Here’s a little insight just for my loyal blog readers. You probably already know I’m working on a second book in collaboration with the Duchess of York. We’ve decided that the heroine, Lady Mary, will be a bit of an amateur sleuth with a reputation for discretion. This requires her to visit a number of stately homes where a crime has been committed. My recent visit to London to promote Her Heart For A Compass provided an excellent opportunity to do a bit of sleuthing of my own, researching possible locations.
I’ve been wanting to visit Sissinghurst Castle for ages, and thanks to my friend Peter, finally got the opportunity. It was a bit of a grey, mizzly day, but the autumn colours were still lovely, and the weather gave the place a really mystical atmosphere. Sissinghurst is said to be the most famous Twentieth Century garden in England, and when you visit, you can see why. Designed by the writer Vita Sackville West and her diplomat husband Harold Nicholson, it is constructed as a series of linked outdoor ‘rooms’, each with a very distinct character.
The ‘castle’ was originally Elizabethan, but what is left of it forms a very strange living space – like the garden, it comprises of a series of different spaces, none of them connected up, and all having a very distinct character. Sadly, the tower where Vita did her writing was closed on the day we visited, but Harold’s personal library was open, as was the main library – and oh, the books! The gardens are intriguing, a series of statues provide focal points, while benches tucked into niches seem designed for day-dreaming or writing, and a beautiful moat-like stream surrounds it all. Like the couple who created it (with a host of gardeners, I might add) the whole is entirely unconventional, quirky and enchanting.
On one of my other rare free days, Susan, who is one of two researchers working with us on the Lady Mary book, took me on an absolutely wonderful tour including a drive through Eton to Windsor Castle (which I’ve never actually visited, though it’s on my list) and lunch in the village where they film the tv series Midsommer Murders – we survived unscathed despite the village having the highest murder rate in the world! We also visited two very different stately homes with very different gardens.
Grey’s Court is in Oxfordshire near Henley where I had appeared with the Duchess of York at the Literary Festival a few days before. It’s on a small scale, and it’s one of those houses that show the joins, so to speak, with a medieval tower, an Elizabethan core, and some Georgian extensions as well as a host of work done by the family who took on the ruined house and gardens in the Twentieth Century. It’s still a family home and has a very comfortable and lived-in feel about it, but the gardens are magical. On a relatively small-scale compared to Sissinghurst, they are similar in consisting of a number of zones, with walled gardens, fountains and statues, cosy nooks, a maze and an astonishing wisteria walk. The house itself was closed for our visit, but Susan gifted me a guide to it, which has whetted my appetite to go back.
Cliveden has been a house that I’ve wanted to visit for a very long time. Notoriously the place where the politician Profumu conducted his affair with Christine Keeler, it has been a film set countless times, and today operates as a luxury hotel. The gardens themselves are quite simply fabulous. On an epic scale, with some spectacular views back to the house, they seemed to me designed for intrigue through the ages. The views from the chapel out over the Thames are breath-taking, giving you a real sense of the scale of the Duke of Buckingham’s vision for this truly splendid country estate. I would have loved to spend more time there, and this was definitely my first and not my only visit. I’ve already read Natalie Livingstone’s MISTRESSES OF CLIVEDEN, but I have now also bought NOBLE AMBITIONS, which looks at the history of the country house, including Cliveden, in the post-war period.
So, will any or all of these houses feature in the new book? Perhaps! But whether the do or not I had tremendous fun visiting them. I hope I have given you a flavour of their charms and if you ever get the opportunity to visit any of them I would strongly recommend that you do.