England is famous for its palaces, castles and grand stately homes. Most sit surrounded by beautifully designed grounds and extensive gardens, commissioned by their dedicated owners centuries earlier. Steeped in a rich history, years of secrets are buried along their leafy pathways whispered by the rich and privileged who once strolled there. Today thousands of visitors are still inspired by their magnificence, here is an insight into three of them.
Sissinghurst Castle in Kent is one of England’s most treasured spots, famous for its beautiful white garden. It was created by the poet, novelist, and garden designer Victoria Mary Sackville-West, known as Vita. Able to trace her family heritage back to William the Conqueror, Vita and her politician husband, Harold Nicolson,
bought Sissinghurst, once owned by Vita’s ancestors, in the 1930’s when bizarre English inheritance laws forced her to part with her family home at Knole House near Sevenoaks, Kent.
Vita was a controversial character and a member of what was considered the quite shocking Bloomsbury Group. She and her husband had an open marriage both scandalously enjoying same sex relationships. Vita’s partners included the daughter of Alice Keppel, a mistress of King Edward VII and the prominent writer Virginia Woolf. Vita died at Sissinghurst on 2 June 1962, and today the estate is run by the National Trust.
Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire was built in the 1870’s by Ferdinand de Rothschild as a grand French-style country house, it may not have a history as deeply rooted in English history as the Sackville-West’s but nonetheless is quite stunning with beautifully landscaped gardens and parklands.
The Rothschild family came from Germany. Ferdinand was the great grandson of Mayer Amschel Rothschild who was born in Frankfurt in 1744. From his humble origins he became a dealer in rare coins eventually managing the finances of the immensely wealthy Elector of Hesse-Cassel, and then began to issue his own loans amassing a great fortune. His five sons were sent off to grow the family’s fortunes in different parts of Europe and Nathan Mayer Rothschild came to Manchester.
Ferdinand was born in Austria but his mother was English, Nathan Rothschild’s daughter. Ferdinand studied at Cambridge, and when he died in 1898 Waddesdon passed to his sister Alice who had been closely involved with its design.
Waddesdon was famous for its sumptuousness, entertaining its guests on lavish scale one of whom was Queen Victoria who first visited it in 1890. Alice and the Queen became firm friends and Alice renamed her magnificent château in Grasse in the south of France “Villa Victoria” where the Queen also visited. Alice left Waddesdon to her great-nephew, James de Rothschild who bequeathed it to the National Trust in 1957.
The other property with gardens created by a Rothschild are at Exbury in the New Forest, Hampshire.
Exbury was purchased by Lionel de Rothschild, Nathan’s son, in 1919. A passionate gardener, Lionel choose the 2600 acres for its gentle climate and acidic soil which he knew would be perfect for growing rhododendrons, his great love. Lionel grew orchids and developed hundreds of new hybrid rhododendrons and azaleas for which the estate has become famous.
Exbury was one of the key centres for the planning of the D-Day landings during World War II. After the war Lionel’s son, Edmund restored the Gardens, first opening them to the public in 1955 which today are run by the National Trust.
Cliveden near Taplow, about 25 minutes from London, is an elegant estate situated in a commanding position above the River Thames. The gardens we admire today were imagined by another famous family who like the Rothschilds had humble, German beginnings, the Astors.
John Jacob Astor, the son of a butcher was born in 1763, in Waldorf, Germany. He moved to America and established the American Fur Company in 1808 which he built up and sold some 22 years later to focus on his by then extensive real estate portfolio. On his death in 1848 he was said to have been the wealthiest person in the United States, worth about $20 million.
The existing property at Cliveden is the third house on the estate, the other two having been lost in fires. It was commissioned in the 1850’s for the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. It was designed by Sir Charles Barry who also designed the Palace of Westminster. In 1893 it was purchased by John Jacob’s great grandson, William Waldorf “Willy” Astor who had moved his family to England in 1891 announcing America ‘no longer a fit place for a gentleman to live’. Using some of his reputed $100 million fortune he made sweeping alterations to Cliveden’s 375 acres. He became a British subject in 1899, and was made a peer as Baron Astor in 1916 and Viscount Astor in 1917.
In 1903 “Willy” Astor, purchased Hever Castle where he moved to three years later having given Cliveden to his son Waldorf on his marriage to the American-born English socialite Nancy Langhorne who became England’s first female MP. Like his father, Waldorf became a member of Parliament and was publisher of the London Observer from 1915 to 1945.
The Astors were a controversial couple supporting appeasement with Germany during the 1930s. They entertained at Cliveden on a lavish scale and it became a destination for the rich and famous especially between the two world wars when guests included: Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill, Joseph Kennedy, George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi, Amy Johnson, F.D. Roosevelt, H.H. Asquith, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), A.J. Balfour and the writers Henry James, Rudyard Kipling, and Edith Wharton.
Cliveden hit the headlines in 1963 for being the center of what became known as the Profumo Affair. John Profumo, Secretary of State for War met call girl Christine Keeler also involved with a Soviet naval attaché at Cliveden. It was a cause for national security it ended Profumo’s career and nearly brought down the government.
In the 1970’s it was occupied by Stanford University, which used it as an overseas campus. Today it is owned by the National Trust and the house is leased as a five-star hotel.
Hever Castle is perhaps most famous for being the child hood home of Anne Boleyn. It was later owned
by Anne of Cleves, another of Henry VIII’s wives. When William Waldorf Astor purchased it it had fallen into serious decline and Astor invested time, money and imagination into its restoration. He built the Astor Wing and created the lake and gardens.
William Waldorf’s son, John Jacob, inherited the in 1919. John Jacob had represented Great Britain in rackets at the 1908 London Olympics winning gold in the men’s doubles. In 1922 he became MP for Dover and purchased The Times newspaper where he remained chairman until 1959. He was created 1st Baron Astor of Hever in 1956. In 1962 John Jacob placed the Castle in trust for his son Gavin and retired to France where he died in 1971.
In 1963 Gavin opened the Castle and gardens to the public. Following the floods of 1968 and ever increasing vast running costs Hever was sold tin 1983 to its present owner, John Guthrie who has remained dedicated to its preservation.
Maybe you have visited these or other famous grand English country homes, I’d love to hear what you discovered!
Thank you, they are stunning places and I just love their history, quite fascinating!!
I was lucky to be able to study at Cliveden as a Stanford student in 1979. What a place! The driveway was a mile long. We even had our own pub in the basement.
We used to travel on the weekends, hitchhiking all over England, Scotland and Wales. I got the travel bug and it has never left – one of the reasons I now live part of the year in Provence.
Wow lucky you, have you been back and stayed there in the gorgeous hotel it has become?! I am glad England inspired your travels and as you know I totally understand the love of Provence!
Interesting reading and definitely worth visiting. Your descriptions are tempting me to read about these families, I am sure there are plenty of skeletons.
Thank you Kate, let me know if you find some good books about them, I am sure there are a few!