Graham Young visits a magnificent historic home that’s open for only a few days each year.
It’s become something of a national pastime for ordinary Britons to see how the other half live.
But if you want to make the most of Arbury Hall this year, you’ll have to be quick.
When it comes to public access in 2011, it’s already a case of four days gone – and only four to go.
The hardest part about walking in the footsteps of author George Eliot on the estate is simply remembering to set off in time.
In a typical year, only 2,000 people do.
Access is good once you get there and it’s only 25 miles from central Birmingham.
Admission is reasonable, too, with adults paying £7.50 for a garden/hall visit – a snip considering the exclusive nature of your trip.
Although Middlemarch author George Eliot was born Mary Ann Evans on the estate’s South Farm in 1819, visiting hours to Arbury Hall are limited because the house remains a private residence.
Built on the site of a 12th century Augustinian priory and part of his family for 450 years, it’s the home of James Edward Fitzroy Newdegate, the 4th Viscount Daventry, along with his wife, Georgia and their three children, Humphrey John, Hester Anne and Sophia Hebe.
Some people in his position would keep the doors closed all year round, but Lord Daventry – who works in the insurance industry – is happy to open up for a limited period.
See the property for yourself and you wouldn’t begrudge his family their privacy for the rest of the time.
The plasterworks on the ceilings are extraordinary works of art in their own right and help to draw groups of architects on private tours.
Hopefully once they’ve seen these treasures, they’ll never create another bog-standard, box-shaped house in Britain ever again.
In the hall’s 1678 chapel alone, it took City of London plasterer Edward Martin three years to finish it in return for the princely sum of £39.
Other rooms to admire include the dining room, the drawing room and the little sitting room.
But even when you’ve seen these and got used to the craftsmanship around you,
The Saloon on the hall’s east front is still a jaw dropper worth the admission alone. Copied from the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey, the fan-vaulted ceiling is an unforgettable sight – and you wouldn’t want to be responsible for dusting it.
Estate manager Adam Weaver is justly proud of the entire site which employs about 20 people, with a tenant farmer looking after 100 suckler cows with 100 calves which are reared for the beef industry.
“People like coming here because it is lived in yet is still very much as it was intended,” says Adam.
“Some other places can be a little bit sterile.
“Here, many people are awestruck by what they see in the dining room and the saloon, especially.”
The hall has been used for TV series like Land Girls and Hustle.
A bigger surprise is that one of the rooms has been converted into a bar with mini dancefloor for small corporate functions.
“It’s all about having to adapt to the 21st century,” he says. “We have no funding or grants.”
Three years into the job after moving from a similar post in the north, he hasn’t tired of the upside of estate life which he admits wouldn’t suit everyone.
“The estate always has a special feel and one visitor recently said he felt like he was entering Narnia.
“You don’t get blasé about it.
‘‘Every season has something different and the roses are usually out for the end of May bank holiday.
“But there’s always a lot of hard work to be done.
“Lord Daventry tries every year to maintain and improve it and has four full-time gardeners.
“Like those before him, he will want to leave it in a better condition than when he found it.”
Arbury Hall is open on May 29 and 30 and August 28 and 29. Adults £7.50; Children £4.50; Family ticket (2+2) £19. Dogs allowed on leads in gardens only. 1.30pm-6pm, Guided tours of the hall from 2pm. Last tour, 4.30pm. Tel: 02476 382804 Website: www.arburyestate.co.uk
* Arbury Hall is a member of the Historic Houses Association which represents 1,500 historic houses and gardens. Visit www.hha.org.uk