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30th March – 2nd April 2009

Lancashire confounded all the sceptics for this our first Short Break in the Duchy. Sunlit spring days transformed the rugged sporting country around this ancient hostelry into the proverbial picture-book idyll.

For the first time the party was hosted by Gail Bent, who is an authority on Country Houses, and the life that was lead in them. Gosh! That sounds tedious, but Gail has the knack of bringing history alive and was able to enlighten the group on such arcane and thrilling subjects as the “Lancashire Witch Trials”, on which this area around Pendle Hill was particularly keen.

She also took the party to the staggering Harris Museum in Preston. All misgivings about the venue were overcome on arrival at this monumental building, which has recently been the recipient of much cash, transforming its vaulted interior into one of the most enjoyable museums in the North of England. Apart from its extensive collection of Glass and Porcelain, the group was able to look at ALL the collection of Scent Bottles, thanks to the natty drawers in which they are housed. Child-like fun to open the drawers and see the whole bevy of delights! The gallery houses an extensive collection of paintings including the works of “local-lad” Arthur Devis, a newly acquired Wright of Derby, and a subtly erotic painting by Sir James Gunn of his wife, Pauline.

Houses visited included Astley Hall, in Chorley. Lancashire was always a remote county and a recusant county and until the Industrial Revolution was well out of the mainstream of architectural thought and ideas. Astley emphasises this point with its somewhat dated but superb plasterwork and the way that a later façade (with magnificent windows) was arbitrarily attached to a much earlier house. Gail also took the party to the charming red-sandstone house of the Parker family at Browsholme, pronounced “Brewsom”. The Parkers have been here, and still are, since the year dot, acting as custodians of the Royal Hunting Preserve of the Forest of Bowland, in which their house lies. In the 18th century one of the family mixed with High Society and aspired to a visit from the Prince Regent. Needless to say the old rogue did not turn up, notwithstanding the fact that the family had built on a wing to contain him. Surely an extremely galling experience!

Stonyhurst College, needs no introduction, but its spectacular Elizabethan building surely does. First seen at the end of a long straight drive, flanked by the original fish-ponds, this was originally the home of the Weld family, who gave the house to the Jesuit Order. Its green copper domes tower over the landscape and contain not only the school but also precious relics from its Jesuit heritage. These our party was privileged to see and included two hats belonging to Sir Thomas More, several illuminated Books of Hours, lustrously embroidered chasubles and numerous rather gruesome saintly relics.

Our hotel the Inn at Whitewell, is best know to the shooting and fishing fraternity, situated as it is close to the Abbeystead estate of the Duke of Westminster. Happily our group felt no sense of “roughing it” cosseted as they were with the utmost comfort of the bedrooms, the delicious food and the welcome accorded by the staff. This is surely the only hotel in the region which has its reception desk in the hotel’s own wine-shop…what a temptation!

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