I’m fed up of muddy puddles and mackintoshes so this month I’m planning to stay in town and visit some unusual heritage places where I can keep my feet dry.
London is so full of options it really pays to seek out the unusual.
I think I might go to capture the spirit of Dr Johnson in the garret where he wrote his Dictionary at Dr Johnson’s House in the City, or to Hampstead where at Keats House the romantic poet first fell in love, or find a little of the spirit of William Morris at the house he designed for Frank Dickinson at Little Holland House in Carshalton. But I think I shall settle for Kensington where the artist Frederick Lord Leighton’s home, Leighton House at 12 Holland Park Road has some of the most imaginative exotic interiors in the land. I feel I could waste all of January just lounging by the pool and gazing at the Iznik tiles in the Arab Hall.
No Scottish town can take you back to the Renaissance the way Stirling can and Argyll’s Lodging in Castle Wynd is probably the best surviving 17th century house in Scotland. It dates mainly from the 1670s and its changing ownership matches the turbulent fortunes of the nation. The lavish wall paintings of the 9th Earl of Argyll’s time survive along with tapestries and furnishings of the period.
Cardiff Castle is right in town and if you aim for the extraordinary William Burges’ neo-Gothic interiors you hardly need to step outside. Drawing on the long history of the castle – Henry I blinded and imprisoned his elder brother here for 15 years – Burges created a fantasy dream palace that is one of the wonders of 19th century interiors. Standing in the highly ornate Study you are not sure whether you are in Wales, at Disneyland or in a Harry Potter movie. My favourite detail is the birds painted into the decoration of the Winter Smoking Room.
Historic British towns often have a castle right in the middle. This is a great time for discovering Lincoln Castle after its restoration last year and you will get to see an original Magna Carta without the crowds. I think that taking the wall walk all the way round the curtain walls takes you right into the shoes of the Norman defenders and gives you a sense of Lincoln’s importance in the past. This is also far and away the best place to view the Cathedral.
Birmingham is a good town to choose for heritage. I particularly enjoy Matthew Boulton’s home, Soho House, a charmingly elegant Georgian villa filled with good mahogany furniture. Matthew Boulton was one of the great enablers of the Industrial Revolution, the business partner of Scottish steam engine inventor, James Watt, wealthy manufacturer, silversmith and founder of the Lunar Society. At home he enjoyed probably the first domestic central heating system in the country as well as flushing toilets and a vast steam heated bath.
Leeds has grown outwards like so many industrial towns and swallowed up Jacobean Temple Newsam House whose park now provides a green lung for the people of the city. This is, however, a pre-eminent country house which Leeds Museums Service have managed to restore and interpret in a way which makes the complicated family history fun and helps to explain the outstanding collection of furniture, paintings, tapestries and ceramics.
Many other historic places are closed in January for housekeeping and restoration so if you are planning visits, do check opening times before you go. And meanwhile have fun in the town!