As I sit here at home, fingers cold and typing, I find myself staring out of the window, past bare, skeletal trees and into grim, grey depths of nothingness. A little bleak? Well, I think we’re all in agreement that winter has long outstayed its welcome. Perpetual snow showers and icy, bitter winds are trying our collective patience. Yet I can still dream of the springtime (it will come, it categorically has to) and in these dreams, what best conjures hope? Bright sunshine, sprawling lawns, fountains, gardens and a big old country house to get lost in, of course. Could there really ever be a better way to while away a spring’s day than in the grounds of a beautiful country estate? I think not. When the sun finally does decide to grace us with its presence, I want to be prepared with options, and so without further adieu, here follows my own personal country house hit list: a short list of historic properties and places that I’ve wanted to visit for quite some time…
At the top of my list sits Charleston, the idyllic country home of the Bloomsbury group and shrine to true British bohemia. The artist Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf) moved into this Sussex farmhouse with her husband Duncan Grant in 1916. The house quickly became a retreat from the city for artists, writers and intellectuals – Virginia and Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster and Roger Fry were all frequent visitors. Charleston’s interior is an absolute riot of faded colour, pattern and texture. Inspired by Italian fresco painting and the Post-impressionists, Bell and Grant decorated every wall, door and piece of furniture – leaving no surface untouched. Thankfully, the house is presented to look like it did in its heyday – works by Renoir, Picasso and Delacroix hang alongside richly patterned textiles, hand-painted lamps, old wooden easels, musical instruments and countless shelves of books. Charleston is one of the most vividly characterful houses that I’ve ever had the pleasure of coming across. In short: dreamy.
The Dunmore Pineapple
Really, do I need to explain why I’m so desperate to visit Dunmore? Isn’t it obvious? It’s a folly. With a gigantic pineapple resting on top. Who doesn’t love an ornamental pineapple? Nobody, obviously! (We’re proud owners of pineapple-shaped bedside lamps and a pineapple-shaped ice bucket. Not quite a folly but it’ll do for now.) Situated in Dunmore Park, Scotland, this elaborate summerhouse was built in the 18th century by Lord Dunmore and can be rented out privately through The Landmark Trust. The fourteen metre-high, intricately carved stone pineapple is often agreed to be the most spectacular architectural use of the exotic motif, which became popular in Europe after its discovery by Christopher Columbus as a symbol of power, wealth and hospitality.
Designed for the formidable Bess of Hardwick in the late sixteenth century, Hardwick Hall is one of the earliest examples of English Renaissance architecture. Standing proudly atop a hill and overlooking the Derbyshire countryside, I reckon Hardwick’s perfect symmetrical frontage and enormous windows might just have blessed the place with one of the most impressive and imposing (and every so slightly unnerving) country house exteriors of them all. The famous old saying – ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’ – sounds just about right. It’s exceptionally large and numerous windows were a powerful statement of wealth at a time when glass was an expensive luxury.
Ah, Castle Howard… glorious, glorious Castle Howard. Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor designed this sprawling baroque mansion for the 3rd Earl of Carlisle between 1699 and 1712. It has been the home of the Howard family for more than 300 years, but I (and countless others) know it better as Brideshead Castle, that most beloved of all fictional country houses. The ancestral pile starred as Brideshead in both the original 80s television series and the 2008 film, and is now practically synonymous with the bewitching (yet tragically doomed) Flyte family. Make sure not to miss the mighty Atlas Fountain and the exquisite Temple of the Four Winds (where Sebastian and Charles’s frivolous wine-drinking scene was shot). If you need me, I’ll be there, sipping champagne and lazing with Aloysius…
Luke Edward Hall