The Destruction of Great Country Houses

 

At first glance, tourism and “death taxes” don’t appear to have much in common.  Most people enjoy touring; no one enjoys taxes.  Yet, in the twentieth century, Britain found a way to link the two.

The financial costs of World War I nearly crippled the British government; World War II left it entirely bankrupt and heavily in debt to the United States (a debt that couldn’t be paid off until 2006). Most regular citizens were impoverished by these wars, so the only people who had any sort of wealth were the aristocrats.  Accordingly, a necessary but crushing tax was levied on inheritances to the tune of 80% of everything a noble owned.

Unfortunately, the aristocrats’ wealth was bound up in things like art.  They just didn’t have cash to pay taxes or to maintain their great houses.

Not all owners were savvy or they did not have sufficient resources to succeed.  In the decade between 1945 and 1955, five hundred country houses were simply demolished.  Derwent Hall and the village surrounding it were flooded in order to make a reservoir; the foundations now lie at the bottom of a lake.  Streatlem Castle was used for target practice by the Territorial Army.  Aston Clinton was torn down to build a vocational training center. The rotunda of Nutall Temple was dynamited to make way for the M1 motorway.  By 1955, they were disappearing at the rate of five per week. Thorington Hall was pulled down as well: Thoringtondestroyed

Some estates like Chatsworth survived because they learned to cultivate tourism:

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Chatsworth

Longleat in Wiltshire added a safari park to the estate to attract families: Longleat

Others like Highclere Castle eventually found film makers who would rent their houses for period dramas such as Downton Abbey:

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Highclere Castle

Castle Howard gained fame and tourism because of the film series Brideshead Revisited:Castle Howard

Now most great country houses survive precisely because their owners have found the path from taxes to tourism.

Next time:  A Ramble Around Castle Howard

Photo credits for Thornington Hall, Longleat, Castle Howard:  open sources

Highclere and Chatsworth photos: Nancy C. Parrish

 

My book The Downton Era is now available through Barnes&Noble, Amazon, and other online sites.

 

Amazing Avebury

Seventeen miles north of Stonehenge is the charming village of Avebury, itself the site of an ancient stone circle that may rival its more famous neighbor in terms of interest.

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Imagine this.  You and your friends are given shovels and asked to dig a henge (large circular bank with an internal ditch) that is nearly four football fields wide and ten football fields long.  After finishing that bracing task, your hearty crew is given axes (for cutting trees into roller shapes) and asked to roll 98 stones–some weighing up to 40 tons in weight—and set them into extra holes that you dug in your spare time.  A 40-ton stone is about the weight of 20 cars.

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Did people 6,000 year ago not have enough to keep them occupied?  Couldn’t they have invented cricket earlier?  Why would they undertake such a massive construction project? Clearly this was not a leisure sport. Of the many theories, the most serious one suggests these people used the site to practice rituals observing alignments of the stars, moon, and sun.  Another interesting suggestion is that the stone circle might have been viewed as an axis mundi—a marker indicating the center of the world.

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So feel good that instead of using a spade and axe, you can pay the National Trust a modest admission fee that helps protect these stones from souvenir hunters.  Allow yourself to wander among the stones and feel awed by what the ancients were able to do.

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And before you leave, have a nice pub lunch at the Red Lion and treat yourself to a saunter of the side streets to see their lovely gardens.  Perhaps you can watch a cricket match at the local pitch as well.

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Next Time:  The Destruction of Great Country Houses

Photo Credits:

Aerial View–Google/Open Source

Individual Views–Nancy C. Parrish

 

 

A Pilgrimage to the United Kingdom. Chapter 1: You Arrive

You’re finally arriving in the United Kingdom.  Good for you.  You deserve it. You’ve perhaps even taken British Air to give your legs a bit more room and your ears an auditory tune-up.  Anyway, ridiculously happy, you float down into Heathrow where Terminal 5 welcomes you, Mary Poppins-style, with a canopy of colored umbrellas.

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You linger over a cup of coffee and a croissant for an hour, gaining your sea legs, studying the “Fly Emirates” posters, noting signs directing people to the London train, or just people-watching: Arabs in exotic native dress, Norwegians headed to the Alps with skis bundled under their arms, gorgeous Italian women with Skycaps carrying their mountains of luggage.  You genuinely see how you are a part of the world when you take time in an airport.

Next, you pick up your car.  It’s probably a model you’ve never heard of before—say, an Ateca—and though you have been mentally preparing for it, it remains a shock to see that the steering wheel is firmly structured onto the righthand side of the dashboard.  Nothing concentrates the mind or makes for a better driver than driving on the left side of the road.  Fortunately you begin on a motorway (their interstate highway), so you can creep along in the slow lane at 40 mph until you get the feel of things.   Later we’ll discuss the thrills posed by small roads.

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Out of the thousands of beautiful places to visit, you have wisely chosen Wiltshire and its lovely “downs” (rolling hills) seventy miles due west of Heathrow.

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Even a short list of more official attractions in the county stuns:  Stonehenge and Avebury, Salisbury Cathedral, lovely Stourhead and Bowood estates, and charming Lacock Village to name only a few.

Wiltshire is the home to hundreds of thatched roof/stone cottages, enchanting gardens lush with flowers, and elegant horse estates.

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Your base is the small village of Pewsey.  The central intersection memorializes Alfred the Great who united early tribes into the Kingdom of Wessex (East=Essex; west=Wessex; south=Sussex; no, I don’t know the north term).

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Your Air B&B is Southcott Cottage.

 

Settle in.  The pleasure is just beginning.

 

Next Time:  Avebury

Photo Credits:  Nancy Parrish

Oxford and Its “Dreaming Spires”

If you ever want to read a Romantic poem designed entirely to make you pine away for the English countryside, Matthew Arnold’s 1865 “Thyrsis” is a winner.  In three lines, he single-handedly created the phrase that fueled the tourism industry for the town of Oxford for the next century and a half:

 

And that sweet city with her dreaming spires, 

She needs not June for beauty’s heightening, 

Lovely all times she lies, lovely to-night!—

Just say “dreaming spires” to most Anglophiles and their eyes mist over while they look off into the distance, heaving a long, wistful sigh.

In fact, Oxford has a Bridge of Sighs (an urban bridge based on its Venetian elder):

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Its buildings echo with the footsteps of famous writers.  You, too, can sit in the Eagle and Child Pub (locally called the Bird and Baby) and have a pint right where C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the others in their group The Inklings sat and read from The Narnia Chronicles, Lord of the Rings,or other works.

Eagle and Child

You can watch scullers on the River Isis:

Rowing Oxford

And if you are a book-lover, you will be drawn like a drug addict to Blackwell’s Booksellers. You fall silent when you enter the door and see the heavy wood beams and walls of books.  It is an English Temple to Reading.

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So, yes, at the end of the day, you’ll agree that Matthew Arnold got it right.  Oxford is a town out to capture your imagination.

Oxford in snow

Next time:  Photos and thoughts from my August 2019 ramblings about Wiltshire

Photo credits:  open sources online