by Roderick Conway Morris

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Landmark Trust
The West Banqueting House, near Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire

Landmarks Where You Can Stay

By Roderick Conway Morris


Visiting the stately homes and castles of England is becoming an increasingly hazardous activity. As one over-curious tourist is supposed to have been told by an attendant (a retired prison office, as they often are): 'Look, I'm here to make sure you don't pinch anything, not to educate you.'

A warmer welcome and a hot cup of tea awaited me on a misty winter's day at the farmhouse in a country park near London, which is the headquarters of the Landmark Trust - a unique charity dedicated to saving historic buildings, from manors to mills, and follies to lighthouses, without following you around to make sure you don't pocket the silver spoons.

The organization was begun 27 years ago both to rescue old buildings threatened with destruction and, by letting them to the public for vacations, to foster appreciation of good architecture and the landscape. By making it possible to stay in the buildings the Trust believes that people can have a completely different kind of experience from just visiting them, and, in the words of Sir John Smith, the recently-retired Trust's founder, 'that many visitors who may come for just a holiday go home with an interest awakened which will last them all their lives.'

It was this 'hands-on' approach that the Landmark's current director, 37-year-old Robin Evans, found irresistible. He was previously with the National Trust, which owns and opens to visitors many of Britain's stately homes.

'At the National Trust,' he said, 'we found ourselves, of necessity because of the numbers, becoming more and more protective of the properties, cordoning off areas with red ropes, and limiting public access in order to preserve the buildings and their contents.'

Evans, meanwhile, happened to read 'a wonderful description' of a family spending the weekend at Clitha Castle, a Landmark Trust property, 'with the children scrambling around the battlements, investigating every nook and cranny, and making their own flag and flying it from a turret.'

The Trust now has over 120 buildings of all types and periods to let. They include country houses, barns, cottages, mine buildings, a gatehouse, a 16th-century grammar school, an Elizabethan alms house, a 17th-century banqueting hall, a 19th-century House of Correction, and a giant 18th-century stone pineapple (which sleeps four).

Although the Trust has a number of odd-ball buildings like the Pineapple, the Gothic Temple and the Egyptian House (a superior version of B. de Mille's creations, built after Napoleon's expedition to Egypt, when pharaonic exotica were all the rage), Evans said the Trust does not go out of its way to find them.

'If anything, we are against eccentric buildings - there are, after all, plenty of bad ones around. What we look for are good quality buildings, with genuine architectural merit and style.'

Many of their buildings have been given to the Trust or bought for token sums - since nobody else was prepared to foot the often enormous bills for repair. But, once the building is ready to let, the rents are expected to cover the maintenance and running costs. About half a dozen new buildings are acquired annually, but the Trust will act quickly and buy others if interesting ones become available.

Every year the Trust publishes a handsome Handbook, illustrating and describing the properties. A substantial, and absorbing volume, it has almost become a guide in itself to British architecture through the ages, and one can find oneself happily browsing through it for hours.

Among the new buildings that have just become available is 15th-century Kingswear Castle, on the south coast, near Dartmouth. 'The tower', writes Charlotte Haslam, the Trust's historian, in the Handbook,' is planted directly on rocks at the water's edge (those with small children beware), and its rooms are filled with moving, reflected, light as if you were on a yacht - and in rough weather you can feel as though you are genuinely at sea.'

Others are the Pigsty in Yorkshire, built in the form of a Greek temple by Squire Barry of Fyling Hall, who had toured the Mediterranean in the 1880s, for his two favourite porkers (it has amazing views, and now comfortably accommodates two humans); and the Bath House, near Stratford-on-Avon, a neo-classical woodland retreat, with a grotto below, and an elegant octagonal drawing room, its walls decorated with floral festoons of painted sea-shells.

The Trust's most ambitious acquisition is the entire island of Lundy, in the Bristol Channel, 22 miles out into the Atlantic, served by its own ferry. Here you can stay in houses, cottages, lighthouses, an Admiralty look-out post, or even camp.

They have also just bought their first American property: Naulakha, Rudyard Kipling's house in Brattleboro, Vermont, where he wrote The Jungle Book. The neighbours told a reporter from The Boston Sunday Globe in March 1894 that the author was 'strange', shabbily dressed, always had a pipe but never carried money and often said 'Begad'. Kipling remembered his time there as one of the happiest in his life. One can only hope the visiting 'Landmarkers' feel the same, and that the burghers of Brattleboro find them half as intriguing and entertaining.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023