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July Jaunts, part one - Shugborough

July 11th, 2005 (08:50 pm)
current mood: lecturing

It's just over two hours from Woodstock to Stafford; that is, on a Sunday when one decides to line the pockets of a toll road consortium and use the M6 Toll to bypass the Birmingham conurbation. The idea was to visit Shugborough Hall, of which I hadn't heard but which I'd noticed in The National Trust Handbook. The house and estate are on the edge of Cannock Chase, just after what seems to be a fault line as the ground rises sharply and becomes heavily forested. I hadn't read the handbook entry properly, and was not prepared for the £3 parking charge levied by the property's leaseholder and financier, Staffordshire County Council, nor that in order to see the whole property I would have to pay a further £2, as NT members only get to see the house for free. Arriving at 2.30 I had two and a half hours to see everything, and didn't manage it, missing the grounds (including a monument bearing an inscription that ensures Shugborough is a place of pilgrimage for enthusiasts of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail) and the working farm. I started, not with the house, but with the Staffordshire County Museum, in the servants' quarters. The first exhibit, and one of those I best remember, was a display of nineteenth-century carriages, mostly from the collection of the twentieth earl of Shrewsbury, who lived at Ingestre House and Alton Towers (yes, where the theme park now is), both also in Staffordshire, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Shrewsbury experimented with different kinds of rubber tyre for carriages and then for motor cars. Shugborough itself belonged to the Anson family, earls of Lichfield from 1831, but only one of their carriages remains, probably because it was used by the first earl and his family to escape the sale of much of the house's contents in 1842.

The Ansons needed to raise money because their house was grander than their estate could support; the family had been raised from modest country gentry by the actions of Commodore George Anson, who had sailed round the world between 1740 and 1744, capturing en route the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, which carried treasure from Spain's American colonies to the mother country. Anson made off with prize money of £800,000 for himself, much of which he turned over to his brother Thomas, who owned the house, along with a collection of Chinese porcelain. By 1960, when the present, fifth, earl inherited, there was not enough money coming in to pay the death duties and Lord Lichfield handed over the estate to the National Trust; as he could not provide an endowment the estate was leased to Staffordshire County Council; Lord Lichfield rents the top floor as a flat, presumably from investments and from his income as a photographer.

Staffordshire County Museum ensures that the property is not solely associated with the Ansons. There are costumed guides,
who are supposed to interact with visitors in character, but I was quite glad that the man I spoke to in the butler's pantry did not, as otherwise I doubt that I would have had as good a conversation about the weight of the head coachman's uniform as I did. The servant's quarters were extensive and, following reconstructions of the kitchen and laundry room as they would have appeared in the late nineteenth century, there are galleries including a late nineteenth-century schoolroom, histories of Stafford-based businesses such as Lotus shoes, with an emphasis on the conditions of the workers and changes in the manufacturing process, and (inevitable in the modern age) a history of the lavatory, with examples including earth closets as used widely in the UK until the 1950s. There is also a reconstructed brewery, where the estate actually brewed beer from 1990 to 1997 until they decided it was better to franchise the name 'Shugborough' to a local independent brewery, Titanic.

I am unable to visit a historic house without visiting the tea room. Although the menu affects the conceit that the time period is the late nineteenth century this is not carried further and the usual soft drinks and beers - plus Titanic's Shugborough Ale - are available, as well as coffee and of course tea. Although, like most of the estate, not run by the National Trust (whose direct influence reaches no further than the gift shop) the cafe stops serving hot food at 2.30, so it was carrot cake and coffee for me. The cafe was decorated with a selection of photographs by Lord Lichfield, chiefly those of his relatives in the royal family.

My final port of call was the house itself. It's run by Staffordshire County Council, although belonging to the Trust, and there wasn't a proper NT guidebook, with lists of artworks and furniture, and their makers, available. Nonetheless several of the rooms are impressive and several items from George Anson's circumnavigation of the world, including the remains of his ship's figurehead, are on display. There are lots of hunting pictures, as after George and Thomas Anson successive generations of their nephews (neither had a son to inherit) were dedicated to chasing foxes on horseback. There's also a gallery of photographs by the present Lord Lichfield upstairs, concentrating on his projects for charities. The pictures are celebrity-led and were probably of more interest to those more into celebrity culture than I am.

NB - Links are to Wikipedia rather than TGW in order to avoid revealing my position in time and space to the Time Lords - I like looking as I am, and don't want to risk dematerialization...