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Staying at a British National Trust Estate

In western England’s bucolic Herefordshire, T+L discovers an unexpectedly chic hotel alternative—on the grounds of a British National Trust estate.

By Rebecca Mead

When my husband, George, and I decided to take a holiday house at Berrington Hall, a Neoclassical mansion in England’s West Midlands owned by the National Trust, we blithely ignored a warning note that appeared on the trust’s website. About our rental, in the so-called Triumphal Arch, a decorative two-story archway in red sandstone leading from the Hall’s rural grounds to its formal gardens, it read, “This property may be unsuitable for small children due to the steep stairs and the small landing.”

Although we would be traveling with our three-year-old son—as well as my 14-year-old stepson—we dismissed this bit of information as excessively cautionary: a smidge of American-style liability coverage. And when we first saw the staircase in question, which was admittedly steep, but not exactly hazardous-looking, we felt glad—triumphant, even—that the warning had not deterred us from claiming the Arch as our temporary abode.

The estate, which lay a few minutes outside the market town of Leominster, in Herefordshire, was infinitely seductive. The stone house on the top of the hill was perfectly proportioned and grand without being immense. It was surrounded by acres of coppice-dotted meadow, in which sheep grazed picturesquely, and had gorgeous gardens that were in full early summer bloom. I’m English, and although I was transplanted to New York City many years ago, these rolling hills and green fields immediately felt like home to me. But it was much better than home, of course, because I grew up in a modest three-bedroom house built in the 1950’s, not the former residence of a successful 18th-century banker. I could not help recalling the words of Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, when asked when she fell in love with Mr. Darcy: “I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” It would have taken little encouragement to fall in love with the owner of this house, given the chance, although I’m not sure what I’d have done with my husband and children.

We were occupying half the arch. (The National Trust uses the other half for administrative purposes.) Up the aforementioned staircase there was a bedroom and a bathroom; downstairs there was another bathroom and a bedroom with a ceiling almost as high as the room was wide. At some point a single-story brick cottage had been added to the side of the arch. There we found an open-plan kitchen and a living area with wooden floors, a wood-burning stove, and a pair of comfy couches. The cottage was as pretty as an illustration from a storybook, surrounded by an herbaceous border planted with lavender and lemon balm, with climbing roses next to the heavy wooden door. What had been advertised as a “small private garden” turned out to be a spacious lawn with views beyond an iron fence over the meadows and toward a reed-fringed lake.

By the time we arrived, the big house and its grounds were closed to visitors, but we discovered to our amazement that we were free to wander the deserted 400-acre estate at our will. (I kept expecting to be chased off the premises by a surly gardener, like Peter Rabbit by Mr. McGregor, but none ever materialized.) The estate was one of the last by Capability Brown, the 18th-century garden designer, and it was exquisite. We walked from the arch up a gravel path that led to the rear of the main house and was edged with dramatic golden yews, clipped into enormous yellow-green balls, as if left behind from a giant’s game of croquet. To our right lay the walled garden and an orchard filled with apple trees. To our left was a lawn spiked with hoops left over from a real game of croquet, beside which a pair of peacocks showily paraded.

We circled around the courtyard to the front and sat on the stone steps to survey the spectacular vista over the rolling Herefordshire countryside to the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons of Wales beyond. The ruling conceit of 18th-century landscape design was to create the appearance of an idealized natural world, and this was certainly achieved at Berrington Hall. A wide lawn descended from the house down a gentle slope to a meadow strategically dotted with clumps of beech, ash, lime, and oak trees. Beyond that lay the lake, in the center of which was an island, created by Brown, that is a nesting ground for herons. Upon the meadow quantities of sheep grazed, apparently without any barrier between themselves and the lawn. As we walked down the slope, we realized that there was, in fact, a barrier: a so-called ha-ha, a dry ditch a few feet deep that kept the sheep away from the house’s more proximate environs but also preserved the appearance of untrammeled nature. (So inconspicuous was the ditch that low wooden signs reading Beware of Ha-Ha had been stuck into the ground at intervals along its edge.) As we walked along the ha-ha’s perimeter we attracted a crowd of baaing sheep, who appeared deeply confused about why they were not permitted to wander the attractive expanse of finely mown grass fronting the house. We rather wondered the same thing ourselves.

The next morning, shortly after dawn, I was awakened by a loud thud, a crash, and the sound of my husband screaming in pain. I rushed out of the bedroom to find George crouching halfway up the dangerous staircase, writhing in agony. The warning, it turns out, should have been worded thus: “This property may be unsuitable for the overtired parents of small children.” Poor George had slipped on the stairs, and while he generally admits to a touch of hypochondria, this time he was clearly hurt.

Leaving him groaning in the kitchen with our preschooler leaping around him in excitement—three-year-olds love medical crises—I raced up to the main house, trying to locate the caretaker who had been so wonderfully, tactfully scarce the previous evening. A kindly docent who lived in an apartment in what was once the stables helped me ascertain the opening hours of the walk-in clinic in Leominster. Half an hour later, all four of us had piled into our rental car, which George, being the only one who was named on the insurance, had to drive, in spite of the pain in his foot. And two hours after that, George had been diagnosed with a broken toe, bandaged and splinted up, and sent on his way—all without a bill even being mentioned, thanks to the National Health Service, which, I’m proud to report, gives free health care even to unfortunate foreigners who’ve had a run-in with a dodgy staircase.

So in the subsequent days we didn’t get to do much walking in the English countryside, as we had hoped to do. But we did become very familiar with Berrington Hall, which offers one of about 350 apartments and cottages that are available as vacation rentals through the National Trust. Like the Triumphal Arch, many of them aren’t, strictly speaking, cottages: they include a former coast guard station in Whitby, Yorkshire; an old brewhouse in Chastleton, Oxfordshire; and a converted isolation hospital near Corfe Castle, in Dorset. The cottages are self-catering, though many, including the Triumphal Arch, are attached to properties where you can have an excellent cream tea.

Cream teas are, by some measure, the bane of the National Trust, which has long had the reputation of managing a lot of very fancy houses with lavish gardens where visitors can cast an eye over a few paintings or tapestries before repairing to a repurposed stable room café for the main event, scones and clotted cream. The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, to give the organization its full name, was founded in 1895 to conserve Britain’s heritage. For a long time its mission seemed to consist of taking over the houses of impoverished nobles, who were no longer able to afford the crippling taxes upon them, and opening them up for an appropriately deferential public to nose around in. I spent many weekends as a child being taken to National Trust properties, though in those days you could have only stayed overnight in one if you’d concealed yourself in a linen closet or a toolshed.

But in more recent times, the Trust has sought to recast itself not just as a museum of the aristocracy but as a guardian of the countryside. It now owns hundreds of miles of coastline in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland (Scotland has a National Trust as well) and its landholdings total about 1.5 percent of the entire country.

Berrington Hall exemplifies this more modern approach: one day we joined a party led by a docent wearing a long gray work dress, an apron, a mobcap, and a historically inaccurate but optically necessary pair of sunglasses. She conducted us not through the grand rooms of the house but to the dairy that was handsomely paneled in gray tile, the laundry with its sinks made from teak, and the other behind-the-scenes regions clustered around the courtyard where, as our guide explained, a staff of 43 had once worked to take care of six inhabitants. (One particularly savory detail of the house’s inner workings: according to 18th-century domestic wisdom, urine collected from chamber pots was used in the laundry as bleach.)

The front parts of the house were more traditionally impressive. Berrington Hall is actually a relatively modest pile, not much bigger than many a contemporary McMansion. The last occupant was Lady Vivienne Cawley, who, upon her husband’s death in 1954, gave it to the Treasury in lieu of estate taxes. (The Treasury donated it to the trust in 1957.) Lady Cawley was 80 at the time, and it was a condition of the bequest that she would be permitted to continue living there until her death. Exhibiting the fortitude of spirit that had permitted her class to rule half the globe a century earlier, Lady Cawley lived for 20 more years, and it is rumored that she insisted to the last that, after she had taken lunch every day in the formal dining room, National Trust conservators and contractors doing repairs to the house should put down their tools so that her postprandial nap might not be disturbed.

Since Lady Cawley’s passing, Berrington Hall has been restored to its former 18th-century splendor, or something approximating it, the drawing room decorated with gilt-edged pier mirrors, the dining room hung with four large paintings depicting the marine heroics of one of its early occupants in the American War of Independence, as it is known in Britain. Up a marble staircase that is spectacularly flooded with daylight through a domed, ribbed skylight are several handsomely appointed bedrooms, as well as a sitting room in the shape of an oval, its curved walls papered in the palest green. In a children’s nursery are toys from the turn of the 20th century: a rocking horse; a miniature pony carriage; a tea set laid out for a china doll.

Not long ago, Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, proposed that it would behoove the country to adopt a “statement of values” in lieu of a constitution, which it famously lacks. Inevitably, perhaps, the Times of Londonmischievously invited its readers to devise a national slogan or motto as a result. Among those offered were the modestly stirring (Great people. Great country. Great Britain), the humorously diffident (Britain, a terribly nice place), and the glumly disaffected (Land of yobs and morons). The winner, by popular vote, was the slogan that best captured the British resistance to outright, unironic self-definition: No motto please, we’re British.

The motto of the National Trust (For ever, for everyone) might have served as an entry in that competition had it not already been taken—suggesting, as it does, that Britain’s rich cultural heritage is no longer for the nobs alone to enjoy. For ever, for everyone, with the National Trust doing the dusting: That was the beauty of Berrington Hall. (Although even the Triumphal Arch required some upkeep—we had to clean the lawn daily of peacock droppings.) But I’ll admit that it was magical, after the gates at Berrington Hall had closed to the public, to sit on the steps of the grand house with a glass of wine in hand and gaze at Capability Brown’s manufactured arcadia and the gorgeous countryside beyond, knowing that, for a few hours of a few days at least, all this was not for everyone; it was ours alone.