Attingham Park has followed the trajectory of most stately homes. Chris Upton looks at its fascinating story.
The story of our great stately homes traces a familiar trajectory. It begins with the conversion of an older house into something more grand and Georgian. A second generation of owners fills it to brim with all the booty of the Grand Tour – classical sculptures, Italian landscapes and souvenirs from Vesuvius.
Then the next lord overreaches himself, and spends too much on fancy landscaping and horses.
There’s an unwise marriage, unpaid bills and a fire sale.
Finally, in the face of hefty death duties and declining agricultural revenues, the house – stripped of much of its contents – is handed over to the National Trust, and recovery can finally begin.
Attingham Park in Shropshire has most of these skeletons in its closet.
Glimpsed through the trees, its harmonious facade gives no hint of what it has been through.
But inside, and in the gardens and out-buildings, we can get a sense of a place dragged back from the brink.
Many of these Palladian houses – like Attingham, Croome or Compton Verney – have this kind of uncomfortable “after history”, when the stately owners have jumped ship, and their former home looks through the situations vacant column for a new career.
For Attingham there was a spell as the bolt-hole for Edgbaston School for Girls, fleeing from the Birmingham Blitz, and then as a base for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
When the war was over, the house was leased to Shropshire County Council and run as a residential adult education college, offering an impressive range of courses from astrology and theatre to folk dancing.
But like a ghost from an earlier age, the last Lady Berwick, eighth of that ilk, continued to live on at Attingham, seeing the house more lived in and busy than at any time during her life.
Today, all the Berwicks and the students having moved on, Attingham is the National Trust’s work-in-progress, an essay in how to bring a house back to life and, more importantly, how to make it appeal to 21st-century visitors.
It’s the walled gardens that are currently the centre of attention, as staff and volunteers methodically bring them back into production.
On the day we visited, chickens were picking around the old boiler house and a log fire – two log fires, in fact – were burning in the bothy.
After a century of slumber it feels as if the gardens are waking up.
Such walled gardens – ever since Heligan – have become one of the stately home’s biggest draws, an educational alternative to an afternoon in the local garden centre.