“ Tudor house in Warwickshire - a National Trust property. Address: Wellesbourne, Warwick, Warwickshire CV35 9ER. Tel: 01789 470277 „
One weekend in June our National Trust tickets were burning a hole in our wallets so we went on-line to the NT website to find out what we could access within an hour or so of our Northants home. We found a cluster of places between Warwick and Banbury which could be accessed in around an hour and which made sense to group together.
Most National Trust aficionados will tell you that you shouldn't get too ambitious. They pace themselves, considering a day per property to be about right. My husband and I are into hard core National Trust visiting. We are time poor people with a mission to max the value of our membership. Vowing to give it our best shot, we programmed the Tom Tom for the first of the three properties, stuck a cooler bag of drinks and sandwiches in the boot of the car, threw in our waterproofs (just in case) and hit the road. Destination number one was Charlecote Park in Warwickshire.
Charlecote Park has been owned by the Lucy family since the 15th Century and despite handing most of the property over to the Trust, part of the family still live in one wing of the main building. It must be quite sad to see your family wealth diminished by the modern age, death duties and other taxes, but if you can still cling on to a more manageable part of the property in return for letting the great unwashed stroll through to admire your curtains a few days a week, it's not too bad a deal.
We parked up in the car park which was on the opposite side of the road, showed our membership cards and headed up the long driveway to the house. Our first impressions were that it must be Tudor (which turned out to be correct) since the little turrets on the gatehouse reminded us of Hampton Court Palace, one of Henry VIII's great buildings. Built in red brick picked out with stone detailing, it was a warm and welcoming looking building despite being enormous. Even the gatehouse was so gorgeous that I think I could have happily lived in that without needing to set foot in the main building.We stepped through the gatehouse and found ourselves in an area of lawns and topiary with the main house directly ahead of us. Entrance to the house is untimed (some properties allocate you a specific entry time to control numbers, but this isn't one of them) and since we know to never trust the weather, we decided to start with the gardens and save the indoor part of our visit for later. The sky was looking pretty black and there was no guarantee how long our luck would last. Heading for the gardens we stopped off to check out the old laundry and brew house. These may seem a strange combination but I assume both activities required the heating of large amounts of water so perhaps there's some logic in putting them together. Next stop was a display of old carriages in one of the old stable buildings.
~Flora and Fauna~
Next highlight was the sensory garden, a relatively new feature at Charlecote that's been open since 2002. The garden was developed with the help of the Alzheimer's Society and with the support of local corporate sponsors and is filled with plants that either have particularly strong scents, interesting textures, contrasting colours and rustling leaves and crunching gravel. It's intended to stimulate the senses and perhaps to remind those whose memory is failing about the plants from their childhood. We loved the old fashioned roses, the multiple types of lavender, the rustling bamboos but best of all we fell for the big black and white tom cat who was indulging his senses in the hunt for a big fat mouse.
In search of slightly larger wildlife, we waved goodbye to the cat and went to see the deer. Apparently there have been a herd of fallow deer at Charlecote since the Tudor era, though obviously not these particular ones! The deer would flit back and forth across the fields, to the apparent disdain of the flocks of big fat Jacob sheep that shared the parkland. Flotillas of ducks, young and old, were sailing up the river Avon which cuts so prettily through the centre of Charlecote Park and we stopped to laugh at a gang of lady ducks mugging a picnicker for his lunch.
~Life Below Stairs~
Continuing our mission to delay the pleasure of the main house a bit longer, we headed for the kitchens next. Our visit was relatively early in the heritage tourism season so it wasn't too busy and the volunteer looking after the kitchens wanted to put on a bit of a show. He invited me to make some 'sugar plums' and after I'd scrubbed my hands with the old carbolic soap, I got to work grinding and chopping the ingredients. Visitors like nothing more than a bit of a demonstration to watch, and within a few minutes we'd built up quite a crowd around the big wooden kitchen table and when I'd finished, there were plenty of children lining up to have a go. Still putting off the house a bit longer, we passed the main entrance and headed round to the back of the house to look at the parterre, the traditional highly structured sunken garden that must have been all the rage in times past. The parterre at Charlecote is probably my favourite of the many we saw over the summer months, especially as it has a flight of steps leading down to the riverside and views across beautiful green water meadows.
Other aspects of the formal gardens included a croquet lawn which the Trust encourages visitors to use although I've hardly ever seen anyone doing so. I guess there are just too few people who know HOW to play these days. I played in my student days but we were usually a bit too drunk to pay much attention to the rules of the game. We found a beautiful little thatched summerhouse in the gardens and then wandered through a woodland walk before stopping for our lunch under a tree with views across the river.
~The House - at Last~
We always like to save the best for last so with lunch finished it was finally time to visit the house and it was well worth the wait. During our membership year, this was our first really impressive big house and we were very impressed. The main hall was filled with displays of period clothing and the walls were literally covered with old oil paintings of members of the family. A large pietra dura table had pride of place in the centre of the room with a fabulous vase of flowers in the middle. The walls were half clad in oak and decorated with coats of arms, the floors were a chequerboard pattern of old decorative stone and the roof was beautiful with its curved supports. A giant fireplace was decorated with marble busts and old vases and a stag's head looked down on the proceedings below. Next stop was the billiard room with a full sized billiard table and family portraits of a much later period, typically early 20th century. There was a lot of oriental furniture in heavy black lacquer as well as a beautiful ivory pagoda. The yellow drawing room followed and was stunning. The walls were hung with exquisite yellow-gold silk fabric and the ceiling was picked out in gilded panels. Paintings and furniture of a wide range of ages filled the room. We noticed a doorway hidden in the corner and this took us up to the first floor and into the red bedroom with its immense carved ebony four poster bed. This room also had a beautiful collection of miniature paintings on ivory. A gentleman's small bedroom was next to this room with a simple wooden single bed, a washstand by the window and even an old hip bath. The next room had a bath set up next to a fireplace.
With most of the upstairs closed off for the use of the family, we headed back down the grand staircase to do the final two ground floor rooms, both of which were spectacular. The main reception room was stunning with its oak panelling, its fabulous fireplace, luxurious vibrant wall coverings and a stunning portrait of Elizabeth I. The dining room was the final stop and was ludicrously over the top. The long wooden table was set for a banquet with fine linens, sparkling crystal, silver candlesticks, and an over-the-top silver palm tree centrepiece. Plates were displayed on the side tables, the walls were part clad in oak and an enormous oil painting of dead animals sat over the marble fireplace against an outrageously gilded wallpaper.
We liked the house so much that when we'd finished the dining room, we snuck back round for another look round the house before heading off for our next stop. I suspect you could visit Charlecote dozens of times and always find something new at each visit. As National Trust properties go, this is one of the finest we've seen this year and I recommend it very highly
The gardens, park and outbuildings are open year round. The house is always closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays and opening hours vary by date. Please check the National Trust website for more details.
Entrance for the house, gardens and park is £9 for adults, £4.50 for children. Lower prices apply if you skip the house and special 'deals' are available for families. There's a shuttle service in golf buggies for those who are less mobile and with the exception of the upper floor of the house and the parterre garden, most of the property is accessible for those with mobility problems.