A former pigsty may not be the obvious choice for a romantic get-away or relaxing holiday, yet for those who stay in it, that’s exactly what it provides. Admittedly, this Victorian porcine residence near Whitby, North Yorkshire is no ordinary pigsty, (pictured below) with its neo-classical frontage and lingering sea views. But then there’s nothing ordinary about any of the historic buildings owned by the Landmark Trust.
The architectural charity boasts a portfolio of nearly 200 charming, unique and remarkable holiday properties, all of which have been saved from dereliction. There are castles and towers, ruins and follies, lighthouses and stately homes. From unassuming cottages to eccentric works of genius such as The Pineapple – an elaborate summerhouse in Dunmore, Scotland constructed in the form of its prickly namesake – all have their own story to tell.
The Trust was founded in 1965, by the banker and politician John Smith and his wife Christian. At that time the trend was to cull, rather than preserve historic buildings; the Euston Arch was brought down in 1961 and two years later a report called for the closure of a third of Britain’s 7,000 railway stations. The Smiths, who were already active in the world of conservation, came up with a pioneering plan to save heritage buildings from extinction – especially those too small or remote to capture the attention of the National Trust.
The Landmark Trust has succeeded in linking tourism with British heritage in a winning combination.
The aim was simple: to acquire and preserve special historic places and to let them out as holiday homes for income. Fifty years on, the ethos remains unchanged. Landmark saves imperilled buildings that would otherwise disappear, giving them a future by making them available as inspiring places to stay, while the income generated ensures they will never fall into decay again.
The first property to be restored to its former glory was Church Cottage, an abandoned caretaker’s house in Cardigan, Wales, from the 1850s. While John looked after architectural side of things, Christian concentrated on the interiors, including colour schemes, furnishings and textiles.
The first Landmark Handbook contained just six buildings for rent, but the Smiths worked tirelessly to give more and more at risk buildings new life. John was knighted for his services to heritage and by the time he died in 2007, the charity was a thriving organisation with properties all over Britain as well as a handful overseas.
Today’s Handbook is a weighty tome of nearly 200 varied properties.Of course, there are the perennial favourites like Luttrell’s Tower, a Georgian folly near Southampton, Astley Castle, a Saxon stronghold dating back to the 12th century in Nuneaton, Warwickshire and the London townhouse of 20th century poet John Betjeman. Other notable inclusions are a priory, a lock-keepers cottage, even a former prison gatehouse, along with 23 buildings on the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel.
Each property is exceptional in its own way and Caroline Stanford, Historian and Head of Engagement at the Landmark Trust says she is hard pressed to choose a favourite. “I’ve never been to a Landmark and not found it to be special and engrossing. Of course there are the spectacular ones, like The Pineapple or Tixall Gatehouse for their architecture, or Kingswear Castle or Clavell Tower for their amazing natural settings. But I find some of our humbler cottages equally fascinating for different reasons – for example, the chocolate-box hamlet of Coombe in Cornwall with its stream and orchard, or Shore Cottages in a sheltered cove in Caithness represent vanished ways of life that can be just as invigorating to experience. I always struggle to nominate a single favourite Landmark building, but the East Banqueting House in Chipping Campden has a special place in my heart – perhaps because I remember it as a derelict shell when I was a schoolgirl”.
Perhaps what really draws the visitors, is how staying in a period building captures the imagination in a way that no five star hotel ever could. The buzz of sleeping in a castle, a chapel, or even a railway station is what makes a Landmark retreat not just a holiday, but an experience.
As you’d expect, the interiors are sympathetically designed and furnished in harmony with the character of the building. Local heritage craftsmen are used where possible and there is an apprentice scheme, working with the Prince’s Foundation. HRH The Prince of Wales is the Trust’s patron.
Comfort is not neglected either and there are comfortable sofas and high quality modern mattresses. Each house has a History Album telling the building’s story as well as a Logbook – a kind of highbrow, handwritten TripAdvisor, full of the warming anecdotes and wistful reflections of previous visitors. ”Years spent as an archaeologist working on ruins cannot equal the pleasure of living in the real thing,” writes one. ”This is only our seventh Landmark but the stays in them represent the seven best times I’ve had in my life,” says another. While someone else remarks: ”Landmarks are not simply places to stay, but places in which it is a pleasure to stay.”
There are some notable modern omissions to Landmark holiday-lets. You won’t find hot-tubs or broadband, but Caroline Stanford insists this is not a cost-cutting measure, but a means of staying true to Landmark culture and integrity. ”Staying in our buildings is a chance to step off the treadmill of modern life, to spend time in a beautiful historic building that you occupy as your own. Our visitors tell us how they enjoy each other’s conversation, exploring the area, preparing and eating together, and perhaps most of all that they simply enjoy existing for a while in such a special setting. We don’t offer TVs or Wi-Fi, but that’s because our visitors tell us they actively appreciate their absence. People invariably leave a Landmark feeling invigorated and recharged – and often having already booked their next Landmark stay!”
So, is there a typical type of visitor? ”No!” says Caroline. ”Or at least only perhaps in their outlook on life. Landmarkers tend to be curious and a bit adventurous; most but not all appreciate history at some level; all appreciate lovely settings, and well-equipped and planned buildings. Dogs are welcome except where there is good reason – and children are welcome everywhere.”
In 2015, Landmark marked their fiftieth anniversary in a series of exciting ways – including a collaboration with acclaimed artist Antony Gormley. Five life-sized cast iron sculptures were installed at five Landmark properties, the installation, entitled LAND, celebrating the relationship between people, places and time that the Landmark Trust seeks to embody. The striking figures could be seen at Martello Tower in Suffolk, Clavell Tower in Dorset, Lundy Island, Lengthsman’s Cottage in Warwickshire and Saddell Bay on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. The artist himself said: “The sculptures identify the place where a particular human body once stood and anyone could stand, and in that respect they are open spaces empty of content and waiting for your attention.”
56,000 visitors currently hire out the self-catering properties for holidays each year. The rent covers the sizeable cost of looking after the buildings but the Trust relies on grants and voluntary sources of income to rescue further buildings at risk.
For Caroline Stanford it’s not just about providing enjoyment for holiday-makers, but about enriching the lives of locals, too. ”Everyone enjoys beautiful historic buildings in their own locality. Think how much poorer Britain’s landscape would be if none of our historic buildings had survived. Landmark’s buildings are part of the daily lives of everyone who walks or drives past them as part of their local scene.”
The Landmark Trust has come a long way in fifty years. But the job of protecting Britain’s heritage is far from over. 2015 also saw Landmark open three newly-restored historic buildings for holidays. The first was Hougoumont, a small apartment in the former gardener’s cottage where the course of European history was determined in the British victory at the Battle of Waterloo. The second, Belmont, was a Grade II* listed eighteenth-century villa in Lyme Regis. It had belonged to the pioneering businesswoman Eleanor Coade, who developed Coade stone, and was later owned by the British writer John Fowles, where he completed the “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”. The third addition to Landmark’s portfolio was St Edward’s Presbytery, a Grade I listed piece of A W N Pugin’s Gothic revival landscape in Ramsgate. The Presbytery had been on English Heritage’s Buildings at Risk register until Landmark intervened.
The Trust shows no signs of slowing down in their fifty-first year. They have recently embarked on their biggest project to date: an extensive, two-year restoration of a late-medieval farmhouse in the Black Mountains near Abergavenny. They have also succeeded in raising enough funds to start work on a cottage only accessible by train, built in 1863 for the Superintendent of the Ffestiniog Railway. Landmark has also set their sights on particularly-threatened categories of buildings, including twentieth-century military structures, seaside and leisure buildings, and transport structures. The Trust intends to pioneer the rescue of these historically important yet often-overlooked buildings.
And while the Landmark Trust has its work cut out rescuing these and other crumbling buildings from the invasion of bulldozers and ivy, for visitors perhaps the only challenge is deciding which piece of British heritage to stay in first.
Find out more: landmarktrust.org.uk
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