Yesterday I received an email from The Landmark Trust who do up architectural follies, gatehouses, moated keeps and other heritage oddities for holiday lets inviting me to 'Experience the Life of a Tudor Squire. But without the lice'.
Yesterday morning I received an email from The Landmark Trust who do up architectural follies, gatehouses, moated keeps and other heritage oddities for holiday lets — inviting me to 'Experience the Life of a Tudor Squire. But without the lice'.
Our Upton Cressett's 16th century gatehouse built by Richard Cressett in 1580 is a rival to the Landmark gatehouses as we both offer mini-break heritage holiday lets. Guests at Upton Cressett's Gatehouse know that if they sleep in the guest bedroom suite on the first floor they are sleeping in the same bed that Lady Thatcher slept in (with Denis) when they came here as guests of my parents when she was Prime Minister in the 1980s; and that some 350 years earlier, Prince Rupert of the Rhine had slept in the same room.
The next floor up is the former Elizabethan 'banqueting' room — a sort of after party room for VIP guests following dinner in the Great Hall where they listened to the lute and ate figs and cheese — which we now refer to as the Library Bedroom as it is where our Upton Cressett Foundation writers are put up to write their books.
If somebody makes an enquiry who sounds like the type that might struggle to know who Prince Rupert of the Rhine actually was (Commander of the Royalist troops in the Civil War, and nephew of Charles I) — or Lady Thatcher for that matter — I'll probably let on that Elizabeth Hurley has stayed in the Gatehouse.
For all this 'Tudor experience' marketing talk, however, one thing is certain. You don't want to offer guests a genuinely Tudor experience in winter. Shropshire can be pretty cold. Which is why all our bathrooms have under-floor heating and there are working log fires in the dining room and the Prince Rupert sitting room.
Last January, when a new Midlands Ice Age seemed to be breaking out, and we had several weeks of snow on the ground, we had Dr Roger White, the distinguished archaeologist and English Heritage board advisor, to stay in the Gatehouse as he finished off one of his books on Wroxeter.
I don't know about experiencing life as a Tudor Squire — as they didn't have Calor gas heaters in 16th century England — but Dr White certainly experienced the full force of a Tudor Winter after it got so cold that the heating pipes on the top floor actually froze for two days and the bearded academic was reduced to wearing a duffle coat as he worked at his desk flanked by three Calor gas heaters on at full blast.
Then he went home to near Broseley over the weeekend and it snowed even more. When he showed up on Monday morning, he arrived in a borrowed farm tractor fully fitted with ice and snow clearing equipment.
Landmark Trust, whose patron is HRH Prince of Wales, are cleverly using 'The Tudor Life' as a marketing gimmick to lure guests in with the idea that in their restored gatehouses, keeps and water towers, they can escape from the modern rat-race world of internet cafes, Travel Lodge Inns, video games and hi-tech gyms, to enjoy the simple life in a heritage property — renovated but with all luxury comforts.
The *genius loci* of a well restored building — it is inferred elliptically — can help towards the restoration of a guest's well being; or their inner sense of aesthetic and even moral balance. Good architecture, heritage and local craftsmanship – from oak carved newel post finals to restored mullion windows — is actually good for you. The Tudor Good Life is a better life — sans 60 inch TV screens, Burger King and microwaves.
'Every building we look after has undergone careful, expert restoration' state the Landmark Trust. 'At Wortham Manor we evicted numerous occupants — among them woodworm, dry rot and death-watch beetle. So today our guests (not the insects) feast once more in the great hall. Just click through to check its availability. And enjoy a break in a building that's as Tudor as it can comfortably be'.
The idea is not to be the most 'modern', 'avant-garde' or 'four star' in terms of amenities, decor or design —but to see who can offer the most purist heritage experience. Not so much whether your bed linen is from Fritte in Rome but rather, is the quality of the bees wax polish on the creaking old Tudor oak floorbaords good enough? While every Gaggia coffee machine is the same; no Elizabethan garde-robe is.
If you want a truly Victorian experience, then you need to go down the road from Upton Cressett to Acton Scott in Shropshire where Rupert Scott — scion of the old county family who runs the Acton Scott 19th century 'working farm' — has come up with the ingenious (and economical) idea of converting an estate worker's cottage into a truly Victorian experience —offering no plumbing, central heating, TV or mod cons at all. Its back to basic Victorian living; sans Lefroy Brooks bathroom taps and Megaflow water tanks.
But it was yesterday afternoon, when we were open, that I knew that Upton Cressett would win any '16th Century Good Life' competition between historic gatehouses by offering guests the most 'authentic' experience as a Tudor squire.
I was just finishing a tour of the house (not exactly a group: a couple from outside Birmingham) when a member of staff came running up to me and said that I needed to call the police. 'Emergency!' she said.
The reason? Part of an ancient tree in the old park had fallen down at the bottom of our narrow cul-de-sac road – which John Betjeman described in 1938 as 'one of the loneliest' in the country, leading to a 'remote and beautiful place' — making it impossible for visitors to either leave – or arrive.
In 40 years of living at Upton Cressett, I've been snowed in many times. When my girlfriend first came to visit here back in January, her (rear-wheel) car had to be spun around on the sheet ice at the bottom of the lane by St Michael's Norman church by myself and our neighbour, Mark, so that she could face the right way and leave the place. Otherwise she would have been here for a week.
But when you are the local TV aerial guy (as happened today — see photo above) and need to reach other customers, the authentic 'Tudor Life', with a road blocked off due to 'forestry' problems, is another matter. Or at least I thought it would be. But when I asked the driver, who was sitting patiently in his van by the fallen tree waiting for the council to arrive with chain-saws and lifting equipment, whether he wanted to come back to the hall for a cup of tea, he declined.
He said he was 'very happy'. And he was. Instead of worrying about reaching his next client, there was no need to rush: there was nowhere to go. He could unscrew his own Thermos flask and relax. Nature had merrily and rudely intervened. Up until the 1970s, Upton Cressett was certainly as the former Poet Laureate John Betjeman wrote of driving here – a 'lonely' place. Being snowed in for a week was not unusual.
Yet this is partly why I love it here. That is the real Tudor Life. There's nothing I like more at dawn than looking out of the leaded lights in my stone bathroom windows here and seeing the snow falling and knowing that nobody – from the post man to the SKY engineer – can reach us; and there is no way, even with a 4 X 4 (not that I have one) that I can get out. Or anybody can sweep through the gates and disturb the fresh snow. We struggle as it is with getting a mobile signal; I love that my mobile hardly ever rings.
When I saw the old tree that had fallen down from the steep bank that used to be part of the old Deer Park, as extended in 1518 by Thomas Cressett, I just smiled. Yes, we had house opening today and there were a few punters who were stranded here. They didnt seem to mind. I just gave them an extra pot of tea and they settled into chatting away the afternoon in the dining room.
Yes, I would be missing out on a few 'trippers' who would have to turn around thwarted by a fallen oak. But I was glad to see that one enterprising sixty-something couple refused to be put off by the tree, so they reversed their car, found a place to park and then proceeded to clamber over the tree and the branches in order to get to the Hall. 'It was only a short walk up the hill' said the 'Senior' (he was from Solihull) on arrival. 'I checked the map and I knew we weren't far. I wasn't going to drive all this way and not see the place'.
There is no better feeling in the world than knowing the keys to the drawbridge have been temporarily lost, that the keep is up, and the rest of the world can wait. As Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast: 'The only thing that can spoil a day is people and if you can keep from making engagements, every day has no limits'.
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