Our associate director and specialist in heritage attractions Graham Nicholson has made his pick of houses with delicious stories, for the next in our series of Top 10s celebrating Blue Sail’s first decade in business.
Britain’s grand houses are all about showing off the superior wealth, taste and connections of the family. But behind the genteel exteriors lurk many a surprising, shady and sometimes salacious secret. Here are 10 lovely houses (including for contrast a palazzo in Venice) with great stories attached.
- Cliveden was born in scandal; the Duke of Buckingham built it for his mistress. He then fatally wounded her husband in a duel. Much later John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War was a guest at the house and one sultry evening in 1961 had the fortune or misfortune of meeting Christine Keeler at the swimming The rest, as they say is history. Try out the infamous pool when you stay at Cliveden as a hotel guest!
- Sizergh Castle’s story has a happy ending. This beautiful medieval house in Cumbria almost lost its prize possession forever. In the 1890s the family fell on hard times and sold a most exquisite Elizabethan oak panelled chamber for hard cash to the V&A where it was displayed as a period room. But happily the V&A recently gave it back to the National Trust at Sizergh where it is re-installed as though it had never gone missing.
- Inveraray Castle on the shores of Loch Fyne is the ancestral home of the Campbells, the Dukes of Argyll. The area is known for its spectacular natural beauty but the castle is associated also with Margaret the Duchess of Argyll who was embroiled in a particularly lurid divorce case in 1950s. At the trial there emerged a compromising photo of her and the so-called headless man which drove the press to a fever of speculation over his identity, never fully resolved.
- Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire. When the banker and sugar trader Peter Thelluson left his fortune not to his children, nor their children, but to his great grandchildren as yet unborn, he sparked a long and infamous legal wrangle, immortalised by Dickens in Bleak House. Half a century later his descendants spent what the lawyers had left to build and furnish Brodsworth. Little was left for upkeep or modernisation and English Heritage which saved it for the nation in 1990 has preserved it in all its faded Victorian grandeur.
- Plas Newydd in Llangollen has become something of an icon for many gay couples. Aristocratic ladies Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler eloped from Ireland in 1778 and lived an inseparable life there for 50 years. They became known as ‘The Ladies of Llangollen’ and the house is now a popular venue for civil partnership and same sex wedding ceremonies.
- Lyme Park in Cheshire doubled as Pemberley in BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, and there Colin Firth famously emerged wet-shirted from a lake. However Lyme Park’s real life occupant in Jane Austen’s day was the Indiana Jones of his era. Thomas Legh was an adventurer, one of the first Europeans to travel the Nile. He explored Greece, and the lesser known parts of Petra, Jerusalem, Syria and the Turkish Ottoman Empire. He wrote a diary of his travels and brought back many classical treasures that are still at Lyme today.
- Brocket Hall near Welwyn is a handsome Georgian House, now a popular conference venue. Easily reached from London it has been popular with the visitors over the centuries. The Prince Regent, later George IV, elevated its owner to be the first Viscount Melbourne, not for any great political work or public service but on account of the sterling efforts of his pretty wife Elizabeth in the bedroom. The grateful Prince gave a Joshua Reynolds portrait of himself that still hangs in the ballroom and created a suite of rooms in the Chinese style for his own use, still known as the Prince Regent Suite.
- Newstead Abbey near Nottingham was home to George, Lord Byron. On inheriting the property and the title in 1798 he found everything was in desperate need of repair. However neither Byron nor the estate had much money which no doubt contributed to his decision to marry Anne Milbanke. She was an highly educated and strictly religious woman and an unlikely match for Byron except that she was an heiress with a considerable fortune. Unfortunately the marriage soon ended in acrimony as his temper, drinking and womanising got worse. She worried that Byron was going mad, and heavily pregnant she moved out, never to see her husband again.
- Waddesdon Manor is unique – a French Renaissance château in Buckinghamshire filled with decorative arts and paintings of peerless quality, assembled by three generations of Rothschilds, a fabulously wealthy French- Austrian turned British banking dynasty. Built in the 19th century to house the collection the house was also designed to entertain the fashionable world. For his guests’ pleasure Baron Ferdinand added an extravagant aviary in the grounds – still a highlight of a visit.
- Palazzo Venier dei Leoni is another house of collections. This 18th century house on the Grand Canal in Venice became the home of Peggy Guggenheim, an American socialite and bohemian, a friend and lover of many of the leading artists of the 20th century. With money inherited from her father who went down with the Titanic she aimed to buy one artwork a day. She acquired ten Picassos, forty Ernsts, eight Mirós, four Magrittes, three Man Rays, three Dalís, one Klee and one Chagall among others. The Palazzo is now an art gallery where her fantastic collection can be seen.