My new historical is the story of an English explorer and a shy heroine who sail by steamship from England to Bombay, and back. Seth Mayhew and Wilhelmina Adams make the perilous journey for different reasons: Seth to find a lost sister, and Mina to wed a civil servant stationed in India. (Spoiler alert: Mina’s plans are gonna change.)
In 1851, that journey takes 99 days, with caravan travel across Egypt before getting back on a boat at Suez. In 2016, that journey takes 20 hours. There’s almost no place on the globe we can’t go, and yet there’s one country we’ll never reach. As Hartley famously wrote, ‘The past is a foreign country…’.
If only time-travel were possible! Instead, we rely on historians to understand how those foreign people of the past lived. Traveling in England, I’ve caught vivid glimpses of the past in five glorious places and wanted to share them with you.
Carlyle’s House, London
In 1834, Thomas Carlyle leased a house in Chelsea, a less posh area of London, to escape the more-fashionable crowds. Rather than retreat to the country, the literary superstar enjoyed entertaining metropolitan guests in his front parlor. Or, as many accounts suggest, holding forth as lesser writers, like Dickens and Thackeray, listened meekly.
Nothing from the drab façade hints at the amazing rooms within. The property is as it was when the Carlyles lived there. You enter into a narrow hall, directly before a steep stairwell. The Carlyle’s kept separate bedrooms on the second and third floors, but the fourth is remarkable: Carlyle’s attic study built without windows, a large retractable “skylight,” and double-walls to cut back on noise. In the basement kitchen, there’s a narrow bed for a servant. In the Carlyle’s 35 years at the house, they employed 32 different maids-of-all-work. Must have been the worst job if even Victorian-era servants were throwing in the towel. Sad servitude aside, there’s not a more perfect example of a middle-class Victorian home.
Haddon Hall, Derbyshire
Arguably, the most romantic and brooding house ever if three adaptations of Jane Eyre were filmed there. I’ve never visited a house that had such presence. Maybe it’s because the 11th century hall just looms the moment you enter its sloping courtyard. The paving stones are so old, uneven and tilted beneath your feet, you enter with your foundation already shaken, and once you enter the perfectly-preserved medieval hall, you sense its ghosts have never left.
Chiswick Gardens, Richmond
From Rysbrack’s paintings of Chiswick House, we know the care and attention the Earl of Burlington took in creating one of England’s most gorgeous pleasure gardens. The 18th century garden is the most serene, and surprising, landscape I’ve ever encountered. I’ve been drawn to the Orange Tree Garden again and again, and set a pivotal scene in my newest book there. The Neo-Palladian house is gorgeous, and rightly draws much attention, but the gardens! There’s something magical in how the past comes to life in them.
The Mile Drive, Gloucestershire
Between the villages of Chipping Campden and Broadway, there is a mile-long stretch of grass hemmed in by woods. The old carriage road between the villages is now a hiking trail, and you can easily imagine yourself a Regency-era woman seeing the same landscape to do a bit of shopping. This is still my most exhilarating hike ever, no mountains, no sheer cliffs—just a silent stretch of grass.
Calke Abbey, Derbyshire
To reach shy, secluded Calke Abbey, set in the middle of a vast landscape-park, I hiked from the main road, down the long, winding drive, past the gatehouse, into a herd of staring long-horn cattle (not fun), around a brick ice house embedded in the earth, and over a rise for my first glimpse of the house.
Calke Abbey is a beautiful ruin of a country house. The stone is dark with age, with moss clinging to its corners. Built in the early 1700’s, Calke would house generations of the eccentric Harpur-Crewe family until 1985, when a death tax of 8 million pounds (on an estate valued at 14) forced the transfer of the property to England’s National Trust for preservation.
The Harpur-Crewes were both shy of society and intellectually ravenous, so a secluded mansion-cum-museum was really perfect. Their amassed collection of art, books and zoological specimens was left largely intact, and in receiving these treasures, The National Trust decided to use Calke as an illustration of the decline of the aristocratic country house amidst crippling death taxes and the passage of time.
Rather than display the antiques prettily, the only preservation work has been to stop further deterioration. What’s left is a house frozen in time: marble busts shoved in a pantry, stuffed animal heads strewn across a bed, stables filled with crumbling carriages, and a gardener’s bothy with 19th century tools. There is a haunting sadness walking through those cluttered rooms, with your vision split between 18th century splendor, and the hopelessness of a family unable to keep their legacy intact.
Over 50 more images can be found on my pinterest board for Calke Abbey, if you'd like to see!
Originally posted at USA Today HEA, on Sept. 8, 2016