Longleat House, Wiltshire

A particularly substantial and impressive Stately Home, Longleat House was built in the late 16th century by Sir John Thynne, and has remained in the Thynne family for more than 400 years. John Thynne started life as a simple kitchen clerk at the Tudor Court, but by 1547 he had been Knighted and the fortunes of the family have since gone from strength to strength. During the Civil War, when many grand houses were levelled because their owners supported the Royalist cause, the family remained neutral and so their magnificent home was spared.

Some of the best examples of high Elizabethan architecture can be found at Longleat House, in particular in the Great Hall. During this period, it would have been the centre of activity and, although a lot more serene today, its former splendour has been well maintained. With its 35ft (10.6m) high ceiling, supported by ten huge hammer beams, the lavish tapestries and paintings decorating the walls, and a considerable range of 'collectables', there is still plenty to keep you occupied. Around 1600, a Minstrels' Gallery was added, and in 1663 the Small Gallery was created to honour a visit by Charles II and Queen Catherine, who stayed overnight with their entire retinue.

At the beginning of the 19th century (1806-1818), the 2nd Marquess was keen to 'modernise' Longleat House, and create more privacy in the original Elizabethan house. He employed the fashionable architect Sir Jeffry Wyatville, who introduced a sequence of splendid corridors, as well as redesigning the North Wing and the Grand Staircase. The original staircase, a much simpler design by Sir Christopher Wren, was completely transformed to this spectacularly grand centrepiece. A new stable block and an Orangery were also built at this time.

In the 1870s, the 4th Marquess arranged for the ceilings to be remodelled by J D Crace, and they were so sumptuously and skillfully designed by Crace that it is difficult to imagine how they were achieved. The sheer ornateness, incorporating an abundant use of gilt, was predominantly inspired by some of the magnificent buildings Grace had visited on his travels to Italy. Possibly the most impressive is the Saloon, formerly 'The Long Gallery', with the ceiling based on one seen in the Palazzo Massimo, Rome. With the Italian Renaissance style reflected throughout much of the old house, the sense of quality and luxuriousness are almost overwhelming.

There are no less than seven libraries at Longleat House containing an impressive collection of some 40,000 books. The Red Library alone has over 6,000 books, and is said to be haunted by an elderly gentleman dressed in black - so beware! Other ghostly beings include the infamous Viscountess Weymouth who unhappily treads the upstairs corridor known as 'The Grey Lady's Walk', perhaps looking for her 'removed' admirer.

Royalty is no stranger to Longleat House, with Queen Elizabeth I being the first Royal guest in 1574, and Queen Elizabeth II being the most recent, in 1980. Longleat House, called 'The Treasure House of the West', was the first stately home to be opened to the public on a regular basis in 1949. Now, as well as the majestic Elizabethan residence, Longleat House offers the visitor a diverse array of attractions, including a safari park, an adventure castle, a narrow-guage railway, and one of the most challenging mazes in the UK. A great day out.


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