National Trust's Croome Court, a British stately home in the English countryside.

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The first thing that caught my eye upon arriving at Croome was the property’s tagline: expect the unexpected. Well, we certainly hadn’t expected to go there, so it was a promising start. We also discovered that Croome Court was actually “Capability” Brown’s first major commission and he had designed the house as well, so it was beginning to feel like we were stalking him through time.

The property continued to live up to its tagline, with the first unexpected sight being the vast open expanse of land and impressive mansion house as you emerge from a short woodland walk. This was closely followed by a tree enclosed in a mock-temple, a modern art project called Adam Speaks. Robert Adam was another 18th-century luminary, famous for his Neo-classical architecture and interior design. Croome was also his first commission so it was clear that the original owner, the 6th Earl of Coventry, was not only happy to take risks on fresh talent in order to follow the latest trends, but he also had very good taste in designers.

National Trust's Croome Court, a British stately home in the English countryside.

The house itself has been through a lot since the time of the 6th Earl. Much of its richly decorated interiors were sold off by the family to pay debts, and World War II saw it requisitioned by the Royal Air Force. It then served as a Catholic boys’ school for a time before becoming the UK headquarters for the Hare Krishna movement. After that it went through a rapid procession of owners who tried different things: conference venue, private flats, restaurant. It even became a private home again for a time before finally ending up in the hands of the National Trust.

The Trust has the unenviable job of restoring the property, and this is something that they are doing slowly while ensuring that the full story of Croome Court can still be seen and heard. This means that things are done in a slightly different way compared to other National Trust properties: modern art exhibitions can be found throughout the house, and they have an artist-in-residence whose plein air paintings filled one room. They even had former students of the boys’ school providing tours, giving their perspective of a place that dominated their childhoods.

The Interior of the National Trust's Croome Court, a British stately home in the English countryside.

For me, the most memorable part of the interior was the exhibit called Archive. It was formed out of curling shelves of archival boxes, some of which could be opened to reveal artefacts or stories from Croome’s long and varied history. Standing in the centre of the spiral and looking up into a reflective surface showed the rows of boxes stretching almost to infinity, and put the viewer directly into the heart of it. You were now part of the story.

National Trust's Croome Court's Archive exhibit

After touring the house, we ventured out into the garden. Although the Croome-branded deck chairs weren’t needed on such a grey day, there were still plenty of unexpected sights to see, from a small patch of bluebells to a grotto guarded by Sabrina, the goddess of the river Severn. Despite being “Capability” Brown’s first commission, the landscape felt both adventurous and assured, from the use of temples and follies to help bring the Arcadian vision to life, to the island developed in the middle of the lake that showed off Brown’s skill as a water engineer. Then there was the river, dug by hand, that became a trademark illusion used in many of his properties: through the clever use of design, it’s made to look as if it continues beyond the line of sight, but in reality comes to an abrupt end.

The garden at the National Trust's Croome Court, a British stately home in the English countryside designed by Lancelot "Capability" Brown.

That evening we ventured out of the B&B for the first proper dinner away and headed to the town of Great Malvern, a journey that took us through winding roads and incredible scenery with views across the surrounding fields. The Malvern Hills are designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and they more than lived up to this description. But there was one more unexpected feature awaiting us.

After a drizzly, grey day without any sign of sunshine or blue sky, the sun made a brief, bright appearance as it was setting, casting the entire countryside in stunning golden hour light that made both MrElaineous and me gasp as we came around a corner. We quickly found a place to park on a side street to photograph the view before heading on our way, but a few minutes later the scenery got even better and we squeezed the car into a tiny layby to fully take in the view over the valley.

Views of sunset over the Malvern Hills, England.

The next day it was time to pack up and head home, which is more reality, less reality programming. However, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised throughout this entire trip. Taking a chance on a random bed and breakfast on the basis of a television show is not my usual way of travelling, but it introduced me to lovely people and historic properties in a breath-taking part of the country. Who says there’s never anything good on TV?

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View from the National Trust's Berrington Hall

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From the 16th-century Tudor Brockhampton Manor we journeyed forward in time to the 18th-century Neo-classical Berrington Hall. One of the property’s claims to fame is being the last completed commission of “Capability” Brown. In a remarkable stroke of coincidence for someone who doesn’t watch a lot of television, a few weeks before this trip I had also seen Capability Brown’s Unfinished Garden, an imagined view of how Britain’s best known landscaper would have designed his own property (unfortunately he never had the chance to begin before his death).

In addition to having one of the best names in the history of gardening—although Montagu “Monty” Don comes a close second—Lancelot “Capability” Brown is a fascinating 18th-century character. He managed to be at just the right place at just the right time, with the right collection of skills. And, perhaps most importantly, the necessary vision and foresight to design a garden that would only be complete decades later once the plantings had matured.

As he started out as a gardener in the stately home of Stowe under the tutelage of pioneering landscape architect William Kent, there was a seismic shift occurring in landscaping practices. The formal and structured gardens of the past were being made over in a more naturalistic style. At the same time, a perfect storm of trends was brewing: the city of Pompeii was rediscovered and Roman artefacts were being brought to light in record numbers; well-bred aristocrats went on the Grand Tour to the continent to broaden their knowledge of the world; and the classical Greek and Roman world became seen as the epitome of art and architecture.

Italian landscape painting and portrait of Lancelot "Capability" Brown.

Left: An Arcadian landscape by an unknown artist; this is an example of a “Grand Tour painting” that could have graced the walls of an English stately home. Right: Nathaniel Dance’s portrait of Lancelot “Capability” Brown from 1773.

This resulted in the popularity of the Neo-classical architectural style for stately homes and important buildings, and such houses were often decorated with souvenirs from the Grand Tour, such as Italian landscape paintings. These paintings usually depicted a romantic idyll: manmade temples set in the wilds of Arcadia. The landed gentry wanted to bring these visions to life.

“Capability” Brown saw a market and quickly rose to fame as someone who saw the capability of the landscape, transforming the clipped hedges and flower gardens of the past into serpentine lakes, gently undulating fields, tastefully planted clumps of trees, and classically inspired summer houses, follies, and eyecatchers. He is credited with popularising the ha-ha, a sunken ditch and wall that gave an uninterrupted view when looking from the stately home across the grounds, but prevented livestock from actually approaching the house. The name is said to have come about from the exclamations of surprise that people uttered when they saw them. I think ah-ha may have been a better choice!

Brown was a canny businessman and developed himself into a brand that became the latest must-have accessory for the homes of the nation’s elite. The result? Old gardens were swept away for the new fashion, and, perhaps without realising it, “Capability” Brown literally shaped the idea of what the English landscape should look like. He is thought to have done over 250 properties in his lifetime, and  his changes seemed to have taken root: I can’t think of any other gardening trends that have had such an impact in the intervening two centuries.

Berrington Hall landscape garden and Neoclassical house

Back to Berrington: being Brown’s last commission, it was easy to see his trademarks across the grounds, from the ha-ha keeping the sheep at bay to the lake which looked like it could continue well beyond the visitor’s line of sight. The house itself was a lovely Neo-classical building with the opulent interiors one expects from a National Trust property, and it was possible to get a glimpse of what the original owners likely intended visitors to experience with this dual status symbol of house and garden.

Images of the interior of the National Trust's Neoclassical Berrington Hall.

Besides wowing with sheer grandeur, the house was designed and built on architectural principles that had been set down by Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius in the first century BC (fun fact: Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing Vitruvian Man takes its name from him). Vitruvius’ ten-volume set on architecture was rediscovered by scholars in the 15th century and popularised the following century by Venetian Andrea Palladio, who gave rise to the Palladian style of architecture. It was from this that the Neo-classical forms eventually developed. As a result, the building and its interiors serve as the very embodiment of civilisation and progress. Meanwhile, the view from every window shows the natural world and the imagined Arcadian wilderness … with the underlying irony that the natural was in fact manmade and designed as well!

The next day we revisited our plans of going to Eastnor Castle, only to discover it was closed for a wedding. Foiled again. We turned our attention to exploring Tewkesbury instead, but everyone else seemed to have the same idea and the streets were heaving with people. Browsing through the list of attractions on the SatNav, we decided to give a third National Trust property a go: we were off to Croome Court.

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Tudor market hall in Ledbury, England

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I don’t watch a lot of television. I mean, besides the current series of Back to the Land with Kate Humble. And I just saw Alice Roberts’ Britain’s Most Historic Towns and was pleasantly surprised to discover I have actually been to many of them. And of course I catch any of Lucy Worsley’s history programmes. Oh, and I might have seen every episode of I Escaped to the Country when it aired last year. I’m a sucker for a country view, and catching up with people who moved to the countryside is my type of reality programme.

In fact, it very much became my own reality when I decided to pay a visit to one of the properties featured on the show. MrElaineous had a milestone birthday coming up, we had never been to the Malverns, and one of the escapee couples had started up a B&B. This alignment of events meant I recently found myself standing in front of a picture-perfect little cottage in the middle of a glade of trees, complete with duck pond and chatty ducks.

Massington Lodge Self-Catered B&B, Ledbury, England

This is Massington Lodge, run by the lovely Suzanne and Danny. They have three self-catered rooms on the property, from an eco-friendly shepherd’s hut (picturesque but it looked a tight fit for the two of us) to the self-contained Bluebell Lodge. This is where we stayed, and it was absolutely ideal for a long weekend away: the food magically refreshed itself while we were out during the day (which included eggs from the ever-obliging ducks), the views from every window were stunning, and there was plenty of space at the dining people for the two of us to spread out with our respective laptops in the evening. The setting even encouraged me to do a spot of designing!

While the B&B itself is charming, its location just a mile from the quaint market town of Ledbury is also ideal. While the timber-frame market hall is perhaps one of the most eye-catching buildings, Ledbury boasts a mixture of architecture that means you never know what to expect when you turn a corner. While the buildings may have an olde worlde flair, many of the shops housed within were quite modern: we enjoyed a visit to a recently opened art gallery and a store that imported housewares from around the world, leading to an interesting juxtaposition of Danish and Japanese kitsch that somehow worked well together.

Views of the historic architecture from around Ledbury, EnglandWe hit a slight snag on our first full day in the area: the blue skies and sun gave way to a more stereotypical drizzle and general greyness. Our grand plan of going out for walks in the Malverns scuppered, we decided to turn our attention to National Trust properties. While they are more photogenic in better weather, they also have plenty to do indoors and usually have an associated tea room. What’s not to like?

The first property we visited was Brockhampton Manor, a Tudor estate set in an incredible valley. It boasts miles of paths which would usually pique our interest, but on this day we dodged puddles and potholes to head directly to the house. Two of the manor’s most distinguishing features—its gatehouse and moat—were built more for status and appearance than actual defense, and they continue to impress even today.


The house itself was actually lived in until relatively recently, so the National Trust had some interesting decisions to make when it came to deciding how to display over 400 years of history in one building. I think the solution they hit upon works really well: each room represents a different time period, and you move forward through time as you explore the house. There’s the Tudor great hall, a 17th century bedroom, Victorian attic, a poignant bedroom dedicated to a soldier from Brockhampton who died in World War I, an Edwardian kitchen from the turn of the century, and more modern spaces from the past 70 years.

The interior of the National Trust Brockhampton Manor

One of my favourite rooms was the 1930s parlour. On the day we visited a fire was roaring in the fireplace and the room felt warm and cosy. With music of the time playing on a radio and little games and puzzles scattered about, it was easy to imagine yourself back in a pre-digital age. One such game that caught my eye was Brickplayer, which I assume was a precursor to Lego; I imagine there was less you could actually do with it (building a miniature brick wall has to get boring eventually), but it would also be far gentler on feet if trod on during the middle of the night.

Having seen Brockhampton, the plan was to go to Eastnor Castle in the afternoon, but we fell to chatting to one of the National Trust volunteers who recommended the nearby Berrington Hall. She was an excellent salesperson and we headed off to Berrington instead.

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