Friday, 24 May 2024

Unveiling the Enigma: Exploring the Secrets of Britain's Stately-Home Capital

Unveiling the Enigma: Exploring the Secrets of Britain's Stately-Home Capital
Thursday, 25 January 2024 08:10

Exploring Northamptonshire's Stately Secrets: From Elizabethan Dances to Netflix's Saltburn

Legend has it that Sir Christopher Hatton, a favored companion of Elizabeth I, dazzled the Queen with his exquisite dancing skills—his prowess first showcased in a lively galliard at a royal ball. Could his moves have rivaled Barry Keoghan's liberated dance in the Netflix film Saltburn? The question lingers in the corridors of Holdenby, the grand Northamptonshire mansion built by Hatton in anticipation of a royal visit that never materialized.

Holdenby House, now a fraction of its original vastness yet retaining its magnificent allure, is just one gem in Northamptonshire's treasure trove of stately homes. Nestled on a limestone-rich belt, crisscrossed by the main north road, and strategically close to court yet offering an escape when desired, this county, often dubbed the land of "spires and squires," boasts an estimated 55 such homes—more than any other, as suggested by Laura Malpas of the Northamptonshire Heritage Forum.

Surprisingly, only Canons Ashby is under the National Trust's stewardship, while many others remain the cherished residences of the families that erected them. Director Emerald Fennell, in search of the perfect setting for Saltburn—a focal point of her riotous class satire—found her answer in Northamptonshire, specifically at Drayton House, a secretive Baroque manor not open to the public.

Despite the private ownership of most of these estates, many graciously open their doors to visitors on select dates. Far from closing for tranquil summers, they offer tours of laundries, host ABBA tribute bands, and even reenact historical battles like the Battle of Naseby. Laura Malpas notes that sharing and contextualizing their heritage is vital for its survival. Moreover, the economic reality propels them to welcome guests, as James Lowther, the current owner of Holdenby, candidly acknowledges while marveling at the beauty of his estate on sunny days, only to be sobered by the looming bills.

Northamptonshire's stately homes, with their rich history and vibrant activities, continue to stand as witnesses to the past while adapting to the demands of the present. As visitors tread through their halls, they become part of a living narrative that transcends time, making these magnificent estates both repositories of history and venues for contemporary engagement.

Bearing the Weight of Time: The Struggle to Preserve Britain's Historic Estates

The Historic Houses Association sheds light on a daunting reality faced by its 1,400-plus independently-owned members in Britain – a staggering £2 billion backlog of repairs. This cooperative grapples with a constant battle to maintain these architectural treasures, allocating funds not to extravagant Saltburn-style parties but to combating dry rot and conducting specialist sweeps to clean medieval chimneys.

James, the owner of Holdenby, acknowledges the arduous task of preservation while emphasizing the enduring beauty of his home. With Grade I-listed gardens and a history spanning over 500 years, Holdenby holds tales like that of Charles I's five-month house arrest in 1647. James points to the marked spot where Cromwell's men took the beleaguered king away, an experience that never loses its impact.

Holdenby's allure extends to the world of cinema, having served as Satis House in the BBC's adaptation of Great Expectations. However, it's Deene Park, the Tudor-Georgian mansion once home to the 7th Earl 'Charge of the Light Brigade' Cardigan, that boasts a Saltburn claim to fame. Current owner Charlotte Brudenell humorously distinguishes Deene as the one in the film open to the public, adding a touch of rivalry with Drayton.

Amidst the struggle to maintain these estates, the Brudenells emphasize the stark reality that frivolity and flowing champagne are not part of their daily lives. Deene's rich history, including Adeline, the second wife of the 7th Earl, climbing into a coffin to shock visitors, and the unexpected find of pigskin prophylactics dating back to 1900, adds layers of intrigue and complexity to the stories these homes hold.

In the evolving landscape of historical appreciation, visitors seek not only art but also glimpses into the lives lived within these grand abodes. Charles Lister, property manager at Boughton House, acknowledges the changing perspective, noting that people are now inspired by TV and film, seeking out the hidden narratives, eccentricities, and maintenance challenges that make these historic estates repositories of captivating tales.

Nurturing Heritage: The Intricate Tapestry of Britain's Stately Homes

Dating back to 1528 and expanded in 1695 with a touch of French elegance by the Duke of Montagu, Boughton stands as the 'English Versailles,' an architectural marvel that has played host to iconic film productions like Les Misérables and Napoleon. Charles, the custodian of Boughton, describes the excitement and challenges of preserving this historical gem, emphasizing its resilience against the encroachments of modernization during the Victorian era.

Mothballed for two centuries, Boughton remains one of Britain's best-preserved stately homes, housing a precious art collection. In 2024, the Louis Chéron ceilings in the State Rooms will emerge after extensive restoration, showcasing the dedication to conservation. Charles explains the careful approach to opening the estate on select dates, considering the impact of visitor footfall on the delicate environment. Sustainability is a key consideration, balancing the desire for people to enjoy the place with the need for conservation.

James Saunders-Watson, the guardian of Rockingham Castle for nearly 50 days each year, highlights the necessity for these places to be loved. Continuously inhabited for almost a millennium, Rockingham has witnessed the Saunders-Watson family's stewardship for 450 years. James, perhaps the first generation to be hands-on, shares the challenges faced during events like the Christmas extravaganza, emphasizing the family's active role in running coach tours when needed.

Rockingham offers a diverse experience to visitors, from snowdrop displays in the gardens to theater performances and even a Dinosaur Day. Inside, the castle features not only impressive rooms and important portraits but also a significant collection of 20th-century British art, a testament to the family's passion for preserving heritage while embracing modern elements.

James believes that the joy of private stately homes lies in their dynamic nature, avoiding stagnation. He sees them as vibrant narratives, rich with the full spectrum of history, people, and the thread of life. While the tales told may have shifted from billionaire debauchery to the pragmatic concern of paying the heating bill, these estates remain living testaments to the enduring spirit of heritage preservation.

In conclusion, the stories woven into the tapestry of Britain's stately homes reveal a delicate dance between preservation and adaptation. From Boughton's 'English Versailles,' boasting centuries of history and a commitment to sustainable conservation, to Rockingham Castle's active stewardship by the Saunders-Watson family, these estates stand as guardians of the past while embracing the demands of the present.

The challenges of maintaining these historic treasures are met with enthusiasm, acknowledging that these places need not only protection but also love. The selective opening of estates like Boughton, mindful of the impact of visitors on the delicate surroundings, underscores the balance between enjoyment and conservation. The active involvement of families, such as the Saunders-Watsons, ensures that these grand homes remain vibrant and relevant, evolving to tell the full-color story of history, people, and the thread of life.

As these private stately homes navigate the ever-changing landscape of heritage appreciation, they continue to offer unique and dynamic experiences to visitors. Whether through art collections, theatrical performances, or unexpected events like Dinosaur Day, these estates prove that heritage can be both a reflection of the past and a canvas for contemporary engagement. In their preservation efforts, these homes invite the public to connect with the living history within their walls, transcending time and enriching the narrative of Britain's cultural legacy.