My Visit to Longleat House

But one place stands out to this day, more than 40 years later: Longleat House, in Wiltshire. I think I must have truly dropped my jaw, because my tour guide was the man in the picture, the Sixth Marquess of Bath, Viscount Weymouth himself. When I came back to the ticket desk, he was closing it down and placed the sign on it deliberately in front of me. She recently retired and is looking forward to more adventures. To escape a sticky legal situation, I bolted to the UK for six weeks with a friend who had family in Southwest England. My disappointment must have been clear, but he gave me a quirked eyebrow and told me to ‘come along’ with him. I figured I’d make it with an hour or two to spare when I set out, but alas and alack, the best laid plans and all that. We spent time in all the libraries, even the family one, at Longleat and never once rushed. It was late when I pulled into the car park and I was muddied from head to toe. Stranger lives in the American South and loves squirrels and hockey. I was a mess. Wasn’t interested in the Safari Park or the maze or the magnificent gardens: it was that pile of BOOKS! We moved on thru more and more rooms, over 40 minutes of them, before we entered the family portrait gallery. But I tore into the ticket room and almost threw my money at the person behind the till. Walking down the room, we approached a more modern portrait and he was about to pass it by rather absently when I stopped in my tracks. My ex husband was in the Air Force and we were stationed in Germany. The signatures of kings and queens, deeds and documents like none I’ll see again except under glass in a museum. They had it changed in a half hour and told me a quicker way to Longleat. He was an older man, very polite and kind as he explained that I’d missed the last tour by some 30 minutes and that the house would be open again in the morning. I touched (gloved) an illuminated manuscript. I have no doubt whatsoever in saying that you would have been as incredibly, indelibly and forever affected as I was if you’d held a genuine illuminated manuscript worth millions in your hands, or had a breviary used by Queen Elizabeth I and handwritten letters of King Charles and a first edition of Peter Rabbit, shown to you casually by a Marquess! I must have been a drama queen, an obnoxious, desperate American, because he looked me up and down and pointed to a restroom and suggested I wash my (grubby) hands? Several more times! I looked at the picture and stepped back a few feet. Post script: The Sixth Marquess died in 1992. I’d been on the road all day in my little red rental shoe box, stick shift, no radio, and no horse power, determined in my limited time left to get to Longleat to see the library. I worried those lug nuts for ages, trying to loosen them with little success, until two nice men came by and took pity on me. I didn’t have AAA… no cell phones, no nothing back then… but being younger, independent and more robust, I got my tools and spare from the boot and started changing that thing myself, in all the muck and mud of the morning rain. Then I looked at the man who stood beside me, back at the picture and back at the man. For more than an hour and a half, we sat in that library sharing a love of books and history and the written word. I burst into tears…yes, that’s the exact description… of despair. I saw things I’ll never see again. He pulled several pairs of white gloves from a drawer and sat down at a table and pulled a chair up close and began showing me first editions and one of a kind prayer books and papers that stunned me. The reason started out to be a nightmare. I wiped mud off my shirt and tried telling this man that I was really only here to see the library and that this was my ONLY chance, probably in my WHOLE LIFE to ever see such a collection again and I promised not to touch ANYTHING if he’d just let me walk in the door and stand there and smell them and see it! As we stood there looking at the portrait, me in speechless shock, he said “I think it’s a rather good likeness, eh?” I know I stammered an agreement and began to apologize for imposing on him. I saw and did a lot of memorable things, including spent a night IN Stonehenge. He listed off all the Marquis of Bath and their years of life and wives and so forth. He walked with the watchman and I back to the ticket booth door and very properly shook my hand as I tried to thank him again…and again. I’d marked this one down as one of my must see places, along with Chatsworth, Blenheim, Highclere, Woburn, a few dozen castles like Warwick, Stirling, Edinborough, Howard, and a few notable battlefields. I assumed we were going to catch up to that last tour group, which still had more than an hour to go on their walk through and I was more than happy with that thought. Sadly, the family has been in turmoil ever since his passing. I dutifully fell in behind him. As we walked through rooms and corridors he pointed out special things of significance, little details and historical factoids that had me asking questions almost non stop. I think he may have been the last of his kind in that lineage. I read Shakespeare folia, and diaries and letters that changed history. Truthfully, I’d gotten a shock when I looked in the restroom mirror! I was attacked by a pot hole; One that could have eaten my little red beastie. I only hope they continue to preserve and protect that collection of books and papers! Having been an anglophile all my life and not even knowing the meaning of the word, I embarked on a memorable trek around the country visiting great homes, abandoned monasteries, magnificent gardens and ‘charming villages’ from one end of the country to another, literally, using Anne’s 300 year old family farmhouse as my anchor for my mini budget visit. Even now, more than 40 years later. We talked on and he led me thru to the main library of the house, my mecca. I thanked him with tears in my eyes for his kindness and understanding of a young woman’s hunger to see things, even if only once in a lifetime. We stood up to part ways and I apologized profusely for taking up so much of this man’s time. He was telling me who they were and about these people’s lives with a great deal of detail and intimacy. He seated me in a butter soft leather chair and turned on some lamps to chase away the gloom and began pulling books from the shelves with a knowledge and familiarity that astounds me to this day. What word can describe this? Due to time and funds I sorta focused on the biggies. “Thank you for coming to my home, it’s been my pleasure to share it’s treasures with you…” No… the pleasure was truly mine, my lord. Photo of Longleat House by Iain A. I lived on the lam alone, while she stayed with her kin. I also took off my dirty sweater and rinsed some of the grime off my face and hair. My fingers still tingle when I think of that. But the man began to loosen up, as did I, after a few questions and a brief explanation of my mud and late arrival. This one had a legendary library and I have always had a thing for books. He was extremely kind and said it wasn’t really a bother, he rather enjoyed showing his home to people with a keen interest, but since he rarely came thru this room wasn’t often recognized. A night watchman showed up at the door and asked if everything was alright and only then did we realize the time that had passed! I sent a note of condolence to Longleat wishing I could have visited and met him again. Wanless, used under a Creative Commons license. As I walked across the deserted car park in the drizzling rainy dark, I found I believed his last words to me. He paused at one window and gazed out over the magnificent Capability Brown gardens and said “this is my favorite place to stop in the afternoon to watch the light change over the grounds” and we both stood silently enjoying the quiet late afternoon beauty. My Visit to Longleat House
(By guest writer, Stranger)
Back in the mid seventies, I was in the midst of an unhappy divorce. Related Share this:TwitterFacebookPinterestEmailPrintGoogleLike this:Like Loading… The tire (or should that be tyre?) went flat instantly and there I was on a hedgerowed country lane late in the afternoon a few miles away from Longleat.