As you may have gathered from yesterday’s entry I’m on my travels again, this time in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire (via Northants yesterday). And I’ve got my mother in tow once again – she survived Cornwall last year and came back for more! We’re staying at a lovely converted barn in the Lincolnshire countryside and we started our programme of Trust visits with the one closest to ‘home’, which was Belton House just north of Grantham.
The first thing to say about Belton House is that there’s a lot to it, not just in quantity or quality but also in variety. We were there for about four hours, starting with a guided tour of the ‘below stairs’ area and then taking in lunch, a walk around the gardens and a wander around the 20-plus rooms in the house. And with over 300 years under the ownership of the Brownlow family (and related Custs), there was also plenty to learn about the many people who have made Belton their home.
In fact, such is the quantity of history at Belton that the Trust chooses a certain period or aspect of the house and collection as the focus for special exhibits each year. For us, this focus was on Peregrine and Katherine (Perry and Kitty) Cust and in particular on the 1930s when Peregrine served as Edward VIII’s Lord in Waiting and found himself embroiled in the abdication crisis, accompanying Wallis Simpson to Cannes as the King made his historic decision back home. I have noticed that the Trust is increasingly highlighting specific aspects of their properties as changing exhibitions make them more interesting for repeat visits. This can go one of two ways – for example, I was disappointed to find many of the rooms at Upton House vastly altered to fit into the WWII theme, but Belton’s approach was much better as extra information was added here and there wherever space was available but the core rooms were left unaltered. As an example, the dining room simply features a sample menu and seating plan as it might have been in the 1930s (including names such as Evelyn Waugh), while some empty rooms upstairs have been used for display purposes.
One thing I couldn’t figure out from the Perry Cust exhibits was whether Edward VIII had ever visited while he was actually king so I can’t really add him to my list of visiting monarchs. He certainly visited his friend many times as Prince of Wales and took Wallis Simpson with him on one trip, but I’m not sure he ever crossed the threshold as King Edward VIII. Belton shouldn’t be too disappointed, though, as it already makes my list due to a visit from King William III in the late 1680s, shortly after the house was built.
The Brownlow family tree and inheritance of Belton can look fairly complicated as some owners died childless and others outlived their heirs so there were a few ‘sideways’ inheritances. However, despite the replacement of the Brownlow name with Cust in the 18th century (through the inheritance of a married female), later members of the family took the title Baron Brownlow to keep the name alive. It really is just one family that owned the house from its construction to its donation to the Trust in 1984.
There is a good family tree and discussion of its members in the guidebook but I will pick out a few notable names. It was in 1684 that ‘Young’ Sir John Brownlow started building the current house, perhaps from designs by William Winde (although this is not certain). Passing over a William Brownlow, we quickly come to another Sir John who inherited in 1702 (created Viscount Tyrconnel in 1718) and who was a great art lover and collector. A couple of my favourite pieces in the house were bought by Tyrconnel, including the lapis lazuli cabinet, now tucked away in a small picture room, but well worth sniffing out. He also bought the tapestries depicting the story of the life of Diogenes, now in the Tapestry Room. I am not usually a big fan of tapestries, but these appealed to me, showing Diogenes first living in a barrel and later adding a cheeky message to a lintel inscription.
Other notable owners in the succession include Sir John Cust, who was Speaker of the House of Commons between 1761 and his death in office in 1770, then his son Brownlow Cust (1st Baron Brownlow) who employed James Wyatt to make some alterations to the house, including removal of the balustrade and cupola (thankfully replaced 100 years later by the 4th Baron). Brownlow’s son – another John – then employed Wyatt’s nephew Jeffrey Wyatville to make further changes and additions, including most importantly the Orangery and the Chinese Bedroom, other highlights of the property. The 5th Baron Brownlow and his wife were instrumental in getting Belton’s finances back on track around the turn of the 20th century and were reported to be a big support to the local community, but they made most of an impression on me because of their names! Adelbert Salusbury Cockayne Cust is certainly a name to conjure with, but seems decidedly comical when paired with the much plainer moniker of his wife… Maud Buckle. They’re being added to my Miscellany list of novel names.
Other things I would recommend you to look out for in the house include the writing desk inlaid with walnut burr, which was used by Colin Firth to write Mr Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth Bennett in the BBC’s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, the Chinese Bedroom with its wallpaper and its dado rails and cornices painted to look like bamboo, and the bed in the Blue Bedroom, which has a canopy that is said to be higher than a double-decker bus. The Chapel is also a highlight at the moment thanks to the carpet of flowers that is created at Belton at about this time each year. Just as the wooden rails in the Chinese Bedroom are not real and are simply painted to resemble bamboo, you may also notice that the ornate columns in the chapel are also in disguise, this time wood pretending to be marble.
The silver is another highlight of Belton but you will have to go on a ‘below stairs’ tour in order to see this. It is locked up tighter than Fort Knox so you have to visit with a guide who knows the security pad code in order to disable the alarms. I am never particularly fascinated by life below stairs as everything is very similar from house to house, but I would recommend putting up with the usual cast of characters and rooms just to see the silver collection.
The free-flow of the house is just that, very free, and there is no designated route around; it might, therefore, help to buy a guidebook with a floor plan so as to make sure you don’t miss anything or retrace your steps too often. The highlights of each room are summarised in individual folders so you shouldn’t miss the key sights. These also made me giggle as they pointed out how often the names of the rooms have changed. The modern choices are far more stylish than some of the earlier names. For example, the West Staircase sounds quite a bit better than ‘the Staircase by the Dining Room Door’!
I am going on too long as usual so I won’t go into too much detail about the gardens, but the formal areas are well worth a visit, with impressive Italian and Dutch gardens. The Orangery was also looking lovely with a line of red dahlias blooming outside. And make sure you keep an eye out for the deer, which are the direct descendants of the herd first enclosed by ‘Young’ Sir John Brownlow in 1690. Just like the Brownlow owners, the Belton deer have kept it in the family all this time.
Highlights: Lapis lazuli cabinet, the silver collection, the Chinese bedroom, the Boudoir
Refreshments: Jacket potato with tuna, salad and coleslaw
Purchase(s): Guidebook, birthday cards, Rocky Road brownie (from a stall at the Autumn Fair that was on this weekend), ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doerr from secondhand bookshop (this is a vast bookshop and I didn’t have the energy to scan all of the shelves, but I fortunately stumbled across something I have been wanting to read within the first minute… job done!)