Lifestyles of the rich and famous

Meri Williams steps over the threshold of some of Britain’s most group-friendly stately homes and castles to find out what a visit might hold in store.

Deer grazing in the grounds of Burghley House in Lincolnshire.

Deer grazing in the grounds of Burghley House in Lincolnshire.

There is something quite special about walking in the footsteps of royalty and aristocracy, and with the ever growing number of stately homes and castles in Britain opening their doors to the public, a chance to see how ‘the other half’ live can be an evocative and special experience.

The south east

Since the beginning of the 16th century, the More-Molyneux family have been welcoming guests to Loseley Park near Guildford, in Surrey, and visitors today still enjoy their hospitality and the idyllic surroundings. Groups can enjoy extras such as a ‘meeter/greeter’ to welcome them on arrival and free entry for GTOs, plus the group lunch offers good value for money, with reserved tables ensuring your members eat together.

The beautiful surroundings of Loseley Park.

The beautiful surroundings of Loseley Park.

In West Sussex, Saint Hill Manor was built in 1792 and is one of the finest sandstone buildings in the county, with lovely oak panelling and marble features. The house was restored by the last owner, science fiction writer and founder of the Scientology religion, L. Ron Hubbard, in the 1960s, and is now open to the public all year round free of charge.
One of the highlights of English Heritage’s portfolio is The Home of Charles Darwin (Down House), in Kent, where the 19th century scientist lived with his family for 40 years, and where he wrote ‘On the Origin of Species’. Downstairs, the rooms are recreated as they appeared when he lived here, including his study packed with personal belongings and scientific instruments. The first floor houses an exhibition tracing Darwin’s life and work. A handheld audio tour, narrated by journalist and broadcaster Andrew Marr, allows groups to discover the house and gardens at their own pace.
Also in the county, set in the beautiful Weald of Kent, Penshurst Place and Gardens has stood on the banks of the River Medway since the 14th century. The historic gardens are as old as the house itself, with records dating back to 1346, and visitors can book guided tours of the gardens alone or a combined house and garden tour. Special pre-booked menus are available in the tea room.
Combining 900 years of history and 500 acres of beautiful parkland, Leeds Castle, near Maidstone, is another ideal backdrop to a group day out. Often visited by Henry VIII, the well-preserved castle is surrounded by beautiful gardens, including a Wood Garden, English Culpeper Garden and Mediterranean Lady Baillie Garden, offering continuous colour throughout the year. To help visits run smoothly, Leeds Castle offers a food voucher scheme for groups of 15 or more; providing four meal options, GTOs can select the one that best suits their itinerary and a minimum 10% discount is included.

A view of Leeds Castle from across the moat.

A view of Leeds Castle from across the moat.

Not far away, a memorable day out also awaits groups at historic Hever Castle and Gardens near Edenbridge. Set in beautiful countryside, the romantic castle is famous for being the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. With a double moat and drawbridge, the 13th century stronghold has splendid panelled rooms containing fine furniture, tapestries and an important collection of Tudor portraits and paintings. Surrounding the castle are glorious parkland walks and four acres of formal gardens, including the celebrated Rose Garden, containing over 4,000 roses within its walls. Groups of 15 or more receive reduced admission to the castle and gardens. Additionally, there are discounted private guided tours of the castle for groups of 20 or more and, besides free parking, GTOs receive free entry and refreshment vouchers.

An aerial view of Hever Castle  and Gardens in Kent.

An aerial view of Hever Castle and Gardens in Kent.

Adding to the list of impressive sites in Kent is English Heritage’s Walmer Castle and Gardens, the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. It boasts charming ‘country house’ style interiors, and visitors can even see inside the room where the Duke of Wellington died. The reception rooms used by the Queen Mother (a former Lord Warden) are displayed as she used them, whilst green-fingered groups will enjoy the beautiful garden created by renowned designer Penelope Hobhouse to mark the Queen Mother’s 95th birthday. Themed guided tours for pre-booked groups are available.
Of The National Trust properties in Kent, Knole is perhaps one of the best known and has been shown off to visitors for the past 500 years. Here, 13 state rooms are laid out much as they were in the 18th century to impress visitors with the Sackville family’s wealth. Guided tours are offered to groups and discounted admission too, and new for this year, the Orangery is open to the public for the first time.
Avington Park in Winchester, Hampshire, is a Palladian mansion and features a classical portico surmounted by three statues built in the 17th century. State rooms on view to the public include the magnificently-painted ballroom and drawing-room, and groups of 20 or more can arrange for the house to be opened at any time throughout the year by prior appointment. The organiser qualifies for free entry to the house, a guided tour and barrel organ recital in the church alongside the South Lawn.

The late Queen Mother at Walmer Castle and Gardens in Kent.

The late Queen Mother at Walmer Castle and Gardens in Kent.

In neighbouring Oxfordshire, Blenheim Palace is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Marlborough and birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. From the magnificent palace to its surrounding park and gardens, groups will find something new to discover whatever time of year they visit. Organisers receive complimentary admission and a series of new themed tours, revealing the rich history of the palace and its gardens, are available for groups.

London and the Isle of Wight

In London, groups can now enjoy a combined day visit to two top English Heritage attractions – the Art Deco mansion Eltham Palace & Gardens and nearby Ranger’s House in Greenwich, home to the glittering Wernher Collection amassed by diamond magnate Sir Julius Wernher. The new full-day itinerary includes a guided tour of Eltham Palace, taking in areas like the domed entrance hall, luxurious gold mosaic-tiled bathroom of 1930s owner Virginia Courtauld and the Great Hall of medieval Eltham Palace, once the childhood home of King Henry VIII. The package also includes a buffet lunch served on arrival at Ranger’s House, followed by a tour taking in the 700 works of art on display here.
Groups visiting London can also take advantage of a special package at two more English Heritage properties. Joint tickets are available to take in Apsley House, the former home of the first Duke of Wellington, and Wellington Arch, which bears his name; the two sites stand facing each other in the heart of the capital at Hyde Park Corner. Time your visit to the Arch carefully and you will see the passing of the Household Cavalry on their way to and from the Changing of the Guard at Horse Guards Parade.
Yet more English Heritage properties can be found on the Isle of Wight. Osborne House was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s intimate royal hideaway, which they built to relax in, away from the glare of public life. This Italianate house in magnificent gardens sweeping down to the sea is still filled with original furnishings, priceless artworks and personal mementoes, testament to one of history’s most famous royal love stories. Groups receive a 15% discount for 11 or more people, with GTOs admitted free. Guided tour and lunch packages are available in the winter months.
Nearby, Carisbrooke Castle is home to five pampered donkeys who perform for a few minutes a day treading the 17th century wheel that once drew water from its well. The castle has a new Edwardian-themed walled garden that celebrates the time when Princess Beatrice stayed at the castle in her role as Governor of the Isle of Wight, and those with a head for heights can admire the views across the island from the castle ramparts. Again, groups receive a 15% discount for 11 or more people, with organisers admitted free.

The south west

The approach to Athelhampton House in Dorset.

The approach to Athelhampton House in Dorset.

In Dorset, Athelhampton House is a fine 15th century manor house surrounded by a great architectural garden. Special packages combining catering and tours are available for groups and discounted admission is offered too. It is also possible to visit as a group when the house is closed to the public, with a steward accompanying your group around the house and gardens.
The National Trust’s Montacute House in Somerset is an Elizabethan house adorned with Renaissance features, including contemporary plasterwork and heraldic glass. The Long Gallery has over 60 Tudor and Elizabethan portraits on loan from the National Portrait Gallery and the formal garden includes mixed borders, old roses and topiary. Groups can reserve tables in the Courtyard Café and out of hours catering is also available.
Another warm welcome awaits groups at Powderham Castle in Exeter, which was built in 1391 by Sir Philip Courtenay and has remained in the same family ever since. It has been used for various filming projects; most notably the Oscar-nominated ‘Remains of the Day’ with Sir Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Entertaining guided tours reveal secret doors, castle rooms and intriguing stories that bring its history to life. There are discounts for groups of 15 plus.

Powderham Castle in Devon.

Powderham Castle in Devon.

The North, Scotland and Wales

English Heritage’s Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens, in Northumberland, boasts a ruined medieval castle extended into a Jacobean mansion, an imposing Greek Revival villa and plant-rich gardens. The Regency-style villa is displayed without furnishings to reveal the craftsmanship of its construction, with rooms arranged around its central ‘Pillar Hall’. Seasonal garden tours for groups are led by the head gardener.
Also in Northumberland, Seaton Delaval Hall, now in the care of The National Trust – and newly-opened to groups by appointment – is an English baroque house, built between 1718 and 1728 for Admiral George Delaval. Of particular note are the Coach House, with a collection of interesting vehicles, and a restored Ice House.
Set in the heart of the beautiful Durham Dales, Raby Castle is one of England’s finest medieval castles. Its rooms display fine furniture, impressive artworks and elaborate architecture. Group VIP and private guided tours of the castle are available from Easter until the end of September, and other benefits include discounts for bookings of 12 or more people and free admission for the organiser.
Capesthorne Hall in Cheshire, meanwhile, is a distinctive Jacobean-style house with gardens and lakes set in over 100 acres of parkland. Groups are welcome at any time and guided tours can be arranged. On Mondays there is a special rate for visiting coach parties and the attraction is also happy to negotiate discounts on refreshments.
Moving to Scotland, Culzean Castle is perched high above the Ayrshire cliffs with spectacular views over the Firth of Clyde. With its impressive armoury, paintings and furnishings, as well as a deer park and Fountain Court Garden, a visit here is perfect for groups wanting to soak up some history. Guided garden walks and castle tours are available and there is a discounted admission rate for groups. Meal packages are also available.
Completed in 1310, The National Trust’s Chirk Castle is the last Welsh castle from the reign of Edward I still lived in today. Features from its 700-year history include a medieval tower and dungeon, 17th century Long Gallery and grand 18th century state apartments.

The Midlands

Built in 1508, Althorp in Northamptonshire has been home to the Spencer family for nearly 500 years. The attraction offers a range of exclusive benefits for groups including a 29% discount on normal admission prices and no supplementary charge to access the first floor of the house. There is also a range of exclusive add-ons – from private tours to meal options.
Tissington Hall in Derbyshire, home to the FitzHerbert family for over 400 years, welcomes groups throughout the year. The 17th century hall presides over a picturesque village in the south of the Peak District and has an impressive collection of artefacts, paintings and furniture for groups to discover.

Inside Haddon Hall in Derbyshire.

Inside Haddon Hall in Derbyshire.

Also in Derbyshire, Haddon Hall is a fortified medieval manor house dating from the 12th century, home to Lord and Lady Edward Manners whose family have owned it since 1567. It offers visitors an insight into life in medieval and Tudor times and, throughout the year, a Tudor re-enactment group holds special events here to illustrate the life and traditions of this period. Private group tours can be arranged.
In the same county, the highlights of Bolsover Castle include ceiling paintings and the romantic Venus Garden with its enclosed outdoor rooms and intimate love-seats. Horses are set to steal the limelight this spring, when new interpretation will explain the importance of all things equestrian to the ‘pleasure palace’ that William Cavendish developed to indulge his passions for entertainment and equines. Groups receive a discount and GTOs are admitted free.
On the Shropshire/Staffordshire border, Weston Park is set amidst 1,000 acres of ‘Capability’ Brown parkland. The former ancestral home of the Earls of Bradford, the house boasts an internationally-acclaimed collection of furniture and famous paintings by Van Dyck, Gainsborough and Stubbs. Groups of 16 or more enter the house, park and gardens at a discounted rate, plus refreshments and light lunches can be arranged too. There are also special ‘Behind the Scenes’ tours and ‘Lecture Lunches’ for groups.
Stokesay Castle, in Shropshire, is said to be one of the most picturesque of all English Heritage properties. Its lopsided timber-framed gabled gatehouse with geometric wooden panels and carved figures of angels, nudes and dragons, stands on one side of an enclosed grassy courtyard. On the other is a medieval great hall, flanked by two towers – one topped by turrets, the other by a timber-framed room, jutting out above the moat that encircles the castle. Groups receive a 15% discount for 11 or more people.
With a history dating back almost 1,100 years, Warwick Castle has played host to some of the most memorable moments in history. With past residents being convicted of treason and historic battles fought on the grounds – in 1471, the Earl of Warwick, Richard Neville, was killed in the Battle of Barnet fighting against King Edward VI during the War of the Roses – the Castle has seen bloodshed and banishment. It provides a full day out for your group and, new for 2011, a special two-day pass has been introduced. A dual-centre itinerary for groups, allowing guests to follow the life and works of world famous landscaper, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, was introduced last year with Compton Verney.
Burghley House, meanwhile, is a grand 16th century country house near the town of Stamford in Lincolnshire and its park was also laid out by ‘Capability’ Brown. Group benefits include discounted rates on tickets that entitle them to visit the house, Treasury exhibition, contemporary Sculpture Garden and the Gardens of Surprise. Burghley also offers private guided tours for groups and audio guides are available at a discounted rate.

A sculpture by Henry Moore on display at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.

A sculpture by Henry Moore on display at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.

The east of England

Helmingham Hall in Suffolk is famous for its Grade I-listed gardens re-designed by Lady Tollemache (a Chelsea Gold Medallist). Garden enthusiasts will be impressed by the rare and beautiful plants on display here, many of which were native to Britain before 1750. Occasional tours with Lady Tollemache, pending availability, are offered to groups, plus parties of 30 or more get in at a reduced rate.
Set in 250 acres of rolling Hertfordshire countryside, Knebworth House is one of England’s most colourful stately homes. It is remarkable for having been in the same family – the Lyttons – for more than 500 years, and for its romantic exterior complete with turrets, domes and gargoyles, which conceal a red brick house dating from Tudor times. Groups of 20 or more can book guided garden tours and organisers get in free of charge.
Also in Hertfordshire is Hatfield House, whose group packages can be tailored to suit particular interests. Running from April to September this year, a major exhibition of outdoor sculpture by British artist Henry Moore will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the completion of the house. It is possible for groups to book specialist art tours to make the most of this landmark collection and GTOs receive a free exhibition ticket.