I’ve lived in Cornwall for nine years and have visited many of the famous landmarks, castles, gardens and open air theatres in the county. But, it was on a trip to Bodmin Steam Railway earlier this year that I alighted upon Lanhydrock, one of the best examples of a beautifully preserved Victorian home in the whole of England. (National Trust)
Leaving Bodmin railway station myself and my husband Ray followed the sign to Lanhydrock. Running at just under two miles the wide pathway cuts up through a fine example of unspoilt cornish countryside and such was the glorious vista I barely noticed the incline in the path as I walked along. I’d read up a bit and discovered that the house had been built, originally, by the rich merchant Sir Richard Robartes and remained in the family until the National Trust took it over in 1953. The 1st Lord and Lady Robartes were resident at Lanhydrock from the middle of the nineteenth century and when the house suffered a disastrous fire in 1881 they never fully recovered from the shock and both died shortly afterwards. Their son, the 2nd Lord Robartes took on the job of rebuilding the house in 1899 with every Victorian convenience to meet the needs of his large family. They had nine children.
When we arrived at the granite gatehouse, which is the most significant surviving remainder of the original house, I stood for a moment drinking it all in. Lanhydrock loomed large in the distance and we took my time strolling up the wide driveway through the impressive gardens, the expertly clipped yew trees and geometric flower beds all adding to the magnificence of the building that lay ahead.
After the disastrous fire in 1881, though parts of the Jacobean building survived, notably its famous Long Gallery, the overall style of the house is that of the High Victorian era. The warren of fifty visable rooms offer a glimpse into life inside a stately pile from the huge kitchens to Lady Robartes’ boudoir. Before we started on the tour of the house we stopped off for coffee in the large Stable courtyard at the rear of the house.
A tour of the house can take up to two hours, so be prepared, there are not too many places to sit down and take a rest. The house is laid out and well signposted to ensure that you cover all rooms and floors and don’t miss a thing. You will be asked to leave any backpacks or large baggage items in a cloakroom, to avoid knocking over precious ornaments, which is perfectly understandable.
Once inside the house that feeling of stepping back in time was thrilling. If you like period dramas and most recently of course Downton Abbey this house is not to be missed. I half expected to see Thomas or His Lordship appear at any moment.
The Outer Hall: If you feel eager to rush through the house this area could be overlooked but don’t be in too much of a hurry. It contains all the portraits of the family who resided at Lanhydrock during the Victorian period and also a portrait of 7th Viscount Clifden, who finally gave the house to the National Trust in 1953.
The Dining Room: This is a particularly splendid room displaying the fine quality of workmanship in both the carved wood of the walls and the plastered ceiling. The table is laid for dinner and it’s mind boggling just looking at the all the cutlery and the glasses of varying sizes required for one place. The linen napkins are fancy and even though there’s a ‘no touching’ policy, samples are laid out on a side table inviting you to handle them and there is also a book with instructions on how to do the intricate folding. I passed on that one.
The exotic centre piece on the dining table is of a camel beside a palm tree; it’s made of Cornish tin and was presented to the Lord and Lady Robartes in 1869 by the Miners of Redruth, as a thank you for establishing and supporting the Miners’ Infirmary in that town. Tin mining in Cornwall during that period was big business and most wealthy landowners in the county had extensive interests in that area. The Robertes family were no different, they were one of the richest families in Cornwall and mining was a highly lucrative business.
The Kitchen: I’d seen photographs of the main kitchen but nothing could have prepared me for the magnificence of the room. Wooden roof trusses supporting a high-gabled roof over clerestory windows. These can be opened by rods connected to the handwheels in the end dresser. The louvres in the peak of the gable high above the open stove removed hot air and fumes which would otherwise have collected there. The most intriguing piece of equipment in the kitchen has to be the elaborate arrangement of roasting spits. Fortunately, a guide in the kitchen, answered all questions thrown at him. He explained how several spits could be used at once and they had been operated by a large fan fitted in the flue above the fire. The contraption itself is a wonderful piece of British engineering, something the Victorians were famous for. I imagined that the heat generated in that area must have been unbearable for the poor staff trying to do their work. Nobody would have been too worried about health and safety back then. The guide did tell me that a few years ago the house had been commissioned for a TV documentary and they’d asked for the fire/spit to be cranked up. The National Trust obliged but after the event said never again. The amount of mess, dirt, fat splattered and general upheaval took days to put straight.
From the main kitchen a long corridor connects several smaller rooms, including the Bakehouse, where great quantities of bread and cakes were baked daily, through to the dairy where cold slabs kept butter and cream cool. Everything that the modern Victorian Age had to offer in the way of modern conveniences were present. I got the distinct impression that this floor would have been the hub of the house, where all the hard work was done, day in, day out. The Head Cook was a key member of staff with a huge responsibility; Cooks were always women and a harder job I can’t imagine. They were usually single, lived in and devoted themselves to the family.
The female servants not only had separate living quarters to the male staff they also had their own staircase. It’s not too difficult to imagine how busy the house could be and how hard the staff had to work in order to keep all the wheels turning. From early morning to late at night.
Lady Robartes’ Room where she would have conducted her household business, is located next to the Stewards Room. Every large country house had a Land Agent, always called the Steward in the West Country.
The Billiard Room and The Smoking Room are both intensely evocative of the Victorian age and overwhelmingly masculine. Walls hang with school and college groups and sporting achievements. Definitely not for the ladies.
THE FIRST FLOOR
Captain Tommy’s Dressing Room and Bedroom Thomas Agar-Robartes (1880-1915) heir to the estate, died at the Battle of Loos in 1915. As the first son, it was a terrible blow that he died during the Great War and would not inherit. In his room a suitcase is kept on the cast-iron bed containing his personal items. During this 100 year comemoration of the First World War there are several more documents and artificats on display for the viewing public.
The Nursery Wing: Containing the Skullery, Day and Night Nursery and the Nanny’s Bedroom. I expected Mary Poppins to appear at any moment with her huge carpet bag. The rooms in this self-contained area were designed for the ever growing family of Lord and Lady Robartes. Between 1879 and 1895 they had ten children, one of whom died in infancy. The Nanny and the Nurse maids were totally responsible for the raising and nurturing of the children for at least the first five years. Like all large households of the Victorian era, that old adage rang true, children should be seen and not heard. Didn’t Queen Victoria say of all her babies ‘bring them back when they can walk, talk and are reasonably civilised.’
The Luggage Room: The Robartes family travelled frequently from their pile in the country to their house in London. In order to do that in comfort they needed a wide variety of luggage, most of which was extremely heavy. Lanhydrock had a lift specifically installed for luggage. Trunks and boxes would be delivered from the railway station to the back door next to the lift and then sent for unpacking and then up another floor to the luggage room for storage. All of this would be done seamlessly without inconvenience to the family.
His Lordship’s Room: Lord Robartes had a bathroom installed in the adjoining room but preferred to use the saucer bath in front of the fire place. I’d never seen anything like it and that’s exactly what it is - a huge ceramic saucer sitting before the fire place. On ‘bath night’ the poor old manservant would have his work cut out, hauling buckets of water in and out and then emptying the whole lot afterwards. The bed in this room looks like no more than a 3/4 size going by today’s standards. It would seem he didn’t spend that much time in it.
Her Ladyship’s Room: The four poster bed is the most prominent piece of furniture in this room and adorned with fine linen and fancy lace and it actually looks very comfy. During that period it was considered bad manners for a man and his wife to actually sleep in the same bed and any nocturnal activity could be conducted via connecting doors but completed before the servants arrived in the morning. The fact that the Lord and Lady managed to have ten children leads me to believe that perhaps for extra convenience they should have installed a revolving interconnecting door. Manners and propriety were the order of the day and sex was not something one spoke about, ever.
The Long Gallery: This is a truly impressive room. 116 feet long (35 m), it runs the length of the north wing. This room didn’t suffer any fire damage in 1881 and the remarkable plaster barrel ceiling was probably finished just before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. The walls are panelled and there is a comprehensive collection of 17th century books on a wide variety of subjects. There are paintings and sketches depicting the family, especially the children using the hall as an indoor sports arena; the huge expanse of floor lending itself to bowls, hoopla and probably cricket.
The Drawing Room: This was the grand sitting room of the house and in daily use up until the Second World War when difficulties in blacking out the widows and shortage of staff forced the bachelor, Viscount Clifden and his two sisters to retreat to the Hall below.
The Family: As I progressed through the house the family history began to unravel and I was astonished to find that out of nine children, only one daughter married, producing one son. Through the tragic loss of three sons during the First World War, none of whom had been married, suicide and siblings who remained single the line was broken and finally through financial necessity Viscount Clifden handed Layhydrock over to the National Trust in 1953. He, along with his two maiden sisters lived out their life on the estate.
Lanhydrock’s Gardens are not to be missed and as I strolled around enjoying the fragrant shrubs and magnificent magnolias, I reflected upon the life and times of the Robartes family. Their lives had been rich and full of privilege, way beyond what the average person of the day could have even dreamt. But, for all that, their once powerful dynasty evaporated within the short space of a hundred years.
We headed for the Cafe where I had a delicious chicken ceasar salad for lunch along with a bottle of locally pressed pear juice. Even though Ray had just come along for the ride he was particularly impressed with the lovely gardens.
Lanhydrock is a truly outstanding house, a fantastic piece of architecture and the Victorian lives are so clearly laid out for all to see. Back in the day people were grateful for a job, that would enable them to feed their families. But, the divide between the have and the have nots was great and the big houses began their decline after the First World War. Young women had been called upon to work in more masculine roles when a whole generation of men were virtually wiped out. They had choices and being a ‘servant’ held little appeal. Also, the upkeep of such vast piles became increasingly difficult for the families when the economy shifted once the ‘British Empire’ began to crumble and their wide and varied interest around the globe no longer generated the vast fortunes required for the upkeep of such palatial homes.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Lanhydrock and the preservation of all artifacts, paintings, clothing, furniture and machinery is truly remarkable. The house is a living history and I’m sure it will continue to fascinate and enthral future generations and definitely any visitors I get, especially from abroad, will be pointed in the direction of Bodmin Railway and the wonderful country walk that will take them up to the outstanding house that is Lanhydrock.
Information: Lanhydrock Bodmin, Pl30 5AD
Telephone: 01208 265950 www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lanhydrock
Open:1st March - 2nd Nov Tues-Sun (Garden open daily 15th Feb-Nov)
(if not National Trust Member £13.50 entrance fee)