National Trust sites, England

By Helen Harper
This item appears on page 27 of the November 2015 issue.
Hartwell House Hotel & Spa in Buckinghamshire. Photos by Helen Harper

A few years ago, the Royal Oak Foundation, the American partner of the British National Trust, began offering tours of the UK through Just Go Holidays, now known as Albion Journeys (Festival House, Jessop Ave., Cheltenham, Glos., GL50 3SH, U.K.; in the US, 866/834-8358,

Having taken two of these tours, my friend and housemate, Mary Campbell, and I highly recommend them as pleasant ways to see properties otherwise inaccessible to those of us who no longer drive in England.

The accommodations were lovely, the food was delicious, the scheduling of tours and events was sane, allowing free time to wander, the groups were small (15-16), the prices were reasonable and the guides were excellent. We felt lucky to have Lynda Newton as our director for both tours; we enjoyed her humor, knowledge and efficiency.

• We enjoyed “The Garden of England & Artistic Retreats of the South Coast” for £1,695 (near $2,570) each, May 25-31, 2014. 

The highlight was Great Dixter, the 15th-century manor house and gardens of Christopher Lloyd, who wrote the garden column in Country Life for decades. Despite the drizzle, we all took hundreds of photos of the colorful flora. Libraries on two floors contained more books on plants and gardening than one could imagine even existed.

Reconstructed administrative room at Bletchley Park.

A second favorite was the Charleston Farmhouse, home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who left their artwork on every available surface, from walls and fireplaces to dishes and lampshades. The garden was small but charming. 

Other attractions included the Eltham Palace (with Art Deco interior) near London, Vita Sackville-West’s and Harold Nicolson’s Sissinghurst, the homes of Kipling (Bateman’s) and Darwin (Down House), the 14th-century thatched Alfriston Clergy House and a private lunch at Firle Place.

Our 4-night stay at Buxted Park Hotel (Buxted, Uckfield, East Sussex; was a great treat — the most delightful and elegant hotel we’ve ever enjoyed. Lovely place, lovely food, lovely people. (We usually stay in small, family-owned hotels or convents in Italy.)

• We took the “Commemorating Churchill” tour for £2,250 ($3,415) each, May 16-26, 2015. 

Our favorite lodging on this trip was Hartwell House & Spa (Oxford Road near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire; www.hartwell, a National Trust hotel, but Nutfield Priory Hotel & Spa (Nutfield Road, Redhill, Surrey; was a close second.

Chartwell, Churchill’s home from 1924 on, was our favorite property, a stately but homey red-brick house covered in wisteria and white clematis and perched over sweeping lawns and colorful gardens. Many of Churchill’s paintings were displayed. 

Our first day took us to the Churchill War Rooms in London. These were definitely worth a visit, but they would have been better on a trip to London than included on a tour. We seemed to spend most of that day on the bus, stuck in London’s horrid traffic.

A visit to Bletchley Park, of Alan Turing and Enigma machine fame, was one reason we took this trip. It did not disappoint, but two hours wasn’t long enough; we needed a whole day there. (It’s accessible from London on the train.)

A topiary bird, covered with flowers, near the aviary at Waddesdon Manor, which was built in England by the Rothschild family. Photo by Helen Harper

Blenheim Palace was not our favorite, having been designed as a war memorial instead of a home. 

The Rothschild manor, Waddesdon, was too ornate for us, but we enjoyed the wine tasting, gardens and aviary there.

Polesden Lacey — where the Queen Mother spent her honeymoon with her husband, the future King George VI — was charming.

And I finally made it to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. This time, even though it was a Monday (again), the museum was open, since it was a bank holiday. It was worth the wait to see this fabulous place.

The schedule for the Royal Oak Foundation tours seems to be available in the fall. We highly recommend taking a tour.


Mill Valley, CA