When I tell Americans that my grandmother is British, they usually say something like “Oh so when you visit her, you drink tea and hang out in castles?” No, she prefers coffee and — hmm. We do actually spend a lot of our time together at castles or palaces or other “stately homes,” as big country mansions are called in the UK, because we go to National Trust and English Heritage properties on day trips. This past spring, we even ended up at a giant house that looked a little familiar to me, and my grandmother casually remarked that I’d been before, for her and my grandfather’s 40th anniversary party. Because of course she had an anniversary party at a 12th-century palace.
Hartlebury Castle was built in the 13th century, and from the start was the seat of power for whoever was Bishop of Worcester at the time. Various royals have visited over the years — Mary Tudor stayed there instead of nearby Ludlow because Ludlow had the plague (a serious vacation downer); King George III and Queen Charlotte took a walk in the gardens in front of 8,000 people (what a strange zoo); and Queen Elizabeth II planted a tree here once (it’s still there). But the best royal story is when Bishop Hurd renovated an entire bedroom for the Prince of Wales to stay in, only for the prince to leave after less than an hour. Rude!
That same Bishop Hurd built a library renowned for holding many works from the Age of Enlightenment. Today, it is the only Anglican bishop’s book collection housed in the same room and shelves built for it. The photos on the website look beautiful, but when we visited, it wasn’t on one of the days the library is open to the public, so I’ll content myself with my grandmother’s memory of having cocktails there during some fancy event a few decades ago. She said it is indeed a lovely room. So there you go.
Why has my grandmother been a fairly frequent visitor of this mansion? She’s very involved with her church, and has known the last 6 bishops of Worcester through her work with the diocese. In fact, she and my grandfather were a part of the history of the palace. In the 80s/90s, my grandfather, as Chairman of the Board of Finance for the Diocese of Worcester, was tasked with finding an artist to paint Bishop Philip Goodrich’s portrait. He had decided on someone, but hadn’t yet asked him to do the job, when my grandmother said, “Dear, you’ll have to find someone else to do it. I’ve just seen the obituaries…” So the two of them drove to London and spoke with a curator in the National Portrait Gallery. They recommended an artist who’s most well known for her sculptures but does many paintings as well, Maggi Hambling. Later, once the painting was completed, they drove back to London to ferry the official portrait back to Worcestershire. The portrait tends to polarize people; I’m one of the ones who likes it, but apparently some people think it doesn’t capture Bishop Goodrich’s warmth. What do you think?
The final part of the castle is the Worcestershire County Museum, which holds a large toy gallery (including a large map of fairyland drawn by an artist according to instructions from his children), a Victorian school room, clothes from various decades, and even a display of archaeological finds, including a mammoth’s tusk! I especially liked the large display of gypsy caravans, with their bright colors and sometimes ornate carvings. The display plaques made an effort to dispel some of the racist stereotypes still repeated about travelers; dispiriting that people need a museum to remind them that others are fellow humans deserving of respect.
Stately homes nowadays are always trying to make accessible the lives of the people who used to live there, so that visitors can feel more of a connection with the place. I like the places that try to do this across class lines — introducing visitors to parlor maids as well as ladies of the house — and the ones that ambitiously try to show the changes in a house over the hundreds of years of its existence. I think it’s just what a national property open to the public should attempt, making history feel real and immediate. But history doesn’t have to be ancient; it can be much more recent than that. And different histories layer themselves on top of one another (one of my favorite themes). Going to Hartlebury with my grandmother layered the histories of the palace for me: a 1980s cocktail party in the 18th-century library; a 1990s celebratory dinner in the great hall that has held feasts since its construction in the 13th century; and a line of paintings going back hundreds of years, including one portrait driven down from London by the woman I was sharing tea with in the castle restaurant. Well, I had tea; she still prefers coffee.