Early on Sunday morning, 40 intrepid travellers set forth for the Lake District, pausing only for a hearty breakfast at the beautifully refurbished Nag’s Head in Garthmyl, before reaching Tabley House, near Knutsford, the main break in our journey northwards. Billed as ‘the finest Palladian mansion in the North-West’, our members felt immediately at home: the upper and lower floors of the house, now owned by the University of Manchester, are run as a nursing home. The middle floor, however, accessed by the splendid double-curving external staircase, houses the magnificent Leicester family collection of paintings and furniture. After a tour of the gardens, the coach departed for our hotel – the impressive Netherwood Hotel in Grange over Sands set in its well-kept grounds overlooking Morecombe Bay – where a cream tea awaited us to be followed, later, by a wine reception in the elegant public rooms and a 3-course dinner.
The following morning the group set out for Lake Windermere where an 80-minute circular cruise to Ambleside had been arranged. The splendid scenery and a light breeze made for an enjoyably relaxing trip. After lunch in Bowness our destination was one of the Elizabethan glories of the North, Levens Hall, with its beautiful gardens and world-famous topiary. A great end to our second day.
On Wednesday, we had the chance to appreciate the more dramatic scenery of the area as our unflappable driver drove through the Kirkstone Pass, and alongside Ullswater to Dalemain Mansion, part medieval, part Tudor, part Georgian, with its award winning gardens. As we went round the house, we were reminded that the upper classes never throw anything out – keeping the tat as well as the antiques. The main attraction of Dalemain, however, is as the world centre for marmalade springing from a late-seventeenth connection to the world championships of today. The gift shop had tiered shelves of jars of marmalade of every description, many of which disappeared into the bags of our members. Speeding down the M6, we next visited Sizergh Castle, our first NT property mercifully unadorned with ropes and the usual thistles. Another Elizabethan glory with some of the best wooden panelling in the country, the gardens were equally stunning and fully appreciated at the end of a busy day.
Our final day in the Lake District began with something of a mystery tour. Our visit to John Ruskin’s house on the shores of Coniston Water having been cancelled at the last minute because of contradictory information about the advisability of taking our coach down the narrow country lanes, Leighton Hall in north Lancashire, had generously agreed to open up especially for us, our coach being directed to reverse from the coach park through the Hall gates (with barely an inch to spare either side) to the front of the house where the present owner, Mrs Reynolds, was waiting to greet us. Purchased in 1822 by the Gillows, the renowned furniture makers of Lancaster, the house has remained in the family to this day, Mrs Reynolds and her housekeeper regaling us with highly entertaining stories about the house and family, finally ending up in the Music Room where Kathleen Ferrier had given her last private recital. The visit proved such a success that ‘more mystery tours next year, please’ was the frequent request.
As there were no lunch facilities available, we departed a little earlier than we may have wished for Holker Hall, owned by a junior branch of the Devonshire family. Gutted by fire in 1871, Lord Frederick Cavendish had rebuilt in greater and grander pseudo-Elizabethan style, the sandstone walls glowing a reddish-brown in the sunlight. The interior decorations and furrnishings – described by Simon Jenkins as ‘almost indigestibly rich’ – are indeed sumptuous. But the sunlight and our freedom to wander at out leisure, despite their size, made the rooms seem homely where one could live quite happily, if one had the money. A tour of the equally splendid gardens completed our visit.
On the day of our departure, we headed straight for Tatton Park, where tea, coffee and ‘a tray of light bites’ awaited. The weather had finally turned and a little light rain was experienced but this did not deter any of the group from visiting the spectacular gardens ablaze with colour. Alas, the house, the second of our NT properties, contained the familiar ropes, thistles and dimly-lit rooms which, after our previous house visits, could have been made much more interesting. Finally, we stopped once again at the Nag’s Head for a substantial supper before returning to Aberystwyth – tired but happy.