Like anyone who’s ever watched Darcy gallivant across the grounds of Pemberley or Lady Crawley parade down the main staircase in Downton, I’ve always been drawn to the idea of stately homes.
But our arrival at Weston Park, on the Shropshire-Staffordshire border, was less than auspicious. After following the satnav up several wrong turns, we finally found the right entrance and proceeded to litter the long, imposing drive with our ancient Peugeot 205. We were midway through persuading the central locking to work (courtesy of several thumps) when a butler magically appeared and proffered his services.
The orangery at Weston Park
No matter, since the minute you are over the threshold of Weston Park, you are transported to a different world where satnavs and broken down cars are of very little consequence. This beautiful home was gifted to the nation in 1986 by its last owner, Richard Bridgeman, the 7th Earl of Bradford and the place holds a distinct, Jeeves-like air of a plush but much-loved country pad. Perhaps no surprise since Jeeves creator PG Wodehouse used his childhood memories of Weston, which he renamed Blandings Castle, to inspire several of his books.
As well as having literary connotations, the house is filled to the brim with distinguished works of art and family heirlooms. Wander the corridors and you may chance across a Gainsborough portrait, a Gobelin tapestry, a painting by equestrian artist George Stubbs or the work of cabinet maker Thomas Chippendale – to name but a few.
The Brewood bedroom. Not a bad view...
We were there for a Dine & Stay event, which Weston runs throughout the year. The great thing about this is that - unlike many stately homes - you can live and breathe the house, rather than simply admiring it from afar. Weston is a family home dating back generations, and you can really feel the history of it in an overnight stay, surrounded by the wealth of artifacts, letters, photos and mementos on display.
The Charles room, replete with family heirlooms and antiques
Each of the 28 bedrooms here have their own names and characters and are kitted out with original features, antiques and paintings. Ours was The Play Room, an enormous space overlooking the Carriage Ring (otherwise known as the car park), where the children of the house resided in years gone by. It was the little touches here that helped to create the effect of stepping back in time. There was a transistor radio tuned to old-school jazz, a ceramic jar of salts for spooning into the bath and an antique dressing screen by the fireplace, as well as old black and white photos of family members. A famous painting by John E. Ferneley hung over two sitting chairs and there was also an ancient teddy bear and a "GI Duck" in the bathroom, in a nod to the room’s childhood roots.
Mod cons were subtly woven in as well – there was Wi Fi, speed-dial for the butler and a flat-screen TV - although it felt wrong to watch it in such antiquated surroundings.
The dining room at Weston Park is filled with portraits of past generations
The main staircase at Weston is satisfyingly regal and we spent several happy minutes posing on it, Dowager Countess-style, before proceeding to a champagne reception in the Marble Halls. Ours was a Christmas-themed visit so we had carols performed by a choir before dinner, which took place to the sounds of a live harpist (what else?) in the estate’s historic dining room. It’s filled from floor to ceiling with portraits of past Weston residents, and as you eat, you have the distinct impression of being watched. The food is rustled up by head chef Guy Day and his team. To chime with the festive season, we feasted on a fine dining banquet of wild mushroom and stilton tart, a slow-roasted fillet of beef in cauliflower purée and a chocolate box with melt-in-the-mouth orange ice-cream. Afterwards, we retired to the library for coffee and petit fours in front of the huge log fire. Needless to say, it was a very civilized affair.
Anyone for a chocolate box dessert?
The next morning we stocked up on newspapers and a full English breakfast, before heading out to explore the grounds. Weston is set in 1,000 acres of parkland once tended to by landscape artist Capability Brown. There’s so much to explore here, from the picturesque Victorian orangery to the 18th century Temple of Diana built by architect James Paine and a duck pond-turned-lake, where the ladies of the house rowed and swam in, once upon a time. It’s true, nostalgic escapism although a visit to onsite Granary deli and art gallery will bring you back to the present day and finish off the stay in style.