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March 22nd-26th 2009How easy it is to get you used to luxury; the maid laying the fire as you come down to breakfast, the florist arriving to change the vast bouquets of flowers, the choice of six different breads at breakfast and the sun glittering on the lake beneath the house, added to which is the abundance of magnificent houses for our group to visit in the immediate vicinity. In the course of our three day stay at Tim Hart’s renowned hotel we saw more “ haunts of ancient peace” within a twenty mile radius than could be found in the whole of America.

First to Grimsthorpe, the Vanbrugh-fronted pile of the Willerby de Eresby family. Led by the irrepressible Ray Biggs we were shown treasures acquired over the centuries by the family including a super-abundance of thrones acquired as “perks” from the inherited office of Lord Great Chamberlain. At every turn another marvel, be it tapestries from Normanton Park, or French 18th century torchères, or iron-work by Jean Tijou. Then across the park, passing the oldest stand of oak trees in the country to partake of lunch at the Michelin-starred Olive Tree, at Clipsham. Fortified by that collation, on we went to Drayton Manor. Here again we were to see a house rarely available to public viewing and the home of the Stopford-Sackville family. When first seen the magic of this house was magnified by the fact that its towers and pinnacles were wreathed in mist, only adding to its mystery and allure. Externally and internally an abundance of delights, a Baroque façade clamped on to the medieval great hall by William Talman, better known for his work at Chatsworth. Inside quantities of 17th century furniture of utmost rarity all the more fascinating for being so little publishing. And do not forget the astonishing “walnut” spiral staircase soaring through three storeys of the house. A surfeit of delights… from which we saught to recover with a welcome cup of tea in the Great Hall.

As if these two houses were not enough, the following day saw us sallying forth to Burghley House, in Stamford. Dwarfing in size the other two houses, our private party struggled to grasp the magnitude of this inheritance. The suite of State Rooms with ceiling, and indeed walls, by Verrio and Laguerre, stuffed to the gunwales with prizes from the Grand Tour, and purchases by generations of acquisitive owners, paintings, Japanese porcelain (earliest collection in Britain), Chinese porcelain, treasures from the Countess of Devon, and silver wine-cisterns big enough to bathe in. Oh dear! How mundane our own homes look after all this splendour and luxury.

18th century Chinese punch bowl with view of House
The next similar short break at Hambleton Hall runs from the 4th to 8th October 2009, and will include a visit to the “English Versailles” Boughton, house and garden, and if wet the church at Warkton with monuments by Roubiliac to the Montagus.

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