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Lyme Park - a star location on the border of the Peak District

PUBLISHED: 11:33 26 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:15 20 February 2013

Lyme Park - a star location on the border of the Peak District

Lyme Park - a star location on the border of the Peak District

Mike Smith travels to Lyme Park on the north-west border of the Peak District where he finds lots of exciting new attractions

The hall at Lyme Park is superlative in so many ways. As well as being the largest house in Cheshire, it is the highest stately home in England; the central bay of its north front has been called the craziest Elizabethan frontispiece to be found anywhere; the library contains the most important printed book in the National Trusts entire collection and the Stag Parlour is furnished with chairs covered in material from a cloak worn at the scaffold by the victim of one of the most notorious executions in our history; the house was occupied for 548 years by members of the same family and they were the keepers and breeders of one of Englands most famous strains of dog.


To my mind, Lyme is superlative in another respect, because it provides a wonderful visitor experience not the type of admire but dont touch tour that once characterised visits to stately homes, but a make yourself at home visit, with members of the public being free to wander around most of the rooms without being confined to roped-off areas.


This year, visitors have four other treats in store: an exhibition that could help to solve a mystery surrounding one of the most romantic figures in our history; a chance to see an apparition that appeared during renovation work; an exhibition devoted to one of our best-loved childrens authors and two visitor experiences designed specifically for children.


The visitor season will be well underway when this article is published, but my trip to Lyme Park was made at a time when the staff and their army of volunteers were making preparations for the opening of the hall to the first visitors of the year. I made my entrance through the north front, which is one wing of the L-shaped Elizabethan house that was built in about 1570 for Sir Piers Legh VII. His family had first acquired the Lyme estate in 1398, when it was granted by Richard II to Piers Legh I on his marriage to Margaret Danyers, as reward for the heroic deeds of her grandfather who had rescued the Black Princes standard in the Battle of Crcy. The architect is unknown but, as Nikolas Pevsner observed, the exuberant central bay of the north range, which is embellished with tier upon tier of classical columns, pilasters and pediments, is the craziest frontispiece of its age.


In the 1720s, the Venetian architect Giacomo Leoni added a 15-bay south front, which he designed in a style that recalls Palladios Italian town houses. Leonis plan for a cupola that would have risen behind the massive projecting portico at the centre of his new wing was never carried out, but a huge square tower, or hamper, which was added a century later to create a bedroom area for servants, now sits where the cupola would have been. This box-like feature was designed by Lewis Wyatt, who also extended the east range. Despite being designed by three different architects working at three different times and in diverse styles, the house works so well as a whole that it was the perfect choice to play the part of Pemberley in the BBCs adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Its lake also features in the now iconic moment when Darcy, clothed in a damp shirt, meets Elizabeth for the first time since her rejection of his proposal.


In 1946, the Legh family ended their 548-year tenure by giving the house and its 1,400-acre park to the National Trust. Unfortunately, this wonderful gift was not accompanied by an endowment, so the Trust decided to lease the house to Stockport Corporation, which maintained it until 1994. Although it is now managed directly by the National Trust, with the help of 410 willing volunteers, Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council continues to provide some financial support.


The host for my visit was Georgina Ferguson, the Trusts enthusiastic Visitor Experience Manager, who makes sure that visitors of all ages get the most out of their tour of this great house by enabling them to get closer to its many treasures. She was delighted to tell me that only six of the 25 rooms that are open to the public have roped-off areas.


The Legh familys historical connections are immediately apparent in the entrance hall, where there is a large painting of Edward III and a full-length portrait of the Black Prince, which opens out on a hinge to provide a squint into the drawing room. Georgina showed me another odd memento of the familys royal associations by taking me to the Stag Parlour, where the chairs are upholstered in embroidered silk said to have been part of the cloak worn on the scaffold by King Charles I.


Throughout this year, Lyme is hosting an exhibition that commemorates a visit to the house that is said to have been made by Mary Queen of Scots when she was staying at Buxton to take the waters for her rheumatism. Called Mary Queen of Scots: Fact and Fiction, it features portraits of the Queen from the print collection of the National Portrait Gallery. Mary had a striking appearance, because she was far taller than most women of her time and is said to have been a great beauty. Her height is known to have been 5ft 11ins, but her appearance has long been a matter of conjecture, particularly as portraits of her painted after her death concentrated on dramatic effect, rather than historical accuracy. Mary did sit for some painters during her lifetime, most notably Nicholas Hilliard, the famous miniaturist, so it will be fascinating to compare his depiction with portraits from later years.


Also on display will be a replica of a 19th-century bust taken from the effigy of Mary Queen of Scots in Westminster Abbey and a plaque depicting the Mystic Marriage of St Catherine that is said to have been embroidered by Mary and given to Sir Piers Legh during her visit to Lyme. It is even said that she made marmalade during her visit, but evidence of this will not be on display!


In 1676, the Leghs hosted a visit by Mary Queen of Scots grandson, who was then the Duke of York but would later become James II. The bedroom that was set aside for him was re-decorated for the occasion in the fashionable style of the day and wall hangings were put in place for his visit. When tapestries that were subsequently hung in this room, which is known as the Yellow Bedroom, were removed for restoration, a ghostly image of the seventeenth-century hangings came to light. This had been caused by soot from the bedroom fire passing through the fabric and imprinting the design on the wall. Visitors can see this apparition for themselves.


Another fascinating exhibit is to be found in the library, where recent renovation has included a superb re-staining of the ceiling by David Wynne dubbed the Michelangelo of Lyme by Georgina Ferguson. At the time of my visit, volunteers were cleaning the books in a collection that includes a first edition of Sir Walter Raleighs Historie of the World, a Shakespeare second folio and the Caxton Missal, which is the only surviving example of the earliest known edition of the prayer book for the pre-Reformation English Mass. This jewel in the collection is too precious to handle, even in this hands-on house, but the National Trust has made available a facsimile copy, as well as a touch-screen version that enables visitors to turn the pages of this priceless book and even highlight and magnify interesting passages, including the numerous annotations added by family members.


A more recent book in the collection is Treasure on Earth by Phyllis Sandeman, the daughter of the second Lord Newton of Lyme. Written in 1952, it describes an Edwardian Christmas at the hall and memories of her childhood. Todays young visitors can act out her experiences by playing with Edwardian toys and a large dolls house provided for them in the Nursery Bedroom. Next Christmas, visitors both young and old will be able to see the manuscript of Beatrix Potters classic Christmas story The Tailor of Gloucester. This will be part of a Beatrix Potter exhibition comprising artefacts from the writers home in the Lake District.


Young visitors have permanent treats awaiting them in the grounds, which, together with the hall, lie entirely within the Peak District National Park and include formal gardens and a vast deer park. The famous Lyme mastiffs, which were uniquely bred at Lyme and often given as presents to royal households throughout Europe, have now died out, but children will be pleased to catch sight of red deer and Highland cattle, and they will be delighted to come across Crow Wood, a new adventure playground which includes opportunities for daredevil activities. Although there are sensible warning signs for parents and children, the element of risk is deliberate. As in the hall, where the National Trust has taken the risk of letting visitors get up close to treasures and artefacts, the risk is well worth taking.


The house and the Mary Queen of Scots exhibition are open between 26th February to 30th October, from Friday to Tuesday (11am to 5pm) each week. The garden is open seven days a week between those dates and the park is open all year. Telephone: 01663 762023. The Beatrix Potter exhibition will take place between November 2011 and February 2012. For details see www.nationaltrust.org.uk/Lyme

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