Excitement is guaranteed; you find your holiday home, sometimes in disbelief at how remote it really is or how snugly tucked it is into a stately home. You carry out an arcane ritual to do with keys. Finally comes the moment of discovery, as you check every nook and cranny inside. You open cupboards; there are board games and puzzles. You scan the bookshelves to analyse guide books and other guests’ left behind holiday reading. Which bedroom to choose? One might have a glorious view, another a collection of charming prints on the walls, and yet another a romantic four-poster bed. Finally, the ‘welcome tray’, evidence of a caring housekeeper, provides refreshment after a long journey and an opportunity to glance through the log-book. Read about guests who come alone, in couples or with family and friends to celebrate special events, to explore, to write books or just relax. We have done most of these and hope to continue.
Browsing holiday homes and booking is mostly done on-line these days, but leafing through our rather elderly brochure brings back instant memories:
Celebrating Christmas with a large family party at Millbeck Towers in Cumbria was a time of contrasts. There were brisk forays into the snow-capped fells or tramps to the nearest village by day. When darkness came we withdrew into our grand fairytale castle, lit the fires, set the splendid table, changed into evening dress and dined in Downton Abbey style, but without servants, alas.
How different it was from our other Cumbrian home, Watergate Farm, on the edge of Loweswater. This traditional house has been updated since our stay. It was quite basic when, with assorted offspring, one golden autumn, we undertook some challenging treks, rowed on the lake, consumed vast picnics and collapsed, damp and exhausted, by a roaring fire each evening. Sadly, I assume that the unofficial resident cat, once pure white, but known as ‘Dirty Harry’ from a lifetime spent in the coal-cellar, has long since passed away. He was fed, erratically, by visitors and had a prodigious appetite, though rather dirty habits, too.
We have been drawn several times to Yorkshire, always including a visit to Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal. Imagine living briefly on the estate, with unlimited access to that glorious place. Since we stayed in Fountains Cottage several other buildings have been renovated for visitors, including Fountains Hall. It was a virtual ruin when we first saw it, but now my ambition is to stay in one of the two luxury apartments there, and enjoy again the deer-filled park and the monastic ruins with their strong aura.
The Victorian Laundry at Beningborough Hall gave us a taste of ‘out of hours’ access. Our apartment was above the laundry-room, the latter festooned with racks of sheets, shifts and bloomers. Parties of school-children visit to look at mangles, washboards and flat-irons, learning how hard servants had to work in former times. Apart from the antique underwear, it fitted in well with my own childhood memories. In the evenings it was a delight to sit alone in the knot garden, watching mice running, quite unafraid, between the flower-beds.
Yet another occasion found us in Yorkshire, this time on a cliff overlooking Robin Hood’s Bay. It was winter and a 4 x 4 would have been useful. We learned about the production of alum (this house was built for the Alum Works’ manager in the 1770s), took bracing walks along the crumbling coastal path and retired each evening to a glass of wine and the obligatory roaring fire.
We knew the Peak District was superb when we took a cottage in a former mill complex on the banks of the River Manifold. This must once have been a busy and unglamorous site but how lucky were we to walk from there up into the valley and along the former light railway track. At night the rush of water over a weir lulled us to sleep.
Flitting briefly to Cornwall, I must mention our stay in a cottage on the Cotehele Estate in the Tamar Valley. The grand old mansion, dating mostly from Tudor times, looks as if it has grown out of the ground. It is dark inside, but with a peaceful and homely atmosphere, I think little changed with the passing centuries. Lovely walks through a wooded park down to the Quay, great meals in the barn restaurant, and the scent of my favourite rose, ‘Buff Beauty’, against a glowing sunlit wall all come to mind.
Nearer our home in East Anglia, we had happy times in the Squire’s Loft at Felbrigg Hall. In an apartment above the stables, overlooking the park, you can feel very much part of this grand estate. Ignoring the ‘no entry’ signs, you drive through an imposing gateway to your own private parking space (admittedly quite near the dustbins at the rear of this stately home, but privileged none-the-less). It must have been Autumn, because I recall collecting acorns from the park to plant in our garden, thinking what a fine heritage any small sapling would inherit.
Burnham Overy on the North Norfolk coast gave another chance to stay in a converted water-mill, with bracing coast walks on the doorstep, and our latest National Trust experience was at Peckover House in Wisbech. There is a luxurious loft conversion over the old coach house, which was our base for a few days. With private access to the gardens, we never overcame our surprise at how lovely they are, a secret hidden gem behind a distinguished town house.
So where next? Fountains Hall, as I mentioned, also perhaps the ‘Back to Backs’ in Birmingham, which I knew as slums in my childhood. Then Northern Ireland calls strongly, as do Wales and the West Country.
All our visits have created enduring happy memories and we cannot speak highly enough of the National Trust holiday homes. Every one contains a television set, but never once have we found the need or the inclination to switch one on – enough said?
Visitors to this apartment can enjoy the gardens of Beningbrough 'out of hours'.
An imposing and spacious house with huge views across to Derwentwater.
This apartment is on the first floor with fine views of the mill stream and marshes.
Part of a converted coach house to the rear of Peckover House.
This light and spacious apartment has fine views over Felbrigg Park.
A typical Lake District farmhouse close to the shores of Loweswater.