Historic houses hibernate – at least a lot of them do. They shut down for the winter, cover their furniture in dust sheets and doze the dark days away. But the return of spring brings them back to life. They open up like spring flowers, so now’s the time to visit them in all their finery. Here’s my top five houses to see this year.
West London, has more than its fair share of fabulous houses, but Osterley Park, a Robert Adam masterpiece on the Piccadilly Line, is my favourite. You may recognise it from its recent starring role in television’s Dr Thorne.
Must see: the drawing-room. The walls are lined with gold silk damask and the ceiling is decorated with pink, blue, and gold ostrich feathers set in an oval surrounded by octagonal coffers. Horace Walpole said it was ‘worthy of Eve before the fall’.
Strawberry Hill was built in the eighteenth century by Horace Walpole, the son of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister. He wrote the first gothic novel The Castle of Otranto and turned his house not a neo-gothic castle.
Must see: the gallery. It’s one of the most spectacular rooms in London – fifty-six feet long, thirteen feet wide and seventeen feet high, hung with crimson damask and with a ceiling copied from one on the side aisles of the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey.
Get the train from Waterloo to Strawberry Hill station -the journey takes about thirty minutes.
North London’s best known historic house is Kenwood House. Set at the top of Hampstead Heath, this is another design by Robert Adam.
Must see: the library. It has a neoclassical form with a decorative frieze and ceiling paintings by Antonio Zucchi, and the recent restoration of the house has restored it to Adam’s original colour scheme.
It’s home to the Iveagh Bequest of important paintings by Rembrandt, Gainsborough and Reynolds, and it’s free to visit.
A bit further north is Tudor Hatfield House, built by Robert Cecil, first Earl of Salisbury, in 1611, home to the Cecil family for 400 years and to Elizabeth I before she came to the throne.
Must see: the Long Gallery. It’s 170 feet long and runs the entire length of the south front of the house, with an astounding carved ceiling.
Take the train to Hatfield station which is opposite the gates to the house. A ticket entitles you to visit again for free for the rest of the season.
Eltham Palace is the most recent of my chosen houses. Built in 1933 by Stephen Courtauld ( younger brother of Samuel Courtauld who founded the Courtauld Institute) and his wife, Virginia. it’s an Art Deco masterpiece.
Must see: the entrance hall. The circular entrance hall, lit from above by a glazed dome, is by Swedish designer Rolf Engströmer. The walls are covered with a veneer of Australian blackbean wood decorated with figurative marquetry of a Viking and a Roman soldier, set against background scenes from Italy and Scandinavia.
All these houses have wonderful gardens and rather nice cafés where you can sit outside and enjoy the spring air. What could be nicer?