‘If that’s the gatehouse,” someone in our crammed rental car said, “imagine what the house would look like.” You’d have to guess. The Tixall manor house itself had been reduced to rubble, a few sad craggy stones, years ago. But the Elizabethan Tixall Gatehouse we were approaching on a sunny Mayday, backlit by a midlands British sun, was proudly standing and nothing less than one gleaming artwork. Falling in tiers down its facade, under a rooftop framed by four turret tops, were rows of Doric and Corinthian pillars, glinting oriel windows, and an exuberant party of seashells, knights and angels carved into the stone. Handsome buildings are always commended for their good bones. But Tixall’s bones were exquisite.
We would get to know them well. That’s because we weren’t shooting past on some country drive, or stopping for a few shots. No. We were collecting the key to the Gatehouse, in a locked box under the archway, and about to call the masterwork home for a long weekend.
It wasn’t the result of any inside connections. In fact, the doors of the Gatehouse, and many of England’s most sublime landmarks, are open to anyone with a little money. They may actually represent the best bargain in England at a time when the pound stubbornly refuses to sink alongside the faltering euro. Thank the Landmark Trust, which rents out a full complement of castles, lighthouses, cottages, towers, and follies across Britain, for three-day weekend stays or four-weekday stays (longer if you like), at a surprisingly reasonable price, especially if you divide up the costs.
My partner and I came armed with a group of Dutch friends, which made the cost of Tixall cheaper than the grimmest B&B. The gentle tab also meant money well spent. That’s because the nonprofit Landmark Trust plows all its revenue into reclaiming and renovating other British stately piles and our own Gatehouse was a testimonial to their work. A roofless, windowless wreck used as a shelter for cattle when the Trust took it over in 1968, Tixall had won a second life.
What do you do once you are handed the keys to your own ethereal chunk of living history? What we did, after we divided up the quartet of bedrooms (two with en suite bathrooms), was explore all four stories, running up and down the twisting stone staircase to the fully equipped kitchen, a baroque ballroom, a living room dressed up with antique armoires, and finally the rooftop rimmed by balustrades. That’s when we heard the booming voice that seemed to come from out of the Gatehouse’s gut, like a thunderous cough, or maybe a welcome.
The best thing about adopting a pedigreed monument for the weekend is inheriting all its secrets and mysteries, too, and the boom, our first enigma, was easily solved. Well, partly. In the Gatehouse’s logbook left in the living room, and filled with previous guests’ largely poetic comments, the metallic bellow featured prominently.
“The eccentric clock has a mind of its own,” one prior renter noted. “Stop all the clocks!” another begged. But we couldn’t. Buried deep somewhere in the bowels of the Gatehouse (but where?) the ancient, faceless timepiece continued to call out every hour, though it kept changing voices — sometimes it was a delicate, silvery high note, almost a tinkle, and sometimes it was a brassy echoing boing. Pretty much every morning, though, it was loud enough to wake us up, along with the music of baying sheep.
The first morning, after the built-in alarm went off, we felt compelled to wander a little farther. One of the prime attractions of the Landmark Trust properties is the fact that they carve out distinct pockets of the sprawling English countryside, and allow you to thoroughly map the surrounding shire.
Within a roughly two-hour drive of Tixall we could have explored the Bronte sisters’ parsonage at Haworth, popping up in the middle of the bleak town cemetery. We might have made a culinary pilgrimage to the Shropshire market town of Ludlow, dense with food stalls and Michelin-starred restaurants, or explored the Peak District National Park. Instead we made a pit stop at the Elizabethan Hardwick House, a treasure palace crammed with tapestries, Old Master paintings and every kind of aristocratic tchotchke.
Already, we were loyal to our own gatehouse. “Tixall is prettier,” our Dutch friend Benjie said, scanning Hardwick’s grand storied facade, so we found ourselves racing back to what suddenly felt like home.
What we discovered over the course of the remaining weekend is that you don’t have to travel far to experience a quintessential British fantasia. Within 5 miles of Tixall itself was a photogenic canal, the stately Shugsborough Hall and a network of twee Staffordshire villages. Plus one filling homage to British cuisine.
At the Clifford Arms pub, in neighboring Great Haywood, where a drawing of our own Gatehouse graced the menu cover, the waitress suggested the mixed grill. The sample of lamb steak, pork steak, gammon, sausage, liver and kidneys comes with fried mushrooms, onion rings, peas, and chips, if you like. If that sounds like too much, guests can still have their chips. They were served with our chicken curry.
Sheep, angels and ghosts
After a while, even driving the country roads — fringed by high hedges and sometimes as narrow as a bike path — seemed like too much effort. Why leave the Gatehouse at all since it offered enough of a full-on British cultural immersion to satisfy any Anglophile?
The surrounding landscape itself was a Turner painting. There were bright yellow swatches of rapeseed stippling the green meadows. There were lacy white blooms of cow’s parsley fringing the fields and the whiter flocks of Gatehouse sheep. Maybe the shaggy mama sheep seemed like one woolly watchdog when we first pulled up, but by the end of our visit she blithely ignored us. So did the trusting lambs, who gamboled past our window in the morning, and paired up at night, one fleecy head resting on another.
And then there were all those old bones of Tixall — diversion enough — which kept revealing more enigmatic slivers of English history, and a series of inbred mysteries. Why did the Gatehouse, built in 1580 by Sir Walter Aston in front of the older manor house, even exist at all? No one really knows. Maybe, some conjecture, it served as a platform to watch the hunt in the surrounding deer park, or maybe it was just one elaborate folly built for show.
Who did the pop-eyed angels represent, carved into the spandrels of the main archway, all jutting hips and Kama Sutra poses? Hard to say, the consensus goes. And were the inevitable reports of Gatehouse ghosts worth worrying about? One past guest reported in the Tixall logbook that she “witnessed a male figure in the kitchen, and felt a lady rubbing my feet, while I wasn’t feeling well.” Hmmm.
Mary Queen of Scots
If there are genuine Tixall ghosts, the list of possible suspects is a snaking one. The Gatehouse was a royalist military headquarters during the British Civil War, and then a haunt of Capability Brown, who designed the surrounding landscape in a more peaceable 18th century. But the person who could have been angry enough to refuse to leave was Mary Queen of Scots. She was invited to go hunting in the deer park, only to be met by Queen Elizabeth’s emissaries upon arrival, and then promptly imprisoned at Tixall. “All is taken from me,” she is said to have lamented. A month later she was executed.
We didn’t see any specters, but then the whole Gatehouse felt in some ways like a palimpsest of past lives, imprinted with so much drama. On our last Tixall day, we decided to add our own happier imprint.
Everyone in the by now well-thumbed logbook recommended a retreat to the roof. “Afternoon tea on the roof,” one guest suggested. “Champagne on the roof,” another had written (“the sheep seemed a bit surprised by how far the cork flew”).
We opted instead for a picnic on the roof, so we drove the five minutes to the well-stocked Canalside Farm Shop, and brought back a whole English larder: pork pies, sausage rolls, Lancashire cream cheese, bakewell tarts and rhubarb crumble. The jealous lambs were all baa-ing below and then the faceless clock chimed in, but this time the music seemed closer. It was only then that we discovered, glinting through the slates of a turret top’s locked doors, one big metal bell.
It was resting for a minute, while the Gatehouse gathered its breath and found its voice again, the sound of its unyielding, ongoing life.
Raphael Kadushin, senior acquisitions editor at the University of Wisconsin Press, writes for Epicurious.com, Condé Nast Traveler and other media.