“ National Trust property in Grantham, Lincs. „
~Division of Labour~
Like all good relationships, our marriage is based on division of labour. My husband deals with dead mice and birds and puts the bins out. I am the travel planner who spends weeks researching and booking our holidays, working out what to see and drawing up detailed itineraries. My husband's holiday role is to say "Yes dear" to every suggestion I make and to turn up and enjoy himself. When we took a week off work in July to just stay home and 'do stuff' I was very pleasantly surprised when he announced that HE had put together a day out for us and I didn't have to do anything.
He stuck the cool bag of drinks and snacks in the back of my car and headed off, still not telling me where we were going. After a stop in a small town where he wanted to show me a particular art gallery, we arrived at our destination - the National Trust property Belton House, just outside Grantham. I'd not heard of the place, knew nothing about it but I was ready to be impressed.
~Typical July Weather - rain and more rain~
It has been raining in the morning so we parked up in a soggy field and dodged the puddles to head to the entrance. Waving our National Trust cards at the lady behind the counter, we were told that the last 'Below Stairs' tour was due to leave in about half an hour, at around 3 o'clock. We'd not had lunch and decided that we'd go and get something in the restaurant before we looked around. Sadly it turned out to have been a bit mistake.
There was nothing wrong with our lunch - other than that it was overpriced like all National Trust restaurants. The problem was that my husband had read the National Trust guidebook wrongly and taken us to visit on one of the days that the house is closed. I rather wished that the ladies at the entrance had told us clearly that the house was not open because we'd have skipped lunch and gone for the tour if we'd known. I guess they couldn't imagine anyone would be crazy enough not to check the opening days.
Instead we slurped our soup and shared a sandwich before puzzling over which door we needed to get in to the house. Eventually the penny dropped that we weren't getting in short of breaking in so we headed for the church in the grounds of the house, hoping that might at least be open - it wasn't. In fact on a Tuesday in July the only thing you can look at is the gardens.
Belton House is described on the National Trust site as the 'perfect English country house estate' and we have no reason to argue with that - purely because we couldn't actually get inside. From the outside it's not an architecturally striking or particularly attractive property. It's built of a honey coloured stone and has an E-shaped profile with the entrance being through the middle of the E. It's pleasingly symmetrical to look at and the flight of stone steps to the entrance gives it a sense of grandeur. I took some photos from the lawns in front before we realised we couldn't get in.
For those thinking "How can you review a place you didn't actually get inside?" please keep in mind that due to the sometimes shocking admission prices a lot of people who visit National Trust properties choose to skip the house and just see the gardens and visit the tea room (and probably the cheesy souvenir shop). A review like this is a bit like a hotel review where you don't actually use the spa or eat in the restaurant - hopefully still valid.
~The Brits love a good garden~
The formal gardens are neat and highly structured with plants clearly laid out according to a very definite plan. Beds are laid out in strict patterns and pathways were lined with alternating dark green and pale yellow/green shrubs. Rather stuffy looking Italianate classical statues appear at regular spaces. There's an attractive circular pond circled by beds and urns full of plants. Very precisely trimmed topiary bushes stand like erect soldiers at attention in the midst of the lawns. This is the antithesis of the relaxed casual garden and for those who consider the British to be a bit too 'buttoned up' this garden is the horticultural expression of overly controlled and constricted plant life. It's pretty but there's just nothing about it that allows nature to simply do its own thing.
With the house closed there were only about a dozen visitors and we were outnumbered by gardeners. When it started to rain we made a run for the Orangery - a large plant house with big glass windows on the far side of the garden. I have a weakness for such buildings which must have been very fashionable at one time since every British stately home seems to have one. It's a sort of up-market potting shed, a place where you keep your more tender plants in the colder winter months. My parents have a small conservatory on their bungalow where they have several citrus trees. I think I may start referring to it as 'the orangery' and see how they react.
Inside the orangery we found a lush sanctuary offering a dry place to escape from the rain. The centre of the building is home to a beautiful fish pond with colourful fish, water loving plants and another of their classical statues. We found a quiet bench to wait out the storm and took a few pictures of the plants around us, squeezing between the overgrown plants to have a look around. It was a pleasant place but it soon became clear that the rain had no plan to stop so eventually we gave up waiting and walked back to the car getting totally soaked on the way. The car park had turned into a bit of a swamp and we squelched off down the driveway and (perhaps foolishly) decided to go and explore Grantham. What can I say - the only thing the place is famous for is as the birthplace of Margaret Thatcher.
~Worth a visit?~
I really can't tell you if the house if fabulous or not - but since a large proportion of the British public prefer a good garden to a dusty old stately home, I can confirm that the gardens alone are worth a look. I didn't mind too much that the house was closed because I couldn't be annoyed after my husband had tried so hard to come up with a new place to visit. I doubt we'll rush back though as it was a long drive to get there and there's really not much else in the area to draw us back. For those who want to see the house, it's open Wednesday to Sunday from mid March to the end of October. The cellars and the gardens are open daily from March to October and at weekends outside those months. Check the website http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-b​eltonhouse before going for detailed opening hours and prices. Since most people who go to places like this are probably already National Trust members and since the prices change every year, I won't bore you with a breakdown of all the options and prices.
For disabled or mobility 'challenged' visitors, we spotted one of the Trust's nifty little buggies available to get people from the car park to the front door but I think you could just drop people off by the entrance and then park up and join them later. There are quite a lot of gravel pathways which looked like they could be tricky for wheels - so pushchairs and wheelchair users might want to keep that in mind. The main entrance to the house is up a flight of stone steps so if that could be a problem, please phone ahead to check for alternative ways in.