Fame, film & fortune

Date Posted: 12/03/2010

Explore the stories, spectres, and starring roles of some of Britain’s castles, palaces and stately homes.

Conserving reams of history within their walls, the UK’s unrivalled wealth of palaces, castles and stately homes play a significant role in safeguarding Britain’s heritage. More than just bricks and mortar, the appeal of some historic properties lies in the stirring tales of bloody sieges and haunting spectres, or romantic turns of bliss and good fortune. For others, the best point of interest is its notoriety, whether it has played host to a famous guest or starred in a Hollywood blockbuster.

Fame

Perhaps the most recognisable royal abode in the UK is Buckingham Palace, the office of Her Majesty The Queen and the official London residence of Britain’s monarchy since 1837. The 2010 summer opening of the State Rooms will take place from the 27th July to 29th September, when groups can glimpse some of the treasures from the Royal Collection, and catch special exhibition, The Queen’s Year, highlighting various national and ceremonial events. Private evening tours are available and all visits should be pre-booked.

Across the border, the Palace of Holyroodhouse is The Queen’s official residence in Scotland. The former monastery stands at the end of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and is closely associated with historical figures, Mary Queen of Scots, who was married here, and Bonnie Prince Charlie, who used the residence as a temporary headquarters during the 18th-century uprising. Groups of 15 plus can take advantage of discounted admission rates and special interest talks, and may wish to purchase a combined ticket with the Queen’s Gallery.

Staying in Scotland, just north of Dundee is Glamis Castle, the alleged setting for Shakespeare’s Macbeth - “and yet woulds’t wrongly win: thou’dst have great Glamis”. While there is no record of the Bard having actually visited the castle, this famous literary connection continues to fascinate visitors. Groups are welcomed all year round and can enjoy a 50-minute castle tour, Italian Gardens and special exhibitions. Discounted admission is available for groups of 20 plus, with ample coach parking.

Shakespeare enthusiasts can enjoy a visit to Warwick Castle, as the 11th century property reveals its links with the Elizabethan playwright in a new special interest tour, ‘Shakespeare’s Secret’. Launching on the 19th March, groups will be escorted around the Warwickshire castle by a storyteller guide, where they can witness scenes from the Bard’s infamous plays, experience the Battle of Barnet, and unearth the conspiracy surrounding the authorship of some of Shakespeare’s work.

Knebworth House in Hertfordshire is also proud of its literary connections. Home to the Lytton family for over 500 years, famous family member Edward Bulwer Lytton was a Victorian novelist, playwright and politician who immortalised the lines: “It was a dark and stormy night” and “the pen is mightier than the sword”. A close friend of Charles Dickens, who was a regular visitor to Knebworth, the house celebrates this connection with an annual festive reading of A Christmas Carol - taking place this year on the 17th, 18th and 19th December. Pre-booked groups of 20 or more can enjoy a house or garden tour, with discounted admission rates.

Celebrating its famous former resident, Blenheim Palace’s themed tour ‘The Unknown Winston Churchill’ offers groups a refreshing insight into the life of the ex-prime minister, revealing alternative sides to his personality as painter, orator, writer and family man. Born at the Oxfordshire residence in November 1874, visitors can see Churchill’s birth room and view an exhibition dedicated to the great parliamentarian.

Famous faces will be brought back to life once again in 2010, as Hampton Court Palace in Surrey hosts a series of Henry’s Women Weekends, based on the infamous marriages of Tudor king, Henry VIII. Confirmed dates include Katherine of Aragon (2nd to 5th April), Jane Seymour (24th July), and Anne Boleyn (28th to 30th August). Look out for Historic Royal Palaces’s Fanfare newsletter and website updates for further details.

Film

Visiting a historic property with links to the silver screen makes for a different and exciting experience for any movie buff or period film fanatic. A number of residences have already cottoned on to this, and many provide exclusive tours, talks and special exhibitions based solely on this starry-eyed theme.

2005 blockbuster, Pride & Prejudice, starring Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen, highlights several English stately homes, including 18th century Palladian mansion, Basildon Park in Berkshire, which stages the film’s opulent ballroom scenes and Darcy and Elizabeth’s first meeting at ‘Netherfield’; and Burghley House in Lincolnshire, portrayed as ‘Rosings’, the home of Lady Catherine de Bourgh (played by Dame Judi Dench). Chatsworth in Derbyshire also features prominently as Darcy’s Pemberley home, showcasing its grand exterior and impressive sculpture gallery.

Chatsworth has played host to several popular feature films in recent years, including new release, Wolfman, starring Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro, where the estate was transformed into a gothic horror scene; and 2008 period drama The Duchess, which brought to life the fascinating story of Duchess Georgiana, who married into Chatsworth’s Devonshire family in the 18th century. For the first time this year, visitors to Chatsworth will see the life and tastes of Georgiana reflected in new permanent displays of artwork and furniture she commissioned or acquired. A number of group benefits are available for parties of 15 or more, including special admission rates, bespoke packages and free familiarisation visits.

The highly-anticipated release of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland this month is coinciding with the opening of the ‘Alice in Wonderland Experience’ at Antony House, near Plymouth, which provided the only ‘real’ location in the film. Open now until the 31st October, groups can tunnel through a curious rabbit hole which opens into an enchanting garden, follow a butterfly trail to glimpse the views and vistas that inspired Burton, and join in lawn croquet and the Mad Hatter’s tea parties on weekends and bank holidays. Group visits must be pre-booked.

National Trust property, Ham House in Surrey, will be celebrating its 400th anniversary throughout the year with a variety of special events. A key film location in The Young Victoria (2009), which narrates the rise of Queen Victoria’s ascension to the throne, Ham House poses as Kensington Palace, where the famous sovereign was born. On-site coach parking is available along with a range of special-interest tours for groups.

Similarly, Belvoir Castle on the Lincolnshire / Leicestershire border provided a stand-in for both Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle in The Young Victoria. Windsor Great Park was substituted for Belvoir’s impressive grounds, while the property’s King’s Room was used as Victoria and Albert’s honeymoon suite. Both Belvoir Castle and Burghley House are part of Hidden England’s collection of historic houses, which also includes Belton House, Doddington Hall, Grimsthorpe Castle, and Rockingham Castle. All located within an hour’s drive of one another, groups have the option of combining visits with more than one property. Group facilities and special rates are available.

One of England’s most iconic landmarks, The Tower of London, plays a key role in 2008 motion picture, The Other Boleyn Girl, as it bears witness to the execution of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. However it was English Heritage property, Dover Castle in Kent which provided the location for this particular scene, and all the windows in the keep yard were fitted with false fronts to appear Tudor rather than Napoleonic. Visitors to the castle in 2010 can visit the recently-opened Great Tower, transporting groups into the splendor of medieval courtly life. Also featured in The Other Boleyn Girl and less than two hours from Dover Castle is Knole, whose internal courtyards and classic deer park were used to depict Tudor London.

For fans of both the original Brideshead Revisited and the 2008 re-make, a visit to York’s Castle Howard is a must. The ‘High South’ upper level where much of the filming took place, is now home to special exhibition, Brideshead Restored, where groups can see the film set close-up, explore the making of both films and compare the old and new productions. Parties of 12 plus are entitled to discounted entry rates with free admission for the organiser and coach driver.

Visitors to Powderham Castle in Devon may recognise the stunning staircase hall from the Oscar-nominated film Remains of the Day starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, with its blue painted walls and intricate roccoco plasterwork. Groups can enjoy the scenic surroundings of Powderham, the 600 year old family home of the Earl and Countess of Devon, set in a beautiful deer park by the river Exe.

Little known Stokesay Court, a late Victorian Shropshire mansion, came under the spotlight following the 2007 production of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Further to the film’s release, groups can now enjoy prearranged escorted tours, with the chance to view its featured rooms along with the grotto, lake and infamous fountain where Keira Knightly took a dip. Tours cost £14 per person for groups of 30 plus and include morning coffee or afternoon tea.

Fortune

Whether a residence has prospered from good fortune through the ages, or conceals a spine-chilling and bloody past, the stories which emerge when visiting Britain’s castles, palaces and stately homes often bring a property to life.

With most of the family marrying for money, Haddon Hall in Derbyshire has retained its affluence. In the 1560s, heiress Dorothy Vernon eloped with a young man, John Manners, on the eve of her sister’s engagement ball. The lovers were married and the estate passed through them to the Manners family who have retained possession ever since. Offering discounted rates for groups of 15 plus, Haddon holds events throughout the year, including special event weekends hosted by The Tudor Group; In My Lord and Lady’s Chamber (12th and 13th June), and Science, Folklore and Magic (18th and 19th September).

Wealth and riches aside, the Pennington Family, who have resided at Cumbria’s Muncaster Castle for over 800 years, attribute their good fortune to a bowl known as the Luck of Muncaster. Presented to the family by Henry VI following his defeat at the Battle of Hexham, legend cites that: “As long as the bowl remains unriven, Pennington’s from Muncaster never shall be driven”. Muncaster offers a variety of group packages, with discounts available for prebooked parties.

Muncaster isn’t the only residence to credit an object of the past with its good fortune. Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye has placed its most treasured possession for visitors to behold in the grand drawing room. The Fairy Flag is chronicled in clan history as having saved the MacLeod’s from defeat on numerous occasions when unfurled in battle, and the MacLeod Chiefs have maintained that the flag was passed to their ancestors by a fairy. Discounted rates are available for the popular seal boat trips and entry to the castle and gardens for groups of ten plus.

For groups who like to balance the enchantment of myth with solid fact, a visit to Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland can provide the best of both. Fabled as the legendry site of Sir Lancelot’s castle, Joyous Garde, in reality the fortress ascended to prominence during Anglo-Saxon times as the capital of Northumbria. With a long history of warfare, Bamburgh was the first castle to fall to cannon fire in 1464 during the Wars of the Roses.

Less than 30 minutes away, Chillingham Castle has also seen its fair share of conflict, described by Sir Walter Scott as having, “the true rust of the Baron’s Wars”. Remaining relatively untouched since its combating days, rumours of ghostly sightings continue to dog the castle, which offers ghost tours all year round by arrangement.

Bodelwyddan Castle in Denbighshire, north Wales offers private ghost walks for groups of up to 30 people, allowing visitors to learn more of the property’s spooky inhabitants. Spectral sightings include a soldier in one of the galleries, alluding to the castle’s past as an officer’s mess and recuperation centre during World War One. Another unusual feature dating back to the Great War is Bodelwyddan’s training trenches. Located in the grounds of the castle, the trenches prepared newly recruited soldiers for the conflict of battle.

Dating back to the 13th century, when King John eased his fretful conscience by presenting a gift of land to the Cistercian Monks, Beaulieu Abbey later endured Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, which left only the monk’s refectory and lay brother’s dormitory still standing. When ownership passed into the Wriothesley family in 1538, the site was altered into a modest manor house, as the gatehouse became known as Beaulieu Palace and later, the Palace House. Groups can enjoy a full day at the Hampshire site, exploring the abbey and enjoying a guided tour of historic Palace House.

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