England’s best historic houses

23/01/2019 11:55

Written by Bradt Travel Guides

A selection of our favourite historic houses in England, from medieval castles to Edwardian Arts-and-Crafts architecture.

Castle Howard

Castle Howard North York Moors Yorkshire UK by Chris J Parker, NYMNPACastle Howard dominates and impresses © Chris J Parker, NYMNPA

Situated in the Howardian Hills, Castle Howard still does what it was always designed to do – dominate and impress. What is in effect one building is the focal point of the whole area, having for instance more attached shops than the nearby villages of Terrington, Welburn, Bulmer, Crambe, Whitwell and Coneysthorpe, put together. Built in its entirety by the end of the 19th century, the house and gardens were opened to the public in 1952 and the estate has not looked back since. The palatial grandeur of the house, inside and out, is instantly familiar to anyone who has seen the filmed version of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, either the wonderful 1981 TV 11-hour adaptation or the 2008 movie. The grounds are big enough to escape the crowds and get lost in. Public rights of way thread through the wider estate, allowing you to get some choice glimpses for free of the house, the majestic 20-column mausoleum, and Palladian splendour of Temple of the Four Winds from a distance.

Petworth House

Petworth House, Sussex, England, Martinvl, Wikimedia CommonsThe house was built by the Dukes of Somerset in the late 17th century © Martinvl, Wikimedia Commons 

This huge Sussex mansion, built by the Dukes of Somerset in the late 17th century, is so abundantly laden with treasures that a single visit barely does it justice. To get an overview, it’s well worth catching one of the introductory talks or the ‘behind the scenes’ tours (free, but ticketed) that might take in the bedrooms or – when the bats aren’t in residence – the tunnels between the house and the servants’ quarters. Its interior is much grander and less restrained than its exterior suggests and contains the finest art collection in any National Trust property.

Dyrham Park

Dyrham Park, Cotswolds, England by visitbath.co.uk, Bath Tourism PlusDyrham Park starred in the film The Remains of the Day © visitbath.co.uk, Bath Tourism Plus

Television and film producers clearly love the Cotswolds and none of it more so than Dyrham Park. You may have encountered this house, with its imposing deep golden façade, was through the film The Remains of the Day, when political dignitaries drew up to the entrance to be waited upon by Anthony Hopkins. More recently, the house has played host to Doctor Who. The Baroque mansion sits at the foot of the Cotswold escarpment, sheltered by a bend in the ridge. Its landscaped deer park takes up almost 270 acres of the escarpment, including Hinton Hill, where the Battle of Dyrham was fought. Visitors may wander here throughout the year, looking out for the deer, which have been in the park since it was enclosed in 1620, and enjoying the views over Bristol and the Severn bridges.

Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House Peak District Visit BritainChatsworth House is an opulent treasure trove of design, art and sculpture © Visit Britain

What the Peak District lacks in terms of museums is made up for in Chatsworth House. The stately home is a grand and opulent treasure trove of design, art and sculpture. From porcelain, silver and textiles, to Neoclassical sculptures, furniture, drawings, objets d’art and other curios from around the world, Chatsworth is the V&A of the Midlands. The house has more than 120 rooms, although only 30 or so of them are open to the public. Nonetheless, with more than half a mile of corridors, state rooms, halls and galleries, along with a private chapel, it’s enough to satisfy the most demanding of visitors.

Kingston Lacy House & Estate

Kingston Lacey House Dorset England UK by Tabbipix Wikimedia CommonsKingston Lacey House is one of Dorset's grandest houses © Tabbipix/Wikimedia Commons

One of Dorset’s grandest houses, Kingston Lacy was the home of the Bankes family from 1665 until 1981, when Ralph Bankes bequeathed the magnificent 8,500-acre estate to the National Trust. Today it draws a steady flow of visitors for its sumptuous interior, outstanding collections of art and Egyptian artefacts, and serene grounds.

Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace Woodstock Cotswolds UK by Blenheim PalaceBlenheim Palace is the seat of the Duke of Marlborough © Blenheim Palace

Brushing up against Woodstock, on the outskirts of the Cotswolds, is the huge Blenheim Estate, in the middle of which is Blenheim Palace, the seat of the Duke of Marlborough, aka the Spencer-Churchill family. The house is itself a masterpiece of Baroque, grand in scale and with all the pomp and stature inside and out that you’d expect from a symbol of victory. In 1874 Sir Winston Churchill was born here, an unexpectedly early arrival while his mother was visiting relations. It’s also where he later proposed to his wife. There is a large, permanent exhibition on his life and work focused around the room in which he was born. Churchill, together with his wife and parents, is buried in the churchyard in the neighbouring village of Bladon, all their gravestones facing towards the Blenheim Estate.

Stokesay Castle

Stokesay Castle Shropshire UK David Hughes ShutterstockStokesay Castle is more of a fortified manor house © David Hughes, Shutterstock

‘Castle’ is a misnomer here since Stokesay, in south Shropshire, is actually a fortified medieval manor house, albeit the best preserved and probably most magnificent example of its kind of England, having never been remodelled – only conserved – by later generations. It’s largely unfurnished and small in scale so you won’t need hours to view it, but the castle has the power to capture imaginations and its setting is stunning. Stokesay village is less than a mile south of Craven Arms in the valley of the River Onny and cradled by wooded slopes.

Blickling Hall

Blickling Hall Norfolk England UK by DeFacto, Wikimedia CommonsBlickling Hall has been run by the National Trust since 1940 © DeFacto, Wikimedia Commons

A couple of miles north of Aylsham, north Norfolk, Blickling Hall has been in the care of the National Trust since 1940. Anne Boleyn may well have been born here, although there seems to be some uncertainty, but the building that you see standing today dates from after her time, the 1620s, and is a superb example of Jacobean architecture. The house attracts a large number of visitors, as do the formal gardens, but what cheapskates like myself often prefer is simply to walk (for free) the miles of footpaths that run through the estate.

Ickworth House

Ickworth House Suffolk England UK by Britain on View Visit Britain

Amid sugar beet fields a few miles outside Bury in the village of Horringer, Suffolk, Ickworth House is an extraordinary rotunda of a house that is now in the ownership of the National Trust. It was built at the beginning of the 19th century by the fourth Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry as a storehouse for his art collection and estranged wife and family; but some of the intended works of art never arrived because they were taken by Napoleon. Notwithstanding this setback, a collection was amassed that includes Gainsborough, Titian and Hogarth paintings as well as a vast array of Regency furniture. The exhibition in the basement beneath the rotunda depicts 1930s life in domestic service at Ickworth. The surrounding park, open throughout the year, was landscaped by Capability Brown between 1769 and 1776, although the basic design goes back to around 1700 when the first Earl of Bristol carved out the landscape to his own requirement after the original Ickworth Hall was demolished in 1701. A herd of deer was introduced in 1706. Also seek out the Italian-style garden with its terrace walk created in 1821, the walled kitchen garden and the Victorian stumpery that contains a large fern collection and stones from the Devil’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. 

(Photo: Ickworth House is a wonderful 19th-century building to visit for those interested in art © Britain on View, Visit Britain)

Markenfield Hall

One of the best-preserved – and most beautiful – medieval houses in Britain today, Markenfield Hall is most definitely someone’s house, and that is why it works its spell on me. With the exception of a spot of tinkering over the centuries, it has remained largely unaltered since it was built in the early 14th century for the de Markenfield family. Completely surrounded by a fashionable moat (it wouldn’t keep out many marauding armies!) and walled courtyard, this wonderful crenellated house has seen a remarkable and tragic history, its walls, rooms and tiny chapel playing a major part in the 1569 Rising of the North, a battle in direct rebellion to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. This caused the house – and the family’s – downfall.

The moat at Markenfield Hall Yorkshire Dales England UK by Markenfield HallMarkenfield Hall is once again owned by descendants of the Markenfield family © Markenfield Hall

Today Markenfield Hall is once again owned by descendants of the Markenfield family. They have restored the magnificent Great Hall, winning the Historic Houses Association Restoration Project of the Year in 2008 (beating Harewood House, arguably one of Yorkshire’s grandest attractions, in the process). Standing in the courtyard, listening to the history that befell the property while glancing at the giant petals bursting opening on the magnolia that climbs the wall by the entrance way, you can almost hear the whispers and the chatter of disgruntled Catholics plotting against the forwarding armies. Markenfield Hall’s tiny chapel, restored alongside the Great Hall, is unique too, especially given its past history; it is licensed to hold both Catholic and Protestant services, even if there is only room to fit a dozen or so people in the congregation.

Seaton Delaval Hall

Seaton Delaval Hall Northumberland England UK by Alan J. White Wikimedia Commons Seaton Delaval Hall has become one of Northumberland's most visited properties © Alan J. White/Wikimedia Commons 

Seaton Delaval Hall has become one of Northumberland’s most visited historic properties, celebrated for its formal gardens and exterior by Sir John Vanbrugh (the most famous country house architect in England during the early 1700s), who died a few years before the mansion – one of his greatest – was completed in 1730. A fire destroyed the interior of the central block in 1822 (the heat was so intense that the roof leading was said to have ‘poured down like water’) and the great hall and saloon remain gutted, but you gain a strong sense of how grand and lavish the entrance must have been before the disaster.

Stowe House

Stowe House Chilterns by Skowronek ShutterstockThe impressive estate of Stowe House, situated in the Vale of Aylesbury, covers 250 acres © Skowronek, Shutterstock 

Stowe, the house, gardens and estate, all 250 acres of it, is about power; what it looks like, what you should do with it and who should have it. It is also, paradoxically, a symbol of dissent. Much of this is down to Sir Richard Temple (1675–1749), later Viscount Cobham, who fell out with Sir Robert Walpole, the prime minister, and was dismissed from his government. Visit the impressive house to discover how Cobham used Stowe as a base from which to mentor younger politicians whom he hoped would uphold the Whig vision of liberty which Walpole had (in the view of Cobham and other dissidents) abandoned. But if your interests lie less in political history and more in landscape gardening, don’t miss the Grecian Valley – an early example of the more informal style of landscape for which Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716–83) became famous.

For more on the historic houses of the Chilterns and the Thames Valley, click here.

Athelhampton Hall

Athelhampton hall, Dorset, England, British Isles © Nigel Jarvis, ShutterstockThomas Hardy was a frequent visitor to this beautiful manor house © Nigel Jarvis, Shutterstock

Thomas Hardy was a frequent visitor to this beautiful manor house in Dorset dating from the 15th century, and he referred to it in his writings as ‘Athelhall’. Today, the owners live in the Edwardian extension and open the oldest parts of the house to the public. A carved stone monkey wearing a chain sits above the front door, and he makes appearances throughout the house, including in its stainedglass windows. He is also said to make ghostly appearances. The story goes that he lived as a pet in the hall in the 15th century but was accidentally imprisoned in a secret passage, starved to death and has haunted the house ever since. Don't miss the delightful Grade I-listed gardens surrounding the house, which visitors are free to wander. Largely laid down in the late 19th century, they feature perfect topiary pyramids and colourful herbaceous borders. Highlights include a supremely photogenic 15th-century dovecote and a 19th-century toll house. 

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