My husband and I have an in-joke.
Because Phil loves stuff that is cheap. Or even better, free.
In fact, he will spend quite a lot of money to get free things. I have a sneaking suspicion our Summer trip to Euro Disney was born out of a surfeit of air miles which rendered flights free. The cost of Euro Disney was astronomical and we paid huge amounts while we were there to be herded, and fed, like affable cattle.
But we flew free. Except for taxes which, like death, are unavoidable.
When I first heard ‘A Christmas Carol’ read out loud there were some moments of awe, some of unrivalled envy at Dickens’ turns of phrase: but there was one moment of recognition so comic it made me laugh out loud. I think I have mentioned it before.
“Scrooge liked the dark,” writes Dickens of his anti-hero who is so stingy with candles, “the dark was cheap.”
Phil was off, today, on a special outing with Felix and his best friend. The three of them were going, courtesy of my mother-in-law, to witness a football match live at a huge local stadium.
So Maddie and I were at a loose end. And courtesy of my latest evangelical cause, Twitter, I had picked up a nugget of information which delighted my husband.
This weekend, right across the UK, a series of Heritage Open Days are being run. It’s not new, but its news to me. Places which usually cost a kings’ ransom to access are free.
I doubted this, as I walked up to the imposing ticket office of the beautiful Tudor mansion on which I had set my sights. There was no sign or mention of the days, or the word ‘free’
But when I spoke the hallowed words ‘Heritage Open Day’, they acted like a well-oiled Open Sesame. The leaflet and map were pressed into my hand; my daughter was briefed on youth activities; the gate slid open; and we were in Arcadia.
Hadrian’s successor in England put together an itinerary of Roman Roads, says William Challoner in his book on the house. In it is reference to Vindomis, the ‘House Of Wine’, which would have been a welcome rest stop for those who marched past on the road to Winchester.
Chapter the first.
The Vine’s chapel was a key site, on that low-lying land next to a babbling brook, during mediaeval years. And its strategic importance as a house of power was elevated when Henry VIII’s Lord Chamberlain, Lord Sandys, had a magnificent Tudor mansion built for Hal to come and take the country air.
There’s a bespoke long gallery built in for the bluff king, clothed in oak and with portraits and busts modelled on the power players of the time. Sandys kept his head, despite Catholic sympathies. His grandson entertained Elizabeth I, who ordered Mary, Queen of Scots’ imprisonment within its walls. Cromwell stationed his troops there while ransacking nearby Basing Castle.
Power was a rigid spine for the household, back in those days.
But the mansion built for power was also lived in by families who loved its walls and made it a home. The Sandys were impoverished by the war and were forced to sell to lawyer Chaloner Chute in 1653. And there it stayed, in the possession of the Chutes, for the next 300 years.
Imagine, then, stepping onto the lawn which runs between the lake and the great Palladian pillars of the entrance. The exterior is a red-brick wonder, with chimneys and intricate coloured patterns. The summer houses have wildly fanciful red-slate domes. The very fabric of this place is a layered English fairytale. And, as the toymaker in Chitty Bang Bang was wont to remark, all free today.
Maddie and I walked from wonder to wonder, the house shrouded in shadows to protect the priceless original contents. The staircase designed by John Chute plays gracious games with depth and perspective. At a window upstairs a camera obscura shows the geese on the lawn waddling upside down. The library is filled floor-to-ceiling with the most gorgeous volumes, Henry’s Oak Gallery dazzles with 16th century grandeur.
We lingered in the Stone Gallery, a long light space: we felt comfortable there, and never questioned why. Later we delved into its past and found it had often been a happy place. Orange and myrtle trees were placed in the room which was fitted out with greenhouse staging, and guests loved to walk in ‘The Greenhouse’ in the winter months. As with all happy spaces, the children loved it: and it was adopted as a huge playroom after a heating system was installed in 1842.
Privileged, these people were. But if the walls speak the truth they were often happy, too.
And, this Heritage Open Day afternoon, so were we.