Erddig: ‘Where fragrance, peace and beauty reign’ (Philip Yorke II)

A week ago, Steph and I headed 100 miles northeast from home to visit Belton House in Lincolnshire. On Thursday, it was 75 miles northwest, just south of Wrexham in North Wales, to visit Erdigg Hall, a Restoration house built between 1684 and 1687, and standing in 1200 acres. It was the home to the Yorke family for 250 years, although it didn’t come into their possession until 1733. Seven generations!  Here is an interesting Erddig timeline.

Interestingly, we discovered a family connection between the Yorkes of Erddig and the Custs of Belton. Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Cust, Speaker of the House of Commons, married Philip Yorke I in July 1770, three years after he inherited Erddig. Philip Yorke I was author of the The Royal Tribes of Wales, published in 1799.

Erddig (pronounced Erthigg) is a veritable Aladdin’s Cave. Over the centuries, the Yorkes hardly threw anything away; what’s on display today at Erdigg is a fraction of what the National Trust has in storage (more than 30,000 items). There are even vintage cars and old bicycles in some of the outbuildings. In that respect, Erddig must be almost unique among National Trust properties in that all its contents are ‘original’ – somewhat like Calke Abbey in Derbyshire.

The main entrance of Erddig Hall, facing west towards the Welsh hills

This is the rear of the house, facing east, overlooking the formal gardens and lake.

In 1947, disaster almost struck. Following nationalization of the coal industry, the coal mines just beyond the Erddig estate began to mine underneath the house – contrary to what had been apparently agreed over decades if not centuries with the owners of the private mine. The result was massive subsidence, up to five feet on one side of the house. Faced with significant expenditures to make the property safe and not falling into further disrepair, and with no family to pass it on to, the last Squire, Philip Yorke III bequeathed the estate, house and all contents to the National Trust in 1973.

It took four years to carry out all the work necessary to the house, and rehabilitate the gardens. In June 1977, Erddig was opened to the public. This is Erddig’s Ruby Jubilee, 40 years. And the planting designs in the formal garden reflect this, as you will note from many of the photos I have chosen to illustrate this post.

Structurally, the house is aligned north-south, and is a long ‘thin’ building, with a line of rooms along each side and a narrow corridor in between. There’s a grand staircase at the northern end, leading down to the family chapel. Stairs at the south end gave access to all floors for the servants.

A fine complex of red brick out buildings is located on the south side of the house, with a sawmill, workshops, stables and a coach house among others.

Delightful, formal gardens are laid out to the rear (east side) of the house. It’s hard to imagine what the overgrown gardens must have looked like when the National Trust took over Erddig. The fruits of 40 years labour and TLC are apparent in abundance. There are more extensive walks through the park, but we didn’t take any of these.

The National Trust has carefully laid out a route for visitors to enjoy Erddig Hall. The entrance to the house is through the ‘working’ wing of the house through the bakery, scullery and laundry, along a servants’ passage with offices for the housekeeper, butler, and estate manager.

What is also interesting is that the Yorkes ‘celebrated’ their staff, and apparently were very conscientious for their welfare. The servants’ passage is lined with photos of servants from as early as the mid-19th century.

One of the most striking rooms on the ground floor (at the south end, and east side) is the Dining Room, with its pillars and impressive paintings.

Further along are the Saloon (with its unusual metal ceiling), the Tapestry Room, Chinese Room and Chapel.

On the front of the house are the Library, the Entrance Hall (Music Room), and Drawing Room.

On the First Floor are several bedrooms: Red, White, and Blue as well as the State Bedroom with some of the Hall’s oldest artefacts; and the Nursery. There is also access to attic bedrooms on the top floor.

Erddig was so much more than we expected, and well worth the two hour plus travel time from north Worcestershire. I think we were lucky to hit the gardens at just the right time of the season. Everything was at its best and in full bloom. Credit goes to the Erddig garden staff.

Squire Philip Yorke III must have been quite a remarkable man. He died peacefully while attending a church service, in 1978. These quotes from his diary sum up the Yorke family outlook on life.

“Well, tests ain’t fair. Those that study have an unfair advantage. It’s always been that way.” (Allan Dare Pearce)

Letters will be dropping through mailboxes all over England and Wales this week. High school students are anxiously waiting for their Advanced or A Level exam results. Fifty years ago I was in the same boat.

I’d sat my exams—GCE A Levels in Biology, Geography, English Literature, and General Studies (set by the Joint Matriculation Board)—a few weeks earlier in June, just as the Six Day War broke out between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

Then it was the long wait, constantly full of nagging doubts that I would make the grade to get into university. I nearly didn’t!

I had received offers of places at King’s College and Queen Mary College, University of London, and the University of Southampton. But I’d already decided that if I met their offer (of three Cs) I would accept the place at Southampton to study for a BSc Combined Honours degree in Botany and Geography.

To fill in the time, I took a summer job working as a driver’s mate on lorries (trucks) delivering butter all over the country for Adams Butter, a local company in my home town of Leek in north Staffordshire. Anyway, about a week after I’d received my exam results, having arrived back at the Adams depot late one afternoon from a trip to Liverpool, the supervisor handed me a message that my dad had left there during the course of the day. The message was short and sweet: Southampton wants you! What a relief!

And it really was a relief, because my exam results were not quite up to snuff. Just Grade C for Biology and Geography, and Grade E for English Literature and General Studies. I hadn’t quite met the Southampton offer. However, Lady Luck must have been on my side, because I was accepted on to the course, and duly set of for Southampton in early October to join four other students on the same course.

Burning the candle at only one end
I was not a good student, but I did enjoy being at university.

I scraped through a Geology course in my first year at Southampton. One of the other Botany and Geography students (I only remember he was another Michael, and he came from Birmingham) failed that course, and since there were no re-sit exams in those days (1968), he had to withdraw. Now we were four.

Come Final Exams (or Finals) in May 1970, I was awarded a Lower Second Class degree (often denoted 2:2 or 2ii), with an overall score of 58% apparently, just shy of the Lower Second / Upper Second boundary of 60%. My classmates, John, Stuart and Jane, were awarded Upper Seconds.

Now I should add, for the benefit of my readers outside the UK, that exams are marked on a scale of 1 – 100%, right across the scale. At university, the pass mark was 40%. A First Class degree merited 70% and higher. There were no transcripts, just an overall classification (such as First, Upper Second, Lower Second, etc.) that, for reasons I’ll mention shortly, is increasingly falling out of favour. Fortunately when I was an undergraduate, Finals exams were based just on the courses taken in the third or final year of the degree course. I’m not sure when the changes were made, but in earlier years, Finals were often based on courses taken throughout the whole degree course over three years.

In February 1970, I had applied for a place on a recently established MSc Course on Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources in the Department of Botany at the University of Birmingham under the direction of Professor Jack Hawkes. Once I had my BSc under my belt I had to wait for a confirmation from Birmingham. Professor Hawkes very quickly told me that he would take me on the course despite my 2:2, but funding was a problem. No student grant available. I didn’t hear back from him until late August or early September that he had been able to find a small maintenance grant (just sufficient to keep body and soul together), and that my tuition fees would be paid by the university.

I redeemed myself at Birmingham. The course was all I expected, the subject matter fired my enthusiasm and, for the first time, I learned how to study efficiently, and take and pass exams with flying colours. The rest is history. Professor Hawkes took me on as his PhD student, and I started a great career in international agricultural research.

I remember leaving his office after I had successfully defended my thesis in October 1975. I think I must have danced a little jig down the corridor, reflecting that I had just taken (and passed) my last exam. Ever! Now that really was a milestone.

The tables turned
Less than six years later, in April 1981, I returned to Birmingham as Lecturer in the Department of Plant Biology (Botany having changed its name in the interim). As a faculty member I developed and taught various courses at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, setting and marking exams for each.

There is growing concern about grade inflation, and the number of top degrees that are now being awarded. In my graduation year (1970) at Southampton, there were no Firsts in Botany, and from a class of maybe 40 Geography undergraduates, there were only two. There were certainly more 2:2s awarded that 2:1 degrees.

That’s not the case today; most undergraduates obtain a top degree. Remarkable! Does that mean they are better students than we were? Perhaps. It might also reflect more generous decisions while marking exam papers, some justified no doubt, others not. Let me explain.

In the UK, undergraduate degree courses and exams are monitored by External Examiners, with the aim of ensuring standards and equability across universities and degree courses. When it came to Finals exams and course work for the Biological Sciences degree at Birmingham, we marked on a 15 point scale, with 13 and above equating to a score of 70% plus or First Class. I didn’t mark my first Finals papers until May/June 1982. Even then, External Examiners were questioning the low number of First Class degrees being awarded in Biological Sciences, and encouraged staff to use the whole marking range. Many staff were reluctant to awards marks higher than 13 (70-75%) for work that clearly merited a higher mark for a First Class answer. As final degree classification was based on the aggregate score for all examinations taken, higher scores in one would compensate for any lower ones elsewhere with, of course, a minimum number of First Class marks having been awarded. Awarding scores of 14 and 15 was, for some, a tough examination culture change.

On reflection, I did not find it that challenging to assign appropriate marks. I remember giving one second year undergraduate a score 0% for his answer to a question about breeding systems in flowering plants and their relevance to taxonomy. His answer consisted of a single paragraph about goldfish!

On another occasion I gave a score of 100% to one of my MSc students (who subsequently went on to complete a PhD under the supervision of my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd and myself). 100%? Is that really possible? As I reviewed her answer to a question about the origins of agriculture, I came to the conclusion that it was as good as anyone might be expected to achieve. It was a consistent and well-reasoned discussion that I could not fault, especially since there was only one hour in which to answer.

Students are perhaps under greater pressure today than my generation was. Everyone needs—and probably expects—a top degree. But I find it hard to believe that half a class of students merit a First Class degree. I think it’s about time that we adopted a detailed transcript system (I know there was talk of this at Birmingham after I left in 1991), that provides documentary evidence of a student’s strengths and weaknesses, if any.

Schools are under pressure to ensure that students achieve the minimum expected grades in their GCSE exams. Universities want to demonstrate their academic worth, leading to better employment prospects for students with top degrees. It’s an academic rat race, and one that I’m glad to have left behind many years ago.


The perfect country house . . . a stunning English treasure

Standing in 1300 acres on the northern outskirts of Grantham in Lincolnshire, Belton House must be one of the National Trust’s jewels, though perhaps not quite on the same scale as either Waddesdon Manor or Kingston Lacy.

Built in the 1680s for Sir John Brownlow, Belton House is an elegant Restoration mansion that retains much of its original structure externally, but which has been remodelled from time-to-time internally over the past 300 years to meet changing demands for its occupancy. English architect James Wyatt had a major influence on the redesign of parts of Belton House in the late 18th century, as he did on many country houses.

The Brownlow fortune came from sheep and wool and, like may wealthy families, the construction of a large home was a sine qua non. Belton House remained the family seat of the Brownlow and Cust families into the 1980s.

The south front – and main entrance – of Belton House

The north front overlooking a parterre garden

We visited Belton House last Friday. Since we became members in 2011, we have ‘picked all the low-hanging fruit’, more or less (visiting most if not all properties within 50 miles or so of home), so must now travel further afield as active (and enthusiastic) ‘Trusters’.

Belton House is almost exactly 100 miles from home, door-to-door. The ‘best’ route (A38-M42-M6-M69-A46-A52-A607) on Google Maps indicated a journey of about 1 hr 40 minutes. And that’s how long it took (although somewhat slower on the return journey after 2:30 pm as the Friday afternoon traffic picked up).

Belton has much to offer: the house itself, formal gardens, long walks through the park, and one of the Trust’s largest adventure playgrounds for children. No wonder the car park was quite full when we arrived before 11 am, and filled up even further by mid-afternoon.

Not being entirely sure of the weather on Friday (fortunately it remained dry although did become quite overcast for a while around noon), we decided to take in the gardens and the grounds close to the house as far as the Boathouse, Lake and Maze (17 on the map below).

The Boathouse was built in the 1820s in a Swiss chalet style. From a distance the walls appear to be made from woven panels of rushes or the like. But no, the walls are solid with a sculpted surface to resemble panels.

A short distance from the east face of the house is the Mirror Pond (16), from which the house can be seen in all its glory, and reflected in the Pond.

A small maze offers a challenge to many of Belton’s younger (and older) visitors.

To the east of the house a long avenue of trees draws you towards a rather high ha-ha, and beyond that more parkland rises to Belmont Tower a further mile out. From the house’s main entrance there is also a mile-long drive through a deer park leading up to the front door. How magnificent it must have been to arrive by horse-drawn carriage and met by footmen. The views are stunning but of course we are seeing the parkland today as the house architects envisioned them three centuries ago, with majestic mature trees spread across the landscape.

On the north side of the house there are two formal gardens: a 19th century parterre, and another with pond and fountain laid out in front of a very impressive Orangery (14).

Much of the house is open to the public. We opted not to take the below stairs tour, which lasted 50 minutes. First, given the long journey home, we wanted to maximise our viewing of the main parts of the house. Second, a tour of this type would probably have involved standing around as the tour guide described each room; since I broke my leg at the beginning of 2016, I no longer find standing still comfortable .

All rooms on Upper Ground Floor are open to the public.

Marble Hall
Not particularly large by some country house standards, the Marble Hall is elegantly proportioned, with an array of portraits on the walls, and fine ceramics around the perimeter. On the east wall is a large portrait of Sir John Cust, 3rd Bt (1718-1770) who was twice Speaker of the House of Commons. A couple of portraits have fine wood carving surrounds, reminiscent of the work of Grinling Gibbons (d. 1721) to whom some of this work has been attributed. We first saw his exquisite work during our visit to Sudbury Hall earlier this year.

Staircase Hall
What an elegant staircase, climbing in three sweeps to the first floor. It’s lined with some fine portraits, and overlooks a black and white marbled floor, a continuation from the Marble Hall.

Blue Dressing Room
Adjacent to the Blue Bedroom, this small room has some interesting treasures: a whole array of paintings, including the one shown here which portrays the Madonna and Child, attributed to Italian painter Pier Francesco Fiorentino from the 15th century. Behind the door is a cabinet made from lapis lazuli. And some intricate and very beautiful carving on the fireplace surround.

Blue Bedroom
This is the oldest bed in the house, and has a fine view over the parkland and main entrance driveway from the south.

Chapel, Gallery, and Drawing Room
In the Drawing Room hand two fine 17th century tapestries by Huguenot weaver John Vanderbank, modelled on tapestries owned by Queen Mary II at Kensington Palace.

The Saloon has views over the parterre garden on the north side, and has several interesting features, paintings, and pieces of furniture.

Tyrconnel Room
This room has undergone a number of changes over the centuries. This is an impressive portrait of Viscount Tyrconnel (1690-1754) wearing his robes as a Knight of the Order of the Bath. The wide floorboards show the Brownlow coat of arms.

Red Drawing Room
This room was rather dimly lit (although these poor quality photos don’t show that).

What caught my fancy in the Study were the gold busts lining the top of the west wall.

Tapestry Room
This is, in my opinion, undoubtedly the most elegant room in the whole house, and has undergone several changes of use over the centuries. It’s warm, intimate, inviting, and lined with tapestries that, at one time, were found in the attic rooms being used as carpets! The tapestries depict the life of ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes.

One can imagine enjoying a welcome gin and tonic in this room at the end of stressful day. On the piano is a photograph of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson (it looks like one’s I’ve seen from their wedding in 1937. The Duke certainly spent time at Belton. It’s not certain if Wallis did.

Breakfast Room
There are 20th century portraits of the Cust family in this room.

Hondecoeter Room
Swans seem to be a theme in this room which became a dining room in 1876. The large canvasses by 17th century painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter were installed then. A larger canvas was sold to a buyer in the USA as it did not fit in this room. The fireplace came from another family property.

On a table by the window, overlooking the parterre, is a large vessel (a soup tureen, a wine cooler?) made from more than 41 kg of solid silver. It was commissioned by Speaker Cust, referred to earlier. He died, however, before the vessel was completed.

On the First Floor, some apartments are still reserved for the Cust family if they care to visit, and therefore not open to the public. The Cretonne Bedroom was closed as well.

Yellow Bedroom
The Yellow Bedroom is immediately above the Blue Bedroom, and also benefited from structural changes that James Wyatt made, bricking up windows on the east and west walls, leaving just the windows overlooking the south landscape. You can see how these changes were made on the photograph below, on the farthest side of the house.

Chinese Bedroom
This is a quirky room, with 18th century wallpaper designed specifically for the room, but apparently not hung until about 1840. The bamboo door surrounds are painted not made from bamboo.

Queen’s Bedroom
This room was redecorated in 1840 for the visit of Queen Adelaide, widow of King William IV, and has been known as the Queen’s Bedroom ever since. Her monogram adorns the bed’s headboard.

Ante Library and Library
The Library is approached from one side from an Ante Library, and from the main staircase on the other. It has a domed ceiling. High on the walls at either end of the Library are ‘frescoes’ painted by daughters of the Cust family. The one shown here was painted by younger daughter Lucy Cust (bn. 1784).

This was originally a bedroom but in the 1770s was remodeled by James Wyatt as a dressing room. Only some of Wyatt’s designs remain (such as the ceiling). Its presence design and use dates from 1963.

Windsor Bedroom
I suppose the claim to fame of this bedroom is that it was used by HRH The Prince of Wales while undergoing jet aircraft training at nearby RAF Cranwell in 1971. He apparently preferred to stay at Belton House than in the officers’ mess at Cranwell. Maybe this room was also used by the Duke of Windsor, presumably when he was still Prince of Wales. Or did he visit as Edward VIII?

West Staircase
Not as grand as the main staircase, this one is nevertheless quite impressive. It was originally used just by servants, but in 1810, the 1st Earl made the west entrance into the family entrance. The large painting shows the Cust family in 1741. You can see the West Entrance (opening into a courtyard) in the house photograph under the Yellow Bedroom (above).

Belton House certainly has a lot to offer with its mix of indoor and outdoor interests. The National Trust volunteers were very knowledgeable and freely shared intriguing details of the house’s history. For a day trip, four hours on the road, just under four hours at Belton, it was quite tiring. And I was quite relieved to arrive home and enjoy a late afternoon cup of tea. But as I mentioned from the outset, we will now have to travel further and further afield to visit new properties, and probably plan for several overnight stays into the bargain.

Put Belton House on your National Trust ‘bucket list’!