Why don’t you consider spending some time in an historic pile?
Discover how our afternoon walk turned into an inviting prospect for a long weekend in one of Britain’s historic houses.
International travel is always fascinating and enlightening but we find that it’s often at the expense of learning more about our own country – Great Britain.
Given that we have a condensed package of history within our shores, made up of remarkably preserved indigenous peoples’ and invaders’ cultural and architectural legacies, it’s often a sobering reminder that we should spend a little more time to absorb what is on our own doorstep.
We always seem to find the time to travel abroad but strangely are often pressed to find a day or two to explore in the UK – so it was with a degree of self-imposed commitment that we set out to explore part of the Jurassic Coast, which lies along the southern boundary of the county of Dorset and East Devon in England.
The Jurassic Coast is so called because of its immense significance geologically with many fossils and remains dating back over 250 million years; exposed because of the shallow angle of thin rock strata that run to the sea, especially around and on either side of Kimmeridge Bay. It was the very first World Heritage site designated in England.
The coastal path on which we set foot takes you through some of the most beautiful scenery and pastoral landscapes you’ll ever encounter and whether it’s a crisp winter’s day or a balmy summer’s evening you’ll be mesmerised by the sheer array of colour and texture that confronts you at every step as the view varies from towering chalk cliffs that dip to carved and sculpted bays, then to black shales and limestones that harbour untold treasures.
We’d looked at the relevant Ordnance Survey map and found a walk that was about five miles in circumference and included the vital ingredient of a pub. Having parked our car north of Kimmeridge we walked down the footpaths through the undulating fields, through the pretty little village of Kimmeridge to the distant shore.
No sooner had we clambered down onto the rugged seashore than we were delighted to find scores of ammonite fossils with their stunningly geometric swirls embedded into the exposed rocks.
A steep climb to the cliff top heading east and it wasn’t long before, breathless, we were able to pause alongside Clavell Tower – a folly erected in 1830 by the Rev. John Richards Clavell and more recently rebuilt by Landmark Trust to save it from falling to the sea. The views from here will take your breath away, even if the climb hasn’t but we had our sights set on a more substantial pile – that of Smedmore House.
The history of Kimmeridge and the surrounding estates is quite convoluted; with marriage, ownership, dominance and trade oscillating between the Clavell and Mansel family who now currently own the estate today – with Smedmore under Dr. Philip Mansel.
Having first climbed further to the trig point at the Swyre Head clifftop high above Smedmore, where the views of Poole Harbour in the distance just seemed to eclipse anything we’d seen before, we gratefully descended on weary legs via ‘Heavens Gate’ into the valley in which Smedmore House nestles.
Whereas many are familiar with the National Trust and perhaps the Landmark Trust who preserve significant historic properties within the UK, there is a much more interesting group known as HHA (Historic Houses Association) where noble and historic properties are still in the owners’ hands. The HHA represents more properties than the National Trust and English Heritage put together but is perhaps less well known.
The significance of this is that you can rent some of these properties and take them over for a weekend, a week or longer. Unlike Landmark Trust, who buy and restore significant buildings and let them out, (including interestingly, Clavell Tower) the HHA offers you the opportunity to be part of the continuing family story of each residence.
Instead of a superficially dressed approximation of what the period might have offered, the moment you walk through the door at Smedmore you’re aware that you’ve immersed yourself in the Clavell and Mansel lineage that, in this house, dates back to 1610. Each room encapsulates an evolution of time with imposing canvasses of ancient ancestors juxtaposed with a flat screen TV or shelf of modern novels.
Each room has its own distinctive character and when you’ve exhausted your curiosity about the origin of Napoleon’s chair or the hundred Furstenberg plates hanging on the dining room wall, or any one of the portraits adorning almost every room, then you’ll be tempted to pour yourself a sherry and curl up in front of one of the open fires.
For us this is living history.
Yes, you might choose to rent the property but what you’ve really done is been invited in to share the family’s hospitality, in their absence. This is no designer dwelling but a house that shows the patina and warmth of constant use – from the crushed sofa cushions to the personal knick-knacks that randomly sit alongside historic mementoes.
Smedmore sleeps up to fifteen people in seven double bedrooms and one single – so it’s ideal for a wedding or conference or just a lively house party at any time of year.
We were only visiting and spoke just briefly to Philip Mansel before the lure of a country pub lunch dragged us away once again into the beautiful Dorset countryside.
Our walk was both invigorating and exhausting, requiring an extended lunch to recuperate – but the added bonus of finding Smedmore meant that next time we visit the Jurassic Coast we’ve a great mind to invite a crowd of friends for a long weekend of bracing walks, stunning scenery and immersion in local history – not least of which will be convivial gatherings around Smedmore’s dining room table that seats over twenty.
Now who shall we invite?
The Jurassic Coast can be accessed at numerous points and provides a continuous footpath for a total of 95mls along the Southwest Coast Path National Trail
Smedmore House isn’t open to casual visitors but does open its doors a couple of times a year.
For details of open days and/or opportunties to take over the house as your own for a break, wedding or party, see:
The Historic Houses Association and the many properties around Britain that it represents can be seen at: