134. Castle Coole – 3/6/2018

As mentioned in the previous entry, Castle Coole is located only around 10 miles from Florence Court in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, and was our second colonnaded house in two days. Castle Coole was built a little later than Florence Court, though, and is a more pointed demonstration of wealth than its neighbour. For example, while the former’s colonnades are simply a façade, those of the latter are genuine wings housing their own rooms.

The ‘castle’ in the name is a little misleading as there is not a moat or portcullis in sight, but the title has simply remained unchanged since the time when there was a fortified building at this location. The current house is instead a 1790s neo-classical construction, designed by James Wyatt – an English architect and rival of Robert Adam – who made his name with the Pantheon in Oxford Street. Meanwhile, interior plasterwork design was contributed by Joseph Rose (another renowned London name at the time) and the scagliola columns are the work of Domenico Bartoli. The use of these designers alone reflects the ‘no expense spared’ attitude of Castle Coole’s owner Armar Lowry-Corry as he embarked on his grand project to build a more imposing family seat (an attitude he would come to regret).

Lowry-Corry, who later became the 1st Earl of Belmore, inherited a significant amount of money, not only from his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, but also from his three aunts, all of whom outlived their husbands and died childless. Unfortunately for the Earl though, there was a limit to his wealth and it seems that James Wyatt was a man who wouldn’t know a limit if it came and bashed him in the face! The architect overspent his budget… and then overspent it a little more… so by the time the house was finished, Lowry-Corry’s finances were overstretched and there was nothing left with which to buy furnishings. I imagine Wyatt’s attitude to any criticism would have been ‘you have a beautiful house built with genuine Portland stone shipped all the way to Ireland from the West Country and transported via a purpose-built quay on the coast of Donegal… and now you want furniture too?!’ Perhaps adding insult to injury, neither Wyatt nor Joseph Rose ever visited Castle Coole, simply sending their extravagant orders across from London.

Luckily for us – but less so for the family finances – the 2nd Earl seems to have been as slapdash with coinage as James Wyatt and proceeded to commission a suite of luxurious furniture, including many mahogany and gilt pieces with which to enhance his grand rooms. He also travelled extensively on his own schooner, the Osprey, and I can’t help thinking that if he were still alive today we would probably find him living it up in a lavish penthouse apartment in Monaco, with his private yacht moored in the harbour below.

The 3rd Earl didn’t live long after inheriting the estate, so the financial mess created by the 1st and 2nd Earls was left to the 4th one to sort out. This was Somerset Lowry-Corry, who inherited in 1845. He was closely involved with Westminster politics and later earnt the favour of Queen Victoria by helping her son after an assassination attempt. The Earl even managed to have a foot in two rival political camps as he was married to Gladstone’s niece, while his cousin Montagu Corry was Disraeli’s private secretary. The name of this latter gentleman rang a bell for me and he has indeed already cropped up in this blog… he made it into the Hughenden entry because I found him rather attractive from his portrait!

Getting back to the family finances, the 4th Earl was forced to sell off parts of the estate and outlying properties to pay debts and by the time the 7th Earl inherited it was the 20th century (1949) and times were particularly tough for owners of these large stately homes, so the property was bought by the National Trust using a grant from the Ulster Land Fund. The 8th Earl maintains a close interest in the running of Castle Coole and continues to own the contents of the house so, like Florence Court, photography is not allowed inside. Thankfully, unlike Florence Court, there is a more detailed guidebook available with pictures of many of the grand rooms; however, the postcard selection wasn’t great so I’m afraid there are no interior pictures included here (you’ll have to make do with another shot of the grand entrance).

Identifying my highlights at Castle Coole was difficult as several of the rooms made a serious impression. I think my favourite would have to be the oval Saloon with its curved doors and furniture, which were designed specifically to fit its elliptical walls. Meanwhile, the Roman-style Entrance Hall is a perfect introduction to the house, with its strong symmetry, scagliola columns, matching ceiling and door friezes, and torchères, which our guide informed us had again been purposely designed for this space and had been in the same spots for over 200 years. I also loved the double-height Lobby upstairs, which is naturally lit by a dramatic oval skylight, and which features classically designed stoves in the wall niches, a great way to camouflage the heating. The Bow Room, with its Chinese-style wallpaper and textiles and its views down to the lough, has a more informal feel than some of the state rooms and would be a lovely place to sit and read.

As with Florence Court, the tour also took us into the basement to see some of the servants’ quarters, which are extensive and run below the entire house, and the talk was concluded in the kitchen, which has an impressive – but entirely fake – range along one wall, which was built by a visiting film crew.

The rear aspect with its bowed central bays

When the tour was finished, our guide said that if we hadn’t enjoyed it his name was Kieran, but as we did enjoy it very much, I’d like to give a shout out to Leo, which was his actual name! His tour was the perfect combination of information and occasional humour, and he also encouraged members of the party to contribute their own guesswork along the way.

After the tour and a spot of lunch, we took a walk down to the boathouse at the lough, passing by the site of the former Queen Anne house that was built by Armar Lowry-Corry’s grandfather Sir James Corry in 1707, and which burnt down in 1797. It was then back to the tearoom for the compulsory cup of tea and slice of cake before heading off to Belfast International for the flight home, happy in the knowledge that I have finally made a start on Northern Ireland and that I am rolling into the second half of my challenge.

Highlights: So many rooms…. the Saloon, the Entrance Hall, the Lobby, the Bow Room

Refreshments: Tuna mayo jacket potato with salad; slice of lemon cake and pot of decaffeinated tea

Purchase(s): Guidebook; postcard of part of the Saloon

Companion(s): Dusty Jackets

NT Connections: Florence Court, built by the 1st Earl of Enniskillen, who was the brother-in-law of Armar Lowry-Corry, builder of Castle Coole

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133. Florence Court – 2/6/2018

Northern Ireland was the last region I had yet to make a start on so the trip to Florence Court in County Fermanagh represented something of a landmark for the challenge. But that’s not all… it was also the 133rd property I have visited, which (as things stand) is the halfway point. There were a few high-fives exchanged with my companions to mark the occasion and I realised that the Dusty Jackets (my book group) had been with me at the very beginning of the challenge as well as the midway point, so we immediately made a pact that I would invite them along when I make it to the very last property on the list (in perhaps another four or five years’ time!)

Florence Court is located not far from Castle Coole, which we visited the very next day. There are some similarities in the construction of both houses, with each having a main central block and then colonnades leading to pavilions on either side, but although built in the same era (1750s for Florence Court and 1780s for Castle Coole) the architecture is distinct enough that confusion between the two is unlikely. The fates are certainly trying to baffle me when it comes to separating these two houses in my own mind though: firstly, the same couple appeared in our tour groups at both properties, while the tearooms’ cake selections are also remarkably similar as they are both supplied by the Tully Mill restaurant in Florencecourt village. I can’t even differentiate Florence Court by saying ‘you know, the one where we saw the frog in the basement’ as – believe it or not – we came across a frog in the servants’ quarters of Castle Coole as well!

Florence Court may be familiar to some as it stood in for Limmeridge House in the recent BBC adaptation of ‘The Woman in White’

The properties are also intertwined in a more serious way that merits inclusion as an NT Connection below. Anna Lowry-Corry, sister of Armar Lowry-Corry who built Castle Coole, was married to William Cole, the 1st Earl of Enniskillen, who was responsible for completing Florence Court after his father and grandfather started the build. It is believed that William added the colonnades and pavilions in the late-1760s so it is particularly interesting that Armar Lowry-Corry chose the same structure for his own house a couple of decades later. His colonnades were far grander, however, and were genuine wings to the main house containing their own rooms rather than simply façades as is the case at Florence Court. Brotherly one-upmanship, perhaps?

Another similarity between Florence Court and Castle Coole is that they have also been kept in the same family for their entire histories. The first Cole to build at the Florence Court site was Sir John Cole who named the property after his wife Florence. The next Sir John later replaced much of his father’s house with a grander building and this was then finished by William, the 1st Earl, who also removed the formal gardens and added the 5-acre walled garden, which is well worth the detour on your way to or from the car park.

Other interesting family members include the 3rd Earl who converted one of the pavilions into a space to house his fossil collection (sold to the British Museum in 1883). He also added the water-powered sawmill and the carpenter’s shop – both of which can still be seen in the grounds – in order to better exploit the estate’s timber. The thatched summer house with its dramatic views over the Pleasure Grounds to Ben Aughlin was another of his additions.

Driving through Enniskillen the day before on the way to our holiday home, we had wondered about the identity of the statue perched on a high column overlooking the town so it was nice to have the subject identified by our tour guide as Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole, second son of the 1st Earl, who was a success in the military – serving under Wellington – and also MP for Enniskillen for several years.

As seems to be the case with many of the Trust’s properties in Northern Ireland, you can only access Florence Court on a guided tour but this is rarely a bad thing and Annette, our tour guide on Saturday, gave us plenty of insights, both upstairs and down. Something that also tickled me was that when she arrived, she walked up to the simply huge wooden front door and pulled out a small Yale-type key to open it! History and modernity sometimes make for comical bedfellows.

In light of the Trust’s year of celebrating women, Florence Court is interspersing traditional tours with the so-called Hidden Graces tours, which include more information about Florence Court’s female occupants, and we chose this one in the hope that it also had enough of the broader history as well (which it did). As well as Anna Lowry-Corry, the house has also been home to several other interesting wives, including the 3rd Earl’s Spanish wife Jane Casamaijor, and the second wife of the 6th Earl, Nancy Henderson MacLennan, who was a correspondent for the New York Times and later an influential diplomat as well as being the last family member to occupy the house. Lady Charlotte Paget, wife of the 2nd Earl, also merits a mention as she was apparently a very fashionable young lady and when the dress fashions changed she sent her portrait away to have a bustle added to the picture. You can see the ‘join’ in the right light.

My highlights on touring the house were the plasterwork in the Entrance Hall and Staircase as well as the dramatic plaster ceiling in the Dining Room, which has a central motif depicting Zeus as a swan and the four winds blowing. It is somewhat fortunate that this ceiling survives as there was a serious fire in 1955 (destroying much of the central portion of the house) and during the rescue efforts, the ceiling started to bow from the weight of water collecting above. Only the quick thinking of the firemen, who drilled several small holes to allow the water to drain away, prevented its collapse. The fire took place just a year after the house was given to the Trust so that was a gift that had a definite sting in the tail.

We finished our visit with a walk around the estate to see some of the 3rd Earl’s additions and we were certainly lucky with our timing as the view from the summer house is particularly effective with the flowering rhododendrons in the foreground (although the low cloud was doing its best to hide the Ben completely). Much further out on the estate and something we didn’t see is the famous Florence Court Yew tree, which is the mother (or father?) of all Irish yew trees. We did stop off at the large Walled Garden, which includes sections of decorative plants as well as the kitchen garden. One shrub caught our eye as it had green leaves with white and pink tips that looked as though they had been dipped in paint. None of us knew what it was but I’ve done my research since (thank you, crocus.co.uk!) and can inform my companions that it was Actinidia kolomikta or variegated kiwi, native to Asia but clearly just as happy in this very pretty part of County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.

Highlights: Dining Room ceiling; Entrance Hall and Staircase; views from Pleasure Grounds

Refreshments: Potato and leek soup with wheaten bread and a bottle of sparkling elderflower pressé

Purchase(s): County Fermanagh NT Guidebook (unfortunately there was no separate guidebook available for Florence Court, unlike Castle Coole; I was also a little disappointed not to find any postcards in the shop as photography is not permitted inside the house)

Companion(s): Dusty Jackets

NT Connections: Castle Coole, built by Armar Lowry-Corry, brother of Anna Lowry-Corry, who was married to the 1st Earl of Enniskillen, owner of Florence Court

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132. Nunnington Hall – 10/5/2018

It’s been a long drive home from North Yorkshire today, but (after a welcome cup of tea!) I have unpacked the laptop so I can finish off the week’s blogging while it is all fresh in the mind. Nunnington Hall was the second visit yesterday and is only around 9 miles from Rievaulx Terrace so the two properties are a good combination, not least because they are so very different from each other.

There has been a major residence at Nunnington since 1249 but the current house is based largely on a Tudor property built in the mid-1500s and then updated considerably in the late-1600s by Ranald and then Richard Graham. Further changes were made over the years and then the Hall was neglected for a while, serving only as a sporting lodge while in the ownership of the Rutson family in the mid-1800s. It was the most recent owners – Margaret (née Rutson) and Ronald Fife – who turned Nunnington into a comfortable family home in the 1920s, while also employing the Arts & Crafts architect Walter Brierley to return many parts of the property to their 17th century appearance. So, it is their story that is told in the rooms today. The house was left to the Trust in 1952 but Margaret’s daughter and her family continued to live in the house until 1978 when they moved down the road into the village.

While several families made their mark on Nunnington over the years, it is interesting that these same people also made their mark in the wider world and there are a few colourful stories attached to the Hall. In Tudor times, the house was owned by the parents of the future queen, Catherine Parr. It is thought to be her brother William who built the first rendering of the existing hall but it was forfeited to the Crown when he became embroiled in the plot to bring Lady Jane Grey to the throne. Moving on to 1644, during the Civil War, the then owner Thomas Norcliffe gave the property up as a billet for Parliamentary troops, so this was perhaps unsurprisingly a destructive period for the house. The Graham family came along next and were about as lucky as William Parr when it came to choosing sides in regal feuding. They were staunch Jacobites so Richard Graham, who became 1st Viscount Preston due to his support of James II, later found himself in hot water when he conspired against William and Mary to restore the Stuarts to the crown, spending a couple of spells in the Tower of London. Both William Parr and Richard Graham escaped their various schemes with their heads still on their shoulders though, so perhaps they were lucky after all!

The Apple Orchard in bloom

A walk around Nunnington includes features that reflect back to several of the former owners. While the Fife family furnishings and photos are prevalent, the significant tapestries on show were thought to have been acquired by Richard, Lord Preston, while he was ambassador at the Court of Versailles, and are important examples made in Brussels in the 17th century. There is currently a major conservation project underway to clean and repair the tapestries, which is set to cost tens of thousands of pounds over several years. We spoke at some length to one of the volunteers who told us what the process involved, including a trip to Belgium, the only place where there are frames large enough to support the tapestries during steam cleaning. Meanwhile, there is also clear – if unsavoury – evidence of Nunnington’s sporting past within the house: although it was the Rutsons who used the house specifically as a sporting lodge, Ronald Fife clearly continued the practice and the walls of the Stone Hall, through which you enter the house, are decorated with the results of his various hunting kills… or as the volunteer told us: ‘Colonel Fife was responsible for this carnage’!

While the personal stories always fascinate me (and did so again in this case), I didn’t find Nunnington all that appealing as a house as it felt a bit plain and dark (although the darkness was exacerbated by the typical light management measures needed to protect the textiles… grumble, grumble!). Having said that, there were a couple of bright and airy surprises along the way, including Mrs Fife’s Bedroom, while the Oak Hall and Great Staircase were both fairly dramatic and imposing.

Moving outside the house, the garden is not vast but still offers a tranquil walk or a casual game of croquet. The orchards on both sides of the main lawn were in full blossom for my visit so that was beautiful, but I was a week or two early for the iris garden. There is also a terrace of herbaceous borders and a rose garden, while visitors can also sit alongside the river in the quiet tea garden, at least it would have been quiet but for the squawking crows overhead… I found that a cream tea helped to overcome that annoyance! And speaking of squawking, the garden is also home to several peacocks, which always add a touch of class to any garden.

An Adam Music Room in miniature

Nunnington was only the second of the week’s properties to have a second-hand bookshop but it was another excellent one that required some serious browsing. Saving the best for last though, the highlight of the entire visit for me was the Carlisle Collection of miniature rooms in the attic exhibition space. Gifted to the Trust by Mrs Carlisle in 1970, and housed at Nunnington since 1981, the rooms are made to a scale of around one-eighth of actual size and pay amazing attention to detail. There are rooms that might be found in a stately home, e.g. a music room, a picture gallery, a Palladian hall, etc., but also more unusual workshops and even an antique shop. For me, these were well worth the visit by themselves and I have returned home with an urge to start crafting… mind you, it seems that much of the Carlisle furniture was created by trained furniture craftsmen who had to make their own tools to handle the size requirements. So, it could be that mini furniture-making is a tad beyond my skillset.

Mini antique shop

Highlights: The Carlisle Collection of miniatures; tapestry conservation insights

Refreshments: Spinach, cheese and sweet potato flan with new potatoes, salad and coleslaw; bubbly elderflower; cream tea (we tried both the waitress-service tearoom in the house for lunch and then the tea garden for an outside experience in the afternoon)

Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood from the second-hand bookshop

Companion(s): Mum

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131. Rievaulx Terrace – 10/5/2018

Ionic Temple

I have often commented on the sheer variety that my National Trust challenge provides and Rievaulx Terrace is another example of this. Built specifically to dazzle visitors, it is a landscape garden in miniature, a serpentine terrace of land overlooking the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey, flanked at either end by classical temples, one of which also served as a rather luxurious dining room for guests. For the modern visitor, it provides a peaceful mile-long walk, first through the woodland and then along the grassy terrace where gaps in the trees open up at regular intervals to give impressive views of the ruins, the valley and the hills on the other side.

My visit was timed very well in that the cowslips were just coming out on the slopes leading down from the terrace, which was very much an added bonus. Another visual treat was delivered by the white carpets of wild garlic flowering in the woodland, although this was somewhat less of a treat for the nose!

Rievaulx Terrace is actually the second such landscape created by the Duncombe family of nearby Duncombe Park. Thomas Duncombe (the First) built Duncombe Park and between 1713 and 1718 he created the first terrace alongside his home, with views of Helmsley Castle. It is likely that he was inspired by the Surprise View of Fountains Abbey from Studley Royal Water Gardens as his wife was related by marriage to the daughter of Studley Royal’s John Aislabie. It was his son Thomas Duncombe (the Second) who later created the Rievaulx Terrace between 1749 and 1757. This followed a similar pattern to his father’s, with temples at both ends, but had to be reached by coach from Duncombe. As a result of this longer distance, the Ionic Temple was created with a kitchen in the basement so guests to the classical dining room above could be served with food prepared on the premises.

Both Thomases were inspired by Palladian architecture and by the paintings of Claude and Poussin with their idealised classical landscapes. Thomas the Second’s Ionic Temple at Rievaulx is also decorated with dramatic frescoes, which were painted by Giuseppe Borgnis, the Italian painter who also contributed so much decoration to West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire (see separate entry!). The various panels and medallions in the ceiling show scenes from mythology and are taken from Italian Baroque masterpieces found in Rome’s palaces.

The Ionic Temple can only be accessed at certain times of day in half-hourly slots, so visitors should be aware of this and time their visits if they want to see the Ionic dining room. The basement of the Temple – accessible separately from the main room and open  all day – houses an exhibition about the Duncombes, the landscape and the local flora and fauna so that is well worth a visit. I also learned that the Ionic Temple had once been occupied by a caretaker and his family and that they only left in the 1960s. There are more comfortable dwellings for sure, but very few with quite such amazing views from the ‘front garden’.

The views are what Rievaulx was created for and remain the chief reason to visit to this day. I took what felt like hundreds of pictures as each opening in the trees offered a slightly different vista, making it difficult to pick which ones to include here. I wonder how long it took this horse to find his preferred aspect!

Highlights: The views (they’re what it’s all about)

Refreshments: None

Purchase(s): Guidebook

Companion(s): Mum

NT Connections: Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal (Thomas Duncombe’s wife was related by marriage to the daughter of John Aislabie who created the Studley Royal Water Gardens and the Surprise View of the abbey from these gardens is thought to have been inspiration for Thomas Duncombe’s terrace at Duncombe Park and the later Rievaulx Terrace); West Wycombe Park (the ceiling of the Ionic Temple was painted by Giuseppe Borgnis who also worked on West Wycombe for Sir Francis Dashwood)

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130. Ormesby Hall – 9/5/2018

For some reason, Ormesby Hall made me think of the children’s book The Little Engine That Could. It very much feels as if the Hall is trying its hardest to make an impression and is saying ‘I can, I can’, but at the same time there is the sense that relatively few people are listening, even its National Trust owners: there is no longer a printed guidebook for the house (always a black mark from this blogger) and I have seen little promotion of the property at the other NT locations I have visited this week. I hasten to add that this seeming lack of enthusiasm certainly does not stretch as far as the staff and volunteers at Ormesby itself who were extremely helpful and informative and who shared their own passion for the house. Without them, I’m not sure I could have written this summary as they filled in some of the historical gaps for me and also highlighted novel points of interest along the way.

Granted, Ormesby is a little detached from the Yorkshire properties I have been visiting, located just on the outskirts of Middlesbrough, but it is still in relatively easy striking distance of North Yorkshire’s main tourism hubs so should perhaps feature on the tourist map a little more prominently. It could be that I will find more information about the place on my next visits to Rievaulx Terrace and Nunnington Hall, as these are the closest places to Ormesby that are also managed by the Trust (Mount Grace Priory is run by English Heritage). We’ll see.

It is also the case that Ormesby Hall is a relatively small property compared with some of the National Trust’s real gems, but it still has a lot to offer. Besides the main body of the house with its pretty Adam style interiors, there is also a large Laundry and a Victorian Kitchen to visit, plus two model railways. I am not a train enthusiast but the volunteers clearly are and we stayed for a while, learning about the construction of the models and about the fate of an old Yorkshire branch line (perhaps this is why The Little Engine That Could sprang to mind?!) The garden is small but there are deckchairs on the lawn and tables just outside the tearoom so it makes for a tranquil spot to sit, eat, sleep or simply ponder.

Getting back to the house, it is presumably built with local stone (a guidebook would be able to tell me!), which gives it an unusual and striking appearance, with an equally impressive stable block to one side. It also has many stories to tell following 400 years of ownership by the Pennyman family. The information presented in the house refers to the most recent owners, Jim and Ruth Pennyman, who mixed with various famous and influential people thanks to their interest in the theatre and in socialist politics, but the volunteers also shared a little information about ‘Wicked’ Sir James Pennyman, the 6th Baronet, who spent money like it was going out of fashion, gambled with abandon and found himself in the courts on a regular basis.

‘A tranquil oasis’

The current house was first built in 1740 after one James Pennyman (there were a lot of Jameses!) married a Dorothy with a lot of money. The ‘Wicked’ baronet later remodelled – including extending the stables to house his racehorses – while further big changes were made in the 1870s by James Stovin Pennyman, Jim’s grandfather. The property came to the Trust in 1961 when Jim Pennyman died but his wife Ruth stayed on until her own death in 1983 and it seems that she was an interesting fixture: on occasion, the NT staff had to make sure she had finished her breakfast in the dining room before letting the visitors in! She was apparently a welcoming rather than obstructive presence though and would occasionally meet and greet the visitors herself.

Ruth had a passion for the theatre so as well as hosting various actor friends at the house she also staged her own plays at Ormesby. One room displays some of the posters created to promote these events so I thought it was fitting that a poster near the car park is currently advertising the summer play of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is showing at Ormesby in August.

Visitors to Ormesby can also follow the mile-long Pennyman Potter walking route around the park but we settled instead for a less energetic potter around the second-hand bookshop! It is a very good example, complete with sofas for committed browsers, and we came away with a bagful of books. Whatever else Ormesby has to offer, it is the first of this week’s properties to offer me second-hand books so it earns a gold star for that as well!

Highlights: Adam-style rooms; ‘a tranquil oasis’ (this is how the hall is described on the welcome leaflet and it really did ring true… it is a beautiful and peaceful spot located right on the edge of urban Middlesbrough)

Refreshments: Leek and potato soup with rustic bread, half a cheese and ham panini

Purchase(s): 3 second hand books (‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ by David Mitchell; ‘The Thirteenth Tale’ by Diane Setterfield; ‘The Swan Thieves’ by Elizabeth Kostova)

Companion(s): Mum

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129. Mount Grace Priory, House & Gardens – 9/5/2018

Mount Grace Priory is one of those odd properties that is owned by the National Trust but managed by English Heritage. This results in a slightly different feel, including a less familiar menu in the café and an alternative look to the guidebook. I was a little sad that my visit didn’t coincide with lunchtime as the tearoom was offering Yoasties (filled Yorkshire pudding toasties) that I was intrigued to sample, but I had a busy day lined up with two properties to visit and an early arrival at Mount Grace meant I had to make do with morning tea and cake. As far as the variation on the guidebook is concerned, I found it a little dry compared with some of the NT guides, which made my post-visit reading a little more challenging.

I have already admitted elsewhere in this blog that I am not a huge fan of ancient ruins so I was prepared to be a little underwhelmed by Mount Grace, especially as it was also bound to suffer a little in comparison to the grander ruins that I visited at Fountains Abbey yesterday. But it did have its own charms and nuggets of interest, most notably the recreated monk’s cell. Mount Grace was a community of Carthusian monks who tended to live isolated lives, spending large amounts of time in their own ‘cells’ either praying or working. There were even hatches in the walls of the ‘cells’ so the laybrothers could serve them their food and communal eating was relatively rare.

You will probably have noticed that I have put the word ‘cell’ in inverted commas and this is because I feel it is slightly deceptive. I entered the restored ‘cell’ expecting a tiny barren space; instead, there was a suite of rooms (albeit small), including a living room with fireplace, a bedroom, an oratory for praying and writing and an upstairs workroom, while there was even a small garden (with outside latrine). It made me wonder… a lack of contact with other people, meals delivered daily, and a compact and bijou apartment: the life of a Carthusian monk could have been highly appealing, but only if there were a TV, well-stocked bookcase and flushing toilet added!

There are a couple of exhibition rooms in the main house that outline the history, layout and gradual expansion of the priory since it was first founded in 1398, while the guidebook gives a detailed tour of the ruins so you can identify the individual areas spread across the grounds. As far as the broad history is concerned, the priory was originally founded by Thomas de Holand, a nephew of Richard II, but he lost his head (literally not figuratively) a couple of years later and the priory was later re-founded in 1415 by Thomas Beaufort, uncle of Henry V. As with most monastic communities, Henry VIII put paid to priory life and Mount Grace was closed down in 1539. As with Fountains Abbey, the site was not entirely destroyed by later owners, although a large amount of the stone was removed to be used in construction elsewhere.

There was then a long period of neglect before a new house was built in one of the priory’s former guesthouses in the early 17th century. Again, many owners came and went and it was a tenanted farmhouse for some time before William Brown, a historian with a real interest in Yorkshire monasteries, commissioned excavation of the site in 1896. In 1898, he sold the estate to Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, a successful industrialist, who is responsible for the refurbishment of the house in the Arts & Crafts style. He had previously worked with Arts & Crafts architects and designers Philip Webb and William Morris and this time employed Ambrose Poynter, a student of Webb, and the Morris & Co design company to renovate, extend and decorate Mount Grace house.

From Lowthian Bell, the house was passed down to the next two generations of Bells before being transferred to the treasury in lieu of death duties in 1944. The National Trust took it on in the 1950s and they passed it into the Guardianship of the State for more detailed excavation of the priory site, which was ongoing over many years. Restoration of the house then began in 1987 and it was opened to the public in 2010, but there is still work ongoing, including development of the garden, while the modern tearoom nestled in the trees was a new addition this year.

Although there is a genuine William Morris carpet on show inside the house as well as reproduction wallpapers, I think that this property will almost certainly appeal more to ancient buildings enthusiasts than followers of the Arts & Crafts movement. As a result, it does seem to sit more naturally in the English Heritage stable than in that of the National Trust.

Highlights: Monk’s cell

Refreshments: Pot of tea and half a slice of lime and zucchini cake

Purchase(s): Guidebook

Companion(s): Mum

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128. Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal – 8/5/2018

Phew! A day out at Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal is something of a stamina test so be prepared for a lot of walking and a lot of different sights. Unfortunately, my holiday companion isn’t walking very well at the moment so we had to take it slow and use the free courtesy bus that is available to transport visitors from one end of the estate to the other (an extremely useful service provided by a set of very cheerful and accommodating volunteer drivers). I did manage to take a few solo detours in order to admire the views from higher ground (and even managed to spot some of the park’s red deer along the way), but I was pretty worn out myself after that so there were still a couple of things that I didn’t have the energy to see. I came away envying the locals who can keep coming back to take it all in piecemeal.

The name of this property already demonstrates that there are at least two separate visitor experiences available: the ruined Fountains Abbey, with its Cistercian history, and Studley Royal with its water gardens, landscaping and parkland. But this is by no means all there is on offer as the property also boasts the following: an old Mill, which operated for a total of almost 800 years between the 1140s and 1927; the Porters House, with a detailed exhibition about the abbey and its occupants; Swanley Grange with information about the wool trade, the source of the abbey’s wealth; St Mary’s Church and Chorister’s House, which were Victorian additions to the estate; and Fountains Hall, an Elizabethan house built using some of the stone from the ruined abbey and in which a few rooms are open to visitors.

I must admit that I didn’t get to all of these offshoots from the main attractions. I very much enjoyed the abbey exhibition in the Porters House (particularly the model of the abbey as it would once have looked) but avoided the Mill as I am a bit ‘milled out’ at the moment and that part of the grounds was also busy with the paraphernalia of a film crew who were shooting in the ruins of the abbey guesthouses today. I also managed to walk right past Fountains Hall, admiring the exterior, without being aware that a few rooms were open to visitors.

With a view to helping out future visitors, I would also like to point out that, while the main car park is at the Visitor’s Centre to which the brown signs direct you, there is also some parking available at the West Gate from which you can approach the abbey ruins on the flat and also at the Studley Royal lake. Entry is available from all three locations so if you only have time for one part of the estate – or want to transfer yourself from one to the other by car – you can pick your car park… although perhaps not on a sunny Bank Holiday: our bus driver told us that there were 4,000 visitors(!) at Fountains yesterday and the parking had to overflow into the estate near St Mary’s Church.

So, where to begin with the history of this sprawling World Heritage site?  The monks came first, having established a Cistercian abbey at Fountains in 1135, so I should probably start with them. Wealthy benefactors and help from the French Cistercians led to the initial establishment of the community but the abbey soon became the richest in England thanks to its earnings from the wool trade (I am sure current sheep farmers will be astounded to know that their trade once helped to build a vast network of buildings on this kind of scale… those days are long gone).

The abbey went through a bad time in the 1300s, and diseased flocks, failed harvests, raids from the Scots and the Black Death all contributed to a century ‘horribilis’. A series of powerful abbots helped to revive things in the 15th and 16th centuries but then Henry VIII came along and Fountains Abbey was finally surrendered to the crown and broken up in 1539, ending 400 years of worship there. Further detail about this history and monastic life is on display in the Porters Lodge where you can even dress in a monk’s habit if you so desire – white for a devout choir monk or brown for a hard-working laybrother.

The estate passed through various hands after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, with one owner Stephen Proctor building Fountains Hall before everything passed to the Messenger family, which acquired the Hall and ruins in 1627 and maintained ownership across five generations. It was in 1767 that the family finally agreed to sell the Fountains estate to their neighbour at Studley Royal, William Aislabie, and the two properties have been twinned ever since.

The Aislabies are the most important personages in the Studley Royal story. George Aislabie, who came into possession of the estate through marriage to Mary Mallorie, was particularly interesting to me as I had read about him in York on Sunday: he lived at the Treasurer’s House with his family and it was he who was killed in a duel and was responsible for the ghostly bloodstain that kept appearing on the staircase. It was George’s son John, though, who is perhaps the most important personage in the Studley Royal story. Once mayor of Ripon and Chancellor of the Exchequer, he well and truly blotted his copybook with his involvement in the South Sea Bubble and after this – and a brief spell in the Tower of London – he retired to his estate to create the water gardens we see today.

The Octagon Tower and water gardens below

Oddly, the water gardens were not that close to the Studley Royal house, occupying a position at the far side of the park, but I imagine this was due mainly to the location of existing water courses and the topography of the land, which are clearly essential to the success of the landscaping. Unfortunately, the house no longer exists, having burnt down in 1946.

John’s son William inherited in 1742 and followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming MP for Ripon. It was he who finally managed to unite Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal under the same ownership. This was something that the Aislabies had long desired as their Surprise View includes the abbey ruins and it was probably galling that this aspect of their beautiful landscape was ‘in next door’s garden’, as it were.

The Surprise View

The water gardens are very unusual, with the crescent and moon ponds, and long canals acting as mirrors to the surrounding trees and follies. There are many such follies on either side of the valley and I managed to visit the Banqueting House, the Temple of Piety, the Serpentine Tunnel, the Octagon Tower, the Temple of Fame and the Anne Boleyn statue located at the Surprise View. If you do nothing else at Studley Royal, I would encourage you to walk up to the Surprise View as it really is beautiful, looking along the river back to the abbey ruins.

Unfortunately, Studley Royal currently has a ‘Folly!’ project underway through which four so-called ‘whimsical’ or ‘eccentric’ modern artworks have been created to re-imagine some of the old follies that have been lost to the estate over the years. One of these – Polly – is a jarring tower of fluorescent yellow, pink and green located on the hillside to one side of the Surprise View. Needless to say, I adjusted my camera angle to make sure Polly didn’t find her way into my shot. I am not totally averse to modern artworks or sculptures in these kinds of parklands but I prefer them not to be quite so intrusive to the important views (or in fact quite so colourful!)

Highlights: The Surprise View; the Abbey ruins; the watery landscapes

Refreshments: Pot of tea with half a scone and butter; lunch of Wensleydale and caramelised onion quiche with salad and new potatoes, plus slice of Victoria sponge

Purchase(s): Guidebook, keyring (gift), cloth badge, ‘A Death at Fountains Abbey’ by Antonia Hodgson

Companion(s): Mum

NT Connections: Treasurer’s House, where George Aislabie lived (and died after a duel)

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