Burton Constable? Or Constable Burton?

Gardens, Yorkshire

Now let’s see.  Did we go to Burton Constable or Constable Burton the other day?

Oh, do keep up.  Burton Constable is a stately home in Yorkshire, whereas Constable Burton is  … a stately home in Yorkshire.  And they have nothing whatever to do with one another.

Let’s start again.  Constable Burton Hall is a fine country house not far from us in North Yorkshire.  It’s not open to the public, though its wonderful gardens are.

This is Burton Constable

This is Burton Constable

Burton Constable Hall is a fine country house hidden away not far from the city of Hull in East Yorkshire.  This is a town whose dismal reputation may be salvaged next year when it becomes the UK City of Culture.

‘From Hull Hell and Halifax may the good Lord deliver us’.  In mediaeval times, this was the Yorkshire thieves’ litany.  Nobody wanted hell; nor Halifax with its unique gibbet, a savage early guillotine; nor Hull, with its notorious gaol.  People unfairly use the prayer to this day, even if they don’t expect to suffer or die there, though neither city deserves it.  We’re bound to make a trip or two to Hull next year, so I’ll tell you all about it, then.

And this is its facade.

And this is its facade.

Meanwhile.  Burton Constable.  It has a long and complicated history dating far further back than the Elizabethan exterior which you first see suggests.  The oldest part of the house dates back to the 12th century, when a pele tower was built to protect the inhabitants of the village of Constable Burton during the lawless reign of King Stephen.  Remodelled in Elizabethan times, it had several further makeovers, and its interior has a lovely 16th and 17th century Long Gallery – for strolling through. Then in the 18th century the interior was largely brought up to date with the latest designs and plasterwork from the likes of top-flight names such as Robert Adam and Giuseppe Cortese.  Capability Brown – who else? – landscaped the grounds.

It’s fallen on hard times though.  Imagine the expense of keeping such a property in good order.  The whole estate and grounds are now managed by a charitable trust while the family lives in an apartment in one of the wings.  Repairs and restoration are slow and on-going.

Behind the scenes. Imitation woodwork in need of restoration.

Behind the scenes. Imitation woodwork in need of restoration.

I’ll just give you a taste of some of the charms of the place:

A Cabinet of Curiosities, with imperfectly stuffed creatures such armadillos; scientific instruments; fossils and other curios.

A 19th century Chinese room, inspired by the Brighton Pavilion.  Here be dragons.

The Long Gallery with its specially designed bookcases.

And oddly, in the Great Barn, the  skeleton of a whale washed up in nearby Holderness, which inspired Herman Melville to write ‘Moby Dick’.

The back end of Moby Dick.

The back end of Moby Dick.

With a succession of fine rooms – from the Blue Drawing Room to the Gold bedroom, and tantalising glimpses of life below stairs, this is a place to spend the entire day.  The staff love an interested visitor, and repay your interest with history and gossip from the glory-days of the house.

The Gold Bedroom.

The Gold Bedroom.

We’ll be back in the summer, to join one of the tours to explore the hidden secrets of this place.

The ‘timeless’ countryside of Kedleston Hall.

England, Gardens, National Trust

kedlestone-049

Once upon a time, before 1066 and all that became the most famous date in British history, William of Normandy wanted to get his local French barons interested in helping him conquer England.  Land was the answer.  Vanquish those Anglo-Saxons and English lands would be there for the taking.

A lord called de Courson was one of those who answered that call and came to England, perhaps for the Battle of Hastings, perhaps a little later.  He was rewarded by being given many acres  in Derbyshire.  Over the years, the family name became de Curzun, then Curzon, and the lands at Kedleston which had certainly been claimed by about  1150 have remained with the descendants ever since.

Now it’s one of life’s pleasures to visit the splendid buildings of Kedleston Hall, a classical showcase of fine paintings, sculpture and furniture*, and to stroll round the grounds.

And what grounds!  When we arrived there the other day, it was sunny, with rain promised later, so we set off to make a three mile circuit of the so called ‘Long’ or ‘Ladies’ walk’.  How natural and timeless the landscape seemed.   A charming rustic bridge crosses a serpentine lake.  Woodland was just becoming autumnal.  Spacious meadows spread before us with grazing sheep.  Just as nature intended.

Except it’s all a massive con-trick perpetrated by Robert Adam in 1758.  Away with the out-moded formal geometric garden of Charles Bridgeman! He’d been the Royal Gardener, and only dead 20 years, but his work by then seemed suddenly hopelessly out of fashion.

In with the naturalistic ‘picturesque’ style promoted by Capability Brown.  Out with the public road along which the village straggled untidily, far too near the Queen Anne redbrick house which has itself been replaced.  Village and road were moved.  A brook was dammed and  excavated to become a lake, a stream, gently splashing weirs.  Adam had a ha-ha built – an unseen ditch across which unwanted livestock couldn’t pass: so much more natural-looking than a fence or wall.  Temples and other follies were built or planned,  pleasure grounds too. Sadly today only the hermitage is still around, and even this thatched hut is currently being restored.

If you wanted an afternoon alone with your thoughts, your sketchpad or your book, this thatched hermitage was just the place

If you wanted an afternoon alone with your thoughts, your sketchpad or your book, this thatched hermitage was just the place

Our three mile walk was crammed with pleasure.  There were waterbirds on the lake, Autumn leaves to enjoy, views across the park and surrounding countryside.  Where did the grounds end and open countryside begin?  We didn’t know and didn’t care.  And we hadn’t even seen the house yet.  You can get a taster here.

*There’s even a magnificent bedroom which has never been slept in and is currently being restored: designed to be used if ever the king should come to call…

The Works Outing

National Trust, Yorkshire
Sledmere House (Wikimedia Commons)

Sledmere House (Wikimedia Commons)

It was our Works Outing, our Grand Day Out, our Jolly.  It was a day we volunteers at the National Trust’s Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal had been waiting for: our reward (though not entirely free) for good behaviour over the past few months.  A coach would collect us and deliver us to spend time at two destinations well worth visiting over in East Yorkshire: Sledmere, and Burton Agnes.

Both places belong to – no, not a rival organisation: everyone concerned’s aim is to preserve and enhance our heritage for us, and for future generations – but a different one, the Historic Houses Association.  Both places are visited as much for their gardens as the houses themselves.

Well, just look at this.  This is the view from the coach window.

A very British view.

A very British view.

So much for the gardens then.  A real shame.  Sledmere‘s grounds are extensive, and offer cunningly tweaked panoramas of the surrounding countryside.  They were developed in the late 18th century by Capability Brown, then at the height of his popularity. Apparently unending vistas of manicured countryside, easy on the eye, were what was required.   The local village got in the way of the view?  Easy.  Move it and re-build it.  The villagers will get used to it.

A quick glance at the grounds from the library.

A quick glance at the grounds from the library.

We were able to admire the grounds from the protection of the house, but not so the planted areas, in particular the walled gardens. We favoured a nice cup of coffee and a home-made cake in the cafe instead. We’ll want to go back when the sun is shining.

Sir Christopher busied himself in having his house as well as his garden improved.  The plaster work designed by the celebrated Joseph Rose is said to be the finest in England.

Plasterwork ceiling.

Plasterwork ceiling.

As is the Long Library, extending the length of the building, a long, light-filled and elegant space.

The library.

The library.

There are curiosities too, such as the Turkish room designed for Sir Mark, 6th Baronet in 1913.  Every surface here is covered in specially designed Armenian tiles.

The Turkish room.

The Turkish room.

The house might have disappeared from view in 1911 though.  A catastrophic fire broke out while the 5th Baronet, Sir Tatton Sykes, was dining. He insisted on staying to finish his pudding. But estate workers, farm hands, villagers, children from the local school, anyone and everyone else turned to and dragged out furnishings, pictures, statues, china, carpets, even doors and banisters.  As muscular estate workers struggled out with the monstrously heavy copy of the Belvedere Apollo, the ceiling fell.  And since then, thanks to the detailed plan which survived, the whole thing has been meticulously restored.  You can read all about it here.

Off to Burton Agnes then.  This Tudor Renaissance hall was built between 1590 and 1610, and has remained within the same family for more than 400 years: the original Manor house was built as long ago as 1173.

Burton Agnes (Wikimedia Commons)

Burton Agnes (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a family home, albeit a privileged one.  It’s a home which has been filled with everything from magnificent Jacobean carvings, Impressionist paintings, and more recent artworks.   This is a home that is lived in and loved.  Here’s a quick glimpse of what the visitor can see.  As to the award-winning walled garden, the woodland gardens … well, we didn’t visit those on this particularly soggy day.  We might be British, but we’re not that daft.  The house offered sufficient enjoyment, and the gardens will be there another day.