Find out more about our nominated properties and why our authors chose them.
Imogen Robertson – Wordsworth House, Cumbria
Built in the mid-eighteenth century, this imposing house in the market town of Cockermouth was the home of John Wordsworth, and the birthplace of his son William in 1770. Now, I thoroughly enjoy visiting the grand stately homes of the 18th century, but what I love about the Wordsworth House is that it isn’t an aristocratic showpiece, but the home and workplace of a prosperous self-made man. I visited it just as I was starting work on my first novel, and was desperate for the small details of domestic life in a household just like this. I came away fizzing with excitement.
Little bits of the Wordsworth House have made it into all my books, from the carpets and paint colours to the china and chairs, the layout of the kitchen, and the furnishings of the clerk’s office on the ground floor. I mention it specifically in my third book Island of Bones which is set in the Lake District, when a character thinks of it as being the model of the home he would like to have himself. I doubt anyone reading the book would get the reference, but I couldn’t help giving an appreciative hat tip to the one place that has helped my writing more than any other.
The house is full of careful reproductions of the furniture, furnishings and domestic detritus of the period, and because they are reproductions rather than antiques, visitors are encouraged to pull open drawers, walk on the carpets, sit on the beds and generally act as if the place were their own. The garden too is a treasure, planted with the vegetables and herbs the household would use, so full of the smells and textures my characters would have known. An afternoon at Wordsworth House and garden taught me more about the 18th century than a month in the British Library. And the house continues to inspire. It was badly flooded in December of last year, but the superhuman effort of the team at the house means it is open again and the garden is blooming once more.
Katherine Clements – Lyme Park, Cheshire
The house at Lyme Park is best known as Mr Darcy’s magnificent mansion in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – site of the infamous Colin Firth lake-plunge – but there’s much more to this spectacular property than that.
Nestled in the Cheshire countryside, between Manchester’s urban sprawl and the drama of the Peak District, the estate has a history spanning over 600 years. Owned by the Legh family until 1946, it has a sense of continuity and community, of a place well used and well loved, all on a grand scale.
The house is a treasure trove. Parts of it date back to the 16th century (the Tudor long gallery is a particular favourite of mine) but the Palladian and Baroque elements we see today were added in the 1720s, giving us the famous ‘Pemberley view’. Grinling Gibbons wood carvings and Mortlake tapestries sit alongside a fabulous collection of art and furniture and an enviable library, the jewel of which is the Lyme Sarum Missal, the most important book in the National Trust Collection.
This beautiful book is the only surviving, and oldest copy printed by William Caxton in Paris 1487. It contains the liturgy of the mass and is believed to be a working copy that the family used everyday. It’s littered with annotations and amendments, giving an incredible insight into pre-Reformation life. And there’s a digital copy too, so visitors can get hands on.
And if you like to get a real feel for history, the recent addition of a Wardrobe Department where you can dress in Edwardian costume is a stroke of genius. Taking a turn in the formal gardens in full Downton Abbey attire is the most fun I’ve had at a NT property in years. I can’t think of a better way to bring history to life.
Manda Scott – Chedworth Roman Villa, Gloucester
Sited just off the Fosse Way, Chedworth Villa in Gloucester is one of the largest Roman villas in the UK. To the best of our understanding – and one of the most exciting things about archaeology of sites like this is that discovery never stops – the original building began around 120CE as a handful of buildings including a bath house. Later, after a fire (the flames of insurrection took a long time to quell) the site became more coherent and, as we moved into the third and early fourth centuries, it was expanded to the astonishingly complex, high-status villa we can explore today with the two bathhouses (one damp-heat, one dry-heat) the many mosaics and the walled courtyards with the inner garden.
The more recent history of Chedworth is interesting in itself. The site was buried until a Victorian gamekeeper found fragments of pottery while he was digging for his ferret (!). A local antiquarian recognised the importance of the artefacts and began the excavations (he had a team of estate workers fell all the trees so he could get to the ground beneath) and later, an archaeologist raised money by the early twentieth century version of crowdfunding so that it could be bought and given to the National Trust in 1924. A lot of work has been done since the millennium, completing in 2012, so that the artefacts have proper housing and the sheer scale of this place can be more easily understood.
For anyone interested in Roman Britain, this site is the kind of place you could spend a week, and still have more to see. For those of us with an interest in the pre-Roman Britain, or at least, in the ways that the old gods survived the introduction of the new, the spring-head shrine to the water nymphs is a place of powerful dreaming but the stone relief of the ‘hunter’ god with the stag, dog and hare that was found nearby are fascinating. If you’ve read the Boudica: Dreaming series, then you’ll want to visit Chedworth for the dreaming there. If you haven’t, just go for the mosaics, for the baths, for the outlines of the courtyards and dining rooms – and for a sense of the scale at which our ancestors lived. It’s well worth a day out.
Toby Clements – Dunstanburgh Castle, Northumberland
Today Dunstanburgh castle is an austere ruin standing in perfect isolation on a sheer cliff above a bleak stretch of the North Sea, keeping watch over nothing much more than a colony of unruly puffins, but in its time – the 14th and 15th centuries – it was among the mightiest of the many castles in the Eastern Marches, a bulwark against the Scots, and the scene of some of the most dramatic events of the Wars of the Roses.
I’ve been numerous times, in numerous weathers, to research my novels – one of which is set very nearby – and it never fails to move and impress me. There is little left to help you imagine what daily life within its walls might have been like, but I think its views and vantage points give one a humbling sense of the mindset of the kind of men who caused it to be built, and whenever I am short of inspiration or insight, I think about what it must been like for those who garrisoned it, and I thank God for central heating and woolly jumpers.
Michael Jecks – Castle Drogo, Devon
Drogo has a lot going for it. It’s the last castle built in England, it’s the only castle built by Lutyens, and it was built on a stunning scale and in a beautiful position high on the hills over the Teign Valley. However, although it’s a castle, it has the feel and atmosphere of a home. There is a distinct sense of comfort. The only sad thing is, one bedroom in which the son of the family grew up. When he died in the First World War, this room was kept as a shrine, with all his belongings, photos, school and university memorabilia etc. It’s incredibly touching to see all those things the young officer was most proud of.
Drogo is an Edwardian house built on a massive scale. It’s well worth a visit. I have to add that the staff at the Castle are very hard working and enthusiastic, too. It’s wonderful to go to a place and meet with such keen staff who want to bring history to life. They have regular events and always bring in lots of visitors. So, for location, for atmosphere, for history and for the staff, I’d nominate Drogo.
Anthony Riches – Housesteads, Northumberland
Housesteads Roman fort was built in AD 124 as part of the strategic move to establish a barrier to prevent uncontrolled entry to imperial territory from northern Britannia, for both military and commercial reasons, at the order of the emperor Hadrian. Constructed out of locally quarried stone, and sitting in a commanding position atop the Whin Sill ridge, it’s name has been given in several different variations with meanings such as ‘the hilly place’ and the wonderfully evocative ‘windy place’. Bleak even in the summer, on occasion, it’s uncompromising location would have been something of a shock to a man of Mediterranean origin, as some of its commanders must have been, equestrian Prefects posted to command the double strength auxiliary cohort.
I first visited in 1996, and immediately started writing the book ‘Wounds of Honour’ which was the first of nine (and eventually hopefully 25) books in the ‘Empire’ series, set in the late second century, a time of upheaval and conflict which would inevitably have dragged the remote fort’s garrison away to fight in both Britannia and the wider empire. So, what’s to see that’s so evocative, when most of the stone has been re-used by the generations that succeeded Rome? The uncompromising imperial power that put men on such a remote and unforgiving frontier, personified by its uncompromising and majestic location. And the fact that the visitor can touch stones that once felt the scrape and bang of hobnailed Roman boots, and smile at the surviving latrines, holes carved in a stone bench where men sat, talked, probably abused each other with jocular soldiers’ humour, and afterwards cleaned themselves with sponges on sticks.
Housesteads was a bastion of civilisation against a hostile population, and the historically curious visitor will feel a connection to the men who stood in defence of both empire and their own families. Just make sure you take something waterproof to wear!
Elizabeth Fremantle – Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire
Hardwick Hall is one of the great Elizabethan prodigy houses. Small compared to other similar houses, yet greatly imposing, with its famous vast windows that prompted the comment from a contemporary: ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall.’ It is more a palace than a mere house with the state rooms on the upper floor, intimidating in their proportions and with views over the rolling Derbyshire countryside.
Aside from its obvious physical delights, Hardwick is made all the more enchanting for me by it’s history and the women it housed. Bess of Hardwick, the indomitable woman who built it, was an extraordinary individual who married four times and amassed a great fortune. She worked tirelessly at building her empire and is remembered to this day in a way few other women of the period are, who were not royalty.
Bess set her sights on joining the royal family through her granddaughter, Arbella Stuart, who was for many years the presumed heir to Elizabeth. I have told Arbella’s remarkable and tragic story in my new novel The Girl in the Glass Tower, much of which is set behind the towering windows of Hardwick Hall.
Tom Harper – Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire
Fountains Abbey was the first place I went when I moved to Yorkshire, and it’s the place I’ve been back to more than any other. There’s something almost magical about the approach: driving through open countryside, walking down a steep forested slope, finally coming out at a site that seems far too grand to be so well hidden. Even in the 21st century, you feel the tranquility that drew the monks to this valley. A river wends through the ruins, and a deep sense of peace breathes everywhere. Your footsteps make no echo in a church paved with grass.
And the abbey is only half of it. Walking further down the valley is like moving through time, from the medieval ruins to the immaculate Georgian ornamental lakes that stretch out over a mile in the Studley Royal water garden. History isn’t stratified like layers of old newspapers: it’s living around you, constantly borrowing from itself to create something new. It’s an idea I love exploring in my books, and at Fountains Abbey you see it made real in water, trees and stone.
Jason Hewitt – Orford Ness, Suffolk
It’s fair to say that when I think of the National Trust my first thought is of grand houses, breath-taking parklands and turreted castles, the rich pickings of our English heritage preserved in all their finery. Orford Ness, however, is about as far removed from that image as you can probably get, and that might be why I love it. Under ominous enormous skies it might look like a flat, desolate wasteland, seemingly devoid of any life; and yet it’s also one of the most exhilarating and atmospheric landscapes I’ve ever come across, one of our most secret historical locations, and, if you squint your eye and take a closer look, also a unique ecosystem teaming with rare and delicate wildlife.
I first stumbled across the Ness when I was in Suffolk in 2009 researching my World War Two based novel The Dynamite Room. I planned on using its military past as part of the story and although unfortunately it didn’t survive the edit, its eerie landscape, salty air and the crunch of its shingle still permeate every page. Situated on an almost forgotten slither of coastline it’s the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe, providing home for a number of scarce species of wildlife – including larger-than-average brown hares, Chinese water deer, peregrine falcons, and rare water birds and wild flowers – many of which without Orford Ness would be lost from our coastlands forever. With its salt marshes, lagoons and mud flats it’s a fragile environment that requires careful protection and for that reason is only open for a limited period each year, making it in my mind even more of a closely guarded treasure.
However, Orford Ness is also as soaked in myth and legend as any castle or crumbling abbey, being the secret home of some of our country’s darkest history. From 1913 until the mid 80s it was used as a military test site for bombs and atomic weapons, and the evidence – test buildings, cement pagodas, laboratories and lookouts – can still be seen dotted across its strange lunar landscape. Orford Ness is a National Trust site then like no other: a beautifully desolate and tranquil off-cut of England where the ever-shifting blanket of shingle brushes up and over, trying to bury its chilling past.
Rory Clements – Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk
Deep in the rural heartland of Norfolk stands an ancient moated castle which I contend is the most romantic and beautiful historic home in Britain – Oxburgh Hall. There is a very good chance you haven’t heard of it, for this exquisite 15th century building has never had the publicity afforded other great houses. Yet it is full of history and, surprisingly, offers the warm welcome of a family house.
Built by the Bedingfield family in 1482, it is their home still, even though it now belongs to the National Trust. The Bedingfields fought alongside Henry VII, and acted as gaolers to both Katherine of Aragon and the future Queen Elizabeth, but their staunch Catholicism singled them out as potential traitors in the late 16th century – the period of my John Shakespeare thrillers – and they faced a daunting struggle to survive.
Oxburgh has a permanent display of the incomparably precious tapestries of Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick, which were brought into the family as a dowry. But for me the highlight is the priest hole, brilliantly hidden in the garderobe, a Tudor toilet. Unlike most priest holes, visitors are allowed to enter the hole and imagine what it was like for a fugitive priest who would have faced execution if he was discovered. It was the inspiration for the priest hole in my first novel, Martyr, for which I am eternally grateful.