King Alfred’s Tower is a brick-built folly on the Stourhead estate, intended as an eyecatch and viewing point. Construction was completed in 1772. The size of the tower is impressive. It is triangular in section with rounded projections at the corners, with a spiral staircase in the corner furthest from the door.
To visit the tower, you can drive there or walk. If you follow the sparse brown signs from the Stourhead entrance, after driving through a wood for some distance, look out for an inconspicuous old-style round National Trust sign. To the right is the entrance to the car park, not obviously visible. Crossing the road from the car park, after a few yards you should exit the trees and see the tower at the end of a field to your right.
Alternatively you can walk from the Stourhead gardens – you will need a map and directions, and time to complete a 5.5 mile round trip walk.
The tower can be visited at any time free of charge, but is open (for ascent) only on weekends in the summer. Check the Stourhead NT website for specific dates.
The former GWR branch line runs alongside the river Dart from Totnes to Buckfastleigh. Before closure, the line terminated at Ashburton, but the trackbed is now buried under the A38 expressway. Stations are at Totnes and Buckfastleigh, with an intermediate station at Staverton. The overall length is 6.64 miles. The Totnes terminal is about 10 minutes walk from the Totnes GWR mainline station, and the heritage railway headquarters are at Buckfastleigh. Along the train route there are pleasant views of the river, etc.
Parking is free at Buckfastleigh, and at the site there are gardens, a museum, rail sidings and workshops, a riverside walk and other things to interest visitors. The nearest parking at Totnes is at the GWR station and costs about £6 a day. There are good modern train connections to Totnes.
If you like heritage trains, this is well worth a visit.
I visited Kelly as part of the ‘Invitation to View’ scheme. The Kelly family have lived at this site for 900 years, and the present Georgian house was built in 1742, incorporating parts of the earlier house. Some alterations were made in the Victorian period, to move the main entrance.
In recent years the estate has encountered financial difficulty, but the Kellys are determined to preserve and maintain the house.
Parking in the stableyard, one is faced with a couple of disused and collapsing buildings. The house is in better condition, but it is not hard to notice various things in need of urgent attention. The tour includes downstairs and upstairs rooms which are generally in good condition with period furnishings (some have been recently restored for use as B&B rooms).
We were shown round by the owner, who gave a very full account of the history of the house and description of its contents, followed by tea and cakes, during which the host and his daughter continued to make us feel welcome.
Next door to the house is a small church which contains memorials of various Kellys.
Cleeve Abbey was founded around 1198 as a daughter house of Revesby Abbey in Yorkshire, during the height of the Cistercian expansion. The abbey acquired substantial holdings across North Somerset. In the fifteenth century the abbey’s finances seem to have improved, and the abbey buildings were substantially altered and renovated. Some alterations continued up to the suppression by Henry VIII’s officials in the 1530’s.
The abbey church was demolished at the suppression, but other substantial buildings survive. The south and west ranges were converted into a private house, and later the site became a farm.
The refectory (or hall) is the most notable feature, and a preserved pavement, a chamber with wall paintings and the refectory are also worthy of note. Most of the evidence of occupation as farm and as cottages has been removed.
Travel: Parking on site. A station of the West Somerset heritage railway is nearby.
The castle was begun by the Hungerford family around 1383, and was occupied during the English Civil War. After that time it was partly dismantled and fell into ruin. Today the main surviving parts are the chapel, gatehouse, priest’s house and two ruined towers.
The priest’s house is now set up as an exhibition space. Do not miss the lead coffins in a crypt below the chapel.
If visiting by car, drive through the stone gatehouse and across the outer court to the car park. Suggested visit time: 1 hour.
Thirlestane was originally built as a fortified tower house in the 16th Century. In 1670-1676 John Maitland, a powerful Scottish politician, extended the castle and created lavish interiors with magnificent plasterwork ceilings. In the 1840’s two large wings and a south service wing were added by the architects Bryce and Burn.
When Captain Maitland-Carew inherited the castle in 1970, it needed urgent repairs to eliminate dry rot, stabilise the central tower and repair collateral damage to the ceilings. A further major campaign to eliminate dry rot in the south wing was undertaken from 2012 onwards.
A visitor tour takes in the entrance hall, Panelled Room, Library, Billiards Room, North Library, South Library, Duke’s dressing Room, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Room, Drawing Room, Ante Drawing Room, Chinese Room, Dining Room and Servants’ Quarters. There are some superb ceilings and other contents.
Abbotsford was the home of famous Scottish author Sir Walter Scott. Scott bought a run-down farm in 1811 and by 1819 had added various elements of the present building in a Scots Baronial style. The house contains various pieces of architectural salvage incorporated into the structure. Scott died in 1832, and his heirs extended the house in the 1850s, doubling its size, to provide additional accommodation while preserving Scott’s rooms as a museum. The extension also includes a chapel, which is open to visitors. The house recently underwent a lengthy restoration, re-opening in 2013.
Notable rooms include the entrance hall, study, library, drawing room, armoury, dining room, and ante-room. Little remains of the original decoration scheme for the dining room. Otherwise the decoration and contents of the rooms are more or less original.
The study and library contain Scott’s collection of 9000 books, many of which he used to research for his novels.
A modern cafe, shop and exhibition building stands between car park and house. Around the house are walled gardens and woodland and river walks. The ruins below the house, next to a car park, are the original stables.
While there were houses on the site from the 17th century, the current house was built in the early 1900’s. It was bought by and fitted out for super-rich McEwan brewery heiress Maggie Greville and her husband Ronald. The principal rooms received showy interiors in a succession of different architectural styles with much use made of architectural salvage. Maggie Greville was a famous society hostess who entertained the rich and famous, including royalty. During the wars she was apparently sympathetic to appeasement and entertained the Nazi ambassador, von Ribbentrop.
Maggie Greville added to her father’s collection of art, and the picture collection is impressive, including some Old Masters. There is also china and other objects of art.
The grounds include various formal and walled gardens as well as various lawns, areas of woodland, and walks.
At the time of my visit only the ground floor rooms were open, and these were decorated for Xmas. Most of the items of interest could be seen in a 2-hour visit. It is probably worth having the guidebook to hand as you look around the house. There is also a more expensive guide to the pictures, but it only illustrates about half of them, so more use for taking around than reading afterwards.
The tower is now surrounded by housing, but was earlier attached to a farm. Connected parts of the building originally formed the manor’s Great Chamber etc but English Heritage only own the tower, the remainder now being a private residence. The main chamber contains some extremely rare medieval wall paintings, uncovered in the 20th century. The upper chamber can also be visited. Visits are currently by booked guided tour only.
The wall paintings are of considerable interest, but parts are much damaged and one needs the guided tour for interpretation.
Visitor parking is in Woburn Close about 100 yards away. Note that there is no waiting area inside the building so visitors should arrive on time and wait at the foot of the stairs to be admitted. There is no convenient waiting area outside either, other than the access lane. The postcode covers a large area, so drivers should set their satnav for Woburn Close.
I visited four Cotswolds villages: Broadway, Bourton-on-the-Water, Bilbury and Tetbury. They all have buildings in Cotswold stone, and some have a stream running through, expensive shops and art galleries, and a host of restaurants and tea rooms.
Pilbury has a row of picturesque row of weavers’ cottages built in local stone and owned by the National Trust. They are probably the most photographed cottages in England.
Tetbury has an interesting Georgian-period church – St Mary the Virgin.