The chalk ridge of the South Downs runs 80 miles from Hampshire to meet the sea at Eastbourne. With spectacular viewpoints, unique natural history and ease of access, it also contains a glittering string of great stately homes, housing personal collections that reflect changing national fortunes as well as personal tastes and triumphs.
For successive generations of settlers and great builders, the strategic importance of the South Downs overlooking the Channel was gradually replaced by the attraction of their spectacular beauty. Be inspired by histories of fortifications and pleasure palaces: repositories of treasured collections as symbols of power, and places of leisure and entertainment.
Exploitation of natural resources, from flint-mining, charcoal burning and iron-smelting to sheep-farming and forestry, shaped the Downland landscape. The great family estates helped to create and conserve this area of outstanding natural beauty, now protected and sustainably managed as Britain’s newest National Park.
Changing attitudes to conservation are illustrated by the contrasting fortunes of Midhurst’s Cowdray Ruins, magnificently restored Uppark, and rebuilt Stansted House – each destroyed a century apart by disastrous fires and reborn in a new context.
Two thousand years of history, taste and politics survive, including the most important collections of fine art in the care of the National Trust at Petworth and Uppark. Exquisite mediaeval sculpture at Boxgrove and Chichester, the unique Stansted Chapel and High Victorian Gothic at Arundel are highlights of religious patronage. Splendid historic houses that are still private homes reflect the tastes and fortunes of royal Dukes, Earls and Lords of church and country.
The story of the English country house would not be complete without an exploration of life ‘downstairs’. At both Petworth and Stansted these stories are vividly brought to life.
Contemporary patronage can be enjoyed in Chichester Cathedral and in England’s oldest continuously occupied castle at Arundel, where the seventeenth-century Collector Earl was recently commemorated in a wonderful modern garden commission by the Duke of Norfolk. Modern art sits in a striking contemporary setting alongside one of the finest eighteenth-century houses in Chichester at Pallant House.
Chichester. The coach leaves Chichester railway station at 2.00pm. Chichester Cathedral houses an extraordinary range of modern religious commissions, as well as nationally important Tudor panel paintings. Pallant House is a unique combination of a Queen Anne townhouse with a recent award-winning extension, which holds one of the best collections of 20th-century British art in the country.
Pulborough, Petworth, Woolbeding. Bignor Roman Villa in Pulborough has fine mosaic floors in a beautiful Downland setting. In one of ‘Capability’ Brown’s most poetic landscapes, immortalised by Turner, Petworth is an impressive ducal palace of the 17th century. It contains major works by Turner, van Dyck and Blake.
Arundel, Boxgrove. Home to the Duke of Norfolk, England’s premier duke, Arundel Castle has Norman origins, later mediaeval parts and 18th- and 19th-century embellishments. The totality is splendid, the art collection outstanding. The picturesque and unspoilt little town of Arundel is capped by a soaring 1870s Catholic cathedral in Gothic style. At mediaeval Boxgrove Priory, the remains include a vaulted Gothic choir of cathedral-like proportions.
Goodwood, West Dean, Uppark. Goodwood House, seat of the Duke of Richmond, is a magnificent late Georgian country house with excellent furniture and paintings by Stubbs, Canaletto and van Dyck. The Edward James Foundation at West Dean has extensive, beautifully-kept gardens. Uppark enjoys extraordinary views over rolling Downland and to the Solent and the Isle of Wight. A perfect late-17th-century mansion with a splendid Grand Tour collection, it is also a masterpiece of restoration after a fire in 1989.
Weald and Downland, Cowdray, Stansted. The Weald and Downland Museum at Singleton is an assembly of rescued and re-erected vernacular buildings from the 14th to the 19th centuries, including two hall-houses. Cowdray Ruins are the dramatic remains of a noble and extensive Tudor palace. Stansted Park provides a fascinating insight into the social history of an English country house in its Edwardian heyday.
Parham, Chichester. One of the loveliest of Elizabethan buildings, Parham House has an extensive collection of 16th- and 17th-century portraits and tapestries, and a clutch of award-winning gardens. The coach takes you to Chichester railway station by 3.30pm before returning to the hotel.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,040. Single occupancy: £2,310.
Hotel accommodation; private coach throughout; breakfasts, one lunch and four dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Harbour Hotel, Chichester: smart, boutique hotel in the centre of town. This 4-star hotel is within walking distance of the Cathedral and Pallant Gallery. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
The tour involves a lot of walking in town centres, where coach access is restricted, and a lot of standing in museums and churches. Uneven ground and irregular paving are standard. A good level of fitness is essential. You will be on your feet for lengthy stretches of time. Average distance by coach per day: c. 25 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
'The tour was near perfect. I throughly enjoyed everything that we visited. The area is one of outstanding natural beauty.'
'Our lecturer was really excellent. Her knowledge of all the places we visited was so good and imparted with great wit.'
'Janet was encyclopaedic on the history and architecture of the region. She was articulate and interesting and was very well organised.'