Whatever your idea of the perfect historic house – imposing architecture, beautiful interiors or glorious gardens – you’ll find it here. We peek through the (gilded) keyhole at 20 of the county’s finest manors, palaces and estates
“The Real Downton”, Highclere Castle, is one of Britain’s finest statelies. It has been the family seat of the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679, though its history stretches back centuries further. In 749 an Anglo-Saxon King granted the estate to the Bishops of Winchester, who built a stately medieval palace on the parkland here. Various rebuildings and developments later (including the landscaping of the grounds by Capability Brown), in 1842 it was transformed by Sir Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament, into the Italianate gem you can admire today.
You might recognise Lyme – or rather, its lake – from the starring role it played in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, when Colin Firth as Darcy emerged from the lake and sent a million hearts uttering. Lyme’s glorious Italianate facade and lavish Regency interiors tend to have the same effect.
Visitors can dress up in period costume, take a peek at Truelove the butler’s rooms, and browse in the library, where the Lyme Missal prayer book is conserved. Printed by William Caxton in 1487, it is the National Trust’s most precious printed book. Outside, a medieval herd of red deer roam the estate, nestled on the edge of the Peak District.
Some of our favourite stately homes are those still occupied by the same family that have been in place for centuries. Beautiful Hat eld House is a prime example: home to the 7th Marquess and Marchioness of Salisbury, it was built in 1611 by Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury and trusted advisor to Elizabeth I. Cecil used materials from the Old Palace, built in 1485 by the Bishop of Ely – some of which can still be seen today – to build the magnificent Jacobean house you see today.
Much of Hatfield’s fascination comes from the fact that Henry VIII purchased it for his children, Mary, Edward and Elizabeth, to use as a nursery. In 1558 a young Princess Elizabeth was resting under an oak tree in the grounds when she learned of her accession to the throne of England. Inside, seek out the Rainbow Portrait, an atypically vibrant Tudor portrait of steely-eyed Queen Elizabeth marvellously clad in a coppery cloak, and holding a rainbow. An inscription reads, “Non sine sola iris” (No rainbow without the sun) – portraying Elizabeth as a bringer of peace after stormy political times.
Neoclassical Mount Stewart has been home to one of Northern Ireland’s most powerful families, the Marquesses of Londonderry, for 250 years. Edith, Lady Londonderry – an author, designer and legendary hostess – made Mount Stewart home in 1921, filling it with art and antiques and planting its exceptional gardens. Now in the care of the National Trust, the house has been beautifully restored and is still dotted with family memorabilia and treasures. Mount Stewart was only one of the family’s houses but was a firm favourite with Edith. As she wrote to her husband Charles, “This is the most divine house, why do we live anywhere else!”
Another Pemberley stand-in that featured in the TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Chatsworth’s creamy stone facade made an appropriately grand setting as Darcy’s ancestral home. Surrounded by extensive parkland and backed by the craggy wooded hills of the Peak District, it holds many priceless treasures.
Chatsworth has been home to the Cavendish family since 1549, but many of its grand rooms are open to the public. Be dazzled by the Painted Hall, the grandest room built by the 1st Duke; the Great Dining Room, dripping with gilt and swagged curtains; and the State Apartments, lavishly decorated in preparation for a visit from King William III and Queen Mary II that never actually took place.
This handsome Tudor manor house lay neglected until the 1920s, when one Colonel Lyle visited and, moved by its sorry condition, bought it and painstakingly restored it with historic salvaged fireplaces, staircases and panelling, collected from derelict manors all over the country. The National Trust have kept it without furniture, so that you can appreciate the beauty of its features and the passion that went into its restoration. After wandering the atmospheric rooms, you can explore the beautiful gardens, planted by the Lyles after consultation with the famous garden designer Gertrude Jekyll.
Sitting on the banks of the River Thames in Richmond, Ham House is a 17th-century treasure, full of precious paintings, furniture and textiles. Built in 1610, it was remodelled by the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale in the 1670s. Richly transformed to impress London Society, it was one of the country’s grandest Stuart houses. The interiors boast baroque ceiling murals by Antonio Verrio, rare damask hangings and a gilded staircase. Among the collections, you can see the Duchess’s own teapot, one of the earliest to arrive in the country: always at the forefront of fashion, she was quick to adopt the new tea-drinking trend.
While you’re here, keep an eye out for unusual happenings – Ham is thought to be one of the most haunted houses in Britain. Some visitors even report catching a waft of the Duke’s Sweet Virginia pipe tobacco in the Dining Room.
The scale of Castle Howard, the residence of the Howard family for 300 years, is quite mind-boggling: with 145 rooms, it is one of England’s biggest stately homes. The house took over 100 years to construct, spanning the lifetimes of three Earls. Vanbrugh the original architect’s vision of a house of two identical wings capped with a central dome did not quite come to fruition: changing tastes over the centuries meant that east wing was built in flamboyant baroque style, while the later west wing is all restrained Palladian elegance. The result, though, is nothing short of spectacular.
A fire devastated much of the building in 1940 and would have caused even more extensive damage but for the efforts of some quick-thinking schoolgirl evacuees, who were able to salvage some of the house’s priceless contents. The filming of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisitedhere in 1981 helped pay for much-needed restoration works, though a section of the building remains a shell.
You could easily spend a day exploring the grounds, with their woodlands, lakeside terraces and formal gardens dotted with temples and statuary.
Conceived as a family home rather than a statement of wealth, Tyntesfield has an intimate, warm feel. William Gibbs bought Tyntes Place for his family in 1844 and remodelled what was then a simple Regency house into the stunning Victorian Gothic Revival house that you see today. It’s home to over 60,000 objects, from ornate furnishings and precious paintings to the evocative remnants of four generations of domestic life, from ice skates to picnic sets.
“It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot,” said Queen Victoria of her palatial holiday home on the Isle of Wight, and it’s hard not to agree. Built specially for Victoria and Albert, the house reflects their style and passions. The sumptuous state rooms, designed to impress the great and the good when Osborne was at the centre of the British Empire, are extraordinarily lavish, and you can have a glimpse into Victoria and Albert’s private world too: their bathing beach and the play cottage built for their nine children. Prince Albert’s private suite was poignantly kept as it was in his lifetime by the devoted Queen, and many of the objects he used at Osborne still lie where he left them.
This magnificent Jacobean pile stands on the site of the home of the Boleyn family, where it is believed Anne Boleyn was born. No documentation exists to back this up, but legend has it that one of the three ghosts that patrol the house is that of Henry VIII’s second wife, who is said to appear every year on 19 May, the date of her execution, bearing her severed head.
Reliefs of Anne and her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, can be seen on the staircase of the Great Hall. The Long Gallery is also worth seeking out. It holds the National Trust’s most important book collection, including the first complete Bible to be printed in English, and first editions of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Emma.
This marvellous late 17th-century house is one of Wales’s most beguiling architectural wonders, set within 90 acres of gorgeous gardens. For more than 500 years Tredegar was home to one of Wales’s most powerful families, the Morgans, later Lords Tredegar, and no expense was spared in its decor. The interiors feature plenty of flamboyant touches, from the glittering Gilt Room, once a venue for glamorous parties, to the exquisitely carved serpents, lions and griffins in the Brown Room.
There’s something very special about Blenheim, seat of the dukes of Marlborough. The only non-royal or non-episcopal house in Britain to be called ‘palace’, it has a regal air that lives up to the name. For some, it even eclipses the royal palaces in its majesty; on seeing Blenheim for the first time, King George III is reported to have said to Queen Charlotte, “We have nothing to equal this!”
Blenheim was built by Sir John in the rare English Baroque style for John Churchill, 1stDuke of Marlborough, on parkland gifted to him by Queen Anne, as a reward for victory over the French in the Battle of Blenheim, Bavaria, in 1704. Almost two centuries later, the duke’s descendant, Winston Churchill, was born here.
Each room of the palace is more spectacular than the last. The marble-clad Great Hall with its frescoed ceiling and stone carvings makes a bold first impression, but the palace’s finest room is the aptly named Long Library, an incredible 55 metres in length.
Rivalling the house for magnificence are the grounds: 2100 acres of parkland designed by Capability Brown. Churchill chose one of his favourite corners, the Temple of Diana, as the perfect romantic spot to propose to his beloved, Clementine Hozier. They married just a month later.
Built by Sir John Thynne in 1580, Longleat is a spectacular Elizabethan house in parkland designed by Capability Brown. It is now occupied by Thynne’s ancestor, the 7th Marquess of Bath, who transformed part of the grounds into a safari park, complete with lions, tigers and giraffes, in 1966: the first drive-through safari park outside Africa.
The family still live in part of the house, but 15 rooms are open to the public. Famous for its 40,000-strong book collection, Longleat’s seven libraries are a sight to behold. The vast Red Library and the Ante Library which features a Venetian painted ceiling, are well worth a peek.
This magnificent Elizabethan Renaissance house was built to impress by Sir Edward Phelips, a member of Elizabeth I’s parliament. Built in 1598, it remained in the Phelips family until 1931, when it was acquired by the National Trust. Its Hamstone facade with its mullioned windows is imposing, though all is not as it seems: the Tudor West Front was not designed for the house, but removed from nearby Clifton Maybank House and installed here in 1786.
Inside, the 52-metre Long Gallery is the longest of its kind in England, and holds 60 Tudor and Elizabethan portraits on long-term loan from the National Portrait Gallery.
A grand Elizabethan pile, Burghley was built by William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s most trusted minister, who designed the house as a grand tribute to his Queen. The house’s splendid interior contains a fine collection of Italian Old Master paintings, as well as a celebrated ceramics collection. You can explore the evocative Tudor kitchens below stairs, as well as the breathtaking State Rooms – furnished thanks to the efforts of two of the house’s Earls, who travelled widely and purchased an incredible array of art and antiques.
Inspired by European baroque palaces, Petworth is a stately ancestral seat with an astonishing art collection, including major works by Van Dyck, Turner, Reynolds and Gainsborough. Intriguing objects abound, such as the earliest English globe in existence, dating back to 1592. The grounds, designed by Capability Brown, hold a 700-acre deer park.
The most northerly of Scotland’s great houses, overlooking the Moray Firth, is also one of its most spectacular. Home to the Earls and Dukes of Sutherland since the 13th century, it resembles a French château with its whimsical spires and fairytale turrets. A fortified square keep for centuries, it was extensively remodelled by Charles Barry in 1845; the gardens, based on those at Versailles, were laid out in the 1850s. A museum in the grounds displays taxidermy and ethnographic items collected by the family from around the world.
Hardwick is a remarkable house in many ways. One of the country’s most magnificent Elizabethan houses, crafted by the finest craftsmen of the age in the 1590s, it is quite a spectacle. Then there’s the backstory: it was the creation of the formidable Bess of Hardwick – Tudor England’s other great Elizabeth – whose four marriages led her to become one of England’s most powerful and richest women. The house’s towering turrets bear her initials, and her influence can be felt in every aspect of the extraordinary house, from the huge windows – revolutionary at the time – to the world-class textile collection, mostly collected by Bess in the late sixteenth century.
The 1st Baron Harewood, Edwin Lascelles, assembled a dream team to create his ideal home in 1759: interior designer of the moment Robert Adam, legendary furniture maker Thomas Chippendale and famous landscape gardener Capability Brown. Their extraordinary efforts provide a fitting showpiece for Harewood’s priceless collections of Renaissance masterpieces and Sèvres porcelain, among much more.