The Temple of Ancient Virtue flips upside down into the lake, a perfect reflection looking up at its original. In this garden it’s one of many (often flamboyantly named) structures placed alongside still water for maximum effect, a swan occasionally gliding across, its gentle wake rippling the reflection but adding to the scene rather than spoiling it. Statues are strategically positioned to offer sightlines through gaps in trees, many towards others – this Temple looks across to the Shrine of British Worthies, also boasting a perfect reflection. The whole is stunningly beautiful; it’s impossible to be underawed.
Stowe is the definition of a rich man’s playground, a garden created to be seen and be seen in. We walk paths laid out by some of the most influential gardeners of the Georgian period, through 250 acres of rolling Warwickshire countryside, emerging many times from woodland to a sight of wonder hidden from us until the last second. It’s easy to spend a whole day here – we walk nearly 6km – not so much a gentle perambulation as a good hike through a garden created as an earthly paradise. There are more sculptures here than in Vienna. Well, almost.
Stowe is also a poster child for the National Trust. After decades of neglect it came into the care of the Trust in 1989 and is slowly being restored back to its glory, a combination of plans, maps and writings of early visitors providing vital information to allow Stowe to be seen as it was meant to be seen. Some is complete, a mix of the original art cleaned and restored, sometimes re-sited from an incorrect position, or a replica created when the original could either not be located or is happily living elsewhere and cannot be repatriated. All of it is remarkable.
It’s fair to say that without the National Trust I wouldn’t be standing here and neither would the hundreds of others that are strolling around, walking dogs, chasing after excited children. The Trust has its detractors, and I can understand why, admission prices being far out of the reach of many. But the alternative is often that these places are lost to private ownership with no access for the public, or left to fall into ruin, their beauty and history consigned to the pages of books or, worse, lost completely.
I miss the history of Britain. I love wandering around stately homes, admiring the opulent interiors, the lavish furnishings, the architectural marvels that many of these huge houses are. There are no flashing lights, holographic displays and interactive exhibits in an NT property because they aren’t needed; the building and its contents speak for themselves. I am under no illusion that, had I been born a century earlier, I would have been ‘downstairs’, probably in the meanest sense – my grandmother, born in 1904, learned to sew and became a seamstress to avoid going into service – and maybe I should be glad to see such places collapse, a symbol of an unfair society, but I’m fascinated by them. Okay, I’m probably just nosey. And, judging by the crowds we encounter at the many places we visit on this trip, plenty of others are too.
Knole is one of the best, turreted and towered in the middle of acres of parkland. Originally built in medieval times, it is now preserved as the eighteenth century home it was updated to by the first Sackvilles, the family that still live here. Some rooms have an ingenious glass ‘bubble’ inside, allowing entrance and unrestricted vision (no frames) but regulating the atmosphere in order to preserve the contents. They are so non-intrusive I almost walk into one without realising it is there – cue Neil behind me shaking his head. Rich wall and bed hangings are so vivid in colour I presume them to be modern day copies but, no, they are the originals, painstakingly cleaned and restored, re-hung in these humidity controlled rooms. Beds are all four-poster, one in a room furnished and decorated for the Queen (Anne) who never visited but, hey, you want to be prepared, just in case. I’m always amazed at how small these beds are – they may tower over ten feet above you with luxurious curtains but if you’re much over 5’ tall and even slightly overweight you’ll struggle to get comfortable. (There are no pictures of the indoors because we aren’t allowed to take any.)
I’m fascinated by the human stories, the lives of people who built and lived in this grandeur. Knole has a sad human history, the childhood home of Vita Sackville-West, who loved it with a passion but was forbidden to inherit because of her gender, despite that she was the direct heir. Instead it would go to her cousin, Eddy, who hated the house and wanted nothing to do with it, eventually signing away his interest to the next in line. No gender equality then (nor now, come to think of it, in these circles).
The Trust looks after many treasures, as well as grand houses and extensive gardens it cares for swathes of countryside and coastline, preserving Britain’s history and landscape for future generations. It also educates. At Quarry Bank Mill we travel back to the Industrial Revolution and child labour, when there was no social system to support those less fortunate. It’s a time that is best consigned to the past, children as young as five working twelve hour days, no childhood allowed, in dangerous conditions that could lead to serious injury, even death. Deafened by the noise, breathing in dust and choking fibres, almost blind from working in dim light, it was a horrific existence. In present time volunteers man one of each of the huge machines the children worked on and it is deafening – it’s hard to imagine rows of them clattering along.
There’s every chance I could have been one of the poor wretches working here and I can’t imagine such a life, nor can I imagine how I would have reacted if I had lived it. I was a timid child who obeyed orders and followed rules so probably would have been unlikely to question it. But I’m sure I would have realised the inequality of it all and still have grown into a questioning teenager. Or would I? The education that opened my mind would have been denied me. But thanks to the National Trust I can appreciate how awful these places were as much as I can experience how much grandeur the upper classes (often owners of these mills) lived in. I’m a fan.