Recently, the Lovely Wife and I had the pleasure of a long weekend staying in the Banqueting House on the National Trust’s Gibside Estate in the North East. The building was saved from dereliction and vandalism by the Landmark Trust, an organisation that I very much respect and support. They own or have long leases on properties up and down the country ranging from the extremely compact (i.e. cosy even for a couple) to some larger castles and houses that sleep 20 or more.
There are a number of reasons we like staying in what are often quite odd and unusual holiday cottages. One of these is that some of them are, indeed, quite odd. For example, The Pigsty, which as its name suggests was built as a house for some pigs, up on the hillside above Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire. But this is a pigsty built to look like a Greek temple, a rather grand edifice for our porcine friends. Many of the Landmarks are like this; buildings never meant for people to stay in, but now converted to this use – sometimes very cleverly – in order to give them a reason to survive.
The philosophy is pretty simple – they take on places that are interesting or important or just quirky, but that would otherwise be lost. The Banqueting House was one such building, saved at the last minute and carefully restored. A lot of the buildings they own are like this – formal garden buildings, lodge houses, canal lock operators cottages and so on. Sometimes it is a fragment of a much large building such as a castle or monastic building where somehow a part has survived when the rest of the property has been demolished. But what unites most of them is this (for me, really satisfying feeling) of staying in a ‘survivor’, a little bit of heritage that is still in existence despite the odds.
There is also a kind of society of Landmark supporters and ticking them off is a bit of a thing (we’re on 28 different ones to date, all of them unique and memorable for some reason or another). There are a number of Landmark ‘tropes’. First, they are a technology free zone – no TV, no internet access – by deliberate design and choice. They clearly have, at some point, obtained a massive job lot of blue willow patterned style crockery as the supply is always the same – you know what you are getting. The massive box of local attraction leaflets and guide books is added to by anyone who stays… And the log books are a joy to behold, not just ‘we had a nice weekend here’ but veritable essays often accompanied by sketches (or sometimes even rather impressive watercolours).
Sometimes just getting to the place can be difficult – one, Robin Hood’s Hut in Somerset, another former Garden building for an Estate now gone, involves driving down farm tracks and through gates, across a field and through a wood – but that is half the charm. Although getting stuck in the snow last year while travelling to the Warren House above Kimbolton (a combined ‘eyecatcher’ for Kimbolton Castle and once home to the man that protected the warren, a valuable medieval asset) was a little scary – but mediated by the presence of helpful local dog walkers and being only a few 100 yards short of our destination.
Finally, as they are often quite remote, the chances of seeing wildlife is high. One stay in a riverside cottage in the North Cornish hamlet of Coombe not only had bats using the porch next to the kitchen as a hunting roost but allowed a long lingering look at a Water rail in the river – a rarely seen, beautiful bird. And at Gibside, on the morning we left, before the National Trust Estate was open to the public we were treated to the Roe Deer enjoying the mutual peace before melting again into the woods as the visitors started to arrive.