England’s best-loved stately homes

England is known across the world for its vast collection of architecturally-stunning stately homes and manor houses, almost all set in acres of formal gardens and rolling English countryside, and many housing vast collections of artworks, sculptures and other important items, both on public and private view.

At the Farcroft Group we are privileged to work in many of these fantastic locations, helping the custodians of these remarkable buildings and collections to maintain their brilliance and importance through our services in historic building conservation, architectural conservation, decorative interiors, antique restoration, furniture restoration and fine art restoration.

In no particular order, here is a run-down of some of our favourites, from homes that have featured on the silver screen to those that have played a major role in history.

Blenheim Palace

One of England’s largest stately homes, and the only non-royal, non-episcopal country house in England to be called a palace, Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, was the birthplace and ancestral home of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The house was built between 1705 and around 1722 as a gift to John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, in return for his military successes. The palace has 200 rooms and 1,000 windows, and sits in a 2,100-acre estate. Its formal gardens designed to mimic those at the Palace of Versailles in France were the brainchild of Henry Wise – gardener to Queen Anne – and its acres of landscaped parkland were designed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown.

The Churchills’ family home for centuries, Blenheim Palace served as a convalescence hospital during World War I and a school for boys evacuated from Malvern College in Worcestershire during World War II. It was also an operations base for the Home Guard and MI5, with the lake being used as a training location for troops preparing for the D-Day landings.

The palace first opened its doors to the public in 1950 and is now a major tourist attraction. It was designated a World Heritage Site in 1987 by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

The house has been used as a location in many popular films and television programmes over the years, including the James Bond film Spectre, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, The Royals, The Young Victoria and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
www.blenheimpalace.com

Castle Howard

Castle Howard is one of the grandest private residences in Britain and is most famous as the fictional house Brideshead in the 1981 television series Brideshead Revisited and the 2008 film of the same name.

Located in North Yorkshire, the house takes its name from the ruined castle that it replaced. Construction began in 1699 and took more than 100 years to complete. It has been the home of the Howard family ever since.

A large part of the house was destroyed by fire in November 1940, including the central hall, dome, dining room and state rooms on the east side of the house. The blaze also destroyed many works of art, including paintings by Antonio Pellegrini depicting the Fall of Phaeton.

The estate was serviced by its own railway station from 1845 until the mid-1950s. The house opened its doors to the public in 1952.

The Castle Howard estate owns a large portion of the land and properties surrounding the house. It rents out around 170 residential properties ranging from flats to cottages and large family houses, and owns 14 commercial properties including offices, workshops, livery businesses, shops and garages. The estate also provides two village schools, playing fields, garden allotments, village halls, and mooring rights on the River Derwent.
www.castlehoward.co.uk

Longleat House

Longleat House in Wiltshire is famous as the first stately home to open its doors to the public, and as the site of the first drive-through safari park outside of Africa.

This remarkable house was the first built specifically to impress the then monarch Queen Elizabeth I. Construction began in 1568 under the direction of the landowner, Sir John Thynne, and was completed in 1580. The house remains the home of the Thynn family.

Set in more than 900 acres of parkland landscaped by Lancelot “Capability” Brown, with 8,000 acres of woods and farmland, Longleat House has changed dramatically over the years as each successive owner over 450 years has made their mark on the place they called home.

Today, Longleat is best known for its safari and adventure park, which opened in 1966. Some 500 animals freely roam the grounds of the house, and visitors can rent cottages around the property that allow them to stay at the front and centre of the safari action.
www.longleat.co.uk

Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House in Derbyshire was built by Sir William Cavendish and his wife Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury, in 1552. Elizabeth was popularly known as Bess of Hardwick and would become one of the most powerful women in the country after Queen Elizabeth I.

Following her husband’s death in 1557, Bess would go on to marry two more men, the latter of which – George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury – became primary appointed custodian to Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary was held as a prisoner at Chatsworth several times between 1569 and 1584, and had her own rooms on the east side of the estate.

During World War II, the family moved out so that Chatsworth could be occupied by 300 girls and teachers from Penrhos College, a public school in Wales. They would not move back in until 1959, when financial difficulties forced them to sell tens of thousands of acres of land across the country that were owned by the estate, several major works of art, and another family home – Hardwick Hall.

Chatsworth has been chosen as the UK public’s favourite country house on many occasions, and continues to be a popular tourist attraction. The house has been used as a location for many films and television programmes, including the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It is believed that Jane Austen based her description of Darcy’s house Pemberley on Chatsworth House when she was writing the novel, due to the similarities in their appearances.
www.chatsworth.org

Lyme Park

Grade I-listed Lyme Park is the largest country house in Cheshire. The mansion measures some 190 feet by 130 feet and is surrounded by formal gardens and a deer park that forms part of the Peak District National Park.

The estate was granted to Sir Thomas Danyers in 1346 by King Edward III, and passed to the Legh family by marriage in 1388. The Legh family owned the house until 1946, when it was gifted to the National Trust. The present-day house dates from the latter part of the 16th century.

The house is best known for housing the Lyme Caxton Missal, an early printed book published in 1487 by William Caxton that contains the liturgy of the mass. The book on display in the library at Lyme Park is the only surviving copy in almost complete condition of that particular edition.

The 17-acre gardens are 270 metres above sea level and feature ponds, a central fountain, an orangery, rose borders and a large tower called the Cage that was once used as a prison.

The house and grounds have featured in several films and television programmes, most notably the 2011 film The Awakening and as Mr Darcy’s home Pemberley in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lyme

Hardwick Hall

Situated on a hilltop overlooking the Derbyshire countryside, Hardwick Hall is one of the most significant Elizabethan country houses in England, being one of the earliest examples of the English interpretation of the Renaissance style of architecture.

The house was designed for Bess of Hardwick, one of the richest women in England, as a statement of her wealth and power. It was built between 1590 and 1597 and served as the second home of the Dukes of Devonshire, whose main residence was nearby Chatsworth House.

Hardwick was one of the first houses in England where the great hall was built on an axis directly through the centre of the house, and contains windows that were exceptionally large and numerous for the time period, when glass was a luxury. In fact, the house has been described as being “more glass than walls”. As an added touch, Bess’s initials ES – standing for Elizabeth Shrewsbury – dominate the roof sculptures at the head of each tower. Inside the house is a unique collection of paintings and furniture from the 16th century, the largest long gallery ever featuring in an English house, and many tapestries and needlework – much of which it is thought may have been stitched by Bess herself.

In the grounds of the house is Hardwick Old Hall, an earlier house that served as guest and service accommodation to the main house, but is now ruined. The story goes that Bess left Chatsworth in 1584 after an argument with her husband and began plans to renovate the old hall to create a new home for herself. When the Earl died in 1590, she ditched these plans and instead used her inheritance to finance the creation of a new hall on the site.

Hardwick House was donated to the British Government in 1956 in lieu of death duties, and transferred to the National Trust in 1959. The house has since starred in films and television series, and is famous as the exterior of Malfoy Manor in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hardwick-hall

Somerleyton Hall

Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk is best known for its 12-acres of stunning formal gardens, featuring a maze, a walled garden, an aviary, a loggia, a ridge and furrow greenhouse, and a 90-metre pergola covered with roses and wisteria.

A manor house was first built on the site by Sir Peter Fitzosbert in 1240. His daughter married into the Jernegan family, which took on the house when the male line of the Fitzosberts ended. The Jernegans held the estate until 1604, when it was bought by John Wentworth, who transformed the house into a typical East Anglian Tudor-Jacobean mansion.

The house then passed through several other owners until it was bought in 1843 by Sir Samuel Morton Peto. Peto employed John Thomas, favourite architect of Prince Albert, to completely redesign the house and gardens, and extensive rebuilding would be completed over the next seven years.

In 1863 the estate was sold to philanthropist, manufacturer and MP Sir Francis Crossley of Halifax, West Yorkshire. His son was created Baron Somerleyton in 1916, and Somerleyton Hall is now held by the present Lord Somerleyton and inhabited by his family.
www.somerleyton.co.uk

Apsley House

Apsley House, also known as Number One, London, was the London residence of the Dukes of Wellington (of wellington boot fame). The Grade I-listed building stands alone at Hyde Park Corner, on the south-east corner of Hyde Park.

The house is now open to the public as a museum and art gallery run by English Heritage, and is sometimes referred to as the Wellington Museum. The 8th Duke of Wellington also uses part of the building as a part-time residence.

As perhaps the only preserved example of an English aristocratic town house from its period, care has been taken to maintain the rooms as far as possible in the original style and décor. The house contains the 1st Duke’s collection of paintings, porcelain, silver, sculpture and furniture.

Among the most eye-catching works on display is a 3.45-metre marble nude of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker, made from 1802-1810 by Antonio Canova, that was once housed in the Louvre but now stands in Adam’s Stairwell.
www.wellingtoncollection.co.uk

Alnwick Castle

Dominating the small town that bears the same name, Alnwick Castle in Northumberland is the second largest inhabited castle in England (after Windsor Castle) and has been dubbed “Britain’s answer to Versailles”.

The exterior of the building is stark and dramatic, and in contrast to its opulently-decorated interiors. Outside is a 26-acre garden that is the third most-visited public garden in the UK and includes a treehouse restaurant and Poison Garden containing deadly and dangerous plants.

The castle was built in 1096 by Yves de Vescy, the Baron of Alnwick, to protect against invasion from the Scots. It was bought by Henry Percy, the 1st Baron of Percy, in 1309 who, together with his son, transformed it from a modest stone castle into the impressive palace-fortress it is today. The design they used, which balanced the need for a military stronghold with the requirements of a high-society family, has been credited with inspiring other castle renovations throughout the 14th century.

The castle remained in the family until the 1st Baron’s grandson, Henry 1st Earl of Northumberland, rebelled against King Henry IV and was forced to surrender the castle in 1403. Following the War of the Roses, during which the castle was captured by Lancastrian forces several times, the castle’s military importance waned. It was abandoned, and later completely restored.

Today, it is one of the most visited stately homes in the UK and one which has achieved worldwide fame due to its starring role as Hogwarts School of Magic in the Harry Potter series of films. It was also used as a location in the ITV television series Downton Abbey.
www.alnwickcastle.com

Woburn Abbey

Grade I-listed Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire is one of the most impressive stately homes in the country. Created as a Cistercian abbey in 1145 by Hugh de Bolebec, Woburn was taken over by Henry VIII in 1547 and later gifted to John Russell, the 1st Earl of Bedford.

Various extensions and improvements to the house and grounds were carried out by successive owners over the next four centuries, until – following the end of World War II – dry rot was found at the house, meaning half of the abbey had to be demolished.

When the 12th Duke died in 1953, his son was fined heavy death duties. In order to keep the house in the family, he made the decision to open it to the public in 1955, and to add a safari park in 1970.

Woburn Abbey was visited by many wealthy and notable people over the years, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who stayed there in 1841, and the second President of the United States John Adams, who visited in 1786.

The wife of the 7th Duke of Woburn Abbey, Duchess Anna Maria, is reported to have begun the English tradition of afternoon tea, after entertaining her friends with the pastime at Woburn.
www.woburnabbey.co.uk

Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle in Hampshire was designed by one of the architects that worked on the Houses of Parliament, and has achieved modern-day fame as the setting for the ITV television series Downton Abbey.

Built in the high-Elizabethan style and faced in Bath stone, the 300-room house covers 30,000 square feet and sits amidst a 6,000-acre estate. The original site of the house is recorded in the Domesday Book, when it was part of a larger estate built by the Bishops of Winchester, but the present-day building is the fifth or sixth house to be built on the estate property. The house was acquired by the Carnarvon family in 1679, who still own the property today and live in it for part of the year.

It was the 3rd Earl of Carnarvon who commissioned Sir Charles Barry, one of the architects responsible for rebuilding the Houses of Parliament, to remodel the house in 1838. The Earl died in 1849, and Sir Charles Barry in 1860, before the works could be completed. The 4th Earl then commissioned Barry’s colleague Thomas Allom to finish construction of the castle, which was finally completed in 1878.

Due to the height of the home, the story goes that it had an interesting evacuation procedure that staff and visitors were to follow if there were ever a fire: much like in an evacuation from an aeroplane, servants were to use canvas chutes held up by iron rings to slide to safety from the upper floors.

During World War I, Highclere Castle served as a convalescence hospital for soldiers, and Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, became a nurse to help care for the wounded. The house returned back to being a private home following the war, and was opened to the public in 1988. Among the interesting artefacts on public display today is a mahogany desk and chair that was once owned by Napoleon Bonaparte.

The 5th Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert, was part of a team of explorers that discovered the tomb of the Egyptian boy Pharoah, Tutankhamun, in Egypt in 1922. He brought back several artefacts from the archaeological dig to Highclere but died just four months later from blood poisoning, after accidentally shaving a mosquito bite. His death led to the popular legend of “The Mummy’s Curse”, as rumour attributed his death to the fact he had opened the tomb and disturbed Tut’s rest.
www.highclerecastle.co.uk

For more information on the Farcroft Group’s work within stately homes, visit www.farcroftuk.com, email enquiries@farcroftuk.com or call 0207 868 2420.

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