Stately homes and palaces
Balmoral is a 50,000 acre estate and the private Scottish home of the British Royal Family. It was purchased by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria in 1852, close to the Highlands they both loved. The current castle is new - Victoria and Albert had it constructed between 1853 and 1856; the old castle was then demolished. There is limited public access to the grounds, gardens and exhibitions (including access to the castle ballroom only) between spring and early summer, when the Royal Family is not in residence. Apart from the ballroom, the castle is not open to the public. Cottages in the grounds can also be hired.
Woburn Abbey is one of the great treasure houses of Britain. It began life as a Cistercian abbey. The estate was given to John Russell, later Earl of Bedford, by Edward VI in 1547 and his ancestors became the Dukes of Bedford. Woburn Abbey is still the home of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford, but has been open to the public since 1955. The Palladian mansion contains a world-famous art collection, including works by Canaletto, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Lely, Rembrandt, Tintoretto and Van Dyck, as well as collections of porcelain and silver. The estate also includes gardens, a deer park and the Woburn Safari Park.
Home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, Highclere is a predominantly Victorian mansion set in extensive grounds in Hampshire - though, confusingly, the postal address is for neighbouring Berkshire. The house was redeveloped in Jacobean style by Sir Charles Barry, the architect responsible for the Houses of Parliament, from an earlier Georgian mansion which, itself, replaced a Tudor House. Before that, a medieval palace stood on the site, property of the Bishops of Winchester. The property has earlier roots, however, and there is an Iron Age fort in the grounds.
The 5th Earl sponsored the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb by Howard Carter in 1922.
Highclere was used as the location for the TV series Jeeves and Wooster and, more recently, played the title role in the highly successful Downton Abbey.
NOTE: Highclere has limited opening - check details before making a special trip.
Windsor Castle was built in the 11th century by William the Conqueror and is the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world. It has been used by the British monarchy for almost 1,000 years and is an official residence of Her Majesty The Queen, whose standard flies from the Round Tower when she is at home. Parts are open to the public, including the State Apartments and St George's Chapel. A further highlight is Queen Mary's Dolls' House.
However, because Windsor Castle is a working palace, opening arrangements are subject to change, sometimes at short notice, and you should check before making a special journey.
Enormous mansion, originally Jacobean, built on the site of an earlier manor house and castle, and packed with treasures, including a significant collection of silver and notable works of art. The estate was given to the National Trust by the 10th, and last, Earl of Stamford and includes a 300 acre park (with deer) and sumptuous gardens. The house was used as a hospital during WW1 and by the military during WW2, when there was a US training camp and then a POW camp in the grounds. Entry to the house is by timed ticket only.
Tatton Park is the former estate and home of the Egerton family. Set in 1,000 acres of deer park are 50 acres of gardens, including a Japanese garden, the Tudor Old Hall, kids' playground and the 18th century mansion. There are extensive facilities, making it a popular place, and events are held regularly - including concerts featuring leading stars and the annual Royal Horticultural Show in NW England.
The estate was bequeathed to the National Trust in 1958 and is managed and financed by Cheshire East Council.
Chatsworth is one of Britain's great stately homes. It is the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, whose family, the Cavendishes, has owned the 35,000 acre estate since the 16th century, when the first house was built. The house is famous for its magnificent Baroque interiors and works of art from ancient Egypt, Rome, the great masters - and more modern artists. Outside, there are acres of parkland and lovely gardens to explore, including a maze to get lost in. It is famous for its cascade, a large water feature with water tumbling down a long series of steps - which dates from the 17th century. It is also famous for its Emperor Fountain. Events are held throughout the year, including concerts and outdoor theatre.
Beaulieu is a stately home as well as home to the National Motor Museum. The estate has been in the hands of the Montagu family since the 16th century and is based around the ruins of the medieval Beaulieu Abbey. The National Motor Museum tells the story of motoring and the collection includes some 250 vehicles, old and not so old, cars, motor cycles and racing cars. As well as the museum and the abbey, a visit to Beaulieu can include the palace/house, the extensive gardens, at least two exhibitions - at the time of writing there are exhibitions of 'the World of Top Gear', featuring many original vehicles from the TV show, and an exhibition about SOE - the secret Special Operations Executive - who used Beaulieu for training during WW2. On top of that, there's a monorail and loads of things going on, like a vintage bus chugging about, offering rides.
This was the holiday home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert - and their nine children - a palatial pile designed by Albert in Italian Renaissance style. Victoria had loved the Isle of Wight since childhood and Albert said that the Solent reminded him of the Bay of Naples. The royal couple even bought a real Swiss Cottage from Switzerland for the children, where the youngsters could learn important life-skills like gardening and preparing afternoon tea. This can still be visited. Further highlights include the royal apartments, nursery and the family's private bathing beach. Even after Albert's death, Victoria loved visiting Osborne House; she died there in 1901.
One of the largest houses in England, Knole is allegedly a 'calendar house', with 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances and 7 courtyards - though only a proportion of the house is open to the public. It was built as an archbishop's palace, but passed into the hands of the Sackville family during the reign of Elizabeth I, and it is still their home. Knole is also packed with precious artwork and furnishings.
In 2012, the National Trust launched an extensive six-year conservation programme. This has also opened parts of the complex previously unavailable to be seen by the public.
Knole is situated in the middle of a medieval deer park, which is open to all and is wonderful to wander in at any time of year.