Romancing the stones
The furniture might be priceless, the tapestries museum quality and the gardens confections of loveliness but often it's the stories of the people who filled their English stately homes with treasures that linger in the mind.
There are thousands of mansions, palaces, castles and other grand houses in England, presenting visitors with a bewildering list of choices.
Every year throngs of tourists make their way through the bedazzling interiors of places such as Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth House, Castle Howard and Woburn Abbey. But there are also so many more that offer fascinating insights into English social and political history and are often mercifully free of the huge crowds that can sometimes mar visits to some of the better known properties.
Just a few kilometres from Chatsworth House in Derbyshire's Wye Valley is Haddon Hall. Last year, on a sultry summer's day, while the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire's family seat at Chatsworth was heaving with people, Haddon Hall was a tranquil, cool haven with only a handful of visitors.
Haddon Hall is technically a fortified manor house but its turrets and battlements are more statements of fashion for their age, rather than serious defensive features.
The earliest parts of the house date back to about 1150 when it was home to the Vernon family. The family lived there until the 16th century when an alleged scandalous elopement saw the property change hands.
At the time Haddon Hall was owned by Sir George Vernon, whose daughter Dorothy had fallen in love with Sir John Manners, a son of the Earl of Rutland. Sir George had, the story goes, forbidden Dorothy to marry Sir John (possibly because as a second son he had little money and only a slim chance of inheriting any).
But, (and there's some doubt today as to what is fact and what is wishful Victorian-era fantasy) Dorothy chose to ignore her father's wishes. During a banquet at Haddon Hall she slipped away from the hall and crossed the small arched stone bridge that still spans the River Wye today to meet her lover. The two were then secretly married.
The story was later immortalised in a light opera with music by Sir Arthur Sullivan (one half of Gilbert and Sullivan).
After Sir George died, Dorothy and her husband took over the property and their descendants have owned Haddon Hall ever since. However, by the early 1700s the Manners had abandoned Haddon Hall in favour of the Belvoir Castle, Sir John's grandson having inherited the tile of the Duke of Rutland.
It was the 9th duke who decided in the 1920s to restore Haddon Hall and the work is still going on today under the watchful eye of the duke's grandson, Lord Edward Manners. The house is now regarded as one of Britain's best examples of both medieval and Tudor- era architecture.
Perhaps because the house is not vast (well, not by English country house standards) it's easier for a 21st century visitor to be able to step back in time and imagine life there 400 years ago.
The fact that Manners' family still live here also adds something special to Haddon Hall - it's not just a museum but a family home: a home with royal connections. Henry VIII's eldest brother Arthur stayed at Haddon Hall, and more recent visitors included Queen Mary and Prince Charles. Sir John Manners (Dorothy's husband) was present at Henry VIII's marriage to Anne Boleyn and was chamberlain to Anne of Cleves.
There were even stories that Jane Austen wrote part of Pride and Prejudice at Haddon Hall and that it was used by Sir Walter Scott as a setting for several of his novels, but sadly, the family say, there's no actual proof to authenticate either of these tales. Another literary connection concerns Sir John's nephew Roger who is claimed by some people to be the man the world came to know as William Shakespeare.
Haddon Hall is built around two courtyards with its rooms a mosaic of late 12th century through to early 17th century construction. The fact that the entire structure is stonewalled and topped with battlements and towers creates a sense of cohesion, despite 400 years of additions and a further 400 years or so of renovations and repair.
The medieval banqueting hall lies at the heart of the house. A wood-panelled room with a flagstone floor, this would once have served as both the living and sleeping space for the family and its servants. Today there are pieces of original furniture in the hall, along with a huge French tapestry that is believed to have been presented to the Vernons by Henry VIII.
An unusual feature in the hall is an iron manacle and a lock. Apparently if a guest did not "drink fayre", that is he either drank too much or too little, his wrist was secured in the manacle and drink poured down his sleeve. Today this might not sound a serious punishment but back in a time when washing was infrequent it was regarded as a major deterrent to antisocial behaviour.
Next door is the parlour and to enter here is to step right back into Tudor England. The room is wood-panelled with diamond-paned windows and overhead is an original plaster ceiling installed in the early 1500s.
It is the kitchens in which visitors seem to linger longest. They are regarded as some of the finest surviving Tudor kitchens in Britain. Originally separated from the main building to minimise the risk of fire they were later joined to the rest of the house by a narrow passageway.
In the main room is a stone trough fed by what at the time would have been the Hall's only source of running water. The bakery still contains an original 17th century kneading trough, worn by decades of use. There's also a butchery dedicated to the salting, drying or pickling of meat. In here stands a single, hollowed-out oak trunk that was used to crush the salt used to preserve the meat. It's stood in this room since the 15th century.
According to the household records during the 17th century, every year the family, guests and servants would consume between 30 and 40 beef cattle; 400 to 500 sheep and up to 10 pigs.
Haddon Hall also solves one of those small mysteries about the origin of words. In the Milk Larder is a collection of "dole" cupboards. These wooden cupboards, which date back to the 15th century, were put outside Haddon (and other houses) filled with food and leftovers that could be taken by passing travellers or estate workers. It is from these cupboards that we get the phrase "on the dole".
From many of the diamond-paned windows in the house are enticing glimpses of the garden, albeit rather distorted ones at times. I'd always assumed that the rather odd angles of these ancient glass inserts was the result of rather basic manufacturing techniques but in fact it's the reverse.
The different angles at which the glass was set are deliberate, in order to maximise the rays of sunlight as well as being considered to be more attractive.
The gardens themselves have been under intensive restoration and are one of Britain's best examples of Renaissance-style garden design. Many others of this period were given radical makeovers by Capability Brown. Haddon didn't receive his attentions because at the time the family were living at Belvoir Castle and Haddon was left to quietly deteriorate in relative obscurity.
But today the gardens are once again glorious. An Elizabethan knot garden has recently been reinstated much as it would have been during the time of Dorothy Vernon's alleged elopement in the 16th century.
Today fragrant herbs such as thyme, lavender and lemon balm have been planted and clipped into interweaving patterns.
The gardens consist of a series of terraces, a design typical of an English late-Renaissance garden inspired by the gardens of Italy's hilltop villas.
During the time of the 9th duke and duchess work began in earnest to restore the gardens, with old yews being cut down, ivy stripped from the walls and balustrades replaced with climbing roses. A pond and fountain were installed, which were not only decorative but functional as the Manners' children used it as a paddling pool.
Along with the cascading showers of roses and clematis, the garden is famous for its delphiniums (there are up to 40 varieties in the garden) and a superb herbaceous border.
From the walls surrounding the terrace gardens are views across the verdant Wye Valley that seems little changed from the day when Dorothy Manners ran across the stone bridge beneath the house walls to meet the man she was determined to marry.
The Timaru Herald