If you’d like to see what was showing in the cinema room of what, not so very long ago, was arguably the best council flat in the whole of Britain, you’ll need to make your way to one of the most popular tourist attractions in Staffordshire.
Shugborough is described as a “complete working historic estate”. Which explains why you’ll come across role-playing members of staff wearing period costumes in the farm, dairy, kitchens, laundry and brewery. And why the mansion house gives a very clear impression of “how the other half lived”.
We’ve all enjoyed Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs on television. But it’s only when you visit somewhere like Shugborough that you really understand why the kitchens are so very far away from the dining room. (If there was a fire in the kitchens, it was going to be easier to replace the staff, than replace the valuable paintings and possessions in the mansion house!).
And that just about sums the place up. You can get a fantastic history lesson as you tour the working quarters, mansion house, farm and parklands here. Or, you can entertain yourself by chatting to a kitchen maid from 1871, who’s looking forward to a pay rise from the five guineas and gallons of beer she’s allocated by the great-and-the-good running the estate in Victorian times.
Everyone who visits Shugborough will take their own, favourite experiences home with them - from petting the new animals in the Victorian farmstead, through to going ghost hunting in the State Bedroom, where the presence of Lady Harriet is still felt to this very day. (Just ask the small child, who ran from the room recently after pointing at the dressing table, while shouting “Look at the lady. Look at the lady!”).
Shugborough as you see it today was created out of a small portion of the fabulous wealth plundered from the Spanish by the first Lord of the Admiralty, George Anson. His prize money (from the 1,313,843 pieces of eight from the Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, which he delivered back to the British crown in 1743) made him a rich man for life, and enabled his heirs to rebuild the fabulous Shugborough Estate in Staffordshire.
Most famous amongst those heirs, perhaps, was the “royal photographer” Lord Patrick Lichfield, who guided the estate through its most difficult period in history when double death duty meant it needed to be saved by the County Council and the National Trust. Part of the agreement entitled Patrick Lichfield to lease an apartment of rooms within the mansion house – a move which enabled Lichfield himself to call it the best council flat in England!
It was here - during the Seventies and Eighties, in particular - he hosted and photographed many of the best-known and most beautiful celebrities of a generation.
These private apartments were finally opened to the public last year, and offer a glorious glimpse into a more contemporary life above stairs. Lichfield’s photographs decorate the walls, and many of his personal possessions (including a guide to movies which could be watched in his private cinema) are scattered about the place.
Shugborough, meanwhile, also played a part in J.R.R.Tolkien's formative days as an author of epic tales and fantasy worlds.
The author suffered from trench fever in World War One and was sent back to Britain, where he served at Cannock Chase, during the winter of 1916-17. He lived in a cottage in Great Haywood; and it was here that he wrote many of his tales and created mythical kingdoms populated by elves, orcs, trolls, dwarves and hobbits.
The Tale of the Sun and Moon, in The Lost Tales, makes a direct reference to the village of Tavrobel which, according to his son, Christopher, was based on Great Haywood.
In the tale, Eriol is encouraged to "sojourn a while in Tavrobel" and it is suggested to him that he takes up the hospitality of a gnome called Galfanon "whose ancient house, the House of a Hundred Chimneys, stands nigh the bridge at Tavrobel". Shugborough Hall itself boasts as many as 80 chimneys, and the sight of this stately home on a winter's day in 1916, with fires lit in all of the rooms, is believed to have stuck in the memory of the young soldier.
Shugborough (derived from the phrase “meeting place of the pixies”) remains a natural source of inspiration for anyone in search of fantasy worlds. Its parkland and gardens, along with an eye-catching collection of 'follies' of historical significance, grew out of a desire on the part of Patrick Lichfield's forefathers to produce a magical landscape on the edge of Cannock Chase.
For further information, visit www.shugborough.org.uk
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