come from ships of the failed Spanish Armada.

The 360° views from Croft Ambrey are truly stunning: south to the Black Mountains of South Wales; east to the Malverns in Worcestershire; northwest to Clee Hill; and west into the border hills between England and Wales. The climb (not steep) to the summit is really worth the effort. Despite the heat of the day, there was a pleasant breeze taking the edge off it.

Croft Castle has a particularly fine walled garden, and a glasshouse area. The garden covers some six acres, with many rows of vines in its northeast corner. Having now visited quite a number of National Trust properties, my wife and I are in agreement that this walled garden must be one of the nicest in the Trust’s portfolio.

Since our first visit in 2011, the National Trust has made a number of operational changes to how it manages the property. There is now a free flow for visitors through the house, and photography is permitted throughout. In 2011 I was told off—in no uncertain terms—by one of the volunteers for deeming to take a photo of some panelling detail. The Trust is much more relaxed about photography nowadays, except where there are restrictions (for personal family or copyright reasons) at some houses.

The Hall

The Library Anteroom

The Library and Turret Room

The Drawing Room

The Blue Room

The Oak Room

The Dining Room

The Staircases, Gallery, and Courtyard

The Ambassador’s Room

No such problems yesterday. The staff were most welcoming, particularly the lady who greeted us at the main entrance. The tea room appears to have been expanded, and the toilets have been upgraded – clean as ever at National Trust properties. Last time there was a water shortage, and visitors had to queue up to use portaloos!

Croft Castle is just an 83 mile round trip from home – almost one of our local National Trust properties. Perhaps it does not yet have the finest collection of furniture and paintings (compared to many others), but the rooms have a homely feel. And the parkland of course is stunning, with space for everyone to enjoy. The walled garden is Croft’s ‘jewel in the crown’. Well done to the two full-time gardeners (assisted by volunteers, of course) who keep this garden so well maintained.