Our drive to Lanhydrock House took us through soft, rolling hills of green and yellow bifurcated with raspberry-covered stone walls. On one side, the hills rose towards the sun, the other towards the sea. In between, Johnny Flynn sang folk alongside his guitar while sheep and the odd cow grazed. Clouds were rolling in along the ocean. Our morning had been sunny as we left St. Ives. One of the ladies from Atlanta had remarked on it with exceptional enthusiasm as it had rained every day of our trip.
“Don’t get too excited,” the Scots-Canadian Cape Bretoner said. “You’re on the coast!”
“And in Britain!” her husband quipped. “It’s a recipe for showers!”
And he was right. Anywhere coastal is destined for rain. It came in bursts as our open vista turned to forest as we drove through glens on narrow one and a half lane roads. Large ferns and bluebells coated the roadside. It felt ancient though I knew that over the centuries much of Britain’s forests had been cleared and later replanted. Still, through the massive fanning leaves, you could glimpse into a primitive past.
The downside of being on a bus, no matter how small, is that you can’t get off when you want to. At least not without really disrupting other passengers. Every tour has one of those moments where you desperately wish you could stop the car. I console myself by saying that you really can’t just pull over all the time – it’s dangerous and sometimes illegal and really, unless you’re solo, who is going to tolerate me wandering around, touching trees and fern leaves or aimlessly sitting in the grass, pondering what people must have done over the centuries in a place like this? It’s fantasy. And I tuck it away, telling myself, “You know how an old oak tree and a fern leaf feels. You know how warm grass smells. You know what people have done here.” It’s never quite enough but I make do.
One of the best and worst travel experiences I ever had was a hike up to the grave of Hjorleifshofdi. Blustering with a torrential downpour, we mistakenly hiked the wrong way up the outcrop (it’s not a mountain…it’s just a giant…rock on a beach). Hungry and body failing, the only reason I was still going up and onward, was that the wind was comically propelling me forward. At a plateau, I collapsed into the long, yellowed grass. Tundra moss grew a good foot tall underneath – a natural mattress. My companions went on without me. I half understood it: it was one of those once in a lifetime (I never see it that way – I always tell myself I’ll be back but I get it: most people won’t be back) experiences and thus they had to continue. The other part of me thought it was extremely shitty to leave anyone, friend or otherwise, exhausted on a beach mountain for an impending storm. But between my mixed emotions, I had time and silence to really pay attention. I smelled the damp moss and grass and let the heat coming off the ground ease my tired muscles. I felt the sharp sea breeze on my face and the roughness of the craggy, lichened stones. In the few moments of absolute peril – moments where I envisioned myself falling into a ravine with only inches of earth to spare between me and a cavern, I imagined the hardships of living on such a rock, pondering the everyday decisions of such a land claim. At the second plateau (the third was the grave – which I had totally given up on), remnants of the ancient Viking encampment were scattered about. Stone structures lay half buried, half ruined among the sod. I stepped down into one and sat on a perfectly square cut rock. The wall rose half a foot above my head. It was silent. Stand up and the wind howls, sit down and perfect solitude. I placed my hands on the rock, hoping for some sort of metaphysical connection. I didn’t want any Outlander magic portal response but I wanted to feel something – some indescribable connection with the people who lived and died here. Some connection with my very distant ancestors. But I felt nothing. And this opened up another pandora’s box. Was I expecting too much? Did I need to start meditating or tone down technology? Had I been duped by the Eat, Pray, Loves, Under the Tuscan Suns, and a thousand travel blogs and magazines? Was there something wrong with me?
And this memory is a strange consolation for me on travel buses. You can’t overthink or force a connection to a place and you often can’t explain it when it happens- that comes later. Dublin resonated with me likely because I had met great people and had a raging crush on the guide. London resonated with me because I was young and independent for the first time – it was a grand adventure (it was also damn hard). Bergamo was fabulous because it fit my idea of Italy like the Cotswolds and Fowey did for England. I have to remind myself to find the beauty in transient, fleeting moments – like driving through an English forest. I have to remind myself to hold on to them for what they are. To appreciate the moment I have versus being disappointed with the moments I don’t.
When we got to Landhydrock House, we were about three or so miles from the house itself. “It’s a ten minute walk – only a few metres,” our guide told us. He was notoriously bad at time and distance. It was a descent past expansive countryside views. Alongside the footpath was a cluster of cows. The sun peered out over them through dappled clouds. Far down the hill was the carriage house, standing like a remaining portion of a castle’s entry gate. On either side were towering trees and the odd bluebell. My forest moment had returned and I had miles of it to myself.
I passed through the gates and into the courtyard. A formal garden stepped up into a U shaped home, ridiculous in its opulence. To the back right was the family’s chapel. Gardeners tended to the cottage sized rhododendrons and boxwoods. A large crowd of Germans had gathered in the front. I wove my way through them, assuming they were just waiting for their guide for the go-ahead. I went to open the enormous door. A caretaker opened it to inform me they wouldn’t open for approximately one minute and thirty seconds. The middle aged German woman beside me began dutifully counting the seconds on her wristwatch. When it hit two minutes, she began visibly annoyed and tittered to her friend about the importance of timeliness.
We were welcomed in by guides in turn of the century period clothing. They were present for any questions but we were free to roam solo. The Germans let me go first – a blessing, as I was able to snap almost all pictures without tourists.
The house, frankly, is absurd. Originally built in the 1640s, its opulence continued over the centuries, despite fires and misfortunes. It’s a bit of a living museum, given away by the last surviving Agar-Robartes family inheritor who claimed it was too much overall to handle – too many memories and too much space (it has over 50 rooms!). He resides in a caretaker’s cottage on the estate. Every room and hallway featured tessellated tile floors, intricate woodwork, leaded windows, and beautiful plasterwork. The kitchen was split into multiple rooms each with its own function. This section was larger than my house. In the cheese and dessert room, an enormous marble and brass table filled the room. Along the edge was a groove and a tiny spigot in one corner supplied a steady, gentle supply of cold water to keep delicate cheeses and sweets cool.
Down the hall were offices and billiard rooms. Upstairs, bedrooms for family and staff along with a room stuffed with “extra furniture” and dozens of luggage trunks. The master bedrooms were connected via two large bathrooms and the boudoir. The boudoir, it was explained, was where the lady of the house relaxed on setees with close friends, dressed, and “entertained” her husband. In the children’s room were two life-size cardboard cutouts of the youngest family members. Their eyes followed me from one end of the room to the next. The heir to the home had what appeared to a be a fairly simple room. Just a single bed and desk – except that next door was a room solely dedicated to dressing which was larger than some studio apartments. During the first World War, he had been assigned to a unit based in Britain seemingly reserved on home bases to keep the uppercrust from experiencing actual war. Tommy Agar-Robartes requested to be dispatched to France where he died shortly after in battle, attempting to rescue a fallen soldier.
Lanhydrock House was used as a basis for the Grantham family in Downton Abbey. After an outcry of the order of silverware on Downton’s table, showrunners visited Lanhydrock House to double check historical accuracy. Throughout are placards and family photos with historical information about Victorian life as well as the rise and fall of the Agar-Robartes clan. Still, I couldn’t help hearing Harry Enfield as I passed through opulent halls, foyers, bedrooms, and grounds, “I’m significantly richer than you!”