All is not as it seems at this English castle nestled into the Herefordshire countryside.
Since my return from a fascinating private tour around Eastnor Castle I have shown a number of people a picture and asked them to date the castle.When would you say it was built?
Built as the country seat of an ambitious English Lord with his eye on becoming a rising star of the ruling classes, this Norman style castle is beautiful and captivating even once you discover it was completed in 1824!
Later than you guessed?
The man with the vision, 2nd Baron (Lord) Somers, must have been very pleased as Eastnor Castle, reminiscent of a medieval border fortress, rose up in the grounds of the family's mediaeval manor house, Castleditch. A framed sketch of Castleditch can be viewed in the Great Hall although unfortunately nothing of note survives from the house itself.
Somers commissioned architect Robert Smirke in 1812 to design the castle and its interiors. Oak, a popular building material, was in short supply due to the amount needed for shipbuilding during this time of the Napoleonic Wars. This Smirke to think differently about building materials. Stone was quarried in the Forest of Dean and wood from the estate was used as much as possible. Oak, which would usually have been used in the roof construction of the Great Hall, was substituted for a relatively new building material, iron. Interestingly, only a few decades later iron would become the ship building material of choice with the launch of the first iron hulled warship, HMS Warrior, in 1860. You will not see any of this ironwork from within the Great Hall however because it is covered with wooden panels.
Impressive from the outside but a feast of grandeur from the moment you step inside. I hadn't been sure where to meet my guide when I visited and so had the exciting experience of banging the oversized door knocker of the castle's main doors! I was soon greeted and led into the castle. Walking up the steps of the entrance hall and into the Great Hall I felt as much awe as I think I was supposed to. Lord Somers and Robert Smirke would have been pleased.
The Great Hall, feels cosy despite its vast ceilings, being as high as the room is long. The original idea of this room was to be exactly as you would find in a baronial castle, sparsely furnished except for armour and weapons on the walls and perhaps trestle tables set up for occasions with tenants and staff. The cosy feel given to it now by the current furnishings suits its purpose now as a drawing room.
Each room brings more decoration, furniture and paintings on which your eyes can feast but the one I could have stayed all day in was the Gothic Drawing room. Pugin, who also designed the interiors of the Houses of Parliament, is responsible for the breathtaking decoration in this room which includes my favourite chandelier of all time. Even without a touch of crystal, this chandelier is the most beautiful purely for its exquisite design, which in typical Pugin style, was also functional, allowing it to be taken apart and cleaned. This overly ornate looking room was in fact designed with function in mind. There are no false pillars or fake ceilings here! Pugin believed in authenticity and thought it immoral to place a pillar in a room in which it didn't hold anything up!
The castle boasts among its treasures, an impressive collection of armour from all over the world, a 200 year old tablet from a temple in Northern Iraq, and a dolls house rediscovered in the cellars and an exquisitely detailed sailing ship made by prisoners of war out of bones from their dinners and their own hair!
Despite no royalty ever having lived here, the castle does have some royal connections. Queen Mary, our current Queen's grandmother, stay here in 1937. She had built a reputation for removing items which took her fancy, from wherever she was staying. However, nothing has ever been revealed to be missing from the room in which she stayed, now called the Queen's Bedroom. I'm not sure where Eastnor should be grateful or insulted?! Maybe she was as enchanted by the 18th century Chinese wall paper as I was but had stopped short of ripping a piece off?!
Eastnor Gardens are open to the public and different events and concerts are held here throughout the year. The castle is available for group guided tours, bookable in advance, and private hire for weddings and conferences.
For more information visit eastnorcastle.com
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