I associate the National Trust with many things – history, beautiful gardens, hill farming, scones and jam. But not so much with views on unconventional sexuality.
Yet in their latest members’ magazine that’s exactly what they’re doing, with a fascinating piece called ‘Prejudice and Pride’ on the less conventional people to have lived in their properties over the centuries.
There’s an initial, more general article by author Sarah Waters which explains how a better understanding of the challenges facing some former residents helps us to understand the places themselves. And that’s followed by a series of mini biographies of some of the more unconventional figures themselves, linking them to the various National Trust properties where they lived and loved.
As you might expect, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West loom large, not least because the National Trust now owns several of the properties (Sissinghurst, Knole, Monk’s House) they were associated with. But there are also some less well-known figures, such as actress Ellen Terry’s daughter Edy (Smallhythe Place), 19th century MP William Bankes (Kingston Lacy), and theatrical designer Oliver Messel (Nymans). More of a cop-out is Henry Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey, who seems to have been labelled as gay (both at the time, and now) simply because his marriage failed and he enjoyed dressing up.
However, apart from that it’s an intriguing exploration of a subject that’s too often swept under the carpet. I particularly liked Ms Waters’ comments about the many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of servants living and working in these properties over the years, who struggled to hide their own unconventional relationships. Overall, hats off to the National Trust for a sensitive and unsensational article.
After trying and failing to get in on Easter Saturday, yesterday we had another go, and this time got parked nice and early and were scratching at the main castle door just as it opened.
The morning was damp and drizzly so it was the ideal place to stomp round and explore – and there seems to be more to explore every time we go. The National Trust are restoring/renovating slowly but surely; this time they’d painted the library, re-hung the vast hanging lantern over the hall, and opened up a whole new section on an upper floor. This required a good head for heights since the staircase up to it was quite precipitous, but there were some nice views out of the windows and a sudden glimpse of a stained glass roof-light that would be completely hidden from anywhere else.
The castle is full of nooks, crannies and quirks like that and is thoroughly fascinating to go round. We love the story that James Dawson, the Liverpool surgeon who built it, couldn’t actually live in it full-time until after his wife died because she disliked the place so much! I have to admit that as a cosy, practical home it would probably be terrible – it’s so big it must be almost impossible to heat, and the flat ‘castle-y’ roofs let in the rain. But as a stately pile it takes some beating.
By late morning the rain had stopped and the sun was starting to break through the cloud, so we had a brief walk down the edge of the lake, to a new jetty they’ve just built to allow the lake cruisers to moor up. It’s a good idea, because it means foot passengers can access the castle direct from Ambleside, without having to navigate the narrow, twisty and busy network of lanes – or that too-small car park. Next time we might very well do the same.
Another Saturday, another trip out, but on foot this time. We donned boots, marched down through Bowness and got the ferry across the lake as foot passengers. A short walk through the woods along the side of the lake brought us to the old ‘viewing station’ at Claife, newly refurbished and re-opened by the National Trust.
The station itself is still a complete ruin, and parts of it are so unsafe that it’s fenced off. But you can stroll up through the courtyard (with a nice café), past the remnants of the Victorian shrubbery, to the platform at the top.
In Victorian times the shrubbery was deliberately planted very thick so that only tantalising glimpses were visible, until the visitors reached the top and could suddenly see the vista unveiled – in some cases through coloured glass windows which changed the ‘season’ they were viewing: yellow for a sunny summer’s day, blue for the winter chill.
Those Victorians knew a thing or two, because the view, even today with half the shrubbery and all the stained glass missing, is quite simply stunning. The lake stretches out at your feet – a gentle, pastoral scene looking south, and much more mountainous to the north, where the Ill Bell ridge punctuates the skyline. When the National Trust complete the conservation work it’s going to be magnificent. In the meantime, it’s well worth a visit – and completely free!