Throughout the past month, MrElaineous and I have watched the BBC television series Hidden Treasures of the National Trust. This documentary takes viewers into National Trust properties ranging from the huge and historic, such as Belton House and Hardwick Hall, to houses that are more on the human scale, like the Liverpool dwelling of photographer E.C. Hardman or the childhood home of Beatle Paul McCartney. It showcases the amount of work and upkeep required to keep the properties looking their best, with a particular focus on documenting the repair work and maintenance that usually goes on behind the scenes. It’s a little like The Repair Shop, but for bits and bobs owned by the nation.
Beyond the architecture, artefacts, and objets d’art that make up the Trust’s collection, the series has done a wonderful job highlighting the real hidden treasure of the National Trust: its people. These include the passionate curators who oversee each property and the skilled conservators who bring tired objects back to life, as well as the thousands of volunteers who clean, garden, or provide information to visitors. It’s these people whose love for the properties and the stories they contain that keep the Trust ticking. I even found myself watching a high school classmate wax lyrical about the artistry of naturalist and wood engraver Thomas Bewick since a fellow graduate of Sebastian River High School’s class of 2000 is now the manager of Cherryburn. <Cue “It’s a Small World” theme song.>
The show was on my mind during a recent visit to the National Trust’s Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire. The house itself is a mix of brickwork and stone that hides eight centuries of history, beginning with the construction of the original monastery in 1201. From there it was transformed into a Tudor palace in the sixteenth century following the Reformation, and each succeeding century and owner has made their mark. This results in a building that is more chimera than a coherent structure, but the house and its history are not the primary reasons we made the journey.
No, Mottisfont is known for is its roses. It hosts the National Collection of old-fashioned roses (flowers that date from before 1900), with over 500 varieties of climbers and shrubs filling the walled garden and blooming just once a year during the first three weeks of June (depending on the weather). They and their companion plantings—irises, alliums, lilies, peonies, and dozens of other species—burst into glorious colour, with the scent wafting across the garden paths. It caught my eye on Twitter and I convinced MrElaineous we should pay a visit.
With such a narrow window of opportunity to see the seasonal spectacle, everyone tries to get in at more or less the same time. It is not in any way, shape, or form “hidden”.
The rose gardens (there are several) are indeed beautiful, but don’t do what we did and ignore practically all of the Trust’s guidance:
- Weekdays are quieter than weekends. We got this one right and arrived on a Friday, but it was close enough to the weekend that I don’t think it made much difference. Try aiming for midweek instead.
- Arrive right at opening or after 2:00 pm; 11:00 am – 2:00 pm tend to be the busiest times. We arrived bang on 11:00 am and I can vouch that crowds were out in force. With the benefit of hindsight, we probably should have gone for the post-2:00 pm slot or one of the evening opening times.
- Bring a picnic. Okay, this is my advice and not the Trust’s. The crowds lead to long queues for food and drink, so the best way to avoid the wait and enjoy the grounds is to bring your own lunch. Families who had clearly visited previously set up camp on the massive lawn or in the shade of the incredible trees that dotted the property. It seemed idyllic.
Once we left the crowds behind, we ventured to a shady path along the River Test to cool off while enjoying the tranquility of the waterfront. The Test is a chalk stream, a type of watercourse fed by aquifers—so it stays at a fairly constant temperature throughout the year—and which runs over chalk bedrock, leading to clean, mineral-rich water that supports a diverse ecosystem. Over 85% of the world’s chalk streams can be found in the UK, and it is considered one of the rarest habitats in the world.
This stretch of the Test was so clear that every stone and piece of vegetation that covered the bottom could be seen, with water plants drifting lazily with the flowing water or poking their head above the surface to serve as a perch for damselflies. Certain areas attracted large trout, whose speckled sides caught the sun and flashed with iridescence. Robins sang sweetly in the surrounding hedges, although I’m never sure if the song is one to attract a mate or the territorial avian equivalent of “Stay away!”. At one point a swan drifted by as if sent by Central Casting to complete the scene. A few minutes later I heard someone on the opposite side of the stream say to his partner, “It’s so English.”
I couldn’t have described it better myself.