Ragley Hall, Warwickshire

Julia Bradbury discovers the perfect example of an English stately home, which has been in the same family for 300 years

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Living in the countryside is a dream for many of us, but a stately pile is a huge responsibility. An estate passed down from generation to generation may seem like a privilege, but it can be a huge burden – you do not want to be the one who loses the family home. So to keep the walls of the stately home from crumbling around them, many of these properties’ owners have branched out and thrown the (solid oak) doors open to the likes of you and me. Ragley Hall is one such estate.

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Open house

This Palladian mansion has been the seat of the Conway Seymour family since 1680. The estate consists of 6,500 acres including the park and gardens. The hall is still very much a family home. The Marquess and Marchioness of Hertford live on the top floor with their four children. The Seymours first opened the doors to the public in 1958 (entry was half a crown). They had to. To keep the place ticking over, without anyone even living in it, costs £250,000 a year. Then there are the running costs; oil for the heating (£40,000 a year), the constant re-wiring (£20,000 a year – some electricity bill!), a bit of maintenance (repointing chimney pots? £100,000.) And it’s all par for the course if you own a Grade-I listed building.

The mile-long drive curves through parkland peppered with ancient trees and gives a clue as to the grandeur that lies ahead. It’s all very well walking around an old building sucking up the history but it is so much more satisfying for the more inquisitive (ie nosy) among us to walk around someone’s home, isn’t it? To see the chairs they and their predecessors have sat in, the stairs they have climbed to bed and the cutlery used to eat their pie and mash.

Ragley, which surprisingly is Saxon for ‘rubbish dump’, is undoubtedly magnificent. You’ll marvel at the 21m (70ft)-long Great Hall with it’s stunning plasterwork and the shocking lemon dining room, suitable for state banquets and birthdays, complete with William IV chairs.

A grand painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds (which I helped the Marchioness deck in tinsel when Countryfile visited last December) hangs here. The piano in the music room dates from 1840, and an intriguing pastel mural of family members adorns the staircase.
The house was designed in 1680 by Robert Hooke, a friend of Sir Christopher Wren, and Capability Brown created the 400-acre parkland scheme. Pedigree through and through.

All to play for

But the Conway Seymours have been clever when it comes to visitors. There is so much more to do than take in a guided tour of the impressive house.

Weather-permitting, the kids can run wild in the Adventure Wood, which boasts an aerial runway, slides, rope bridge, climbing wall, swings and the cunning 3D maze. Take to the lake in a kayak, canoe, pedal or rowing boat, or try a pony ride or a sedate walk through the woodland and gardens.

Artistic leanings

There is a sculpture collection to meander through as well, and a new idea introduced this year at the Ragley Gallery and Studio – open days where guests watch the ‘Artist in Residence’ Dawn Harris at work.

Another smart idea for the kids is a forest school run by a qualified leader, who teaches the group essential skills such as den building, tree climbing and cooking.

The family line

When Hugh Edward Conway Seymour, the eighth Marquess of Hertford, inherited Ragley in 1940, most of the house was being used as a hospital. He and his wife moved into the house in 1956. The trustees at the time wrote to him, condemning the house and threatening to chop off both wings. Henry replied: “you will not destroy the house, or I will destroy myself”.

The restoration of the house and gardens, the running of the farms and woods on the Estate kept them busy for the next 35 years until 1991, when Ragley was handed over to Henry, the current Lord. I think Lord Seymour Senior would approve of the modern day Ragley.

Useful Information

HOW TO GET THERE

By car, Ragley Hall lies between the M5, M40 and M42. By train, take a West Midlands service to Wilmcote, Warwickshire, followed by a 15-minute taxi ride.

FIND OUT MORE

Ragley Estate
Alcester B49 5NJ
www.ragley.co.uk
01789 762090
Opening times for the hall and park vary – please contact Ragley or see their website
for details before visiting. Adults £8.50, children £5.50.

EAT

Terrace Café
Ragley Hall B49 5NJ
Top up on refreshments in the ground floor of Ragley Hall, with great views over the rose gardens and West Terrace.

STAY

The Arden Hotel
Waterside,
Stratford-upon-Avon
CV37 6BA
01789 298682
www.theardenhotelstratford.com
The beautiful hotel is right in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon and is a great base to start exploring the heart of England.

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NEARBY

Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Waterside,
Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 6BB
0844 800 1110
www.rsc.org.uk
Visit one of worlds best-known theatre companies. Go on a theatre tour, explore the free exhibitions or sit and relax watching a fantastic show.