England's best stately homes

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Green. Pleasant. We all have our fantasies of the sceptered isle, and luckily for us, they're still embodied in England's stately homes - rich with layered history, set in Arcadian gardens, luring us with their glimpses of ages past. Here are five of our favourites.

Chatsworth

The poshest of the posh, long-time ducal seat and one-time prison for Elizabeth I.

Known as the ‘Palace of the Peak’, the vast edifice of Chatsworth has been occupied by the dukes of Devonshire for centuries. The original house was started in 1551 by the inimitable Bess of Hardwick; a little later came Chatsworth’s most famous guest, Mary, Queen of Scots. She was imprisoned here on and off between 1570 and 1581 at the behest of Elizabeth I, under the guard of Bess’s fourth husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury. The Scots bedrooms, nine Regency rooms named after the imprisoned queen, are sometimes open to the public. The house sits in 25 sq miles of gardens, home to a fountain so high it can be seen from miles away in the hills of the Dark Peak, and several bold, modern sculptures, of which the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire are keen collectors.

Chatsworth is 3 miles northeast of Bakewell. Buses 170 and 218 go direct from Bakewell to Chatsworth (15 minutes, several daily). On Sunday, bus 215 also runs to Chatsworth.

Related article: England's best stately homes: Chatsworth

Castle Howard

A hitter so big, it got to stand in for the fantasy mansion in Brideshead Revisited.

Stately homes may be two a penny in England, but you’ll have to try pretty damn hard to find one as breathtakingly stately as Castle Howard, a work of theatrical grandeur and audacity set in the rolling Howardian Hills. This is one of the world’s most beautiful buildings, instantly recognisable from its starring role in Brideshead Revisited – which has done its popularity no end of good since the TV series first aired in the early 1980s. It took three earls’ lifetimes to build; these days, it’s still inhabited by the Howard family, but you can take tours of the house and grounds (eighteenth century walled garden, roses, delphiniums, temples, fountains and all). Castle Howard is 15 miles northeast of York, off the A64. There are several organised tours from York – check with the tourist office for up-to-date schedules.

Hardwick Hall

In the days when it was built, glass was a status symbol - and Hardwick Hall is 'more glass than wall'.

This Elizabethan hall should rank high on your list of must-see stately homes. It was home to the 16th century’s second-most-powerful woman, Elizabeth, countess of Shrewsbury – known to all as Bess of Hardwick. Bess’s fourth husband died in 1590, leaving her with a huge pile of cash to play with, and she had Hardwick Hall built using the designs of eminent architect Robert Smythson. Glass was a status symbol, so she went all out on the windows; as a contemporary ditty quipped, ‘Hardwick Hall – more glass than wall’. Also magnificent are the High Great Chamber and Long Gallery.

Next door is Bess’s first house, Hardwick Old Hall, now a romantic ruin. Also fascinating are the formal gardens, and the hall sits in the great expanse of Hardwick Park with short and long walking trails leading across fields and through woods. Ask at the ticket office for details. Hardwick Hall is 10 miles southeast of Chesterfield, just off the M1.

Haddon Hall

A medieval masterpiece virtually unchanged since the days of Henry VIII.

Described as a medieval masterpiece, Haddon Hall was originally owned by William Peveril, son of William the Conqueror, and what you see today dates mainly from the 14th to the 16th centuries. The place was abandoned right through the 18th and 19th centuries, so it escaped the ‘modernisation’ experienced by so many other country houses. Highlights include the chapel; the Long Gallery, stunningly bathed by natural light; and the vast banqueting hall, virtually unchanged since the days of Henry VIII. The film Elizabeth was shot here, and, not surprisingly, Haddon Hall made a perfect backdrop. Outside are beautiful gardens and courtyards.

Calke Abbey

Owned by eccentric baronets, practically unrenovated, this is the stately home without the airbrushing. Oh, and the tunnel!

Like an enormous, long-neglected cabinet of wonders, Calke Abbey is not your usual glitzy, wealth-encrusted stately home. Built around 1703, it’s been passed down a dynasty of eccentric and reclusive baronets. Very little has changed since about 1880 – it’s a mesmerising example of a country house in decline. The result is a ramshackle maze of secret corridors, underground tunnels and rooms crammed with old furniture, mounted animal heads, dusty books, stuffed birds and endless piles of brica-brac from the last three centuries.

Some rooms are in fabulous condition, while others are deliberately untouched, complete with crumbling plaster and mouldy wallpaper. (You exit the house via a long, dark tunnel – a bit more thrilling than one might like, given the state of the buildings.) A stroll round the gardens is a similar time-warp experience – in the potting sheds nothing has changed since about 1930, but it looks like the gardener left only yesterday.

Admission to Calke Abbey house is by timed ticket at busy times. On summer weekends it’s wise to phone ahead and check there’ll be space. You can enter the gardens and grounds at any time. Calke is 10 miles south of Derby. Visitors coming by car must enter via the village of Ticknall. The Arriva bus 68 from Derby to Swadlincote stops at Ticknall (40 minutes, hourly, change to the 69 in Melbourne) and from there it’s a 2-mile walk through the park.