When my husband, George, and I decided to take a holiday house at Berrington Hall, a Neoclassical mansion in England’s West Midlands owned by the National Trust, we blithely ignored a warning note that appeared on the trust’s website. About our rental, in the so-called Triumphal Arch, a decorative two-story archway in red sandstone leading from the Hall’s rural grounds to its formal gardens, it read, “This property may be unsuitable for small children due to the steep stairs and the small landing.”
Although we would be traveling with our three-year-old son—as well as my 14-year-old stepson—we dismissed this bit of information as excessively cautionary: a smidge of American-style liability coverage. And when we first saw the staircase in question, which was admittedly steep, but not exactly hazardous-looking, we felt glad—triumphant, even—that the warning had not deterred us from claiming the Arch as our temporary abode.
The estate, which lay a few minutes outside the market town of Leominster, in Herefordshire, was infinitely seductive. The stone house on the top of the hill was perfectly proportioned and grand without being immense. It was surrounded by acres of coppice-dotted meadow, in which sheep grazed picturesquely, and had gorgeous gardens that were in full early summer bloom. I’m English, and although I was transplanted to New York City many years ago, these rolling hills and green fields immediately felt like home to me. But it was much better than home, of course, because I grew up in a modest three-bedroom house built in the 1950’s, not the former residence of a successful 18th-century banker. I could not help recalling the words of Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice, when asked when she fell in love with Mr. Darcy: “I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” It would have taken little encouragement to fall in love with the owner of this house, given the chance, although I’m not sure what I’d have done with my husband and children.
We were occupying half the arch. (The National Trust uses the other half for administrative purposes.) Up the aforementioned staircase there was a bedroom and a bathroom; downstairs there was another bathroom and a bedroom with a ceiling almost as high as the room was wide. At some point a single-story brick cottage had been added to the side of the arch. There we found an open-plan kitchen and a living area with wooden floors, a wood-burning stove, and a pair of comfy couches. The cottage was as pretty as an illustration from a storybook, surrounded by an herbaceous border planted with lavender and lemon balm, with climbing roses next to the heavy wooden door. What had been advertised as a “small private garden” turned out to be a spacious lawn with views beyond an iron fence over the meadows and toward a reed-fringed lake.
By the time we arrived, the big house and its grounds were closed to visitors, but we discovered to our amazement that we were free to wander the deserted 400-acre estate at our will. (I kept expecting to be chased off the premises by a surly gardener, like Peter Rabbit by Mr. McGregor, but none ever materialized.) The estate was one of the last by Capability Brown, the 18th-century garden designer, and it was exquisite. We walked from the arch up a gravel path that led to the rear of the main house and was edged with dramatic golden yews, clipped into enormous yellow-green balls, as if left behind from a giant’s game of croquet. To our right lay the walled garden and an orchard filled with apple trees. To our left was a lawn spiked with hoops left over from a real game of croquet, beside which a pair of peacocks showily paraded.