Make a little effort and you can find some heritage places that are open at Easter but not much at other times of year. Here are a few that are pretty secretive but I wouldn’t want to miss.
Gosford House, East Lothian
Robert Adam’s late masterpiece, Gosford House, home of the Earl of Wemyss is a short drive from central Edinburgh. Adam, our most celebrated neo-classical architect, died before the house was completed about 1800. The next architect to work there was William Young, commissioned by the 10th Earl in the 1890s. Young’s Marble Hall is unmatched for magnificence, a confident creation in marble and alabaster hung on a steel
skeleton that allows for an overarching glass dome and an expanse of windows. The 10th Earl’s impressive art collection includes works by Murillo, Rubens and Botticelli. Enjoy the views down to the Forth and the elegant Adam stableblock.
Norton Conyers, North Yorkshire
The smart Dutch gables hide a timbered medieval manor house, recently beautifully restored by the Graham family who have lived here since 1624. There are wonderful 18th century paintings including plenty of country gentlemen liberally supplied with horses and dogs. Best of all is the news that the secret stair discovered here during the restoration is certain proof that Charlotte Bronte used Norton Conyers as her model for Thornfield Hall and inspiration for the story of Jane Eyre. She was here in 1839 and the family must have told her the story of the mad woman who was confined to the attics. I can almost hear Mr Rochester calling.
Arbury Hall, Warwickshire
More literary connections at Arbury where novelist George Eliot was born on the estate. You can walk where she walked. But save your energy for the hall itself and its unmatched Strawberry Hill Gothic interior. Sir Roger Newdigate came home from his Grand Tour to Italy in 1742, but he seems to have been unimpressed by Rome (apart from a brief classical flirtation in the chapel), but instead must have popped into Westminster Abbey on the way home because the whole house is filled with soaring fan vaulting, light and airy and exquisitely pointy. George Eliot thought it was “petrified lace”, you might think of royal icing but the whole concoction is so extraordinary you will feel like dancing.
Tissington Hall, Derbyshire
The magic of Tissington is the survival unaltered of a Jacobean manor house at the centre of a village off the main road in its own time warp. The house is sturdy and speaks of the long generations of the Fitzherbert family who live here still. The rooms are unpretentious and filled with a charmingly arranged melange of Stuart and Georgian furniture and portraits. The principal rooms are on the first floor and overlook the village green and its ancient well. At the rear is an Art Nouveau library where the plaster frieze captures the wildness of the Peak District.
Stanford Hall, Leicestershire
This is a perfectly proportioned house built just after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 by William Smith of Warwick for the Cave family who still live here. There is plenty to see, family portraits and a portrait of an aging Bonnie Prince Charlie as well as textiles and tapestries. Best is the cantilevered staircase in the light and airy central staircase hall which carries your eye through tiers of Stuart portraits. Or the Baroque Ballroom, where the trompe l’oeil scenes of tumbling classical deities on the ceiling have recently been restored to glory.
Whittington Court, Gloucestershire
There was a house here before the Elizabethan manor that survives today and the group of house, church and barn feel peaceful and unchanging. Inside, the highlights are the rump of the Elizabethan Great Hall, the fine carved oak Charles I staircase and two overmantels from a contemporary house, one of which sports the Washington Arms – the earliest form of the stars and stripes and always a find for Americans.
Cobham Hall, Kent
Here is one of England’s great Elizabethan houses now a school. Elizabeth I stayed here, in fact the present house was conceived because she was not impressed, and Charles I spent his honeymoon night here. The house is brick with long parallel wings ending in turreted towers. Under the Georges, the house belonged to the Earls of Darnley who turned it into a largely Baroque house without changing the layout. The interiors are remarkable, gilded Baroque plasterwork, the Darnley art collection still on the walls, and magnificent surviving fireplaces so you can sometimes overlook the schooly atmosphere. Don’t miss the grounds where the first recorded cricket match took place in 1776 and the Darnley Mausoleum, restored by the National Trust.
Cornwall House, Monmouth
A deliciously pretty Georgian town house in the centre of historic Monmouth, open over Easter weekend. Originally a brick house in Queen Anne style, the street front was updated in the mid-18th century and it has been divided many times in its history; you’ll find the local newspaper currently in half. The bones of the well-proportioned interior survive with a handsome staircase and fireplaces. It’s fun to peek inside a private house like this and learn a bit of its history.