Hardwick Hall Gets Our Thumbs Up.

If you’re in the Peak District, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Hardwick Hall. We’ve just returned from a few days camping and cycling between Buxton and Bakewell and decided to take in the Hall on our way back to the M1 (it’s just off Junction 29).

Glorious Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire.

We had been once before. That was years ago, when the girls were really small and if I remember rightly it was rather a dull day. But I very much wanted to go again and have a better look at the famous tapestries and other needlework pieces.

Well, what can I say – to date, this has to have been the friendliest National Trust property we’ve visited (and that’s quite a lot).

Right from our arrival, all the people we met were incredibly affable, knowledgable, and thank the Lord, child-friendly. I just want to say an enormous thank-you to all the volunteers and other staff who’ve proved that it really is possible to run an historic property in a way that welcomes all kinds of visitors.

Hardwick, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a huge Elizabethan prodigy house, built by the redoubtable Bess of Hardwick, four times married and ending her life as the Countess of Shrewsbury (having seen off her poor fourth husband). This woman was probably the second most powerful and richest lady in England after the Queen herself. Her life was pretty amazing – and very long too. I’m not sure you’d particularly have liked her, but you have to admire the spirit. There are lots of books about her if you’re interested. (I haven’t actually read any, so I’m not going to recommend which one to read – but Google Bess of Hardwick, or look on Amazon and you’ll see quite a lot of choice).

Bess was quite a needlewoman and Hardwick has a wonderful collection of textiles (OK, I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I can’t help being a bit of a needlework freak – bear with me). But even if a pile of musty old tapestries only makes you want to sneeze, it’s still worth going to Hardwick, because it’s the most amazing building. The windows alone mark it out as an architectural triumph, but it also has an interior that simply takes your breath away.

After going around the Hall, we strolled out into the gardens. A herb garden has been developed, and frankly I think I could go and spend an entire afternoon there (OK, herbs are another passion, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of…)

The girls stayed and played games on the lawns in front of the Hall – like I said, the Trust have got it right here.

If you’re a complete historic house geek (like me!), you’ll be delighted to know that the ruins of Hardwick Old Hall are quite literally on the doorstep of the new Hall, so you can have a double helping.

Do go and have a look, it’s lovely.

Hardwick’s official website has details of opening times etc.



Coffee and Cake at Powis Castle

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Have you ever walked around a ruined castle and wondered what it would have been like if it hadn’t been ruined? Well, for me, Powis Castle, just outside Welshpool in the English/Welsh Marches feels like an ancient castle that survived intact. We stopped off there at the weekend on our way home from Snowdon.

Powis Castle sits on top of a hill, which must once have been heavily in its favour as a defensible site. From the outside it looks very much like a medieval castle (which is what it started life as). Inside, it’s more of a mini stately home or country house. It boasts extraordinary terraced gardens, which are wonderful if you’re fit enough to attempt the steps – more of a challenge for the less fit. As ever, I saw a mother lifting a baby’s buggy up the steep flight of garden steps, while her partner stood at the top watching her!

With spring being so forward this year, I was fascinated to see so many irises in flower – mine are either backward, or just not playing the game, as there’s no sign of a bloom – but at Powis, they’re lovely.

Probably the wisteria is the garden’s current big star – simply beautiful swathes of pale bluey/lilac cascades, draping the orangery.

We weren’t alone on our visit – it was heaving. Who can blame us all for heading out there to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the holiday. But I think the National Trust were struggling a bit to cope with the numbers. There were anxious faces and quite a lot of overt reminders of all the things visitors are not allowed to do.

I do think the National Trust is on thin ice regarding it’s conservation policy at the moment. Have you seen any of the programmes from Petworth, with Andrew Graham Dixon? Of course we have to applaud efforts to maintain the treasures that the Trust is responsible for – but how do they reconcile the very obvious need for our money to fund their efforts, with the fact that we pay to experience the treasures, not to be treated as a nuisance? Visitors might bring in damaging dust and leave behind particles of dead skin, but without these ‘paying guests’ the treasures would be left looking for another benefactor to fund their conservation.

I think my personal jury is currently out on this one, although it really concerns me. The National Trust has had a chequered past where visitor relations are concerned, and it’s worrying to think that just as many of their properties are getting more right, their conservationists are in danger of setting them back again. Extremely prominent signs at the entrance explained the various ways in which visitors can harm the interiors – is this really the way to welcome the people who actually care enough to pay to enter? Surely the way to get visitors ‘on-side’ is not to lecture us, and certainly not to make us feel that it would be better if we didn’t go at all.

Ultimately they will have to do better if they want to encourage more paying members, because what we don’t want, is to feel that they’re only interested in us for the money we give them (pay attention here The Historic Houses Association – you have a VERY LONG WAY TO GO) – the more people the Trust sign up, the more visitors they will have to expect and prepare to welcome.

But griping aside, there was one place at Powis that was coping beautifully, and where the service was excellent, and that was at the little coffee shop in the garden – Lady Voilet’s. Here we enjoyed an excellent cream tea and the girls raided the ice cream cabinet. I wonder if it’s success may have been due to the long walk to get there, or the very subtle signage, which I suppose might just have reduced the numbers of people who managed to find it – anyway, well done to the caterers for getting it right.

We decided to have a look around the interior of the castle later in the afternoon, although it was not our first visit and I’m glad that we did. It’s a charming building, especially if you’re a fan of the heavy oak, Jacobean textiles and family portrait brigade (which I am). I think there should be a special mention for the people who provide the flower arrangements. So often in National Trust properties, I find that these temporary works of art are more alluring than some of the items the conservationists get all het-up about.

We ended up in the ‘old kitchen’, which certainly had a kind of atmosphere. Suffice to say, I’m glad it was busy and that I wasn’t the room guide attached to it. Perhaps it was just the cold permeating from store rooms below, but it definitely sent a shiver down my spine.

Oh, and one more gripe – sorry – I do wish the National Trust wouldn’t position gentile matrons at the exits, requesting us to buy raffle tickets ‘to support the restoration’. It’s tantamount to asking us to pay to get out, and that really isn’t the way to leave us with happy fluffy feelings, or to encourage us to return.

So our visit to Powis – a bit of a curates egg. Gorgeous house, amazing gardens, good refreshments. Needs to do better on the customer services front.

Claydon House, Buckinghamshire

Number Two daughter and I paid a visit to Claydon House, near Aylesbury, this afternoon. It’s one of those places that makes a good afternoon trip. I’m not sure you’d want to spend all day there though, unless you decided to walk around the fields – very lovely, especially at this time of the year when the lambs are about.

So why visit Claydon? Well, it was once the home of Florence Nightingale’s sister Parthenope, so there’s a lot of Florence Nightingale memorabilia in the house, including the room she used when visiting the house. It was also the home to the Verney family, (I understand that part of the house is still occupied by the family), one of whom was King Charles I’s standard-bearer at the Battle of Edgehill – where he was ‘slayed’ as his tomb in the adjacent churchwill tell you.

The house contains some excellent portraits. These are the kind of portraits that I love – pictures of people where their character seems to shine through – there’s all sorts, from the haughty to the coquettish – with pretty much everything in between.

The house also has some remarkably decorated rooms, which The National Trust has done a good job of making more accessible. Don’t miss the Chinese Room, where well to do visitors would be given tea. It’s so over the top, you’ll want one in your house too.

This afternoon there was a lady showing examples of items from everyday life from years back – it was fascinating – I recognised some of the pieces, but was intrigued to see others. Daughter loved it too. Sometimes it’s the simplest things that give you the most pleasure.

Claydon was meant to be a much bigger edifice than it now stands, and it’s a strangely unbalanced house, probably because of that, but it’s quirkiness is one of its attractions.

There is a second-hand bookshop in the courtyard, where I managed to get a copy of the biography of Richard III, by Michael Hicks. I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to the Wars of The Roses and the people involved, so I was pleased to get my hands on this book.

The tea-room was welcome. We really needed a cup of coffee and a slice of coffee and walnut cake – yum. There’s also a little restaurant if your tastes run to that – or you’re making more of an occasion of it.

There are other attractions too, including a gallery, but that’s not really our thing, so I can’t tell you what that was like.

What could Claydon do to improve the visitor experience? Well I have to say, they’ve improved a lot since we first went years ago. Today it felt very friendly. The room guides were chatty and pleasant and definitely child-friendly. There’s lots to do and you can actually SIT DOWN in most rooms.

My only gripe is the signage to the newly sited ticket office – it’s in the wrong place. I got the impression from the ladies there, that this had been noticed, so hopefully, by the time you go, they’ll have added a couple or repositioned one or two. But that’s a tiny gripe – really being horribly picky.