12 historic houses fit for a queen

Britain. Time-wreathed with historic houses, castles, stately homes and palaces; haunted by the high-born of the past.

The nation celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday on 21 April. The Queen’s annual birthday parade takes place this Saturday. And, having united the dothraki people, Daenerys Targaryen (“Not a Queen, a Khaleesi”) has her sights set on the Iron Throne.

So, what are you waiting for?

To celebrate this happy coincidence of events, we stop off at no less than 12 of Britain’s magnificent stately homes, once exclusive status symbols, now open to you and I, dear reader. Without further ado, let’s take a tour of a dozen of Britain’s poshest properties…

1. Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire

Eastnor Castle

“Embowered by vast conifers, plantations which spill out into surrounding hills and fields,” (Country Life magazine), Eastnor Castle holds dominion over a 5,000-acre estate in the Malvern Hills. Once inside it’s imposing Robert Smirke-fashioned facade, opulent interiors range from Medieval, to Renaissance, and Gothic.

Fascinating fact: The drawing room was designed in the Gothic Revival style by Augustus Pugin and is his most complete interior outside the Palace of Westminster.

On screen: ‘Discovered’ back in 1969 when MGM used it as an English Lord’s castle in One More Time, directed by Jerry Lewis, it recently cameoed in the ITV drama Dr Thorne by Julian Fellowes.

More to explore: arboretum; deer park; fishing lakes; adventure playground; knight’s maze; Land Rover off-roading experience; shop; and tearoom. Find out more…

Where to stay: The Chase Hotel, in the Wye Valley area of outstanding natural beauty, at the gateway to the Royal Forest of Dean. (30 minutes from Eastnor Castle by car.) Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel. Find out more…

2. Highclere Castle, Newbury, West Berkshire

Highclere Castle

Exhortations to “explore the real Downton Abbey” seem somewhat redundant by now, but the county seat of the Earl of Carnarvon really does put one in the mood to mix-and-match one’s China. That’s to say, with a little effort you can positively picture yourself being served an elegant meal in the state dining room, presided over by Van Dyck’s great equestrian portrait of Charles I.

Fascinating fact: Earl of Grantham is a fictional title in the peerage of Britain. Robert Crawley is fictional, too. (I’m glad we cleared that up.)

On screen: ‘Downtonia’ aside, in ITV series Jeeves and Wooster, starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, Totleigh Towers was filmed at Highclere. Legendary film director Stanley Kubrick immortalised the richly decorated saloon in Eyes Wide Shut.

More to explore: ‘Capability’ Brown parkland; gardens; shop; and tearoom. Find out more…

Where to stay: Donnington Valley Hotel, Golf and Spa, in Newbury, West Berkshire. (15 minutes from Highclere Castle by car.) Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel. Find out more…

3. Ickworth House, Suffolk

The Rotunda and Italianate Garden, looking towards the west wing at Ickworth House, Suffolk.
Credit: National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Described by the National Trust as a “Georgian Italianate palace in an idyllic English landscape,” Ickworth House is somewhat of an oddity in England. What’s classical Italy doing in the heart of Suffolk? To answer this question, you need to know the story of the flamboyant 4th Earl of Bristol. As chance would have it, there’s a special exhibition about him running until December 2016.

Fascinating fact: “England’s greatest gardener,” Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, was paid to provide advice at Ickworth, but the extent of his input remains unclear.

On screen: Ickworth House has been the backdrop to a number of antiques shows over the years, including Antiques Roadshow. It can also be spotted in Bury St Edmunds, where Prince Edward visits West Suffolk.

More to explore: country estate; Italianate garden; pleasure grounds; walled garden; shop; and cafés. Find out more…

Where to stay: Hintlesham Hall Hotel, in Suffolk. (45 minutes from Ickworth House by car.) Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel. Find out more…

4. Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales

Cyfarthfa Castle
Credit: Merthyr Leisure Trust

Sprawled self-assured at the foot of the Brecon Beacons, this grand castellated mansion was once home to wealthy ironmasters; South Wales was famous for its ironworks. Displayed in restored Regency rooms, extensive fine and decorative art collections include works by Penry Williams, one of Wales’ greatest painters.

Fascinating fact: An impressive monument of the industrial ‘Iron Age’ in South Wales, the brickwork arches of six blast furnaces remain intact at Cyfarthfa.

On screen: Cyfarthfa Castle has been the focus of a number of BBC documentaries and has played cameos in the 2005 Doctor Who TV series.

More to explore: museum; art gallery; park; greenhouses; visitor centre; golf; tennis; miniature railway; splash playground; café; and tearoom. Find out more…

Where to stay: Gliffaes Country House Hotel, in the heart of the Brecon Beacons National Park. (35 minutes from Cyfarthfa Castle by car.) Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel. Find out more…

5. Leeds Castle, Kent

Leeds Castle

Self-proclaimed “the loveliest castle in the world,” it’s easy to see why. Leeds Castle rises from its moat like an ancient tree piercing a cerulean canopy. We could write about its 900 years of jaw-dropping history, including 300 years of royal ownership, but then you’d miss all there is to do on the estate – from bird of prey experiences, to punting on the moat, or riding on the castle train.

Fascinating fact:
The Dog Collar Museum’s collection of canine neckwear is the largest of its kind on public display anywhere in the world. Grrrreat Scott!

On screen: The Ealing classic Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Alec Guinness, was filmed here. Leeds Castle also makes an appearance in Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

More to explore: dog collar museum; ‘Capability’ Brown parkland; gardens; hedge maze; underground grotto; bird of prey centre; golf; Go Ape; adventure playgrounds; shop; café; and restaurants. Find out more…

Where to stay: The Hythe Imperial Hotel, Golf and Spa, on the Kent coast, surrounded by the Kent Downs area of outstanding natural beauty. (35 minutes from Leeds Castle by car.) Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel. Find out more…

6. Dartington Hall, South Devon

Dartington Hall Hotel

Our hotel takes centre stage in beauty spot South Devon. How many times have you stayed in a 14th Century palace? We thought so. According to famed architectural scholar Nikolaus Pevsner, Dartington Hall “vies for pre-eminence with Haddon Hall and Wingfield Manor in Derbyshire as the most spectacular domestic survival of late medieval England.”

Fascinating fact: John Holand, half-brother of Richard II, built Dartington Hall, which was once home to Henry VIII’s wives Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr.

On screen: Uniquely, a 14th Century barn cinema sits snug on the estate. The interior was first converted in 1935 by Walter Gropius, the influential German architect who founded the Bauhaus school of design.

More to explore: country estate; Grade II* listed gardens; barn cinema; visitor centre; River Dart adventure activities; festivals and courses; High Cross House (closed to the public); boutique shops; cafés; and award-winning restaurant. Find out more…

Where to stay: Dartington Hall Hotel, in the South Devon area of outstanding natural beauty, near Dartmoor National Park. Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel. Find out more…

7. Blackwell House, Lake District

Blackwell
Credit: Nick Wood

A masterpiece of 20th Century design. A perfect example of the Arts and Crafts movement. (We could stop there, but we have a word count to hit.) William Morris, one of the founders of the movement, said: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” And the craftsmanship is clear: fireplace inglenooks, spectacular plasterwork, stained glass and carved wooden panelling. Indeed, Blackwell is testament to the talent of many of the leading Arts and Crafts designers and studios.

Fascinating fact: Blackwell was built for Sir Edward Holt, the son of a Manchester-based businessman who founded what is today the award-winning Joseph Holt brewery with over 120 pubs in its estate.

On screen: Blackwell has yet to make its on-screen debut.

More to explore: Arts and Crafts gardens; craft shop; and tearoom. Find out more…

Where to stay: Lindeth Howe Country House Hotel, in the heart of the Lake District National Park, with views of Lake Windermere. (5 minutes from Blackwell House by car.) Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel. Find out more…

8. Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd, North Wales

Visitors at Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd, North Wales. Penrhyn Castle was built in the neo-Norman style between 1820-1840 to the design of Thomas Hopper.
Credit: National Trust Images/Paul Harris

Wales is perhaps “the castle capital of the world,” yet you’d be hard pushed to find another castle in such fairy-tale surrounds. Commanding views over Conwy Bay and Snowdonia, you’re encouraged to walk (run and roll!) on the grass at this neo-Norman castle. Nature trails and woodland walks make the most of its spectacular location. Picnic anyone? (Elaborately decorated rooms included.)

Fascinating fact: Penrhyn Castle’s railway museum features a number of industrial locomotives – including the rare ‘Fire Queen’ – that were once used in Penrhyn quarry.

On screen: Penrhyn Castle has yet to make its on-screen debut.

More to explore:
railway museum; country estate; gardens; adventure playground; outdoor gym; shops; café; and tearoom. Find out more…

Where to stay: The Imperial Hotel, perched on the promenade of Llandudno (“Queen of the Welsh resorts”), near Snowdonia National Park. (30 minutes from Penrhyn Castle by car.) Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel. Find out more…

9. Wilton House, Salisbury, Wiltshire

Wilton House

Salisbury is famous for its cathedral. Venture westward from the city centre, however, and chances are you’ll wander onto the Wilton Estate – there’s 14,500 acres of it. Home to the Earls of Pembroke for nearly 500 years, the house adorns its 17th Century interiors with a world-class art collection – works by master painters such as van Dyck and Pieter Brueghel.

Fascinating fact: Like many English country houses, Wilton House is on the site of a former ecclesiastical property. According to history scholar G. W. Bernard: “The dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s was one of the most revolutionary events in English history” (2011).

On screen: It would be immodest, nay, improper, to name all the films and TV programmes Wilton House has featured in (hardly surprising once you’ve seen its state rooms), so here’s a flavour: Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon; Mrs Brown; Pride & Prejudice (2005); The Young Victoria; and the hit television drama Outlander.

More to explore: country estate; gardens; adventure playground; shop; and restaurant. Find out more…

Where to stay: Milford Hall Hotel and Spa, in Salisbury city centre. (10 minutes from Wilton House by car.) Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel. Find out more…

10. Powis Castle, Powys, Mid Wales

Family playing in the garden at Powis Castle, Powys, Wales.
Credit: National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

This red-faced medieval fortress often plays second fiddle to its celebrated gardens, but within its walls is one of the world’s greatest collections of art and historical items, including the earliest known surviving set of 17th Century Italian busts The Twelve Caesars. While away an hour wandering the Italianate terraces, or grab a bite to eat in the Courtyard Restaurant.

Fascinating fact: The Clive Museum houses over 300 artefacts from India and the Far East. It is the largest private collection of its kind in the UK.

On screen: The Warriors’ Gate episode of Doctor Who saw Tom Baker scramble through the gardens in an attempt to escape the none-space. The none-what? Exactly.

More to explore: country estate; gardens; museum; shops; café; and restaurant. Find out more…

Where to stay: Lake Vyrnwy Hotel and Spa, nestling in a 22,000-acre RSPB reserve on the banks of Lake Vyrnwy. (45 minutes from Powis Castle by car.) Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel. Find out more…

11. Audley End House, Essex

Audley End House
Credit: English Heritage

An abbey disbanded. A country house erected. Created by the 1st Earl of Suffolk, this opulent Jacobean mansion has much to recommend it – impressive interiors, an 18th Century gothic-style chapel, an 1880s service wing, and a Victorian stable yard. What’s more, the work of 2 of the 18th Century’s most influential designers can be enjoyed at Audley – Robert Adam rooms and garden buildings, and ‘Capability’ Brown landscapes and vistas. We like to think of it as The Only Way Is Essex meets Made in Chelsea.

Fascinating fact: Audley End House has one of the most important surviving late 18th-Century beds in the country.

On screen: Audley End House has yet to make its on-screen debut.

More to explore: ‘Capability’ Brown parkland; gardens; Victorian stable yard; adventure playground; café; and tearoom. Find out more…

Where to stay: Stoke by Nayland Hotel, Golf and Spa, on the Suffolk-Essex border, in the Dedham Vale area of outstanding natural beauty made famous by John Constable. (1 hour from Audley End House by car.) Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel. Find out more…

12. Chatsworth House, Derbyshire’s Peak District

Chatsworth House
Credit: Chatsworth House Trust

Standing proud in a 35,000-acre estate on the east bank of the River Derwent, Chatsworth House is the seat of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. There are over 30 regal rooms to discover in “Britain’s favourite country house” and an impressive private art collection spanning 4,000 years.

Fascinating fact: Art in the Devonshire Collection ranges from Ancient Egyptian sculpture, to Old Master drawings, and 21st Century work by Damien Hirst and Elizabeth Frink.

On screen: You’ll recognise it as Darcy’s house in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It also starred in The Duchess and BBC One’s Death Comes to Pemberley.

More to explore: ‘Capability’ Brown parkland; 105-acre garden; farmyard; adventure playground; shops; cafés; and restaurants. Find out more…

Where to stay: The Cavendish Hotel, on the Chatsworth Estate. (5 minutes from Chatsworth by car.) Best prices guaranteed. A quality Classic British Hotel. Find out more…

Live like a lord or lady of one of the Great Houses. Britain’s landscapes are ink-blotted with heritage sites waiting to be discovered, like a rare manuscript preserved over the centuries. Indeed, our words fall short of evoking the true splendour of these stately 12.

Encircle yourself in layers of history and live the high-life this summer. Go on, what are you waiting for?

Don’t settle for a taste of sovereignty. A luxury break away will have you living like royalty at the drop of a handkerchief. (Easier than mounting a dragon and crossing the Narrow Sea.)

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