Mrs Hudson’s Christmas Shopping


Do you leave it all to the last minute? The Christmas shopping, I mean? I do. Don’t worry, you still have plenty of time to catch lots of Christmas Fairs in historic settings where you will get original gifts and sometimes a glass of hot wine and carols thrown in. Here are my top 10 tips:

Doddington Hall, Lincoln

The Bauble Barn is a fantastica of Christmas decorations, everything you need to make your celebrations sparkle. Next door is the Toy Box, offering traditional toys and games. You’ll be unable to resist popping in to Doddington’s other shops for gifts for the home, outdoors, cycle accessories and lots of seasonal food and drink. All right next to the tall Tudor house where there are special booked tours on December weekends.


Doddington Hall

The Alnwick Garden, Northumberland

Apart from the fabulous light show in the frosty winter at Alnwick Garden, there is also a regular Christmas Fair throughout December with late shopping on Wednesdays till 8pm. It’s free to enter (unless you go to the Garden as well) and your shopping angst will be lightened with live seasonal music and singing.  Gifts are locally sourced from the bounty of Northumberland so you’ll find local preserves, tweeds, crafts and the famous Lindisfarne Mead and liqueurs. 3 & 4 Dec, 17 to 22 Dec 10.30-5pm, Wed till 8pm.


The Alnwick Garden

Ripley Castle, Yorkshire

The castle courtyard will be filled with 155 stalls selling a huge range of gifts and stocking fillers from 1 to 4 December. You’ll need plenty of time to browse so you’ll be able to make the most of the restaurants or celebrate your success in the champagne bar. Park in the village for free and catch the shuttle bus to the castle any time after 10.30.


Ripley Castle

Leeds Castle, Kent

The Leeds Castle Christmas Market is a much anticipated annual event covering the Cedar Lawn overlooking the Castle. Go here not just for shopping but for a great family day out, there are fairground rides and reindeer, birds of prey and music to keep you cheery. You can’t fail to find all your Christmas presents here but don’t miss the view of the castle in the winter twilight from the top of the big wheel. Open 3 & 4, 10 & 11, 17 & 18, 22 & 23 December, 10 – 5pm.


Leeds Castle

Stirling Castle, Tayside

The annual Christmas Fayre is held in the Great Hall at Stirling Castle on Tuesday 6 December at 6pm. There will be stalls for local crafts, food and drink, perfect for bringing a truly Scottish flavour to your Christmas. There is an entrance fee of £6 per adult but that gives you access to probably the greatest Renaissance interior in Scotland, a fine setting for your shopping with Christmas music as well.


Stirling Castle

Burghley House, Lincolnshire

The dedicated Christmas Shop opens all month until 20 December in the Old Brewhouse, Wednesday to Sunday, so you have plenty of time to do your shopping.  There will be an exciting range of gifts and decorations and parking and entrance is free. You can lunch in the Orangery café or revive yourself with strong coffee or tea.


Burghley House

Holkham Hall, Norfolk

The new shop in the courtyard at Holkham in Norfolk is definitely worth a visit for its Christmas range this year. There is a selection of works by local artists and artisans as well as gifts for dogs and dog lovers, so finding something unique will not be a problem. Many of the Christmas decorations and candles available will also feature in this year’s decoration of Holkham Hall.

Christmas at Holkham.jpg

Holkham Hall

Aberglasney Gardens, Carmathenshire

Over 100 stallholders gather at Aberglasney on 2, 3 & 4 December offering crafts, homeware, toiletries and clothing.  Warm up with mulled wine or spiced apple juice and a mince pie, included in your £8.50 adult entrance fee.  There are events for kids and I hear that Santa may be hiding out in the exotic Ninfarium glasshouse at weekends.


Aberglasney Winter Fair

Sandon Hall, Staffordshire

Now in its fourth year, the Sandon Hall Christmas Fair is generating a buzz.  It’s a great day out with stalls selling gifts, food and toys, carol singers and a live band playing Christmas hits all in this lovely Jacobean mansion with its 50 acre gardens. There is mulled wine and mince pies and a licenced bar. Head for Sandon for the weekend of 3 & 4 December between 10 and 5pm.


Sandon Hall

Tyntesfield, Somerset

A weekend food and craft Fair for Christmas at the Home Farm at Tyntesfield is a good way to make sure your gifts are truly local. You’ll find everything from fine cheeses to jewellery and ceramics to tempt you. Turn up between 10 and 3pm on 3 & 4 December, free entrance.


Tyntesfield House, A Victorian Christmas



The hour has changed bringing dark evenings and I’m pulling on gloves for Halloween and bonfire night but I’m also looking forward to more outdoor fun at Christmas.   You’ll agree that gardens can be gorgeous at any time of year but if you really want to be blown away and create an experience that everyone will remember go out after dark for a light festival this Christmas.  Here are 6 of the best:

  1. Longleat, Wiltshire

It’s 50 years since the Lions of Longleat first came to Wiltshire and this year to celebrate the real lions will be backed up by brightly lit lantern cousins.  The whole menagerie will be there in what promises to be Europe’s largest lantern festival and one you absolutely should not miss.  If the eight majestic lion lanterns don’t wow you then wait for the glowing Beatrix Potter figures around the house.  Longleat’s Festival of Light runs from 11 November to 2 January.


Illuminated lions at Longleat

  1. The Alnwick Garden, Northumberland

Christmas is my favourite time of year at the Alnwick Garden, when it is all dancing with light you can really appreciate the architectural brilliance of the gardens and the majesty of the Grand Cascade.  ‘Sparkle’ is a light installation that will illuminate all the arbours and mature trees  between 1 November and 31 December but the high spot is the Grand Lantern Parade led by Spark the light-wielding band whose glowing drums will bring the atmosphere of the lighted garden up into the town on 18th December between 5.15 and 6.30pm.


Alnwick Sparkle in the Garden

  1. Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

This year is Blenheim’s first ever festive trail of lights.  Between 25 November and 2 January the gardens will be ablaze with decorative lights and light installations which lead you through a series of stories to help visitors enjoy Blenheim’s spectacular formal gardens and part of the Capability Brown parkland in an entirely new way.  It promises to make the great outdoors magical and everything suggests that you’ll not regret pulling on your woolly hat.


Blenheim Palace

  1. Stockeld Park, Yorkshire

Stockeld Park have been running Christmas adventures for many years so they are really good at it and the Enchanted Forest will not disappoint.  Different sections of the light installations in the woodland can be enjoyed on foot or from the skating rink or the Nordic ski trail.  The highlight is definitely the illuminated yew maze.  Firstly, its vast – nearly 2 miles of paths and 8 separate lighted zones with towers, bridges and surprises and secondly, it is thrilling feeling just a little bit lost in the dark in a sparkling labyrinth surrounded by twinkling lights.


Stockeld Park

  1. Fountains Abbey NT, Yorkshire

At Fountains, the National Trust host Music and Lights between 26 November and 18 December.  The trees are twinkling and the columns of the great abbey building flicker with rainbow streams of light.  The enclosing valley feels very dark and magical and nothing beats the atmosphere of walking in the dark back towards the lighted abbey and hearing a choir sing – even recorded plainsong does the trick.


Fountains Abbey


  1. Powis Castle NT, Powys

From Sunday to Tuesday from 27 November to 13 December the gardens at Powis Castle will be transformed into a magical wonderland with coloured light displays to show off the best of the formal gardens, terraces and courtyard.  The gardens are open from 5 to 8.30pm.


Powis Castle Gardens


If you like walking (Walpole-the-dog and I can’t wait to get out and about), autumn is the time for you.  Luckily Britain has an amazing collection of woodland gardens where the colours this year will be vibrant, thanks to a damp spring and a long warm summer.  Don’t forget to catch a falling leaf for luck.  Here are my top tips for Autumn 2016.

Alphabetically, I’m starting at Askham Hall in Cumbria, a garden surrounding a battlemented tower house that boasts woodland walks and nature trails as well as plenty of topiary.  You can warm up in the excellent Kitchen Garden café if kicking through leaves hasn’t got your blood flowing already.


Askham Hall, Cumbria

Bodnant Gardens in Wales offers 60 acres of dazzling autumn colours particularly in the Lower Gardens around the lake.  Take a walk in The Glades where you can enjoy the Japanese acers and be awestruck by the towering American conifers in the Dell and Far End.  The sweet chestnut on the Top Lawn is one of Bodnant’s champion trees and you might even find one to roast.


Bodnant Gardens, Nr. Colwyn Bay

Castle Howard in Yorkshire is more than just one of the Britain’s most magnificent palaces, the 120 acre arboretum is a reason for a visit all on its own, particularly at this time of year.  A stunning landscape of parkland, lakes and ponds is the backdrop for a collection of more than 6,000 trees from around the world. Walpole and I tend to wander off to explore peaceful hidden glades, but there is also a brilliant playground and home-cooked food in the café.


Castle Howard Arboretum, Yorkshire

Cawdor Castle in Scotland has 5 nature trails of varying lengths, winding through 750 acres of  mixed woodland which is great for walking and hiking.  A wild garden between the Castle and the Cawdor Burn was planted in the 1960s around tall specimen trees which give fine colour at this time of year.


Mushroom gathering at Cawdor Castle, Nairn

The garden created by the 1st Lord Armstrong around his retreat at Cragside in Northumberland is now mature and the tumbling slopes down to the stream have been restored by the National Trust to create a colourful autumn garden and plenty of woodland walks.


Cragside, Northumberland

At Victorian Capesthorne Hall, Cheshire once you have found your way through the Milanese Gates opposite the Chapel, the tranquil gardens are full of unusual 18th century plants, shrubs and trees whose changing colours reflect in the lake.


The lake at Capesthorne Hall, Cumbria

Holker Hall in Cumbria has some of the finest specimen trees in the country and catching the woods on the turn across the parkland is quite a sight.  The mild climate allows the trees to grow tall and you have a good chance of catching sight of deer in the park.


Autumn at Holker Hall, Cumbria

Hergest Croft Gardens in Herefordshire is one of our foremost tree gardens with specimen trees collected by 3 generations of the Banks family.  The dazzling autumn colour of the collections of maples and birches is breathtaking. Reds, yellows, purple and gold leaves glisten throughout the Azalea Garden, Maple Grove and Park Wood.


Hergest Croft Gardens, Herefordshire

Be by the lake at Hever Castle in Kent in autumn and you may catch a late afternoon mist rising up among the changing colours of the maples and birches.  The walk from Two Sisters’ Pool down to the Castle gives you a stunning view of all the different trees, culminating in the beautiful view of the Castle with its Boston Ivy clinging to the walls.


Hever Castle. The grounds in autumn. A garden wall with climbing plants and a small pediment and columns at the end of a garden path.

Plumpton Rocks in Yorkshire, a unique and extraordinary pleasure ground of the 1760s with woodlands set into towering rocks and a man-made lake.  The weathered shapes of the steely grey millstone grit rocks are the perfect contrast to the changing colours of the autumn leaves.  The gardens are newly restored so now is a great time to go.


Plumpton Rocks, Yorkshire

Sherborne Castle in Dorset is another garden around a magnificent lake, this time the work of Capability Brown whose tercentenary it is this year at work in 1753. There are 42 acres of gardens and grounds and the mature trees are at their best in October.  Don’t miss the pale yellow of the gingko. sherborne new castle

Woburn Abbey Gardens  in Bedfordshire are another important garden which has undergone a restoration programme to recreate elements of the gardens created by Humphrey Repton.  The decorative 18th century garden buildings in the Chinese style are particularly beautiful against the colours of autumn.  Book a garden tour for a special insight into the gardens preparation for winter.


The beautifully restored Chinese Dairy at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire

Mrs Hudson’s Top Ten Freebies

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know about Heritage Open Days?  Four days of opportunity to get peek at historic buildings in your local area with lots of activities, visits, tours and places to visit for free.  Visit buildings that are never open and satisfy your curiosity from 8 to 11 September this year, except in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where the dates are different.  I think the whole movement to get people into heritage is inspiring so I’ve picked 10 to get you excited!

Gothic Temple, Stowe Landscape Gardens, Buckingham


The Gothic Temple is one of several buildings owned by The Landmark Trust which are open for visitors.  Normally you have to stay overnight, so this is a great opportunity to check out this most delightful garden building, the last to be added to the landscaped gardens at Stowe by Whig grandee, Lord Cobham in 1741.  The architect, James Gibbs, made all the rooms circular and it has wonderful detailing in the moulded stone pilasters  and plasterwork on the vaulted ceilings.  The central vault is gorgeously decorated with heraldic mosaics. Open Sat 10 Sept,  10.30 – 6pm.

Rockbeare Manor, Exeter

Rockbeare Manor

A large elegant Regency mansion built for the Duntze family, prosperous Exeter merchants in the 1820s.  Now let as a wedding venue, HOD offers a great chance to explore the house, especially its well proportioned dining room and ballroom, to picnic in the 18th century landscaped gardens or to play garden games on the 19th century terraces that frame the house.  Open Sun 11 Sept, 12 – 4pm.

Ashton Gatehouse, Bristol


Another regency gem, Ashton Gatehouse was the entrance to the Smyth family home at Ashton Court, built in the fashionable gothic style in 1805.  The restoration project here is almost complete so it’s a good time to don a hard hat and find out what has been achieved in restoring this pretty building for the community.  Open Sun 11 Sept,  10 – 4pm, book ahead.

Ely Cathedral, Ely


One of the most spectacular medieval buildings in Europe, Ely was once one of the richest cathedral churches in England.  Founded by Etheldreda, one of the most influential women of the early Saxon church, the earliest parts of present building date from 1083.  Find out more over the HOD weekend.  Guided Tours:  Sun 11 Sept, 2 – 3pm, book ahead.



King Charles Tower, Chester

A neat little medieval tower set into the old walls of Chester.  It was here that the powerful town guilds met through the Middle Ages and here that Charles I surveyed the battlefield of Rowton Heath in 1645.  He will have seen the disastrous defeat of the royalist cavalry by the Parliamentary army which led him to abandon Chester, then the last port in royalist hands.  Open Sat 10 & Sun 11 Sept, 10 – 5pm.


Hartlebury Castle, Kidderminster

Hartlebury Castle, the saloon

The palace of the Bishops of Worcester boasts elegant state rooms and the Hurd Library, a rare surviving example of an 18th century scholar bishop’s library of more than 4,500 books.  Join a guided tour of the palace for HOD and get a sneak preview of the newly restored building before it opens to the public officially in 2017.  Sat 10 Sept,  12 – 3pm.

Old Durham Gardens, Durham

OldDurham Gardens

Less than a mile from the city centre is a 17th & 18th century terraced garden laid out around a manor house which was demolished in the 1770s.  A Friends group is restoring the gardens including the walled garden, orchards and a charming gazebo.  Open Sat 10 & Sun 11 Sept, 10 – 4pm, music in the gardens on Sun, 1- 4pm.

Details of all of the above at

Hadfordnos Hall, Conwy


Wales isn’t part of HOD but is having lots of events throughout September and a few openings.  I’m dying to see the restoration at Hafodnos Hall, the valiant rescue of an important Gothic Revival house of the 1860s designed by George Gilbert Scott.  The history of the fire damaged house suggests a charming tale of poetry, sculpture and love.  Open Sun 3 Sept, 2 – 5pm.

The House of Dun, Angus


The equivalent festival in Scotland gives you free entry on specific weekends all through September.  I’ll be heading to The House of Dun where the National Trust for Scotland archaeology volunteers have just unearthed the foundations of an early castle just to the West of the house next to the Erskine family graveyard.  Open Sat 3 & Sun 4 Sept, 12 – 4pm. 

Milford House Collection


Milford House, Armagh

Here’s an oddity.  Milford House is ruinous but an enthusiastic Preservation Trust is determined to rescue it.  For the time being they are showing the contents of the house in an adjacent townhouse and you can enjoy a rather entertaining costumed tour on Sat 10 & Sun 11 Sept, book ahead.

Mrs Hudson’s Holiday Fun

Summer holidays!  Walpole and I are going out and about with lots of families this month to make the most of the outdoors and gather in a bit of history at the same time.  We’re calling it Mission Fun because having fun is aim!  Here are my top 10 best places for a great family day out.

  1. Newby Hall, Yorkshire
Fozzie-1023x1000  Newby Hall

Fozzie now residing at Newby Hall

Award winning Newby Hall just keeps on getting better.  They’ve now given a warm welcome to the collection of teddy bears amassed over a lifetime by TV personality Gyles Brandreth. The collection includes Fozzie from The Muppet Show, Children in Need’s Pudsey Bear, Superted, Paddington and Winnie the Pooh. And there are busy bears , I loved seeing them picnicking, getting married, competing in the Olympics and lots of other silly stuff.  They join the gorgeous 65 dolls houses that arrived at Newby last year and if the weather’s fine, children can still have fun getting wet in the adventure gardens and riding the train.


  1. Ironbridge Gorge Museums, Shropshire
Ironbridge - Enginuity floating a locomotive

Ironbridge – Enginuity floating a locamotive

Spot Abraham Darby’s iconic cast iron bridge and enjoy 10 museums that mark the birth of the Industrial Revolution in a tranquil green valley in Shropshire.  Take the kids here for hands on fun at Enginuity and a taste of real Victorian life (all the treats and none of the child labour) at Blists Hill Victorian Town.  It’s something they’ll never forget.

  1. Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
Alnwick Castle-medium-Dressing-up-in-Knight-s-Quest-2

Alnwick Castle – Dressing up in Knights Quest

A must for all Harry Potter fans who can fly broomsticks and relive both books and films.  Alnwick also has awesome activities for children with lots of dressing up and mediaeval fun that allows them to get on with enjoyment while parents can just chill out, though watch out for the dragon.  This is a true castle with battlement walks and falconry, interesting museums and great ice cream.

  1. Mirehouse, Cumbria
Playground tyre swing Mirehouse

Playground tire swing at Mirehouse

Unexpectedly, I find this quiet pretty 17th century house with literary connections a great place for young families.  It has four woodland playgrounds, a family nature trail to spot wildlife, a heather path maze and rhododendron tunnel to tire young legs, grass banks to roll down, lawns to play endlessly on and a Poetry Walk to reflect upon.  Inside there is a history quiz to follow, a Victorian nursery that all children are encouraged to play in and a “spot the owl” trail.  All simple stuff but the secret is that they just like kids here.

  1. Osborne House, Isle of Wight
magnifying-glasses-at-swiss-cottage Osborne House copyright English Heritage

Magnifying glasses at Swiss Cottage. Copyright English Heritage

English Heritage are great at activities for children and Osborne is one of the best. It has its own beach for a start and the house is where Queen Victoria brought her family for summer hols.  These nine children had a child sized Swiss Cottage where they played and all the things they collected from rocks to curiosities and a deer with 5 legs are still in a museum alongside it.  There are lots of trails and a special exhibition of Childhood at Osborne.

  1. Blair Castle, Highlands
Hercules_bridge 2009-05-14Blair Castle

Hercules Bridge at Blair Castle

Any Scottish Castle is fun for children and Blair has everything you need.  There are towers and intrigues and scary stories galore, lashings of tartan and weird furniture made of stags’ antlers.  There are woods to roam in and trees to climb and the Hercules Garden is a haven for wildlife with a house for swans recreated from a 17th century original.

  1. Hampton Court Palace, Surrey
The new magical garden at Hampton Court Palace. March 13 2016.

The new magical garden at Hampton Court Palace. Copyright Robert Myers Associates.

For me as a child nothing beat the ghost of Queen Catherine Howard running screaming down the corridor.  Maybe she’s still here?  Hampton Court has more than its fair share of ghosts and plenty of history that kids will grasp.  The maze is fun and the Great Vine House appeals but the new Magic Garden in the Tiltyard will really get them going with lots of battlements to storm and tower houses to besiege.  The Tudor kitchens are interesting but the Georgian chocolate kitchens are the best.  Don’t miss the Royal Tennis Court where Henry VIII might have outplayed Andy Murray.

  1. Llanfaiach Fawr Manor, Caerphilly
The king and Steffan llanfaiach fawr manor

The King and Steffan at Llanfaiach Fawr Manor

Step right into the history of this 17th century manor house where costumed actors playing out the family history in front of you.  Much more fun for children than period rooms and they will pick up a few history facts along the way.  King Charles I is coming on the King’s Day, 7th August (they still think it’s 1645 here) so there will be more of a flurry than usual.

  1. Chatsworth House, Derbyshire
Chatsworth farmyard

Chatsworth Farmyard

Chatsworth of course, has something for everyone.  And for kids, the best bit may be the farmyard.  There are daily talks, milking demonstrations and handling sessions to help kids become young farmers and really get to know the animals.  The adventure playground has grown and grown and now has sand and water play areas, a spiral slide, mini diggers, a trampoline and climbing forest.  Those lucky few with birthdays in the summer holidays can book the Party Hut for a special celebration.

  1. Mount Stewart, County Down
Mount Stewart gardens copyright National Trust Images

Mount Stewart Gardens. Copyright National Trust Images

There’s lots of good healthy outdoor fun with the National Trust at Mount Stewart this summer with the opening of new trails around the parkland.  Hike up to the Temple of the Winds for a stunning view over Strangford Lough and a chance of spotting red squirrels en route.  Best fun for kids here is the formal gardens where statues of dodos and dinosaurs keep you interested.  On 20th August take the family and drop in on their Muck in at Mount Stewart day dedicated to Ivy Bashing in the Gardens – that’ll work off some energy!

Challenge yourself to relax with the kids this summer, picnic on sandwiches and ice cream, and do it all with a bit of history thrown in.

Mrs Hudson is amazed

Shouldn’t every child have a chance to get lost in a maze?  Not totally lost, of course, mazes provide just enough confusion for a thrill but you do always get out in the end (well, except in Harry Potter).  And they have a long history, starting out as Elizabethan labyrinths, just a twisting spiral one way path contained in hedges, and developing into puzzle mazes with lots of dead ends in the late 17th century. Walpole the dog doesn’t really get it and always tries to cut through the hedges at the bottom but that spoils the fun!

So where to find a maze to play in this summer?

Hampton Court Maze

Hampton Court, London

Hampton Court Maze is perhaps the daddy of them all, commissioned by William III in 1700.  It used to be one of a pair, made of hornbeam but was replaced with yew, providing a thick impenetrable series of sinuous hedges over a third of an acre.  If you keep walking with hedge on your right you will make it to the middle, but a couple of confusing corners have been added recently and a rather charming soundscape to tempt you further in. The maze had a lucky escape from Capability Brown’s itch to clear and landscape everything when he was Royal Gardener here in the 1770s.


Hever Castle Water Maze, Kent

Hever Castle has no less than three different types of maze:  a thoroughly traditional Edwardian yew hedge maze; a wooden tower maze for kids in the playground; and, my favourite, a splashy water maze on Sixteen Acre island.  The water maze is really fun, with unexpected water jets and stones that tip you into the pool if you don’t pay attention. Take a towel and take on the challenge to reach the stone grotto in the centre.

Traquaire maze

Traquair House

The largest hedge maze in Scotland is at Traquair House in the Borders. Planted in 1981, it echoes a formal parterre garden which was once behind the house. This cypress and beech maze is particularly complex, but you can direct your children from the terrace which overlooks it.

scone palace maze

Scone Palace

The star shaped maze at Scone Palace in Perthshire also has a high vantage point from a bridge built into the design but you have to find the steps to the bridge first.  The shape comes from the Earl of Mansfield’s family emblem and the colours of the 2000 copper and green beeches from the family tartan.  In the centre, if you can find it, is a statue of the water nymph Arethusa by David Williams-Ellis.


somerleyton_mazeVictorians loved a puzzle and you can find another fine yew maze at Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk.  The curved edges are marked out by topiary sentinels in contrasting golden Irish yew.  In the centre is a little pagoda on a knoll allowing you to look back on the path you have followed.  The maze was designed in 1846 by the great 19th century garden designer W A Nesfield for Lord Somerleyton.

leeds castle maze

Leeds Castle, Kent

The maze at Leeds Castle has a real surprise in the centre.  Enter through the square hedge walls and hey presto, the paths are circular and draw you in towards a curving stone wall at the centre.  Wend your way up the slope of the central tower and down into a magical shell grotto that traces the tales of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  And so through the lighted passages of the grotto back to the perimeter.

Blenheim Palace the Marlborough Maze.jpg

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

The Marlborough Maze at Blenheim Palace has a 25th birthday this year.  This is the second largest hedge maze in the world – you have to go to Hawaii to find a rival.  It takes 6 gardeners a whole week to trim the 3 kilometres of yew hedges.  The design incorporates cannons, banners, flags and trumpets in celebration of the 1st Duke of Marlborough’s military victories plus a V sign as a nod to Blenheim’s other hero, Sir Winston Churchill.

Arley Hall and Gardens in Cheshire planted a hornbeam maze in the Arboretum in 2009 and it is looking grand.  You can catch the views over the tops of the hedges to the countryside beyond and admire the pattern from the wooden fort at the centre.

Arley Gardens Maze

Arley Hall & Gardens, Cheshire

Look out for modern mazes which are great fun for children. The Alnwick Garden, Northumberland, abounds with mazes, The Bamboo Labyrinth encloses you totally in quiet rustling that cuts you off from the outside world while the Serpent Garden uses a hedge maze to guide you through a sparkling series of water sculptures.  Ragley Hall, Warwickshire,  has a 3-D playground maze with wooden walkways, bridges and blocks of passages and the ambitious maze at Riverhill Himalayan Gardens, Kent, based on the patterns found in Tibetan wood carvings has a few years to go to reach full height but lines of post and rails make running through it lots of fun – and you just might spot the famous yeti that lurks here! Newest of all is the maze at Sudeley Castle, built in partnership with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.  The willow boughs hiding willow sculpted characters from the Wind in the Willows.

Riverhill Himalayan Gardens - maze

Riverhill Himalayan Gardens

Mrs Hudson Takes a Seat

I’m off to Wiltshire for the Chalke Valley History Festival this June to hear RufCVHFAdvertus Bird, Deputy Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures (now there’s a lofty title) talk about the furnishings of the royal palaces. That set me thinking about the best places to see fine furniture collections in Britain. So here are some ideas for you in case June isn’t quite a flaming as you hope.

If you think medieval houses didn’t have much in the way of furniture, you might revise your assumptions when you see the furnishings of King Henry II’s keep at Dover Castle in Kent.  The brightly painted beds, stools and chests commissioned by English Heritage may not be authentic but they make this gorgeous medieval space sing and certainly set you thinking.


Parham House in Sussex is a Tudor house where you really feel that Queen Elizabeth has just stepped out of the room.  The house has a fine collection of 16th and 17th century oak furniture particularly the court cupboards in the Great Hall which sit well with the portraits, pewter and oak paneling. Tapestried walls, fine 16th century needlework and the sunlit Long Gallery create a convincing atmosphere of Parham’s original 16th century interior.

National Trust Images John Hammond pic1

Ham House, National Trust Images, John Hammond

For the turbulent 17th century, I love the National Trust’s Ham House, Richmond, partly because it is so much the creation of a clever woman – Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart – and partly because it has an unmatched collection of 17th century furniture.  Walnut predominates with baroque swags fine tapestries and japanned chests.


Houghton Hall Green State Bed

For rococo extravagance, it’s a toss up between Holkham and Houghton Halls in Norfolk to see William Kent’s furnishings still in situ.  Both have side tables, pier glasses, stools and settees decorated with gilded exuberance but, for me, the ethereally green state bed at Houghton with its massive scallop shell headboard is where I dream of sleeping.

Gallery credit Harewood House Trust

Harewood House Gallery, Harwood House Trust

Things calmed down under the influence of neo-classicism, in furniture as in interiors.  In the 1760s, the newly enriched Lascelles family at Harewood House in Yorkshire invested in talent by commissioning the young Thomas Chippendale to create suites of furniture for the state rooms of their new Palladian house including another unrivaled bed.  He also indulged his love of Chinoiserie with japanned cupboards and hand painted Chinese wallpaper in the East Bedroom.

Thomas Chippendale’s Chinese style appears again in the best collection of 18th century furniture in Scotland at Dumfries House in Ayrshire.  The restored bed in blue damask once stood next to the exquisite breakfront bookcase that is now in the Blue Drawing Room with a matching mahogany suite of chairs and tables. Dumfries was also furnished by Scottish 18th century master furniture makers, Francis Brodie, Alexander Peter and William Mathie.


Leighton Hall Music Room

At the end of the 18th century emerged another furniture maker of talent and style, Richard Gillow of Lancaster. The best place to see his work is at his own home Leighton Hall near Carnforth.  The suite of furniture in the dining room in particular, where the chairs are solid enough for visitors to be invited to sit, glows with the warmth of mahogany.


Gillow Chair

Few houses retain the concentrated clutter so typical of high Victorian interiors but it is perfectly preserved at 18 Stafford Terrace, the home of Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne.

You’ve just got time to visit before the house closes for Housekeeping on 20 June until September.  This is a middle class home, stuffed with furniture and fringing, clocks, lamps, prints and bronzes clearly demonstrating the influence of global exploration on the tastes of the day.

To take you into the 20th century don’t miss the Art Deco jewel created within the walls of medieval Eltham Palace by wealthy socialites Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in the 1930s, opened by English Heritage.  Some of the furniture is a recreation but the dining chairs were discovered at Pinewood Studios in 2001 and remarried with the stylish walnut dining table.  This story alone gives you a hint of the theatricality of their taste.

Of course most English interiors have evolved over centuries and mix furnishings from all these periods, that’s really what gives them their charm.  Visiting historic houses is a great way of learning to recognise the key features of different styles and using them to give your interiors something unique.