3 March 1988
In the coming summer months many of you will be visiting stately homes or National Trust properties, and will be called upon to shell out a few quid for a guide to the house wherever you go – a guide which will never be consulted again but is too expensive to throw away. To avoid accumulating these wasteful publications, I have devised a room-by-room guide which will fit more or less any house you are likely to go round. Cut it out, keep it and use it again and again.
The House: The grounds of the present house were given as a gift by Elizabeth I to a financier who had given her a good discount. He built a grand Tudor mansion which was pulled down in 1786 by his great-grandson when coal was discovered on the estate and replaced by the present house. The family fell on hard times in Victorian days, when the coal ran out. The house was given to the nation in 1948, though an elderly aunt of the family is still believed to live in the west wing. She has not been spotted since Christmas.
The Grounds: The third Earl was an expert botanist and brought back many trees from the Himalayas to give the park its present wooded character; presumably there is now a patch in the Himalayas which is absolutely bare of trees. The grotto was designed and built by the fourth Earl, who lived in it after he went mad. The sunken gardens are most unusual, as they were caused by mining subsidence, and so is the lake.
The Hall: The elegant entrance hall was described by Walpole as "perhaps one of the best things in this part of the country." The panelling is original. The marble mantelpiece is very fine if you like that sort of thing; note the complete absence of a fireplace. The identity of the sitter in the portrait over it is not yet established.
The Dining-Room: Dominated by the vast dining table and 1,128-piece dinner service, the dining-room has no door large enough to have let that table in. Experts now think it was probably constructed inside the room itself. The journey from the kitchen to the dining room is estimated conservatively to take five minutes 15 seconds. Experts now think that nobody above a certain rank in the 18th century ever tasted hot food. The so-called Portrait of a Lady is a portrait of an unidentified lady.
The Blue Room: Everything in the Blue Room is blue, a whim of the fourth Earl's wife. The picture on the wall is a copy of an unknown 18th century view of the Sahara desert, re-painted in blue.
The Pink Room: The fourth Earl hated blue and everything in the Pink Room is pink, including the copy of Gainsborough's "Blue Boy". Before he went mad, he used to sup alone here on lobsters and strawberries.
The Chinese Room: Nothing in the Chinese Room is Chinese, but it was all manufactured in Birmingham to make it look as if it was. That thing in the window seat is an elderly volunteer guide who has fallen asleep.
The Old Staircase: Is just an old staircase.
The Great Bedroom: Has a four-poster bed. You can skip the great bedroom.
Bedrooms one, two, three and four: And the same goes for bedrooms one, two, three and four.
The Nursery: The Nursery contains many games which nobody now knows how to play, and many games which we know how to play but none of which are anything like complete.
The Great Bedroom: Somebody seems to have taken a wrong turning – we've been in here once already. Let's try down this little staircase here.
The Forgotten Elderly Aunt's Little Bed-Sitting Room Hidden Behind the Dado: Oops, sorry, madam.
The Back Staircase: Blimey, bit creepy down here. Anyone fancy a cuppa? Let's go back, then.
The Old Staircase: Same old staircase.
The Library: Hold on, here's a room we missed. Oh no, as you were, it's just full of books.
The Stables Tea Rooms: They've done it up nicely in here. Mark you, I don't exactly call that a wide choice of Danish pastries. Still, it's nice to sit down and all.
The Gift Shop: Anybody want some potpourri, or home-made chutney with a fancy label? No? Just a few postcards, then.
The Car Park: On the site of the former asparagus beds. Charmingly near the main road, and freedom and escape ...