34. Sizergh Castle – 13/5/2014

For the second day running, I visited a house that had been featured on the ‘Inside the National Trust’ documentary series hosted by Michael Buerk. This time, although I didn’t see any familiar faces from the programme, I did spot some familiar places, including the bank barn (my second of the week as there was also one at Townend) and the current Mrs Strickland’s front door! Also for the second day running I exited the Lake District National Park, this time in the south-east corner rather than the north-west.

Another notable thing to mention about today is that there was not one single solitary mention made of Wiltrix! (That’s my mash-up of William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter if you haven’t been reading earlier entries). At last, I have found somewhere in the Lakes that has nothing to do with these literary paragons.

I have also found my first real stately home of this trip. Sizergh, although called a ‘Castle’ and sporting a crenellated tower, is more of a large house than a castle in the traditional sense. In fact, it was called Sizergh Hall until one of the prouder Strickland owners decided it needed a more impressive standing in society. Excuse me for using a rear view of the house above but I was quite pleased with my reflected castle shot (and I have to admit that the photo of the front was a little wonky!)

IMG_0779The gardens were my first port of call on arrival at Sizergh and the first thing I came to was the Rock Garden. Now, this was the exact opposite of saving the best for last, as this is my idea of a perfect garden. Not only are there rocks, trickling water features, ferns and Alpine plants but there is also one of the best collections of Japanese maples I have ever seen in one place. And Japanese maples are the rock stars of the plant world for me… okay, I didn’t scream and throw my underwear at them, but it was tempting!

I could hardly drag myself away from this delightful spot to look at the rest of the gardens but eventually forced myself to go and look at the herbaceous border, kitchen garden, orchard (with bees and chickens) and lake (with a family of coots whose chicks were extremely ‘coot’). I also saw an acrobatic wagtail flitting across the surface of the water scooping up pond skaters and other tasty morsels – I didn’t know they could do that.

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A red squirrel in the surreal Woollen Woods exhibit.

One last thing to mention in the gardens is the current Woollen Woods exhibition, which is actually more than a little bit mental! Basically, the Knoll woodland has been decorated with woollen recreations of nature, so there are woollen birds, butterflies, animals, insects, flowers, fungi and fruits all dotted about in the trees. Designed to showcase wool as a tough, natural fibre that can withstand the elements, it was certainly an odd display and left me feeling as if I had accidentally wandered into a surrealist landscape painting.

As always, I signed up for the house tour and was guided around by ‘Dickie’ Bird and his wife. There have been Stricklands at Sizergh for 700 years and the tour took just 40 minutes so as you can imagine there was a lot to take in over a short period of time and I have to admit I’m still a little confused about which Strickland was which and who did what. There are 16 pages about the family in the guidebook so I’m going to settle down with that and enhance my Strickland education later on.

In the meantime, here’s a potted history of what I do know. The Deincourt family was granted Sizergh by the Lord of Kendal in the 1170s and it was passed on to the Stricklands (or de Stirkelands as they were known until the 15th century) on the marriage of Sir William de Stirkeland to Elizabeth Deincourt in 1239. Since then, no fewer than eighteen generations of Stricklands have lived at Sizergh and Angela Hornyold-Strickland still lives on the premises today. A member of the family by marriage, she is the second generation of Hornyold-Stricklands after her husband’s mother (married to Henry Hornyold) inherited Sizergh. I’m not sure if any of you have already started to chuckle but it took me a while to cotton on to the fact that one could put a whole new slant on the Hornyold-Stricklands with the simple addition of a space! Sorry, Stricklands, but that’s one for my list of novelty names. In support of these Hornyolds, however, I would like to point out that it was the first Hornyold-Stricklands who gave the house, estate and contents to the National Trust in 1950 so it is thanks to them that we can visit the place at all.

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One of many carved wooden overmantels

The other aspect of the Stricklands that is very important to their history is that they were staunch Catholics. During the turbulent Tudor years, they outwardly conformed to whatever religion they were supposed to be following at the time, but the family never really gave up its Catholicism and the Queen’s Room demonstrates the religious tightrope the family had to walk over the years. On the one hand, the room is called the Queen’s Room because of the presence of Queen Elizabeth I’s coat of arms on the ornate carved wooden overmantel (one of many examples in the house), which is an expensive sign of appeasement to the Protestant queen. On the other hand, there are two portraits above the door from the 1650s, which are signed JH, possibly Dom Jerome Hesketh, who pretended to be a travelling portrait painter as a cover for his mission to deliver communion to secret Catholics.

An exhibition just off the Entrance Hall presents further information about the family’s struggles as Catholic supporters of the Jacobites in the late 17th century. Sir Thomas Strickland and his wife were among those exiled to France with James II and his family at this time, placing Sizergh in trust until his return. He never did return, though, dying in France, so it was his wife who worked hard to retrieve the estate for her son Walter in 1699 before she too died in France. All in all, though, I think the Stricklands came out of all this relatively unscathed, they put all their eggs in completely the wrong basket and still managed to retain their house and lands for future generations.

Those with an interest in architecture will find the various building alterations quite interesting. I won’t go into too much detail but, as usual with a building of this age, there have been many changes over the years. The large tower has stood since the mid-14th century, but there were then significant alterations in the Tudor period, then further changes in the 1770s and still more at the turn of the 20th century. This last period saw the Entrance Hall altered so that carriages could drive straight in the front door and right back out the rear. A kind of indoor porte-cochere or old-fashioned drive-thru! It is also interesting that the stone steps that once led up to the front door of the house on the outside have been recycled and simply moved indoors so you still climb them to reach the first floor, only now inside the house.

The last thing I have to mention is the Inlaid Chamber, which is Sizergh’s pride and joy. The walls of this bedchamber are lined with ornate inlaid wood panelling, while the ceiling is also very striking with its ribbed plasterwork. Created in the 1570s, the room was always the showpiece of the house reserved for special guests. However, in the 1890s, a cash-strapped Walter Strickland sold the panelling to the Victoria & Albert Museum, where it was displayed with a plaster-cast of the ceiling. In 1999, a reorganisation of the museum led them to get in touch with the NT and offer to return the panelling to Sizergh; obviously ‘no’ was the last thing they were going to say. Back where it belongs, the panelling technically still belongs to the V&A so it is the only room in the house in which you are not allowed to take photos.

So, that’s Sizergh. Clearly, there’s an awful lot more to see with some very decorative furniture, about three million family portraits (slight exaggeration, I admit!), and some interesting pieces of porcelain, my favourites being the two Royal Copenhagen vases in the Drawing Room. I would include a picture here but I appear to have had the shakes at that point in my tour! To say it was not my most successful photo would be vastly understating its awfulness.

Before I left I went back to the Rock Garden for one last look, but sadly the rumbling of thunder and threatened downpour drove me away. I somehow doubt whether I will come across a garden that will grab me quite as much as this one throughout the rest of my travels so allow me to drop a corny Americanism in here and say ‘Rock Garden, missing you already’!

Highlights: The Rock Garden, the Rock Garden and oh did I mention the Rock Garden? (OK, if you really want more than just a rock-star Rock Garden, then the Inlaid Chamber and the Stricklands’ Catholic history are further highlights).

Refreshments: Tea; Chicken Casserole with Mash (compliments to the chef, this was absolutely delicious!)

Purchase(s): Guidebook, notebook (my current one for my trips is nearly full) birthday cards

Companion(s): None

NB: I extended the day once again with a brief stop at Fell Foot Park at the south end of Windermere. An NT-owned country park, it has a café in the old boathouse, which is a nice spot for a cup of tea after driving through a hailstorm! There are also some pretty views of Windermere, an adventure playground for children and an NT shop. Oh, and I met a nice little wagtail who was unfortunately intent on beating his brains out on his own reflection in a window. I did try to explain to him!

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