We circled around the courtyard to the front and sat on the stone steps to survey the spectacular vista over the rolling Herefordshire countryside to the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons of Wales beyond. The ruling conceit of 18th-century landscape design was to create the appearance of an idealized natural world, and this was certainly achieved at Berrington Hall. A wide lawn descended from the house down a gentle slope to a meadow strategically dotted with clumps of beech, ash, lime, and oak trees. Beyond that lay the lake, in the center of which was an island, created by Brown, that is a nesting ground for herons. Upon the meadow quantities of sheep grazed, apparently without any barrier between themselves and the lawn. As we walked down the slope, we realized that there was, in fact, a barrier: a so-called ha-ha, a dry ditch a few feet deep that kept the sheep away from the house’s more proximate environs but also preserved the appearance of untrammeled nature. (So inconspicuous was the ditch that low wooden signs reading Beware of Ha-Ha had been stuck into the ground at intervals along its edge.) As we walked along the ha-ha’s perimeter we attracted a crowd of baaing sheep, who appeared deeply confused about why they were not permitted to wander the attractive expanse of finely mown grass fronting the house. We rather wondered the same thing ourselves.
The next morning, shortly after dawn, I was awakened by a loud thud, a crash, and the sound of my husband screaming in pain. I rushed out of the bedroom to find George crouching halfway up the dangerous staircase, writhing in agony. The warning, it turns out, should have been worded thus: “This property may be unsuitable for the overtired parents of small children.” Poor George had slipped on the stairs, and while he generally admits to a touch of hypochondria, this time he was clearly hurt.
Leaving him groaning in the kitchen with our preschooler leaping around him in excitement—three-year-olds love medical crises—I raced up to the main house, trying to locate the caretaker who had been so wonderfully, tactfully scarce the previous evening. A kindly docent who lived in an apartment in what was once the stables helped me ascertain the opening hours of the walk-in clinic in Leominster. Half an hour later, all four of us had piled into our rental car, which George, being the only one who was named on the insurance, had to drive, in spite of the pain in his foot. And two hours after that, George had been diagnosed with a broken toe, bandaged and splinted up, and sent on his way—all without a bill even being mentioned, thanks to the National Health Service, which, I’m proud to report, gives free health care even to unfortunate foreigners who’ve had a run-in with a dodgy staircase.
So in the subsequent days we didn’t get to do much walking in the English countryside, as we had hoped to do. But we did become very familiar with Berrington Hall, which offers one of about 350 apartments and cottages that are available as vacation rentals through the National Trust. Like the Triumphal Arch, many of them aren’t, strictly speaking, cottages: they include a former coast guard station in Whitby, Yorkshire; an old brewhouse in Chastleton, Oxfordshire; and a converted isolation hospital near Corfe Castle, in Dorset. The cottages are self-catering, though many, including the Triumphal Arch, are attached to properties where you can have an excellent cream tea.
Cream teas are, by some measure, the bane of the National Trust, which has long had the reputation of managing a lot of very fancy houses with lavish gardens where visitors can cast an eye over a few paintings or tapestries before repairing to a repurposed stable room café for the main event, scones and clotted cream. The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, to give the organization its full name, was founded in 1895 to conserve Britain’s heritage. For a long time its mission seemed to consist of taking over the houses of impoverished nobles, who were no longer able to afford the crippling taxes upon them, and opening them up for an appropriately deferential public to nose around in. I spent many weekends as a child being taken to National Trust properties, though in those days you could have only stayed overnight in one if you’d concealed yourself in a linen closet or a toolshed.