Burghley for all generations
A truly British treasure; Juliet Rix writes about her visit, the 17 generations of the Burghley family and their Olympic triumph which inspired Chariots of Fire.
Burghley House stands confident, golden and impressive in its attractive landscaped grounds on the edge of the Georgian town of Stamford. One of this country’s greatest Tudor houses, Burghley was built by William Cecil, the first Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth I’s right-hand man. It has been handed down through 17 generations of his family and you might even spot the eighteenth generation riding a tricycle, playing on the grass or joining in one of the family-friendly events organised for the visiting public by their mother Miranda Rock (William Cecil’s great, great – and another twelve greats – granddaughter) who now runs the house.
What better place could there be for a multi-generational day out? Burghley has something for everyone: not just the historic house and its remarkable contents, but Capability Brown landscape, a sculpture garden full of hidden nooks and corners (and a teddy bears’ picnic) and the Garden of Surprises, an interactive water garden (yes, be prepared to get damp) that is a modern take on William Cecil’s Tudor trick garden. This is particularly popular, I am told, not just with the youngest visitors but also with the oldest – only those in the middle seem to feel the need to be boringly sensible!
Inside, Burghley is a treasure house of objects and art from across the generations. The vaulted Tudor kitchen with its towering central lantern chimney (rediscovered when someone put their foot through the floor of an upstairs bathroom!) is full of shiny Georgian and Victorian copper cooking utensils, as well as a copper boot - a ‘hot water bottle’ for riding boots. In the Pagoda Room, marvellously recognisable portraits - Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Charles I and II and Oliver Cromwell – are arrayed like something out of a children’s history book, along with the family patriarch himself, William Cecil.
Burghley is home to world-class collections of Japanese ceramics, eighteenth-century English furniture and seventeenth-century Italian paintings, including dramatic ceiling and wall paintings covering the demonic Hell’s Staircase and the sublime Heaven Room (where Keira Knightley plays the piano in the film of Pride and Prejudice).
Lady Victoria Leatham (Miranda’s mother and a regular on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow) remembers arriving to live at Burghley as a nine-year-old in the 1950s when her father inherited the house on the death of her grandfather. There was no electricity and she climbed 67 steps to her bedroom each night to the hissing of gas lamps. The house’s treasures were in chaos and everything smelt of mingled gas, dust, leather, polish and old dogs, she says, “It was magical!” She didn’t much like the butler though. At her first formal dinner Lady Victoria asked her father if the family was now so poor that they had to eat off tin. The butler was heard to mutter, “stupid child”. The plates were, of course, silver.
Lady Victoria’s father was David Cecil (the sixth Marquess of Exeter) who as a youthful Lord Burghley won Olympic gold for hurdling in 1928 and was the Seb Coe of the 1948 London games. He was the model for the aristocratic athlete Lord Andrew Lyndsay played by Nigel Havers in the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire (though Burghley was an even better athlete than the character). An exhibition about his sporting career is running at Burghley for this Olympic season with exhibits including a rare 1948 Olympic torch, the hurdling Lord’s marvellously outdated leather running shoes... and his hip.
Yes, really. Having destroyed his joints hurdling he was an early recipient of an artificial hip. He wore that one out too and it had to be replaced. He kept the old one, had it sprayed silver and put it on the front of his Rolls Royce (in place of the Spirit of Ecstasy). Beneath it is inscribed: “A loyal supporter 1957-1967”.
When he inherited the house, the sixth Marquess was faced with massive death duties and had to sell some key items from Burghley’s collections. Determined that this should never happen again, he left the estate to a trust (Lady Victoria and Miranda are Directors rather than owners of the house) and opened it to the public to help it pay its way. Some 100,000 people a year now visit, but Burghley has not become a theme park. It retains its dignity and remains a family home.
Burghley House, Stamford, Lincolnshire, PE9 3JY; www.burghley.co.uk; tel: 01780-752451
Open mid-March to late October (closed Fridays) 11am-4.30pm. Adults £12.50, children under 16 £6.50, seniors £11.20. Gardens only £7.50. The park is open and free year-round 8am-8pm or dusk if earlier (including the sculpture garden in winter).
There is a children’s audioguide to the house (as well as a grown-ups one) and a new Horrible History-style Beastly Boring Burghley children’s guidebook will be available by the start of school summer holidays.
Summer 2012 Special Events (free with entrance to the house)
Alice’s Jubilee Jamboree: Sat June 2-Sun June 10. Activities for children from sculpting your own rabbit to croquet, storytelling, bouncy castles and tart-making.
The Great Olympic Garden Party: During the Olympics 10am-10pm, a big screen in the gardens will show all the action except on four evenings when films will be shown. Sat July 28 will see the first screening of Chariots of Fire at Burghley.
Burghley does its very best to be accessible within the limits of a Grade I listed building. There is disabled parking close to the house entrance and the sculpture and water gardens are nearby. Guide dogs are welcome, mobile ramps are available to put against single steps and there are chair lifts to the first floor state rooms and restaurant. The water garden is fully accessible to wheelchairs, the park has tarmac paths and the sculpture garden is fine when the turf is dry. The chairlifts do not take wheelchairs (you have to transfer) and only manual wheelchairs can access the house. Burghley suggests a call in advance to discuss any access issues.
The bright Orangery Restaurant (open Wed-Sun in winter, daily except Friday in summer) serves everything from coffees to full cooked meals. The Garden Cafe offers drinks, ice-cream and sandwiches whenever the house is open. Or you can always bring a picnic.
Juliet has a degree in biology and history of art so she obviously had to work in the media. After a stint at the BBC, she went freelance and now writes for national newspapers, magazines and websites as well as doing occasional work for BBC radio and keeping up-to-date her guidebook to Malta and Gozo.