“When John was first thinking about setting up the Landmark Trust, he said to me: ‘I’ve had an idea. If we were to restore historic buildings do you think people might stay in them?’ I said, ‘Yes, I think they might.’ He said ’Do you think they will stay in them in the winter?’ I said, ‘Of course not! You must be joking!’” Christian Smith, Landmark Trust co-founder
Despite our co-founder’s initial doubt as to Landmark’s popularity out of the traditional tourist season, demand for the new charity’s offering soon grew and dictated the availability of buildings in all seasons. By 1977 the Handbook asserted that Landmarks “are available, and meant to be used, all the year round, not just in summer”, and this ethos remains to this day.
With widespread upgrades in heating and an increasing number of solid fuel stoves in many buildings, Landmarks are now better than ever equipped for year-round occupancy. As a keen Landmarker, I share here the virtues of a winter stay through some of my favourite properties, perfect for out-of-season escapism.
Auchinleck House - the family home of the celebrated diarist and biographer of Dr. Johnson, James Boswell
The tradition of low season Landmarking began for me one January when my Mum and I, intending to arrange a short break in Venice, instead found ourselves booking Auchinleck House, not 50 miles from home, as an alternative getaway. This was not for a party of friends or family, but for the two of us alone. The first joy of winter-breaking is that the rates make indulgence eminently more affordable.
When the days are at their very shortest, 4pm arrival poses the added adventure of approaching at dusk. At Auchinleck, we found nothing so exciting as the site of glowing windows as we advanced along the drive, the silhouetted façade a dramatic prelude to the following morning’s snowy carpet.
The glowing windows of Auchinleck House in Ayrshire, Scotland
The house and estate offered veritable hibernation, as we soon forgot the outside world and revelled in its cocoon. Shamelessly late mornings led to brief explorations of the grounds, as we admired our temporary home from every vantage point before returning to decide how best to set the dining table for two (we settled on the very centre) and which end of the library to colonise each evening.
Feeling a little more sociable on our next venture, we embarked in a group of four to Clytha Castle as November nights advanced towards the next winter. A castle more in style than scale, its theatrical screen walls and turrets appeared at their most romantic amidst the fading autumn colours of the surrounding landscape.
Clytha Castle near Abergavenny, Monmouthshire
If long summer days are the invitation for extended sightseeing, then the chill of early nightfall is surely the perfect excuse to immerse yourself in your chosen building for as long as possible, making the very most of an all too brief custodianship.
Though tempted out by the towers of nearby Castell Coch, and a fascinating descent into Big Pit at Blaenavon, we were all too eager to withdraw to our holiday folly come sunset for hearty feasts in Clytha’s circular kitchen and lengthy sojourns in the shuttered sitting room.
For a bit more hustle and bustle, a stay at Culloden Tower delights equally with the attractions of Richmond to entice you down the hill. Its steep streets and cobbled heart seem at their finest ahead of an approaching Christmas, and a trip to its Georgian theatre for pantomime is the festive icing on the cake.
Culloden Tower in Richmond, North Yorkshire
When you’ve reached your fill of the town’s offerings it is time to retreat to glorious isolation, to dwell in decorative splendour under Garrett’s ornate plasterwork before parting company with guests and making your spiral journey to bed.
For a shorter excursion, a simple stroll around Culloden’s grounds suffices. In a leafless park the tower can be surveyed in sheer Gothick drama, as only the skeletal trees of winter can afford. From here you may also enjoy a panorama of the town and its castle, before turning back to realise that the best view in Richmond could arguably be not of the town, but from it.
It was for views of a very different sort that I first journeyed alone to the Shore Cottages at Berriedale, for a weekend proving just how restorative Landmark’s careful work is not just for its rescued buildings, but for the souls of their subsequent inhabitants too.
Shore Cottages at Berriedale, near Wick, Caithness in Scotland
Having made the long drive north for just a 3 night stay, I abandoned the car for the duration and fell in love with Berriedale on foot. As comfortable as cottage No.1 was, with underfloor heating and snugly fitting sashes, I was endlessly drawn out by the waves, whether to witness the spectacle of a frosted beach at dawn or pink sunsets over the bay.
The Shore Cottages could not be a better antidote to the inevitable January lull; all concerns seeming to fall away as you cross the footbridge to your humble destination. As I recall writing in the logbook upon my departure, I left “with a heart lightened”, the hermit’s life having proved a most agreeable start to the year.
Not all seclusion need be so remote however, and so I discovered at The China Tower. Here you live among the treetops, surveying Devon’s coastal countryside from the privileged lookout of your crowning parapet.
The China Tower near Bicton, Devon
Ascents to the top floor sitting room are a thrill rather than a chore for a short term tenancy, and even the labour of carrying logs through four storeys is well rewarded upon admiration of your blazing handiwork in the stove.
Sentiment aside, the simple pleasure of a warming grate surely deserves a mention as one of the primary attractions of Landmarking in winter. It is the fireside gatherings of any stay which provide, for me, the most lasting memories, and an unrivalled quietude when cold temperatures bite outside.
So with the nights drawing in and the busiest time of year approaching for many, why not enjoy Landmark’s quietest period for a pre-Christmas recharge or a New Year pick-me-up to stave off winter blues? Let the alternative holiday season commence...